While there is the motif of racism in this story, as there frequently is in the works of James Baldwin, the narrative goes much deeper than the depiction of virulent racism. In fact, there is a sense of spiritual examination of sin and guilt and terror of the soul. Also, there is the theme of exploitation.
Set in the 1960's when race relations began to change, the protagonist, Jesse, lies frustrated one night in his bed alongside his wife Grace with whom he has failed in coetus because of his anxieties about the occurrences of the day in which marching and protests were staged and a young man badly beaten, a day that shakes his existence. Wide awake, he ponders that the other policemen and he
...were soldiers fighting a war, but their relationship to each other was that of accomplices in a crime. They all had to keep their mouths shut.
His psychological impotence is connected to his physical impotence. Jesse realizes that soon he may no longer be able to project his guilt for his inhumanity onto the black race with beatings and other exploitation. This awareness leads to his flashback.
- Spiritual terror and guilt
There is an examination of conscience that emerges from the flashback of the horrific killing of the "rapist." For, in recalling how he felt that night as a pubescent boy, Jesse realizes that his sexual prowess is connected to his racial bigotry, and the recent occurrences of the day have shaken his world--"They had never dreamed that their privacy could contain any element of terror," Jesse has reflected prior to his flashback. Jesse senses a collapse of Jim Crow in which the white man's guilt could be projected onto the black man. As out of the dark night the words of the spiritual "I stepped in the river at Jordan," Jesse acknowledges that like the Israelites, the black people are on their way to freedom, too.
Without them, the guilt of his race weighs upon Jesse and he feels terror as his world is broken down and he has lost his "mask." In his effort to regain the "grace" of his life in which his guilt has been displaced, in the morning Jesse turns over to take Grace; however, in so doing, he becomes the "rapist" and, therefore, the guilty man instead. Baldwin, therefore, leaves Jesse vulnerable.
- "Color is deceit"
A recurring theme in Baldwin is once again clear: Color is deceit, reality is within. If freedom is an escape from one’s inheritance, the story offers an assurance that such escape is possible. [Enotes]
The black members of the community, encouraged by the waves of protest in other parts of the country, have finally taken a stand against the restrictions placed upon them.