Eudora Welty: "Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden." (11/16/2001)
The circus life of a sideshow freak hardly seems like an appropriate subject for an American short story in the middle of the 20th Century, especially considering the fact that "Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden" was written by a gentile southern woman who spent most of her life living in the same house, even the one her parents owned and lived in before her, in Jackson, Mississippi. How she developed the iron-will to write the kind of stories she did over her long career as one of America's greatest literary practitioners is a question whose answer truly escapes my comprehension. Perhaps the harsh backward driving heat of southern Mississippi summers whose sun seems to go on forever, its dark Delta haze of white-washed anti-intellectual bigotry, is enough in itself to harden anyone to the realization that weak-willed thinking cannot hope to endure against the obstacles that still stand in the way of any child's desire, white or black, to rise above the insularity of mother and father inspired prejudice. Welty certainly managed but the fact that a fellow Mississippian, Trent Lott, has risen to the heights of Republican power in the US Senate does not speak nearly as well as that for the future of the struggle in the rest of the country to achieve anything like racial and class equality. Lott does not impress me as the kind of man who would be able to read and learn from the literary legacy of any woman, especially from one as gifted as Eudora Welty. She would only threaten and frighten him.
In "Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden," Welty exposes a technique of naming and disguise that has always been effective in the mischaracterizations bigots use to imprison the weakest members of our social hierarchy on the lowest levels of political and economic achievement anyone can think or imagine. Welty's title character in the story, Keela, never manages to escape from the diminutive appellation, "Little Lee Roy," which is his actual name, since it is impossible for someone of his kind to achieve the status of being a real person in the context of his social environment in the South. Nicknames always take precedence over actual surnames in that region of the country so it would be indecorous for Welty to give him more of a name than that. To do so would lift him out of the status he deserves according to the hierarchical structures of southern bigotry. Little Lee Roy's status is determined by the fact that he is black, on the one hand, and crippled (apparently club-footed), and very small, even childlike, on the other. Being an African-American dwarf, who cannot walk without the aid of crutches, in rural Mississippi (Cane Springs), necessarily locks him into a name and a title meant to sustain the impression that such a person can never be anything except very, very small and totally insignificant.
Little Lee Roy became Keela when he was kidnapped, even as a child, when the owner of a traveling circus passing along the road by his house saw him sitting on a fence and decided to add him, even against his will, of course, to the menagerie of "freaks" he kept and maintained for his sideshow of human oddities. His history as Keela is revealed by Welty when two white men approach Little Lee Roy's house near Cane Springs, after his liberation from the sideshow, engaged in a discussion of the Outcast Indian Maiden. Steve, who does most of the talking, was the front man for the sideshow during part of the time that Keela performed for the circus and is trying to explain to his companion, Max, who owns a tavern in the town, how and why he was unable to recognize the fact that Keela was not an Indian Maiden at all but was actually a kidnapped black man stolen as a child from rural Mississippi and forced to perform as a savage Indian who ate raw chickens after killing them by biting off their heads. Steve says, for instance, that, after the intervention of a person left mostly undescribed by Welty, the owners of the circus were arrested by a local sheriff and forced to remove the disguise that made Little Lee Roy appear to be an Indian when they
"Washed its face, and it was paint all over it made it look red. It all come off. And it could talk-as good as me or you. But they'd tole it not to, so it never did. They'd tole it if anybody was to come near it they was comin' to git it-and for it to hit 'em quick with that iron bar an' growl. So nobody ever come near it." (The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, Harcourt, 1980, 42)
Steve later claims, in a final attempt to justify his own inaction, that Max would have been fooled by the disguise as well. Steve says, "You'd of let it go on an' on when they made it do those things-just like I did" (44). Max responds by saying that "Bet I could tell a man from a woman and an Indian from a nigger though" (44). All the while, and when he says this, Max is sitting on the steps of Little Lee Roy's house who is a witness to the entire exchange and never says a word to anyone. Steve has come from afar to find Little Lee Roy and Max, who apparently knows the story of the black man's life in the circus, has brought him out to see the former Indian Maiden. Steve was going to give the black man some money, as expiation for his guilt apparently, but has gotten to the house without a penny to his name. Max gives Little Lee Roy some money and the two white men return to Cane Springs. Welty ends the story with Little Lee Roy beginning to tell his sons and daughters the events of the day but they have already heard everything they want to know about the circus and tell him to hush.
