Beggar My Neighbor

by Dan Jacobson

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424

Michael, a white South African boy, is accosted by two black, raggedly dressed, almost emaciated children on his way home from school. Like so many impoverished black children, they are hungry and ask Michael for a piece of bread. At first he rejects them, but touched by their abject posture, he offers to give them bread and jam if they follow him home.

Dora, the black cook at Michael’s home, grudgingly prepares the food, and Michael, experiencing the first flush of a power he has not hitherto known, gives them the bread and patronizingly demands a thank-you from the cowed “piccanins.” The children begin to appear regularly, and the sense of his own generosity gradually helps to inflate Michael’s ego and recently acquired power. He wishes, for example, that the children would be even more obsequious toward him. Michael, an only child, is lonely, and, compelled to rely on his own resources, he is much given to fantasizing. Michael’s ambivalent feelings toward the black children—a sort of love-hate nexus—appear largely in his fantasies and the climactic dream sequence.

Yielding to a whim one day, Michael shows the children a particularly beautiful pen and pencil set, and the piccanins plead for it. Shocked by their desire for something other than food, Michael indignantly refuses and they leave, much to the delight of Dora.

Meanwhile, Michael’s sense of his own importance and power increases, and his fantasies change rather noticeably: He begins to treat the children as if they were slaves, and in the real world he enacts these fantasies by deliberately keeping them waiting for bread and inflicting other acts of petty cruelty on them. Inevitably, Michael’s scorn, which has been only partially submerged, surfaces and gives way to anger, and he summarily orders them never to return. The piccanins, however, are persistent, and time and again they return to haunt Michael, as if embodying his own imperfectly understood guilt.

Shortly after dismissing them, Michael is struck down by a fever, and in his delirium he sees himself brutally attacking the boy and sexually assaulting his frail sister. The delirium deceives Michael into thinking that he is awake, the fever broken, and he is leading the abused and rejected children into his room. Here Michael yields to the impulse of love, which has also surfaced in delirium, and he kisses and caresses the piccanins. They, however, have vanished into the dark world beyond the white, comfortable suburbs, and all of Michael’s efforts to find them are futile.

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