The Test which is five pages is probably the shortest story in The Persephone Book of Short Stories. Despite its size, it is also a short story that has a deep meaning.
The test referred to in here is Marian’s driving test. Marian, an African American is the help at Mrs. Ericson’s household. Mariam has had a license before for three years, and now she wants to renew it so she can drive Mrs. Ericson’s kids to school.
It turns out this is the second time Marian is going for the renewal test. The first time Mariam had gone to the test with her cousin and the inspector had failed her for reasons unknown to her. So this time Mrs. Ericson accompanies Marian to the test.
‘Perhaps last time your Cousin Bill made you nervous, talking too much on the way.’
‘Yes, Ma’am,’ Marian said in her soft, unaccented voice. ‘They probably do like it better if a white person shows up with you.’
‘Oh I don’t think it’s that,’ Mrs. Ericson began, and subsided after a glance at the girl’s set profile.
Although it seems like Mrs. Ericson is reluctant to admit that race had anything to do with Mariam failing the test, she suggests ‘greasing the hands’ of the inspector. Marian swiftly rejects that idea because that would only make matters worse for her.
At the test center when the genial, middle-aged inspector reaches their car instead of the stocky, self-important inspector who failed Marian the first time around, they think she is in luck. But looks can be deceptive! The ‘genial’ inspector keeps calling Marian Mandy-Lou, and soon after they take off the car for the test drive leaving Mrs. Ericson behind, he gets on with showing his true colors!
When Marian tells him she is twenty-seven-years-old, he says she is “old enough to have quite a flock of piccaninnies.” When she tells him the reason for wanting to drive the car, he responds, “Sure you don’t really want to sneak out nights to meet some young blood?” He goes on to whistle ‘Swanee River’; once the state song of Florida which has been criticized for romanticizing slavery and lyrics of which got expurgated in 2008, in an attempt to make Marian ‘homesick’! I thought his behavior up to then was deplorable, but no, it is his reaction when Marian tells him she is college educated that takes the cake!
I am not going to spoil the ending for you, although it is predictable. I must tell you, reading The Test made me feel dejected. This was written in 1940, yet, unfortunately, even today we see similar rhetorics from the white supremacists, sometimes under the guise of free speech! Sure, there have been countless victories for African Americans since 1940. Nonetheless, when I see younger generations spout racist remarks on the internet (granted, not a lot), that unnerves me. I can only hope they will come across stories like The Test that will sensitize them…