Grace asks Jesse what’s wrong and he says he isn’t sure, that he might be tired. She suggests he is working too hard, and he shouts that it isn’t his fault. He touches her chest and then tries again to have sex with her and fails, reflecting bitterly to himself about how he could “ask a nigger girl” to help him but he cannot ask his wife. The thought of a Black woman excites him, but only slightly.
Given the way that Jesse uses racial slurs, readers can intuit that he is a racist white man. Thinking of Black women arouses Jesse, showing the way that racial hatred and desire are linked for him, though thinking of Black women alone is not enough for him to become erect, suggesting there is still something missing.
Grace tells Jesse to go to sleep since he has a hard day tomorrow and he agrees, rolling onto his side. He holds onto Grace’s breast and says, “Goddamn the niggers,” before asking Grace, “Wouldn’t you think they’d learn?” She moves his hand from her body and tells him that they will still be “out there” tomorrow and he should go to sleep.
Grace telling Jesse that they will still be “out there” tomorrow suggests that when Jesse says “niggers,” he is specifically referring to the Black civil rights protestors that he has been monitoring as part of his job as a police officer. It’s noteworthy that Jesse starts to think about the protestors while still holding onto his wife’s breast, again suggesting a link between sexuality and racial rage. The fact that the protestors will still be “out there” tomorrow is also readers’ first hint that the civil rights movement is going strong.
Lying down, Jesse listens to the sounds outside. He hears a car on the road and reaches for his gun, but the car drives away. It’s probably full of “liver-lipped students” from out of state, coming to town for an event at the courthouse tomorrow. “The niggers are getting ready,” he thinks—but everyone else will be ready, too.
Jesse’s fear of “liver-lipped students” is a reference to the fact that many of the civil rights protestors in the South in the early 1960s were Black college students who would travel to particularly racist precincts to protest. Jesse’s fear that every sound outside might be the protestors suggests his deep anxiety about the power that the movement is generating; these aren’t a couple people holding signs, this is a sophisticated and coordinated effort.
Jesse moans; he is a healthy, God-fearing 42-year-old man who didn’t used to have trouble sleeping or becoming erect. In the past, he sometimes needed some “spice” and, as deputy sheriff, would “pick up a black piece or arrest her, it came to the same thing,” though he couldn’t do that now since they might kill him. He asks himself, “What had the good Lord Almighty had in mind when he made the niggers?” and implies that one answer is they are good at sex.
That Jesse can arrest and rape Black women without concern about punishment demonstrates that, despite the gains of the civil rights movement, he still has a lot of power as a white police officer. This passage also reveals that Jesse’s anger toward Black people is complicated by his desire for them; he wants to declare them completely worthless but can’t help thinking about the pleasure he has had with them during sex.
Turning toward Grace, Jesse thinks that he would like to be buried inside her and not have to go to work at the jail house tomorrow where he will have to confront the Black protestors and see their ugly faces, smell their smells, hear them sing, feel their hair, watch their breasts fight against his cattle prod, hear them moan, and watch their lips bleed.
It is noteworthy that, as Jesse lists sensations he is not looking forward to at work tomorrow, they become more and more sexual. The detail with which he imagines feeling the Black protestors’ hair, watching their breasts move, and hearing them moan indicates his deeper repressed desire for them.
Comparing Black people to animals, Jesse condemns their dark smelly houses and incessant birthing of children, as well as their laughter and music. He remembers working as a payment collector for a mail-order business and how his Black customers were “too dumb to know they were being cheated blind,” how easy it was for him to scare them into paying their bills. Recalling how he would sometimes offer the children candy and rub “their rough bullet heads,” he has the thought that maybe he should have poisoned the treats.
This passage shows the depth of Jesse’s racism; he considers Black people to be animals and too dumb to understand their own exploitation. He even wishes that he had killed the Black children he interacted with when he worked for a mail-order business. While this seems at first like an extension of his rage, it is also an example of his fear of the power of the civil rights movement—if he had killed the protestors as children, maybe they would not be changing the conditions of the society that, for so long, white men like him have easily controlled.
