Black Is My Favorite Color
Black Is My Favorite Color
Bernard Malamud 1963
Bernard Malamud’s “Black Is My Favorite Color” was first published in the Reporter on July 18,1963. It has since been reprinted in several short story collections, the first being Idiots First, also in 1963.
Eight years before “Black is My Favorite Color” was published, African-American Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, igniting the Civil Rights movement that reached its height at the same time Malamud was writing his story. The outcry for racial equality that characterized the 1950s and 1960s influenced much literature, including Malamud’s. In particular, “Black Is My Favorite Color” picked up on the tense relations between the Jewish-American and African-American communities. The story concerns Nat Lime, a fortyish, white, Jewish bachelor in Harlem who repeatedly tries to integrate himself into the African-American community by dating black women, hiring black personnel in his liquor store, and trying to do good deeds for blacks wherever possible. All of his efforts end up backfiring, as his status as a white, Jewish man continually alienates him from all African Americans.
Critics have interpreted the cynical tone of Malamud’s story to mean that the author thought the attempts at racial integration at the heart of the Civil Rights movement were hopeless. The story featured a harsh realism, which was a dramatic departure from the mythical style that Malamud had become famous for with novels like 1952’s The Natural, his first and still his best-known book. Malamud is often praised for his short stories, and several critics consider “Black Is My Favorite Color” to be one of his best. A current version of the story can be found in The Complete Stories, published after the author’s death by The Noonday Press in 1997. Malamud is also known for his first short story collection, The Magic Barrel (1958), which won the National Book Award for fiction.
Bernard Malamud was born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 28, 1914, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents who owned and operated a grocery store. Although his parents had little education and knew very little about the arts, Malamud found his way into the prestigious Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. He published his early short stories in the school’s literary magazine, The Erasmian. After earning a bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York in 1936 and his master’s degree from Columbia University in 1942, Malamud taught night classes at Erasmus Hall. During this time period, inspired by World War II and the nightmares of the Holocaust, Malamud examined his own Jewish heritage. The beliefs and views he garnered from his studies and his self-reflection influenced his writing throughout his lifetime.
For the next decade, Malamud taught high school while publishing his short stories in magazines. In 1949, the author accepted an English position at Oregon State, where he taught for the next twelve years. During this time, he published some of his best-known works, including his first two novels, The Natural and The Assistant, drawing heavily upon his parents’ background as grocery store owners.
In the early 1960s, the tensions between blacks and whites in New York inspired Malamud to write his short story, “Black Is My Favorite Color.” The story, in which the protagonist strives for racial equality, was published in 1963, in the same year that the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during his peaceful march on Washington.
Malamud is not only considered one of the top Jewish-American writers, but one of America’s greatest writers, period. His award-winning works are noted for their exploration of the Jewish-American experience, often in ways that mix realistic and
fantastic elements. He received the National Book Award in fiction in 1959 for his short story collection The Magic Barrel and in 1967 for his novel The Fixer. The latter also earned the Pulitzer Prize in fiction that same year. Malamud died of natural causes on March 18, 1986.
“Black Is My Favorite Color” starts out with a description by Nat Lime, the narrator, of his cleaning lady, Charity Quietness, who eats her lunch by herself in the bathroom in Nat’s Harlem apartment. Although Nat, a forty-four year old Jewish bachelor, has invited Charity to eat lunch with him in the past, she insists on eating in the bathroom. Nat says that this is his fate with colored people, a term he uses through the story. Nat explains that, despite this fate, black is his favorite color and that he is drawn to colored people. He talks about the liquor store that he runs in Harlem and claims that, although he has tried several times to show his affection for black people, he has not had any reciprocity.
Nat uses the current situation with Charity Quietness as a springboard to discuss his earliest memories of colored people. The first colored person that Nat met was Buster Wilson, when Nat and his family moved near a black neighborhood in Brooklyn. His family had lived in Manhattan, but Nat’s father, a cutter by trade, developed arthritis in his hands and could no longer work. As a result, Nat’s mother started selling paper bags from a pushcart, which was just enough to support them in Brooklyn.
Nat recalls seeing Buster, a young colored boy around his age, playing marbles by himself. Nat wants to become his friend, but Buster does not give him the opportunity. Nat talks about Buster’s father, whose alcoholism affects his work as a barber. Even though Nat and his family are poor, he notes that Buster and the other colored people in his block are much worse off. Nat likes the parties that the colored people have, and he watches the black girls through the windows when he walks by their tenements. However, he notes that the parties bring drinking and fights, and he recalls some of the brutal fights he has seen, including one where Buster’s father gets in a fistfight. The police break up the fight and beat everybody with their nightsticks, including Buster’s father. One day, Nat steals fifteen cents from his mother and, in a conciliatory gesture, offers to take Buster to the movies. Buster accepts and even goes several more times with Nat—who pays for other items, as well, like candy. One day, unprovoked, Buster hits Nat in the teeth and calls him a Jew in a derogatory manner. Their friendship abruptly ends.
Later in life, Nat meets Mrs. Ornita Harris, a young black widow. Ornita accidentally drops her glove one day, and when Nat picks it up for her, she tells Nat that she does not accept favors from white men. Ornita comes into Nat’s liquor store a week later. She does not recognize him at first, but when she does, she apologizes for her behavior regarding the glove. Nat offers her a discount on her bottle of Scotch, which she accepts. Ornita comes into Nat’s store every two weeks for liquor, and each time, Nat gives her a discount. As Nat recounts the memory, he notes that Ornita was attractive in the ways that he likes.
Over time, Nat learns that Ornita’s husband was a skyscraper window cleaner who fell fifteen stories when his safety belt broke. After his death, Ornita began working as a manicurist. Nat tells Ornita that he is a bachelor and that he lives with his mother, who has cancer. Although Ornita is resistant, Nat finally convinces Ornita to go on a date with him that summer. The date is very uncomfortable, and the two do not feel closer at the end of the night. Ornita will not let Nat take her back to Harlem, so he calls her a cab instead. Ornita questions why they are even bothering to date each other, but Nat convinces her to go on another date with him. At the end of this date, the two sleep together; Nat says that he fell in love with Ornita that night.
That same week, Nat gets held up in his liquor store by two black men, one of whom cracks Nat on the head with his gun. Nat is in the hospital for a little while, during which time Ornita comes to visit him and offer comfort. When Nat is released from the hospital, his mother is dead. He mourns her loss by himself at first, but after a week, he goes to Ornita and proposes to her. Ornita declines his offer, explaining that she is unsure that the interracial marriage would work. Over the next several weeks, the two date a few times a week, and, as Nat talks more about marriage, he slowly convinces Ornita to accept his proposal. Nat begins to make preparations to sell his business so the two can move to San Francisco, where interracial marriages are more accepted. One night, however, as Nat is walking Ornita back to her house, three young black men with switchblades stop them. The young men do not listen to Nat’s claims that he helps blacks out by employing them at good wages. Instead, they stereotype him, calling him a Jew landlord, and tell him, in very derogatory terms, that he cannot sleep with Ornita anymore. One of the men slaps Ornita, and when Nat hits the young man, all three of the young men knock Nat into the gutter, take his wallet, and run.
Kicked in the Teeth
Nat tries to follow Ornita home, but she is distraught and walks home on her own. She cancels their date the next night, and when Nat calls her, she says that the interracial marriage will not work. While recounting the demise of his relationship with Ornita, Nat recalls a situation where he tried to help a blind black man across the street. The blind man claimed that he could tell Nat was white. At the same time, a colored woman pushed Nat out of the way—and into a fire hydrant—and brusquely said that she would help the blind man. Nat comes to an understanding of the impossibility of his situation, that despite his intentions, when he tries to show affection, he gets kicked in the teeth for his efforts. At the end of the story, Nat returns from his reminiscence to the present moment of the story—Charity Quietness eating her lunch in the bathroom. Frustrated, he yells at her to come out.
Mrs. Ornita Harris
Mrs. Ornita Harris is a young, black widow who dates Nat, a white Jewish man, but who cannot bring herself to marry him. Ornita meets Nat when he picks up a glove she has dropped. She is rude to him, telling him that she does not need his favors, but when they meet a week later in Nat’s liquor store, she is more cordial. Nat gives her a discount on her order, and she begins to come in every couple weeks. Ornita and Nat start dating, but there is a discomfort between them. She tells Nat that their dates are pointless, but she continues dating him. The first night they sleep together, Nat thinks he has fallen in love with her.
After Nat gets held up at his store by two black men, landing him in the hospital, Ornita comes to visit him. Shortly thereafter, Nat proposes to Ornita, but she refuses his offer. They continue to date one another, however, and as Nat talks more about the possibility of marriage, Ornita warms up to the idea.
One night, as Nat is walking Ornita back to her house, three young black men stop them. The men are very rude and say some very indecent things about the interracial couple. One of the men slaps Ornita. Nat hits the man, and all three men proceed to knock Nat into the gutter, take his wallet, and flee the scene. Nat tries to console Ornita, but she is distraught, and she calls off the wedding plans, claiming that it will never work.
The narrator, Nathan Lime, known to most of the story’s characters as “Nat,” is a forty-four year old white, Jewish bachelor who claims to have always had an attraction to black people. Nat begins his tale by talking about his maid, Charity Quietness, who insists on eating her lunch in Nat’s bathroom, separate from him. Nat provides his history with black people, starting with the first black person he tried to befriend: Buster Wilson, a boy who lived in Nat’s Brooklyn neighborhood. Nat coaxes Buster into going to the movies with him on several occasions, but the friendship ends when Buster hits Nat and calls him a Jew in a derogatory manner.
Nat does not have much more luck with Mrs. Ornita Harris, a widow. Nat tries to be nice to Ornita when he first meets her, but she mistakes chivalry for charity and tells him she does not like white men doing her favors. He meets her again in his liquor store, where she is more cordial. He gives her a discount on her order, and after she visits his liquor store a few more times, Nat and Ornita begin to date. Nat becomes very interested in her, and he believes that he has fallen in love with her after the first time they sleep together. Ornita does not reciprocate his feelings right away; in fact, it takes a while before she can even feel comfortable around him.
Nat’s store gets held up by two black men, one of whom knocks Nat out with his gun. While he is in the hospital, Ornita comes to visit him. When he gets out of the hospital, he proposes to Ornita, but she is reluctant at first. As they begin to date more seriously, she warms up to the idea of marriage. Nat makes plans to sell his liquor store so they can move to San Francisco, where interracial marriages are more accepted.
