Max Disher stood outside the Honky Tonk Club puffing a panatela and watching the crowds of white and black folk entering the cabaret. Max was tall, dapper and smooth coffee-brown. His negroid features had a slightly satanic cast and there was an insolent nonchalance about his carriage. He wore his hat rakishly and faultless evening clothes underneath his raccoon coat. He was young, he wasn't broke, but he was damnably blue. It was New Year's Eve, 1933, but there was no spirit of gaiety and gladness in his heart. How could he share the hilarity of the crowd when he had no girl? He and Minnie, his high "yallah" flapper, had quarreled that day and everything was over between them.
"Women are mighty funny," he mused to himself, "especially yallah women. You could give them the moon and they wouldn't appreciate it." That was probably the trouble; he'd given Minnie too much. It didn't pay to spend too much on them. As soon as he'd bought her a new outfit and paid the rent on a three-room apartment, she'd grown uppity. Stuck on her color, that's what was the matter with her! He took the cigar out of his mouth and spat disgustedly.
A short, plump, cherubic black fellow, resplendent in a narrow-brimmed brown fedora, camel's hair coat and spats, strolled up and clapped him on the shoulder: "Hello, Max!" greeted the newcomer, extending a hand in a fawn-colored glove, "What's on your mind?"
"Everything, Bunny," answered the debonair Max. "That damn yallah gal o' mine's got all upstage and quit."
"Say not so!" exclaimed the short black fellow. "Why I thought you and her were all forty."
"Were, is right, kid. And after spending my dough, too! It sure makes me hot. Here I go and buy two covers at the Honky Tonk for tonight, thinkin' surely she'd come and she starts a row and quits!"
"Shucks!" exploded Bunny. "I wouldn't let that worry me none. I'd take another skirt. I wouldn't let no dame queer my New Year's."
"So would I, Wise Guy, but all the dames I know are dated up. So here I am all dressed up and no place to go."
"You got two reservations, ain't you? Well, let's you and me go in," Bunny suggested. "We may be able to break in on some party."
Max visibly brightened. "That's a good idea," he said. "You never can tell, we might run in on something good."
Swinging their canes, the two joined the throng at the entrance of the Honky Tonk Club and descended to its smoky depths. They wended their way through the maze of tables in the wake of a dancing waiter and sat down close to the dance floor. After ordering ginger ale and plenty of ice, they reared back and looked over the crowd.
Max Disher and Bunny Brown had been pals ever since the war when they soldiered together in the old 15th regiment in France. Max was one of the Aframerican Fire Insurance Company's crack agents, Bunny was a teller in the Douglass Bank and both bore the reputation of gay blades in black Harlem. The two had in common a weakness rather prevalent among Aframerican bucks: they preferred yellow women. Both swore there were three things essential to the happiness of a colored gentleman: yellow money, yellow women and yellow taxis. They had little difficulty in getting the first and none at all in getting the third but the yellow women they found flighty and fickle. It was so hard to hold them. They were so sought after that one almost required a million dollars to keep them out of the clutches of one's rivals.
"No more yallah gals for me!" Max announced with finality, sipping his drink. "I'll grab a black gal first."
"Say not so!" exclaimed Bunny, strengthening his drink from his huge silver flask. "You ain't thinkin' o' dealin' in coal, are you?"
"Well," argued his partner, "it might change my luck. You can trust a black gal; she'll stick to you."
"How do you know? You ain't never had one. Ever' gal I ever seen you with looked like an ofay."
"Humph!" grunted Max. "My next one may be an ofay, too! They're less trouble and don't ask you to give 'em the moon."
"I'm right with you, pardner," Bunny agreed, "but I gotta have one with class. None o' these Woolworth dames for me! Get you in a peck o' trouble . . . Fact is, Big Boy, ain't none o' these women no good. They all get old on the job."
They drank in silence and eyed the motley crowd around them. There were blacks, browns, yellows, and whites chatting, flirting, drinking; rubbing shoulders in the democracy of night life. A fog of tobacco smoke wreathed their heads and the din from the industrious jazz band made all but the loudest shrieks inaudible. In and out among the tables danced the waiters, trays balanced aloft, while the patrons, arrayed in colored paper caps, beat time with the orchestra, threw streamers or grew maudlin on each other's shoulders.
