Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden, 38
The idea for this story was sparked by events suring her work for the WPA in the summer of 1936. During her travels for the agency, she heard "about a little Negro man in a carnival who was made to eat live chickens " and she came to understand more deeply the grotesque nature of racism. The little man who had been so cruelly treated became the title character of "Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden. In "Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden," the destructive power of racism as it affects both blacks and whites is portrayed in an equally, unflinching manner. The story describes a crippled black man who was once kidnapped into carnival work as a geek called Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden, and further deals with a carnival barker named Steve, who recognizes that by acquiescing to this evil, he has become part of it. In these and her other early stories, Welty created a fictional world that denied readers any comforting formulas and instead offered visions of human vulnerability and cosmic mystery. Though she had not reached her thirtieth birthday, she had established herself as a powerful writer, and writing about life's terrors, transforming them into works of art, was paradoxically a source of contentment, even joy.
One of the few public entertainments in the rural South was the travelling circus, generally a shabby affair offering human spectacles as well as a rather flea-bitten array of exotic animals to naive audiences. The perennial favorites of poor Southern townsfolk and farmers were not the standard acrobats or jugglers or trapeze artists or lion tamers, but human grotesques such as The Fat Lady, The Two-headed Baby, The Hermaphrodite, The World's Smallest Man and The Geek. The Geek was one of the more active and troubling spectacles among these freaks, for he represented a human being who had sunk into bestiality expressed by growling, gibbering, and eating small animals like chickens and rats alive.
In `Keela," Welty characterizes the Geek as a scapegoat or `Other' upon whom the dominant group - the `civilized' citizens - can project its own fears about loss of control and human identity. She has made a complex statement about how the process works, by identifying this scapegoat with marginal ethnic groups - blacks and red Indians - and with the feminine. The Geek in the story was supposed to have been an ostracized Indian girl, and thus it appeared in its cage in a filthy red dress. In a society that supposedly idolized the `lady' as the American South professed to do, such treatment of a young woman is strange indeed. The purpose of the story is to reveal the true identity of the `Indian maiden' as that of a diminutive crippled black man who watches with glee as one white man insists on telling another white man how the imposture was exposed and the little black man was freed to return to his family. That a black male could have been kidnapped and humiliated in such a way reveals much about power relations in Southern society at the time. Even when a former circus employee seeks to find Little Lee Roy and atone in some way for the injustice done to him, the white man never addresses a word to the black man but instead tells the story to another white man. Thus the victim never is allowed to voice his own consciousness or to explain how the experience felt to him. He is denied subjectivity in a world controlled by white men. The final irony of the story is that after the white men have left, Little Lee Roy's children refuse to listen to his recital of their visit.
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.
Complex though it is, however, "Keela" makes an inescapable political and moral statement-the dehumanizing nature of racism is infinitely more grotesque than a carnival sideshow. Certainly, Steve recognizes that by acquiescing to this evil, he has become part of it: "'It's all me, see,' said Steve. `I know that. I was the one 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.'" On the other hand, his acquaintance Max, the owner of Max's Place, represses any guilt that might be his. "'Bud,' said Max, disengaging himself, `I don't hear anything. I got a juke box, see, so I don't have to listen."' Max, in his disengaged state, might be speaking for many white Mississippians in I964-they did not want to recognize their own complicity with evil, they did not want to accept the guilt they shared with Steve. But in reading this 1940 story to her 1964 audience, Welty called attention to that guilt. She did not ask that her audience become political activists, but she did ask, implicitly, that they refuse to be part of racist activities, that they recognize the humanity and complexity of all individuals. Within three months Millsaps College would announce that African American students were welcome to enroll." In 1965 five students would become the first African Americans to do so.