One night, after Nat and Ornita enjoy a trouble-free dinner with one of Nat’s friends, three young black men stop them as they are walking home. The three men express outrage at the fact that a black woman is with Nat, a white Jewish man. One of them slaps her, prompting her to scream and Nat to hit him. Soon Nat finds himself in the gutter without his wallet, and Ornita refuses his offer to continue walking her home. Moreover, she calls off the engagement and stops dating him. As the story ends, Nat comes back to the present situation, with Charity Quietness eating her lunch in the bathroom. Frustrated, he tells her to come out.
See Nathan Lime
Nathan’s father has to quit working when his arthritis gets too bad, which forces the family to move from Manhattan to Brooklyn. He dies when Nathan is only thirteen.
Nathan’s mother supports the family after her husband’s arthritis gets so bad that he cannot work anymore. When they move from Manhattan to Brooklyn, she earns a living by selling paper bags from a pushcart. Nathan’s mother is the one who says that if he ever forgets he is a Jew, a non-Jewish person will remind him that he is one, which happens repeatedly to Nathan in his relations with black people. Nathan’s mother lives with her son, and, over the course of the story, she dies from cancer. Nathan gets the news when he gets out of the hospital.
Charity Quietness is Nat’s cleaning lady, who starts coming in once a week to clean his apartment. The first time she comes to clean, Nat invites her to eat lunch with him. She tries, but pretty soon, she takes her lunch into the bathroom and eats it there, as she does at the beginning of the story. After Nat has narrated his tale, and illustrated how he always tries to help blacks and gets nothing but pain for his troubles, he comes back to present-day, where Charity is still in the bathroom, although he soon yells at her to come out.
Buster Wilson is the first black person whom Nat tries to befriend; like future attempts, this relationship fails miserably. Nat notices Buster after Nat’s family moves into Buster’s neighborhood. He tries to befriend him, but Buster ignores him. Finally, he gets Buster to go to a movie with him. After several such social outings, Buster punches Nat in the mouth, calling him a Jew in a derogatory way.
Buster’s father is a barber who likes to get drunk and fight at parties; on one occasion, the young Nat witnesses him being beaten up by the police. It is at this point that Nat offers to take Buster to the movies.
From the very beginning of the story, when “Charity Quietness sits in the toilet,” eating her eggs, while Nat eats in the kitchen, the divide between African Americans and Caucasians plays a major role in the story. Nat recalls how he invited Charity to eat with him in the kitchen when she first came to work as his cleaning woman. Charity is only able to take “a small bite” out of one of her eggs. At that point, as Nat says, “she stopped chewing and she got up and carried the eggs in a cup to the bathroom, and since then she eats there.”
This divide between cultures is even more apparent when Nat recalls the “rundown,” “Negro houses” that are located in the middle of a “not-so-hot white neighborhood.” As Nat says, “In those days though I had little myself I was old enough to know who was better off, and the whole block of colored houses made me feel bad in the daylight.” Even as a child, Nat knows that he is better off than African Americans. Nevertheless, he tries to ignore this, and he starts a friendship with Buster, a black boy in the neighborhood. He is unsuccessful at first, until Buster’s father gets taken away by the police for fighting, and Nat offers to take Buster to the movies. However, Nat remarks that even though he pays for Buster’s movies and candy and shares his comic books with Buster, “we never got to be friends. Maybe because it was a one-way proposition—from me to him.”
Even as an adult, Nat is unable to get most people to see past his skin and his comparatively privileged status. When some black street thugs stop him and his African-American lover, Ornita, Nat tries to tell them, “we’re all brothers. I’m a reliable merchant in the neighborhood.” The young men ignore his statements and tell him that he talks “like a Jew landlord ... Fifty a week for a single room,” and “No charge fo the rats.” Although he hires black workers, dates black women, and does many favors for black people, none of this matters in the eyes of these three African Americans.
Nat is drawn to African-American culture, but he is repeatedly refused the acceptance he desires
Topics for Further Study
- Many regard Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her bus seat in 1955 as the official beginning of the Civil Rights movement, even though it was not the first civil rights protest. Research civil rights events that occurred before December 1,1955—including individual, group, and government-sponsored actions—that also contributed to the rise of the movement. Plot these events on both a map and a time line. Where and when did most of these events take place?
- Martin Luther King Jr. advocated a nonviolent approach to dissolving racial inequalities. One of his contemporaries, Malcolm Little, known as Malcolm X, was commonly viewed by whites as an aggressor; in truth, the issue was more complex than that. Research the life stories of both men and compare their philosophies on civil rights.
- Research the history of interracial relationships in San Francisco, where, as Nat remarks in the story, such relationships were not as taboo as they were in New York in the 1960s. Why was it easier for interracial couples in San Francisco? What kinds of problems might interracial couples have still faced?
- Although many fields of employment were closed to African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, some African Americans were successful at transcending the boundaries. Research one African American from a scientific or professional field who achieved success during this time period, and write a short biography about him or her.
- Find three urban artists from the twentieth century, and review at least two paintings by each. What are the common themes in their art? How do the individual artists differ in their approaches?
from African Americans. After Charity refuses to eat with Nat, instead eating her lunch in the bathroom, Nat says, “It’s my fate with colored people.” He goes on to say that, despite this kind of treatment, “black is still my favorite color.” Nat says he’s “tried more than once” to show black people “what was in my heart toward them,” but that “the language of the heart either is a dead language or else nobody understands it the way you speak it.” He even goes so far as to say, “If I wasn’t white my first choice would be black.”
In fact, based on the pattern of Nat’s life as he tells it, the reader is led to assume that Nat does wish he was black. As a child in Brooklyn, Nat hangs around the poor black houses as much as he can. His first attractions to girls come from the trips by these houses. “The young girls, with their pretty dresses and ribbons in their hair, caught me in my throat when I saw them through the windows.” Later, he dates Ornita Harris, an African-American woman, and feels himself fall in love with her. She ultimately refuses to marry him, however, because Nat is not African American, and she believes that their racial differences are too great. As Nat’s mother warned him when she was alive, “if you ever forget you are a Jew a goy [non-Jew] will remind you.” In the end, mother knows best, and the African-American community, to which Nat desperately tries to gain acceptance, remains closed to him.
With Ornita, Nat tries to have an interracial relationship, something that he knows will draw looks from others. However, on their first date, Nat recalls that “Nobody was surprised when they saw us, nobody looked at us like we were against the law.” Still, in the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, when interracial relationships were seen by most whites and blacks as bad, this is a concern for Nat. It is also a concern for Ornita; so when Nat proposes marriage to her, he says that they could move to San Francisco, which is more supportive of interracial relationships: “I was there for a week in the Second War and I saw white and colored living together,” says Nat.
Ornita says no to the marriage proposal at first, mainly because, though her husband is dead, he still lives on in her memory, and she says that he “woulda killed me” for marrying a white man. Ornita also brings up the issue of children, saying “Were you looking forward to half-Jewish polka dots?” Nat is undeterred by this, however, saying simply that he “was looking forward to children.” Nat wants to look past skin color and focus on their feelings for each other, but Ornita is unsure. When she does finally start to warm up to the idea, Nat sets up a dinner at the house of one of his friends, who is supportive of the interracial relationship. “It wasn’t a bad time and they told us to come again,” says Nat. Even Ornita is feeling good, but it does not last for long. On their way home, the two are stopped by three young black men, who do not like seeing Ornita with a white man. They threaten Ornita, and Nat tries to step in to defend her, but it is no good. They slap her and knock him down. Although Nat brushes the incident off, it is a pivotal moment for Ornita, who calls off any plans for a wedding. Nat pleads with her, saying they can move away so they “wouldn’t have the kind of trouble that we had.” But Ornita likes her family and wants to stay where she is. Even though there is the promise of San Francisco, Nat can do nothing to save the relationship.
Malamud includes many violent episodes in his story, and it is significant that most of the violence is instigated by African Americans. When Nat is young, he notes that, although he likes the parties in the black houses, “with the parties came drinking and fights.” Nat remembers one fight in particular, when Buster’s dad “chased another black man in the street with a half-inch chisel.” When Buster’s dad catches the man and stabs him, young Nat notices that the other man is “bleeding through his suit” and wishes he could “pour it back in the man.” When the police come, Buster’s father tries to run away, “but a cop ran after him and cracked him on his Homburg hat with a club, right on the front porch.”
Violence even happens between children, as when Nat recalls one day with Buster when, out of nowhere, “he hit me in the teeth.” Nat experiences other physical abuse in the story at the hands of African Americans, such as when he is held up at his store by “two big men—both black—with revolvers.” One of them hits Nat “over the ear with his gun. I stayed in the hospital a couple of weeks.” Similarly, at the end of the story, some black street punks threaten to shave all of Ornita’s hair off as punishment for being with Nat. When one of the punks slaps her, Nat hits him back, and “the next I knew I was laying in the gutter with a pain in my head.” The violence expressed by the African Americans in the story provides yet another barrier between them and Nat, who is generally a peaceful guy. He does not understand, and is even “frightened” by the violence he sees in the black neighborhood as a kid. Unfortunately, in this story and in the real life society it reflected, violence was a side effect of racial inequality, and since Nat is on the privileged side of this racial divide, he will never understand it.
Point of View
This was the first story that Malamud wrote in the first-person point of view—characterized by the use of “my” and “I”—which is a more personal style of telling a story. It also gives the story more impact, since the narrator is communicating his or her thoughts and feelings directly to the reader, as opposed to using a third-person narrative “voice” to guide the telling of the tale. For example, when Nat Lime says in the beginning that “I was still feeling not so hot after Ornita left,” he then characterizes himself as a “bachelor with a daily growing bald spot on the back of my head” and that “I could lose frankly fifteen pounds,” the readers are getting a very personal view of him. Nat is heartbroken that Ornita, his love, has left him, and he is feeling very self-conscious about his hair loss and his weight. If the story were told by an omniscient narrator, who could see inside Nat’s head and let the reader know that “he was still feeling not so hot,” and that “he felt he could lose frankly fifteen pounds,” the emotion would not be as strong.
