Mark Twain on the Colored Man

Mark Twain

Virginia City Territorial Enterprise/July 7, 1865

And at the fag-end of the procession was a long double file of the proudest, happiest scoundrels I saw yesterday – niggers. Or perhaps I should say “them damned niggers,” which is the other name they go by now. They did all it was in their power to do, poor devils, to modify the prominence of the contrast between black and white faces which seems so hateful to their white fellow-creatures, by putting their lightest colored darkies in the front rank, then glooming down by some unaggravating and nicely graduated shades of darkness to the fell and dismal blackness of undefiled and unalloyed niggerdom in the remote extremity of the procession. It was a fine stroke of strategy – the day was dusty and no man could tell where the white folks left off and the niggers began. The “damned naygurs” – this is another descriptive title which has been conferred upon them by a class of our fellow-citizens who persist, in the most short-sighted manner, in being on bad terms with them in the face of the fact that they have got to sing with them in heaven or scorch with them in hell some day in the most familiar and sociable way, and on a footing of most perfect equality – the “damned naygurs,” I say, smiled one broad, extravagant, powerful smile of grateful thankfulness and profound and perfect happiness from the beginning of the march to the end; and through this vast, black, drifting cloud of smiles their white teeth glimmered fitfully like heat-lightning on a summer’s night. If a white man honored them with a smile in return, they were utterly overcome, and fell to bowing like Oriental devotees, and attempting the most extravagant and impossible smiles, reckless of lock-jaw. They might as well have left their hats at home, for they never put them on. I was rather irritated at the idea of letting these fellows march in the procession myself, at first, but I would have scorned to harbor so small a thought if I had known the privilege was going to do them so much good. There seemed to be a religious-benevolent society among them with a banner – the only one in the colored ranks, I believe – and all hands seemed to take boundless pride in it. The banner had a picture on it, but I could not exactly get the hang of its significance. It presented a very black and uncommonly sick looking nigger, in bed, attended by two other niggers – one reading the Bible to him and the other one handing him a plate of oysters; but what the very mischief this blending of contraband dissolution, raw oysters and Christian consolation, could possibly be symbolical of, was more than I could make out.


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