Lawd Today Summary
by Richard Wright

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Lawd Today Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Lawd Today is the story of one day in the life of Jake Jackson, detailing his daily routine from dawn into the early hours of the next morning. The story is cyclical, opening and closing in the Jackson apartment with conflict between husband and wife. Jake’s day is periodically interrupted by radio broadcasts celebrating the annual holiday for the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, February 12.

The story is divided into three sections of descending length. The first and longest section, “Commonplace,” describes Jake’s morning from his waking until he goes to work. Angry at being awakened by the radio from a dream involving the climbing of an endless stairway, Jake picks a fight with his wife Lil over her chatting with the milkman and her doctor bills. After he beats Lil into submission, Jake dresses himself and reads the paper, making bigoted comments on contemporary world events. Jake admires the power of Adolf Hitler and of gangsters, empathizes with the misfortunes of millionaires, and criticizes communists, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein.

Leaving the house, Jake begins his busy morning by sorting through the mail, showing his interest in farfetched money-making schemes and patent medicines. He loses two dollars playing a popular lottery game at the Black Gold Policy Wheel when he bets three “sure win” symbols from his dream. Then, after admiring a picture of a blonde girl on an adventure film poster, he goes for a haircut and heart-to-heart at Doc Higgins’s Tonsorial Palace. Doc listens to Jake’s marital troubles and agrees to help him if Lil lodges another complaint at the post office about his wasting money and beating her. Meeting Bob, Slim, and Al for a game of bridge, Jake enjoys some good-natured kidding with his friends. Later, they all admire the knowledge of the patent medicine man and the pomp of the “generals” of the “Supreme Imperial War Council” in the Back-to-Africa parade.

The second section, “Squirrel Cage,” deals with Jake’s eight-hour shift at the main Chicago post office. Before his shift begins, Jake tries to get a loan from the paymaster, Jones. Jones refuses him and advises him to see the Board of Review about the status of his employment. They are prepared to fire Jake, since Lil has filed a third complaint, but through the timely intervention of Doc Higgins, Jake is able to keep his job, after which he is able to borrow a hundred dollars at high interest from Jones.

The eight-hour shift is a seemingly endless series of tedious, repetitive tasks involved in sorting and processing mail, all performed under close supervision to ensure maximum efficiency of the workers. While hand-stamping mail after lunch, Jake and his three friends have a long conversation that ranges over topics that include sex, how to dominate women, the benefits of the National Guard, and a cynical analysis of race relations.

The third and shortest section, “Rats’ Alley,” describes the leisure activities of Jake and his friends, which begin after work and continue well past midnight. After being seduced and set up by Blanche, being robbed of his borrowed money, and getting beaten up by Blue Juice at a nightclub, Jake staggers home drunk. There, he has a final fight with Lil, and she knocks him out with a piece of a broken mirror. He collapses in a pool of his own blood.

Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Lawd Today opens with Jake Jackson rising out of bed, apparently after a night on the town. The day in question is Lincoln’s birthday, and throughout the day, no matter where Jake goes, radios haunt him with words from that president’s speeches and statements about the Great Emancipator—as though to remind Jake that he is the victim of another kind of slavery. Jake is caught in a web that entangles his soul. It will take much more than a presidential proclamation to set his spirit free.

From the beginning, Richard Wright lets the reader know that Jake, although caught in circumstances beyond his control, is an unsavory...

(The entire section is 1,938 words.)