However, even though stories narrated in the first person are more personal, when a writer uses a third-person, omniscient (all-knowing) narrator, the kind that Malamud had used in his other stories up to this point, the writer has more freedom. An omniscient narrator can go inside any character’s head and reveal any knowledge to the reader. In a first-person narrative, however, other characters are seen only in light of the protagonist’s perspective. For example, when Nat first proposes to Ornita, she says no. After more pressure from him, she finally gets to the point where she says maybe. As Nat says, “Maybe is maybe so I’ll wait. The way she said it, it was closer to yes.” Nat thinks that he can tell how Ornita is feeling, but since there is no omniscient narrator, the reader can never know for sure. So in the end, there are advantages and disadvantages to both types of narration. The first-person narration works for Malamud in this story, however, because he is not as concerned with letting the reader know how the other characters felt as he is in giving Nat’s perspective on why he has not had any success in integrating himself into the African-American community.
Malamud also experiments with tense, the way in which a writer uses verbs to denote time or duration. Authors write in past tense when they want to communicate how something “happened,” in present tense when they want to show how something “is happening,” or future tense, when they want to say how something “will happen.” The tense of a story helps to determine how the reader reacts to the tale. Most fiction is told in past tense, where the narrator recounts something that has happened. Present tense is more rare because it tells of something that is happening right now, and most readers find it easier to believe a tale if it is something that has already happened. In “Black Is My Favorite Color,” however, the story is framed by two halves of a situation that is going on in Nat’s present. The story starts, “Charity Quietness sits in the toilet eating her two hard-boiled eggs while I’m having my ham sandwich and coffee in the kitchen.” After this first, brief look at the segregation between Nat and Charity, in which Nat gives details about Charity and about himself, Malamud launches into the past tense. Nat talks about the first time he met Charity, when he “made the mistake to ask her to sit down at the kitchen table with me and eat her lunch.” As Nat thinks about how Charity has refused to do so, it sparks some general thinking from him, about how this is representative of his life.
From this point on, the majority of the story is one large flashback, told in past tense, where Nat goes back into his past to show the reader other examples where his good intentions have been spurned by African Americans. At the end of the story, after he has recounted how Ornita left him and he was spurned by a black blind man whom he tried to help, Nat thinks: “That’s how it is. I give my heart and they kick me in the teeth.” Immediately after this thought, Nat yanks the reader back into the present, where Charity is still in the bathroom eating her eggs. Nat is pretty frustrated after recounting all of his negative experiences, and he yells at Charity to come out of the bathroom. By splitting the present-tense event of Charity in the bathroom into two pieces, the reader is able to understand better the frustration that Nat feels when he yells at her, as well as to gain a perspective on the unwitting perpetuation of the anger and tension between the races.
Malamud is a master when it comes to evoking images in his readers’ minds. In this story, his stark, realistic depictions of life in Brooklyn in the 1920s are very telling. “We didn’t starve but nobody ate chicken unless we were sick, or the chicken was.” With this line, Nat communicates to the reader that his family was really poor. Unless they are sick and need chicken noodle soup, the only way his family ever eats chicken is if there’s something wrong with it and nobody else wants it. Malamud’s descriptions are particularly gritty when describing the African-American experience. Nat, when describing how much worse it was for African Americans, says: “The Negro houses looked to me like they had been born and died there, dead not long after the beginning of the world.” Malamud evokes an image of death and decay, giving the reader a better picture of how bad the houses look, and underscoring the feeling of decay in the story.
After both World Wars, blacks from the Southern United States migrated north in large numbers.
Compare & Contrast
- 1960s: Motown music, a simple, catchy, distinctly African-American sound, dominates the pop charts. Its performers, all African Americans, find acceptance from white audiences.
Today: Rap music, which began as a distinctly African-American sound, inspires white performers such as Eminem, a rap artist who takes the medium to new heights with his critically favored songs.
- 1960s: Massive inequalities between races fuel the Civil Rights movement, which is in full force.
Today: Although great strides have been made through civil rights awareness and legislation, inequalities between races still exist in America.
- 1960s: Many northern cities contain ghettoes, rundown slums that host specific minority groups, which typically have high crime rates. These lower-income areas help to segregate blacks from whites.
Today: Most major American cities have lower-income sections, which can host an ethnically diverse group of residents. These areas help to segregate working-class Americans from those in the middle and upper classes, who typically live in suburbs.
Most were only able to find low-paying, unskilled labor positions which only provided enough money to live in crowded, inner-city slums known as ghettoes. These urban neighborhoods, like the one where Ornita lives in the story, were characterized by their dilapidated buildings and high crime rates. The ghettoes were segregated by race. In “Black Is My Favorite Color,” Nat, a white man, owns a business in the ghetto but does not live there, where people are often so poor that extended families live together in one cramped residence—as is the case with Ornita, who lives with her brother’s family. Instead, Nat has an apartment by himself in a nicer section of the city, where he even pays a black cleaning woman to come in and take care of his place once a week.
The Civil Rights Movement Begins
Although the tensions of racial inequality had been brewing for a long time, they came to a head on December 1,1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, when an African-American woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, in the front of a bus, to a white man. This simple act of defiance—it was against Montgomery’s law for a black person to sit in the forward section of a city bus—got Parks arrested and jailed. The resulting outcry from the African-American community included a boycott of Montgomery city buses that drew national attention. In addition, Parks’s bravery inspired Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., whose passionate speeches in Montgomery earned him a national reputation.
“I Have a Dream”
Following his success in Montgomery, Reverend King traveled the United States for the next several years, giving speeches and spreading his message of nonviolent protest, a method of protest he had learned from studying the teachings of India’s spiritual leader, Mahatma Gandhi. In the fall of 1963, King organized a civil rights march on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In it, King promoted the type of racial integration that Nat dreams of in “Black Is My Favorite Color,” where whites and blacks exist in harmony. King became a martyr for the Civil Rights movement when he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
Although African Americans were shut out of many fields of employment up through the 1950s and 1960s, entertainment was one area where blacks were able to match or exceed the achievements of whites. In 1955, African-American jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was widely recognized as the leading jazz musician of his time, which was the first time ever that a black man had held this distinction. The same year, African American Chuck Berry’s popular rock and roll tune “Maybellene” hit number one on the rhythm and blues charts and also scored in the Top Ten on the pop charts, as did many of his subsequent songs. In 1959, former boxer Berry Gordy helped to found Motown, a coalition of recording, distribution, publishing, and management businesses in Detroit devoted to promoting African-American music in the mainstream. The distinct “Motown Sound” that resulted from this enterprise dominated the charts through the mid-1960s, with acts like The Temptations, Little Stevie Wonder, and the Supremes appealing to black and white audiences alike. On a similar note, in 1960, African American Chubby Checker created a national dance craze when he sang his version of Hank Ballard’s song “The Twist” on American Bandstand. Checker’s version reached the top spot on the pop charts, and his dance by the same name was adopted by white teens, and soon after by their parents, who helped to propel the song to the top of the charts once again.
“Black Is My Favorite Color” appeared for the first time in the Reporter on July 18, 1963. Later that year, it was published in Idiots First, Malamud’s second short story collection. His first collection, The Magic Barrel, won the National Book Award for fiction, and many critics continue to praise these short stories as Malamud’s best.
However, both Idiots First and “Black Is My Favorite Color” have received their fair share of good criticism since they were published. In fact, Sidney Richman, in his 1966 book, Bernard Malamud, stated that the story was “not only one of the best stories in the entire collection but one which deserves to stand with some of the finer pieces in The Magic Barrel.” Richman also heralded the story’s “striking departure from the earlier work,” noting that the story was the first time in Malamud’s career that he employed a first-person narrator, and remarking on the absence of fantasy, which had been present in Malamud’s earlier work. “Malamud seems to be pitting his vision against a firmer reality, to be working with objective experience in a way he had never done before,” said Richman.
Over the years, many critics have focused on the overt racial themes in the story. In his essay, “Women, Children, and Idiots First: Transformation Psychology,” in Bernard Malamud and the Critics (1970), Samuel Irving Bellman asked whether or not Malamud had a “special point” in his “reconstructionist view of society, whereby non-Jews turn into Jews. ... much to their discomfort.” Bellman believed the answer was “yes,” that Malamud was trying to say “the world is losing its oxygen and becoming unfit to live in.” In this poisoned world, “people grow desperate in their plight” and “make a pitiful spectacle as they fight a losing battle.”
Critics have also noted the story’s relation to Malamud’s other works. As Jeffrey Helterman noted in 1978 in his entry on Malamud for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, the story “explores the black-Jewish relations that would become the primary concern of The Tenants.” Helterman was also one of several critics who remarked on the futile nature of Nat’s efforts, since “the narrator can never penetrate into the alien culture.” As Helterman said about Nat, “he tries to help a black blind man home only to discover that even a blind man can tell he is white.”
On a similar note, a year after Helterman’s critique was published, Robert Solotaroff called “Black Is My Favorite Color” one of Malamud’s “understandably painful stories ... in which the generous, or at least justifiable, intentions of decent people are frustrated.”
Criticism on Malamud experienced a surge in the 1980s, when Malamud selected several of his stories, including “Black Is My Favorite Color,” for publication in his Stories of Bernard Malamud. Many critics praised this collection as they had Malamud’s previous collections. Robert Alter of The New York Times Book Review noted that Malamud’s “real gift is for the short story, for the spare, rigorous etching of solitary figures caught in the stress of adversity.” Likewise, Paul Gray of Time magazine said that “the book not only offers substantial evidence that Malamud’s stories are better than his novels; it makes the distinction seem irrelevant.” And Marcia G. Fuchs of the Library Journal said of the book that “this is the master storyteller at his best—unforgettable, colorful characters caught in pathos mundane and cosmic, treated with humor, compassion, humanity.”
Of course, not all critics loved the story, or the collection. Gene Lyons of Newsweek said that the stories in the collection were “not entirely successful, despite a seriousness, steadfastness and simple integrity that one cannot help but admire.” Specifically, he noted that “Black Is My Favorite Color” was “badly dated at best.” And Richard Gilman, in his 1986 article for The New Republic, said that he felt Malamud was “weakest when he sought or fell into too direct a way to our emotions, when he was most self-consciously ‘humane.’ I think of stories like ‘Black Is My Favorite Color.’”
In 1997, eleven years after Malamud’s death, his publisher released one final collection, The Complete Stories, which also received praise from critics. As the title suggests, this contained all of Malamud’s short fiction in the chronological order in which the stories were written, not published. As Amy Boaz of the Library Journal noted about this arrangement, “displayed thus, Malamud’s skill is consistently sound, effected quietly through disciplined pacing and dignified characters.”
