The thrilling news did not come directly to Nancy Lee, but it came in little indirections that finally added themselves up to one tremendous fact: she had won the prize! But being a calm and quiet young lady, she did not say anything, although the whole high school buzzed with rumors, guesses, reportedly authentic announcements on the part of students who had no right to be making announcements at all—since no student really knew yet who had won this year’s art scholarship.
But Nancy Lee’s drawing was so good, her lines so sure, her colors so bright and harmonious, that certainly no other student in the senior art class at George Washington High was thought to have very much of a chance. Yet you never could tell. Last year nobody had expected Joe Williams to win the Artist Club scholarship with that funny modernistic water color he had done of the high-level bridge. In fact, it was hard to make out there was a bridge until you had looked at the picture a long time. Still, Joe Williams got the prize, was feted by the community’s leading painters, club women, and society folks at a big banquet at the Park-Rose Hotel, and was now an award student at the Art School—the city’s only art school.
Nancy Lee Johnson was a colored girl, a few years out of the South. But seldom did her high-school classmates think of her as colored. She was smart, pretty and brown, and fitted in well with the life of the school. She stood high in scholarship, played a swell game of basketball, had taken part in the senior musical in a soft, velvety voice, and had never seemed to intrude or stand out, except in pleasant ways so it was seldom even mentioned—her color.
Nancy Lee sometimes forgot she was colored herself. She liked her classmates and her school. Particularly she like her art teacher, Miss Dietrich, the tall red-haired woman who taught her law and order in doing things; and the beauty of working step by step until a job is done; a picture finished; a design created; or a block print carved out of nothing but an idea and a smooth square of linoleum, inked, proofs made, and finally put down on paper—clean, sharp, beautiful, individual, unlike any other in the world, thus making the paper have a meaning nobody else could give it except Nancy Lee. That was the wonderful thing about true creation. You made something nobody else on earth could make—but you.
Miss Dietrich was the kind of teacher who brought out the best in her students—but their own best, not anybody else’s copied best. For anybody else’s best, great though it might be, even Michelangelo’s, wasn’t enough to please Miss Dietrich, dealing with the creative impulses of young men and women living in an American city in the Middle West, and being American.
Nancy Lee was proud of being American, a Negro American with blood out of Africa a long time ago, too many generations back to count. But her parents had taught her the beauties of Africa, its strength, its song, its mighty rivers, its early smelting of iron, its building of the pyramids, and its ancient and important civilizations. And Miss Dietrich had discovered for her the sharp and humorous lines of African sculpture, Benin, Congo, Makonde. Nancy Lee’s father was a mail carrier, her mother a social worker in a city settlement house. Both parents had been to Negro colleges in the South. And her mother had gotten a further degree in social work from a Northern university. Her parents were, like most Americans, simple, ordinary people who had worked hard and steadily for their education. Now they were trying to make it easier for Nancy Lee to achieve learning than it had been for them. They would be very happy when they heard of the award to their daughter—yet Nancy did not tell them. To surprise them would be better. Besides, there had been a promise.
Casually one day, Miss Dietrich asked Nancy Lee what color frame she thought would be best on her picture. That had been the first inkling.
“Blue,” Nancy Lee said. Although the picture had been entered in the Artist Club contest a month ago, Nancy Lee did not hesitate in her choice of color for the possible frame, since she could still see her picture clearly in her mind’s eye—for that picture waiting for the blue frame had come out of her soul, her own life, and had bloomed into miraculous being with Miss Dietrich’s help. It was, she knew, the best water color she had painted in her four years as a high-school art student, and she was glad she had made something Miss Dietrich liked well enough to permit her to enter in the contest before she graduated.
It was not a modernistic picture in the sense that you had to look at it a long time to understand what it meant. It was just a simple scene in the city park on a spring day with the trees still leaflessly lacy against the sky, the new grass fresh and green, a flag on a tall pole in the center, children playing, and an old Negro woman sitting on a bench with her head turned. A lot for one picture, to be sure, but it was not there in heavy and final detail like a calendar. Its charm was that everything was light and airy, happy like spring, with a lot of blue sky, paper-white clouds, and air showing through. You could tell that the old Negro woman was looking at the flag, and that the flag was proud in the spring breeze, and that the breeze helped to make the children’s dresses billow as they played.
