page 1 of 3
From driving Mary to meet Jan through Mary’s death and the end of Book One
He saw a hatchet. Yes! That would do it.
Stepping into the car, Mary informs Bigger that she is not going to the university, but instead has other plans that she does not want to reveal to her parents. Bigger agrees to keep Mary’s activities a secret and guesses correctly that she plans to meet with some communists. Bigger grows increasingly anxious. He senses that Mary speaks to him as a human, an attitude he has never before encountered from a white person. Despite the freedom he feels with her, Bigger cannot forget that she is part of the world of people who tell him what he can and cannot do.
Mary introduces Bigger to her friend and lover, Jan Erlone, whom Bigger also recognizes from the newsreel. Jan confounds Bigger by shaking his hand and insisting that Bigger call him by his first name. Bigger thinks Mary and Jan are secretly making fun of him. He becomes infuriated because Mary and Jan make him intensely aware of his black skin—something he feels is a “badge of shame.” Their attention makes him feel naked and ashamed, and he feels a “dumb, cold, and inarticulate hate” for them.
Jan insists on driving. Mary squeezes into the front seat beside Bigger, who feels surrounded by “two vast white looming walls.” Bigger also intensely feels his physical proximity to a rich white girl, the smell of her hair, and the pressure of her thigh against his. Jan looks out at the city skyline and declares that “we” will own everything one day and that eventually there will be no black or white. Mary and Jan insist on eating at a black restaurant on the South Side. When pressed for a suggestion, Bigger offers Ernie’s Kitchen Shack. As they drive to the restaurant, Mary looks at the apartment buildings in the black district and wistfully tells Bigger that she wants to know how black people live. She has never been inside a black household, but thinks their lives must not be so different—after all, “[t]hey’re human. . . . They live in our country . . . [i]n the same city with us. . . .”
Mary and Jan insist that Bigger eat with them—a gesture that horrifies Bigger. They persist, however, so he angrily agrees. Mary begins to cry, sensing that she and Jan have made Bigger feel bad. Bigger feels trapped. He tries to think of what he would say to Mr. Dalton or the welfare agency if he were to walk off the job, but knows he cannot explain it. Jan comforts Mary and her tears are quickly forgotten as they go into the restaurant. Inside, Bigger encounters his girlfriend, Bessie, and his friend, Jack. When Bessie tries to talk to him, Bigger responds gruffly.
Jan, Mary, and Bigger eat dinner and then drink rum together. After a few drinks, Jan and Mary question Bigger about his history. He tells them that he grew up in Mississippi and that his father died in a riot. When Jan asks how he feels about his father’s death, Bigger tells him that he does not know. Jan tells Bigger that the communists are fighting against this kind of injustice. Mary insists that she and Jan want to be Bigger’s friends, and that he will get used to them. Bigger does not reply. Before they leave the restaurant, Mary tells Bigger she is going to Detroit at nine o’clock the next morning and that he should bring her small trunk to the station at eight-thirty.
Bigger drives Jan and Mary around the park while they make out in the back seat. The two have become thoroughly drunk by the time Bigger drops Jan off. Before he leaves, Jan gives Bigger some communist pamphlets to read. Mary, riding in the front seat next to Bigger, tries to engage in a conversation with him. She leans her head on his shoulder and asks him if he does not mind. She laughs, and again Bigger feels she is making fun of him. He again feels overcome by fear and hatred.
Take a Study Break!