"Looky here! Lawdy Lawd!" exclaimed Bunny, pointing to the doorway. A party of white people had entered. They were all in evening dress and in their midst was a tall, slim, titian-haired girl who had seemingly stepped from heaven or the front cover of a magazine.
"My, my, my!" said Max, sitting up alertly.
The party consisted of two men and four women. They were escorted to a table next to the one occupied by the two colored dandies. Max and Bunny eyed them covertly. The tall girl was certainly a dream.
"Now that's my speed," whispered Bunny.
"Be yourself," said Max. "You couldn't touch her with a forty-foot pole."
"Oh, I don't know, Big Boy," Bunny beamed self-confidently, "You never can tell! You never can tell!"
"Well, I can tell," remarked Disher, "'cause she's a cracker."
"How you know that?"
"Man, I can tell a cracker a block away. I wasn't born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, for nothin', you know. Just listen to her voice."
Bunny listened. "I believe she is," he agreed.
They kept eyeing the party to the exclusion of everything else. Max was especially fascinated. The girl was the prettiest creature he'd ever seen and he felt irresistibly drawn to her. Unconsciously he adjusted his necktie and passed his well-manicured hand over his rigidly straightened hair.
Suddenly one of the white men rose and came over to their table. They watched him suspiciously. Was he going to start something? Had he noticed that they were staring at the girl? They both stiffened at his approach.
"Say," he greeted them, leaning over the table, "do you boys know where we can get some decent liquor around here? We've run out of stuff and the waiter says he can't get any for us."
"You can get some pretty good stuff right down the street," Max informed him, somewhat relieved.
"They won't sell none to him," said Bunny. "They might think he was a Prohibition officer."
"Could one of you fellows get me some?" asked the man.
"Sure," said Max, heartily. What luck! Here was the very chance he'd been waiting for. These people might invite them over to their table. The man handed him a ten-dollar bill and Max went out bareheaded to get the liquor. In ten minutes he was back. He handed the man the quart and the change. The man gave back the change and thanked him. There was no invitation to join the party. Max returned to his table and eyed the group wistfully.
"Did he invite you in?" asked Bunny.
"I'm back here, ain't I?" answered Max, somewhat resentfully.
The floor show came on. A black-faced comedian, a corpulent shouter of mammy songs with a gin-roughened voice, three chocolate soft-shoe dancers and an octette of wriggling, practically nude, mulatto chorines.
Then midnight and pandemonium as the New Year swept in. When the din had subsided, the lights went low and the orchestra moaned the weary blues. The floor filled with couples. The two men and two of the women at the next table rose to dance. The beautiful girl and another were left behind.
"I'm going over and ask her to dance," Max suddenly announced to the surprised Bunny.
"Say not so!" exclaimed that worthy. "You're fixin' to get in dutch, Big Boy."
"Well, I'm gonna take a chance, anyhow," Max persisted, rising.
This fair beauty had hypnotized him. He felt that he would give anything for just one dance with her. Once around the floor with her slim waist in his arm would be like an eternity in heaven. Yes, one could afford to risk repulse for that.
"Don't do it, Max!" pleaded Bunny. "Them fellows are liable to start somethin'."
But Max was not to be restrained. There was no holding him back when he wanted to do a thing, especially where a comely damsel was concerned.
He sauntered over to the table in his most shiekish manner and stood looking down at the shimmering strawberry blonde. She was indeed ravishing and her exotic perfume titillated his nostrils despite the clouds of cigarette smoke.
"Would you care to dance?" he asked, after a moment's hesitation.
She looked up at him haughtily with cool green eyes, somewhat astonished at his insolence and yet perhaps secretly intrigued but her reply lacked nothing in definiteness.
"No," she said icily, "I never dance with niggers!" Then turning to her friend, she remarked: "Can you beat the nerve of these darkies?" She made a little disdainful grimace with her mouth, shrugged daintily and dismissed the unpleasant incident.
Crushed and angry, Max returned to his place without a word. Bunny laughed aloud in high glee.
"You said she was a cracker," he gurgled, "an' now I guess you know it."
"Aw, go to hell," Max grumbled.
Just then Billy Fletcher, the headwaiter, passed by. Max stopped him. "Ever see that dame in here before?" he asked.
"Been in here most every night since before Christmas," Billy replied.
"Do you know who she is?"
"Well, I heard she was some rich broad from Atlanta up here for the holidays. Why?"
"Oh, nothin'; I was just wondering."
From Atlanta! His home town. No wonder she had turned him down. Up here trying to get a thrill in the Black Belt but a thrill from observation instead of contact. Gee, but white folks were funny. They didn't want black folks' game and yet they were always frequenting Negro resorts.
At three o'clock Max and Bunny paid their check and ascended to the street. Bunny wanted to go to the breakfast dance at the Dahomey Casino but Max was in no mood for it.
"I'm going home," he announced laconically, hailing a taxi. "Good night!"
As the cab whirled up Seventh Avenue, he settled back and thought of the girl from Atlanta. He couldn't get her out of his mind and didn't want to. At his rooming house, he paid the driver, unlocked the door, ascended to his room and undressed, mechanically. His mind was a kaleidoscope: Atlanta, sea-green eyes, slender figure, titian hair, frigid manner. "I never dance with niggers." Then he fell asleep about five o'clock and promptly dreamed of her. Dreamed of dancing with her, dining with her, motoring with her, sitting beside her on a golden throne while millions of manacled white slaves prostrated themselves before him. Then there was a nightmare of grim, gray men with shotguns, baying hounds, a heap of gasoline-soaked faggots and a screeching, fanatical mob.
He awoke covered with perspiration. His telephone was ringing and the late morning sunshine was streaming into his room. He leaped from bed and lifted the receiver.
"Say," shouted Bunny, "did you see this morning's Times?"
"Hell no," growled Max, "I just woke up. Why, what's in it?"
"Well, do you remember Dr. Junius Crookman, that colored fellow that went to Germany to study about three years ago? He's just come back and the Times claims he's announced a sure way to turn darkies white. Thought you might be interested after the way you fell for that ofay broad last night. They say Crookman's going to open a sanitarium in Harlem right away. There's your chance, Big Boy, and it's your only chance." Bunny chuckled.
"Oh, ring off," growled Max. "That's a lot of hooey."
But he was impressed and a little excited. Suppose there was something to it? He dressed hurriedly, after a cold shower, and went out to the newsstand. He bought a Times and scanned its columns. Yes, there it was:
CAN CHANGE BLACK TO WHITE IN THREE DAYS.
Max went into Jimmy Johnson's restaurant and greedily read the account while awaiting his breakfast. Yes, it must be true. To think of old Crookman being able to do that! Only a few years ago he'd been just a hungry medical student around Harlem. Max put down the paper and stared vacantly out of the window. Gee, Crookman would be a millionaire in no time. He'd even be a multimillionaire. It looked as though science was to succeed where the Civil War had failed. But how could it be possible? He looked at his hands and felt at the back of his head where the straightening lotion had failed to conquer some of the knots. He toyed with his ham and eggs as he envisioned the possibilities of the discovery.
Then a sudden resolution seized him. He looked at the newspaper account again. Yes, Crookman was staying at the Phyllis Wheatley Hotel. Why not go and see what there was to this? Why not be the first Negro to try it out? Sure, it was taking a chance, but think of getting white in three days! No more jim crow. No more insults. As a white man he could go anywhere, be anything he wanted to be, do most anything he wanted to do, be a free man at last . . . and probably be able to meet the girl from Atlanta. What a vision!
He rose hurriedly, paid for his breakfast, rushed out of the door, almost ran into an aged white man carrying a sign advertising a Negro fraternity dance, and strode, almost ran, to the Phyllis Wheatley Hotel.
He tore up the steps two at a time and into the sitting room. It was crowded with white reporters from the daily newspapers and black reporters from the Negro weeklies. In their midst he recognized Dr. Junius Crookman, tall, wiry, ebony black, with a studious and polished manner. Flanking him on either side was Henry ("Hank") Johnson, the "Numbers" banker and Charlie ("Chuck") Foster, the realtor, looking very grave, important and possessive in the midst of all the hullabaloo.
