Like a Winding Sheet

by Ann Petry

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

After the white forewoman at the plant calls the protagonist a "'nigger,'" he "forced himself to swallow his anger, get rid of it." However, he cannot. The tension remains in his hands long after the horrible encounter, and he realizes that "If he had [hit her] that his hands would have felt good now—relaxed, rested." Rested is not something he ever feels; he had a really hard time getting out of bed that morning because his legs just never, ever feel truly rested. He's always worn out. Throughout the day, "his hands stayed tight and tense."

After work, he feels especially worn—not a surprise given what happened—so he stops and looks into a cafe window. He sees workers from his shift there, getting coffee, and

he saw that just the smell of the coffee lessened the fatigue lines in their faces. After the first sip their faces softened, they smiled, they began to talk and laugh.

Desperate to feel less fatigued and aching, he goes in and waits his turn. However, the white server refuses to serve him, and it is clear that she has "refuse[d] a man a cup of coffee because he was black." He again "force[s] himself" to put down his fists because "He couldn't even now bring himself to hit a woman, not even this one."

In the end, the protagonist's wife teases him, calling him "'a old hungry nigger,'" and he unleashes all that pent-up anger, punching her in the face again and again. He

was appalled but he couldn't drag his hands away from her face. He kept striking her and he thought with horror that something inside him was holding him, binding him to this act, wrapping and twisting about him so that he had to continue it. . . . [I]t was like being enmeshed in a winding sheet—that was it—like a winding sheet.

A winding sheet is a type of shroud that is wrapped around a dead body. Here, it's as though the racists he's encountered have actually tried to kill a part of him, and now that part fights against the sheet by which he's been bound, figuratively, by racism.

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