Ryan D. Poquette
Poquette has a bachelor’s degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette discusses Malamud’s use of a first-person narrator to disguise the narrator’s flaws in Malamud’s story.
Upon first reading Malamud’s “Black Is My Favorite Color,” readers may be tempted to feel sorry for the protagonist, Nat Lime, a white, Jewish bachelor who has spent nearly four decades of his life trying—and failing—to find acceptance within the New York African-American community. Nat does so by performing good deeds for, and attempting to develop relationships with, black people. Indeed, Robert Solotaroff referred to the story as one of Malamud’s “understandably painful” tales, “in which the generous, or at least justifiable, intentions of decent people are frustrated.” However, when one looks past Nat’s self-pitying narration and begins to examine both his actions and his faulty perception of them, Nat’s intentions appear neither generous nor justifiable, and the reasons for his lack of acceptance becomes clear.
In 1963, when Malamud wrote “Black Is My Favorite Color,” he made a striking departure from his other works. As Sidney Richman noted in his 1966 book, Bernard Malamud, the story was “the first time in his writing career that he has entirely forsaken the omniscient point of view.” There are some very good reasons why Malamud did this. First, stories narrated in the first person are more personal, since the reader hears a character’s thoughts directly, instead of having them filtered by a nameless, third-party voice. Because of this, Nat’s account of his life and struggle has more impact on the reader. At the same time, Malamud uses this self-pitying narration to mask several unpleasant facts about Nat, which, when taken collectively, paint Nat in an entirely different light than the way he describes himself to the reader.
As Nat remarks in the beginning of the story, incidents like his black cleaning woman refusing to eat in the same room with him signify his “fate with colored people.” He tells the reader that “black is my favorite color,” although “you wouldn’t know it from my luck.” Throughout the story, Nat communicates to the reader that his motives have been pure in his attempts to help African Americans, and that he has been repeatedly mistreated: “That’s how it is. I give my heart and they kick me in the teeth,” he notes at the end of the story.
However, perceptive readers who are willing to dig under Nat’s self-pitying narration and examine his actions, as well as certain intentionally conspicuous words and phrases that Malamud uses, will realize that Nat’s good intentions are misguided and that he fails to understand the true plight of the African-American community. Nat thinks that he is a good person because he treats African Americans as equals, saying that “there’s only one human color and that’s the color of blood.” However, Nat does do special favors for black people wherever
What Do I Read Next?
- America and I: Short Stories by American Jewish Women Writers, published by Beacon Press in 1990, contains selections from female Jewish writers from five generations. Edited by Joyce Antler, it is a dynamic chronicle of twentieth-century Jewish-American women’s literature and features some of last century’s finest short story writers.
- Saul Bellow, a Jewish-American contemporary of Malamud, received the National Book Award for fiction for his book, The Adventures of Augie March. The story concerns the title character, a young Jew in a working-class Chicago neighborhood who is forced to embark upon a number of odd jobs when the depression hits. Critics hailed the work for its originality and for its positive message that life is worth living.
- Best Contemporary Jewish Writing, edited by Michael Lerner and published by Jossey-Bass in 2001, collects poetry, fiction, essays, and memoirs from the top contemporary Jewish writers. The works in the book date from 1994 to 2000. The essays explore Jewish identity, spirituality, scripture, the Holocaust, conflicts in Israel, and Jewish culture.
- In Aliens in America, Sandra Tsing Loh, a girl who was born to a Chinese father and German mother, writes many comic, autobiographical tales about how her parents’ separate cultures have blended in unique and almost implausible ways in her life. The book was published by Riverhead Books in 1997.
- Malamud’s The Assistant, originally published in 1957 by Farrar, Strauss, is about an Italian-American drifter who gets a job working for a humble Jewish grocer. When he falls in love with the storekeeper’s daughter, he is forced to reexamine his moral and spiritual beliefs.
- Malamud’s The Tenants, published in 1971 by Farrar, Strauss, details the struggles between Harry, a minor Jewish novelist who agonizes over finishing a novel—which is about a writer who cannot finish a novel—while living in an apartment building that the landlord wants to tear down. A black writer, Willie, moves into the building, sparking a bitter rivalry between the two writers. The book is currently out of print, but it is one of Malamud’s major works and can be found in many libraries.
- Love’s Revolution: Interracial Marriage, written by Maria P. P. Root and published by Temple University Press in 2001, chronicles the social changes that have led to the growth and acceptance of interracial marriages. Root, a clinical psychologist, interviewed about two hundred people from a wide variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds for her study, and their stories and views permeate the book, which also includes a section that details the specific challenges that interracial couples face.
possible. This desire to be charitable is hinted at in the first line of the story, with the very name of the character, “Charity Quietness.” This odd name catches the reader’s attention. As Malamud shows that while Nat’s “charitable” acts seem good on the surface, underneath their quiet exterior lurks his real reason for doing them—to feel better about himself. His drive begins in early childhood, when Nat notices the worn-out houses owned by African Americans in his neighborhood and says, “In those days though I had little myself I was old enough to know who was better off, and the whole block of colored houses made me feel bad in the daylight.” As a child, Nat knows he is not as poor as people like Buster, an African American who is Nat’s age, and he feels guilty about it. This guilt manifests itself in many acts that Nat thinks are well-meaning or charitable, such as taking Buster to the movies, buying him candy, and letting him borrow Nat’s comic books.
“... Ornita falls from her high place when she is slapped by the black youths, reminding her that the white world is not hers. The fall is devastating for Ornita, whose black world does not give her Nat’s white safety nets—money, mobility, and opportunity.”
However, in his obsessive quest to be charitable to African Americans, Nat also blinds himself to how he may be hurting others, including his own family. For example, when Nat funds the first of the movie trips with Buster, he does it by stealing “fifteen cents from my mother’s pocketbook.” This misguided attempt at helping Buster is potentially harmful to Nat and his own family, who themselves are so poor that “nobody ate chicken unless we were sick, or the chicken was.”
When he is an adult, Nat tries to be charitable to African Americans through his business. However, once again he is blinded to the potential hurt he could be causing to people, in this case blacks themselves. Nat’s choice to run a liquor store itself shows that he has not been paying attention to the negative effects of alcohol on African Americans. Although Nat does not realize it, his role as a liquor store owner helps maintain the oppression of those whom he is trying to help. When Nat is looking back on his childhood, he notes how Buster, the black boy he is trying to befriend, is the son of a barber. But Nat remembers that Buster’s father was “too drunk to stay a barber.” This implies strongly that one of the reasons why Buster must live in a house that is so rundown it looks like it “had been born and died there, dead not long after the beginning of the world,” is because Buster’s father cannot hold down a job due to his alcoholism. This was a common problem, and still is, in urban areas, where people can lose hope and sometimes turn to alcohol as an escape. Nat’s store in Harlem helps to feed that problem in the African-American community, especially since he gives “discounts to certain customers,” meaning his African-American customers. Nat sees this as a kind gesture, but his “charity” only makes it easier for his African-American customers to buy more alcohol.
A prime example of Nat’s misguided charity is Ornita Harris. Nat first meets Ornita at a bus stop, when he picks up “her green glove that she had dropped on the wet sidewalk.” Ornita is very rude to Nat, saying that she “‘don’t like white men trying to do me favors.’” A week later, she comes into Nat’s liquor store “for a bottle of Scotch.” Nat tells her he would like to give her a discount, but he does not want to offend her. Ornita recognizes him and apologizes for her behavior regarding the dropped glove. As it turns out, “she took the discount. I gave her a dollar off,” says Nat, which would have been a sizeable discount in the 1960s, when a dollar was worth much more than it is today. The result? Ornita starts coming in “every two weeks for a fifth of Haig & Haig,” and each time he gives her the large discount. As Nat says, his “colored” helpers look at him when he tells them to give Ornita the discount, but Nat says he “had nothing to be ashamed.” However, many times Ornita comes into the store and does not talk but just pays for her alcohol, “less discount,” and walks out. On these occasions, Nat notes that “her eyes were tired and she didn’t look to me like a happy woman.”
Nat is unaware of his misguided actions, which stem in large part from his lack of awareness of the full meaning of the African-American plight. The fact is, Nat is a privileged white man, and, as such, blatantly enjoys comforts that African Americans do not. As referenced above, Nat steals from his mom’s purse for movies—one assumes that there is no money in Buster’s house to steal, even if he wanted to, since he wears the same “brown wool sweater, one arm half unraveled.” When Nat is an adult, this superiority is evident in other ways. For example, when Nat is held up, he has enough money to stay “in the hospital a couple of weeks” and notes that as far as the robbery goes, “I was insured.” However, for black people like Ornita, life is not so easy. After the death of her husband, “a window cleaner on the big buildings” who “fell fifteen stories,” Ornita “got a job as a manicurist in a Times Square barbershop.” Ornita has to provide for herself because, even when her husband was alive, he did not make enough to pay for the life insurance that would have protected her after his death.
Perhaps the biggest privilege Nat has is his ability to pick up extra residences as necessary. When Nat wants a private room for him and Ornita to share on their dates—so that they do not bother his mother, who lives with him—he rents a “furnished room,” in addition to the three-room apartment he’s already renting. Meanwhile, Ornita, like most black people in the ghetto, cannot even afford one residence on her own. She lives “with her brother’s family.”
Nat does not fully understand why his role as a white man—who enjoys these special privileges—would keep him and Ornita apart, and near the end of the story, even Ornita has forgotten their differences and warmed up to the idea of marriage to Nat. After having an enjoyable dinner with some of Nat’s friends, Nat and Ornita are forced to take the subway back to Ornita’s neighborhood “because of a twenty-four hour taxi strike.” Nat and Ornita both having had a great time at dinner, he notes that she “looked relaxed, wonderful.” However, this calm is shattered when three young, African-American street punks stop Nat and Ornita while they are walking from the subway to her house.
