Note: This is an encore post from 2005 and originally appeared on the 1947project.
“Kingsblood Royal,” like “Gentleman’s Agreement,” deals with prejudice, in this case, discrimination against blacks. Lewis’ novel was criticized in some reviews for superficial characters and a didactic, melodramatic plot and praised in others for focusing on racism. It received an award from Ebony magazine because it “did the most to promote racial understanding in 1947.”
Lewis’ novel tells the story of a World War II veteran named Neil Kingsblood of Grand Republic, Minn., his wife, Vestal, and daughter Biddy. Encouraged by his father to explore his ancestry, Neil discovers that he is 1/32 African American. Rather than keep the family secret, Neil reveals his heritage, and quickly loses his friends, his job and is pressured to sell his home because of deed restrictions. The writing is not subtle, but it is powerful.
This is one of the book’s key passages:
It was the first time that he had put what he was into a word, and
he was too sick to soften it to “Negroes,” and anyway, the word
seemed so trivial beside the fact. He was protesting that he
should be called a black man or a green man or any kind of a man
except the plain human and multicolored kind of man that, as Neil
Kingsblood, he always had been and always would be.
But THEY would say that he was a black man, a Negro.
To Neil, to be a Negro was to be a Belfreda Gray or a Borus
Bugdoll; to be Mac the porter, obsequious to white pawnbrokers; to
be a leering black stevedore on the docks at Naples, wearing an
American uniform but not allowed to have a gun, allowed only to
stagger and ache with shouldering enormous boxes; to be a field-
hand under the Delta sun, under the torchlight in salvation orgies,
an animal with none of the animal freedom from shame; to be an
assassin on Beale Street or a clown dancing in a saloon for pennies
To be a Negro was to live in a decaying shanty or in a frame
tenement like a foul egg-crate, and to wear either slapping old
shoes or the shiny toothpicks of a procurer; to sleep on unchanged
bedclothes that were like funguses, and to have for spiritual
leader only a howling and lecherous swindler.
There were practically no other kinds of Negroes. Had he not heard
so from his Georgia army doctor?
To be a Negro, once they found you out, no matter how pale you
were, was to work in kitchens–always in other people’s thankless
kitchens–or in choking laundries or fever-hot foundries or at
shoeshine stands where the disdainful white gentry thought about
spitting down on you.
To be a Negro was to be unable–biologically, fundamentally,
unchangeably unable–to grasp any science beyond addition and plain
cooking and the driving of a car, any philosophy beyond comic
dream-books. It was to be mysteriously unable ever to take a bath,
so that you were more offensive than the animals who clean
It was to have such unpleasant manners, invariably, that you were
never admitted to the dining-table of any decent house nor to the
assemblies of most labor unions which, objectionable though they
were to a conscientious banker like himself, still did have enough
sense to see that all Negroes are scabs and spies and loafers.
It was to be an animal physically. It was to be an animal
culturally, deaf to Beethoven and St. Augustine. It was to be an
animal ethically, unable to keep from stealing and violence, from
lying and treachery. It was literally and altogether to be an
animal, somewhere between human beings and the ape.
It was to know that your children, no matter how much you loved
them or strove for them, no matter if they were fair as Biddy, were
doomed to be just as ugly and treacherous and brainless and bestial
as yourself, and their children’s children beyond them forever,
under the curse of Ezekiel.
The e-text of the entire book is available here: