Through a fluke set of circumstances, I ended up beginning to read the story, “Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle.” You may recognize this as the derivation of the acronym TASER (Thomas A. Smith Electric Rifle).
Not knowing much about the story, who wrote it, or when it was published, I dove in. As I read, I gathered through context that it was written earlier in the century (airships, monoplanes) and that it was a youth adventure story (both true). Then I hit this dialogue [emphasis mine]:
“Rad! I say, Rad! Where are you?”
“Heah I is, Massa Tom! Heah I is” called a colored man as he came around the corner of a small stable where he kept his mule Boomerang. “Was yo’-all callin’ me?”
“Yes, Rad, I want you to help make a scarecrow.”
“A scarecrow, Massa Tom! Good land a’ massy! What fo’ yo’ want ob a scarecrow? Yo’-all ain’t raisin’ no corn, am yo’?”
“No, but I want something to shoot at when Ned Newton comes over to-night.”
“Suffin t’ shoot at? Why Massa Tom! Good land a’ massy! Yo’-all ain’t gwine t’ hab no duel, am yo’?”
“No, Rad, but I want a life-size figure on which to try my new electric gun. Here are some old clothes, and if you will stuff them with rags and straw and fix them so they’ll stand up, they’ll do first-rate. Have it ready by night, and set it up at the far end of the shooting gallery.”
“All right, Massa Tom. I’ll jest do dat, fo’ yo’,” and leaving the colored man to stuff the figure, after he had showed him how, Tom went back into the house to read the paper which he had purchased that morning.
I was born in the 70’s and raised in the 80’s and 90’s. I have no concept of being able to think like this. I think the most egregious part of this dialogue was Tom Smith showing Rad how to make the scarecrow. Who the heck, even then, would think a black man couldn’t know how to make a scarecrow? It’s obviously assumed that anything that Tom (white) doesn’t tell Rad (black), won’t get done.
This novel was published in 1911. Only 48 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. And I am intellectually aware of the climate surrounding race relations prior to World War II, which was 28 years after publication. Still, this shocks me. Is it a good thing that I’m shocked, indicating a deep acceptance of racial equality, or a bad thing, showing that I just don’t grok history?
At least I am not famed scientist James Watson, co-credited-discoverer of DNA, who thinks africans are less intelligent than caucasians.