The Man Who Cried I Am Summary
by John A. Williams

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The Man Who Cried I Am Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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Reading as a picaresque novel of its protagonist’s adventures on three continents, a spy novel, and a historical novel, The Man Who Cried I Am is a political novel in the large sense of exploring the causes and effects of the actions of persons, organizations, and governments in their relationships with each other. Its plot is woven of the inner and outer aspects of the life of its protagonist, Max Reddick, whose personal history illustrates developments in American race relations between the mid-1930’s and the mid-1960’s. The story is narrated from the omniscient third-person point of view, but in a voice that often features the dying Max Reddick’s reflections upon his present circumstances or his memories that are stimulated by the funeral in Paris of his dear friend and fellow black novelist, Harry Ames, and his meeting in Amsterdam with his estranged wife, Margrit.

The novel’s opening and closing scenes take place in an outdoor café in Amsterdam. In the opening scene, Max Reddick sits waiting for Margrit to walk by, on her way home. The day before, after Harry Ames’s funeral, Harry’s mistress had asked Max to meet her soon about papers that Harry left for him. Now he muses about sexual attraction, the role of black artists as entertainers for the Dutch, the role of the Dutch in making the first sale of African slaves bound for North America, his rectal bleeding and pain, his impending death, and his feelings about Margrit. When finally he sees and calls to Margrit, he confuses her with Lillian, his first great love and loss, and he feels an unanticipated rush of love for his estranged wife. He hides his illness from her, as he hides it from everyone until nearly the end of the novel. After making a dinner date with Margrit, he goes to his hotel, where he catches a glimpse of Alphonse Edwards, a black man who will be one of his assassins and who was present at Harry’s death.

Thus the novel’s first few pages introduce its plot situation, main characters and motifs, and narrative technique. During the subsequent three hundred pages, extended memory flashbacks present, with Max’s analysis, his development as a black writer; his friendship with Harry Ames and his many lesser friendships and acquaintanceships in the literary world; government, including the White House; journalism; his adventures with women; and his heartfelt, wrenching relationships with Lillian and Margrit. Historical episodes that he experienced or observed as a journalist include the cultural scene in New York City during the 1930’s, combat by a black division in World War II, the expatriate scene in Paris after that war, school desegregation, the Civil Rights movement and the influence of Malcolm X, and the beginning of black African independence. All these elements from three decades have combined in one of the “vicious cycles” that history forms for persons and civilizations, bringing Max to his present location, personal relationships, emotional and physical condition, racial knowledge and position, political entanglements, and approaching death.

Meanwhile, as the “plot” unfolds over the next twenty-four hours, Max and Margrit agree to meet again at the café, and Max goes to see Harry’s mistress in Leiden. There he finds that Harry’s papers reveal the work of a group of nations, including the United States, calling themselves the Alliance Blanc , or White Alliance. Considering themselves to be threatened by the possibility of a powerful, united black Africa, these nations have secretly taken steps to prevent that unification. Beyond that, the United States government, with collusion among its branches and major agencies, has drawn up the King Alfred Plan for the detention of millions of black Americans in concentration camps in the event of coordinated and continuing rebellion. In spite of Harry’s warning that possession of this information will bring death, Max chooses to try to make it public. On his way back to Amsterdam,...

(The entire section is 1,493 words.)