Thinking of the mail-order business reminds Jesse that he had trouble with one of his former customers’ grandchildren just today. He starts to tell Grace about what happened, then asks if she is awake. She mumbles quietly, probably telling him to go to sleep, but he explains that this customer’s grandson is now a protest leader. His coworker Big Jim C. “had to whip that nigger’s ass today.”
This passage introduces Big Jim C., Jesse’s coworker and a symbol for the racist Jim Crow laws that the civil rights movement fought to change. That Big Jim C. could beat up a protestor with no accountability demonstrates the power that white police officers had while the movement was still underway.
Jesse explains with bitter laughter how the protestors had formed a line at the courthouse to register to vote, blocking traffic, singing, and refusing to move. Jesse’s former customer’s grandson was the protest leader, so Big Jim C. decided to target him, beating him and a few other leaders before taking them to jail. This is when Jesse got to the jail and was tasked with making the protest leaders stop their singing.
When Jesse says that the protestors formed a line “to register,” it is a reference to the Black-led voter registration efforts that took place across the South in the early 1960s. Songs of resistance were also a common part of protests, a symbol for unity and strength. This passage suggests that while the protestors have their own form of power, Big Jim C. and Jesse have the power of weapons and the backing of the state.
Like Big Jim C., Jesse decided to target the protest leader, who was already bleeding and moaning on the ground of his cell. Jesse prodded the man with his cattle prod and told him to make the protestors stop singing. When the man didn’t respond, Jesse prodded him again and watched him roll around in his urine-stained pants, blood coming out of his mouth. Jesse pauses his story for a moment, noticing that he “began to hurt all over with that peculiar excitement.” He then explains (more to himself now than to Grace) how he yelled at the man to stop not just the singing, but to stop disrupting the town with these protests.
The feeling of excitement that Jesse experiences while torturing the protest leader shows that racial violence and pleasure are deeply linked for him. His inability to make the protestors stop singing also highlights the power of the civil rights movement; no matter how much violence the police may bring, the protestors will not stop using their collective voice.
Jesse stops speaking and, in a flashback, he’s prodding the protest leader as the man rolls in the dirt of the cell, unable to even scream in pain. Remembering he is not supposed to kill the man, Jesse stops for a minute, before angrily asking him if he’s had enough. The man is silent, but the other protestors continue singing and Jesse instinctively kicks the man in the jaw, thinking to himself, “this ain’t no nigger, this is a goddamn bull.” Again, he asks if the man has had enough, but the man is now unconscious. Jesse is shaking and he feels, for a minute, “close to a very peculiar, particular joy.”
Jesse feels joy as he tortures the protest leader and again refers to it as “peculiar,” suggesting he hasn’t yet accepted the ways that pleasure and racial violence are linked for him. That Jesse switches from telling Grace the story to experiencing it as a flashback also hints that he is not comfortable admitting out loud that he becomes aroused by hurting Black men. The protestors’ ongoing singing moves Jesse to violence because it reminds him that he does not have the power in this situation.
As Jesse moves to leave the cell, the protest leader calls out, “White man.” Jesse stops in surprise and grabs his genitals, though he’s not sure why. Badly injured on the floor, the man asks Jesse if he remembers “Old Julia,” explaining that Mrs. Julia Blossom was his grandmother and asking if Jesse calls Black women by their names yet. Before passing out again, he tells Jesse that the protestors will not stop singing until white men like him lose their minds.
The protest leader’s use of “white man” turns the tables on Jesse; suddenly he is the one being labeled based on his race. That he unconsciously grabs his genitals out of fear foreshadows Jesse’s flashback to the public castration and lynching of a Black man. The protest leader confirms Jesse’s worst fear that Black people like the protest leader have the power now and will not stop fighting until white people like Jesse lose their power.
