The Black Ball - Ralph Ellison

A short story about an attempt to build an integrated union in the American south. Contains racial slurs, and references to racial motivated assault and sexual assault, among other issues.

Submitted by Reddebrek on July 9, 2018

I had rushed through the early part of the day mopping the lobby, placing fresh sand in the tall green jars, sweeping and dusting the halls, and emptying the trash to be burned later on in the day into the incinerator. And I had stopped only once to chase out after a can of milk for Mrs Johnson, who had a new baby and was always nice to my boy. I had started at six o’clock, and around eight I ran out to the quarters where we lived over the garage to dress the boy and give him his fruit and cereal. He was very thoughtful sitting there in his high chair and paused several times with his spoon midway to his mouth to watch me as I chewed my toast.

`What’s the matter son?`
`Daddy, am I black?`
`Of course not, you’re brown. You know you’re not black.`
`Well yesterday Jackie said I was so black.`
`He was just kidding. You mustn’t let them kid you, son.`
`Brown’s much nicer than white isn’t it Daddy?`

He was four, a little brown boy in blue rompers, and when he talked and laughed with imaginary playmates, his voice was soft and round in its accents like those of most Negro Americans.

`Some people think so. But American is better than both, son.`
`Is it Daddy?`
`Sure it is. Now forget this talk about you being black, and Daddy will be back as soon as he finishes work.`

I left him to play with his toys and a book of pictures until I returned. He was a pretty nice fellow, as he used to say after particularly quiet afternoons while I tried to study, and for which quietness he expected a treat of candy or a `picture movie`, and I often left him alone while I attended to my duties in the apartments.

I had gone back and started doing the brass on the front doors when a fellow came up and stood watching from the street. He was lean and red in the face with that redness that comes from a long diet of certain foods. You see much of it in the deep South, and here in the Southwest it is not uncommon. He stood there watching, and I could feel his eyes in my back as I polished the brass.

I gave special attention to that brass because for Berry, the manager, the luster of these brass panels and door handles was the measure of all my industry. It was near time for him to arrive.

`Good morning, John.` he would say, looking not at me but at the brass.
`Good morning, sir.` I would say, looking not at him but at the brass. Usually his face was reflected there. For him, I was there. Besides that brass, his money, and the half-dozen or so plants in his office, I don’t believe he had any other real interests in life.

There must be no flaws this morning. Two fellows who worked at the building across the street had already been dismissed because whites had demanded their jobs, and with the boy at that age needing special foods and me planning to enter school again next term, I couldn’t afford to allow something like that out on the sidewalk to spoil my chances. Especially since Berry had told one of my friends in the building that he didn’t like that `damned educated nigger`.

I was so concerned with the brass that when the fellow spoke, I jumped with surprise.

`Howdy,` he said. The expected drawl was the there. But something was missing, something usually behind that kind of drawl.

`Good morning.`
`Looks like you working purty hard over that brass.`
`It gets pretty dirty overnight.`

That part wasn’t missing. When they did have something to say to us, they always became familiar.
`You been working here long?` he asked, leaning against the column with his elbow.
`Two months.`
I turned my back to him as I worked.
`Any other colored folks working here?`
`I’m the only one,` I lied. There were two others. It was none of his business anyway.

`Have much to do?`
`I have enough,` I said. Why, I thought, doesn’t he go on in and ask for the job? Why bother me? Why tempt me to choke him? Doesn’t he know we aren’t afraid to fight his kind out this way?

As I turned, picking up the bottle to pour more polish into my rag, he pulled out a tobacco sack from the pocket of his old blue coat. I noticed his hands were scarred as though they had been burned.

`Ever smoke Durham?` he asked.
`No thank you,` I said.
He laughed.
`Not used to anything like that, are you?`
`Not used to what?`

A little more from this guy and I would see red.
`Fellow like me offering a fellow like you something besides a rope.`

I stopped to look at him. He stood there smiling with the sack in his outstretched hand. There were many wrinkles around his eyes, and I had to smile in return. In spite of myself I had to smile.

`Sure you won’t smoke some Durham?`
`No thanks,` I said.
He was fooled by the smile. A smile couldn’t change things between my kind and his.
`I’ll admit it ain’t much,` he said. `But it’s a helluva lot different.`

I stopped the polishing again to see what it was he was trying to get after.

`But,` he said, `I’ve got something really worth a lot; that is, if you’re interested.`
`Let’s hear it,` I said.
Here I thought, is where he tries to put one over on old `George.`

`You see, I come from the union and we intend to organize all the building-service help in this district. Maybe you been reading’bout it in the papers?`

`I saw something about it, but what’s it to do with me?`
`Well, first place we’ll make’em take some of this work off you. It’ll mean shorter ours and higher wages, and better conditions in general.`
`What you really mean is that you’ll get in here and bounce me out. Unions don’t want Negro members.`

`You mean some unions don’t. it used to be that way, but things have changed.`

`Listen, fellow. You’re wasting your time and mine. Your damn unions are like everything else in the country – for whites only. What ever caused you to give a damn about a Negro anyway? Why should you try to organize Negroes?`

His face had become a little white.