The men, angry that Ornita is with a white man, threaten her, and she says she will “scream long and loud” if they try anything. The men do not listen. Nat says, “They slapped her. I never heard such a scream. Like her husband was falling fifteen stories.” This is a very odd way to describe a scream. Nat references the scream again when Ornita is saying goodbye to him at the subway, after she has refused to let him walk her to her home. “Her face was gray and I still remembered her scream,” says Nat. There is something about the quality of the scream that sticks in Nat’s mind, although he does not understand it completely. This odd scream that Nat mentions twice is another clue from Malamud. For Ornita, her long, sorrowful scream, which invokes an image of her husband’s death, coincides with revelation. She now realizes that she cannot marry Nat. She had talked herself into marrying the white man, a person who is from a higher class than she is, but she cannot last at this new height. Like her husband, who fell fifteen stories to his death when his safety belt broke, Ornita falls from her high place when she is slapped by the black youths, reminding her that the white world is not hers. The fall is devastating for Ornita, whose black world does not give her Nat’s white safety nets—money, mobility, and opportunity.
After the incident, Nat tries to plead with Ornita, letting her know that they could avoid the problem, saying “if we got married and moved away we wouldn’t have the kind of trouble that we had. We wouldn’t come in that neighborhood anymore.” But Ornita is unconvinced, saying that she has “family there and don’t want to move anyplace else.” In fact, Ornita cannot move anywhere else. For Nat, who has the privilege of renting extra rooms for his dating life or picking up and moving to another state if he chooses, life will always be different; he will always have choices. In the end, it is this profound misunderstanding of the true plight of African Americans, along with his failure to recognize the selfish nature of his “charitable” acts, that will reinforce Nat’s outsider status. As Edward A. Abramson noted in Bernard Malamud Revisited, “Ultimately, Nat Lime cannot overcome the superior position that he, as a white man, holds in society; the black world is closed to him, and each race is going in a different direction.” Even in the end, this a fact that Nat just doesn’t comprehend as he screams at Charity Quietness to come out of the bathroom.
Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on “Black Is My Favorite Color,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Witcover is an editor and writer whose fiction, book reviews, and critical essays appear regularly in print magazines and online media. In the following essay, Witcover discusses fantasy, realism, and race in Bernard Malamud’s short story.
Bernard Malamud was a writer whose work explored questions and themes of Jewishness in a humanistic and often fantastic fashion. Jewish identity and experience had both a specific and a universal meaning for Malamud. He filled his fiction with characters like Nat Lime, from the short story “Black Is My Favorite Color,”—characters who, while retaining their essential Jewishness, also represent humanity in general. As Malamud noted in a 1968 interview with the Jerusalem Post quoted by critics Leslie and Joyce Field in the introduction to Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, “[p]ersonally, I handle the Jew as a symbol of the tragic experience of man existentially. I try to see the Jew as universal man.” He then proceeded to make one of his most famous statements: “Every man is a Jew though he may not know it.” In an interview with the Fields appearing in the same collection, Malamud offered a sobering clarification of this statement, calling it “a metaphoric way of indicating how history, sooner or later, treats all men.” The shadow of the Holocaust hangs heavy over these words, as indeed it does over all of Malamud’s work.
In a world where the Holocaust is possible, the real and the fantastic are one. In “Malamud’s Grace: Humanism With and Without Tears,” an homage to Malamud published after Malamud’s death in 1986, critic Richard Gilman honored the synchronistic quality of the author’s vision: “He was neither a realist nor a fantasist. He was both. I don’t mean he alternated between reality and fantasy, but that at his best the line between the two was obliterated.” More than that, Malamud recognized that this was true not only at the far-flung frontiers of human experience, such as the Holocaust or slavery, but within the seemingly mundane and trivial precincts of everyday life as well.
“Black Is My Favorite Color” appeared in Malamud’s second collection of short fiction, Idiots First, published in 1963. Critics are sharply divided over the quality of this story, which is set primarily in the Harlem section of New York City and features, as its main character and narrator, a middle-aged Jewish liquor store owner named Nat Lime who, despite lifelong feelings of friendship, and more, for African-American people, has experienced a disappointing history of relationships with them. Gilman, for example, finds the story to be among Malamud’s weakest, “brought down by predictable sentiment.” Sidney Richman, however, in his book-length critical study Bernard Malamud expresses the opposite opinion, calling the “comic and terrifying” tale “not only one of the best stories in the entire collection, but one which deserves to stand with some of the finer pieces in The Magic Barrel.” If there is one point on which all the critics agree, it is that “Black Is My Favorite Color” is not a fantasy. In fact, Iska Alter, in her study of social criticism in Malamud’s fiction, The Good Man’s Dilemma, calls the story “quintessential realism.”
A brief review of the relationship between American Jews and African Americans helps to situate the story’s characters and plot in a historical context. The relationship has its roots in slavery: African-American slaves in the American South found much to identify with in the Bible’s depiction of the Egyptian bondage of the Jews and God’s intervention, through Moses, to end it. Indeed, to give but one example, the escaped slave Harriet Tubman (1820–1913) was compared to Moses for her extraordinary efforts in leading other slaves to freedom by means of the Underground Railroad. Spiritual songs provide more evidence of how deeply and personally enslaved African Americans took the Jewish experience to heart, finding, through religious song, both a parallel to their own oppression and a powerful stimulus for their dreams of freedom.
The Jews, who, long before the evil of the Nazis, had been coming to the United States as refugees from European countries in which they and their ancestors had endured centuries of officially sanctioned and enforced anti-Semitic policies that exploded periodically in murderous pogroms, were not blind to this parallel. The cruelties and injustices heaped upon blacks in the United States by the white Christian males, who constituted the dominant power structure, undoubtedly reminded Jewish Americans of the horrors they had come to America to escape. Many—though by no means all—felt a sacred obligation, one deeply rooted in Jewish faith and culture, to help the slaves win their freedom. Jews were among supporters of the cause of abolition, later taking leading roles in the struggle for civil rights; the NAACP, for example, was founded in 1909 by black and Jewish leaders. Although Jews enjoyed substantial advantages in American society that blacks did not, based on differences of skin color, education, and economic position, to say nothing of having come to the United States voluntarily, many blacks nevertheless recognized that, as far as the ruling class of white Christian males was concerned, Jews, though not black, were not quite white, either. Thus, a strong natural alliance took shape between these two oppressed minorities, one that reached its apogee in the modern civil rights movement that began in the mid-1950s.
By the early 1960s, American Jews were traveling south by the hundreds to register voters and join protest marches and sit-ins, sharing hardships, beatings, arrests, and worse alongside blacks. Cracks in the African-American-Jewish alliance were already starting to form, however, due in part to the economic and cultural success of Jews within the American mainstream. Many African Americans resented this success, and not entirely without reason, as the success came at their expense. The social and economic stresses of the United States’ intensifying involvement in Vietnam only widened these cracks.
Even before Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, militant factions such as the Black Panthers had rejected his path of nonviolence, preaching, instead, a variety of doctrines that embraced the concept of Black Power and frequently involved racial animosity, separatism, and anti-Semitism. Partly in response to this, and partly as a result of a reawakened sense of Jewish identity brought about by still-fresh memories of the Holocaust and by the Arab/Israeli conflicts of the era, the moral compass of many American Jews began to swing increasingly toward Israel and the battles being fought there. The old alliance between African Americans and Jews was finished, and, though it never completely collapsed in the remaining years of the century as many had feared (or hoped) it would, neither did it return to what it had once been.
Malamud wrote “Black Is My Favorite Color” in 1963, the year that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. But while King spoke hopefully of a future of racial harmony in which men and women would be judged not by the color of their skins but on the content of their character, Malamud was sounding a far more pessimistic note.
The story, as related by Nat Lime (“forty-four, a bachelor with a daily growing bald spot”), is—or at least appears to be—a simple one of disappointed love. It opens in Nat’s apartment in the Upper West Side of New York City, where he is having his lunch in the kitchen: a ham sandwich and cup of coffee. Meanwhile, his cleaning lady, a woman with the unusual name of Charity Quietness, is eating her lunch in the bathroom. Such a name is a sure tip-off that “Black Is My Favorite Color” is not, in fact, “quintessential realism.” It is a hybrid fiction containing both real and fantastic elements. The name Charity Quietness alludes to a verse from the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, which can be translated from the Hebrew: “The work of charity shall be peace and the effect of charity quietness and confidence forever” (Isaiah 32:17). Malamud intends the name to be partially ironic, for charity of the sort practiced by Nat results in the opposite of peace and quietness. In an allegorical manner, the character of Charity Quietness is a personification of the qualities of peace and quiet, qualities attributed to godliness, just as she, the cleaning lady named Charity Quietness, comes to Nat from “Father Divine.” Here, however, such qualities as charity and quietness, even—or perhaps especially—when they come from God, are not offered freely as gifts, but are either bestowed for obedience to divine will or withheld as punishment for disobedience. The God
“In a world where the Holocaust is possible, the real and the fantastic are one.”
of this story, at least, is very much the vengeful patriarch of the Old Testament, as Malamud makes abundantly clear through his use of allegory and allusion. The name Nat Lime has allegorical significance as well. Nat, besides being an allusion to Hawthorne, one of Malamud’s favorite writers, suggests Nathan, the Old Testament prophet, and indeed Malamud’s story, according to Alter, writing in his article “The Broader Canvas: Malamud, the Blacks, and the Jews,” “strikes with the uncommon force of prophecy.” As with many of the Old Testament prophets, Nat’s message—to which he himself, ironically, is deaf—is as tart and sour as a lime.
Nat explains that when Charity first started cleaning for him, he “made the mistake to ask her to sit down at the kitchen table with me and eat her lunch” of hard-boiled eggs, but “after a minute she stopped chewing and she got up and carried the eggs in a cup to the bathroom, and since then she eats there.” Nothing he says can convince Charity to eat in the kitchen, not even when he volunteers to eat elsewhere himself. “That’s how it goes,” he says, “only don’t get the idea of ghettos. If there’s a ghetto I’m the one that’s in it.”
