Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

To Williams, life appears to be filled with ambiguity and ambivalence, and time has the last word. History is cyclical; each ending is therefore a beginning. Max Reddick’s cry that he exists might be history’s apocalyptic proclamation to American racists that the wheel is turning and black is on its way back up, or it might be Max’s personal assertion that an individual life beats death by choosing a death that affirms the superior value of life as enacted in private passion. History and Max’s dedication as a writer, black man, and lover stand toe to toe in dialectic tension, but only time will tell what the new synthesis will bring. History has its ambiguity, and Max has his ambivalence, until a rare moment of clarity when history chooses Max and Max chooses history.

For Max, the clarity comes in answer to the question posed throughout the novel: Why is black life so difficult? On the historical level, the answer finally is that racist whites are in so many positions of power that they control any black life that comes to their attention. On the personal level, the answer is that Max is a man who cares and is driven to write. He must know, and to know is to die. Racism has attacked his life like a cancer, and he has helped it along, with his anal retentive analysis, until finally it has brought him to a loosening of his grasp on life. It then presents him with a heroic way of dying. It has thwarted him as a writer until finally, because he is a...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The principal theme of The Man Who Cried I Am is that there are seemingly relentless forces which crush and destroy people, but in the face of such destruction, there must be resistance if life is to have some value. As Moses Boatwright, a grotesque character who commits the horrific act of cannabalism, reveals to Max:I was born seeing precisely. . . . This world is an illusion . . . but it can be real. I went prowling on the jungle side of the road where few people ever go because there are things there, crawling, slimy, terrible things that always remind us that down deep we are rotten, stinking beasts. Now because of what I did, someone will work a little harder to improve the species.

Deep inside Max Reddick is a malignancy which is slowly causing his body to deteriorate, just as malignancy (indifference, lies, duplicity) is doing the same thing to “the body politic.” The implication is that the American system—or more precisely, Western civilization—is in deep trouble becausethere has got to be something inherently horrible about having the sicknesses and weaknesses of that society described by a person who is a victim of them; for if he, the victim, is capable of describing what they have believed nonexistent, then they, the members of the majority, must choose between living the truth, which can be pretty grim, and the lie, which isn’t much better.

To set the victimization of black people in a larger context, references to the Holocaust, the “Six Million,” appear throughout the novel, especially through Regina, survivor of the Nazi horror, and Zutkin, who dreams of an alliance of former victims (“We need each other”) to change the essential character and inclination of the republic.