Welty shows us in this story how easy it is to conceal the true nature of virtually anyone or anything under the thin disguise of a coat of "paint" and the use of a name to identify the person or object that is being hidden. Calling Little Lee Roy "maiden" transforms him in the light of anyone's external gaze from male, which he surely is, to female, which he clearly is not. Use of the word "Indian," coupled with a veneer of paint to conceal the true "color" of his skin, turns him from African American to native American. Welty employs this same technique in her fairy tale novel The Robber Bridegroom. In that story a notorious highwayman, Jamie Lockhart, who haunts the Natchez Trace, robbing anyone he can catch, wears a disguise which consists solely of a thin veneer of berry juice rubbed on the exposed parts of his skin. He does absolutely nothing else to conceal his identity. Without the berry juice, Lockhart can walk the streets of any town without fear of being recognized by any other person, even by the very people he has robbed along the Trace. The point Welty makes in both stories is an obvious one: any person's identity, any person's true nature, can be and is concealed, even perfectly hidden, under the thinnest veneer of the color of their skin. Little Lee Roy becomes the "Indian Maiden" by simply concealing his blackness under a coating of red paint. Jamie Lockhart, who is considered to be an acceptable member of society without his disguise, can simply add a coating of berry juice to become the most notorious highwayman in southern American history.
That Welty uses these stories, and this technique, to condemn racial bigotry cannot be more obvious. When she walks Little Lee Roy rung-by-rung down the ladder of social hierarchy, making him first worthless in the eyes of white men because he is a crippled, dwarfish black man, but turns him into a ruthless, savage, chicken-killing, blood-sucking native American, by adding only a coat of red paint to his skin, and then has his handlers in the circus label him the "Outcast Indian Maiden," reducing him further to the level of a woman who does not even have status in the native community itself, being labeled an "outcast," to which she belongs, she exposes both the nature of the disease of white America's racism, that it is based wholly on outward appearance and name-calling, and recapitulates the structure of the hierarchy that sustains it, where black is low but not as low as red, and where black man is insignificant but not nearly as worthless as red woman.
Welty's true gift, like any other great writer, lies in the fact that she never says any of this. In The Robber Bridegroom, for instance, and wholly in the context of the folklore tradition that underlies it, the disguise Jamie Lockhart "wears" to conceal his identity has no racial overtones at all, but is merely a device consistent with the tradition that dictates the terms of the marriage between the robber and his bride; that is, as long as she does not know his true identity they will remain together. If she uncovers his identity, however, they will suffer total estrangement from each other. When reading her tale, the disguise, and whether or not it can reasonably function to conceal his identity, becomes incidental to the fact that it does work under the demand of the suspension of disbelief. Welty uses that aspect of the genre, of the folk-tale tradition itself, by making the efficacy of the disguise seem ludicrous (a single coat of berry juice cannot really conceal a person's features from his wife), to call forth the more serious intent of her story: that racial profiling, as we tend to call it now, is based only on the thinnest veneer of outward appearance, and the value-laden names which are attached to it, and have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual nature of the person or group that veneer covers.
The role played by native Americans in The Robber Bridegroom is symbolically finished, accomplished with simplistic and direct ease, and indicative of Welty's recognition that the tribal people of the Americas have been, and are, the first, and most egregiously wronged, people of the hemisphere. Welty tells the story of European and native relations in the Americas as a subtext in her novel and does so with characteristic restraint, compelling simplicity, and a direct condemnation of white European attitudes toward natives when a member of Jamie Lockhart's band of thieves, named Little Harp, attempts to seize Rosamond, Lockhart's bride and the story's heroine, as his own. The other members of the band kidnap an Indian girl and give her to Little Harp in place of the bandit leader's true wife. Little Harp abuses and poisons the Indian maiden, cuts off her little finger, rapes and murders her. Welty does not present a white response to this brutality through the characters in the story who witness it, except to have them say to Little Harp "You have killed her now" (132). At that moment Jamie Lockhart returns, sees the dead woman and is told by Little Harp that it is Rosamond he has murdered. Lockhart attacks him and expels him from the house. He then discovers it is not Rosamond who has been murdered and "could not speak at all, but fell upon his bed" (133). From this point on, the narrative turns to Rosamond's discovery of her lover's true identity, while the Indian maiden is left where she fell and is not mentioned again until the Indians discover her body in the house and "set fire" to it in order to "destroy the body . . . that had been contaminated" (148).
