In Richard Wright's "Big Black Good Man," do you think that the title is ironic? In what respect is the story ironic?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The title is indeed ironic because Jenson, the night-porter, has no conception of such a large African American male as being anything other than a threat. As soon as Jenson sees the sailor coming through the door of his hotel, all his prejudices start kicking in. He never feels remotely...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

The title is indeed ironic because Jenson, the night-porter, has no conception of such a large African American male as being anything other than a threat. As soon as Jenson sees the sailor coming through the door of his hotel, all his prejudices start kicking in. He never feels remotely comfortable in the man's presence, even when it's clear that he means him no harm.

It's rather telling that Jenson only calls the sailor "good" after he's certain once and for all that he isn't going to be strangled by him. And even then, he still acknowledges both the sailor's size and color; he doesn't call him a good man, but a "big black good man." This indicates that Jenson is still in thrall to racial prejudice. And therein lies the irony: Jenson thinks he's being kind to the sailor, but is unaware that his unfortunate choice of words—"big black good man"—reveals the fact that he still doesn't see him as an equal.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Richard Wright definitely intended for his short story, “Big Black Good Man,” to be ironic, and for the title to reflect that irony.  The title, of course, is taken from a quote in Wright’s story, in which an elderly Danish hotel porter, Olaf Jenson, feels threatened by the mere presence of an exceptionally large African American sailor, Jim, staying at the hotel.  One in a volume of short stories depicting the African American experience and reflecting the era – the 1950s – in which the stories were written, “Big Black Good Man” is a story of racial prejudice from a relatively benign perspective.  Olaf is about to turn 60, and is clearly not a sophisticated, cosmopolitan man-about-town, his skills limited to procuring prostitutes for male clientele.  He is also a native of a northern European country where the appearance of an individual meeting Jim’s description would be expected to raise concerns.  Olaf takes pains to note his liberal attitudes regarding race, having seen a little of the world himself, but exposes the fallacy in his rejection of racial politics by suggesting that this new customer is “Too big, too black, too loud, too direct, and probably too violent to boot…” 

The 1950s were rife with racism not only in America, and the physically imposing presence of a large, muscular male of Sub-Saharan African heritage with a thick wad of cash would logically compel some matter of stereotyping in culturally-isolated place like the world Olaf inhabits.  When Jim places his hands around Olaf’s neck for the first time, one cannot blame the latter for reacting with fear.  When Jim reappears a year later, again places his hands on Olaf’s neck, but reveals that his interest in Olaf’s neck was limited not to strangulation but to measurements for custom-made shirts, Olaf’s response illuminates the extent of his surprise in discovering that this physically imposing individual is actually a decent human being who never presented a threat to the porter’s well-being.  Jim’s response to Olaf’s observation that the African American is a “big black good man” is ironic in the sense that Olaf is shocked to discover such an individual exists.  He is so imbued with stereotypical views of blacks that he has assumed from the start that Jim must be a criminal.  How could such an individual as Jim not be threatening?  “If only the man were small, brown, and intelligent-looking”is Olaf’s lament.  Wright’s story, though, reveals that Jim is, in fact, a good person, an ironic revelation for those who assumed otherwise. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team