There was no day for him now, and there was no night; there was but a long stretch of time, a long stretch of time that was very short; and then—the end. Toward no one in the world did he feel any fear now, for he knew that fear was useless; and toward no one in the world did he feel any hate now, for he knew that hate would not help him.
Though they carried him from one police station to another, though they threatened him, persuaded him, bullied him, and stormed him, he steadfastly refused to speak. Most of the time he sat with bowed head, staring at the floor; or he lay full length upon his stomach, his face buried in the crook of an elbow, just as he lay now upon a cot with the pale yellow sunshine of February sky falling obliquely upon him through the cold steel bars of the Eleventh Street Police Station.
Food was brought to him upon trays and an hour later the trays were taken away, untouched. They gave him packages of cigarettes, but they lay on the floor, unopened. He would not even drink water. He simply lay or sat, saying nothing, not noticing when anyone entered or left his cell. When they wanted him to go from one place to another, they caught him by the wrist and led him; he went without resistance, walking always with dragging feet, head down. Even when they snatched him up by the collar, his weak body easily lending itself to be manhandled, he looked without hope or resentment, his eyes like two still pools of black ink in his flaccid face. No one had seen him save the officials and he had asked to see no one. Not once during the three days following his capture had an image of what he had done come into his mind. He had thrust the whole thing back of him, and there it lay, monstrous and horrible. He was not so much in a stupor, as in the grip of a deep psychological resolution not to react to anything.
Having been thrown by an accidental murder into a position where he had sensed a possible order and meaning in his relations with the people about him; having accepted the moral guilt and responsibility for that murder because it had made him feel free for the first time in his life; having felt in his heart some obscure need to be at home with people and having demanded ransom money to enable him to do it—having done all this and failed, he chose not to struggle any more. With a supreme act of will springing from the essence of his being, he turned away from his life and the long train of disastrous consequences that had flowed from it and looked wistfully upon the dark face of ancient waters upon which some spirit had breathed and created him, the dark face of the waters from which he had been first made in the image of a man with a man's obscure need and urge; feeling that he wanted to sink back into those waters and rest eternally.
And yet his desire to crush all faith in him was in itself built upon a sense of faith. The feeling of his body reasoned that if there could be no merging with the men and women about him, there should be a merging with some other part of the natural world in which he lived. Out of the mood of renunciation there sprang up in him again the will to kill. But this time it was not directed outward toward people, but inward, upon himself. Why not kill that wayward yearning within him that had led him to this end? He had reached out and killed and had not solved anything, so why not reach inward and kill that which had duped him? This feeling sprang up of itself, organically, automatically; like the rotted hull of a seed forming the soil in which it should grow again.
And, under and above it all, there was the fear of death before which he was naked and without defense; he had to go forward and meet his end like any other living thing upon the earth. And regulating his attitude toward death was the fact that he was black, unequal, and despised. Passively, he hungered for another orbit between two poles that would let him live again; for a new mode of life that would catch him up with the tension of hate and love. There would have to hover above him, like the stars in a full sky, a vast configuration of images and symbols whose magic and power could lift him up and make him live so intensely that the dread of being black and unequal would be forgotten; that even death would not matter, that it would be a victory. This would have to happen before he could look them in the face again: a new pride and a new humility would have to be born in him, a humility springing from a new identification with some part of the world in which he lived, and this information forming the basis for a new hope that would function in him as pride and dignity.
But maybe it would never come; maybe there was no such thing for him; maybe he would have to go to his end just as he was, dumb, driven, with the shadow of emptiness in his eyes. Maybe this was all. Maybe the confused promptings, the excitement, the tingling, the elation—maybe they were false lights that led nowhere. Maybe they were right when they said that a black skin was bad, the covering of an apelike animal. Maybe he was just unlucky, a man born for dark doom, an obscene joke happening amid a colossal din of siren screams and white faces and circling lances of light under a cold and silken sky. But he could not feel that for long; just as soon as his feelings reached such a conclusion, the conviction that there was some way out surged back into him, strong and powerful, and, in his present state, condemning and paralyzing.
And then one morning a group of men came and caught him by the wrists and led him into a large room in the Cook County Morgue, in which there were many people. He blinked from the bright lights and heard loud and excited talking. The compact array of white faces and the constant flashing bulbs for pictures made him stare in mounting amazement. His defense of indifference could protect him no longer. At first he thought that it was the trial that had begun, and he was prepared to sink back into his dream of nothingness. But it was not a court room. It was too informal for that. He felt crossing his feelings a sensation akin to the same one he had had when the reporters had first come into Mr. Dalton's basement with their hats on, smoking cigars and cigarettes, asking questions; only now it was much stronger. There was in the air a silent mockery that challenged him. It was not their hate he felt; it was something deeper than that. He sensed that in their attitude toward him they had gone beyond hate. He heard in the sound of their voices a patient certainty; he saw their eyes gazing at him with calm conviction. Though he could not have put it into words, he felt that not only had resolved to put him to death, but that they were determined to make his death mean more that a mere punishment; that they regarded him as a figment of that black world which they feared and were anxious to keep under control. The atmosphere of the crowd told him that they were going to use his death as a bloody symbol of fear to wave before the eyes of that black world. And as he felt it, rebellion rose in him. He had sunk to the lowest point this side of death, but when he felt his life again threatened in a way that meant that he was to go down the dark road a helpless spectacle of sport for others, he sprang back into action, alive, contending.
He tried to move his hands and found that they were shackled by strong bands of cold steel to white wrists of policemen sitting to either side of him. He looked round; a policeman stood in front of him and one in back. He heard a sharp, metallic click and his hands were free. There was a rising murmur of voices and he sensed that it was caused by his movements. Then his eyes became riveted on a white face, tilted slightly upward. The skin had a quality of taut anxiety and around the oval of white face was a framework of whiter hair. It was Mrs. Dalton, sitting quietly, her frail, waxen hands folded in her lap. Bigger remembered as he looked at her that moment of stark terror when he had stood at the side of the bed in the dark blue room hearing his heart pound against his ribs with his fingers upon the pillow pressing down upon Mary's face to keep her from mumbling.
Sitting beside Mrs. Dalton was Mr. Dalton, looking straight before him with wide-open, unblinking eyes. Mr. Dalton turned slowly and looked at Bigger and Bigger's eyes fell.
He saw Jan: blond hair; blue eyes; a sturdy, kind face looking squarely into his own. Hot shame flooded him as the scene in the car came back; he felt again the pressure of Jan's fingers upon his hand. And then shame was replaced by guilty anger as he recalled Jan's confronting him upon the sidewalk in the snow.
He was getting tired; the more he came to himself, the more a sense of fatigue seeped into him. He looked down at his clothes; they were damp and crumpled and the sleeves of his coat were drawn halfway up his arms. His shirt was open and he could see the black skin of his chest. Suddenly, he felt his fingers of his right hand throb with pain. Two fingernails were torn off. He could not remember how it had happened. He tried to move his tongue and found it swollen. His lips were dry and cracked and he wanted water. He felt giddy. The lights and faces whirled slowly, like a merry-go-round. He was falling swiftly through space….
When he opened his eyes he was stretched out upon a cot. A white face loomed above him. He try to lift his body and was pushed back.
"Take it easy, boy. Here; drink this."
A glass touched his lips. Ought he to drink? But what difference did it make? He swallowed something warm; it was milk. When the glass was empty he lay upon his back and stared at the white ceiling; the memory of Bessie and the milk she had warmed for him came back strongly. Then the image of her death came and he closed his eyes, trying to forget. His stomach growled; he was feeling better. He heard a low drone of voices. He gripped the edge of the cot and sat up.
"Hey! How're you feeling, boy?"
"Hunh?" he grunted. It was the first time he had spoken since they had caught him.
"How're you feeling?"
He closed his eyes and turned his head away, sensing that they were white and he was black, that they were the captors and he the captive.
"He's coming out of it."
"Yeah. That crowd must've got 'im."
"Say, boy! You want something to eat?"
He did not answer.
"Get 'im something. He doesn't know what he wants."
"You better lie down, boy. You'll have to go back to the inquest this afternoon."
He felt their hands pushing him back onto the cot. The door closed; he looked round. He was alone. The room was quiet. He had come out into the world again. He had not tried to; it had just happened. He was being turned here and there by a surge of strange forces he could not understand. It was not to save his life that he had come out; he did not care what they did to him. They could place him in the electric chair right now, for all he cared. It was to save his pride that he had come. He did not want them to make sport of him. If they had killed him that night when they were dragging him down the steps, that would have been a deed born of their strength over him. But he felt they had no right to sit and watch him, to use him for whatever they wanted.
The door opened and a policeman brought in a tray of food, set it in a chair next to him and left. There was steak and fried potatoes and coffee. Gingerly, he cut a piece of steak and put it into his mouth. It tasted so good that he tried to swallow it before he chewed it. He sat on the edge of the cot and drew the chair forward so that he could reach the food. He ate so fast that his jaws ached. He stopped and held the food in his mouth, feeling the juices of his glands flowing round it. When he was through, he lit a cigarette, stretched out upon the cot and closed his eyes. He dozed off to an uneasy sleep.
Then suddenly he sat upright. He had not seen a newspaper in a long time. What were they saying now? He got up; he swayed and the room lurched. He was still weak and giddy. He leaned against the wall and walked slowly to the door. Cautiously, he turned the knob. The door swung in and he looked into the face of a policeman.
"What's the matter, boy?"
He saw a heavy gun sagging at the man's hip. The policeman caught him by the wrist and led him back to the cot.
"Here; take it easy."
"I want a paper," he said.
"Hunh? A paper?"
"I want to read the paper."
"Wait a minute. I'll see."
The policeman went out and presently returned with an armful of papers.
"Here you are, boy. You're in 'em all."
He did not turn to the papers until after the man had left the room. Then he spread out the Tribune and saw: NEGRO RAPIST FAINTS AT INQUEST. He understood now; it was the inquest he had been taken to. He had fainted and they had brought him here. He read:
Overwhelmed by the sight of his accusers, Bigger Thomas, Negro sex-slayer, fainted dramatically this morning at the inquest of Mary Dalton, millionaire Chicago heiress.
Emerging from a stupor for the first time since his capture last Monday night, the black killer sat cowed and fearful as hundreds sought to get a glimpse of him.
"He looks exactly like an ape!" exclaimed a terrified young white girl who watched the black slayer being loaded onto a stretcher after he had fainted.
Though the Negro killer's body does not seem compactly built, he gives the impression of possessing abnormal physical strength. He is about five feet, nine inches tall and his skin is exceedingly black. His lower jaw protrudes obnoxiously, reminding one of a jungle beast.
His arms are long, hanging in a dangling fashion to his knees. It is easy to imagine how this man, in the grip of a brain-numbing sex passion, overpowered little Mary Dalton, raped her, murdered her, beheaded her, then stuffed her body into a roaring furnace to destroy the evidence of his crime.
His shoulders are huge, muscular, and he keeps them hunched, as if about to spring upon you at any moment. He looks at the world with a strange, sullen, fixed-from-under stare, as though defying all efforts of compassion.
All in all, he seems a beast utterly untouched by the softening influences of modern civilization. In speech and manner he lacks the charm of the average, harmless, genial, grinning southern darky so beloved by the American people.
The moment the killer made his appearance at the inquest, there were shouts of "Lynch 'im! Kill 'im!"
But the brutish Negro seemed indifferent to his fate, as though inquests, trials, and even the looming certainty of the electric chair held no terror for him. He acted like an earlier missing link in the human species. He seemed out of place in a white man's civilization.
An Irish police captain remarked with deep conviction: "I'm convinced that death is the only cure for the likes of him."
For three days the Negro has refused all nourishment. Police believe that he is either trying to starve himself to death and cheat the chair, or that he is trying to excite sympathy for himself.
From Jackson, Mississippi, came a report yesterday from Edward Robertson, editor of the Jackson Daily Star, regarding Bigger Thomas' boyhood there. The editor wired:
"Thomas comes of a poor darky family of a shiftless and immoral variety. He was raised here and is known to local residents as an irreformable sneak thief and liar. We were unable to send him to the chain gang because of his extreme youth.
"Our experience here in Dixie with such depraved types of Negroes has shown that only the death penalty, inflicted in a public and dramatic manner, has any influence upon their peculiar mentality. Had that nigger Thomas lived in Mississippi and committed such a crime, no power under Heaven could have saved him from death at the hands of indignant citizens.
"I think it but proper to inform you that in many quarters it is believed that Thomas, despite his dead-black complexion, may have a minor portion of white blood in his veins, a mixture which generally makes for a criminal and intractable nature.
"Down here in Dixie we keep Negroes firmly in their places and we make them know that if they so much as touch a white woman, good or bad, they cannot live.
"When Negroes become resentful over imagined wrongs, nothing brings them to their senses so quickly as when citizens take the law into their hands and make an example out of a trouble-making nigger.
"Crimes such as the Bigger Thomas murders could be lessened by segregating all Negroes in parks, playgrounds, cafés, theatres, and street cars. Residential segregation is imperative. Such measures tend to keep them as much as possible out of direct contact with the white women and lessen their attacks against them.
"We of the South believed that the North encourages Negroes to get more education than they are organically capable of absorbing, with the result that northern Negroes are generally more unhappy and restless that those of the South. If separate schools were maintained, it would be fairly easy to limit the Negroes' education by regulating the appropriation of moneys through city, county, and state legislative bodies.
"Still another psychological deterrent can be attained by conditioning Negroes so that they have to pay deference to the white person with whom they come in contact. This is done by regulating their speech and actions. We have found that the injection of an element of constant fear has aided us greatly in handling the problem."
He lowered the paper; he could not read any more. Yes, of course; they were going to kill him; but they were having this sport with him before they did. He held very still; he was trying to make a decision; not thinking, but feeling it out. Ought he to go back behind his wall? Could he go back now? He felt that he could not. But would not any effort he made not turn out like the others? Why go forward and meet more hate? He lay on the cot, feeling as he had felt that night when his fingers had gripped the icy edges of the water tank under the roving flares of light, knowing that men crouched below him with guns and tear gas, hearing the screams of sirens and shouts rising thirstily from ten thousand throats….
Overcome with drowsiness, he closed his eyes; then opened then abruptly. The door swung in and he saw a black face. Who was this? A tall, well-dressed black man came forward and paused. Bigger pulled up and leaned on his elbow. The man came all the way to the cot and stretched forth a dingy palm, touching Bigger's hand.
"Mah po' boy! May the good Lawd have mercy on yuh."
He stared at the man's jet-black suit and remembered who he was: Reverend Hammond, the pastor of his mother's church. And at once he was on guard against the man. He shut his heart and tried to stifle all feeling in him. He feared that the preacher would make him feel remorseful. He wanted to tell him to go; but so closely associated in his mind was the man with his mother and what she stood for that he could not speak. In his feelings he could not tell the difference between what this man evoked in him and what he had read in the papers; the love of his own kind and the hate of others made him feel equally guilty now.
"How yuh feel, son?" the man asked; he did not answer and the man's voice hurried on: "Yo' ma ast me t' come 'n'see yuh. She wants t' come too."
The preacher knelt upon the concrete floor and closed his eyes. Bigger clamped his teeth and flexed his muscles; he knew what was coming.
"Lawd Jesus, turn Yo' eyes 'n' look inter the heart of this po' sinner! Yuh said mercy wuz awways Yo's 'n' ef we ast fer it on bended knee Yuh'd po' it out inter our hearts 'n' make our cups run over! We's astin' Yuh t' po' out Yo' mercy now, Lawd! Po' it out fer this po' sinner boy who stan's in deep need of it! Ef his sins be as scarlet, Lawd, wash 'em white as snow! Fergive 'im fer whutever he's done, Lawd! Let the light of Yo' love guide 'im th'u these dark days! 'N' he'p them who's a-tryin' to he'p 'im, Lawd! Enter inter they hearts 'n' breathe compassion on they sperits! We ast this in the nama Yo' Son Jesus who died on the cross 'n' gave us the mercy of Yo' love! Ahmen…."
Bigger stared unblinkingly at the white wall before him as the preacher's words registered themselves in his consciousness. He knew without listening what they meant; it was the old voice of his mother telling of suffering of hope, of love beyond this world. And he loathed it because it made him feel as condemned and guilty as the voice of those who hated him.
"Fergit ever'thing but yo' soul, son. Take yo' mind off ever'thing but eternal life. Fergit whut the newspaper say. Fergit youh's black. Gawd looks past yo' skin 'n' inter yo' soul, son. He's lookin' at the only parta yuh that's His. He wants yuh 'n' He loves yuh. Give yo'se'f t' 'Im, son. Lissen, lemme tell yuh why yuh's here; lemme tell yuh a story tha'll make yo' heart glad…."
Bigger sat very still, listening and not listening. If someone had afterwards asked him to repeat the preacher's words, he would not have been able to do so. But he felt and sensed their meaning. As the preacher talked there appeared before him a vast black silent void and the images of the preacher swam in that void, grew large and powerful; familiar images which his mother had given him when he was a child at her knee; images which in turn aroused impulses long dormant, impulses that he had suppressed and sought to shunt from his life. They were images which had once given him a reason for living, had explained the world. Now they sprawled before his eyes and seized his emotions in a spell of awe and wonder.
… an endless reach of deep murmuring waters upon those face was darkness and there was no form no shape no sun no stars and no land and a voice came out of the darkness and the waters moved to obey and there emerged slowly a huge spinning ball and the voice said there be light and there was light and it was good light and the voice said let there be a firmament and the waters parted and there was a vast space over the waters which formed into clouds stretching above the waters and like an echo the voice came from far away saying let dry land appear and with thundering rustling the waters drained off and mountains peak reared into view and there were valleys and rivers and the voice called the dry land earth and the waters seas and the earth grew grass and trees and flowers that gave off seed that fell to the earth to grow again and the earth was lit by the light of a million stars and for the day there was a sun and for the night there was a moon and there were days and weeks and months and years and the voice called out of the twilight and moving creatures came forth out of the great waters whales and all kinds of living creeping things and on the land there were beasts and cattle and the voice said let us make man in our own image and from the dusty earth a man rose up and loomed against the night and the moon and they lived as one flesh and there was no Pain no Longing no Time no Death and Life was like the flowers that bloomed round them in the garden of earth and out of the clouds came a voice saying eat not of the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden, neither touch it, lest ye die….
The preacher's words ceased droning. Bigger looked at him out of the corners of his eyes. The preacher's face was black and sad and earnest and made him feel a sense of guilt deeper than that which even his murder of Mary had made him feel. He had killed within himself the preacher's haunting picture of life even before he had killed Mary; that had been his first murder. And now the preacher made it walk before his eyes like a ghost in the night, creating within him a sense of exclusion that was as cold as a block of ice. Why should this thing rise now to plague him after he had pressed a pillow of fear and hate over its face to smother it to death? To those who wanted to kill him he was not human, not included in that picture of Creation; and that was why he had killed it. To live, he had created a new world for himself, and for that he was to die.
