Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The central themes of Jones’s stories are dependent on the trials, challenges, and triumphs of his characters. When Lost in the City was first published, many critics noticed immediately that, although all the characters were African American, the stories did not focus directly on racial prejudice or adversity resulting directly from white oppression. In fact, there are very few references to color in any of the stories. Instead of being about characters suffering as a result of their race, the stories are about characters who just happen to be black, facing the problems of living with very little money in small neighborhoods in a large American city.

This does not mean that the situations the characters confront have nothing to do with their color. It does mean, however, that Jones writes stories that are not narrowly limited to issues of race. If there is a central theme, it comes from a warning that an old man tells his five-year-old grandson: “Don’t get lost in the city.” This is repeated in a variation in another story, when a father warns, “Never get lost in white folks’ neighborhood,” and echoed when the young woman in the title story tells a cab driver to get her “lost in the city.” Finding one’s way in the city by identifying with one’s neighborhood is the driving force of many of Jones’s stories.