Nancy Lee Johnson was a coloured girl, a few years out of south. But her classmates may not have thought of her as coloured as she was smart, pretty and fitted in well with the life of the school. She stood high in scholarship, played a fine game of basketball, had taken part in the senior musical in soft voice, and had never seemed to intrude or stand out except in pleasant ways, so it was seldom that anyone even mentioned- her colour.

Nancy herself must have forgotten she was coloured, up to one moment…

The situation was so complex that Nancy couldn’t have known that she had won the prize! The news came in little indirections that finally added themselves up to that tremendous fact. The news might not have been told to anyone but the whole high school was filled with rumours, guesses, reportedly authentic announcements on the part of students who shouldn’t have made announcements at all – since no student can’t have known for sure who had got this year’s art scholarship.

On that lovely day Nancy’s art teacher, Mrs. Dietrich, the tall, red-haired woman who taught her to keep her brush strokes firm and her colour clean, told Nancy that her picture had won the Artist Club scholarship. The slender brown girl’s eyes widened, her heart jumped, tears came to her eyes.

She must have danced all the way home. Raindrops, smiles and tears mingled on her brown cheeks. Dreams, plans and ambitions began to dance through her head; her speech of gratitude was already prepared in her head. She went over it in her mind: ‘’ Judges, and members of the Artist club. I want to thank you for this award that means so much to me and through me to my people, who are sometimes discouraged and bewildered, thinking that colour and poverty are against them. I accept this award with gratitude and pride and faith in American opportunities and fairness-and the bright stars in our flag.’’

On Monday morning Miss O’Shay, the vice-principal called her in her office.

‘’Nancy’’, she said, ‘’I don’t know how to tell you what I have to say. I am indignant and ashamed for myself and for this city. You are not going to receive the scholarship this morning.’’

To the brown girl there in the chair, the room grew suddenly smaller, smaller and there was no air. She couldn’t speak.

Miss O’Shay said, ‘’When the Committee learned that you were coloured, they changed their plans.’’

‘’But my speech,’’ Nancy Lee said, ‘’was about…’’ The words stuck in her throat. ‘’…about America…’’

Taken and adapted from Short Stories by James Langston Hughes


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