Looking at the unconscious protest leader, Jesse suddenly remembers that this man—who he has seen at several protests over the past year—was indeed the grandson of Julia Blossom (“Old Julia”), one of his mail-order customers he hadn’t seen in years. In another flashback, Jesse walks into Julia’s yard and smiles at a 10-year-old version of the man, asking if Old Julia is home. The boy stares at him before answering, “Don’t no Old Julia live here.” Jesse insists that this is her house and the boy, calling Jesse “white man,” says that nobody by that name lives here. The words white man echo in Jesse’s head as he starts to call out for Old Julia. Julia doesn’t respond.
This flashback within a flashback underlines how threatened Jesse is (and has been) by anyone challenging his power and reflecting his cruelty and whiteness back to him. He has clearly been used to demeaning Black people however he wants, and having a child challenge his power is deeply unsettling.
In the silence, Jesse sees the boy-aged version of the protest leader looking at him with malevolence and begins to feel that he is trapped in a nightmare. He asks the boy if Julia Blossom (“Old Julia”) has gone out and, when the boy doesn’t respond, he asks him to tell her he stopped by and will stop by again next week. He asks the boy if he wants chewing gum, to which the boy responds, “I don’t want nothing you got, white man,” before walking inside the house and closing the door.
This moment is significant in that Jesse has to face a Black person who is not amenable toward him; the boy rejects Jesse’s gift and says he wants nothing else he has, either. Baldwin hints here that whiteness, even with all of the privilege it affords, is not necessarily desirable because white people (like Jesse) have been damaged by their own racism.
Back at the jail house, Jesse looks down at the protest leader’s nearly dead body and thinks how he would like to pistol whip him until his head bursts open. Jesse begins to shake with what he thinks is rage, noticing that the protestors’ singing has become “monstrous.” Unable to control himself, he shouts to the man that he is lucky that white men like him “pump some white blood” into Black women, concluding with, “Here’s what I got for all the black bitches in the world—!” To his horror, he feels himself become erect and promptly leaves the cell.
This passage reveals that, while Jesse is sometimes able to repress the sexual undertones of his racial rage, they sometimes leak out unexpectedly. It becomes clear that his ability to become erect hinges on the emasculation of Black men; by knocking out a powerful Black man, he feels both physically and sexually powerful. Meanwhile, the protestors’ singing continues, suggesting that, while Jesse momentarily feels powerful, the movement for progress will persevere, undermining his power in the long run.
Still furious, Jesse starts to complain about the protesters’ singing. The singing is familiar and oddly comforting. He understands that they are singing to God, asking for mercy for themselves and, sometimes, for him, too. He isn’t sure what “their heaven” is like or what God could be for them, though it is probably the same for everyone. He tries to be a good person and it’s not his fault that Black people go against the Bible. He concludes that he is only doing his duty by “protecting white people from the niggers and the niggers from themselves.”
In a rare moment of self-awareness, Jesse considers that Black people singing spirituals might be singing for mercy for him, hinting that he can see through their eyes the monster he has become. Unable to sit with this truth, he quickly switches back to demonizing Black people and viewing himself as their savior (rather than considering that they might be his).
Jesse remembers that there are a lot of “good niggers” around who would smile and quietly thank him when it was over, which gives him a sense that this trouble will pass. The young protestors had changed the words to some of their songs—he hadn’t looked at Black people when they were singing before, but he did not like the hatred he was seeing in these young peoples’ faces, hatred that seemed harder than his club. Thinking of how worn out he is from work each day, he suddenly feels he is “drowning in niggers” and it will never end. He considers that maybe these songs are not about getting Black people into heaven but forcing white people into Hell.
This passage demonstrates the way that Jesse lives in denial, convincing himself that white people still have all the power despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If he just focuses on memories of Black people who seem “agreeable,” then he can access a sense of ease. Even still, the truth creeps back in as he remembers the protestors’ singing. The fact that Black people are fighting back hits him as he feels he is “drowning in” crowds of seemingly hostile Black protestors.
The older white men who taught Jesse how to be a man have become quieter and less confident telling certain jokes. He misses the ease of how life used to be, before people stayed home with their families because they were afraid of what would happen next. There have been some bombings around town recently, and he worries what would happen if Black people got their hands on dynamite. Jesse and his white men friends have considered searching Black peoples’ homes for weapons, but they worry protestors from the North would come down or that word would spread too quickly in the Black community for the search to be effective.