Again the preacher's words seeped into his feelings:
"Son, yuh know whut tha' tree wuz? It wuz the tree of knowledge. It wuzn't enuff fer man t' be like Gawd, he wanted t' know why. 'N' all Gawd wanted 'im t' do wuz bloom like the flowers in the fiel's, live as chillun. Man wanted t' know why 'n' he fell from light t' darkness, from love t' damnation, from blessedness t' shame. 'N' Gawd cast 'em outa the garden 'n' tol' the man he had t' git his bread by the sweat of his brow 'n' tol' the woman she had t' bring fo'th her chillun in pain 'n' sorrow. The worl' turned ergin 'em 'n' they had t' fight the worl' fer life…."
… the man and the woman walked fearfully among trees their hands covering their nakedness and back of them high in the twilight against the cloud an angel waved a flaming sword driving them out of the garden into the wild night of cold wind and tears and pain and death and that man and woman took their food and burnt it to send smoke to the sky begging forgiveness….
"Son, fer thousan's of years we been prayin' for Gawd t' take the' cuss off us. Gawd heard our prayers 'n' said He'd show us a way back t' 'Im. His Son Jesus came down t' earth 'n' put on human flesh 'n' lived 'n' died t' show us the way. Jesus let men crucify 'Im; but His death wuz a victory. He showed us tha' t' live in this worl' wuz t' be crucified by it. This worl' ain' our home. Life ever' day is a crucifixion. There ain' but one way out, son, 'n' tha's Jesus' way, the way of love 'n' fergiveness. Be like Jesus. Don't resist. Thank Gawd tha' He done chose this way fer yuh t' come t' 'Im. It's love tha's gotta save yuh, son. Yuh gotta b'lieve tha' Gawd gives eternal life th'u the love of Jesus. Son, look at me…."
Bigger's black face rested in his hands and he did not move.
"Son, promise me yuh'll stop hatin' long enuff fer Gawd's love t' come inter yo' heart."
Bigger said nothing.
"Won't yuh promise, son?"
Bigger covered his eyes with his hands.
"Jus' say yuh'll try, son."
Bigger felt that if the preacher kept asking he would leap up and strike him. How could he believe in that which he had killed? He was guilty. The preacher rose, sighed, and drew from his pocket a small wooden cross with a chain upon it.
"Look, son. Ah'm holdin' in mah hands a wooden cross taken from a tree. A tree is the worl', son. 'N' nailed t' this tree is a sufferin' man. Tha's whut life is, son. Sufferin'. How kin yuh keep from b'lievin' the word of Gawd when Ah'm holdin' befo' yo' eyes the only thing tha' gives a meanin' t' yo' life? Here, lemme put it roun' yo' neck. When yuh git alone, look at this cross, son, 'n' b'lieve…."
They were silent. The wooden cross hung next to the skin of Bigger's chest. He was feeling the words of the preacher, feeling that life was flesh nailed to the world, a longing spirit imprisoned in the days of the earth.
He glanced up, hearing the doorknob turn. The door opened and Jan stood framed in it, hesitating. Bigger sprang to his feet, galvanized by fear. The preacher also stood, took a step backward, bowed, and said,
"Good mawnin', suh."
Bigger wondered what Jan could want of him now. Was he not caught and ready for trial? Would not Jan get his revenge? Bigger stiffened as Jan walked to the middle of the floor and stood facing him. Then it suddenly occurred to Bigger that he need not be standing, that he had no reason to fear bodily harm from Jan here in jail. He sat and bowed his head; the room was quiet, so quiet that Bigger heard the preacher and Jan breathing. The white man upon whom he tried to blame his crime stood before him and he sat waiting to hear angry words. Well, why didn't he speak? He lifted his eyes; Jan was looking straight at him and he looked away. But Jan's face was not angry. If he were not angry, then what did he want? He looked again and saw Jan's lips move to speak, but no words came. And when Jan did speak his voice was low and there were long pauses between the words; it seemed to Bigger that he was listening to a man talk to himself.
"Bigger, maybe I haven't the words to say what I want to say, but I'm going to try…. This thing hit me like a bomb. It t-t-took me all week to get myself together. They had me in jail and I couldn't for the life of me figure out what was happening…. I—I don't want to worry you, Bigger. I know you're in trouble. But there's something I just got to say…. You needn't talk to me unless you want to, Bigger. I think I know something of what you're feeling now. I'm not dumb, Bigger; I can understand, even if I didn't seem to understand that night…." Jan paused, swallowed, and lit a cigarette. "Well, you jarred me…. I see now. I was kind of blind. I—I just wanted to come here and tell you that I'm not angry…. I'm not angry and I want you to let me help you. I don't hate you for trying to blame this thing on me…. Maybe you had good reasons…. I don't know. And maybe in a certain sense, I'm the one who's really guilty…." Jan paused again and sucked long and hard at his cigarette, blew the smoke out slowly and nervously bit his lips. "Bigger, I've never done anything against you and your people in my life. But I'm a white man and it would be asking too much to ask you not to hate me, when every white man you see hates you. I—I know my…. my face looks like theirs to you, even though I don't feel like they do. But I didn't know we were so far apart until that night…. I can understand now why you pulled that gun on me when I waited outside that house to talk to you. It was the only thing you could have done; but I didn't know my white face was making you feel guilty, condemning you…." Jan's lips hung open, but no words came from them; his eyes searched the corners of the room.
Bigger sat silently, bewildered, feeling that he was on a vast blind wheel being turned by stray gusts of wind. The preacher came forward.
"Is yuh Mistah Erlone?"
"Yes," said Jan, turning.
"Tha' wuz a mighty fine thing you jus' said, suh. Ef anybody needs he'p, this po' boy sho does. Ah'm Reveren' Hammon'."
Bigger saw Jan and the preacher shake hands.
"Though this thing hurt me, I got something out of it," Jan said, sitting down and turning to Bigger. "It made me see deeper into men. It made me see things I knew, but had forgotten. I—I lost something, but O got something, too…." Jan tugged at his tie and the room was silent, waiting for him to speak. "It taught me that it's your right to hate me, Bigger. I see now that you couldn't do anything else but that; it was all you had. But, Bigger, if I say you got the right to hate me, then that ought to make things a little different, oughtn't it? Ever since I got out of jail I've been thinking this thing over and I felt that I'm the one who ought to be in jail for murder instead of you. But that can't be, Bigger. I can't take upon myself the blame for what one hundred million people have done." Jan leaned forward and stared at the floor. "I'm not trying to make up to you, Bigger. I didn't come here to feel sorry for you. I don't suppose you're so much worse off than the rest of us who get tangled up in this world. I'm here because I'm trying to live up to this thing as I see it. And it isn't easy, Bigger. I—I loved that girl you killed. I—I loved …" His voice broke and Bigger saw his lips tremble. "I was in jail grieving for Mary and then I thought of all the black men who've been killed, the black men who had to grieve when their people were snatched from them in slavery and since slavery. I thought that if they could stand it, then I ought to." Jan crushed the cigarette with his shoe. "At first, I thought old man Dalton was trying to frame me, and I wanted to kill him. And when I heard that you'd done it, I wanted to kill you. And then I got to thinking. I saw if I killed, this thing would go on and on and never stop. I said, 'I'm going to help that guy, if he lets me.' "
"May Gawd in heaven bless yuh, son," the preacher said.
Jan lit another cigarette and offer one to Bigger; but Bigger refused by keeping his hands folded in front of him and staring stonily at the floor. Jan's words were strange; he had never heard such talk before. The meaning of what Jan had said was so new that he could not react to it; he simply sat, staring, wondering, afraid even to look at Jan.
"Let me be on your side, Bigger," Jan said. "I can fight this thing with you, just like you've started it. I can come from all of these white people and stand here with you. Listen, I got a friend, a lawyer. His name is Max. He understands this thing and wants to help you. Won't you talk to him?"
Bigger understood that Jan was not holding him guilty for what he had done. Was this a trap? He looked at Jan and saw a white face, but an honest face. This white man believed in him, and the moment he felt that belief he felt guilty again; but in a different sense now. Suddenly, this white man had come up to him, flung aside the curtain and walked into the room of his life. Jan had spoken a declaration of friendship that would make other white men hate him: a particle of white rock had detached itself from that looming mountain of white hate and had rolled down the slope, stopping still at his feet. The word had become flesh. For the first time in his life a white man became a human being to him; and the reality of Jan's humanity came in a stab of remorse; he had killed what this man loved and had hurt him. He saw Jan as though someone had performed an operation upon his eyes, or as though someone had snatched a deforming mask from Jan's face.
Bigger started nervously; the preacher's hand came to his shoulder.
"Ah don't wanna break in 'n' meddle where Ah ain' got no bisness, suh," the preacher said in a tone that was militant, but deferring. "But there ain' no usa draggin' no communism in this thing, Mistah. Ah respecks yo' feelin's powerfully, suh; but whu yuh's astin' jus' stirs up mo' hate. Whut this po' boy needs is understandin'…."
"But he's got to fight for it," Jan said.
"Ah'm wid yuh when yuh wanna change men's hearts," the preacher said. "But Ah can't go wid yuh when yuh wanna stir up mo' hate…."
Bigger sat looking from one to the other, bewildered.
"How on earth are you going to change men's hearts when the newspapers are fanning hate into them every day?" Jan asked.
"Gawd kin change 'em!" the preacher said fervently.
Jan turned to Bigger.
"Won't you let my friend help you, Bigger?"
Bigger's eyes looked round the room, as if seeking a means of escape. What could he say? He was guilty.
"Forget me," he mumbled.
"I can't," Jan said.
"It's over for me," Bigger said.
"Don't you believe in yourself?"
"Naw," Bigger whispered tensely.
"You believe enough to kill. You thought you were settling something, or you wouldn't've killed," Jan said.
Bigger stared and did not answer. Did this man believe in him that much?
"I want you to talk to Max," Jan said.
Jan went to the door. A policeman opened it from the outside. Bigger sat, open-mouthed, trying to feel where all this was bearing him. He saw a man's head come into the door, a head strange and white, with silver hair and a lean white face that he had never seen before.
"Come on in," Jan said.
The voice was quiet, firm, but kind; there was about the man's thin lips a faint smile that seemed to have always been there. The man stepped inside; he was tall.
"How are you, Bigger?"
Bigger did not answer. He was doubtful again. Was this a trap of some kind?
"This is Reverend Hammond, Max," Jan said.
Max shook hands with the preacher, then turned to Bigger.
"I want to talk with you," Max said. "I'm from the Labor Defenders. I want to help you."
"I ain't got no money," Bigger said.
"I know that. Listen, Bigger, don't be afraid of me. And don't be afraid of Jan. We're not angry with you. I want to represent you in court. Have you spoken to any other lawyer?"
Bigger looked at Jan and Max again. They seemed all right. But how on earth could they help him? He wanted help, but dared not think that anybody would want to do anything for him now.
"Nawsuh," he whispered.
"How have they treated you? Did they beat you?
"I been sick," Bigger said, knowing that he had to explain why he had not spoken or eaten in three days. "I been sick and don't know."
"Are you willing to let us handle your case?"
"I ain't got no money"
"Forget about that. Listen, they're taking you back to the inquest this afternoon. But you don't have to answer any questions, see? Just sit and say nothing. I'll be there and you won't have to be scared. After the inquest they'll take you to the Cook County Jail and I'll be over to talk with you."
"Here; take these cigarettes."
"Thank you, suh."
The door swung in and a tall, big-faced man with gray eyes came forward hurriedly. Max and Jan and the preacher stood to one side. Bigger stared at the man's face; it teased him. Then he remembered: it was Buckley, the man whose face he had seen the workmen pasting upon a billboard a few mornings ago. Bigger listen to the men talk, feeling in the tones of their voices a deep hostility toward one another.
"So, you're horning in again, hunh, Max?"
"This boy's my client and he's signing no confessions," Max said.
"What the hell do I want with his confession?" Buckley asked. "We've got enough evidence on him to put him in a dozen electric chairs."
"I'll see that his rights are protected," Max said.
"Hell, man! You can't do him any good."
Max turned to Bigger.
"Don't let these people scare you, Bigger."
Bigger heard, but did not answer.
"What in hell you reds can get out of bothering with a black thing like that, God only knows," Buckley said, rubbing his hands across his eyes.
"You're afraid that you won't be able to kill this boy before the April elections, if we handle his case, aren't you, Buckley?" Jan asked.
"Why in God's name can't you pick out somebody decent to defend sometimes? Somebody who'll appreciate it. Why do you reds take up with scum like this….?"
"You and your tactics have forced us to defend this boy," Max said.
"What do you mean?" Buckley asked.
"If you had not dragged the name of the Communist Party into this murder, I'd not be here," Max said.
"Hell, this boy signed the name of the Communist Party to the kidnap note…."
"I realized that," Max said. "The boy got the idea from the newspapers. I'm defending this boy because I'm convinced that men like you made him what he is. His trying to blame the Communists for his crime was a natural reaction for him. He had heard men like you lie about the Communists so much that he believed them. If I can make the people of this country understand why this boy acted like he did, I'll be doing more than defending him."
Buckley laughed, bit off the tip of a fresh cigar, lit it and stood puffing. He advanced to the center of the room, cocked his head to one side, took the cigar out of his mouth and squinted at Bigger.
"Boy, did you ever think you'd be as important as you are right now?"
Bigger had been on the verge of accepting the friendship of Jan and Max, and now this man stood before him. What did the puny friendship of Jan and Max mean in the face of a million men like Buckley?
"I'm the State Attorney," Buckley said, walking from one end of the room to the other. His hat was on the back of his head. A white silk handkerchief peeped from the breast pocket of his black coat. He paused by the cot, towering over Bigger. How soon were they going to kill him, Bigger wondered. The breath of warm hope which Jan and Max had blown so softly upon him turned to frost under Buckley's cold gaze.
"Boy, I'd like to give you a piece of good advice. I'm going to be honest with you and tell you that you don't have to talk to me unless you want to, and I'll tell you that whatever you say to me might be used against you in court, see? But, boy, you're caught! That's the first thing you want to understand. We know what you've done. We got the evidence. So you might as well talk."
"He'll decide that with me," Max said.
Buckley and Max faced each other.
"Listen, Max. You're wasting your time. You'll never get this boy off in a million years. Nobody can commit a crime against a family like the Daltons and sneak out of it. Those poor old parents are going to be in that court room to see that this boy burns! This boy killed the only thing they had. If you want to save your face, you and your buddy can leave now and the papers won't know you were in here…."
"I reserve the right to determine whether I should defend him or not," Max said.
"Listen, Max. You think I'm trying to hoodwink you, don't you?" Buckley asked, turning and going to the door. "Let me show you something."
A policeman opened the door and Buckley said,
"Tell 'em to come in."
The room was silent. Bigger sat on the cot, looking at the floor. He hated this; if anything could be done in his behalf, he himself wanted to do it; not others. The more he saw others exerting themselves, the emptier he felt. He saw the policeman fling the door wide open. Mr. and Mrs. Dalton walked slowly and stood; Mr. Dalton was looking at him, his face white. Bigger half-rose in dread, then sat again, his eyes lifted, but unseeing. He sank back to the cot.
Swiftly, Buckley crossed the room and shook hands with Mr. Dalton, and, turning to Mrs. Dalton, said:
"I'm dreadfully sorry, madam."
Bigger saw Mr. Dalton look at him, then at Buckley.
"Did he say who was in this thing with him?" Mr. Dalton asked.
"He's just come out of it," Buckley said. "And he's got a lawyer now"
"I have charged of his defense," Max said.
Bigger saw Mr. Dalton look briefly at Jan.
"Bigger, you're a foolish boy if you don't tell who was in this thing with you," Mr. Dalton said.
Bigger tightened and did not answer. Max walked over to Bigger and placed a hand on hi shoulder.
"I will talk to him, Mr. Dalton," Max said.
"I'm no here to bully this boy," Mr. Dalton said. "But it'll go easier with him if he tells all he knows."
There was silence. The preacher came forward slowly, hat in hand, and stood in front of Mr. Dalton.
"Ah'm a preacher of the gospel, suh," he said. 'N' Ah'm mighty sorry erbout whut's done happened t' yo' daughter. Ah knows of yo' good work, suh. 'N' the likes of this should'na come t' yuh."
Mr. Dalton sighed and said wearily,
"The best thing you can do is help us," Buckley said, turning to Max. "A grave wrong has been done to two people who've helped Negroes more than anybody I know."
"I sympathize with you, Mr. Dalton." Max said. "But killing this boy isn't going to help you or any of us."
"I tried to help him." Mr. Dalton said.
"We wanted to send him to school," said Mrs. Dalton faintly.
"I know," Max said. "But those things don't touch the fundamental problem involved here. This boy comes from an oppressed people. Even if he's done wrong, we must take that in consideration."
"I want you to know that my heart is not bitter," Mr. Dalton said. "What this boy has done will not influence my relations with the Negro people. Why, only today I sent a dozen ping-pong tables to the South Side Boys' Club…."
"Mr. Dalton!" Max exclaimed, coming forward suddenly. "My God, man! Will ping-pong keep men from murdering? Can't you see? Even after loosing your daughter, you're going to keep going in the same direction? Don't you grant as much life-feeling to other men as you have? Could ping-pong have kept you from making your million? This boy and millions like him want a meaningful life, not ping-pong…."
"What do you want me to do?" Mr. Dalton asked coldly. "Do you want me to die and atone for a suffering I never caused? I'm not responsible for the state of this world. I'm doing all one man can I suppose you want me to take my money and fling it out to the millions who have nothing?"
"No; no; no…. Not that," Max said "If you felt that millions of others experienced life as deeply as you, but differently, you'd see that what you're doing doesn't help. Something of a more fundamental nature…."
"Communism!" Buckley boomed, pulling down the corners of his lips. "Gentlemen, let's don't be childish! This boy's going on trial for his life. My job is to enforce the laws of this state…."
Buckley's voice stopped as the door opened and the policeman looked inside.
"What is it?" Buckley asked.
"The boy's folks are here."
Bigger cringed. Not this! Not here; not now! He did not want his mother to come in here now, with these people standing round. He looked about with a wild, pleading expression. Buckley watched him, then turned back to the policeman.
"They have a right to see 'im," Buckley said. "Let 'em come in."
Though he sat, Bigger felt his legs trembling. He was so tense in body and mind that when the door swung in he bounded up and stood in the middle of the room. He saw his mother's face; he wanted to run to her and push her back through the door. She was standing still, one hand upon the doorknob; the other hand clutched a frayed pocketbook, which she dropped and ran to him, throwing her arms around him, crying,
Bigger's body was stiff with dread and indecision. He felt his mother's arms tight about him and he looked over her shoulder and saw Vera and Buddy come slowly inside and stand, looking about timidly. Beyond them he saw Gus and G.H. and Jack, their mouths open in awe and fear. Vera's lips were trembling and Buddy's hands were clenched. Buckley, the preacher, Jan, Max, Mr. and Mrs. Dalton stood along the wall, behind him, looking on silently. Bigger wanted to whirl and blot them from sight. The kind words of Jan and Max were forgotten now. He felt that all of the white people in the room were measuring every inch of his weakness. He identified himself with his family and felt their naked shame under the eyes of the white folks. While looking at his brother and sister and feeling his mother's arms about him; while knowing that Jack and G.H. and Gus were standing awkwardly in the doorway staring at him in curious disbelief—while being conscious of all this, Bigger felt a wild and outlandish conviction surge in him: They ought to be glad! It was a strange but strong feeling, springing from the very depths of his life. Had he not taken fully upon himself the crime of being black? Had he not done the thing which they dreaded above all others? Then they ought not stand here and pity him, cry over him; but look at him and go home, contented, feeling that their shame was wasted away.
