Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.