This may be my favorite short story I’ve read out of this magazine to do date, and maybe my favorite spec fic short story I’ve ever read. This type of quality is rarely seen. Furthermore, the author of this piece didn’t just want to write a story, she truly had something to say, something to convey. Something that could open eyes.
The story picks up in Jim Crow-era USA. Black people are not allowed on the front of busses, to drink from “white” drinking fountains, unable to get food from certain restaurant, except by picking food up from the back door, or allowed to perform on the stage.
The narrator is an older black man who possesses, a strange magic as a painter. In his spare time, he paints black angels, finding the divine in the oppressed and disenfranchised. He pays his way through life, however, by painting people white.
At first, I thought this was like painting people white-face, but it’s soon revealed that he literally can change, not only the color of peoples’ skin but also their eye color and hair color–but at a terrible price. When he paints someone white the person forgets what they used to be. They lose their culture and their empathy for the people they used to be part of.
It’s revealed early on that the narrator is not the only person who has this strange magic. When a black woman who has already been painted white comes to him and asks that she be painted with another coat of whiteness, the narrator responds that his brush only works on black bodies. However, he sees this woman is desperate as she is a dancer who made the ballet, but when the other dancers saw her father, who is still black, they told her she couldn’t be in the production, so he gives her what she wants. When he gets to the last toe of her last foot she asks him to stop and just leave that one toe black. Other than that toe she is the whitest, blondest, and most blue-eyed person he has ever seen.
The production is unable to kick her out of the ballet because she has become more white than anyone else.
This is when other white people begin to visit the narrator. Italians and eastern European immigrants who are not the right kind of “white” come to him and beg for him to paint them.
I won’t give it away, but it is disturbing.
This story is about white washing. This story is about the dangers of reducing people to the color of their skin. This story is about how, when everyone is the same, nobody wins. This is about how white America forces the “other” to be the same. It’s tragic and profound.