Untying Confederate Strings

By Vern Fein

In a Chicago restaurant, a young black man took a job as a dishwasher. Later he would work as a ditch-digger, delivery boy, hospital worker, and postal clerk—all youthful survival steps before he found his true calling as an author.

In his writings and particularly in his most successful novel, “Native Son,” his cry of what racism can do to a black man was burned into the consciousness of American readers through the powerful and horrific story of Bigger Thomas.  Perhaps he opened his readers to the strength of Dr. King‘s Civil Rights message. And certainly his message laid bare the history that unveiled the terrible consequences of racism for so many African-Americans, including the real-life story of Emmet Till, who was tortured, pulverized, and left to rot in a Mississippi river because someone said he whistled. 

New to the North, this young dishwasher was approached by a white waitress.

“Young man, will you tie my apron?” She was heavy-set and her arms couldn’t reach around easily. She smiled nicely at him.

His hands froze.

“Hurry up, I’ve got an order waiting!”

Gingerly, his black fingers took the white strings and tied them, a looping bow, then pulled tightly, securing them in place.

“Thanks, “ she exclaimed before she whisked away.

Richard Wright later wrote: “I continued my work, filled with all the possible outcomes that tiny, simple human event could have brought to any Negro in the South where I had spent my hungry days.”


A retired teacher, Vern Fein has published over one hundred fifty poems and short pieces on over sixty sites. The non-fiction pieces have appeared in Quail Bell, The Write Place at the Write Time, Fewer Than 500, and Adelaide LIterary Magazine, plus a short story in the online magazine Duende from Goddard College.

2 thoughts on “Untying Confederate Strings”

  1. Thank you for this piece. Your telling of a simple act of help loaded with heavy – what if, is riveting. I just finished the book “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehist Coates, which is the title of a poem written by Richard Wright.

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