Steve and Max, white men in Mississippi, are improbably walking and talking together toward Little Lee Roy’s house as Steve tells Max of the not-too distant days when he (Steve) was a circus caller and Little Lee Roy a clubfooted black man who’d be dressed up as an Indian girl called Keela, made to eat live chickens, growl and act as beastly and freakishly as possible for circus-goers’ enjoyment. The freak show is an old, deplorable American tradition that long predates Trump rallies and NRA conventions.) Max is a saloon-keeper. It’s not clear what Steve is doing, if anything. Little Le Roy is on his porch, surrounded by chickens, when the two men appear and continue conversing as if he weren’t there except for a couple of asides by Max. Steve still calls Little Lee Roy “it.” And who calls him Little Lee Roy, itself an abusive, demeaning term for a grown man and father of an unknown number of children? We don’t need to be told: in Welty, white society’s presumptions don’t have to be explained.
Steve speaks as if he were regretful of his days as the caller outside “Keela”‘s tent, though “I reckon I seen it a thousand times,” he says of the freak show: more than enough times to known that he loved it, and even now, to retell with a touch of relish every detail of the atrocity Lee Roy, once kidnapped into slavery at the circus, was made to endure: Welty devotes a full page to the recounting, which–anachronism aside–reads, at least in its raw, pornographic expository nature, almost like reports from Sabra and Shatila after the massacre, but limited to one man: the revelry of atrocity at the expense of human lives is the same. Yet Steve is trying to atone: “It’s all me, see,” said Steve. “I know that I was the cause for it goin’ on an’ on an’ not bein’ found out–such an awful thing. It was me, what I said out front through the megaphone.” Or through Monday morning’s quarterbacking: his guilt is hollow, as is his claim that “none of us knowed it could talk.” None of them asked, none of them had a conversation with him, none of them is willing to have a conversation with him even now. A physician uncovers the truth, saves Lee Roy, and has the real circus freaks, the only circus freaks–its managers–arrested. Steve and Max talk about responsibility: “You wouldn’t of knowed it either!” Max has already staked out his role. He listens to his jukebox. He doesn’t listen to anything else. He’s the complicitly dis-informed Southerner, wearing his ignorance like a shield to a reality he’d rather not confront, let alone contend with. It was the South of Welty’s surroundings.
I came across this undated, un-authored but worthy analysis from someone at Owensboro College:
The circumstances in ‘Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden’ strain credibility, and the device of having a conscience-tormented young man force his story upon a cynical tavern-operator while the object of the tale looks on does not seem very plausible. Yet the basic story was true; Welty heard it from a man who was building a booth at a county fair during her WPA travels. As she told an interviewer in 1942, `I guess if you read it you must have known that it was true and not made up – it was too horrible to make up’. ‘Keela’ was her attempt to explore `how people could put up with such a thing and how they would react to it’ (CNVRS, pp. 5, 157). At the same time she was very subtly commenting upon the symbolic place of women and racial minorities in Southern life.
Welty returned to the story years later in December 1964 when she delivered a large public lecture at Millsaps as part of her contract with the college. The previous summer had seen the murders of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the firebombing of forty black churches, and the white Citizens’ Councils’ intimidation of whites known to have “moderate” sensibilities, intimidation that had not ceased. In her lecture, entitled “The Southern Writer Today: An Interior Affair,” Welty delivered comments that she would later publish as “Must the Novelist Crusade:” Here, she rejected an ostensible political purpose for fiction, arguing that “there is absolutely everything in great fiction but a clear answer,” that fiction is concerned more with the complexities of human experience than with proposing solutions to human difficulties. But she also asserted, “What matters is that a writer is committed to his own moral principles. If he is, when we read him we cannot help but be aware of what these are. Certainly the characters of his novel and the plot they move in are their ultimate reflections. But these convictions are implicit; they are deep down; they are the rock on which the whole structure of more than the novel rests.” The great novel, she argued, is grounded on the bedrock of principle, the very principle for which the crusader speaks. What a lesser novelist’s harangues would have buried by now, the great novelist”s imagination still reveals, and revelation of even the strongest forces is delicate work. Welty followed this address with a reading of “Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden,” which, appropriately, examines the complexities of human relationships. The story, written in 1938, describes a crippled black man who was once kidnapped into carnival work as a geek called Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden, and who, notwithstanding the horror of his past, feels nostalgic about the carnival experience in which he was noticed as now within his own family he is not. The story further deals with the guilt felt by Steve, the carnival barker, and with his inability, nevertheless, to overcome the separation of race, and finally, the story depicts a bystander’s courting of detachment from the horror and guilt Keela represents.
Steve punches Max for being doubted, insulting his sexuality and his intelligence–“I could tell a man from a woman and an Indian from a nigger though–and Max doesn’t take it badly: he offers Lee Roy some alms and Steve him free food back at his joint. Lee Roy tells his children of the encounter, but they tell him to hush. It’s open to interpretation: they may not want to hear about their father’s humiliating days again. They may not be listening to their father any more than those two men were. He is marginal, even in his own house.
In the August 16, 2019 New Yorker, Ian Frazier writes: “About a forty-minute walk away is the Bronx Zoo. In 1912, it was called the New York Zoological Park, and it was run by a patrician named Madison Grant from an old New York family. Though he and Du Bois lived and worked within a few miles of each other for decades, I don’t know if the two ever met. As much as anyone on the planet, Grant was Du Bois’s natural enemy. Grant favored a certain type of white man over all other kinds of humans, on a graded scale of disapproval, and he reserved his vilest ill wishes and contempt for blacks.
As Du Bois would have remembered, in 1906 the zoo put an African man named Ota Benga on display in the primate cages. Ota Benga belonged to a tribe of Pygmies whom the Belgians had slaughtered in the Congo. A traveller had brought him to New York and to the zoo, where huge crowds came to stare and jeer. A group of black Baptist ministers went to the mayor and demanded that the travesty be stopped. The mayor’s office referred them to Grant, who put them off. He later said that it was important for the zoo not to give even the appearance of having yielded to the ministers’ demand. Eventually, Ota Benga was moved to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, in Brooklyn, and he ended up in Virginia, where he shot himself.”
New Directions in Prose and Poetry, 1940