Miss Dietrich had taught Nancy Lee how to paint spring, people, and a breeze on what was only a plain white piece of paper from the supply closet. But Miss Dietrich had not said make it like any other spring-people-breeze ever seen before. She let it remain Nancy Lee’s own. That is how the old Negro woman happened to be there looking at the flag—for in her mind the flag, the spring, and the woman formed a kind of triangle holding a dream Nancy Lee wanted to express. White stars on a blue field, spring, children, ever-growing life, and an old woman. Would the judges at the Artist Club like it?
One wet, rainy April afternoon Miss O’Shay, the girls’ vice principal, sent for Nancy Lee to stop by her office as school closed. Pupils without umbrellas or raincoats were clustered in doorways hoping to make it home between showers. Outside the skies were gray. Nancy Lee’s thoughts were suddenly gray, too.
She did not think she had done anything wrong, yet that tight little knot came in her throat just the same as she approached Miss O’Shay’s door. Perhaps she had banged her locker too often and too hard. Perhaps the note in French she had written to Sallie halfway across the study hall just for fun had never gotten to Sallie but into Miss O’Shay’s hands instead. Or maybe she was failing in some subject and wouldn’t be allowed to graduate. Chemistry! A pang went through the pit of her stomach.
She knocked on Miss O’Shay’s door. That familiarly solid and competent voice said, “Come in.”
Miss O’Shay had a way of making you feel welcome, even if you came to be expelled.
“Sit down, Nancy Lee Johnson,” said Miss O’Shay. “I have something to tell you.” Nancy Lee sat down. “But I must ask you to promise not to tell anyone yet.”
“I won’t, Miss O’Shay,” Nancy Lee said, wondering what on earth the principal had to say to her.
“You are about to graduate,” Miss O’Shay said. “And we shall miss you. You have been an excellent student, Nancy, and you will not be without honors on the senior list, as I am sure you know.”
At that point there was a light knock on the door. Miss O’Shay called out, “Come in,” and Miss Dietrich entered. “May I be part of this, too?” she asked, tall and smiling.
“Of course,” Miss O’Shay said. “I was just telling Nancy Lee what we thought of her. But I hadn’t gotten around to giving her the news. Perhaps, Miss Dietrich, you’d like to tell her yourself.”
Miss Dietrich was always direct. “Nancy Lee,” she said, “your picture has won the Artist Club scholarship.”
The slender brown girl’s eyes widened, her heart jumped, then her throat tightened again. She tried to smile, but instead tears came to her eyes.
“Dear Nancy Lee,” Miss O’Shay said, “we are so happy for you.” The elderly white woman took her hand and shook it warmly while Miss Dietrich beamed with pride.
Nancy Lee must have danced all the way home. She never remembered quite how she got there through the rain. She hoped she had been dignified. But certainly she hadn’t stopped to tell anybody her secret on the way. Raindrops, smiles, and tears mingled on her brown cheeks. She hoped her mother hadn’t yet gotten home and that the house was empty. She wanted to have time to calm down and look natural before she had to see anyone. She didn’t want to be bursting with excitement—having a secret to contain.
Miss O’Shay’s calling her to the office had been in the nature of a preparation and a warning. The kind, elderly vice-principal said she did not believe in catching young ladies unawares, even with honors, so she wished her to know about the coming award. In making acceptance speeches she wanted her to be calm, prepared, not nervous, overcome, and frightened. So Nancy Lee was asked to think what she would say when the scholarship was conferred upon her a few days hence, both at the Friday morning high-school assembly hour, when the announcement would be made, and at the evening banquet of the Artist Club. Nancy Lee promised the vice-principal to think calmly about what she would say.
Miss Dietrich had then asked for some facts about her parents, her background, and her life, since such material would probably be desired for the papers. Nancy Lee had told her how, six years before, they had come up from the Deep South, her father having been successful in achieving a transfer from one post office to another, a thing he had long sought in order to give Nancy Lee a chance to go to school in the North. Now they lived in a modest Negro neighborhood, went to see the best plays when they came to town, and had been saving to send Nancy Lee to art school, in case she were permitted to enter. But the scholarship would help a great deal, for they were not rich people.
