Big Black Good Man Summary

Richard Wright

Big Black Good Man

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Big Black Good Man Summary

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“Big Black Good Man,” a short story by Richard Wright (1958), appears in one of Wright’s final releases, the collection of stories titled Eight Men. With alienation and fear as significant themes, it is consistent with much of the author’s canon. “Big Black Good Man” is a third-person narrative filtered through the point of view of Olaf Jenson, a hotel porter. The narrative voice does not have access to the thoughts of Jim, the black man who arrives seeking a room, thus allowing the readers to view him with the same shroud of mystery that Olaf does.

“Big Black Good Man” is set in Copenhagen, Denmark. It is an August evening likely in the latter portion of the 1950s although no specific year is given. Olaf Jenson works in a cheap hotel the clientele of which is mainly students and sailors. Jenson works at night. It is the eve of his sixtieth birthday as he thinks about a life that has been comfortable enough but certainly not remarkable in any way. Just as Olaf is about to take a late night nap, a large black man comes into his office and inquires about a room. Olaf is taken aback by the size of the man, rendering him momentarily unable to respond. The man asks once again. Olaf asks and finds that the man is an American sailor. While he does not consider himself to be prejudiced, Olaf is somewhat frightened by the man and would like to tell him that there are no rooms, but he fears to do that.

After being given a room, the man Jim gives Olaf a roll of bills, fifties and hundreds, asking that they be kept in the hotel safe. Olaf is consumed with thinking up a way to get the big man to leave the hotel and decides that he might tell him that he does not rent the rooms for only one night. The man tells him that he is planning to remain for five or six nights, thwarting that idea. The man does not let Olaf carry his bag as he leads him to his room. Jim then requests that Olaf obtain for him some whiskey and a woman. It is clear that these are not uncommon requests at the hotel. Olaf goes back to his office and calls Lena. Lena is a prostitute who frequents the hotel. He warns her of the great size of the man, but it does not deter her. Later Olaf worries when she is with Jim. Soon Lena leaves, presenting Olaf with his portion of the fee she receives for her services.

For the next six nights, when Jim returns to the hotel, he asks for Lena. When he finally comes to Olaf’s office to pay his bill and retrieve his money from the safe, he gives Olaf a tip. He does not leave the office as would be expected but rather stares at Olaf, instilling fear in him. He tells him to stand up, and he goes to him and puts his hands around his neck. This causes Olaf to become terrified to the point of urinating on himself. He begs the man not to hurt him, to which the big man simply replies that he would not do that and takes his leave. Alone in the office, Olaf is both angry and humiliated. He thinks of the gun he keeps in the desk and wishes he had used it to kill the man. He has the owner of the hotel take over so he can go home and change his clothes. He does not tell her or his wife what really happened, claiming only that he is ill.

Throughout the following year, he remains fearful of a possible return by the man and imagines all types of revenge, such as the sailor’s ship sinking, him drowning, then being eaten by a shark. It is in August, a year after his first appearance that Jim returns. Olaf tells him there are no rooms but he says he is not looking for a room. When asked what it is that he does want, the man takes something out of a suitcase and again approaches Olaf and puts his hands around his neck. Olaf reaches for the drawer containing the gun but is pushed away. The man says, “A perfect fit!” and proceeds to give Olaf six new shirts as gifts for each of the nights he was with Lena. Olaf is overcome with laughter and tries on a shirt. He asks Jim if he wants Lena but adds that she has not been back since he left. Jim says they have kept in touch, and he is on his way to her house. When Olaf admits to Jim that he feared he was going to be killed by him, Jim laughs and tells him he would not hurt a good man like him. Olaf tells Jim he is a good man as well, “a big black good man.” To this, he replies, “Daddy-O, you’re crazy.” And “Daddy-O, drop dead.”

This renders the ending of the story, and perhaps the story itself, quite ambiguous. The true intentions of both men may never have been clear. Is it true that Olaf is not prejudiced? Why did Jim, upon first leaving the hotel, put his hands around the porter’s neck with no explanation? In addition, what the final lines suggest is equally ambiguous.