By Kevin Comer
In these essays I strive to combine biography with details, episodes, and diatribes from the McGee canon to shine a light on the relationship between McGee and JDM. In choosing my topics, one factor I consider is relevance to our own times. I’m most inspired when we’re still wrestling with an issue JDM used McGee to take a punch at decades ago.
And, of course, I wish to entertain the readers of Travis McGee & Me with the perspicacity and sagacity of our hero and his maker.
Which makes this essay something of a risk because it casts JDM, and by extension McGee, in a possibly unsympathetic light. The topic reveals JDM as a man of his place and times trying to come to grips with change. But who isn’t?
When JDM moved to Florida, the state was part of the Jim Crow South. State and local laws—known as Jim Crow laws—established de jure racial segregation in the former Confederacy. In general, these laws mandated racial segregation of neighborhoods, public schools, public places, public transportation, restrooms, restaurants and even drinking fountains. They also banned interracial marriage.
There were federal Jim Crow policies as well. Ironically, these policies were initiated by our first progressive President, Woodrow Wilson. His administration practiced overt racial discrimination in hiring. Three years before JDM’s birth in 1916, Wilson ordered the racial segregation of the U.S. military and federal workplaces.
Jim Crow laws were slowly unraveled in the post war years. In 1948, President Harry Truman ended the policy of racial segregation in the military. The Supreme Court concluded in Brown vs Board of Education that state-mandated segregation in education was unconstitutional in 1954. The final blows were delivered by Congress under President Lyndon Johnson with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
The end of Jim Crow was accompanied by numerous race riots throughout the U.S., the worst of which was the Watts Riot in August 1965. Six days of rioting in the Los Angeles neighborhood resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage. The number of race riots peaked in what is known as the “Long Hot Summer of 1967.”
Public opinion polls revealed an approximately equal number of Americans believed the riots were linked to Communist groups as believed they were the result of social problems like unemployment and prejudice. Many felt, regardless of the root causes, the riots were a demonstration of outrageous lawlessness. In many cases, military force was used to restore order.
Meanwhile, debate raged among African Americans regarding the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. On one side, leaders such as Martin Luther King advocated integration into mainstream American life. On the other, leaders such as Malcolm X advocated establishing a separate African American society apart from that of white America.
JDM weighed in with his own views in one of the most out-of-left-field episodes in the entire McGee canon in Darker than Amber (1966). At the time, JDM was 50, successful, and enjoying an upper-middle class life in tony, segregated Sarasota.
Travis McGee is searching for clues to where murdered prostitute, Evangeline Bellemer, has hidden her cut of the money stolen from lonely middle-aged men whom she lured onto cruise ships, where they were drugged and thrown overboard by her male accomplice. Trav learns Vangie employed a African American maid, Noreen Walker, and decides to see what she might know. Noreen turns out to be a surprising character, to say the least. Although reluctant at first, Noreen agrees to a clandestine rendezvous:
As I followed her onto the porch and we sat in two comfortable chairs on either side of a small lamp table, she said, “[This is the home of] Friends of mine.” She took a cigarette from her purse, lighted it. “Very conspiratorial, I know. But we’re getting very used to that these days, Mr. McGee. Mr. Sam [Prominent African American attorney, Sam Dickey] said I could trust you. I’m one of the regional directors of CORE [Congress of Racial Equality]. I’m a University of Michigan graduate. I taught school before I got married. He died of cancer two years ago and I came back here. Working as a maid gives me more freedom of action, less chance of being under continual observation. Racially I’m what you might call a militant optimist. I believe that the people of good will of both races are going to get it all worked out…
Noreen provides vital insight into Evangeline Bellemer, including a clue to where the money may be hidden. In the course of their conversation, Travis observes of Noreen:
When she stepped out of her housemaid role she had that slightly forced elegance of the educated Negro woman, that continuing understated challenge to you to accept her on her terms or, by not doing so, betray the prejudice she expected you to have. I cannot blame them for a quality of humorlessness. They carry the dead weight of all their deprived people, and though they know intellectually that the field hand mentality is a product of environment, they have an aesthetic reserve, which they will not admit to themselves, about the demanding of racial equality for those with whom, except for the Struggle, they would not willingly associate. They say Now, knowing that only fifteen percent of Negro America is responsible enough to handle the realities of Now, and that, in the hard core South, perhaps seventy percent of the whites are willing to accept the obligations of Now. But they are on the move with nowhere to go but up, with the minority percentage of the ignorant South running into the majority percentage of ignorant Negro America, in blood, heartbreak, shame and confusion. I hoped that this penny-colored dedicated pussycat wouldn’t stick her head under the wrong billy club, or get taken too often to the back room for interrogation. If, even on the word of one of their shrewdest lawyers, Sam Dickey, she was willing to trust a white man, it meant she had a vulnerable streak of softness in her, which could guarantee martyrdom sooner or later.
My intolerance is strictly McGee-type. If there were people around colored green or bright blue, I would have a continual primitive awareness of the difference between us, way down on that watchful animal level which is a caveman heritage. But I would cherish the ones who came through as solid folk, and avoid the slobs and fools and bores as diligently as I avoid white slobs and fools and bores.
As they say goodbye, Noreen explains some facts of life to McGee:
“We housemaids have to keep in character. This is the ghetto. The laws don’t work the way they work outside. We’re the happy smiling darkies with a great natural sense of rhythm. You can’t hurt us by hitting us on the head. We’d still be nice and quiet except the Communists started getting us all fussed up.” She looked at me and I saw bitterness on her face. “In this state, my friend, a nigger convicted of killing a nigger gets an average three years. A nigger who rapes a nigger is seldom even tried, unless the girl happens to be twelve years old or less. Santa Claus and Jesus are white men, Mr. McGee, and the little girls’ dolls and the little boys’ toy soldiers have white faces. My boys are two and a half and four. What am I doing to their lives if I let them grow up here? We want out. In the end, it’s that simple. We want out, where the law is, where you prosper or you fail according to your own merits as a person. Is that so damned much? I don’t want white friends. I don’t want to socialize. You know how white people look to me? The way albinos look to you. I hope never to find myself in a white man’s bed. I don’t want to integrate. I just don’t want to feel segregated. We’re after our share of the power structure of this civilization, Mr. McGee, because, when we get it, a crime will merit the same punishment whether the victim is black or white, and hoods will get the same share of municipal services, based on zoning, not color. And a good man will be thought a credit to the human race. Sorry. End of lecture. The housemaid has spoken.”
Is Noreen declaring she prefers separate but equal as long as it is truly equal under the law? I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that JDM is eschewing a comfortable and politically correct opinion. He took another swing at the race question in The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (1968).
Stay tuned for Part 2.