"Oh, Bigger, son!" his mother wailed. "We been so worried…. We ain't slept a single night! The police is there all the time…. They stand outside our door…. They watch and follow us everywhere! Son, son…."
Bigger heard her sobs; but what could he do? She ought not to have come here. Buddy came over to him, fumbling with his cap.
"Listen, Bigger, if you didn't do it, just tell me and I'll fix 'en. I'll get a gun and kill four or five of 'em…."
The room gasped. Bigger turned his head quickly and saw that the white faces along the wall were shocked and startled.
"Don't talk that way, Buddy," the mother sobbed. "You want me to die right now? I can't stand no more of this. You mustn't talk that way…. We in enough trouble now…."
"Don't let 'em treat you bad, Bigger," Buddy said stoutly.
Bigger wanted to comfort them in the presence of the white folks, but did not know how. Desperately, he cast about for something to say. Hate and shame boiled in him against the people behind his back; he tried to think of words that would defy them, words that would let them know that he had a world and life of his own in spite of them. And at the same time he wanted those words to stop the tears of his mother and sister, to quiet and soothe the anger of his brother; he longed to stop those tears and that anger because he knew that they were futile, that the people who stood along the wall back of him had the destiny of him and his family in their hands.
"Aw, Ma, don't you-all worry none," he said, amazed at his own words; he was possessed by a queer, imperious nervous energy. "I'll be out of this in no time."
His mother gave him an incredulous stare. Bigger turned his head again and looked feverishly and defiantly at the white faces along the wall. They were staring at him in surprise. Buckley's lips were twisted in a faint smile. Jan and Max looked dismayed. Mrs. Dalton, white as the wall behind her, listened, open-mouthed. The preacher and Mr. Dalton were shaking their heads sadly. Bigger knew that no one in the room, except Buddy, believed him. His mother turned her face away and cried. Vera knelt upon the floor and covered her face with her hands.
"Bigger," his mother's voice came low and quiet; she caught his face between the palms of her trembling hands. "Bigger," she said, "tell me. Is there anything, anything we can do?
He knew that his mother's question had been prompted by his telling her that he would get out of all this. He knew that they had nothing; they were so poor that they were depending upon public charity to eat. He was ashamed of what he had done; he should have been honest with them. It had been a wild and foolish impulse that had made him try to appear strong and innocent before them. Maybe they would remember him only by those foolish words after they had killed him. His mother's eyes were sad, skeptical; but kind, patient, waiting for his answer. Yes; he had to wipe out that lie, not only so that they might know the truth, but to redeem himself in the eyes of those white faces behind his back along the white wall. He was lost; but he would not cringe; he would not lie, not in the presence of that white mountain looming behind him.
"There ain't nothing, Ma. But I'm all right," he mumbled.
There was silence. Buddy lowered his eyes. Vera sobbed louder. She seemed so little and helpless. She should not have come here. Her sorrow accused him. If he could only make her go home. It was precisely to keep from feeling this hate and shame and despair that he had always acted hard and tough toward them; and now he was without defense. His eyes roved the room, seeing Gus and G.H. and Jack. They saw him looking at them and came forward.
"I'm sorry, Bigger," Jack said, his eyes on the floor.
"They picked us up, too," G.H. said, as though trying to comfort Bigger with the fact. "But Mr. Erlone and Mr. Max got us out. They tried to make us tell about a lot of things we didn't do, but we wouldn't tell."
"Anything we can do, Bigger?" Gus asked.
"I'm all right," Bigger said. "Say, when you go, take Ma home, will you?"
"Sure; sure," they said
Again there was silence and Bigger's taut nerves ached to fill it up.
"How you l-like them sewing classes at the Y, Vera?" he asked.
Vera tightened her hands over her face.
"Bigger," his mother sobbed, trying to talk through her tears. "Bigger, honey, she won't go to school no more. She says the other girls look at and make her 'shamed…."
He had lived and acted on the assumption that he was alone, and now he saw that he had not been. What he had done made others suffer. No matter how much he would long for them to forget him, they would not be able to. His family was a part of him, not only in blood, but in spirit. He sat on the cot and his mother knelt at his feet. Her face was lifted to his; her eyes were empty, eyes that looked upward when the last hope on earth had failed.
"I'm praying for you, son. That's all I can do now," she said. The Lord knows I did all I could for you and your sister and brother. I scrubbed and washed and ironed from morning till night, day in and day out, as long as I had strength in my old body. I did all I know how, son, and if I left anything undone, it's just 'cause I didn't know. It's just 'cause your poor old ma couldn't see, son. When I heard the news of what happened, I got on my knees and turned my eyes to God and I asked Him if I had raised you wrong. I asked Him to let me bear your burden if I did wrong by you. Honey, your poor old ma can't do nothing now. I'm old and this is too much for me. I'm at the end of my rope. Listen, son, your poor old ma wants you to promise her one thing…. Honey, when ain't nobody round you, when you alone, get on your knees and tell God everything. Ask Him to guide you. That's all you can do now. Son, promise me you'll go to Him."
"Ahmen!" the preacher intoned fervently.
"Forget me, Ma," Bigger said.
"Son, I can't forget you. You're my boy. I brought you into this world."
"Forget me, Ma."
"Son, I'm worried about you. I can't help it. You got your soul to save. I won't be able to rest easy as long as I'm on this earth if I thought you had gone away from us without asking God for help. Bigger, we had a hard time in this world, but through it all, we been together, ain't we?"
"Yessum," he whispered
"Son, there's a place where we can be together again in the great bye and bye. God's done fixed it so we can. He's fixed a meeting place for us, a place where we can live without fear. No matter what happens to us here, we can be together in God's heaven. Bigger, your old ma's a-begging you to promise her you'll pray."
"She's tellin' yuh right, son," the preacher said.
"Forget me, Ma," Bigger said.
"Don't you want to see your old ma again, son?"
Slowly, he stood up and lifted his hands and tried to touch his mother's face and tell her yes; and as he did so something screamed deep down in him that it was a lie, that seeing her after they killed him would never be. But his mother believed; it was her last hope; it was what had kept her going through the long years. And she was now believing it all the harder because of the trouble he had brought upon her. His hands finally touched her face and he said with a sigh (knowing that it would never be, knowing that his heart did not believe, knowing that when he died, it would be over, forever):
"I'll pray, Ma."
Vera ran to him and embraced him. Buddy looked grateful. His mother was so happy that all she could do was cry. Jack and G.H. and Gus smiled. Then his mother stood up and encircled him with her arms.
"Come here, Vera," she whimpered.
"Come here, Buddy."
"Now, put your arms around your brother," she said.
They stood in the middle of the floor, crying, with their arms locked about Bigger. Bigger held his face stiff, hating them and himself, feeling the white people along the wall watching. His mother mumble a prayer, to which the preacher chanted.
"Lord, here we is, maybe for the last time. You gave me these children, Lord, and told me to raise 'em. If I failed, Lord, I did the best I could (Ahmen!) These poor children's been with me a long time and they's all I got. Lord, please let me see 'em again after the sorrow and suffering of this world! (Hear her, Lawd!) Lord, please let me see 'em again where I can love 'em in peace. Let me see 'em again beyond the grave! (Have mercy, Jesus!) You said You'd heed prayer, Lord, and I'm asking this in the name of Your son."
"Ahmen 'n' Gawd bless yuh, Sistah Thomas," the preacher said.
They took their arms from round Bigger, silently, slowly; then turned their faces away, as though their weakness made them ashamed in the presence of powers greater than themselves.
"We leaving you now with God, Bigger," his mother said. "Be sure and pray, son."
They kissed him.
Buckley came forward.
"You'll have to go now, Mrs. Thomas," he said. He turned to Mr. and Mrs. Dalton. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Dalton. I didn't mean to keep you standing there so long. But you see how things are…."
Bigger saw his mother straighten suddenly and stare at the blind white woman.
"Is you Mrs. Dalton?" she asked.
Mrs. Dalton moved nervously, lifted her thin, white hands and tilted her head. Her mouth came open and Mr. Dalton placed an arm about her.
"Yes," Mrs. Dalton whispered.
"Oh, Mrs. Dalton, come right this way," Buckley said hurriedly.
"No; please," Mrs. Dalton said. "What is it, Mrs. Thomas?"
Bigger's mother ran and knelt on the floor at Mrs. Dalton's feet.
"Please, mam!" she wailed. "Please, don't let 'em kill my boy! You know how a mother feels! Please, mam…. We live in your house…. They done asked us to move…. We ain't got nothing…."
Bigger was paralyzed with shame; he felt violated.
"Ma!" he shouted, more in shame than anger
Max and Jan ran to the black woman and tried to lift her up.
"That's all right, Mrs. Thomas," Max said. "Come with me."
"Wait," Mrs. Dalton said.
"Please, mam! Don't let 'em kill my boy! He ain't never had a chance! He's just a poor boy! Don't let 'em kill 'im! I'll work for you for the rest of my life! I'll do anything you say, mam!" the mother sobbed.
Mrs. Dalton stooped slowly, her hands trembling in the air. She touched the mother's head.
"There's nothing I can do now," Mrs. Dalton said calmly. "It's out of my hands. I did all I could, when I wanted to give your boy a chance at life. You're not to blame for this. You must be brave. Maybe it's better…."
"If you speak to 'em, they'll listen to you, mam," the mother sobbed. "Tell 'em to have mercy on my boy…."
"Mrs. Thomas, it's too late for me to do anything now," Mrs. Dalton said. "You must not feel like this. You have your other children to think of…."
"I know you hate us, mam! You lost your daughter…."
"No; no…. I don't hate you," Mrs. Dalton said.
The mother crawled from Mrs. Dalton to Mr. Dalton.
"You's rich and powerful," she sobbed. "Spare me my boy…."
Max struggled with the black woman and got her to her feet. Bigger's shame for his mother amounted to hate. He stood with clenched fists, his eyes burning. He felt that in another moment he would have leaped at her.
"That's all right, Mrs. Thomas," Max said.
Mr. Dalton came forward.
"Mrs. Thomas, there's nothing we can do," he said. "This thing is out of our hands. Up to a certain point we can help you, but beyond that…. People must protect themselves. But you won't have to move. I'll tell them not to make you move."
The black woman sobbed. Finally, she quieted enough to speak.
"Thank you, sir. God knows I thank you…."
She turned again toward Bigger, but Max led her from the room. Jan got hold of Vera's arm and led her forward, then stopped in the doorway, looking at Jack and G.H. and Gus.
"You boys going to the South Side?"
"Yessuh," they said.
"Come on. I got a car downstairs. I'll take you."
Buddy lingered, looking wistfully at Bigger.
"Good-bye, Bigger," he said.
"Good-bye, Buddy," Bigger mumbled.
The preacher passed Bigger and pressed his arm.
"Gawd bless you, son."
They all left except Buckley. Bigger sat again upon the cot, weak, and exhausted. Buckley stood over him.
"Now, Bigger, you see all the trouble you've caused? Now, I'd like to get this case out of the way as soon as possible. The longer you stay in jail, the more agitation there'll be for and against you. And that doesn't help you any, no matter who tells you it does. Boy, there's not but one thing for you to do, and that's to come clean. I know those reds, Max and Erlone, have told you a lot of things about what they're going to do for you. But, don't believe 'em. They're just after publicity, boy; just after building themselves up at your expense, see? They can't do a damn thing for you! You're dealing with the law now! And if you let those reds put a lot of fool ideas into your head, then you're gambling with your own life."
Buckley stopped and relit his cigar. He cocked his head to one side, listening.
"You hear that? he asked softly.
Bigger looked at him, puzzled. He listened, hearing a faint din.
"Come here, boy. I want to show you something," he said, rising and catching hold of Bigger's arm.
Bigger was reluctant to follow him.
"Come on. Nobody's going to hurt you."
Bigger followed him out of the door; there were several policemen standing on guard in the hallway. Buckley led Bigger to a window through which he looked and saw the streets below crowded with masses of people in all directions.
"See that, boy? Those people would like to lynch you. That's why I'm asking you to trust me and talk to me. The quicker we get this thing over, the better for you. We're going to try to keep 'em from bothering you. But can't you see the longer they stay around here, the harder it'll be for us to handle them?"
Buckley let go of Bigger's arm and hoisted the window; a cold wind swept in and Bigger heard a roar of voices. Involuntarily, he stepped backward. Would they break into the jail? Buckley shut the window and led him back to the room. He sat upon the cot and Buckley sat opposite him.
"You look like an intelligent boy. You see what you're in. Tell me above this thing. Don't let those reds fool you into saying you're not guilty. I'm talking to you as straight as I'd talk to a son of mine. Sign a confession and get this over with."
Bigger said nothing; he sat looking at the floor.
"Was Jan mixed up in this?"
Bigger heard the faint excited sound of the mob voices coming through the concrete walls of the building.
"He proved an alibi and he's free. Tell me, did he leave you holding the bag?"
Bigger heard the far-away clang of a street car.
"If he made you do it, then sign a complaint against him."
Bigger saw the shining tip of the man's black shoes; the sharp creases in his striped trousers; the clear, icy glinting of the eyeglasses upon his high, long nose.
"Boy," said Buckley in a voice so loud that Bigger flinched, "where's Bessie?"
Bigger's eyes widened. He had not thought of Bessie but once since his capture. Her death was unimportant beside that of Mary's; he knew that when they killed him it would be for Mary's death, not Bessie's.
"Well, boy, we found her. You hit her with a brick, but she didn't die right away…."
Bigger's muscles jerked him to his feet. Bessie alive. But the voice droned on and he sat down.
"She tried to get out of that air-shaft, but she couldn't. She froze to death. We got the brick you hit her with. We got the blanket and the quilt and the pillows you took from her room. We got a letter from her purse she had written to you and hadn't mailed, a letter telling you she didn't want to go through with trying to collect the ransom money. You see, boy, we got you. Come on, now, tell me al about it."
Bigger said nothing. He buried his face in his hands.
"You raped her, didn't you? Well, if you won't tell about Bessie, then tell me about that woman you raped and choked to death over on University Avenue last fall."
Was the man trying to scare him, or did he really think he had done other killings?
"Boy, you might just as well tell me. We've got a line on all you ever did. And how about the girl you attacked in Jackson Park last summer? Listen, boy, when you were in your cell sleeping and wouldn't talk, we brought women in to identify you. Two women swore complaints against you. One was the sister of the woman you killed last fall, Mrs. Clinton. The other woman, Miss Ashton, say you attacked her last summer by climbing through the window of her bedroom."
"I ain't bothered no woman last summer or last fall either," Bigger said.
"Miss Ashton identified you. She swears you're the one."
"I don't know nothing about it."
"But Mrs. Clinton, the sister of the woman you killed last fall, came to your cell and pointed you out. Who'll believe you when you say you didn't do it? You killed and raped two women in two days; who'll believe you when you say you didn't rape and kill the others? Come on, boy. You haven't a chance holding out."
"I don't know nothing about other women," Bigger repeated stubbornly.
Bigger wondered how much did the man really know. Was he lying about the other women in order to get him to tell about Mary and Bessie? O were they really trying to pin other crimes upon him?
"Boy, when the newspapers get hold of what we've got on you, you're cooked. I'm not the one who's doing this. The Police Department is digging up the dirt and bringing it to me. Why don't you talk? Did you kill the other women? Or did somebody make you do it? Was Jan in this business? Were the reds helping you? You're a fool if Jan was mixed up in this and you won't tell."
Bigger shifted his feet and listened to the faint clang of another street car passing. The man leaned forward, caught hold of Bigger's arm and spoke while shaking him.
"You're hurting nobody but yourself holding out like this, boy! Tell me, were Mary, Bessie, Mrs. Clinton's sister, and Miss Ashton the only women you raped or killed?
"The words burst out of Bigger:
"I never heard of Miss Clinton or Miss Ashton before!"
"Didn't you attack a girl In Jackson Park last summer?"
"Didn't you choke and rape a woman on University Avenue last fall?"
"Didn't you climb through a window out in Englewood last fall and rape a woman?"
"Naw; naw! I tell you I didn't!"
"You're not telling the truth, boy. Lying won't get you anywhere."
"I am telling the truth!"
"Whose idea was the kidnap note? Jan's?"
"He didn't have nothing to do with it," said Bigger, feeling a keen desire on the man's part to have him implicate Jan.
"What's the use of you holding out, boy? Make it easy for yourself."
Why no talk and get it over with? They knew he was guilty. They could prove it. If he did not talk, then they would say he had committed every crime they could thing of.
"Boy, why didn't you and your pals rob Blum's store like you'd planned to last Saturday?"
Bigger looked at him in surprise. They had found that out, too!
"You didn't think I knew about that, did you? I know a lot more, boy. I know about that dirty trick you and your friend Jack pulled off in the Regal Theatre, too. You wondered how I know it? The manager told us when we were checking up. I know what boys like you do, Bigger. Now, come on. You wrote that kidnap note, didn't you?"
"Yeah," he sighed. "I wrote it."
"Who help you?"
"Who was going to help you to collect the ransom money?"
"Come on. Was it Jan?
"Then why did you kill her?"
Nervously, Bigger's fingers fumbled with a pack of cigarettes and got one out. The man struck a match and held a light for him, but he struck his own match and ignored the offered flame.
"When I saw I couldn't get the money, I killed her to keep her from talking." he said.
"And you killed Mary, too?"
"I didn't mean to kill her, but it don't matter now," he said.
"Did you lay her?"
"You laid Bessie before you killed her. The doctors said so. And now you expect me to believe you didn't lay Mary."
"Didn't Jan lay her first and then you? …"
"But Jan wrote the kidnap note, didn't he?"
"I never saw Jan before that night."
"But didn't he write the note?"
"Naw; I tell you he didn't."
"You wrote the note?"
"Didn't Jan tell you to write it?"
"Why did you kill Mary?"
He did not answer.
"See here, boy. What you say doesn't make sense. You were never in the Dalton home until Saturday night. Yet, in one night a girl is raped, killed, burnt, and the next night a kidnap note is sent. Come on. Tell me everything that happened and about everybody who helped you."
"There wasn't nobody but me. I don't care what happens to me, but you can't make me say things about other people."
"But you told Mr. Dalton that Jan was in this thing, too."
"I was trying to blame it on him."
"Well, come on. Tell me everything that happened."
Bigger rose and went to the window. His hands caught the cold steel bars in a hard grip. He knew as he stood there that he could never tell why he had killed. It was not that he did not really want to tell, but the telling of it would have involved an explanation of his entire life. The actual killing of Mary and Bessie was not what concerned him most; it was knowing and feeling that he could never make anybody know what had driven him to it. His crimes were known, but what he had felt before he committed them would never be known. He would have gladly admitted his guilt if he had thought that in doing so he could have also given in the same breath a sense of the deep, choking hate that had been his life, a hate that he had not wanted to have, but could not help having. How could he do that? The impulsion to try to tell was as deep as had been the urge to kill.