`See them hands?`

He stretched out his hands.
`Yes,` I said, looking not at his hands but at the color draining from his face.

`Well, I got them scars in Macon County, Alabama, for saying a colored friend of mine was somewhere else on a day he was supposed to have raped a woman. He was, too, cause I was with him. Me and him was trying to borrow some seed fifty miles away when it happened – if it did happen. They made them scars with a gasoline torch and run me out the county’ cause they said I tried to help a nigger make a white woman out a lie. That same night they lynched him and burned down his house. They did that to him and this to me, and both of us was fifty miles away.`

He was looking down at his outstretched hands as he talked.

`God,` was all I could say. I felt terrible when I looked closely at his hands for the first time. It must have been hell. The skin was drawn and puckered and looked as though it had been fried. Fried hands.

`Since that time I learned a lot,` he said. `I been at this kinda thing. First it was the croppers, and when they got to know me and made it too hot, I quit the country and came to town. First it was in Arkansas and now it’s here. And the more I move around, the more I see, and the more I see, the more I work.`

He was looking into my face now, his eyes blue in his red skin. He was looking very earnestly. I said nothing. I didn’t know what to say to that. Perhaps he was telling the truth; I didn’t know. He was smiling again.

`Listen,` he said. `Now, don’t you go trying to figger it all out right now. There’s going to be a series of meetings at this number starting tonight, and I’d like might much to see you there. Bring any friends along you want to.`
He handed me a card with a number and 8 p.m. sharp written on it. He smiled as I took the card and made as if to shake my hand but turned and walked down the steps to the street. I noticed that he limped as he moved away.

`Good morning, John,` Mr Berry said. I turned, and there he stood; derby, long black coat, stick, nose glasses and all. He stood gazing into the brass like the wicked queen into her looking glass in the story which the boy liked so well.

`Good morning, sir,` I said.
I should have finished long before.
`Did the man I saw leaving wish to see me, John?`
`Oh no, sir. He only wished to buy old clothes.`

Satisfied with my work for the day, he passed inside, and I walked around to the quarters to look after the boy. It was near twelve o’clock.

I found the boy pushing a toy back and forth beneath a chair in the little room which I used for a study.

`Hi, Daddy,` he called.
`Hi, son,` I called. `What are you doing today?`
`Oh, I’m trucking.`
`I thought you had to stand up to truck.`
`Not that kind, Daddy, this kind.`

He held up his toy.

`Ooh,` I said. `That kind.`
`Aw, Daddy, you’re kidding. You always kid, don’t you, Daddy?`
`No. when you’re bad I don’t kid, do I?`
`I guess not.`

In fact, he wasn’t – only enough to make it unnecessary for me to worry because he wasn’t.

The business of trucking soon absorbed him, and I went back to the kitchen to fix his lunch and warm up the coffee for myself.

The boy had a good appetite, so I didn’t have to make him eat. I gave him his food and settled into a chair to study, but my mind wandered away, so I got up and filled a pipe hoping it would help, but it didn’t, so I threw the book aside and picked up Malraux’s Man’s Fate, which Mrs Johnson had given me, and tried to read it as I drank a cup of coffee. I had to give that up also. Those hands were on my brain, and I couldn’t forget that fellow.

`Daddy,` the boy called softly; it’s softly when I’m busy.
`Yes, son.`
`When I grow up I think I’ll drive a truck.`
`You do?`
`Yes, and then I can wear a lot of buttons on my cap like the men that bring the meat to the grocery. I saw a colored man with some today, Daddy. I looked out the window, and a colored man drove the truck today, and, Daddy, he had two buttons on his cap. I could see ‘ em plain.`

He had stopped his play and was still on his knees, beside the chair in his blue overalls. I closed the book and looked at the boy a long time. I must have looked queer.

`What’s the matter, Daddy?` he asked. I explained that I was thinking, and got up and walked over to stand looking out the front window. He was quiet for a while; then he started rolling his truck again.

The only nice feature about the quarters was that they were high up and offered a view in all directions. It was afternoon and the sun was brilliant. Off to the side, a boy and girl were playing tennis in a driveway. Across the street a group of little fellows in bright sunsuits were playing on a long stretch of lawn before a white stone building. Their nurse, dressed completely in white except for her dark glasses, which I saw when she raised her head, sat still as a picture, bent over a book on her knees. As the children played, the wind blew their cries over to where I stood, and as I watched, a flock of pigeons swooped down into the driveway near the stretch of green, only to take flight again wheeling in a mass as another child came skipping up the drive puling some sort of toy. The children saw him and were running toward him in a group when the nurse looked up and called them back. She called something to the child and pointed back in the direction of the garages where he had just come from. I could see him turn slowly around and drag his toy, some kind of bird that flapped its wings like an eagle, slowly after him. He stopped and pulled a flower from one of the bushes that lined the drive, turning to look hurriedly at the nurse, and then ran back down the drive. The child had been Jackie, the little son of the white gardener who worked across the street.

