A product of its time, Bernard Malamud’s story poses a universal question. He published it between the time of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955 and the passing of the federal Civil Rights Act in 1964. It thus appeared during America’s transition from Jim Crow laws to the legal assault on racial discrimination. Although New York was then considered racially free, or at least indifferent, prejudice was evident in daily behavior throughout the nation and reflected traditional attitudes. By allowing Nat to tell his story, Malamud forces readers to confront the ambiguities and complexities influencing personal relationships in modern American life. Racial stereotypes still exist in these characters’ minds. Even Nat, who sincerely believes he is not prejudiced, reveals ingrained attitudes through his language and his unintended condescension toward African Americans.
In order to highlight the lack of understanding in racial matters, Malamud holds a mirror up to urban society so that it can face a harsh reality. Stereotypes and fears remain operative although individuals seek to eradicate them. Nat, for example, is unaware that as a Jewish liquor dealer located in Harlem he represents the kind of exploitation that blacks feel powerless to combat. In their automatic response to Nat, the black youths damage their community and reinforce stereotypes. Only Ornita is willing to risk a personal relationship, and even she is eventually defeated.
The title “Black Is My Favorite Color” becomes especially poignant by the end of the story. The protagonist’s fixation on blackness illustrates a much-discussed Jewish identification with African Americans and their shared experience of persecution. Although Nat does not seem interested in Jewish observances, he is reminded of his ethnicity in brutal ways. Can he move beyond this condition in order to search for the good? The story ends with such a display of Nat’s naïveté that the reader sees that his self-image is still intact. Readers are left with the question of whether Nat will conform to suit society or society will adapt to the reality of his search for human unity.
Thus, Malamud leaves the reader with an enduring human question: Is there a place in society for a man who continues optimistically to search for truth? Or is society correct in judging such a man as stubborn and unwilling to face facts?