He felt a hand touch his shoulder; he did not turn round; his eyes looked downward and saw the man's gleaning black shoes.
"I know how you feel, boy. You're colored and you feel that you haven't had a square deal, don't you?" the man's voice came low and soft; and Bigger, listening, hated him for telling him what he knew was true. He rested his tired head against the steel bars and wondered how was possible for this man to know so much about him and yet be so bitterly against him. "Maybe you've been brooding about this color question a long time, hunh, boy?" the man's voice continued low and soft. "Maybe you think I don't understand? But I do. I know how it feels to walk along the streets like other people, dressed like them, talking like them, and yet excluded for no reason except that you're black. I know your people. Why, they give me votes out there on the South Side every election. I once talked to a colored boy who raped and killed a woman, just like you raped and killed Mrs. Clinton's sister…."
"I didn't do it!" Bigger screamed.
"Why keep saying that? If you talk, maybe the judge'll help you. Confess it all and get it over with. You'll feel better. Say, listen, if you tell me everything, I'll see that you're sent to the hospital for an examination, see? If they say you're not responsible, then maybe you won't have to die…."
Bigger's anger rose. He was not crazy and he did not want to be called crazy.
"I don't want to go to no hospital."
"It's a way out for you, boy."
"I don't want no way out."
"Listen, start at the beginning. Who was the first woman you ever killed?"
He said nothing. He wanted to talk, but he did not like the note of intense eagerness in the man's voice. He heard the door behind him open; he turned his head just in time to see another white man look in questioningly.
"I thought you wanted me," the man said.
"Yes; come on in," Buckley said.
"Yes; come on in," Buckley said.
The man came in and took a seat, holding a pencil and paper on his knee.
"Here, Bigger," Buckley said, taking Bigger by the arm. "Sit down here and tell me all about it. Get it over with."
Bigger wanted to tell how he had felt when Jan had held his hand; how Mary had made him feel when she asked him about how Negroes lived; the tremendous excitement that had hold of him during the day and night he had been in the Dalton home—but there were no words for him.
"You went to Mr. Dalton's home at five-thirty that Saturday, didn't you?"
"Yessuh," he mumbled.
Listlessly, he talked. He traced his every action. He paused at each question Buckley asked and wondered how he could link up his bare actions with what he had felt; but his words came out flat and dull. White men were looking at him, waiting for his words, and all the feeling of his body vanished, just as they had when he was in the car between Jan and Mary. When he was through, he felt more lost and undone than when he was captured. Buckley stood up; the other white man rose and held out the papers for him to sign. He took the pen in hand. Well, why shouldn't he sign?
He was guilty. He was lost. They were going to kill him. Nobody could help him. They were standing in front of him, bending over him, looking at him, waiting. His hand shook. He signed.
Buckley slowly folded the papers and put them into his pocket. Bigger looked up at the two men, helplessly, wonderingly, Buckley looked at the other white man and smiled.
"That was not as hard as I thought it would be," Buckley said.
"He came through like a clock," the other man said.
Buckley looked down at Bigger and said,
"Just a scared colored boy from Mississippi."
There was a short silence. Bigger felt that they had forgotten him already. Then he heard them speaking.
"Anything else, chief?"
"Naw. I'll be ay my club. Let me know how the inquest turns out."
"I'll be seeing you, chief."
Bigger felt so empty and beaten that he slid to the floor. He heard the feet of the men walking away softly. The door opened and shut. He was alone, profoundly, inescapably. He rolled on the floor and sobbed, wondering what it was that had hold of him, why he was here.
He lay on the cold floor sobbing; but really he was standing up strongly with contrite heart, holding his life in his hands, staring at it with a wondering question. He lay on the cold floor sobbing; but really he was pushing forward with his puny strength against a world too big and too strong for him. He lay on the cold floor sobbing; but really he was groping forward with fierce zeal into a welter of circumstances which he felt contained a water of mercy for the thirst of his heart and brain.
He wept because he had once again trusted his feelings and they had betrayed him. Why should he have felt the need to try to make his feeling known? And why did not he hear resounding echoes of his feelings in the hearts of others? There were times when he did hear echoes, but always they were couched in tones which, living as a Negro, he could not answer or accept without losing face with the world which first evoked in him the song of manhood. He feared and hated the preacher because the preacher had told him to bow down and ask for a mercy he knew he needed; but his pride would never let him do that, not this side of the grave, not while the sun shone. And Jan? And Max? They were telling him to believe in himself. Once before he had accepted completely what his life had made him feel, even unto murder. He had emptied the vessel which life had filled for him and found the emptying meaningless. Yet the vessel was full again, waiting to be poured out. But no! Not blindly this time! He felt that he could not move again unless he swung out from the base of his own feeling; he felt that he would have to have light in order to act now.
He sighed, pulled up off the floor and lay on the cot, half-awake, half-asleep. The door opened and four policemen came and stood above him; one touched his shoulder.
"Come on, boy."
He rose and looked at them questioningly.
"You're going back to the inquest."
They clicked the handcuffs upon his wrists and led him into the hall, to a waiting elevator. The door closed and he dropped downward through space, standing between four tall, silent men in blue. The elevator stopped; the doors opened and he saw a restless crowd of people and heard a babble of voices. They led him through a narrow aisle.
"Gee, isn't he black!"
A hard blow came to his temple and he slumped to the floor. The faces and voices left him. Pain throbbed in his head and the right side of his face numbed. He held up an elbow to protect himself; they yanked him back upon his feet. When his sight cleared he saw policemen struggling with a slender white man. Shouts rose in a mighty roar. To the front of him a white man pounded with a hammerlike piece of wood upon a table.
"Quiet" Or the room'll be cleared of everyone except witnesses!"
The clamor ceased. The policemen pushed Bigger into a chair. Stretching to the four walls of the room was a solid sheet of white faces. Standing with squared shoulders all around were policemen with clubs in hand, silver metal on their chests, faces red and stern, gray and blue eyes alert. To the right of the man at the table, in row of three each, six men sat still and silent, their hats and overcoats on their knees. Bigger looked about and saw the pile of white bones lying atop a table; beside them lay the kidnap note, held in place by a bottle of ink. In the center of the table were white sheets of paper fastened together by a metal clasp; it was his signed confession. And there was Mr. Dalton, white-face, white-haired; and beside him was Mrs. Dalton, still and straight, her face, as always, tilted trustingly upward, to one side. Then he saw the trunk into which he had stuffed Mary's body, the trunk which he had lugged down the stairs and had carried to the station. And, yes, there was the blackened hatchet and a tiny round piece of metal. Bigger felt a tap on his shoulder and looked around; max was smiling to him.
"Take it easy, Bigger. You won't have to say anything here. It won't be long."
The man at the front table rapped again.
"Is there a member of the deceased's family here, one who can give us the family history?"
A murmur swept the room. A woman rose hurriedly and went to the blind Mrs. Dalton, caught hold of her arm, led her forward to a seat to the extreme right of the man at the table, facing the six men in the rows of chairs. That must be Mrs. Patterson, Bigger thought, remembering the woman Peggy had mentioned as Mrs. Dalton's maid.
"Will you please raise your right hand?
Mrs. Dalton's frail, waxen hand went up timidly. The man asked Mrs. Dalton if the testimony she was about to give was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God, and Mrs. Dalton answered,
"Yes, sir; I do."
Bigger sat stolidly, trying not to let the crowd detect any fear in him. His nerves were painfully taut as he hung onto the old woman's words. Under the man's questioning, Mrs. Dalton said that her age was fifty-three, that she lived at 4605 Drexel Boulevard, that she was a retired school teacher, that she was the mother of Mary Dalton and the wife of Henry Dalton. When the man began asking questions relating to Mary, the crowd leaned forward in their seats. Mrs. Dalton said that Mary was twenty-three years of age, single; that she carried about thirty thousand dollars' worth of insurance, that she owned real estate amounting to approximately a quarter of a million dollars, and that she was active right up to the date of her death. Mrs. Dalton's voice came tense and faint and Bigger wondered how much more of this he could stand. Would it not have been much better to have stood up in the full glare of those roving knives of light and let them shoot him down? He could have cheated them out of this show, this hunt, this eager sport.
"Mrs. Dalton," the man said, "I'm the Deputy Coroner and it is with considerable anxiety that I ask you these questions. But it is necessary for me to trouble you in order to establish the identity of the deceased…."
"Yes, sir," Mrs. Dalton whispered.
Carefully, the coroner lifted from the table at his side a tiny piece of blackened metal; he turned, fronted Mrs. Dalton, then paused. The room was so quiet that Bigger could hear the coroner's footsteps on the wooden floor as he walked to Mrs. Dalton's chair. Tenderly, he caught her hand in his and said,
"I'm placing in your hand a metal object which the police retrieved from the ashes of the furnace in the basement of your home. Mrs. Dalton, I want you to feel this metal carefully and tell me if you remember ever having felt it before."
Bigger wanted to turn his eyes away, but he could not. He watched Mrs. Dalton's face; he saw the hand tremble that held the blackened bit of metal. Bigger jerked his head round. A woman began to sob without restrain. A wave of murmurs rose through the room. The coroner took a quick step back to the table and rapped sharply with his knuckles. The room was instantly quiet, saving for the sobbing woman. Bigger looked back to Mrs. Dalton. Both of her hands were now fumbling nervously with the piece of metal; then her shoulders shook. She was crying.
"Do you recognize it?"
"What id it?"
"When did you first come in contact with it?"
Mrs. Dalton composed her face, and, with tears on her cheeks, answered,
"When I was a girl, years ago…."
"Do you remember precisely when?"
"Thirty-five years ago."
"You once owned it?"
"Yes; it was one of a pair."
"Yes, Mrs. Dalton. No doubt the other earring was destroyed in the fire. This one dropped through the grates into the bin under the furnace. Now, Mrs. Dalton, how long did you own this pair of earrings?"
"For thirty-three years."
"How did they come into your possession?"
"Well, my mother gave them to me when I was of age. My grandmother gave them to my mother when she was of age, and I in turn gave them to my daughter when she was of age…."
"What do you mean, of age?"
"And when did you give them to you daughter?"
"About five years ago."
"She wore them all the time?"
"Are you positive that this is one of the same earrings?"
"Yes. There can be no mistake. They were a family heirloom. There are no two others like them. My grandmother had them designed and made to order."
"Mrs. Dalton, when were you last in the company of the deceased?"
"Last Saturday night, or I should say, early Sunday morning."
"At what time?"
"It was nearly two o'clock, I think."
"Where was she?"
"In her room, in bed."
"Were you in the habit of seeing, I mean, in the habit of meeting your daughter at such an hour?"
"No. I knew that she'd planned to go to Detroit Sunday morning. When I heard her come in I wanted to find out why she'd stayed out so late…."
"Did you speak with her?"
"No, I called her several times, but she did not answer."
"Did you touch her?"
"But she did not speak to you?"
"Well, I heard some mumbling…."
"Do you know who it was?"
"Mrs. Dalton, could your daughter by any means, in your judgment, have been dead then, and you not have known or suspected it?"
"I don't know."
"Do you know if your daughter was alive when you spoke to her?"
"I don't know. I assumed she was."
"Was there anyone else in the room at the time?"
"I don't know. But I felt strange there.
"Strange? What do you mean, strange?"
"I—I don't know. I wasn't satisfied, for some reason. It seemed to me that there was something I should have done, or said. But I kept saying to myself, 'She's asleep; that's all.' "
"If you felt so dissatisfied, why did you leave the room without trying to awaken her?"
Mrs. Dalton paused before answering; her thin mouth was wide open and her face tilted far to one side.
"I smelt alcohol in the room," she whispered.
"I thought Mary was intoxicated."
"Had you ever encountered your daughter intoxicated before?"
"Yes; and that was why I thought she was intoxicated then. It was the same odor."
"Mrs. Dalton, if someone had possessed your daughter sexually while she lay on that bed, could you in any way have detected it?"
The room buzzed. The coroner rapped for order.
"I don't know," she whispered.
"Just a few more questions, please, Mrs. Dalton. What aroused your suspicions that something had befallen your daughter?"
"When I went to her room the next morning I felt her bed and found that she had not slept in it. Next I felt in her clothes rack and found that she had not taken the new clothes she had bought."
"Mrs. Dalton, you and your husband have given large sums of money to Negro educational institutions, haven't you?"
"Could you tell us roughly how much?"
"Over five million dollars."
"You bear no ill will toward the Negro people?"
"No; none whatever."
"Mrs. Dalton, please, tell us what was the last thing you did when you stood above your daughter's bed that Sunday morning?"
"I—I…." She paused, lowered her head and dabbed at her eyes. "I knelt at the bedside and prayed…." she said, her words coming in a sharp breath of despair.
"That is all. Thank you, Mrs. Dalton."
The room heaved a sigh. Bigger saw the woman lead Mrs. Dalton back to her seat. Many eyes in the room were fastened upon Bigger now, cold gray and blue eyes, eyes whose tense hate was worse than a shout or a curse. To get rid of that concentrated gaze, he stopped looking, even though his eyes remained open.
The coroner turned to the men sitting in rows to his right and said,
"You gentlemen, the jurors, are any of you acquainted with the deceased or are you members of the family?"
One of the men rose and said,
"Would there be any reason why you could not render a fair and impartial verdict in this?"
"Is there any objection to these men serving as jurors in this case?" the coroner asked of the entire room.
There was no answer.
"In the name of the coroner, I will ask the jurors to rise, pass by this table, and view the remains of the deceased, one Mary Dalton."
In silence the six men rose and filed past the table, each looking at the pile of white bones. When they were seated again, the coroner called,
"We will now hear Mr. Jan Erlone!"
Jan rose, came forward briskly, and was asked to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help him God. Bigger wondered if Jan would turn on him now. He wondered if he could really trust any white man, even this white man who had come and offered him his friendship. He leaned forward to hear. Jan was asked several times if he was a foreigner and Jan said no. The coroner walked close to Jan's chair and leaned the upper part of his body forward and asked in aloud voice,
"Do you believe in social equality for Negroes?"
The room stirred.
"I believe all races are equal…." Jan began.
"Answer yes or no, Mr. Erlone! You're not on a soap box. Do you believe in social equality for Negroes?"
"Are you a member of the Communist Party?"
"In what condition was Miss Dalton when you left her last Sunday morning?"
"What do you mean?"
"Was she drunk?"
"I would not say she was drunk. She had had a few drinks."
"What time did you leave her?"
"It was about one-thirty, I think."
"Was she in the front of the car?"
"Yes; she was in the front seat."
"Had she been in the front seat all along?"
"Was she in the front seat when you left the café?"
"Did you put her in the front seat when you left the car?"
"No; she said she wanted to sit up front."
"You didn't ask her to?"
"When you left her, was she able to get out of the car alone?"
"I think so."
"Had you had any relations with her while in the back seat that would have tended to make her, let us say, stunned, too weak to have gotten out alone?"
Is it true, Mr. Erlone, that Miss Dalton was in no condition to protect herself and you lifted her into that front seat?"
"No! I didn't lift her into the front seat!"
Jan's voice sounded throughout the room. There was a quick buzzing of conversation.
"Why did you leave an unprotected white girl alone in a car with a drunken Negro?"
"I was not aware that Bigger was drunk and I did not consider Mary as being unprotected."
"Had you at any time in the past left Miss Dalton alone in the company of Negroes?
"You had never used Miss Dalton as bait before, had you?"
Bigger was startled by the noise behind him. He turned his head; Max was on his feet.
"Mr. Coroner, I realize that this is not a trial. But the questions being asked now have no earthly relation to the cause and manner of the death of the deceased."
"Mr. Max, we are allowing plenty of latitude here. The grand jury will determine whether the testimony offered here has any relation or not."
"But questions of this sort inflame the public mind…."
"Now, listen, Mr. Max. No question asked in this room will inflame the public mind any more than has the death of Mary Dalton, and you know it. You have the right to question any of these witnesses, but I will not tolerate any publicity-seeking by your kind here!"
"But Mr. Erlone is not on trial here, Mr. Coroner!"
"He is suspected of being implicated in this murder! And we're after the one who killed this girl and the reasons for it! If you think these questions have the wrong construction, you may question the witness when we're through. But you cannot regulate the questions asked here!"
Max sat down. The room was quiet. The coroner paced to and fro a few seconds before he spoke again; his face was red and his lips were pressed tight.
"Mr. Erlone, didn't you give that Negro material relating to the Communist Party?"
"What was the nature of that material?"
"I gave him some pamphlets on the Negro question."
"Material advocating the equality of whites and blacks?"
"It was material which explained …"
"Did that material contain a plea for 'unity of whites and blacks'?"
"Did you, in your agitation of that drunken Negro, tell him that it was all right for him to have sexual relations with white women?"
"Did you advise Miss Dalton to have sexual relations with him?"
"Did you shake hands with that Negro?"
"Did you offer to shake hands with him?"
"Yes. It is what any decent person …"
"Confine yourself to answering the questions, please, Mr. Erlone. We want none of your Communist explanations here. Tell me, did tou eat with that Negro?"
"You invited him to eat?"
"Miss Dalton was at the table when you invited him to sit down?"
"How many times have you eaten with Negroes before?"
"I don't know. Many times."
"You like Negroes?"
"I make no distinctions…."
"Do you like Negroes, Mr. Erlone?"
"I object!" Max shouted. "How on earth is that related to this case!"
"You cannot regulate these questions!" the coroner shouted. "I've told you that before! A woman has been foully murdered. This witness brought the deceased into contact with the last person who saw her alive. We have the right to determine what this witness' attitude was toward that girl and that Negro!" The coroner turned back to Jan. "Now, Mr. Erlone, didn't you ask that Negro to sit in the front seat of the car, between you and Miss Dalton?"
"No; he was already in the front seat."
"But you didn't ask him to get into the back seat, did you?"
"Why didn't you?"
"My God! The man is human! Why don't ask me …?"
"I'm asking these questions and you're answering them. Now, tell me, Mr. Erlone, would you have invited that Negro to sleep with you?"
"I refuse to answer that question!"
"But you didn't refuse that drunken Negro the right to sleep with that girl, did you?"
"His right to associate with her or anybody else was not in question…."
"Did you try to keep that Negro from Miss Dalton?"
"I didn't …"
"Answer yes or no!"
"Have you a sister?"
"Where is she?"
"In New York."
"Is she married?"
"Would you consent for her to marry a Negro?"
"I have nothing to do with whom she marries."
"Didn't you tell that drunken Negro to call you Jan instead of Mr. Erlone?"
"Yes; but …"
"Confine yourself to answering the questions!"
"But. Mr. Coroner, you imply …"
"I'm trying to establish a motive for the murder of that innocent girl!"
"No; you're not! You're trying to indict a race of people and a political party!"
"We want no statements! Tell me, was Miss Dalton in a condition to say good-bye to you when you left in that car with the drunken Negro?"
"Yes. She said good-bye."
"Tell me, how much liquor did you give Miss Dalton that night?"
"I don't know."
"What kind of liquor was it?"
"Why did you prefer rum?"
"I don't know. I just bought rum?"
"Was it to stimulate the body to a great extent?"
