Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

Unlike other African American works that depict the power of racism and the squalid life of the urban ghetto, Lawd Today focuses on a black villain-hero who is largely responsible for his own condition. The narrative presents Jake naturalistically, through description and through his own speech and actions, without making...

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Unlike other African American works that depict the power of racism and the squalid life of the urban ghetto, Lawd Today focuses on a black villain-hero who is largely responsible for his own condition. The narrative presents Jake naturalistically, through description and through his own speech and actions, without making any explicit criticism. His fate as a prisoner of his own prejudices against various groups and his unrealistic beliefs about how to improve his life become clear in the failure of all of his attempts at personal liberation.

Jake is an example of how black men from the South are left without moral guidance when rural folk ties begin to erode in northern cities. Without benefit of family and tradition to validate and affirm black identity against the forces of racist society, men such as Jake have no alternative to the bigotry of the media and the cheapness of consumer culture.

While Jake’s situation is particular to a black man, it also shares some of the problems of the American workingman in general. Because he believes what he reads in the papers and hears on the radio, Jake accepts the common bigotry of the unenlightened. His commentary on the newspaper headlines demonstrates that he accepts the worst prejudices of white society against Jews, foreigners, communists, and reform in general. For this reason, he can imagine no alternative to materialism and the pursuit of status based on money and power—what Wright elsewhere called American society’s pursuit of trash.

An alternative to everyday life that Jake admires but does not pursue is African American nationalism. While the Back-to-Africa movement seems to offer some hope of racial pride to dispirited urban African Americans, its promise of liberation is false. The proud, uniformed generals of the fictional African empire represent how the movement has borrowed the worst aspect of white imperialism, the love of power and its trappings, despite all of its claims about promoting the “Brotherhood of Man, Sisterhood of Woman and the Fatherhood of God.”

Juxtaposed to the story of Jake’s day is the periodic radio chatter about Lincoln’s birthday. The platitudes about the glory of the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves contrast with the country’s failure to reach the goals of racial equality more than seventy years later. This failure is represented by conditions in Chicago’s segregated ghetto and by the failure of all of Jake’s attempts to better his condition and affirm his identity as a black man.

In Lawd Today, the only way for men to define themselves as independent beings is against black women. Men such as Jake see only two kinds of women, mothers and whores, and each type exerts a different kind of control over black men. Mothers represent rural, folk, Christian, and family values. Having left his own rural family milieu to achieve personal independence, Jake tricks Lil into the abortion to prevent her from playing the full mother role, and he beats her to assert his authority. Blanche, the prostitute, offers the promise of an escape from drab everyday life. She uses her sexual power over Jake to trick him out of his money and deprives him of his masculine power.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 232

Lawd Today focuses on the life of Jake Jackson as he is confronted time after time with his failure in life. Wright does not make clear whether Jake’s flaw is the result of discrimination, learned behavior, or something inherent in the man; the reader may choose to see Jake as a product of his environment, but the evidence is so scanty as not to provoke any outpouring of sympathy for the protagonist, especially in view of the way he treats his wife. Rather, the reader is made to see Jake from more than one perspective—as both victim and victimizer.

Wright’s realistic portrayal of black ghetto existence carries this theme forward, as victim is pitted against victim in a world where the law of survival prevails. Jake is not very good at the game, whether it is the numbers game, a “bout of the dozens,” or a night on the town; the social prominence which he imagines his job at the post office affords him depends entirely on how much money he has in his pocket, and he is not adept at keeping it there very long.

Wright underscores the irony of Jake’s situation in the Lincoln’s birthday radio broadcasts which are heard throughout, confronting Jake with a nominal legacy of freedom, whereas, in reality, he remains a slave, to his environment, his lusts, and his fellow blacks.

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