As much as the crime committed in this book is based on events that took place in the 1950s, the sentiments expressed by both sides of the divide might as well be about the state of race in America now.
In a small Southern town, a white man murders a black man, then throws his body in the weeds. With this act of violence–which is loosely based on the notorious 1955 killing of Emmett Till–James Baldwin launches an unsparing and at times agonizing probe of the wounds of race. For where once a white storekeeper could have shot a “boy” like Richard Henry with impunity, times have changed. And centuries of brutality and fear, patronage and contempt, are about to erupt in a moment of truth as devastating as a shotgun blast.
In his award-winning play, Baldwin turns a murder and its aftermath into an inquest in which even the most well-intentioned whites are implicated–and in which even a killer receives his share of compassion.
I loved the author’s note at the beginning of the book saying he didn’t want to write a play and turned around and wrote a great piece of theatre that (unfortunately) still resonates today. It’s scary how accurate Baldwin is able to write both sides of the narrative so concisely from the bitterness of the blacktown residents towards “Mr. Charlie” (a generic term for all white men) and the twisted logic behind the whitetown residents racism (they’re very big on separate but equal…but only like 3/4ths equal).
Even with all the anger and racism and sexism, the most annoying aspect of the story is the white male character that is supposed to be the middle ground between the two parts of town. He presents himself as a friend to the Blacks and crusader for truth but also lies under oath because the white defendant is an old friend. This character, Parnell, is repeatedly positioned in a manner that the reader/viewer is supposed to relate to him but in reality, he turned his friend in to absolve him of any guilt, knowing he would always side with whitetown.
It’s not a particularly difficult piece to read and imagine (especially in this day in age), and if anything does shed some light on issues that still plague America today.
My Rating (stars out of 5):