Here Jesse faces some truths he has been avoiding, namely that the civil rights movement has really changed things for him and his racist white friends; they can no longer attack Black people without worrying about being attacked back or being targeted by protestors. The reference to bombings and dynamite is likely Baldwin’s way of situating this story in the midst of real-life attacks, such as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963, in which four young girls were killed.
One problem is that Black men have access to guns through the Army and they could stockpile weapons like protestors in Europe and Africa. Jesse and his friends still curse the government and make jokes, but they are afraid to target the Black folks in town. It would be easier if the town were more overtly segregated, and they could set fire to all of the Black people by torching a single neighborhood. Despite the fact that any fire they set could spread and hurt their own families, he and his friends consider doing it anyway.
Baldwin offers even more historical context here, referencing the decolonial liberation movements that were taking place worldwide in the 1960s. Their mention suggests that the civil rights movement is part of a swell of resistance efforts that will not easily be stopped. The fact that Jesse cannot target the Black people in town without potentially hurting himself and other white families also shows that racism hurts white people, too.
While this racial conflict feels like war, Jesse and his friends have not developed the unspoken communication and trust of true soldiers. Without the privacy they used to have, and with increased public scrutiny, they can no longer assume that they are all on the same page. They are fighting to save the civilized world, yet no one cares anymore, at least not enough to help them. He and his friends are like accomplices in a crime, unsure who might betray the rest for money or simply for the ease of confession. A part of him craves the relief of being forced to surrender.
That Jesse admits a part of him craves the relief of surrendering to the civil rights movement suggests that he is aware that he and his white friends are fighting a losing battle—the movement, at this point, cannot be stopped. It also hints that on some level, he suspects that his life would be better if he accepted racial equality, too, since his life would no longer be defined by fighting.
Suddenly a line of a song comes to Jesse: “I stepped in the river at Jordan.” He can hear the melody but can’t place the song and quickly asks Grace if she is awake. She doesn’t respond. More of the song comes to him: “I stepped in the river at Jordan. / The water came to my knees.” He begins to sweat and feels a combination of fear and pleasure thinking of Black people singing this song. Even more lyrics come: “I stepped in the river at Jordan. / The water came to my waist.”
These lines come from a Black spiritual, likely a version of either “Wade in the Water” or “River of Jordan.” As with other times in the story, Baldwin is using singing to symbolize communal power and strength. Knowing a member of their community is about to be lynched, the Black people in town have come together to collectively grieve rather than isolate and hide.
In a flashback, it is nighttime, and Jesse is in a car between his mother and father, sleepy and excited. He hears the song coming over the fields. More lyrics come to Jesse. Jesse’s father wearily suggests that they might be singing for “him” before adding that, even when mournful, Black people sound violent. Jesse’s mother tells him not to talk that way, but he instead becomes more animated, whistling and mocking the singers. Jesse thinks about Otis, a Black friend his age with whom he plays. Suddenly the thought of Otis makes him sick and he starts to shiver, inspiring his mother to put her arm around him.
By suggesting that they might be singing for “him,” Jesse’s father is referencing the Black man that will soon be lynched. It becomes clear that Jesse has likely learned his racism from his father, who has no problem mocking Black people in mourning. It is noteworthy that Jesse has a Black friend at this point in life, which raises the question of what happened to him between then and now. That Jesse is suddenly feeling sick at the thought of Otis suggests that a change in his relationship to Otis (and Black people as a whole) is starting to take place.
Jesse says that he didn’t see Otis this morning, though he’s not sure why he says it. Jesse’s mother responds that he hasn’t seen Otis for a couple mornings, though Jesse only cares about this morning. Jesse’s father suggests that Otis’s parents were afraid to let him show himself, which confuses Jesse, who responds that Otis didn’t do anything. His father explains that Otis can’t do anything because he is a child, but that they want to make sure he won’t do anything when he’s older. His father asks Jesse to pass this warning onto Otis and he agrees.