“Now Mother can have a new coat next winter,” Nancy Lee thought, “because my tuition will be covered for the first year. And once in art school, there are other scholarships I can win.”
Dreams began to dance through her head, plans and ambitions, beauties she would create for herself, her parents, and the Negro people—for Nancy Lee possessed a deep and reverent race pride. She could see the old woman in her picture (really her grandmother in the South) lifting her head to the bright stars on the flag in the distance. A Negro in America! Often hurt, discriminated against, sometimes lynched—but always there were the stars on the blue body of the flag. Was there any other flag in the world that had so many stars? Nancy Lee thought deeply but she could remember none in all the encyclopedias or geographies she had ever looked into.
“Hitch your wagon to a star,” Nancy Lee thought, dancing home in the rain. “Who were our flag-makers?”
Friday morning came, the morning when the world would know—her high-school world, the newspaper world, her mother and dad. Dad could not be there at the assembly to hear the announcement, nor see her prize picture displayed on the stage, nor listen to Nancy Lee’s little speech of acceptance, but Mother would be able to come, although Mother was much puzzled as to why Nancy Lee was so insistent she be at school on that particular Friday morning.
When something is happening, something new and fine, something that will change your very life, it is hard to go to sleep at night for thinking about it, and hard to keep your heart from pounding, or a strange little knot of joy from gathering in your throat. Nancy Lee had taken her bath, brushed her hair until it glowed, and had gone to bed thinking about the next day, the big day when, before three thousand students, she would be the one student honored, her painting the one painting to be acclaimed as the best of the year from all the art classes of the city. Her short speech of gratitude was ready. She went over it in her mind, not word for word (because she didn’t want it to sound as if she had learned it by heart) but she let the thoughts flow simply and sincerely through her consciousness many times.
When the president of the Artist Club presented her with the medal and scroll of the scholarship award, she would say:
“Judges and members of the Artist Club. I want to thank you for this award that means so much to me personally and through me to my people, the colored people of this city who, sometimes, are discouraged and bewildered, thinking that color and poverty are against them. I accept this award with gratitude and pride, not for myself alone, but for my race that believes in American opportunity and American fairness—and the bright stars in our flag. I thank Miss Dietrich and the teachers who made it possible for me to have the knowledge and training that lie behind this honor you have conferred upon my painting. When I came here from the South a few years ago, I was not sure how you would receive me. You received me well. You have given me a chance and helped me along the road I wanted to follow. I suppose the judges know that every week here at assembly the students of this school pledge allegiance to the flag. I shall try to be worthy of that pledge, and of the help and friendship and understanding of my fellow citizens of whatever race or creed, and of our American dream of ‘Liberty and justice for all!’”
That would be her response before the students in the morning. How proud and happy the Negro pupils would be, perhaps almost as proud as they were of the one colored star on the football team. Her mother would probably cry with happiness. Thus Nancy Lee went to sleep dreaming of a wonderful tomorrow.
The bright sunlight of an April morning woke her. There was breakfast with her parents—their half-amused and puzzled faces across the table, wondering what could be this secret that made her eyes so bright. The swift walk to school; the clock in the tower almost nine; hundreds of pupils streaming into the long, rambling old building that was the city’s largest high school; the sudden quiet of the homeroom after the bell rang; then the teacher opening her record book to call the roll. But just before she began, she looked across the room until her eyes located Nancy Lee.
“Nancy,” she said, “Miss O’Shay would like to see you in her office, please.”
Nancy Lee rose and went out while the names were being called and the word present added its period to each name. Perhaps, Nancy Lee thought, the reporters from the papers had already come. Maybe they wanted to take her picture before assembly, which wasn’t until ten o’clock. (Last year they had had the photograph of the winner of the award in the morning papers as soon as the announcement had been made.)
Nancy Lee knocked at Miss O’Shay’s door.
The vice-principal stood at her desk. There was no one else in the room. It was very quiet.