"How much was bought?"
"A fifth of a gallon."
"Who paid for it?"
"Did that money come from the treasury of the Communist Party?"
"Don't they allow a budget fro recruiting expenses?"
"How much was drunk before you brought the fifth of rum?"
"We had a few beers."
"I don't know."
"You don't remember much about what happened that night, do you?"
"I'm telling you all I remember."
"All you remember?"
"Is it possible that you don't remember some things?"
"I'm telling you all I remember."
"Were you too drunk to remember everything that happened?"
"You knew what you were doing?"
"You deliberately left the girl in that condition?"
"She was in no condition!"
"Just how drunk was she after the beers and rum?"
"She seemed to know what she was doing."
"Did you have any fears about her being able to defend herself?"
"Did you care?"
"Of course, I did."
"You thought that whatever would happen would be all right?"
"I thought she was all right."
"Just tell me, Mr. Erlone, how drunk was Miss Dalton?"
"Well, she was a little high, if you know what I mean."
"Yes; you could say that."
"I don't know what you mean."
"Were you satisfied when you left her?"
"What do you mean?"
"You had enjoyed her company?"
"And after enjoying a woman like that, isn't there a letdown?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"It was late, wasn't it, Mr. Erlone? You wanted to go home?"
"You did not want to remain with her any longer?"
"No; I was tired."
"So you left her to the Negro?"
"I left her in the car. I didn't leave her to anybody."
"But the Negro was in the car?"
"And she got in the front seat with him?"
"And you did not try to stop her?"
"And all three of you had been drinking?"
"And you were satisfied to leave her like that, with a drunken Negro?"
"What do you mean?"
"You had no fear for her?"
"You felt that she, being drunk, would be as satisfied with anyone else as she had been with you?"
"No; no…. Not that way. You're leading …"
"Just answer the questions. Had Miss Dalton, to your knowledge, ever had sex relations with a Negro before?"
"Did you think that that would be as good a time as any for her to learn?"
"Didn't you promise to contact the Negro to see if he was grateful enough to join the Communist Party?"
"I didn't say I'd contact him."
"Didn't you tell him you'd contact him within two or three days?"
"Mr. Erlone, are you sure you didn't say that?"
"Oh, yes! But it was not with the construction you are putting upon it…."
"Mr. Erlone, were you surprised when you heard of the death of Miss Dalton?"
"Yes. At first I was too stunned to believe it. I thought surely there was some mistake."
"You hadn't expected that drunken Negro to go that far, had you?"
"I hadn't expected anything."
"But you told that Negro to read those Communist pamphlets, didn't you?"
"I gave them to him."
"You told him to read them?"
"But you didn't expect him to go as far as to rape and kill the girl?"
"I didn't expect anything in that direction at all."
"That's all, Mr. Erlone."
Bigger watched Jan go back to his seat. He knew how Jan felt. He knew what the man had been trying to do in asking the questions. He was not the only object of hate here. What did the reds want that made the coroner hate Jan so?
"Will Mr. Henry Dalton please come forward?" the coroner asked.
Bigger listened as Mr. Dalton told how the Dalton family always hired Negro boys as chauffeurs, especially when those Negro boys were handicapped by poverty, lack of education, misfortune, or bodily injury. Mr. Dalton said that this was to give them a chance to support their families and go to school. He told how Bigger had come to the house, how timid and frightened he had acted, and how moved and touched the family had been for him. He told how he had not thought that Bigger had had anything to do with the disappearance of Mary, and how he had told Britten not to question him. He then told of receiving the kidnap note, and of how shocked he had been when he was informed that Bigger had fled his home, thereby indicating his guilt.
When the coroner's questioning was over, Bigger heard Max ask,
"May I direct a few questions?"
"Certainly. Go right ahead," the coroner said.
Max went forward and stood directly in front of Mr. Dalton.
"You are the president of the Dalton Real Estate Company, are you not?"
"Your company owns the building in which the Thomas family has lived for the past three years, does it not?"
"Well, no. My company owns the stock in a company that owns the house."
"I see. What is the name of that company?"
"The South Side Real Estate Company?"
"Now, Mr. Dalton, the Thomas family paid you …"
"Not to me! They pay rent to the South Side Real Estate Company."
"You own the controlling stock in the Dalton Real Estate Company, don't you?"
"And that company in turn owns the stock that controls the South Side Real Estate Company, doesn't it?"
"I think I can say that the Thomas family pays rent to you?"
"Who formulates the policies of these two companies?"
"Why, I do."
"Why is it that you charge the Thomas family and other Negro families more rent for the same kind of houses than you charge whites?"
"I don't fix the rent scales," Mr. Dalton said.
"Why, the law of supply and demand regulates the price of houses."
"Now, Mr. Dalton, it has been said that you donate millions of dollars to educate Negroes. Why is it that you exact an exorbitant rent of eight dollars per week from the Thomas family for one unventilated, rat-infested room in which four people eat and sleep?"
The coroner leaped to his feet.
"I'll not tolerate your brow-beating this witness! Have you no sense of decency? This man is one of the most respected men in this city! And your questions have no bearing…."
"They do have a bearing!" Max shouted. "You said we could question with latitude here! I'm trying to find the guilty person, too! Jan Erlone is not the only man who's influenced Bigger Thomas! There were many others before him. I have as much right to determine what effect their attitude has had upon his conduct as you had to determine what Jan Erlone had!"
"I'm willing to answer his questions if it will clear things up," Mr. Dalton said quietly.
"Thank you, Mr. Dalton. Now, tell me, why is it that you charged the Thomas family eight dollars per week for one room in a tenement?"
"Well, there's a housing shortage."
"All over Chicago?"
"No. Just here on the South Side."
"You own houses in other sections of the city?"
"Then why don't you rent those houses to Negroes?"
"Well … Er … I—I—I don't think they'd like to live any other place."
"Who told you that?"
"You came to that conclusion yourself?"
"Isn't it true you refuse to rent houses to Negroes if those houses are in other sections of the city?"
"Well, it's an old custom."
"Do you think that custom is right?"
"I didn't make the custom," Mr. Dalton said.
"Do you think that custom is right?" Max asked again
"Well, I think Negroes are happier when they're together."
"Who told you that?"
"Aren't they more profitable when they're together?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"Mr. Dalton, doesn't this policy of your company tend to keep Negroes on the South Side, in one area?"
"Well, it works that way. But I didn't originate …"
"Mr. Dalton, you give millions to help Negroes. May I ask why you don't charge them less rent for fire-traps and check that against your charity budget?"
"Well, to charge them less rent would be unethical."
"Why, yes. It would be underselling my competitors."
"Is there an agreement among realtors as to what Negroes should be charged for rent?"
"No. But there is a code of ethics in business."
"So, the profits you take from the Thomas family in rents, you give back to them to ease the pain of their gouged lives and to salve the ache of your conscience?
"That's a distortion of fact, sir!"
"Mr. Dalton, why do you contribute money to Negro education?"
"I want to see them have a chance."
"Have you ever employed any of the Negroes you helped to educate?"
"Mr. Dalton, do you think that the terrible condition under which the Thomas family lived in one of your houses may in some way be related to the death of your daughter?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"That's all," said Max.
After Mr. Dalton left the stand, Peggy came, then Britten, a host of doctors, reporters, and many policemen.
"We will now hear from Bigger Thomas!" the coroner called.
A wave of excited voices swept over the room. Bigger's fingers gripped the arms of the chair. Max's hand touched his shoulder. Bigger turned and Max whispered,
"In the capacity of Bigger Thomas' lawyer, I'd like to state that he does not wish to testify here."
"His testimony would help to clear up any doubt as to the cause of the death of the deceased," the coroner said.
"My client is already in police custody and it is his right to refuse…."
"All right. All right," the coroner said.
Max sat down.
"Stay in your seat. It's all right," Max whispered to Bigger.
Bigger relaxed and felt his heart pounding. He longed for something to happen so that the white faces would stop staring at him. Finally, the faces turned away. The coroner strode to the table and lifted the kidnap note with a slow, long, delicate, and deliberate gesture.
"Gentlemen," he said, facing the six men in the rows of chairs, "you have heard the testimony of the witnesses. I think, however, that you should have the opportunity to examine the evidence gathered by the Police Department."
The coroner gave the kidnap note to one of the jurors who read it and passed it on to the others. All of the jurors examined the purse, the blood-stained knife, the blackened hatchet blade, the Communist pamphlets, the rum bottle, the trunk, and the signed confession.
"Owing to the peculiar nature of this crime, and owing to the fact that the deceased's body was all but destroyed, I deem it imperative that you examine one additional piece of evidence. It will help shed light upon the actual manner of the death of the deceased," the coroner said.
He turned and nodded in the direction of two white-coated attendants who stood at the rear door. The room was quiet. Bigger wondered how much longer it would last; he felt that he could not stand much more. Now and then the room blurred and a slight giddiness came over him; but his muscles would flex taut and it would pass. The hum of voices grew suddenly loud and the coroner rapped for order. Then a commotion broke out. Bigger heard a man's voice saying,
"Move aside, please!"
He looked and saw the two white-coated attendants pushing an oblong, sheet-covered table through the crowd and down the aisle. What's this? Bigger wondered. He felt Max's hand come onto his shoulder.
"Take it easy, Bigger. This'll soon be over."
"What they doing?" Bigger asked in a tense whisper.
For a long moment Max did not answer. Then he said uncertainly,
"I don't know."
The oblong table was pushed to the front of the room. The coroner spoke in a deep, slow voice that was charged with passionate meaning:
"As Deputy Coroner, I have decided, in the interest of justice, to offer in evidence the raped and mutilated body of one Bessie Mears, and the testimony of police officers and doctors relating to the cause of death and the manner of her death…."
The coroner's voice was drowned out. The room was in an uproar. For two minutes the police had to pound their clubs against the walls to restore quiet. Bigger sat still as stone as Max rushed past him and stopped a few feet from the sheet-covered table.
"Mr. Coroner," max said. "This is outrageous! Your indecent exhibition of that girl's dead body serves no purpose but that of an incitement to mob violence…."
"It will enable the jury to determine the exact manner of the death of Mary Dalton, who was slain by the man who slew Bessie Mears!" the coroner said in a scream that was compounded of rage and vindictiveness.
"The confession of Bigger Thomas covers all the evidence necessary for this jury!" Max said "You are criminally appealing to mob emotion…."
"That's for the grand jury to determine!" the coroner said. "And you cannot interrupt these proceedings any longer! If you persist in this attitude, you'll be removed from this room!" I have the legal right to determine what evidence is necessary…."
Slowly, Max turned and walked back to his seat, his lips a thin line, his face white, his head down.
Bigger was crushed, helpless. His lips dropped wide apart. He felt frozen, numb. He had completely forgotten Bessie during the inquest of Mary. He understood what was being done. To offer the dead body of Bessie as evidence and proof that he had murdered Mary would make him appear a monster; it would stir up more hate against him. Bessie's death had not been mentioned during the inquest and all of the white faces in the room were utterly surprised. It was not because he had thought any the less of Bessie that he had forgotten her, but Mary's death had caused him the most fear; not her death in itself, but what it meant to him as a Negro. They were bringing Bessie's body in now to make the white men and women feel that nothing short of a quick blotting out of his life would make the city safe again. They were using his having killed Bessie to kill him for his having killed Mary, to cast him in a light that would sanction any action taken to destroy him. Though he had killed a black girl and a white girl, he knew that it would be for the death of the white girl that he would be punished. The black girl was merely "evidence." And under it all he knew that the white people did not really care about Bessie's being killed. White people never searched for Negroes who killed other Negroes. He had even heard it said that white people felt it was good when one Negro killed another; it meant that they had one Negro less to contend with. Crime for Negro was only when he harmed whites, took white lives, or injured white property. As time passed he could not help looking and listening to what was going on in the room. His eyes rested wistfully on the still oblong white draped from under the sheet on the table and he felt a deeper sympathy for Bessie than at any time when she was alive. He knew that Bessie, too, though dead, though killed by him, would resent her dead body being used in this way. Anger quickened in him: an old feeling that Bessie had often described to him when she had come from long hours of hot toil in the white folks' kitchens, a feeling of being forever commanded by others so much that thinking and feeling for one's self was impossible. Not only had he lived where they told him to live, not only had he done what they told him to do, not only had he done these things until he had killed to be quit of them; but even after obeying, after killing, they still ruled him. He was their property, heart and soul, body and blood; what they did claimed every atom of him, sleeping and waking; it colored life and dictated the terms of death.
The coroner rapped for order, the rose and stepped to the table and with one sweep of his arm flung the sheet back from Bessie's body. The sight, bloody and black, made Bigger flinch involuntarily and lift his hands to his eyes and at the same instant he saw blinding flashes of the silver bulbs flicking through the air. His eyes looked with painful effort to the back of the room, for he felt that if he saw Bessie again he would rise from his chair and sweep his arm in an attempt to blot out this room and the people in it. Every nerve of his body helped him to stare without seeing and to sit amid the noise without hearing.
A pain came to the front of his head, right above the eyes. As the slow minutes dragged, his body was drenched in cold sweat. His blood throbbed in his ears; his lips were parched and dry; he wanted to wet them with his tongue, but could not. The tense effort to keep out of his consciousness the terrible sight of Bessie and the drone of the voices would not allow him to move a single muscle. He sat still, surrounded by an invisible cast of concrete. Them he could hold out no longer. He bent forward and buried his face in his hands. He heard a far-away voice speaking from a great height….
"The jury will retire to the next room."
Bigger lifted his head and saw the six men rise and file out through a rear door. The sheet had been pulled over Bessie's body and he could not see her. The voices in the room grew loud and the coroner rapped for order. The six men filed slowly back to their chairs. One of them gave the coroner a slip of paper. The coroner rose, lifted his hand for silence and read a long string of words that Bigger could not understand. But he caught phrases:
"… the said Mary Dalton came to her death in the bedroom of her home, located at 4605 Drexel Boulevard, from suffocation and strangulation due to external violence, said violence received when the deceased was choked by the hands of one, Bigger Thomas, during the course of criminal rape….
"… we, the jury, believe that the said occurrence was murder and recommend that the said Bigger Thomas be held to the grand jury on a charge of murder, until released by due process of law…."
The voice droned on, but Bigger did not listen. This meant the he was going to jail to stay there until tried and executed. Finally, the coroner's voice stopped. The room was full of noise. Bigger heard men and women walking past him. He looked about like a man waking from a deep sleep, Max had hold of his arm.
He turned his head slightly.
"I'll see you tonight. They're taking you to the Cook County Jail. I'll come there and talk things over with you. We'll see what can be done. Meanwhile, take it easy. As soon as you can, lie down and get some sleep, hear?"
Max left him. He saw two policemen wheeling Bessie's body back through the door. The two policemen who sat to either side of him took his arms and locked his wrists to theirs. Two more policemen stood in front of him and two more stood in back.
"Come on, boy."
Two policemen walked ahead, making a path for him in the dense crowd. As he passed white men and women they were silent, but as soon as he was some few feet away, he heard their voices rise. They took him out of the front door, into the hall. He thought that they were going to take him back upstairs and he made a motion to go in the direction of the elevator, but they jerked him back roughly.
They led him out of the front door of the building, to the street. Yellow sunshine splashed the sidewalks and buildings. A huge throng of people covered the pavement. The wind blew hard. Out of the shrill pitch of shouts and screams he caught a few distinct words:
"… turn 'em loose…."
"… give 'im what he gave that girl…."
"…let us take care of 'im…."
"…burn that black ape…."
A narrow aisle was cleared for him across the width of the pavement to a waiting car. As far as he could see there were blue-coated white men with bright silver stars shining on their chests. They wedged him tightly into the back set of the car, between the two policemen to whom he was handcuffed. The motor throbbed. Ahead, he saw a car swing out from the curb and roll with screaming siren down the street through the sunshine. Another followed it. Then four more. At last the car in which he sat fell in line behind them. Back of him he heard other cars pulling out from the curb, with throbbing motors and shrieking sirens. He looked at the passing buildings out of the side window, but could not recognize any familiar landmarks. To each side of him were peering white faces with open mouths. Soon, however, he knew that he was heading southward. The sirens screamed so loud that he seemed to be riding a wave of sound. The cars swerved onto State Street. At Thirty-fifth Street the neighborhood became familiar. At Thirty-seventh Street he knew that two block to his left was his home. What were his mother and brother and sister doing now? And where were Jack and G.H. and Gus? The rubber tires sang over the flat asphalt. There was a policeman at every corner, waving the cars on. Where were they taking him? Maybe they were going to keep him in a jail on the South Side? Maybe they were taking him to the Hyde Park Police Station? They reached Forty-seventh Street and rolled eastward, toward Cottage Grove Avenue. They came to Drexel Boulevard and swung north again. He stiffened and leaned forward. Mr. Dalton lived on this street. What were they going to do with him? The cars slowed and stopped directly in front of the Dalton gate. What were they bringing him here for? He looked at the big brick house, drenched in sunshine, still, quiet. He looked into the faces of the two policemen who sat either side of him; they were staring silently ahead. Upon the sidewalks, to the front and rear of him, were long lines of policemen with drawn guns. White faces filled the apartment windows all round him. People were pouring out of the doors, running toward the Dalton home. A policeman with a golden star upon his chest came to the door of the car, opened it, glanced at him briefly, then turned to the driver.
"O.K., boys; take 'im out."
They led him to the curb. Already a solidly packed crowd stood all over the sidewalks, the streets, on lawns, and behind the lines of the policemen. He heard a white boy yell,
"There's the nigger that killed Miss Mary!"
They led him through the gate, down the walk, up the steps; he stood a second facing the front door of the Dalton home, the same door before which he had stood so humbly with his cap in his hand a little less than a week ago. The door opened and he was led down the hall to the rear stairs and up to the second floor, to the door of Mary's room. It seemed that he could not breathe. What did they bring him here for? His body was once more wet with sweat. How long could he stand this without collapsing again? They led him into the room. It was crowded with armed policemen and newspapermen ready with their bulbs. He looked round; the room was just as he had seen it that night. There was the bed upon which he had smothered Mary. The clock with the glowing dial stood on the small dresser. The same curtains were at the windows and the shades were still far up, as far up as they had been that night when he had stood near them and had seen Mrs. Dalton in flowing white grope her way slowly into the dark blue room with her hands lifted before her. He felt the eyes of the men upon him and his body stiffened, flushing hot with shame and anger. The man with the golden star on his chest came to him and spoke in a soft low tone.
"Now, Bigger, be a good boy. Just relax and take it easy. We want you to take your time and show us just what happened that night, see? And don't mind the boys' taking pictures. Just go through the motions you went through that night…."
Bigger glared; his whole body tightened and he felt that he was going to rise another foot in height.
"Come on," the man said. "Nobody's going to hurt you. Don't be afraid."
Outrage burned in Bigger.
"Come on. Show us what you did."
He stood without moving. The man caught his arm and tried to lead him to the bed. He jerked back violently, his muscles flexed taut. A hot band of fire encircled his throat. His teeth clamped so hard that he could not have spoken had tried. He back against the wall, his eyes lowered in a baleful glare.
"What's the matter, boy?"