Jesse, though only eight years old, is clearly picking up on something racially significant happening. He wants to make sure that his friend Otis is safe, and his father is teaching him that what matters is white people’s safety, not Otis’s. The warning that Jesse’s father asks Jesse to pass onto Otis hints that Black people will be punished for hurting white people, foreshadowing the lynching to come.
That night in bed, Jesse is unable to sleep. The darkness weighs on him, and he wants to call to his mother but he knows his father wouldn’t approve. He hears his father make a joke and feels even more afraid since he knows they will soon have sex, which they do. He hears them moaning and the bed rocking, noticing his father’s breathing most of all.
Here Jesse’s father, through his actions, is teaching Jesse that racial violence and sexual arousal go hand in hand. Though Jesse’s parents also have sex other nights, it’s significant that Jesse’s father is interested in sex with the imminent lynching hanging in the air.
In the morning, eight white people in a car approach the house with excitement. Jesse’s father runs to them and asks, “They got him, then?” Jesse recognizes some of the children. A woman in a fancy dress says yes, they found him early this morning. Jesse’s father asks how far he got and one of the men tells him he didn’t get far, he probably got lost in the trees or was so scared he couldn’t move. This makes everyone laugh. One of the women adds he was found near a graveyard, and they laugh more.
This passage demonstrates that Jesse is learning racism not only from his parents but also from his extended white community. They are all experiencing pleasure at the thought of Black people’s pain. The “him” they are referring to is the Black man whose fate the Black townspeople were mourning the night before.
Two more cars approach to join the conversation, and Jesse notices that everyone looks excited. They are also all carrying food, which makes it feel to Jesse like a Fourth of July picnic. The visitors encourage Jesse’s father to hurry up and not to worry about food since they have enough for everyone. Jesse’s parents prepare for the drive and Jesse notices that he can hear the sound of singing from the visitors’ cars as they drive away.
Baldwin pulls from the history of actual lynchings here—many of them featured white people bringing food and gathering as if they were parties. Jesse has clearly never attended a lynching before, as everything is new to him. Like with other references to singing in this story, singing here signifies communal power. This time, it is white people singing in celebration to reinforce their collective power and carry the message over the fields to the Black members of the town.
Jesse gets in the car and sits close to his father, feeling he is about to go on a great journey. He asks if they are going on a picnic, thinking he knows where they’re going without being sure. Jesse’s father says, yes, they are going on a picnic, but “You won’t ever forget this picnic—!” Jesse asks if they are “going to see the bad nigger” who knocked down old Miss Standish. Jesse’s mother says they might see him.
Jesse intuits correctly that this is a rite of passage for him and shows that he understands what’s happening: a Black man has been accused of attacking (and, readers can assume, probably raping) a white woman. The protection of white women was a common reason used for lynchings in real life, though many Black men were falsely accused.
Jesse has questions he wants to ask, such as “Will Otis be there?” but he doesn’t ask them because, in an odd way, he feels he already knows the answer. He notices that their friends in the other cars are way up ahead, joined by many other cars. Cars have filled in behind Jesse’s parents’ car as well. He can hear singing coming from all of the cars. He feels both happy and afraid and does not understand what is happening or who to ask. He usually goes to Otis with such questions since “Otis knew everything,” but he can’t ask Otis about this. He hasn’t seen Otis for two days, anyway.
Jesse’s concern for Otis shows that, despite being around his overtly racist father for eight years, he still has not internalized that Black people are bad. He not only cares for Otis, but respects him intellectually, a far cry from how Jesse feels about Black people as an adult. The singing becomes an ominous sound in the background, this expression of white communal power not something a young Jesse wants to embrace.
Jesse hasn’t seen any Black people so far on the drive. They are passing houses where he knows Black people live, and yet there is no sign of life. He is used to seeing women washing their clothes, children playing, men passing them in cars or walking on foot and smiling as they tip their hats, “their eyes as warm as the sun.” Even the Black church is empty and locked up, the graveyard abandoned and without any flowers. Jesse wants to ask where everyone is but is too afraid to ask.