“Sit down, Nancy Lee,” she said. Miss O’Shay did not smile. There was a long pause. The seconds went by slowly. “I do not know how to tell you what I have to say,” the elderly woman began, her eyes on the papers on her desk. “I am indignant and ashamed for myself and for this city.” Then she lifted her eyes and looked at Nancy Lee in the neat blue dress sitting there before her. “You are not to receive the scholarship this morning.”
Outside in the hall the electric bells announcing the first period rang, loud and interminably long. Miss O’Shay remained silent. To the brown girl there in the chair, the room grew suddenly smaller, smaller, smaller, and there was no air. She could not speak.
Miss O’Shay said, “When the committee learned that you were colored, they changed their plans.”
Still Nancy Lee said nothing, for there was no air to give breath to her lungs.
“Here is the letter from the committee, Nancy Lee.” Miss O’Shay picked it up and read the final paragraph to her.
“‘It seems to us wiser to arbitrarily rotate the award among the various high schools of the city from now on. And especially in this case since the student chosen happens to be colored, a circumstance which unfortunately, had we known, might have prevented this embarrassment. But there have never been any Negro students in the local art school, and the presence of one there might create difficulties for all concerned. We have high regard for the quality for Nancy Lee Johnson’s talent, but we do not feel it would be fair to honor it with the Artist Club award.’” Miss O’Shay paused. She put the letter down.
“Nancy Lee, I am very sorry to have to give you this message.”
“But my speech,” Nancy Lee said, “was about . . .” The words stuck in her throat.
“. . . about America.”
Miss O’Shay had risen, she turned her back and stood looking out the window at the spring tulips in the school yard.
“I thought, since the award would be made at assembly right after our oath of allegiance,” the words tumbled almost hysterically from Nancy Lee’s throat now, “I would put part of the flag salute in my speech. You know, Miss O’Shay, that part of ‘liberty and justice for all.’”
“I know,” said Miss O’Shay slowly facing the room again. “But America is only what we who believe in it make it. I am Irish. You may not know, Nancy Lee, but years ago we were called the dirty Irish, and mobs rioted against us in the big cities, and we were invited to go back where we came from. But we didn’t go. And we didn’t give up, because we believed in the American dream, and in our power to make that dream come true. Difficulties, yes. Mountains to climb, yes. Discouragements to face, yes. Democracy to make, yes. That is it, Nancy Lee! We still have in this world of ours democracy to make. You and I, Nancy Lee. But the premise and the base are here, the lines of the Declaration of Independence and the words of Lincoln are here, and the stars in our flag. Those who deny you this scholarship do not know the meaning of those stars, but it’s up to us to make them know. As a teacher in the public schools of this city, I myself will go before the school board and ask them to remove from our system the offer of any prizes or awards denied to any student because of race or color.”
Suddenly Miss O’Shay stopped speaking. Her clear, clear blue eyes looked into those of the girl before her. The woman’s eyes were full of strength and courage. “Lift up your head, Nancy Lee, and smile at me.”
Miss O’Shay stood against the open window with the green lawn and the tulips beyond, the sunlight tangled in her gray hair, her voice an electric flow of strength to the hurt spirit of Nancy Lee. The Abolitionists who believed in freedom when there was slavery must have been like that. The first white teachers who went into the Deep South to teach the freed slaves must have been like that. All those who stand against ignorance, narrowness, hate, and mud on stars must be like that.
Nancy Lee lifted her head and smiled. The bell for assembly rang. She went through the long hall filled with students toward the auditorium.
“There will be other awards,” Nancy Lee thought. “There’re schools in other cities. This won’t keep me down. But when I’m a woman, I’ll fight to see that these things don’t happen to other girls as this has happened to me. And men and women like Miss O’Shay will help me.”
She took her seat among the seniors. The doors of the auditorium closed. As the principal came onto the platform, the students rose and turned their eyes to the flag on the stage.
One hand went to the heart, the other outstretched toward the flag. Three thousand voices spoke. Among them was the voice of a dark girl whose cheeks were suddenly wet with tears, “. . . one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
“That is the land we must make,” she thought.
“One Friday Morning” from Short Stories by Langston Hughes. Copyright (c) by Ramona Bass and Arnold Rampersad. Reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
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