Bigger's lips pulled back, showing his white teeth. Then he blinked his eyes; the flashlights went off and he knew in the instant of their flashing that they had taken his picture showing him with his back against a wall, his teeth bared in a snarl.
"Scared, boy? You weren't scared that night you were in here with that girl, were you?"
Bigger wanted to take enough air into his lungs to scream, "Yes! I was scared!" But who would believe him? He would go to his death without ever trying to tell men like these what he had felt that night. When the man spoke again, his tone changed.
"Come on, now, boy. We've treated you pretty nice, but we can get tough if we have to, see? It's up to you! Get over there by that bed and show us how you raped and murdered that girl!"
"I didn't rape her," Bigger said through stiff lips.
"Aw, come on. What you got to lose now? Show us what you did."
"I don't want to."
"You have to!"
"I don't have to."
"Well, we'll make you!"
"You can't make me do nothing but die!"
And as he said it, he wished that they would shoot him so that he could be free ot them forever. Another white man with a golden star upon his chest walked over.
"Drop it. We got our case."
"You think we ought to?"
"Sure. What's the use?"
"O.K., boys. Take 'im back to the car."
They clamped the steel handcuffs on his wrists and led him down the hall. Even before the front door was opened, he heard the faint roar of voices. As far as he could see through the glass panels, up and down the street, were white people standing in the cold wind and sunshine. They took him through the door and the roar grew louder; as soon as he was visible the roar reached a deafening pitch and continued to rise each second. Surrounded by policemen, he was half-dragged and half-lifted along the narrow lane of people, through the gate, toward the waiting car.
"You black ape!"
"Shoot that bastard!"
He felt hot spittle splashing against his face. Somebody tried to leap at him, but was caught by the policemen and held back. As he stumbled along a high bright object caught his eyes; he looked up. Atop a building across the street, above the heads of the people, loomed a flaming cross. At once he knew that it had something to do with him. But why should they burn a cross? As he gazed as it he remembered the sweating face of the black preacher in his cell that morning talking intensely and solemnly of Jesus, of there being a cross for him, a cross for everyone, and of how the lowly Jesus had carried the cross, paving the way, showing how to die, how to love and live the life eternal. But he had never seen a cross burning like the one upon the roof. Were white people wanting him to love Jesus, too? He heard the wind whipping the flames. No! That was not right; they ought not burn a cross. He stood in front of the car, waiting for them to push him in, his eyes wide with astonishment, his impulses deadlocked, trying to remember something.
"He's looking at it!"
"He sees it!"
The eyes and faces about him were not at all the way the black preacher's had been when he had prayed about Jesus and His love, about His dying upon the cross. The cross the preacher had told him about was bloody, not flaming; meek, not militant. It had made him feel awe and wonder, not fear and panic. It had made him want to kneel and cry, but this cross made him want to curse and kill. Then he became conscious of the cross that the preacher had hung round his chest, an image of the same cross that blazed in front of his eyes high upon the roof against the cold blue sky, its darting tongues of fire lashed to a hissing fury by the icy wind.
It gripped him: that cross was not the cross of Christ, but the cross of the Ku Klux Klan. He had a cross of salvation round his throat and they were burning one to tell him that they hated him! No! He did not want that! Had the preacher trapped him? He felt betrayed. He wanted to tear the cross from his throat and throw it away. They lifted him into the waiting car and he sat between two policemen, still looking fearfully at the fiery cross. The sirens screamed and the cars rolled slowly through the crowded streets and he was feeling the cross that touched his chest, like a knife pointed at his heart. His fingers ached to rip it off; it was an evil and black charm which would surely bring him death now. The cars screamed up State Street, then westward on Twenty-sixth Street, one behind the other. People paused on the sidewalks to look. Ten minutes later they stopped in front of a huge white building; he was led up steps, down hallways and then halted in front of a cell door. He was pushed inside; the handcuffs were unlocked and the door clanged shut. The men lingered, looking at him curiously.
With bated breath he tore his shirt open, not caring who saw him. He gripped the cross and snatched it from his throat. He threw it away, cursing a curse that was almost a scream.
"I don't want it!"
The men gasped and looked at him, amazed.
"Don't throw that away, boy. That's your cross!"
"I can die without a cross!"
"Only God can help you now, boy. You'd better get your soul right!"
"I ain't got no soul!"
One of the men picked up the cross and brought it back.
"Here, boy; keep this. This is God's cross!"
"I don't care!"
"Aw, leave 'im alone! one of the men said.
They left, dropping the cross just inside the cell door. He picked it up and threw it away again. He leaned weakly against the bars, spent. What were they trying to do to him?
He lifted his head, hearing footsteps. He saw a white man coming toward him, then a black man. He straightened and stiffened. It was the old preacher who had prayed over him this morning. The white man to unlock the door.
"I don't want you!" Bigger shouted.
"Son!" the preacher admonished.
"I don't want you!"
"What's the matter, son?"
"Take your Jesus and go!"
"But, son! Yuh don't know whut yuh's sayin'! Lemme pray fer yuh!"
"Pray for yourself!"
The white guard caught the preacher by the arm and, pointing to the cross on the floor, said,
"Look, Reverend, he threw his cross away."
The preacher looked and said:
"Son, don't spit in Gawd's face!"
"I'll spit in your face if you don't leave me alone!" Bigger said.
"The reds've been talking to 'im," the guard said, piously touching his fingers to his forehead, his chest, his left shoulder, and then his right; making the sign of the cross.
"That's a goddamn lie!" Bigger shouted. His body seemed a flaming cross as word boiled hysterically out of him. "I told you I don't want you! If you come in here, I'll kill you! Leave me alone!"
Quietly, the old black preacher stooped and picked up the cross. The guard inserted the key in the lock and the door swung in. Bigger ran to it and caught the steel bars in his hands and swept the door forward, slamming it shut. It smashed the old black preacher squarely in the face, sending him reeling backwards upon the concrete. The echo of steel crashing against steel resounded throughout the long quiet corridor, wave upon wave, dying somewhere far away.
"You'd better leave 'im alone now," the guard said. "He seems pretty wild."
The preacher rose slowly and gathered his hat, Bible, and the cross from the floor. He stood a moment with his hand nursing his bruised face.
"Waal, son. Ah'll leave yuh t' yo' Gawd," he sighed, dropping the cross back inside the cell.
The preacher walked away. The guard followed. Bigger was alone. His emotions were so intense that he really saw and heard nothing. Finally, his hot and taut body relaxed. He saw the cross, snatched it up and held it for a long moment in fingers of steel. Then he flung it again through the bars of the cell. It hit the wall beyond with a lonely clatter.
Never again did he want to feel anything like hope. That was what was wrong; he had left the preacher talk to him until somewhere in him he had begun to feel that maybe something could happen. Well, something had happened: the cross the preacher had hung round his throat had been burned in front of his eyes.
When his hysteria had passed, he got up from the floor. Through blurred eyes he saw men peering at him from the bars of other cells. He heard a low murmur of voices and in the same instant his consciousness recorded without bitterness—like a man stepping out of his house to go to work and noticing that the sun is shining—the fact that even here in the Cook County Jail Negro and white were segregated into different cell-blocks. He lay in the cot with closed eyes and the darkness soothed him some. Occasionally his muscles twitched from the hard storm of passion that had swept him. A small hard core in him resolved never again to trust anybody or anything. Nor even Jan, or Max. They were all right, maybe; but whatever he thought or did from now on would have to come from him and him alone, or not at all. He wanted no more crosses that might turn to fire while still on his chest.
His inflamed senses cooled slowly. He opened his eyes. He heard a soft tapping on a near-by wall. Then a sharp whisper:
"Say, you new guy!"
He sat up, wondering what they wanted.
"Ain't you the guy they got for that Dalton job?"
His hands clenched. He lay down again. He did not want to talk to them. They were no his kind. He felt that they were not here for crimes such as his. He did not want to talk to the whites because they were whites and he did not want to talk to the Negroes because he felt ashamed. His own kind would be too curious about him. He lay a long while, empty in mind, and then he heard the steel door open. He looked and saw a white man with a tray of food. He sat up and the man brought the tray to the cot and placed it beside him.
"Your lawyer sent this, kid. You got a good lawyer," the man said.
"Say, can I see a paper?" Bigger asked.
"Well, now," the man said, scratching his head. "Oh, what the hell. Yeah; sure. Here, take mine. I'm through with it. And say, your lawyer's bringing some clothes for you. He told me to tell you."
Bigger did not hear him; he ignored the tray of food and opened out the paper. He paused, waiting to hear the door shut. When it clanged, he bent forward to read, then paused again, wondering about the man who had just left, amazed at how friendly he had acted. For a fleeting moment, while the man had been in his cell he had not felt apprehensive, cornered. The man had acted straight, matter-of-fact. It was something he could not understand. He lifted the paper close and read: NEGRO KILLER SIGNS CONFESSION FOR TWO MURDERS. SHRINKS AT INQUEST WHEN CONFRONTED WITH BODY OF SLAIN GIRL. ARRAIGNED TOMORROW. REDS TAKE CHARGE OF KILLER'S DEFENSE. NOT GUILTY PLEA LIKELY. His eyes ran over the paper, looking for some clue that would tell him something of his fate.
… slayer will undoubtedly pay supreme penalty for his crimes …. there is no doubt of his guilt …. what is doubtful is how many other crimes he has committed …. killer attacked at inquest ….
Expressing opinions about Communists' defending the Negro rapist and killer, Mr. David A. Buckley, State's Attorney, said: "What else can you expect from a gang like that? I'm in favor of cleaning them out lock, stock, and barrel. I'm of the conviction that if you got to the bottom of red activity in this country, you'd find the root of many an unsolved crime."
When questioned as to what effect the Thomas trial would have upon the forthcoming April elections, in which he is a candidate to succeed himself, Mr. Buckley took his pink carnation from the lapel of his morning coat and waved the reporters away with a laugh.
A long scream sounded and Bigger dropped the paper, jumped to his feet, and ran to the barred door to see what was happening. Down the corridor he saw six white men struggling with a brown-skinned Negro. They dragged him over the floor by his feet and stopped directly in front of Bigger's cell door. As the door swung in, Bigger back to his cot, his mouth open in astonishment. The man was turning and twisting in the white men's hands, trying desperately to free himself.
"Turn me loose! Turn me loose!" the man screamed over and over.
The men lifted him and threw him inside, locked the door, and left. The man lay on the floor for a moment, the scrambled to his feet and ran to the door.
"Give me my papers!" he screamed.
Bigger saw that the man's eyes were blood-red; the corners of his lips were white with foam. Sweat glistened on his brown face. He clutched the bard with such frenzy that when he yelled his entire body vibrated. He seemed so agonized that Bigger wondered why the men did not give him his belongings. Emotionally, Bigger sided with the man.
"You can't get away with it!" the man yelled.
Bigger went to him and placed a hand on his shoulder.
"Say, what they got of yours?" he asked
The man ignored him, shouting.
"I'll report you to the President, you hear? Bring me my papers or let me out of here, you white bastards! You want to destroy all my evidence! You can't cover up your crimes! I'll publish them to the whole world! I know why you're putting me in jail! The Professor told you to! But he's not going to get away with it…."
Bigger watched, fascinated, fearful. He had the sensation that the man was too emotionally wrought up over whatever it was that he had lost. Yet the man's emotions seemed real; they affected him, compelling sympathy.
"Come back here!" the man screamed. "Bring me my papers or I'll tell the President and have you dismissed from office…."
What papers did they have of his? Bigger wondered. Who was the president that man yelled about? And who was the professor? Over the man's screams Bigger heard a voice calling from another cell,
"Say, you new guy!"
Bigger avoided the frenzied man and went to the door.
"He's balmy!" a white man said. "Make 'em take 'im outta tour cell. He'll kill you. He went off his nut from studying too much at the university. He was writing a book on how colored people live and he says somebody stole all the facts he'd found. He says he's got to the bottom of why colored folks are treated bad and he's going to tell the President and have things changed, see? He's nuts! He swears that his university professor had him locked up. The cops had him picked up this morning in his underwear; he was in the lobby of the Post Office building, waiting to speak to the President…."
Bigger ran from the door to the cot. All of his fear of death, all his hate and shame vanished in face of his dread of this insane man turning suddenly upon him. The man still clutched the bars, screaming. He was about Bigger's size. Bigger had the queer feeling that his own exhaustion formed a hairline upon which his feelings were poised, and that the man's driving frenzy would suck him into its hot whirlpool. He lay on the cot and wrapped his arms about his head, torn with a nameless anxiety, hearing the man's screams in spite of his need to escape them.
"You're afraid of me!" the man shouted. "That's why you put me here! But I'll tell the President anyhow! I'll tell 'im you make us live in such crowded conditions on the South Side that one out of every ten of us is insane! I'll tell 'im that you dump all the stale foods into the Black Belt and sell them for more than you can get anywhere else! I'll tell 'im you tax us, but you won't build hospitals! I'll tell 'im the schools are so crowded that they breed perverts! I'll tell 'im you hire us last and fire us first! I'll tell the President and the League of Nations…."
Then men in other cells began to holler
"Pipe down, you nut!"
"Take 'im away!
"Throw 'im out!"
"The hell with you!"
"You can't scare me!" the man yelled. "I know you! They put you in here to watch me!"
The men set up a clamor. But soon a group of men dressed in white came running with a stretcher. They unlocked the cell and grabbed the yelling man, laced him in a strait-jacket, flung him onto the stretcher and carted him away. Bigger sat up and stared before him, hopelessly. He heard voices calling from cell to cell.
"Say, what they got of his?"
"Nothing! He's nuts!"
Finally, things quieted. For the first time since his capture, Bigger felt that he wanted someone near him, something physical to cling to. He was glad when he heard the lock in his door click. He sat up; a guard loomed over him.
"Come on, boy. Your lawyer's here."
He was handcuffed and led down the hall to a small room where Max stood. He was freed of the steel links on his wrists and pushed inside; he heard the door shut behind him.
"Sit down, Bigger. Say, how do you feel?"
Bigger sat down on the edge of the chair and did not answer. The room was small. A single yellow electric globe dropped from the ceiling. There was one barred window. All about them was profound silence. Max sat opposite Bigger, and Bigger's eyes met his and fell. Bigger felt that he was sitting and holding his life helplessly in his hands, waiting for Max to tell him what to do with it; and it made him hate himself. An organic wish to cease to be, to stop living, seized him. Either he was too weak, or the world was too strong; he did not know which. Over and over he tried to create a world to live in, and over and over he had failed. Now, once again, he was waiting for someone to tell him something; once more he was poised on the verge of action and commitment. Was he letting himself in for more hate and fear? What could Max do for him now? Even if Max tried hard and honestly, there were not thousands of white hands to stop Max? Why not tell him to go home? His lips trembled to speak, to tell Max to leave; but no words came. He felt that even in speaking in that way he would be indicating how hopeless he felt, thereby disrobing his soul to more shame.
"I bought some clothes for you" Max said. "When they give 'em to you in the morning, put 'em on. You want to look your best when you come up for arraignment."
Bigger was silent; he glanced to max again, and then away.
"What's in your mind, Bigger?"
"Nothing," he mumbled.
"Now, listen, Bigger. I want you to tell me all about yourself…."
Mr. Max, it ain't no use in you doing nothing!" Bigger blurted.
Max eyed him sharply.
"Do you really feel that way, Bigger?"
"There ain't no way else to feel."
"I want to talk to you honestly, Bigger. I see no way out of this but a plea of guilty. You can ask for mercy, for life in prison…."
"I rather die!"
"Nonsense. You want to live."
"Don't you want to fight this thing?"
What can I do? They got me."
"You don't want to die that way, Bigger."
"It don't matter which way I die," he said; but his voice choked.
"Listen, Bigger, you're facing a sea of hate now that's no different from what you've faced all your life. And because it's that way, you've got to fight. If they can wipe you out, then they can wipe other out, too."
"Yeah," Bigger mumbled, resting his hands upon his knees and staring at the black floor. "But I can't win."
"First of all, Bigger. Do you trust me?"
Bigger grew angry.
"You can't help me, Mr. Max," he said, looking straight into Max's eyes.
"But do you trust me, Bigger?" Max asked again.
Bigger looked away. He felt that Max was making it very difficult for him to tell him to leave.
"I don't know, Mr. Max."
"Bigger, I know my face is white," Max said. "And I know that almost every white face you've met in your life had it in for you, even when that white face didn't know it. Every white man considers it his duty to make a black man keep his distance. He doesn't know why most of the time, but he acts that way. It's the way things are, Bigger. But I want you to know that you can trust me.
"It ain't no use, Mr. Max."
"You want me to handle your case?"
"You can't help me none. They got me."
Bigger knew that Max was trying to make him feel he accepted the way he looked at things and it made him as self-conscious as when Jan had taken his hand and shaken it that night in the car. It made him live again in that hard and sharp consciousness of his color and feel the shame and fear that went with it, and at the same time it made him hate himself for feeling it. He trusted Max. Was Max not taking upon himself a thing that would make other whites hate him? But he doubted if Max could make him see things in a way that would enable him to go to his death. He doubted that God Himself could give him a picture for that now. As he felt at present, they would have to drag him to the chair, as they had dragged him down the steps the night they captured him. He did not want his feeling tampered with; he feared that he might walk into another trap. If he expressed belief in Max, if he acted on that belief, would it not end as all other commitments of faith had ended? He wanted to believe; but was afraid. He felt that he should have been able to meet Max halfway; but, as always, when a white man talked to him, he was caught out in No Man's Land. He sat slumped in his chair with his head down and he looked at Max only when Max's eyes were not watching him.
"Here; take a cigarette, Bigger." Max lit Bigger's and then lit his own; they smoke awhile. "Bigger, I'm your lawyer. I want to talk to you honestly. What you say is in strictest confidence…."
Bigger stared at Max. He felt sorry for the white man. He saw that Max was afraid that he would not talk at all. And he had no desire to hurt Max. Max leaned forward determinedly. Well, tell him. Talk. Get it over with and let Max go.
"Aw, I don't care what I say or do now…."
"Oh, yes, you do!" Max said quickly.
In a fleeting second an impulse to laugh rose up in Bigger, and left. Max was anxious to help him and he had to die.
"Maybe I do care," Bigger drawled.
"If you don't care about what you say or do, then why didn't you re-enact that crime out at the Dalton home today?"
"I wouldn't do nothing for them,"
"They hate black folks," he said.
"I don't know, Mr. Max."
"Bigger, don't you know they hate other, too?
"Who they hate?"
"They hate trade unions. They hate folks who try to organize. They hate Jan."
"But they hate black folks more than they hate unions," Bigger said. "They don't treat union folks like they do me."
"Oh, yes, they do. You think that because your color makes it easy for them to point you out, segregate you, exploit you. But they do that to others, too. They hate me because I'm trying to help you. They're writing me letters, calling me a 'dirty Jew.' "
"All I know is that they hate me," Bigger said grimly.
"Bigger, the State Attorney gave me a copy of your confession. Now, tell me, did you tell him the truth?"
"Yeah. There wasn't nothing else to do."
"Now, tell me this, Bigger. Why did you do it?"