Jesse’s fond recollections of the Black people in town underlines the fact that he is an open-hearted child who has not yet internalized a racist ideology. He not only notices that Black people are missing but particularly misses positive things about them, such as their friendliness and warm eyes.
The hill they are driving on gets steeper and the day feels colder. Jesse’s mother and Jesse’s father look straight ahead, seeming to listen to the singing. Suddenly, Jesse feels they are strangers to him, noticing his father’s lips have a cruel curve, his body seems enormous, and his normally grey-green eyes now appear yellow. His mother looks in the car mirror and adjusts her bow, inspiring his father to laugh and say, “When that nigger looks at you, he’s going to swear he throwed his life away for nothing.”
Jesse’s abrupt shift in how he sees his parents suggests that, on some level, he understands that what they are doing is wrong. That they are listening to the singing—going along with this expression of pleasure at someone else’s pain—upsets him. Jesse’s father’s comment to his wife insinuates that Black men’s desire for white women is the reason they must be punished.
They eventually make it to a sun-filled clearing where there are hundreds of people staring at something Jesse can’t yet see, though he assumes there is a fire, since he can smell smoke. After parking, Jesse’s father asks Jesse if he is all right. Jesse says yes. In the clearing, strangers greet Jesse, hugging and patting him, telling him how much he’s grown, which confuses him. The wind blows smoke into his eyes and nose. He’s too short to see anything, but he can hear the sounds of laughing, cursing, wrath, and something else. The spectators in the front of the crowd are full of delight at what they see, a joy that Jesse feels is “more acrid than the smoke.”
Still not sure what is happening, Jesse can sense that something isn’t right. Not having yet become a willing member of his racist white community, he views the other white people’s pleasure as acrid, or bitterly unpleasant. He is learning from the people around him that pleasure and racial violence go hand in hand.
Jesse’s father picks Jesse up and puts him on his shoulders, which grants him a view of the fire. He is able to make out a chain attached to a tree, and then two Black hands bound together by the chain. The lynching victim is dropped closer to the fire, smoke pours up, and the crowd cheers with delight before he is pulled upward again. As the man is pulled up, Jesse notices his sweating and bloody head, how black and tangled his hair is. He notices how the man’s hanging head has a widow’s peak, like he and his father both have. The man’s face is mangled, dripping with blood and sweat, his hands held straight above his head.
Jesse’s attunement to the experience of the lynching victim again suggests he is an open-hearted child not yet closed off to connection with Black people’s humanity. By noticing that the lynching victim has a widow’s peak just like Jesse and his father, he is seeing him as equal to them, as similar to them.
Jesse feels the urge to say something, but he doesn’t know what. A man puts more wood on the fire and the crowd cheers. The fire grows larger, and Jesse thinks he hears the lynching victim scream. Sweat is pouring down the man’s body as he is lowered and raised again. When the man screams again, blood bubbles out of his mouth, and Jesse clings to his father out of fear, though the man’s scream is overtaken by the cheering of the crowd.
Jesse continues to see the lynching victim as a person while everyone around him sees the man as an object to be tortured. That Jesse thinks he hears the man scream over the crowd suggests that he is paying close attention to the man and is worried about him. He has not yet internalized the racist belief that he should feel pleasure at this man’s pain.
Jesse notices that the lynching victim wants death to come quickly, but the crowd wants it to be slow, and they have the control. He wonders, “What did the man do? What did he do?” but doesn’t feel he can ask his father. He is physically close to his father but experiences him as being very far away. Two of Jesse’s father’s friends are in charge of the chain now, but everyone there seems responsible for the fire. The lynching victim's pubic hair has been burned off, and Jesse smells something that is both sweet and rotten.
An open-minded child, Jesse is still trying to make sense of this violence in the terms he has clearly been taught: someone does something bad and is punished in proportion to the crime. He cannot understand what this man could’ve done to deserve torture like this (compared to his adult self, who comfortably tortured a Black man nearly to death earlier that day). Young Jesse’s sense that everyone at the lynching is responsible for the fire hints that racial violence is not just about the people committing overt violence, but also about all the people who passively go along with it.