As I turned away I noticed that my boy had come to stand beside me.

`What you looking at, Daddy?` he said.
`I guess Daddy was just looking out on the world.`

Then he asked if he could go out and play with his ball, and since I would soon have to go down myself to water the lawn, I told him it would be all right. But he couldn’t find the ball; I would have to find it for him.

`All right now,` I told him. `You stay in the back out of everybody’s way, and you mustn’t ask anyone a lot of questions.`

I always warned about the questions, even though it did little good. He ran down the stairs, and soon I could hear the bump bump bump of his ball bouncing against the garage doors underneath. But since it didn’t make a loud noise, I didn’t ask him to stop.

I picked up the book to read again, and must have fallen asleep immediately, for when I came to it was almost time to go water the lawn. When I got downstairs the boy was not there. I called, but no answer. Ten I went out into the alley in back of the garages to see if he was playing there. There were three older boys sitting talking on a pile of old packing cases. They looked uneasy when I came up. I asked if they had seen a little Negro boy, but they said they hadn’t. then I went farther down the alley behind the grocery store where the trucks drove up, and asked one of the follows working there if he had seen my boy. He said he had been working on the platform all afternoon and that he was sure the boy had not been there. As I started away, the four o’clock whistle blew and I had to go water the lawn. I wondered where the boy could have gone. As I came back up the alley I was becoming alarmed. Then it occurred to me that he might have gone out in front in spite of my warning not to. Of course, that was where he would go, out in front to sit on the grass. I laughed at myself for becoming alarmed and decided not to punish him, even though Berry had given instructions that he was not to be seen out in the front without me. A boy that size will make you do that.

As I came around the building past the tall new evergreens, I could hear the boy crying in just that note no other child has, and when I came completely around I found him standing looking up into a window with tears on his face.

`What is it, my son?` I asked. `What happened?`
`My ball, my ball, Daddy. My ball,` he cried, looking up at the window.
`Yes, son. But what about the ball?`
`He threw it up in the window.`
`Who did? Who threw it, son? Stop crying and tell Daddy about it.`

He made an effort to stop, wiping the tears away with the back of his hand.

`A big white boy asked me to throw him my ball an’, an’ he took it and threw it up in that window and ran,` he said, pointing.

I looked up just as Berry appeared at the window. The ball had gone into his private office.

`John, is that your boy?` he snapped.
He was red in the face.
`Yessir, but-`
`Well, he’s taken his damned ball and ruined one of my plants.`
`You know he’s got no business around here in front, don’t you?`
`Well, if I ever see him around here again, you’re going to find yourself behind the black ball. Now get him on round to the back and then come up here and clean up this mess he’s made.`

I gave him one long hard look and then felt for the boy’s hand to take him back to quarters. I had a hard time seeing as we walked back, and scratched myself by stumbling into the evergreens as we went around the building.

The boy was not crying now, and when I looked down at him, the pain in my hand caused me to notice that it was bleeding. When we got upstairs, I sat the boy in a chair and went looking for iodine to doctor my hand.

`If anyone should ask me, young man, I’d say your face needed a good washing.`

He didn’t answer then, but when I came out of the bathroom, he seemed more inclined to talk.

`Daddy, what did that man mean?`
`Mean how, son?`
`About a black ball. You know, Daddy.`
`You know, Daddy. What’d he mean?`
`He meant, son, that if your ball landed in his office again, Daddy would go after it behind the old black ball.`

`Oh,` he said, very thoughtful again. Then, after a while he told me: `Daddy, that white man can’t see very good, can he, Daddy?`
`Why do you say that, son?`
`Daddy,` he said impatiently. `Anybody can see my ball is white.`

For the second time that day I looked at him a long time.

`Yes, son,` I said. `Your ball is white.` Mostly white, anyway, I thought.
`Will I play with the black ball, Daddy?`
`In time son,` I said. `In time.`

He had already played with the ball; that he would discover later. He was learning the rules of the game already, but he didn’t know it. Yes, he would play with the ball. Indeed, poor little rascal, he would play until he grew sick of playing. My, yes, the old ball game. But I’d begin telling him the rules later.

My hand was still burning from the scratch as I dragged the hose out to water the lawn, and looking down at the iodine stain, I thought of the fellow’s fried hands, and felt in my pocket to make sure I still had the card he had given me. Maybe there was a color other than white on the old ball.