Nat’s words, which indirectly affirm that Charity is black while simultaneously denying that he is prejudiced against her for that reason, may strike readers as self-pityingly histrionic, but they will turn out to be truer than he knows. It is important to remember in this regard that the word “ghetto”—which in America refers to inner-city slum areas populated by poor minorities, usually black and/or Hispanic—originated centuries ago in Europe, where it referred to special zones within cities to which Jews were restricted by law; the Nazis took this idea, as they did so many others, to its horrific extreme, creating Jewish ghettos that were merely waiting rooms for the concentration camps built for the Final Solution; that genocidal history, in turn, was seized upon in the 1960s, and later by left-wing intellectuals and activists in the United States and elsewhere, including some in the African-American community, as a metaphor for what was taking place in American ghettos, with their high crime rates, poor medical care, and other killing burdens of institutional neglect and racism. Thus, when Nat uses the word here, he is not, as may first appear to be the case, appropriating the African-American experience; while that may be part of what is indeed going on, centuries of Jewish experience give all Jews, even in America, a legitimate right to apply this emotionally charged word to their own experience, though not, of course, at the expense of denying its meaning to African Americans (and vice versa). Shared custody of a word like ghetto, which is often consecrated in the minds of African Americans and Jews alike by their respective histories of spilled blood and cruel victimization, is complicated and fraught with the potential for violent misunderstanding.
Significantly, Nat never directly refers to Charity as an African-American woman in the long opening paragraph; he does so only indirectly, in the phrase about ghettos already noted, and again, more explicitly but still indirectly, at the end of the paragraph, in a final sentence that strikes the same histrionic tone: “It’s my fate with colored people.” Nat reveals two other important pieces of information about himself in the opening paragraph. The first is that his mother is dead and that Charity’s eyes remind him of his mother’s before she died. The second is that about a year and a half ago, a woman named Ornita “left,” by which readers assume, as indeed turns out to be the case, that a woman with whom Nat was romantically involved broke off their relationship at that time, though readers do not yet know the reasons why. Readers have also grown accustomed to Nat’s way of talking to readers by the end of the first paragraph; Nat is talking directly to readers, telling them his story as surely as if they were sitting at the kitchen table with him. In fact, although the story Nat tells moves around in time and place, the circumstances of the telling remain the same throughout: Nat sits in the kitchen, Charity in the bathroom. Indeed, the story ends by forcefully reminding readers of that fact. What readers notice about Nat’s way of talking is that he has a tendency toward self-deprecating, self-dramatizing turns of phrase, as well as a habit of avoiding certain details, such as race, by mentioning them only indirectly, if at all. This is useful to know because a reader’s reaction to stories often depends not only on how they are told, but on who is doing the telling. In other words, to judge a story, one must first judge the storyteller. That personage, incidentally, should not be confused with Malamud. Malamud may be the author of “Black Is My Favorite Color,” but the storyteller is his narrator, the fictional Nat Lime. Can readers trust what Nat is telling them? Will he lie to readers consciously or unconsciously? Will he lie to himself? Malamud has already provided readers with the answer to the first question.
Nat owns and operates a profitable liquor store in Harlem. Despite the fact that “black is still my favorite color,” he has no close African-American friends (or, as far as readers can tell, any white ones, either), though he is quick to note that
the fault isn’t necessarily mine. If they knew what was in my heart toward them, but how can you tell that to anybody nowadays? I’ve tried more than once but the language of the heart either is a dead language or else nobody understands it the way you speak it.
Nevertheless, Nat feels he has “some kind of a talent” for appreciating other colors or races of humanity, especially African Americans. “If I wasn’t white,” he says, “my first choice would be black.” Notice that he classifies himself by skin color, as a white, a member of the dominant race, rather than by religion or culture—as a Jew. Readers can assume from the fact that Nat is eating a ham sandwich in the opening paragraph that he is not a strictly observant Jew, though he is observant enough to sit shivah when his mother dies. What’s interesting is that, just as he does not directly refer to Charity Quietness’s race, neither does he directly refer to his own Jewishness. While Malamud has beautifully crafted Nat’s speech patterns and turns of phrase to make the fact of his Jewishness plain, just as Charity’s race is implicit in her name, it is still a significant omission on Nat’s part. Nat often refers to his “bald spot,” but he has an even larger blind spot.
Continuing his story, Nat remarks that “[w]here Charity Quietness eats her eggs”—in other words, the bathroom, or, as he refers to it throughout the story, “the toilet”—reminds him of a boyhood acquaintance named Buster Wilson. It seems strange, to say the least, that a toilet should remind someone of a person. Readers cannot help but wonder why. Nat does not explain himself, but if readers are reading attentively, they will notice the implicit riddle in his choice of words and attempt to solve it. And Malamud, as a conscientious writer, supplies the clues readers need. Presented with the image of an African-American woman eating in the toilet, Nat thinks of a black boy he once knew. Why? One possibility is that “blackness” carries an unconscious association for Nat of a function far more common in bathrooms than eating: namely, excreting. Could the association of toilets with excreting and excrement, in addition to Charity’s presence there, be what brings Buster to mind? Perhaps this association, which slips out in Nat’s prose without conscious thought or reflection, reveals a lot about his attitudes toward black people, attitudes that he keeps hidden from himself ... but not from them. But is there proof that this is, in fact, what has taken place in Nat’s mind?
When Nat was a boy, Buster lived in the black neighborhood next door to Nat’s own “not-so-hot white neighborhood” in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Young Nat was fascinated by the lives of his black neighbors, which seemed exotic, frightening, and, above all, alive. “I think I thought, Brother, if there can be like this, what can’t there be? I mean I caught an early idea what life was about.” Newly moved from Manhattan, and with no white or Jewish friends of his own, Nat determines to make friends with Buster, a black kid who, like him, spends much of his time alone. Stealing money from his mother’s purse, Nat treats Buster to movies, candy, and books. It never strikes Nat that Buster may resent these overtures, interpreting them as charity or, worse, attempts to buy the friendship that is Buster’s right to give or not ... never strikes him, that is, until Buster does, punching him in the mouth one day without warning. When Nat, fighting back tears, asks why Buster has hit him, the boy replies, with a venomous crudity that comes as unexpectedly as Buster’s fist: “Because you a Jew bastard. Take your Jew movies and your Jew candy and shove them up your Jew [a——].”
This is the first moment that the word “Jew” appears in the story (no less than four times in two sentences), and it is also the first time that Nat is explicitly identified as a Jew—an identification that, significantly, comes as an insult from a black person rather than from his own lips. The hateful language that the African-American boy, Buster, employs, and the action he invites Nat to perform involving food and the part of the body used for excreting, sets up the unconscious mental link that, years later, results in the seemingly baffling, but actually quite logical, association the adult Nat makes between the toilet in which a black woman is eating her lunch and Buster. Without rubbing our noses in it, Malamud has given readers an example, if readers are alert enough to spot it, of how Nat’s unconscious mind works, a glimpse, as it were, into his blind spot. Charity and Buster have snubbed Nat’s sincere, if clumsy, offers of friendship, yet Nat is incapable of seeing the extent to which he bears some part of the responsibility for those snubs. What may be worse, he is also incapable of appreciating the weight of history that lies behind not only the snubs but his own overtures as well. “His naivete compounds the usual conflicts between blacks and Jews in America,” writes Kathleen G. Ochshorn in The Heart’s Essential Landscape: Bernard Malamud’s Hero.
Now readers come to the heart of the story as Nat’s mind leads him circuitously—from Charity’s quiet, peaceful snub, through the toilet and what takes place there, to Buster’s violent, anti-Semitic snub—back to the woman mentioned fleetingly in the opening paragraph: Ornita. Or, as she is now introduced, Mrs. Ornita Harris
a slim woman, dark, but not the most dark, about thirty years I would say, also well built, with a combination nice legs and a good-size bosom that 1 like. Her face was pretty, with big eyes and high cheekbones, but lips a little thick and nose a little broad.
In other words, Ornita is an attractive African-American woman, though in respect to certain physical features, as the unconscious racism of Nat’s language reveals, a little too black.
Ornita is a widow who works as a manicurist in Times Square but lives in Harlem not far from Nat’s liquor store. In an echo of his behavior with Buster, Nat gives Ornita a discount on the liquor she buys in order to win her friendship. Over time, as they talk, she tells him of her husband, a window cleaner who fell fifteen stories to his death after his safety harness broke, and he tells her of his mother, with whom he lives and who is dying of cancer. Finally, they go on a date. By doing so, Ornita and Nat are acting in open defiance not just of the prejudices of their own groups, but of the larger (and whiter) American society. Even in cosmopolitan New York City, for a black woman and a Jewish man to go on a date in the early 1960s took guts; indeed, the combination could have provoked violent responses in some neighborhoods of the city even forty years later. Yet, without deprecating the bravery involved, it must be noted that their social rebellion is carefully circumscribed: Nat takes Ornita to the bohemian Greenwich Village, where “[n]obody was surprised when they saw us, nobody looked at us like we were against the law.”
They go out again a month later. This time, Nat has rented a room, and they sleep together. The striptease of racial signifiers in Nat’s description of this scene is noteworthy:
Under her purple dress she wore a black slip, and when she took that off she had white underwear. When she took off the white underwear she was black again. But I know where the next white was, if you want to call it white.
To fall in love with Ornita, which he genuinely does, Nat has to see her as both African American and white, that is, as exotic and familiar, forbidden and permitted. Not only that, but by possessing Ornita, Nat seeks to achieve his own unconscious fantasy, which is to enjoy the vibrant emotional life he has myopically and naively associated with blacks ever since the days of Buster Wilson while still retaining the social and economic advantages of being white: “If I wasn’t white, my first choice would be black.” This seems too easy for him to say, being a white man.
Nat’s simplistic fantasy cannot withstand reality. The first intrusion of reality occurs when two black men rob Nat’s liquor store, putting him in the hospital for two weeks. His mother succumbs to cancer while he is there. The robbery, and his mother’s death, are symbolic warnings that Nat chooses to ignore. When he leaves the hospital, he asks Ornita to marry him: “We’re both honest people and if you love me like I love you it won’t be such a bad time.” Ornita is hesitant, but, little by little, Nat wins her over. Then reality intrudes a second time, more violently still.
While Nat is walking Ornita home one night in Harlem, three black men—“maybe they were boys,” Nat says, linking them by his use of the word to Buster Wilson—block their way. What follows is predictable and grotesque. When Nat tries to defuse the situation by insisting that all men are brothers and identifying himself “as a reliable merchant in the neighborhood,” the response is an angry one: “You talk like a Jew landlord.” Nat denies it, providing the address of his liquor store and adding that he pays his two black clerks “good wages as well as I give discounts to certain customers.” The mix of romantic naïveté, ignorance, unthinking arrogance, and unconscious racism behind Nat’s illusions about black people has never been so clearly on display. He cannot see that, to the black men, he is an agent of white oppression who sells them liquor at a discount in order to keep them drunk and downtrodden; he does not grasp that simply by being with Ornita, he is threatening to rob these men of the only possession they have left: their manhood. It surprises no one but Nat when they strike Ornita. She screams, he says, “[l]ike her husband was falling fifteen stories.” When he defends her, he is beaten and robbed.
