39 pages 1 hour read

Richard Wright

Big Black Good Man

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1989

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Story Summary: “Big, Black, Good Man”

Richard Wright’s “Big, Black, Good Man” is available at Esquire’s website and was originally published in the print version of the magazine on November 1, 1957. Told in a limited third-person narration, the story is set in Copenhagen, Denmark and is about racial misunderstanding.

Olaf Jensen, the night porter at a cheap waterfront hotel, is on duty the night before his sixtieth birthday. Olaf has had a mostly satisfactory life with his wife, Karen, and feels he could do worse when it comes to his work at the hotel. His satisfaction is shaken to the core when Jim, an enormous, immaculately dressed black sailor enters the hotel to ask for a room.

Afraid and viscerally disgusted by the size and very dark skin of the man, Olaf nevertheless finds himself renting a room to the man. Olaf’s discomfort deepens when the man turns over a large sum of cash for safekeeping and asks for a woman and liquor. Olaf sends along the requested liquor and Lena, a big, blonde woman who does sex work to supplement her income and seems likely to be able to handle herself. As he imagines the two together, Olaf grows angrier and imagines death scenarios in which Jim is devoured by sea monsters after his ship sinks.

Jim stays for six nights and spends each night with Lena. At the end of his stay, he demands his money and pays the bill to Olaf, who is so terrified that he readies himself to use the gun he has in his desk. Before leaving, Jim places his large hands around Olaf’s neck. Olaf wets himself in fear, thinking Jim has somehow guessed Olaf’s murderous thoughts. Jim simply leaves, however.

A year later, Jim returns, and Olaf is still terrified. Jim tells Olaf that he will be staying with Lena, whom he has been writing and with whom he now has a relationship, thanks to Olaf. In appreciation, Jim gives Olaf a stack of perfectly tailored shirts, the measurements for which he guessed the year before by placing his hands around Olaf’s neck. Overcome with emotion, Olaf exclaims that Jim is a good black man. A bemused Jim scoffs and leaves the hotel.

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