The Indians then begin a process of revenge by systematically rounding up the white people who might have been responsible for her death in order to try them before their court. An unforeseen force, as it were, in the person of a marginally human creature named Goat, escapes the Indian net and begins to set the white captives free one by one in exchange for the promise of a future reward. Jamie Lockhart and Little Harp fight to the death after Goat releases them and Lockhart escapes after he kills his adversary. Rosamond is freed when she promises to become Goat's wife. The Indians are disappointed when they discover that the only captive who remains is Rosamond's evil stepmother, Salome. She insists that the Indians try her in place of the others because she refuses to be second in significance to anyone. Before the Indians can say anything to her, however, she gives "them a terrible, long harangue that made them put their fingers in their ears" (160). The Chief of the tribe demands that she be silent but instead she repeats over again what she has already said. They tell her that the sun itself demands her silence so she insults the sun: "She would throw mud on the face of the sun," as Welty has them put it (161). Salome claims she can command the sun to stand still in the sky and the Indians decide she must dance until the sun obeys her order. If she stops dancing before the sun ceases to move, however, the Indians will kill her. As she dances, the Chief tells her that "One like you cannot force him, for his home is above the clouds, in a tranquil place. He is the source of our tribe and of every thing, and therefore he does not and will not stand still, but continues forever" (163). Salome dances until she can dance no more and "There she stood, blue as a thistle, and over she fell, stone dead" (163). The Indians ask who "owns" the body of the dead woman and Clement, Rosamond's father, who is still held captive claims her body. The Indians feel great pity for Clement and allow him to leave with Salome's remains.
While Clement is still bound up in his captivity, he witnesses the exchanges between Salome and the Indians. Welty says that "Clement . . . saw the sad faces of the Indians, like the faces of feverish children, and said to himself, 'The savages have only come the sooner to their end; we will come to ours too. Why have I built my house, and added to it? The planter will go after the hunter, and the merchant after the planter, all having their day'" (161). This perception of reality, if it reflects Welty's view at all, stands in sharp enough contrast to the native American view, that the sun and everything it engenders will go on forever, to allow for a distinction to be drawn between a cyclical process that continually replaces one thing with another, much like Heraclitus's view of a radical contingency in the natural world, and the one expressed by the Indians that everything will always continue as it is. Given a choice between one view and the other, as to which one might be the more accurate description of reality, I am naturally inclined to follow the native view over the one expressed by Clement. The fact that Welty even sees a meaningful distinction in this context raises her above the common ground of most American fiction writers in this or any other Century. What truly sets her apart can be seen in the way she separates native and European practices. Salome's greed and arrogance, epitomized by her statement that "No one is to have power over me! . . . . No man, and none of the elements! I am by myself in the world" (161), is the driving force behind Clement's achievement, the creation and expansion of his house at the expense of every other aspect of nature, and her connection to Biblical texts points to the origin of her attitude toward the world. That the Indians drum her to death in the dance, even while they themselves seem to be perishing, suggests that natural forces, like the ones that brought native Americans into existence in the first place, will eventually engender their return out of the waste that Europeans bring to any land they invade and inhabit. The sun truly does continue to move forever in its course and only those people and those cultures that follow along after its cyclical rhythms, while others may supplant them here and there and momentarily, are the only ones who have any hope of lasting out the impulses of greed and destruction brought down on the world by those others who persistently ignore its presence in the sky in the mistaken belief they are above and beyond the influence of its reach. Like Salome, native America will also dance them to their death.
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