20 pages • 40 minutes readJames Baldwin
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Written by African-American author James Baldwin in 1965, this short story tells of the racial violence and strife between black and white Americans in a rural Southern town during the American Civil Rights Movement. The story's main character, Jesse, is a white sheriff's deputy. The story begins on the evening after Jesse and other police officers have arrested and brutally tortured a young black man protesting outside the courthouse.
Jesse lays in bed with his wife, Grace, that evening. Grace tries to arouse Jesse to have sex with her but he tells that he's too tired. Grace tells Jesse he's been "working too hard" (229). Jesse lays beside Grace, "silent, angry, and helpless" (229), thinking of how he can't ask his wife to "do just a little thing for him, just to help him out" (229) like he could with a black woman, whom he refers to with the n-word. Grace tells Jesse to get some sleep. Jesse can't sleep, though, as he worries about what the black people in their town might do in response to the violence Jesse and the other officers inflicted on the young black man. He hears a car approaching their house and reaches for his holster. The car continues past their house.
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As he tries to fall asleep, Jesse reflects that "like any other man" (230), he sometimes wants "a little more spice" (230) than his wife can give him. In those cases, Jesse either picks up or arrests "a black piece" (230) and has sex with her. Jesse fears that now, with black people openly demonstrating against white brutality, even "the girl herself" (230) might make a move against him. Jesse wishes he never had to go back to the jailhouse again and hear the protestors' singing, nor participate in a number of brutally violent acts against black arrestees. Jesse considers black people "no better than animals" (231) and blames them for living in conditions of poverty. Working as a payment-collector for a mail-order catalog, Jesse recalls how the black customers were "easy to scare" (231) and cheat out of money. He thinks about how he used to bring candy for their kids and wonders whether "the candy should have been poisoned" (231), as they're now the young adults protesting outside the courthouse.
Jesse begins talking to Grace about the incident with the young black man at the jail, though his wife continues sleeping. Jesse calls the man "one of the ringleaders" (232) of the black people demonstrating outside of the courthouse that day. Jesse says that Big Jim C., a high-ranking police officer, wanted to make an example of the young man to get the protestors to "stop that singing" (232). The police had arrested the man a few times before, taking him "out there at the work farm" (232). After arresting him at the protest, Big Jim C. and the other officers beat the man and bring him to the jail. Jesse is supposed to get the singing to stop so he decides to use his cattle prod on the man. He yells at the man to "make them stop that singing" (232). The man acts like he doesn't hear Jesse as he writhes in pain. Jesse prods the man until the cell fills "with a terrible odor" (233), though Jesse knows he's not supposed to kill the man.
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Jesse starts to walk out of the jail cell when the man on the floor calls to him. Calling Jesse "white man" (233), the man asks if Jesse remembers "Old Julia" (233). Jesse turns to see the man laying on the floor with one swollen eye "barely open, glaring like the eye of a cat in the dark" (233). The man says his grandmother's name was "Mrs. Julia Blossom" (233) and tells Jesse he will "call our women by their right names yet" (233). The man says the protestors "ain't going to stop singing" (233) until "every one of you miserable white mothers go stark raving out of your minds" (233).
Looking down at the young man, Jesse remembers seeing him as a young boy. He was the grandson of one of Jesse's customers for the mail-order catalog. Jesse asked the boy for "Old Julia" (234) when Jesse came by their house. The boy, sitting on a swing in the yard, tells Jesse no Old Julia lives there. Jesse insists this is her house but the boy, calling Jesse "white man" (234), tells Jesse that Old Julia must live somewhere else. Jesse calls outs for Old Julia but "only silence answer[s] him" (234). An eerie, nightmarish feeling comes over Jesse as the otherwise familiar scene of Old Julia's house becomes "charged with malevolence" (234). Jesse tells the boy to tell Old Julia he passed by and offers the boy some chewing gum. The boy tells Jesse he doesn't "want nothing" (235) that Jesse has and goes into the house.
Back at the jail cell, Jesse tells the boy, now a young man, that he's lucky white men "pump some white blood" (235) into the black community by having sex with black women. Suddenly, Jesse feels "too weak to stand" (235). He leaves the cell abruptly. In the narrative present, and complaining to Grace again about the singing, Jesse reflects that the black people are "singing for mercy" (235). Jesse "suppose[s]" that God and heaven must be "the same for everyone" (235), black and white people alike, though he has his doubts. Continuing to refer to black people with the n-word, Jesse figures there must be "good" black people around who find it "might sad to see what was happening to their people" (236). Heartened by memories of this thought, Jesse assures himself that "this trouble [will] pass" (236).
Thoughts of the young black peoples' hatred of whites quickly follows this reassurance, though. Jesse thinks that the protestors hadn't been "singing black folks into heaven, they had been singing white folks into hell" (236). Jesse reflects on how older white men have changed their conduct towards black people out of fear. Jesse misses "the ease of former years" (237), when discrimination reigned and white families didn't live in paranoid fear of their black neighbors. The white people in town fear a conspiracy spreading among the town's "scattered" (237) black population. Jesse's paranoia extends to a national level—he fears that black soldiers in the Army won't "have any trouble stealing this half-assed government blind" (237). Jesse wishes that all the black people lived in the same part of town so he and the other whites could "set fire to the houses" (237) and bring "peace about that way" (237).
