Blackout is a short story by Roger Mais (1905-1955), a Caribbean brown writer.
The story is set on a West Indian island city during the Second World War, and describes an encounter between a black West Indian man and an American girl. It was the era of segregation with separate schools, buses, restaurants for blacks and whites.
Right from the title onwards, the term “black” emphasizes the racist tension in a society where colour prejudice is widespread. The street lights being off points to a relative lack of safety but “the atmosphere of exclusive respectability” conveys that the girl is in a relatively safe zone where suburban householders live. She is confident and feels that if there is trouble, “one good scream” can bring a number of people to her rescue.
The first inkling of black-white tension is given when Mais states that the slinking black shadow materializing out of the darkness did not initially disconcert her. When it grows into a conventionally dressed black young man, she is “intrigued”. What further ruffles her smugness is his asking for a match as he has observed her smoking. As she doesn’t have a matchbox, she lets him use her cigarette to light his. The racial divide seen in juxtaposition with her hesitating offer to allow the use of a lighted cigarette (in use) to light the black man’s stub, actually generates a tension of its own. The vividness of this description is striking against the backdrop of “partial blackout”. There is also a contrast between the race, gender, class divide which separates the two, and the relatively intimate gesture of allowing someone to light a cigarette from that which one is using. The tension assumes a dimension of gender – man versus woman. The black man’s steady gaze affects her momentarily. It breaks her resistance. She allows him to light his half a cigarette from hers. Apart from this, the potential negative energy of a tiny spark (of fire) keeps coming to mind in this delicate situation with dangerous possibilities.
It is then that an unthinking act on her part leads to a dramatic move in the story. Instead of returning her cigarette to her lips, she casually throws it away and the black man sees this happen. He looks at her “with cold speculation”. As it turns out he was interested in the cigarette she had thrown away. But his gaze does unnerve her. So we can see the race and gender issues at work. The American girl doesn’t like his insolence and he apologises for making her waste a whole cigarette. In spite of her cold and rather indifferent and unprovocative behavior, the American girl still manages to evoke a confrontational response in the black young man. They get into an unpleasant exchange and the language the man uses is one of understated threat.
When the man says “This isn’t America” we need to know that the West Indies were a British Colony. Politics enters the language of gender—”In this country there are only men and women, you’ll learn about it”. He seems to be talking about issues of equality as well as of democracy which were a major concern among blacks in those times. (”Is he talking in the universal context of mankind we ask ourselves”). This is the language of the mob although the young man denies any indecent intentions. Meanwhile, the bus arrives and the American young woman leaves.
The black young man, strong, aloof and proud to have shaken her supreme confidence, picks up the discarded cigarette she had thrown away. The class divide has also manifested itself in the swift, hungry movement of grabbing the leftover. The beauty of the story lies in the intensity of interest that is sustained throughout this socially and politically relevant piece as it touches livewire issues of race, gender and class.