Ornita’s scream is not from physical pain alone but is linked explicitly to her husband’s death. In striking her, the men have forced her to relive that death; in a sense, they have accused her of being unfaithful to him ... and to her race. They are representatives of black solidarity in the face of white oppression, and Ornita’s scream is one of anguished recognition that, through love, she has betrayed both husband and race. The next day, she tells Nat that she cannot marry him even though she loves him. When Nat goes to Harlem to try and convince her to change her mind, she has already left for a long visit to relatives in the South.
To Nat, Ornita’s decision is the culmination of a long line of snubs and punches. Readers realize that he feels considerable bitterness toward her and all blacks. This is demonstrated by the way Nat ends his story. He relates an incident in which he takes the arm of a blind black man on the street. “I can tell you’re white,” the black man says, and then Nat is pushed roughly aside by a black woman who helps the man in his stead. Nat’s offer of charity has been spurned yet again. “That’s how it is,” he complains bitterly. “I give my heart and they kick me in my teeth.” But is this realistic? Or has Malamud brought a small seasoning of fantasy into his story? While it may be possible for a blind man to tell a person’s race or color by touch alone, or perhaps smell, there is a sense of the uncanny about this incident, as if God has interceded to demonstrate the utter hopelessness of blacks and Jews, the Biblical sons of Ham and sons of Shem, ever knowing the peace, quietness or confidence that comes of charity.
However, there is more. In the very last line of the story, Nat yells for Charity Quietness to “come out of that [g——d——] toilet!” The story has come full circle, returned to its beginning, with one important difference. At the outset of the story, Nat is resigned to Charity eating in the bathroom while he eats in the kitchen, but by the end, readers see that the anger he feels toward black people for what he perceives as a history of unprovoked meanness and snubs, stoked by the betrayals of Buster and, finally, Ornita, is now directed at Charity. If anyone is to suffer retribution for those perceived injuries, it will be she—and, by extension, other African Americans—just as Nat has suffered real injuries at the hands of African Americans because he is Jewish. Blacks and Jews locked in a cycle of intensifying misunderstanding, of good intentions gone bad and bad intentions gone worse: that is the pessimistic prophecy of Nat’s story.
Yet there is still one more element to be considered, and it renders the prophecy infinitely grimmer. In the first paragraph of the story, Nat mentions that Charity has “a quiet face that the light shines out of, and Mama had such eyes before she died.” Malamud is setting up the possibility that Charity Quietness is more than a cleaning lady, more even than a human being. Charity speaks a single line in the story, and it is this: “‘Peace,’ she says to me. ‘Father reached on down and took me right up in Heaven.’” How does one make sense of this statement? On a realistic level, one could interpret it to mean a reference to the church through which Nat employs her services, Father Divine. Yet that is not satisfying. Clearly, Malamud means more. The tone of Charity’s single line is that of angelic annunciation. She is associated with Nat’s dead mother by virtue of her eyes, and the statement that Father, or God, reached down and took her up into Heaven seems to indicate that she, too, might be dead. By an interesting coincidence, readers are also given a single line of dialogue from Nat’s mother, which he recalls as he is mourning her death: “Nathan, she said, if you ever forget you are a Jew a goy will remind you.” The word “goy” is a Yiddish term for Gentile or non-Jew, sometimes used by Jews in a disparaging sense. Technically, African American are goys, and certainly, in this story, it is African Americans who remind Nat again and again that he is a Jew. “Mama,” Nat responds as though addressing her spirit, “rest in peace on this subject. But if I do something you don’t like, remember, on earth it’s harder than where you are.” Has Nat done something that his mother, in heaven, does not like? And has she returned to Earth as an angel, a black woman named Charity Quietness, to set him straight? In 1955, Malamud wrote a story called “Angel Levine” about a black angel sent to a white Jewish man. There the Jew comes to accept that an angel can be black, and the story ends on an optimistically humane (if rather condescending) note with a black feather from the angel turning white. But returning to this fantastic conceit eight years later in “Black Is My Favorite Color,” Malamud does not allow himself such a hopeful and trite conclusion; indeed, it is as if he has returned to the theme to set the record straight. If one accepts that Charity Quietness is an angel, and is Nat’s mother returned from Heaven, one must conclude that the situation portrayed between blacks and Jews has the divine stamp of approval, and that in attempting to forge friendships, and more, with blacks throughout his life, Nat has gone against both the ways of man and God. While some transcendent reconciliation may be possible in Heaven, as the blackness of Charity Quietness seems to suggest, on earth that will not occur, and it is a kind of blasphemy even to wish it.
Though he may be foolish, and though Nat’s attraction to African Americans is tinged with unacknowledged racism, there is something admirable and poignant in Nat’s persistence in trying to break through to a genuine connection based on “the language of the heart,” even in the face of repeated and, because it is against God’s unfathomable will, inevitable failure. If there is a such a thing as Jewish existentialism, this is it. In the next novel that Malamud wrote on the subject of American blacks and Jews, The Tenant (1971), there would be less to admire in the struggles of his characters. In the book, a black writer and a Jewish writer, representing all blacks and Jews, resolve their differences with an axe to the brain and a knife to the genitals in an apocalyptic confrontation whose sole witness is left crying out the word “mercy” over and over again to an indifferent earth and a silent Heaven.
Source: Paul Witcover, Critical Essay on “Black Is My Favorite Color,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
In the following essay excerpt, Alter explores the racial pessimism present in “Black Is My Favorite Color,” focusing on the story’s “ironic discrepancy between desire and reality.”
When we examine “Black Is My Favorite Color,” we can see the further disintegration of traditional egalitarianism in the face of history.
The idealism concerning the possibilities of racial harmony that dominates the surface of “Angel Levine” is the motive force behind the civil rights movement of the early nineteen sixties. Blacks and whites together (“We shall not be moved”) integrated lunch counters, picketed Woolworth’s, rode freedom buses South, desegregated schools, were bombed, hosed, bitten by dogs, jailed, beaten, sometimes murdered. Under pressure exerted by both races, the institutions of government and society seemed increasingly responsive to the demands for justice, ready to redeem the pledges of the American Revolution owed to its black citizens. On
“He is a Jewish liquor dealer feeding off the need to dream, the desire to escape, a man who gives discounts to his better customers, thereby keeping them sedated and desensitized.”
a hot, steamy day in August, 1963, Martin Luther King told a rainbow gathering of honorable, optimistic people massed before the Lincoln Memorial of a dream as old as hope. And “We Shall Overcome” became the nation’s new anthem.
Given this atmosphere, the pessimism of “Black Is My Favorite Color” strikes with the uncommon force of prophecy. It is the story of the sweet-sour existence of the aptly named Nat Lime as he unsuccessfully attempts to counter through love the deepening hostility of blacks to all manifestations of white domination. He is a man who inhabits a black society in which the most preliminary human overtures are often seen as a purposeful extension of the white man’s power. However, this unhappy portrait may be regarded as an overt extension of the underlying pressures noted in “Angel Levine.” It is also worth observing at this point that while “Angel Levine” is a fantasy whose very form accentuates the implausible but humane conclusion, “Black Is My Favorite Color” is quintessential realism, thereby reinforcing the truth of its unhappy ending.
The title itself does not seem to imply the unconscious sense of Jewish moral superiority of “Angel Levine,” but rather a capacity to accept and love human difference. “I got an eye for color. I appreciate. Who wants,” says Nat Lime, “everybody to be the same?” But “Black Is My Favorite Color” as a title serves, in fact, to emphasize the ironic discrepancy between desire and reality that so dominates a story which opens in an environment of willed isolation and deliberately blurred identities: “Charity Sweetness sits in the toilet eating her two hardboiled eggs while I’m having my ham sandwich and coffee in the kitchen. That’s how it goes only don’t get the idea of ghettoes. If there’s a ghetto I’m the one that’s in it.” And it is the black maid who rejects the idea of community in the ritual act of breaking bread, sensing perhaps not the impulse to equality but the patronizing white employer, for whom she does housework: “The first time Charity Sweetness came in to clean ... I made the mistake to ask her to sit down at the kitchen table with me and eat her lunch.... So she cooked up her two hardboiled eggs and sat down and took a small bite out of one of them. But after a minute she stopped chewing and she got up and carried the eggs in a cup in the bathroom and since then she eats there.” Nat Lime’s bewildered readiness to accept “colored people” makes this intentional segregation an understandable gesture.
In “Angle Levine,” the author tries to establish at least the appearance of brotherhood by creating a similarity of class. Nat Lime in “Black Is My Favorite Color” is clearly an exploitative presence in Harlem, no longer a replica of the white milieu, but hostile territory.
He is a Jewish liquor dealer feeding off the need to dream, the desire to escape, a man who gives discounts to his better customers, thereby keeping them sedated and desensitized. In describing the problems caused by the liquor traffic in the ghetto, Lenora Berson says: “Of all the enterprises that have exploited the poor, none has encouraged more atrocious social fallout than the liquor trade, which includes alcoholism, sexual promiscuity, family instability, violence, brutality and the improvident use of limited funds.” And though Nat asserts that “personally for me there’s only one human color and that’s the color of blood,” his vocabulary throughout the story reveals a preoccupation with the divisions that race creates.
Blackness has always represented for Nat Lime the extremes of experience unavailable to a nice Jewish boy who at the age of forty was still dutifully living with his mother, and who can innocently claim “I’m the kind of man when I think of love I’m thinking of marriage.” Black lives, in both social and psychic terms, express the limits to which the human spirit can be stretched and still survive:
Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him ... knowing in the cells of his existence that life was war, nothing but war, ... could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present. ... Hated from the outside and therefore hating himself, the Negro was forced into exploring all those moral wildernesses of civilized life. ... The Negro chose to move instead in that other direction where all situations are equally valid, and in the worst of perversion, promiscuity, pimpery, drug addiction, rape, razor-slash, bottle-break ... the Negro discovered and elaborated a morality of the bottom.
