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A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND
THE ARTIFICIAL NIGGER
PLOT SUMMARY (Synopsis)
Mr. Head wakes up at two a.m. and notes the fall of moonlight and the sleeping form of his grandson on the floor--Nelson, with his new suit and hat in boxes next to him. It occurs to Mr. Head that the room, his own pants slung over a chair, are rather noble, and he is sure in his assumption that old teach the young, that experience is useful and communicable. He and the boy have to be at the train junction at five thirty, so he will wake and cook breakfast before Nelson wakes, though Nelson always like to get up first and have a jump on Mr. Head.
It will be the boy's first trip to the city, though he argues it's his second because he was born there. Mr. Nelson wants to show him that the city is not a great place, so the boy would stay home after seeing it. But the boy, who had an impudent answer to everything, pointed out that the old man hadn't been there in fifteen years-- what did he know? Mr. Head tells him he's not as smart as he thinks, and he'll find that out someday soon.
Mr. Head wakes to the smell of breakfast cooking, and Nelson has it all almost ready and is dressed. His hat is too big. Mr. head is a young looking old man, while Nelson is an old-looking kid--they are related all right. Mr. Head doesn't' really know where Nelson was born--he made up the part about the city, but can't take it back. Nelson's mother died without saying, after just showing up with him one day. Mr. Head points out that the city of full of niggers and Nelson won't even know one when he sees one. Nelson reminds Mr. Head that he wasn't up very early, was he? And he'll know a nigger when he sees one, probably already did, when he was six month old.
They reach the junction, with their lunch, plenty early, but Mr. Head is worried the train won't stop (he had to make special arrangements) and then he'll look like a fool. But it stops right in front of them, they get on, and Mr. Head talks so loud that most of the people trying to sleep wake up and scowl at him. The boy tells him it's no use yelling about everything. He tells Nelson not to lose his ticket or he'll have to stay in the city and Nelson says maybe he'll want to anyway. Mr. Head tells a man nearby that the boy is ignorant, hasn't been to no city before--got to show kids everything.
A large Negro man followed by two Negro women. They are stately and elegant. Mr. Head asks Nelson what kind of man that is, and Nelson comes up with many answers, but not the right one! Mr. Head is glad to tell him that those were niggers, and Nelson about jumps out of his seat but they are already gone. He's disappointed: Mr. Head told him they were black, but those people were just a little tan, not nothing special. Mr. Head tells him he is just ignorant and Nelson hates the Negroes for making him look stupid.
They go for a walk in the train, see it all, even the dining car, where the three people they just saw are eating behind a curtain. Mr. Head tries to take Nelson to the kitchen, but the Negro waiter tells them they can't go there and Mr. Head says very loudly that that's 'cause there must be lots of cockroaches back there, and people laugh, and Nelson is proud of his grandpa for his quick wit. He realizes that he is dependent on his grandpa and wants to hold onto his coat.
They go back to their seats and when they get near the city Nelson wants to get off right away, but Mr. Head tells him that this is just a suburban stop--again, Nelson realizes he'd be in trouble if it weren't for his grandpa. Mr. Head just knows he made this same mistake the only other time he came to the city, and he walked for miles and miles. When the train did get to the city stop, they both jumped up and forgot their lunch n the seat.
They move out into the squall of traffic, and Nelson wants to know how they are going to see everything. Mr. Head doesn't answer him, but directs him up and down streets, where they look in windows. The most special is the one where a Negro will polish your shoes. Mr. Head won't go into any, because on his first trip he got lost in a big store and people made fun of him. They weigh themselves on a scale that dispenses fortunes. The weight is wrong and Nelson's says to beware of dark women.