Bigger sighed, shrugged his shoulders and sucked his lungs full of smoke.
"I don't know," he said; smoke eddied slowly from his nostrils.
"Did you plan it?"
"Did anybody help you?"
"Had you been thinking about doing something like that for a long time?"
"How did it happen?"
"It just happened, Mr. Max."
"Are you sorry?"
"What's the use of being sorry? That won't help me none."
"You can't think of any reason why you did it?"
Bigger was staring straight before him, his eyes wide and shining. His talking to Max had evoked again in him that urge to talk, to tell, to try to make his feelings known. A wave of excitement flooded him. He felt that he ought to be able to reach out with his bare hands and carve from naked space the concrete, solid reasons why he had murdered. He felt them that strongly. If he could do that, he would relax; he would sit and wait until they told him to walk to the chair; and he would walk.
"Mr. Max, I don't know. I was all mixed up. I was feeling so many things at once."
"Did you rape her, Bigger?"
"Naw, Mr. Max. I didn't. But nobody'll believe me."
"Had you planned to before Mrs. Dalton came into the room?"
Bigger shook his head and rubbed his hands nervously across his eyes. In a sense he had forgotten Max was in the room. He was trying to feel the texture of his own feeling, trying to tell what they meant.
"Oh, I don't know. I was feeling a little that way. Yeah, I reckon I was. I was drunk and she was drunk and I was feeling that way."
"But, did you rape her?"
"Naw. But everybody'll say I did. What's the use? I'm black. They say black men do that. So it don't matter if did or if I didn't."
"How long had you known her?"
"A few hours."
"Did you like her?"
Bigger's voice boomed so suddenly from his throat that Max started. Bigger leaped to his feet; his eyes widened and his hands lifted midway to his face, trembling.
"No! No! Bigger…." Max said.
"Like her? I hated her! So help me God, I hated her!" he shouted.
"Sit down, Bigger!"
"I hate her now, even though she's dead! God knows, I hate her right now…."
Max grabbed him and pushed him back into the chair.
"Don't get excited, Bigger. Here; take it easy!"
Bigger quieted, but his eyes roved the room. Finally, he lowered his head and knotted his fingers. His lips were slightly parted.
"You say you hated her?"
"Yeah; and I ain't sorry she's dead."
"But what had she done to you? You say you had just met her."
"I don't know. She didn't do nothing to me." He paused and ran his hand nervously across his forehead. "She … It was … Hell, I don't know. She asked me a lot of questions. She acted and talked in a way that made me hate her. She made me feel like a dog. I was so mad I wanted to cry…." His voiced trailed off in a plaintive whimper. He licked his lips. He was caught in a net of vague, associative memory: he saw an image of his little sister, Vera, sitting on the edge of a chair crying because he had shamed her by "looking" at her; he saw her rise and fling her shoe at him. He shook his head, confused. "Aw, Mr. Max, she wanted me to tell her how Negroes live. She got into the front seat of the car where I was…."
"But, Bigger, you don't hate people for that. She was being kind to you…."
"Kind, hell! She wasn't kind to me!"
"What do you mean? She accepted you as another human being."
"Mr. Max, we're all split up. What you say is kind ain't kind at all. I didn't know nothing about that woman. All I knew was that they kill us for women like her. We live apart. And then she comes and acts like that to me."
"Bigger, you should have tried to understand. She was acting toward you only as she knew how."
Bigger glared about the small room, searching for an answer. He knew that his actions did not seem logical and he gave up trying to explain them logically. He reverted to his feelings as a guide in answering Max.
"Well, I acted toward her only as I know how. She was rich. She and her kind own the earth. She and her kind say black folks are dogs. They don't let you do nothing but what they want…."
"But, Bigger, this woman was trying to help you!"
"She didn't act like it."
"How should she have acted?"
"Aw, I don't know, Mr. Max. White folks and black folks is strangers. We don't know what each other is thinking. Maybe she was trying to be kind; but she didn't act like it. To me she looked and acted like all other white folks…."
"But she's not to be blamed for that, Bigger."
"She's the same color as the rest of 'em," he said defensively.
"I don't understand, Bigger. You say you hated her and yet you say you felt like having her when you were in the room and she was drunk and you were drunk…."
"Yeah," Bigger said, wagging his head and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Yeah; that's funny, ain't it?" He sucked at his cigarette. "Yeah; I reckon it was because they say we black men do that anyhow. Mr. Max, you know what some white men say we black men do? They say we rape white women when we got the clap and they say we do that because we believe that if we rape white women then we'll get rid of the clap. That's what some white men say. They believe that. Jesus, Mr. Max, when folks say things like that about you, you whipped before you born. What's the use? Yeah; I reckon I was feeling that way when I was in the room with her. They say we do things like that and they say it to kill us. They draw a line and say for you to stay on your side of the line. They don't care if there's no bread over on your side. They don't care if you die. And then say things like that about you and when you try to come from behind your line they kill you. They feel they ought to kill you then. Everybody wants to kill you then. Yeah; I reckon I was feeling that way and maybe the reason was because they say it. Maybe that was the reason.
"You mean you wanted to defy them? You wanted to show them that you dared, that you didn't care?"
"I don't know, Mr. Max. But what I got to care about? I knew that some time or other they was going to get me for something. I'm black. I don't have to do nothing for 'em to get me. The first white finger they point at me, I'm a goner, see?
"But, Bigger, when Mrs. Dalton came into the room, why didn't you stop right there and tell her what was wrong? You wouldn't've been in all this trouble then…."
"Mr. Max, so help me God, I couldn't do nothing when I turned around and saw that woman coming to that bed. Honest to God, I didn't know what I was doing…."
"You mean you went blank?"
"Naw; naw…. I knew what I was doing, all right. But I couldn't help it. That's what I mean. It was like another man stepped inside of my skin and starting acting for me…."
"Bigger, tell me, did you feel more attraction for Mary than for the women of your race?"
"Naw. But they say that. It ain't true. I hated her than and I hate her now."
"But why did you kill Bessie?"
"To keep her from talking. Mr. Max, after killing that white woman, it wasn't hard to kill somebody else. I didn't have to think much about killing Bessie. I knew I had to kill her and I did. I had to get away…."
"Did you hate Bessie?"
"Did you love her?"
"Naw. I was just scared. I wasn't in love with Bessie. She was just my girl. I don't reckon I was ever in love with nobody. I killed Bessie to save myself. You have to have a girl, so I had Bessie. And I killed her."
"Bigger, tell me, when did you start hating Mary?"
"I hated her as soon as she spoke to me, as soon as I saw her. I reckon I hated her before I saw her…."
"I told you. What her kind ever let us do?"
"What, exactly, Bigger, did you want to do?"
Bigger sighed and sucked at his cigarette.
"Nothing, I reckon. Nothing. But I reckon I wanted to do what other people do."
"And because you couldn't, you hated her?"
Again Bigger felt that his actions were not logical, and again he felt back upon his feelings for a guide in answering Max's questions.
"Mr. Max, a guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can't do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything…. You don't make enough to live on. You don't know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can't hope for nothing. You just keep moving all the time, doing what other folks say. You ain't a man no more. You just work day in and day out so the world can roll on and other people can live. You know, Mr. Max, I always think of white folks …"
He paused. Max leaned forward and touched him.
"Go on, Bigger."
"Well, they own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They like God…." He swallowed, closed his eyes and sighed. "They don't even let you feel what you want to feel. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die."
"But, Bigger, I asked you what it was that you wanted to do so badly that you had to hate them?"
"Nothing. I reckon I didn't want to do nothing."
"But you said that people like Mary and her kind never let you do anything."
"What should I want to do anything? I ain't got a chance. I don't know nothing. I'm just black and they make the laws."
"What would you like to have been?"
Bigger was silent for a long time. The he laughed without sound, without moving his lips; it was three short expulsions of breath forced upon his nostrils by the heaving of his chest.
"I wanted to be an aviator once. But they wouldn't let me go to the school where I was suppose' to learn it. They built a big school and then drew a line around it and said that nobody could go to it but those who lived within the line. That kept all the colored boys out."
"And what else?"
"Well, I wanted to be in the army once."
"Why didn't you join?"
"Hell, it's a Jim Crow army. All they want a black man for is to dig ditches. And in the navy, all I can do is wash dishes and scrub floors."
"And was there anything else you wanted to do?"
"Oh, I don't know. What's the use now? I'm through, washed up. They got me. I'll die."
"Tell me the things you thought you'd have liked to do?"
"I'd like to be in business. But what chance has a black guy got in business? We ain't got no money. We don't own no mines, no railroads, no nothing. They don't want us to. They make us stay in one little spot…."
"And you didn't want to stay there?"
Bigger glanced up; his lips tightened. There was a feverish pride in his bloodshot eyes.
"I didn't," he said.
Max stared and sighed.
"Look, Bigger. You've told me the things you could not do. But you did something. You committed these crimes. You killed two women. What on earth did you think you could get out of it?"
Bigger rose and rammed his hands into his pockets. He leaned against the wall, looking vacantly. Again he forgot that Max was in the room.
"I don't know. Maybe this sounds crazy. Maybe they going to burn me in the electric chair for feeling this way. But ain't worried none about them women I killed. For a little while I was free. I was doing something. It was wrong, but I was feeling all right. Maybe God'll get me for it. If He do, all right. But I ain't worried. I killed 'em 'cause I was scared and mad. But I been scared and mad all my life and after I killed that first woman, I wasn't scared no more for a little while."
"What were you afraid of?"
"Everything," he breathed and buried his face in his hands.
"Did you ever hope for anything, Bigger?
"What for? I couldn't get it. I'm black," he mumbled.
"Didn't you ever want to be happy?"
"Yeah; I guess so," he said, straightening.
"How did you think you could be happy?"
"I don't know. I wanted to do things. But everything I wanted to do I couldn't. I wanted to do what the white boys in school did. Some of 'em went to college. Some of 'em went to the army. But I couldn't go."
"But still, you wanted to be happy?"
"Yeah; sure. Everybody wants to be happy, I reckon."
"Did you think you ever would be?"
"I don't know. I just went to bed at night and got up in the morning. I just lived from day to day. I thought maybe I would be."
"I don't know," he said in a voice that was almost a moan.
"What did you think happiness would be like?"
"I don't know. It wouldn't be like this."
"You ought to have some idea of what you wanted, Bigger."
"Well, Mr. Max, if I was happy I wouldn't always be wanting to do something I know I couldn't do."
"And why did you always want to?"
"I couldn't help it. Everybody feels that way, I reckon. And I did, too. Maybe I would've been all right if I could've done something I wanted to do. I wouldn't be scared then. Or mad, maybe. I wouldn't be always hating folks; and maybe I'd feel at home, sort of."
"Did you ever go to the South Side Boys' Club, the place where Mr. Dalton sent those ping-pong tables?"
"Yeah; but what the hell can a guy do with ping-pong?"
"Do you feel that that club kept you out of trouble?"
Bigger cocked his head.
"Kept me out of trouble?" he repeated Max's words. "Naw; that's where we planned most of our jobs."
"Did you ever go to church, Bigger?"
"Yeah; when I was little. But that was a long time ago."
"Your folks were religious?"
"Yeah; they went to church all the time."
"Why did you stop going?"
"I didn't like. There was nothing in it. Aw, all they did was sing and shout and pray all the time. And it didn't get 'em nothing. All the colored folks do that, but it don't get 'em nothing. The white folks got everything."
"Did you ever feel happy in church?"
"Naw. I didn't want to. Nobody but poor folks get happy in church."
"But you are poor, Bigger."
Again Bigger's eyes lit with a bitter and feverish pride.
"I ain't that poor," he said.
"But Bigger, you said that if you were where people did not hate you and you did not hate them, you could be happy. Nobody hated you in church. Couldn't you feel at home there?"
"I wanted to be happy in this world, not out of it. I didn't want that kind of happiness. The white folks like for us to be religious, then they can do what they want to with us."
"A little while ago you spoke of God 'getting you' for killing those women. Does that mean you believe in Him?"
"I don't know."
"Aren't you afraid of what'll happen to you after you die?"
"Naw. But I don't want to die."
"Didn't you know that the penalty for killing that white woman would be death?"
"Yeah; I knew it. But I felt like she was killing me, so I didn't care."
"If you could be happy in religion now, would you want to be?"
"Naw. I'll be dead soon enough. If I was religious, I'd be dead now."
"But the church promises eternal life?"
"That's for whipped folks."
"You don't feel like you've had a chance, do you?"
"Naw; but ain't asking nobody to be sorry for me. Naw; I ain't asking that at all. I'm black. They don't give black people a chance, so I took a chance and lost. But I don't care none now. They got me and it's all over.
"Do you feel, Bigger, that somehow, somewhere, or sometime or other you'll have a chance to make up for what you didn't get here on earth?"
"Hell, naw! When they strap me in that chair and turn on the heat, I'm through, for always.
"Bigger, I want to ask you something about your race. Do you love your people?"
"I don't know, Mr. Max. We all black and the white folks treat us the same."
"But Bigger, your race is doing things for you. There are Negroes leading your people."
"Yeah; I know. I heard about 'em. They all right, I guess."
"Don't you know any of 'em?"
"Bigger, are there many Negro boys like you?"
"I reckon so. All of 'em I know ain't got nothing and ain't going nowhere."
Why didn't you go some of the leaders of your race and tell them how you and other boys felt?"
"Aw, hell, Mr. Max They wouldn't listen to me. They rich, even though the white folks treat them almost like they do me. They almost like white people, when it comes to guys like me. They say guys like me make it hard for them to get along with white folks."
"Did you ever hear any of your leaders make speeches?"
"Yeah, sure. At election time."
"What did you think of them?"
"Aw, I don't know. They all the same. They wanted to get elected to office. They wanted money, like everybody else. Mr. Max, it's a game and they play it."
"Why didn't you play it?"
"Hell, what do I know? I ain't got nothing. Nobody'll pay any attention to me. I'm just a black guy with nothing. I just went to grammar school. And politics is full of big shots, guys from colleges."
"Didn't you trust them?"
"I don't reckon they wanted anybody to trust 'em. They wanted to get elected to office. They paid you to vote."
"Did you ever vote?"
"Yeah; I voted twice. I wasn't old enough, so I put my age up so I could vote and get the five dollars."
"You didn't mind selling your vote?"
"Naw; why should I?"
"You didn't think politics could get you anything?"
"I got me five dollars on election day."
"Bigger, did any white people ever talk to you about labor unions?"
"Naw; nobody but Jan and Mary. But she oughtn't done it…. But I couldn't help what I did. And Jan. I reckon I did him wrong by signing 'Red' to that ransom note."
"Do you believe he's your friend now?"
"Well, he ain't against me. He didn't turn against me today when they was questioning him. I don't think he hates me like the others. I suppose he's kind of hurt about Miss Dalton, though."
"Bigger, did you think you'd ever come to this?"
"Well, to tell the truth, Mr. Max, it seems sort of natural-like, me being here facing that death chair. Now I come to think of it, it seems like something like this just had to be."
They were silent. Max stood up and sighed. Bigger watched to see what Max was thinking, but Max's face was white and blank.
"Well, Bigger," Max said. "We'll enter a plea of not guilty at the arraignment tomorrow. But when the trial comes up we'll change it to a plea of guilty and ask for mercy. They're rushing the trial; it may be held in two or three days. I'll tell the judge all I can of how you feel and why. I'll try to get him to make it life in prison. That's all I can see under the circumstances. I don't have to tell you how they feel toward you, Bigger. You're a Negro; you know. Don't hope for too much. There's an ocean of hot hate out there against you and I'm going to try to sweep some of it back. They want your life; they want revenge. They felt they had you fenced off so that you could not do what you did. Now they're mad because deep down in them they believe that they made you do it. When people feel that way, you can't reason with 'em. Then, too, a lot depends upon what judge we have. Any twelve white men in this state will have already condemned you; we can't trust a jury. Well, Bigger, I'll do the best I can."
They were silent. Max gave him another cigarette and took one for himself. Bigger watched Max's head of white hair, his long face, the deep-gray, soft, sad eyes. He felt that Max was kind, and he felt sorry for him.
"Mr. Max, if I was you I wouldn't worry none. If all folks was like you, then maybe I wouldn't be here. But you can't help that now. They going to hate you for trying to help me. I'm gone. They got me."
"Oh, they'll hate me, yes," said Max. "But I can take it. That's the difference. I'm a Jew and they hate me, but I know why and I can fight. But sometimes you can't win no matter how you fight; that is, you can't win if you haven't got time. And they're pressing us now. But you need not worry about their hating me for defending you. The fear of hate keeps many whites from trying to help you and your kind. Before I can fight your battle, I've got to fight a battle with them." Max snuffed out his cigarette. "I got to go now," Max said. He turned and faced Bigger. "Bigger, how do you feel?"
"I don't know. I'm just setting here waiting for 'em to come and tell me to walk to that chair. And I don't know if I'll be able to walk or not."
Max averted his face and opened the door. A guard came and caught Bigger by the wrist.
"I'll see you in the morning, Bigger," Max called.
Back in his cell, Bigger stood in the middle of the floor, not moving. He was not stoop-shouldered now, nor were his muscles taut. He breathed softly, wondering about the cool breath of peace that hovered in his body. It was as though he were trying to listen to the beat of his own heart. All round him was darkness and there were no sounds. He could not remember when he had felt as relaxed as this before. He had not thought of it or felt it while Max was speaking to him; it was not until after Max had gone that he discovered that he had spoken to Max as he had never spoken to anyone in his life; not even to himself. And his talking had eased from his shoulders a heavy burden. The he was suddenly and violently angry. Max had tricked him! But no. Max had not compelled him to talk; he had talked of his own accord, prodded by excitement, by a curiosity about his own feelings. Max had only sat and listened, had only asked questions. His anger passed and fear took its place. If he were as confused as this when his time came, they really would have to drag him to the chair. He had to make a decision: in order to walk to that chair he had to weave his feelings into a hard shield of either hope or hate. To fall between them would mean living and dying in a fog of fear.
He was balanced on a hairline now, but there was no one to push him forward or backward, no one to make him feel that he had any value or worth—no one but himself. He brushed his hands across his eyes, hoping to untangle the sensations fluttering in his body. He lived in a thin, hard core consciousness; he felt time slipping by; the darkness round him lived, breathed. As he was in the midst of it, waiting again to let his body taste of that sort of respite of rest he had felt after talking with Max. He sat down on the cot; he had to grasp this thing.
Why had Max asked him all those questions? He knew that Max was seeking facts to tell the judge; but in Max's asking of these questions he had felt a recognition of his life, of his feelings, of his person that he had never encountered before. What was this? Had he done wrong? Had he let himself in for another betrayal? He felt as though he had been caught off his guard. But this, this—confidence? He had no right to be proud; yet he had spoken to Max as a man who had something. He had told Max he did not want religion, that he had not stayed in his place. He had no right to feel that, no right to forget that he was to die, that he was black, a murderer; he had no right to forget that, not even for a second. Yet he had.