Jesse turns to look at his mother, whose face seems more beautiful than ever and also more strange. He feels a type of joy he has never felt before and regards the lynching victim’s hanging body as the most beautiful and terrible object he has ever seen. As he watches one of his father’s friends wield a knife, Jesse wishes that he were that man. The crowd laughs at the sight of the knife and Jesse’s father tightens his grip on Jesse’s legs. The man with the knife walks up to the hanging man’s body. As he turns and smiles the crowd goes silent.
This passage is significant because this is the moment that Jesse turns his focus away from the experience of the lynching victim and towards the experience of his parents. Seeing his mother’s joy, Jesse suddenly wishes that he could be the man wielding the knife so that she might look at him like that, too. He is starting to internalize the idea that perpetrating racism will earn him attention and love.
The lynching victim looks up, and the man with the knife smiles as he takes the hanging man’s genitals in his hands, cradling them as if weighing them. Jesse feels his scrotum tighten as he notices how large the lynching victim’s penis is, much larger than Jesse’s father’s, “the largest thing he had seen till then and the blackest.” Suddenly the lynching victim is looking directly into Jesse’s eyes and Jesse screams. Just then the man with the knife castrates the hanging man and the crowd screams, too.
That Jesse notices the size of the lynching victim’s penis is noteworthy; here Baldwin suggests that at the root of white male rage is envy over the penis size—and therefore the sexual prowess—of Black men. Jesse compares the size to his father’s, which readers can intuit is a stand-in for his own adult penis. Witnessing the man be castrated confirms in Jesse’s mind that there is such power in the Black man’s penis that it must be feared and destroyed. It is clear that this moment has informed Jesse’s relationship to Black men as an adult.
The crowd rushes toward the bleeding and burned hanging man, tearing at his body with their hands, knives, and stones. Jesse’s head falls downward toward his father’s. Someone throws kerosene on the hanging body, and it is engulfed in flames. Jesse’s father lowers Jesse to the ground and says that he knew Jesse would never forget this picnic. Jesse notices that, though his father is covered in sweat, his eyes are peaceful. Suddenly he feels he loves his father more than ever for carrying him through this mighty test that has revealed a key secret about life.
Noticing his father’s peacefulness in the face of this extreme violence, Jesse makes meaning of the situation by concluding that his father must have taken him through a rite of passage. Rather than feel anger or disgust (and risk rupture in their relationship, as well as alienation from his community), Jesse chooses to embrace what his father has embraced—brutal violence against Black people. Jesse’s sense that he has learned a key secret about life indicates that this is a turning point, likely the moment that leads to Jesse becoming a racist and bitter adult.
As Jesse’s mother laughs with the other women, Jesse’s father walks them toward the lynching victim’s dead body. The man’s head is torn apart and caved in, but it is hard to notice much else because his body is so charred. Jesse asks his father if they are going to leave the body there and his father says yes, they’ll get him eventually, then suggests they get some food before it’s all gone.
In the aftermath of the lynching, Jesse continues to notice the ways that pleasure and violence are linked in his white community—his mother is laughing, and his father is ready to consume some good food.
Back in the present, thinking of the protest leader in his cell, the lynching victim in the fire, and the knife that was used to kill him, Jesse becomes aroused and starts to touch himself, letting out a howling sound as he drags Grace awake. She stares at him and, laughing and crying, he starts having sex with her, whispering, “I’m going to do you like a nigger… love me just like you’d love a nigger.” Grace moans and Jesse becomes aroused thinking of the coming morning, putting more effort into their sex than usual. Before he finishes, morning arrives.
Jesse’s arousal while thinking about violence perpetrated against Black men makes sense now—he learned as a child to find pleasure in Black pain, especially in the emasculation of Black men. He tells Grace that he will “do [her] like a nigger” because it is only by channeling the perceived sexual prowess of Black men that he feels powerful. Though the story ends with Jesse feeling optimistic about the coming morning (a symbol for the future), readers can understand the perversion and racism that undergirds his optimism and can also sense that, given the power of the civil rights movement, his optimism will not last.