Last Updated on October 26, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636
As a white man living in the Jim Crow South, Jesse is invariably racist; the story undresses the unexpected roots of his prejudice, yet his values do not change. Jesse is a police officer and works in a Southern town. He takes joy in his role and experiences a sense of perverse satisfaction when his position allows him to undermine, condescend to, or physically assault the Black people living in his community. Throughout the story, Jesse reveals the intricacies of his racist beliefs: he overly sexualizes Black women, whom he views as promiscuous, sexually assaults them, and is upset by their newfound willingness to fight back. Moreover, he argues that his Black neighbors should act submissively and speak apologetically. Indeed, his anger and impotence stem from the fact that the Black residents of his town no longer treat him as he feels they should; rather than respecting him and cowering in fear, they stubbornly reject his violent attempts at dominance.
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As such, Jesse experiences an unfamiliar sense of inadequacy. His sense of self and understanding of his value are based on his false supposition of superiority over Black people. When his superiority is tested and disproved, he loses confidence and feels emasculated. Through Jesse, Baldwin argues that racism negatively affects the oppressor, causing them to falsely tie their sense of self to their imagined dominance. When this dynamic is upset, as it is in the story, the oppressor cannot cope, as Jesse does. He feels emasculated and struggles to have sex with his wife. Only the memory of physical dominance through violence bolsters his confidence.
Jesse is a complex character who is thoroughly unlikable. His values are distasteful, and his actions are heinous. However, Baldwin’s characterization of a white police officer working in the Jim Crow South is unfortunately apt in its realistic representation of the time.
Jesse’s wife, Grace, is physically present throughout the story, yet she has very little narrative importance. Readers understand that she is traditional and uptight, as Jesse complains of her prudishness and wishes for more “spice” in their relationship. She comforts her husband and worries about his stress level, and, in doing so, reveals that she is just as complicit in the racist milieu of their town. Grace spends most of the story either asleep or acting as an object upon which Jesse validates his masculinity and superiority, so her values are unclear. However, she encourages her husband’s anger toward their Black neighbors, which quietly affirms her complicity. As Baldwin points out throughout the story, the environment they live in is one of strict rules and firmly delineated roles, of which Grace, too, is a victim. She exists in the story to validate her husband and ensure he is not “alone” with his thoughts.
Big Jim C.
Another officer in Jesse’s police force, Big Jim C. is an overt reference to the situational context of the story. He is the personification of the Jim Crow laws and their sociocultural manifestations. He beats protesters because they do not listen to him or act as he wishes, and he seems offended at their peaceful protest.
The Unnamed Protester
The unnamed protester, only identified as the grandson of Mrs. Julia Blossom, is a stubborn, disciplined man who, despite his grievous injuries, holds firm to his morals and refuses to relent. Growing up in a small Southern town, he quickly learned what life as a Black man in this racist environment might look like, and he intends to change that. Bloodied and half-conscious, he demands that Jesse call his grandmother by her name and treat her with respect. He vows to stand his ground and tells Jesse that the singing will not stop until “every one of you miserable white mothers go stark raving out of your minds.”