The Man symbolizes any form of oppression or discrimination that holds back poor people like Denver. Although “the Man” is primarily Denver’s term for any wealthy landowner who leases his property to sharecroppers—and is thus their master—it also becomes the embodiment of systems of racism, slavery, and even poverty that exploit poor individuals and keep them from succeeding. In contrast with traditional slave owners, the Man does not ensnare individuals through legal ownership of their bodies, but through keeping them dependent on his provision for survival, beholden to their debts, too poor to move on and ignorant of other opportunities to succeed or develop themselves.
Although it would be easy to merely demonize the Man, both Ron and Denver are careful to provide a balanced perspective and recognize that, as oppressive as the Man is, he is ultimately human, with the same mixture of good and bad qualities as any human being. In Denver’s experience, the Man holds him in dependent, subjugated condition and keeps him utterly ignorant of the world around him, and yet lets him earn a new bicycle as a child and gives him a place to stay on his property as an adult. As a child, Denver’s best friend, Bobby, is the Man’s son and is a loving and self-sacrificing companion to Denver. In the same way, although Ron initially hates the Man as an oppressive figure of Denver’s past, he realizes that his granddaddy, himself a cotton farmer though not a sharecropper, was rather similar to the Man—even though he paid a fair wage to his black workers, he was still deeply racist. In this depiction, the story casts the Man not as an utterly villainous figure, but a human being who inherits and participates in an exploitative, oppressive system.
The Man Quotes in Same Kind of Different as Me
Folks say the bayou in Red River Parish is full to its pea-green brim with the splintery bones of colored folks that white men done fed to the gators for covetin their women, or maybe just lookin cross-eyed. Wadn’t like it happened ever day. But the chance of it, the threat of it, hung over the cotton fields like a ghost.
A lotta folks called [sharecropping] a new kinda slavery. Lotta croppers (even white ones, what few there was in Louisiana) didn’t have just one massa, thye had two. The first massa was the Man that owned the land you was workin. The second massa was whoever owned the store where you got your goods on credit. Someimes both a’ them was the same Man; sometimes it was a different Man.
Purty soon [Bobby’s] people figured out we was friends, but they didn’t really try to keep us from associatin, ‘specially since I was the only boy on the place right around his age and he needed somebody to play with and keep outta trouble. They detected he was givin me food, so they put a little wood table outside the back door for met to eat on. After a while, once Bobby’d get his food, he’d come right on out and me and him’d sit at that little table and eat together.
It got to be the 1960s. All them years I worked for them plantations, the Man didn’t tell me there was colored schools I coulda gone to, or that I coulda learned a trade […] I didn’t know about World War II, the war in Korea, or the one in Vietnam. And I didn’t know colored folks had been risin up all around Louisiana for years, demandin better treatment.
I didn’t know I was different.
It seemed manipulative to me to make the hungry sit like good dogs for their supper. And it did not surprise me that even when Brother Bill split the air with one of his more rousing sermons, not a single soul ever burst through the chapel doors waving their hands and praising Jesus. At least not while we were there.
It was at Starbucks that I learned about twentieth-century slavery. Not the slavery of auction blocks, of young blacks led away in ropes and chains. Instead, it was a slavery of debt-bondage, poverty, ignorance, and exploitation. A slavery in which the Man, of whom Denver’s “Man” was only one among many, held all the cards and dealt them mostly from the bottom of the deck, the way his daddy had taught him, and his granddaddy before that.
What kind of man was the Man? For decades, one Man kept sharecroppers barefoot and poor, but let a little colored boy earn a brand-new red Schwinn. Another Man let an old black woman live on his place rent-free long after she’d stopped working in the fields. A third Man kept Denver ignorant and dependent, but provided for him well beyond the time he probably could have done without his labor.