"Yes," Dr. Crookman was telling the reporters while they eagerly took down his statements, "during my first year at college I noticed a black girl on the street one day who had several irregular white patches on her face and hands. That intrigued me. I began to study up on skin diseases and found out that the girl was evidently suffering from a nervous disease known as vitiligo. It is a very rare disease. Both Negroes and Caucasians occasionally have it, but it is naturally more conspicuous on blacks than whites. It absolutely removes skin pigment and sometimes it turns a Negro completely white but only after a period of thirty or forty years. It occurred to me that if one could discover some means of artificially inducing and stimulating this nervous disease at will, one might possibly solve the American race problem. My sociology teacher had once said that there were but three ways for the Negro to solve his problem in America," he gestured with his long slender fingers, "'To either get out, get white or get along.' Since he wouldn't and couldn't get out and was getting along only differently, it seemed to me that the only thing for him was to get white." For a moment his teeth gleamed beneath his smartly waxed mustache, then he sobered and went on:
“I began to give a great deal of study to the problem duringmy spare time. Unfortunately there was very little informationon the subject in this country. I decided to go to Germany but I didn’t have the money. Just when I despaired of getting the funds to carry out my experiments and studiesabroad, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Foster,” he indicated the two men with a graceful wave of his hand, “came to my rescue.I naturally attribute a great deal of my success to them.”
“But how is it done?” asked a reporter.
“Well,” smiled Crookman, “I naturally cannot divulge the secret any more than to say that it is accomplished by electrical nutrition and glandular control. Certain gland secretions are greatly stimulated while others are considerably diminished. It is a powerful and dangerous treatment but harmless when properly done.”
“How about the hair and features?” asked a Negro reporter.
“They are also changed in the process,” answered the biologist. “In three days the Negro becomes to all appearances a Caucasian.”
“But is the transformation transferred to the offspring?” persisted the Negro newspaperman.
“As yet,” replied Crookman, “I have discovered no way to accomplish anything so revolutionary but I am able to transform a black infant to a white one in twenty-four hours.”
“Have you tried it on any Negroes yet?” queried a skeptical white journalist.
“Why of course I have,” said the Doctor, slightly nettled. “I would not have made my announcement if I had not done so. Come here, Sandol,” he called, turning to a pale white youth standing on the outskirts of the crowd, who was the most Nordic-looking person in the room. “This man is aSenegalese, a former aviator in the French Army. He is livingproof that what I claim is true.”
Dr. Crookman then displayed a photograph of a very blackman, somewhat resembling Sandol but with bushy Negrohair, flat nose and full lips. “This,” he announced proudly, “is Sandol as he looked before taking my treatment. What I have done to him I can do to any Negro. He is in good physical and mental condition as you all can see.”
The assemblage was properly awed. After taking a few more notes and a number of photographs of Dr. Crookman, his associates and of Sandol, the newspapermen retired. Only the dapper Max Disher remained.
“Hello, Doc!” he said, coming forward and extending hishand. “Don’t you remember me? I’m Max Disher.”
“Why certainly I remember you, Max,” replied the biologist, rising cordially. “Been a long time since we’ve seen each other but you’re looking as sharp as ever. How’s things?”
The two men shook hands.
“Oh, pretty good. Say, Doc, how’s chances to get you to try that thing on me? You must be looking for volunteers.”
“Yes, I am, but not just yet. I’ve got to get my equipment set up first. I think now I’ll be ready for business in a couple of weeks.”
Henry Johnson, the beefy, sleek-jowled, mulatto “Numbers” banker, chuckled and nudged Dr. Crookman. “Old Max ain’t losin’ no time, Doc. When that niggah gits white Ah bet he’ll make up fo’ los’ time with these ofay girls.”
Charlie Foster, small, slender, grave, amber-colored, and laconic, finally spoke up: “Seems all right, Junius, but there’llbe hell to pay when you whiten up a lot o’ these darkies and them mulatto babies start appearing here and there. Watchagonna do then?”
“Oh, quit singin’ th’ blues, Chuck,” boomed Johnson.“Don’t cross bridges ’til yuh come tuh ’em. Doc’ll fix that okeh. Besides, we’ll have mo’ money’n Henry Ford by that time.”
“There’ll be no difficulties whatever,” assured Crookman rather impatiently.
“Let’s hope not.”