The Man Who Was Almost a Man
Dave’s struggle with racial oppression reflects the broader African American struggle to win more rights, freedoms, and opportunities since the end of the Civil War. Although many black Americans had pushed for equality and economic leverage in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the quest for civil rights didn’t become a coordinated movement until the early twentieth century. Tired of second-class citizenship, African American activists such as W. E. B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, and Thurgood Marshall began promoting strategies that would chip away at white dominance, just as the frustrated adolescent Dave Saunders finally decides to empower himself when he can no longer stand be ridiculed. Rather than indiscriminately striking out at those in power as Dave fantasizes, however, early civil rights leaders worked to change the oppressive social and legal systems. Only in the 1950s and 1960s—when this story was published—did civil rights activists actually rebel by quietly refusing to comply with white Americans’ humiliating expectations.
Many factors conspired to extend the oppressive exploitation of blacks that slavery had established. For African Americans stuck farming small parcels of land owned by white overseers, sharecropping proved only slightly better than forced labor. Gang violence, lynchings, and Jim Crow laws that segregated blacks from whites also worked to keep blacks “in their place.” Slowly, however, prevailing social patterns changed, especially between World War I and World War II, when hundreds of thousands of blacks fled their destitute lives in the South for better opportunities in the North. Dave’s sudden flight at the end of the story mimics this so-called Great Migration. Seen in this light, his nighttime escape thus becomes a symbolic renunciation, a turning from the agrarian servitude that marked the past and a staunch refusal to accept the unfair conditions that kept families mired in poverty and robbed individual lives of hope and promise.