Mr. Head wants to walk only where he can keep the dome of the train station in sight, so he doesn't' get lost like before. Nelson says proudly, I was born here! and Mr. Nelson makes him look in the sewer and tells him people get sucked in there and are never seen again. Nelson is shaken, but after a few minutes exclaims again, This is where I come from! Then he notes that they are only going in circles--he sees the same shops--so Mr. Head turns down a street and sees a beckoning woman, is almost hit by a bicycle, and then Nelson points out that there are only Negroes around. Mr. Head says there is more to see that them, but they keep walking and there keep being Negroes staring at them. Nelson accuses him of losing his way. Mr. Head tells him that if he is so smart, he can ask one of these people how to get back to the downtown. They discover they have no lunch, and accuse each other of leaving it on the train. There is nowhere to sit, and they are very hot. Nelson asks a big woman how to get town. She tells him he's in town now. The train? She tells him to take a car at the next corner. He is fascinated with her look and smell, and wishes she would hold him to her breast. Mr. Head pulls him away and tells him the woman was making fun of him and he cannot act like that in the city, talk to those people. Nelson remembers his fortune, about dark women, and feels dependent on Mr. Head again.
They find some tracks and start following them, but Mr. Head won't take a streetcar and Nelson suspects that he doesn't even know if they are going in the right direction. They start seeing people again, and Nelson sits down on the sidewalk and leans against a building and says he is resting himself, no matter what Mr. Head does. He says he never wanted to come here--it was all Mr. Head's idea--and Mr. Head obviously doesn't even know what he's doing. Nelson starts to cry a little. He's hot, and falls asleep.
Mr. Head decides it's time to teach Nelson a lesson. He dips into an alley and waits for Nelson to wake up and find himself alone. Nelson sleeps and sleeps, and so Mr. Head finally bangs on a can to wake him up. Nelson is so shocked he jumps up, looks around, and takes off in a panic. Mr. Head goes after him, loses him, and then finds him in a heap on the sidewalk with a bunch of women, one who is also on the sidewalk with her groceries spilt all over and threatening to sue for a broken ankle. They are calling for the police, and Mr. head has never had any dealings with police before. Mr. Head approaches slowly, and when Nelson runs to him and puts his arms around him, Mr. Head says he doesn't even know this boy and keeps on walking. The women are disgusted, and Nelson is dumb struck. After standing in shock for a minute, he follows his grandpa, but he is mad and won't get too close.
Mr. Head is ashamed of himself, and devastated. The boy was not forgiving by nature, and Mr. Head knows that his crime will be seen as very grievous by Nelson. He suggests they get a coke, but Nelson doesn't reply. Then they eventually pass a water spigot, but when Mr. Head suggests that Nelson get himself some water, Nelson only stares at him like a very old man, his hate boring holes right through Mr. Head. As they walk on, Mr. head knows his crime is like a last judgment, plain horrible.
It's getting late, and they have to get their train home at six. They get into a fancy suburb, and when they see a fat man walking a dog Mr. Head just breaks down and pleads with the man to help him-- they are going to miss their train, they are lost, oh Gawd! The man tells him that the suburban train is only three blocks away--they'll have to get the train there, since they'll miss it downtown. Nelson still won't move near his grandpa--home is nothing to him.
They come up to a house with a statue in the yard, a Negro holding a piece of watermelon. The two of them stand there--young and old, same posture--and stare. Mr. Head says, Well look at that, an artificial nigger! Nelson says the same, in awe. The Negro statue looks miserable, tilted, unkempt, the paint chipped. Mr. Head wants to say something wise, and exclaims that he guesses they haven't got enough of the real ones around, they must need artificial niggers too in the city. They are in agreement--a great mystery in front of them--and Mr. Head feels the mercy of the moment, Nelson returned to him by this little moment of dual amazement.
Nelson says they best get going home before they get lost again, and Mr. Head moves with him down the street to the train station. The train even stops as arranged at the junction to let them off--if it hadn't they would've jumped--and slips off into the trees and the dark silently. Mr. Head realizes the enormity of his sin, and of the mercy granted to him. He now knows what original sin is, the depths of depravity possible in himself at denying Nelson, and knows that the enormity of God's love, in mercy, has prepared him for paradise right now.
Nelson swatches the train disappear. He says he's glad he went once to the city, but never again!