Although this is surely Norman Mailer’s fantasy about black existence, as James Baldwin points out, it is nonetheless significant that it is precisely this rhetorical stance that becomes part of revolutionary black nationalism as it evolves in the late sixties and early seventies. Eldridge Cleaver put it succinctly: “The term outlaw appealed to me. ... I was an ‘outlaw.’ I had stepped outside of the white man’s law, which I repudiated with scorn and self-satisfaction, I became a law unto myself....”
As a child, Nat Lime was poor in a marginal white neighborhood, but the blacks were poorer still, their environment a perpetual reminder of the constancy of death: “the Negro houses looked to me like they had been born and died there, dead not long after the beginning of the world.” And Nat is fully aware of the edge his whiteness confers, feeling a prick of conscience that must eventually be acknowledged: “In those days though I had little myself I was old enough to know who was better off, and the whole block of colored houses made me feel bad in the daylight.” Black existence defines the complexity of human experience, providing for Nat a sense of what life is really like: “brother, if there can be like this, what can’t there be?” This assumption naively and unwittingly exhibits that inherited sense of superiority to their poverty, coupled with a fear of the excesses of that black world. But Nat is also admitting an attraction to a world pulsating with vitality, a confession, perhaps, of an absent element in his own personality, a revelation seen by one of life’s voyeurs: “Sometimes I was afraid to walk by the houses when they were dark and quiet.... I liked it better when they had parties at night and everybody had a good time. The musicians played their banjos and saxophones and the houses shook with the music and laughing.”
Violence, so integral to the black milieu he observes and an inevitable component of behavior under conditions of internal and external stress, horrifies Nat to the point of denying its necessary presence: “I was frightened by the blood and wanted to pour it back in the man who was bleeding.... I personally couldn’t stand it, I was scared of the human race.” Yet for the young Nat Lime, it is Buster Wilson’s self-containment, his ability to confront his world of blood and to remain apparently untouched by its pain, that is an ineluctable part of his fascination: “but I remember Buster watching without any expression in his eyes.”
Blackness also represents the seductiveness of open sensuality, “the young girls, with their pretty dresses and ribbons ... caught me in my throat when I saw them through the windows.” It is therefore not surprising that it is only a black woman who excites Nat, saying of Ornita Harris’ obvious sexual attractiveness and exoticism: “She was a slim woman, dark but not the most dark, about thirty years ... also well built, with a combination nice legs and a good-size bosom that I like. Her face was pretty, with big eyes and high cheek bones, but lips a little thick.... That was the night she wore a purple dress and I thought to myself, my God, what colors. Who paints that picture paints a masterpiece. Everybody looked at us but I had pleasure.” Yet the physical presence of her sexuality is described as white: “Under her purple dress she wore a black slip, and when she took that off she had white underwear. When she took off the white underwear she was black again. But I know where the next white was ...”
Given Nat Lime’s complex but ambiguous responses, it is not surprising that his efforts to establish actual relationships with blacks fail, leaving the human contract unfulfilled. His putative friendship with Buster is part envy, part guilt, an effort that barely recognizes Buster as a human being. He envies Buster’s independence, “I liked his type. Buster did everything alone.” Nat Lime’s underlying attitudes at this point, and through the entire story, resemble those which Norman Podhoretz described in his famous essay, “My Negro Problem—And Ours”:
What counted for me about Negro kids of my own age was that they were “bad boys.” There were plenty of bad boys among the whites ... but the Negroes were really bad, bad in a way that beckoned to one, and made one feel inadequate. We all went home every day for a lunch of spinach-and-potatoes; they roamed around during lunch hour, munching on candy bars.... We rarely played hookey, or got into serious trouble in school, for all our streetcorner bravado; they were defiant, forever staying out (to do what delicious things?), forever making disturbances in class and in the halls, forever being sent to the principal and returning uncowed. But most important of all, they were tough; beautifully, enviably tough, not giving a damn for anyone or anything.... To hell with the whole of the adult world that held us in its grip and that we never had the courage to rebel against....
This is what I saw and envied and feared in the Negro....
Nat is ashamed of his whiteness, the sign of his responsibility for the conditions which determine the contours of Buster’s life. But when Buster invites him into his home, Nat only wishes to escape the impoverished reality of what he sees there, “it smelled so heavy, so impossible, I died till I got out of there. What I saw in the way of furniture I won’t mention—the best was falling apart in pieces.” So Nat mitigates his guilt by giving Buster those fragments of whiteness he can afford to part with, assuming, of course, that Buster wants those emblems of conscience: “I stole an extra fifteen cents from my mother’s pocketbook and I ran back and asked Buster if he wanted to go to the movies ... which includes my invitations to go with me, my (poor mother’s) movie money, Hershey chocolate bars, watermelon slices, even my best Nick Carter and Merriwell books that I spent hours picking up in junk shops, and that he never gave me back.”
His affair with Ornita Harris, however, seems an honest attempt to accept her blackness and to love at last. Yet strain and ambivalence are always present. His initial rebellion is a pallid one, minimizing risk and courting safety. On their first date, he takes her to Greenwich Village, a bohemian environment which willingly tolerates interracialism. He will not take her home to meet his dying mother—that is too great a chance to take. They have their first sexual encounter in a rented room. Only when his mother and the tradition she embodies (“Nathan,” she said, “if you ever forget you are a Jew a goy will remind you”) is dead, can his rebellion become more overt and seek society: he sells his mother’s bed; he invites Ornita into his home; he takes her to meet carefully chosen, liberal friends; he proposes marriage.
But this time it is the black community that will not sanction such a union because it is a relationship that seems to reenact the sexual pattern of slavery: the black woman considered only as an object to be manipulated by the white man’s lust, no matter how strong are Nat’s protestations of love and affection. Significantly, it is at this juncture that the young black men, serving as the active agents of community disapproval, choose to remind Nat of his position as economic exploiter:
“You talk like a Jew landlord,” said the green hat.
“Fifty a week for a single room.”
“No charge fo’ the rats,” said the half-inch brim.
In this atmosphere, shaped by overt hostility, unspoken anger, and unconscious ambivalence, the reassuring notion that love can solve all problems seems unworkable.
Nat is incapable of understanding the continued refusals his giving impulse has met with, because he is trapped by the complicated ambiguities of his own responses. He cannot see that to be defined solely in terms of the experiences inaccessible to the white man, to be wanted only as the complement to an incomplete self, is sufficient cause for rejection. Nor is he conscious of his social and political situation in an environment that regards him as the enemy, where even a blind man senses his whiteness and spurns his help. Nat Lime is finally left in his bewilderment to confront a locked door behind which Charity Sweetness sits in splendid isolation. Indeed the world has become a series of locked doors through which love cannot enter, for “the language of the heart either is a dead language or else nobody understands the way you speak it.”
Source: Iska Alter, “The Broader Canvas: Malamud, the Blacks, and the Jews,” in The Good Man’s Dilemma: Social Criticism in the Fiction of Bernard Malamud, AMS Press, Inc., 1981, pp. 62–82.
Abramson, Edward A., Bernard Malamud Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1993, p. 90.
Alter, Iska, “The Broader Canvas: Malamud, the Blacks, and the Jews,” in The Good Man’s Dilemma: Social Criticism in the Fiction of Bernard Malamud, AMS Press, Inc., 1981, p. 68.
Alter, Robert, “Ordinary Anguish,” in the New York Times Book Review, October 16, 1983, pp. 1, 35–6.
Bellman, Samuel Irving, “Women, Children, and Idiots First: Transformation Psychology,” in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, New York University Press, 1970, pp. 19–20.
Boaz, Amy, Review of The Complete Stories, in Library Journal, July 1997, p. 129.
Field, Leslie A., and Joyce W. Field, “An Interview with Bernard Malamud,” in Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975, p. 11.
———, “Introduction—Malamud, Mercy, and Menschlechtkeit,” in Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975, p. 7.
Fuchs, Marcia G., Review of The Stories of Bernard Malamud, in Library Journal, December 1, 1983, p. 2262.
Gilman, Richard, “Malamud’s Grace: Humanism with and without Tears,” in the New Republic, Vol. 194, No. 19, May 12, 1986, pp. 40–1.
Gray, Paul, “Heroism without Sentiment,” in Time, October 17, 1983, p. 92.
Helterman, Jeffrey, “Bernard Malamud,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2: American Novelists Since World War II, edited by Jeffrey Helterman and Richard Layman, Gale Research, 1978, pp. 291–303.
Lyons, Gene, “A Chosen People,” in Newsweek, October 17, 1983, pp. 86–87.
Malamud, Bernard, “Black Is My Favorite Color,” in The Complete Stories, edited by Robert Giroux, Noonday Press, 1997, pp. 331–39.
Ochshorn, Kathleen G., “Idiots First: Shared Suffering on a Sinking Ship,” in The Heart’s Essential Landscape: Bernard Malamud’s Hero, Peter Lang, 1990, p. 124.
Richman, Sidney, Bernard Malamud, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1966, p. 134–35,138.
Solotaroff, Robert, “Bernard Malamud,” in American Writers, Supp. 1, Vol. 2, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979, pp. 427–53.
Avery, Evelyn, ed., The Magic Worlds of Bernard Malamud, SUNY Series in Modern Jewish Literature and Culture, State University of New York Press, 2001.
Evelyn Avery, an important scholar on Malamud, has collected essays on the author’s Action by various literary scholars. The book covers a wide range of subjects, from Zen Buddhism to Yiddish archetypes.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Bernard Malamud, Modern Critical Views, Chelsea House Publications, 2000.
This book is a collection of critical selections about Bernard Malamud, which includes an introductory essay by Bloom, editor’s notes on each of the individual analyses, bibliographies on Malamud, notes about each of the contributing critics, and chronologies.
Levine, Rhonda F., Class, Networks, and Identity, Rowman & Littlefleld Publishing, 2001.
This book details how a group of Jewish refugees who emigrated to America from Nazi Germany began to dominate cattle-dealing in South Central New York, while trying to maintain their Jewish identity in the predominantly Christian communities. Levine examines the unique role Jewish women played in managing this transition to the United States by helping their husbands accumulate capital within their new country and working to recreate a German Jewish Community.
Sio-Castineira, Begona, The Short Stories of Bernard Malamud: In Search of Jewish Post-Immigrant Identity, Peter Lang Publishing, 1998.
The author examines ten of the short stories found in Malamud’s 1983 collection, The Short Stories of Bernard Malamud, paying particular attention to the spiritual situation of the modern Jewish American and focusing on the complex structure of the selected tales.
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