Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 710
“White Rat,” a first-person account by White Rat, a light-skinned African American man, begins in the present, then switches to the narrator’s experiences of “passing” as white, even when he does not want to, and then returns to the present.
When the story begins, Cousin Willie tells White Rat where he can find Maggie, who has run off with J. T.; and White Rat goes to get his wife. When they get home, Maggie kisses little Henry, her three-and-a-half-year-old clubfooted son, and fixes dinner. She says she is pregnant, and White Rat offers to give his last name to the child even though J. T. impregnated her, and tells her that no one has to know that the child is not his. She responds, “You know. I know.” White Rat and Maggie sleep in the same bed but do not have any physical contact.
In the next part of the story, White Rat recounts his experiences as a light-skinned African American. He explains that he got his nickname because his mother said that he looked like a white rat when he was born. When he attempts to call little Henry “White Rabbit” because of how he looked when he was born, Maggie objects, claiming that the boy might develop a “complex.” He then describes how people assume that he is white, which causes problems when he goes to black “joints.” He describes what happens as he and some of his friends are arrested and jailed for being drunk and disorderly. When they are locked up, the police, assuming that White Rat is white, put him in a cell with a white man, while the other African Americans are put in another cell. The police ignore White Rat’s protestations, but when he threatens his white cellmate, the police put him in a separate cell. When his grandmother Grandy arrives at the police station, she tells the officers that she has come for her two grandsons. When the police realize that White Rat is indeed an African American, they are reluctant to admit their mistake and tell her that he was put in a separate cell because he started a “rucus.” After she pays ten dollars for the release of the two cousins, they are freed.
White Rat’s “other big ’sperience” occurs when he and Maggie go to the courthouse to get a marriage license. The clerk, assuming White Rat is white, says, “Round here nigger don’t marry white.” After White Rat tells him that he is an African American, the clerk “just look at me like I’m a nigger too, and tell me where to sign.” After their marriage they move to Huntertown, and Maggie gives birth to Henry, who has a clubfoot. White Rat says the trouble between him and Maggie began with this birth. He blames Maggie for Henry’s problem, believing she did something wrong that caused their son to be born with a clubfoot. In the ensuing argument, White Rat blames Maggie’s side of the family for the deformity, and Maggie retaliates by attacking him for his “whiteness.” When he tells her he is leaving, she asks about Henry; he replies, “He’s your nigger.” He then goes to a “hoogie joint” (white bar), where he tells the bartender his story in altered form: He becomes a priest who renounces his vows and marries a woman who bears a clubfooted child. The priest believes he is responsible for the child’s clubfoot because he broke his priestly vows of celibacy. When a drunken White Rat returns home and finds Maggie and Henry gone, a neighbor gives him a note from Maggie, who writes that she left with J. T. because of White Rat’s drinking and took Henry only to protect him. The next day Henry returns, and White Rat figures that Maggie thinks he will have to be sober to take care of Henry and himself.
The last paragraph of the story occurs two months after Maggie left, which is when White Rat finds out where she is and brings her back home. She tells him that when the baby comes, “we see whose fault it was,” but two months after her return, White Rat has seen “no belly change.”
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