Amidst these thoughts, a line from a song drifts into Jesse's head: "I stepped in the river at Jordan" (239). The song comes "flying up" (239) at Jesse and triggers a memory from his childhood. It's evening, and Jesse, in the car with his parents, dozes on his mother's lap, "full of excitement" (239). He hears black people singing “Wade in the Water” from "far away, across the dark fields" (239). Jesse's father says even when "they're sad, they sound like they just about to go and tear off a piece" (239). Jesse's mother scolds him but Jesse's father continues to joke about it. Jesse remembers his friend Otis, an 8-year-old black boy, with whom he plays. Feeling "sick" (240), Jesse tells his parents he didn't see Otis this morning. Jesse's father tells him that Otis’s parents were "afraid to let him show himself this morning" (240). Jesse says that Otis didn't do anything wrong and Jesse's father says Otis "can't do nothing" (240) because he's too little. Jesse's father tells Jesse to make sure Otis "don't do nothing" (240).
Jesse and his parents pull up to their house, where their dog "moan[s] and prance[s]" (240) outside. Ignoring him, the family goes inside the house. In his bed, Jesse can't sleep. He listens to the sounds outside: "the sawing of the crickets, the cry of the owl, dogs barking far away" (241). Jesse wants to call for his mother but knows this will upset his father. He hears his father's voice, "low, with a joke in it" (241), and knows what is "going to happen" (241). He hears his parents moan and their bed "begin to rock" (241). Jesse hides his head under the blanket.
Jesse remembers the events of the day as he lays in bed. That morning, men and women, "flushed and[…]pale with excitement" (241) came to Jesse's family's house with news. Jesse's father, a sheriff, runs out, crying, "They got him then?" (241). Jesse later learns that “him” refers to a black man accused of attacking a white woman. The family who bears the news says that the man made it up to Harkness, "near a graveyard" (241), they joke. By the time they finish talking, three more cars have piled up behind them, each bearing a family carrying food, as if for a picnic. A woman tells Jesse's father not to bring any food because they have enough.
Jesse's mother says she needs to get a sweater for Jesse but Jesse's father knows she's going inside to "comb her hair a little and maybe put on a better dress" (242). Jesse ties up the family dog and his mother brings it some water. The family gets into the car and joins the caravan. The sound of singing "float[s] behind them" (243) and Jesse feels "the sense of going on a great and unexpected journey" (243). Jesse asks if they're going on a picnic and his father assures Jesse he won't “ever forget this picnic” (243).
As Jesse's family approaches the top of the hill, Jesse doesn't see any signs of life in the roadside homes of black people. He wonders where Otis and his family are, as Jesse hasn't seen them for days. Jesse wants to ask his father, "Where are they? Where are they all?" (244), but he doesn't dare. Their car stops at the side of a "straight, narrow, pebbly road" (244), at the top of a hill. The town is to the right and a forest is to the left. Jesse sees smoke in the distance and "hundreds of people in the clearing, staring toward something he could not see" (245).
Jesse and his family join the crowd and Jesse hears "laughing and cursing and wrath" (245) roll from the front of the mob to the back. Jesse's father picks Jesse up and puts him onto his shoulders so Jesse can see over the crowd. Jesse sees the fire now. Behind the "grey-blue smoke" (246), Jesse sees "a length of gleaming chain, attached to a great limb of the tree" (247). He makes out a pair of black hands bound to the chain and a man's head underneath. The man is naked, "black as an African jungle cat" (246), and streaming with blood. Jesse watches two of his father's friends move the man into and out of the fire over and over. Over the sound of the crowd, Jesse hears the man's screams. Jesses clings to his father's neck "in terror" (246) and wants "death to come quickly" (246) for the man.
A man pulls out a knife and raises it. The crowd laughs then falls silent as the man with the knife approaches the black captive. The black man appears "fully conscious now, as though the fire had burned out terror and pain" (247). The man with the knife cradles the black man's genitals in his hand, "as though he were weighing them" (247). The black man catches Jesse's eyes for a second that seems "longer than a year" (248). Jesse screams as the knife flashes, "cutting the dreadful thing away" (248). In a frenzy, the crowd rushes forward, "with their hands, with knives, with rocks, with stones" (248) and tear at the black man's body. Jesse's head falls down to his father's as someone douses the black man's body in kerosene.
Jesse's father lets his son down from his shoulders. With "peaceful" (248) eyes, Jesse's father tells Jesse he won't ever forget "this picnic" (248). Jesse feels he loves his father "more than he had ever loved him" (248) for carrying him "through a mighty test" (248). Jesse's father takes his hand and leads him through the crowd. Jesses sees "the black body on the ground" (248), laying "spread-eagled with what had been a wound between what had been his legs" (248). Jesse asks if they're going to leave the body there. Jesse's father says the other black people will come get him "by and by" (249), then tells Jesse to hurry so they can "get some of that food before it's all gone" (249).
Flashing forward to the present, Jesse looks at Grace, with the moonlight covering her "like glory" (249). Thinking of "the boy in the cell[…]the man in the fire" (249), and the knife, Jesse begins touching himself. He emits "something between a high laugh and a howl" (249) then drags Grace up on one elbow. He grabs Grace, whispering to her as he begins having sex with her, telling her he's going to have sex with her like a black man. Jesse urges Grace to "love me just like you'd love" (249) a black man. Jesse "labor[s] harder than he ever had before" (249) but before he finishes, he hears the sound of a dog bark, a rooster crow, and "tires on the gravel road" (249).
By James Baldwin