“Impeng Negro” is the title of a short story written by Rogelio R. Sikat and published in the Liwayway magazine in 1962. Considered today as a classic short story, “Impeng Negro” won as Liwayway’s best short story for 1962.
“Ang pagsulat ay pagtuklas. Lakad ka na. Writing is about discovering. Get on with your journey.”
This was from Rogelio Sikat’s letter to his student, Benjamin Pimentel, at the University of the Philippines. It was a three-page handwritten letter dated September 27, 1982.
Just as writing is about discovering, so is reading. What have readers been discovering about Rogelio Sikat’s short story “Impeng Negro” since its publication in 1962?
Why has it outlived its author who died in 1997? What do 21st century readers, many of them young digital natives, discover about themselves as they enter the world of “Impeng Negro?”
Impen was tall, dark, and ugly. He was half-Filipino, half-African American. He was 15 going 16, lean and strong, poor and marginalized even among his own socio-economic class – the marginalized urban poor.
There was a hierarchy even among the dregs of society.
Impen was in the lowest rung of the socio-economic order because he was black among Filipinos who valued fair skin and the looks of their Spanish and American colonizers. Besides, there was no father figure in his family and his mother had had several children fathered by several sperm donors unknown to the community.
Worst, his mother didn’t have an extended family, didn’t have a circle of friends, didn’t belong to an NGO, and didn’t have an inheritance or an education. She supported her five children by working as a laundrywoman.
During the 1960s in the Philippines, a laundrywoman didn’t work in a laundromat with a regular monthly salary. She washed clothes for other people manually and was paid below the minimum wage.
Being the oldest among five kids, Impen helped bring food to the table by working as an “agwador” or water carrier. (See the picture on the left.) Most of the urban poor didn’t have their own water supply. They paid water carriers to fetch and deliver water to their homes. Of course, the work was back-breaking and the pay was very little.
The faucet where the water carriers collected water served as the center of power for the strongest boy who was Impen’s tormentor. He was Ogor, the bully. He led the verbal abuse heaped upon Impen because Impen was black, had no father, and his mother was a loose woman.
Verbal abuse had chipped away at Impen’s self-esteem. More ominously, it had bottled up in his young heart a volcanic fury that was waiting to explode.
There had been minor scuffles between Ogor and Impen. Always, it would be Ogor who’d provoke Impen. He didn’t mind being called, “Negro,” but it really made him go off whenever Ogor and his crowd called his mother names.
Impen’s mother had reminded him on that fateful morning to ignore Ogor. Impen promised his mother that he would avoid Ogor. He would pretend that Ogor didn’t exist.
The line of pails at the faucet was already long when Impen arrived. He didn’t pay attention to Ogor and his ilk no matter how much they insulted him. Dignity? Impen was nothing. He had nothing. Dignity was a quixotic and unreachable dream.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, so did the temperature. It was a blazing hot day. It scorched Impen’s skin and made him very thirsty as he waited patiently for his turn to collect water at the faucet.
It had been a good day so far. He had made five trips and had earned fifty centavos without any skirmish with Ogor. When Ogor left with his haul, Impen wished for Ogor not to return too soon to the faucet.
But as Impen was about to put his pail under the faucet, Ogor came back so quickly and unexpectedly. He announced imperiously, “I’m hungry. I’ll skip the line.”
Impen resisted weakly, but took his empty pails from the top of the line and whispered to himself that he’d better go home. He could come back after lunch anyway.
At this point, Ogor tripped Impen who lost his balance, fell on the concrete floor around the faucet area and cut his cheek on the sharp edge of a tin pail. Blood oozed from Impen’s cheek. He let out a beastly scream of pain and fear. He cupped his cheek with trembling hands.
“Ogor!” Impen screamed as he writhed in pain on the ground. Ogor kicked Impen viciously. Then the two of them wrestled on the ground. Impen forgot the pain and the humiliation. The bottled-up fury in his heart exploded. He punched and hit and walloped and smacked and whacked and clobbered Ogor.
“Im… pen…” Ogor pleaded weakly. “Enough… I can’t… Stop it… stop it…” Ogor was moaning… Impen pulled himself up and put down his arms.
Everyone else was quiet. Impen looked at each one of them. There was admiration and respect in their eyes. And fear, too.
Tears merged with blood in Impen’s face. The bright noonday sun shone even brighter as Impen claimed his new kingship. He had won back his human dignity.
Why has a 1962 short story crossed over from the 20th century? What do readers discover in it?
Although we now live in the 21st century, the era of digital natives, bullying has remained rampant and has spread in cyber space. Many kids find themselves bullied under different situations.
Impen shows them that the utterly powerless and completely marginalized can conquer bullies. Even in an era of multimedia and multiliteracies, the raw power of physical might still rules.
Of course, fighting bullies need not be physical all the time. The ultimate message of “Impeng Negro” is that there are no oppressors where no one is willing to be oppressed. It is the same contemporary message of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who fought Taliban soldiers with a book and a pen. And won a Nobel Peace prize!
Let’s get on with our journey…