He wondered if it were possible that after all everybody in the world felt alike? Did those who hated him have in them the same thing Max had seen in him, the thing that had made Max ask him those questions? And what motive could Max have in helping? Why would Max risk the white tide of hate to help him? For the first time in his life he had gained a pinnacle of feeling upon which he could stand and see vague relations that he had never dreamed of. If that white looming mountain of hate were not a mountain at all, but people, people like himself, and like Jan—then he was faced with a high hope the like of which he had never thought could be, and a despair the full depths of which he knew he could not stand to feel. A strong counter-emotion waxed in him, urging him, warning him to leave this newly seen and newly felt thing alone, that it would lead him to but another blind alley, to deeper hate and shame.
Yet he saw and felt but one life, and that one life was more than a sleep, a dream; life was all life had. He knew that he would not wake up some time later, after death, and sigh at how simple and foolish his dream had been. The life he saw was short and his sense of it goaded him. He was seized with a nervous eagerness. He stood up in the middle of the cell floor and tried to see himself in relation to other men, a thing he had always feared to try to do, so deeply stained was his own mind with the hate of others for him. With this new sense of the value of himself gained from Max's talk, a sense fleeting and obscure, he tried to feel that if Max had been able to see the man in him beneath those wild and cruel acts of his, acts of fear and hate and murder and flight and despair, then he too would hate, if he were they, just as now he was hating them and they were hating him. For the first time in his life he felt ground beneath his feet, and he wanted it to stay there.
He was tired, sleepy, and feverish; but he did not want to lie down with his war raging in him. Blind impulses welled up in his body, and his intelligence sought to make them plain to his understanding by supplying images that would explain them. Why was all this hate and fear? Standing trembling in his cell, he saw a dark vast fluid image rise and float; he saw a black sprawling prison full of tiny black cells in which people lived; each cell had its stone jar of water and a crust of bread and no one could go from cell to cell and there were screams and curses and yells of suffering and nobody heard them, for the walls were thick and darkness was everywhere. Why were there so many cells in the world? But was this true? He wanted to believe, but was afraid. Dare he flatter himself that much? Would he be struck dead if he made himself the equal of others, even in fancy?
He was too weak to stand any longer. He sat again on the edge of the cot. How could he find out if this feeling of his was true, if others had it? How could one find out about life when one was about to die? Slowly he lifted his hand in the darkness and held them in mid-air, the fingers spread weakly open. If he reached out with his hands, and if his hands were electric wires, and if his heart were a battery giving life and fire to those hands, and if he reached out with his hand and touched other people, reached out through these stone wall and felt other hands connected with other hearts—if he did that, would there be a reply, a shock? Not that he wanted those hearts to turn their warmth to him; he was not wanting that much. But just to know that they were there and warm! Just that, and no more; and it would have been enough, more than enough. And in that touch, response of recognition, there would be union, identity; there would be a supporting oneness, a wholeness which had been denied him all his life.
Another impulses rose in him, born of desperate need, and his mind clothed it in an image of a strong blinding sun sending hot rays down and he was standing in the midst of a vast crowd of men, white men and black men and all men, and the sun's rays melted away the many differences, the colors, the clothes, and drew what was common and good upward toward the sun….
He stretched out full length upon the cot and groaned. Was he foolish in feeling this? Was it fear and weakness that made this desire come to him now that death was near? How could a notion that went so deep and caught up so much of him in one swoop of emotion be wrong? Could he trust bare, naked feeling this way? But he had; all his life he had hated on the basis of bare sensation. Why should he not accept this? Had he killed Mary and Bessie and brought sorrow to his mother and brother and sister and put himself in the shadow of the electric chair only to find out this? Had he been pull all along? But there was no way to tell now. It was too late….
He would not mind dying now if he could only find out what this meant, what he was in relation to all the others that lived, and the earth upon which he stood. Was there some battle everybody was fighting, and he had missed it? And if he has missed it, were not the whites to blame for it? Were they not the ones to hate even now? Maybe. But he was not interested in hating them now. He had to die. It was more important to him to find out what this new tingling, this new elation, this new excitement meant.
He felt he wanted to live now—not escape paying for his crime—but live in order to find out, to see if it were true, and to feel it more deeply; and, if he had to die, to die within it. He felt that he would have lost all if he had to die without fully feeling it, without knowing for certain. But there was no way now. It was too late….
He lifted his hands to his face and touched his trembling lips. Naw…. Naw…. He ran to the door and caught the cold steel bars in his hot hands and gripped them tightly, holding himself erect. His face rested against the bars and he felt tears roll down his cheeks. His wet lips tasted salt. He sank to his knees and sobbed: "I don't want to die…. I don't want to die…."
Having been bound over to the grand jury and indicted by it, having been arraigned and having pled not guilty to the charges of murder and been ordered to trial—all in less than a week, Bigger lay one sunless gray morning on his cot, staring vacantly at the black steel bars of the Cook County Jail.
Within an hour he would be taken to court where they would tell him if he was to live or die, and when. And with but a few minutes between him and the beginning of judgment, the obscure longing to possess the thing which Max had dimly evoked in him was still a motive. He felt he had to have it now. How could he face that court of white men without something to sustain him? Since that night when he had stood alone in his cell, feeling the high magic which Max's talk had given him, he was more than ever naked to the hot blast of hate.
There were moments when he wished bitterly that he had not felt those possibilities, when he wished that he could go again behind his curtain. But that was impossible. He had been lured into the open, and trapped, twice; trapped by being in jail for murder, and again trapped by being stripped of emotional resources to go to his death.
In an effort to recapture that high moment, he had tried to talk with Max, but Max was preoccupied, busy preparing his pea to the court to save his life. But Bigger wanted to save his own life. Yet he knew that the moment he tried to put his feeling into words, his tongue would not move. Many times, when alone after Max had left him, he wondered wistfully if there was not a set of words which he had in common with others, words which would evoke in others a sense of the same fire that smoldered in him.
He look out upon the world and the people about him with a double vision: one vision pictured death, an image of him, alone, sitting strapped in the electric chair and waiting for the hot current to leap through his body; and the other vision pictured life, an image of himself standing amid throngs of men, lost in the welter of their lives with the hope of emerging again, different, unafraid. But so far only the certainty of death was his; only the unabating hate of the white faces could be seen; only the same dark cell, the long lonely hours, only the cold bars remained.
Had his will to believe in a new picture of the world made him act a fool and thoughtlessly pile horror upon horror? Was not his old hate a better defense than this agonized uncertainty? Was not an impossible hope betraying him to this end? On how many fronts could a man fight at once? Could he fight a battle within as well as without? Yet he felt that he could not fight the battle for his life without first winning the one raging within him.
His mother and Vera and Buddy had come to visit him and again he had lied to them, telling them that he was praying, that he was at peace with the world and men. But that lie had only made him feel more shame for himself and more hate for them; it had hurt because he really yearned for that certainty of which his mother spoke and prayed, but he could not get it on the terms on which he felt he had to have it. After they had left, he told Max not let them come again.
A few moments before the trial, a guard came to his cell and left a paper.
"Your lawyer sent this," he said and left.
He unfolded the Tribune and his eyes caught a headline: TROOPS GUARD NEGRO KILLER'S TRIAL. Troops? He bent forward and read: PROTECT RAPIST FROM MOB ACTION. He went down the column:
Fearing outbreaks of mob violence, Gov. H. M. O'Dorsey ordered out two regiments of the Illinois National Guard to keep public peace during the trial of Bigger Thomas, Negro rapist and killer, it was announced from Springfield, the capital, this morning.
His eyes caught phrases: "sentiment against killer still rising," "public opinion demands death penalty," "fear uprising in Negro sector," and "city tense."
Bigger sighed and stared into space. His lips hung open and he shook his head slowly. Was he not foolish in even listening when Max talked of saving his life? Was he not heightening the horror of his own end by straining after flickering hope? Had not this voice of hate been sounding long before he was born; and would it not still sound long after he was dead?
He read again, catching phrases: "the black killer is fully aware that he is in danger of going to the electric chair," "spends more of his time reading newspaper accounts of his crime and eating luxurious meals sent to him by Communist friends," "killer not sociable or talkative," "Mayor lauds police for bravery," and "a vast mass of evidence assembled against killer."
In relation to the Negro's mental condition, Dr. Calvin H. Robinson, a psychiatric attaché to the police department, declared: "There is no question but that Thomas is more alert mentally and more cagy that we suspect. His attempt to blame the Communists fore the murder and kidnap note and his staunch denial of having raped the white girl indicate that he may be hiding many other crimes."
Professional psychologists at the University of Chicago pointed out this morning that white women have an unusual fascination for Negro men. "They think," said one of the professors who requested that his name not be mentioned in connection with the case, "that white women are more attractive than the women of their own race. They just can't help themselves."
It was said that Boris A. Max, the Negro's communistic lawyer, will enter a plea of not guilty and try to free his client through a long drawn-out jury trial.
Bigger dropped the paper, stretched out upon the cot and closed his eyes. It was the same thing over and over again. What was the use of reading it?
Max was standing outside of the cell. The guard opened the door and Max walked in.
"Well, Bigger, how do you feel?"
"All right, I reckon," he mumbled.
"We're on our way to court."
Bigger rose and looked vacantly round the cell.
"Are you ready?"
"Yeah," Bigger sighed. "I reckon I am."
"Listen, son. Don't be nervous. Just take it easy."
"Will I be setting near you?"
"Sure. Right at the same table. I'll be there throughout the entire trial. So don't be scared."
A guard led him outside the door. The corridor was lined with policemen. It was silent. He was place between two policemen and his wrists were shackled to theirs. Black and white faces peered at him from behind steel bars. He walked stiffly between the two policemen; ahead of him walked six more; and he heard many more walking in back. They led him to an elevator that took him to an underground passage. They walked through a long stretch of narrow tunnel; the sound of their feet echoed loudly in the stillness. They reached another elevator and rode up and walked along a hallway crowded with excited people and policemen. They passed a window and Bigger caught a quick glimpse of a vast crowd of people standing behind closely formed lines of khaki-clad troops. Yes, those were the troops and the mob the paper had spoken of.
He was taken into a room. Max led the way to a table. After the handcuffs were unlocked, Bigger sat, flanked by policemen. Softly, Max laid his right hand upon Bigger's knee
"We've got just a few minutes," Max said.
"Yeah," Bigger mumbled. His eyes were half-closed; his head leaned slightly to one side and his eyes looked beyond Max at some point in space.
"Here," Max said. "Straighten your tie."
Bigger tugged listlessly at the knot.
"Now, maybe you'll have to say something just once, see…."
"You mean in the courtroom?"
"Yes; but I'll …"
"Now, listen, son…."
"But I don't want to say nothing."
"I'm trying to save your life…."
Bigger's nerves gave way and he spoke hysterically:
"They going to kill me! You know they going to kill me…."
"But you'll have to, Bigger. Now, listen…."
"Can't you fix it so I won't have to say nothing?"
"It's only a word or two. When the judge asks how you want to plead, say guilty."
"Will I have to stand up?"
"I don't want to."
"Don't you realize I'm trying to save your life? Help me just this little bit…."
"I reckon I don't care. I reckon you can't save it."
"You mustn't feel that way…."
"I can't help it."
"Here's another thing. The court'll be full, see? Just go in and sit down. You'll be right by me. And let the judge see that you notice what's going on."
"I hope Ma won't be there."
"I asked her to come. I want the judge to see her," Max said.
"She'll feel bad."
"All of this is for you, Bigger."
"I reckon I ain't worth it."
"Well, this thing's bigger than you, son. In a certain sense, every Negro in America's on trial out there today."
"They going to kill me anyhow."
"Not if we fight. Not if I tell them how you've had to live."
A policeman walked over to Max, tapped him lightly on the shoulder, and said,
"The judge's waiting."
"All right," Max said. "Come on, Bigger. Let's go. Keep your chin up."
They stood and were surrounded by policemen. Bigger walked beside Max down a hallway and then through a door. He saw a huge room crowded with men and women. Then he saw a small knot of black faces, over to one side of the room, behind a railing. A deep buzzing of voices came to him. Two policemen pushed the people to one side, making a path for Max and Bigger. Bigger moved forward slowly, feeling Max's hand tugging at the sleeve of his coat. They reached the front of the room.
"Sit down," Max whispered.
As Bigger sat the lightening of silver bulbs flashed in his eyes; they were taking more pictures of him. He was so tense in mind and body that his lips trembled. He did not know what to so with his hands; he wanted to put them into his coat pockets; but that would take too much effort and would attract attention. He kept them lying on his knees, palm up. There was a long and painful wait. The voices behind him still buzzed. Pale yellow sunshine fell through high windows and slashed the air.
He looked about. Yes; there were his mother and brother and sister; they were staring at him. There were many of his old school mates. There was his teacher, two of them. And there were G.H. and Jack and Gus and Doc. Bigger lowered his eyes. These were the people to whom he had once defied. Now they were watching him as he sat here. They would feel that they were right and he was wrong. The old, hot choking sensation came back to his stomach and throat. Why could they not just shoot him and get it over with? They were going to kill him anyhow, so why make him go through with this? He was startled by the sound of a deep, hollow voice booming and a banging on a wooden table.
"Everybody rise, please…."
Everybody stood up. Bigger felt Max's hand touching his arm and he rose and stood with Max. A man, draped in long black robes and with a dead-white face, came through a rear door and sat behind a high pulpit-like railing. That's the judge, Bigger thought, easing back into his seat.
"Hear ye, hear ye…." Bigger heard the hollow voice booming again. He caught snatches of phrases: "… this Honorable Branch of the Cook County Criminal Court … now in session … pursuant to adjournment … the Honorable Chief Justice Alvin C. Hanley, presiding …"
Bigger saw the judge look toward Buckley and then toward him and Max. Buckley rose and went to the foot of the railing; Max also rose and went forward. They talked a moment to the judge in low voices and then each went back to his seat. A man sitting just below the judge rose and began reading a long paper in a voice so thick and low that Bigger could only hear some of the words.
"… indictment number 666-983 … the People of the State of Illinois vs. Bigger Thomas … The Grand Jurors chosen, selected and sworn in and for the said County of Cook, present that Bigger Thomas did rape and inflict sexual injury upon the body … strangulation by hand … smother to death and dispose of body by burning same in furnace … did with knife and hatchet sever head from body … said acts committed upon one Mary Dalton, and contrary to the form of the statute in such case made and provided, against the peace and dignity of the People of the State of Illinois…."
The man pronounced Bigger's name over and over again, and Bigger felt that he was caught up in a vast but delicate machine whose wheels would whir no matter what was pitted against them. Over and over the man said that he had killed Mary and Bessie; that he had beheaded Mary; that he had battered Bessie with a brick; that he had raped both Mary and Bessie; that he had shoved Mary in the furnace; that he had thrown Bessie down the air-shaft and left her to freeze to death; and that he had stayed on in the Dalton home when Mary's body was burning and had sent a kidnap note. When the man finished, a gasp of astonishment came from the courtroom and Bigger saw faces turning and looking in his direction. The judge rapped for order and asked.
"Is the defendant ready to enter a plea to this indictment?"
"Yes, Your Honor. The defendant, Bigger Thomas, pleads guilty."
Immediately Bigger heard a loud commotion. He turned his head and saw several men pushing through the crowd toward the door. He knew that they were newspapermen. The judge rapped again for order. Max tried to continue speaking, but the judge stopped him.
"Just a minute, Mr. Max. We must have order!"
The room grew quiet.
"Your Honor," Max said, "after long and honest deliberation, I have determined to make a motion in this court to withdraw our plea of not guilty and enter a plea of guilty.
"The law of this state allow the offering of evidence in mitigation of punishment, and I shall request, at such time as the Court deems best, that I be given the opportunity to offer evidence as to the mental and emotional attitude of this boy, to show the degree of responsibility he had in these crimes. Also, I want to offer evidence as to the youth of this boy. Further, I want to prevail upon this Court to consider this boy's plea of guilty as evidence mitigating his punishment…."
"Your Honor!" Buckley shouted
"Allow me to finish," Max said.
Buckley came to the front of the room, his face red.
"You cannot plead that boy both guilty and insane," Buckley said. "If you claim Bigger Thomas is insane, the State will demand a jury trial…."
"Your Honor," Max said, "I do not claim that this boy is legally insane. I shall endeavor to show, through the discussion of evidence, the mental and emotional attitude of this boy and the degree of responsibility he had in these crimes."
"That's a defense of insanity!" Buckley said.
"I'm making no such defense," Max said.
"A man is either sane or insane," Buckley said.
"There are degrees of insanity," Max said. "The laws of this state permit the hearing of evidence to ascertain the degree of responsibility. And, also the law permits the offering of evidence toward the mitigation of punishment."
"The State will submit witnesses and evidence to establish the legal sanity of the defendant," Buckley said.
There was a long argument which Bigger did not understand. The judge called both lawyers forward to the railing and they talked for over an hour. Finally, they went back to their seats and the judge looked toward Bigger and said,
"Bigger Thomas, will you rise?"
His body flushed hot. As he had felt when he stood over the bed with the white blur floating toward him; as he had felt when he had sat in the car between Jan and Mary; as he had felt when he had seen Gus coming through the door of Doc's poolroom—so he felt now: constricted, taut, in the grip of a powerful, impelling fear. At that moment it seemed that any action under heaven would have been preferable to standing. He wanted to leap from his chair and swing some heavy weapon and end this unequal fight. Max caught his arm.
"Stand up, Bigger."
He rose, holding on to the edge of the table, his knees trembling so that he thought that they would buckle under him. The judge looked at him a long time before speaking. Behind him Bigger heard the room buzzing with the sound of voices. The judge rapped for order.
"How far did you get in school?" the judge asked.
"Eighth grade," Bigger whispered, surprised at the question.
"If your plea is guilty, and the plea is entered in this case," the judge said and paused, "the Court may sentence you to death," the judge said and paused again, "or the Court may sentence you to the penitentiary for the term of your natural life," the judge said and paused yet again, "or the Court may sentence you to the penitentiary for a term of not less than fourteen years.
"Now, do you understand what I have said?"
Bigger looked at Max; Max nodded to him.
"Speak up," the judge said. "If you do not understand what I have said, then say so."
"Y-y-yessuh; I understand," he whispered.
"Then, realizing the consequences of your plea, do you still plead guilty?"
"Y-y-yessuh," he whispered again; feeling that it was all a wild and intense dream that must end soon, somehow.
"That's all. You may sit down," the judge said.
"Is the State prepared to present its evidence and witnesses?" the judge asked.
"We are, Your Honor," said Buckley, rising and half-facing the judge and the crowd.
"Your Honor, my statement at this time will be brief. There is no need for me to picture to this Court the horrible details of these dastardly crimes. The array of witnesses for the State, the confession made and signed by the defendant himself, and the concrete evidence will reveal the unnatural aspect of this vile offense against God and man more eloquently than I could ever dare. In more than one respect, I am thankful that this is the case, for some of the facts of this evil crime are so fantastic and unbelievable, so utterly beast-like and foreign to our whole concept of life, that I feel incapable of communicating them to this Court.
"Never in my long career as an officer of the people have I been placed in a position where I've felt more unalterably certain of my duty. There is no room here for evasive, theoretical, or fanciful interpretations of the law." Buckley paused, surveyed the courtroom, the stepped to the table and lifted from it the knife with which Bigger had severed Mary's head from her body. "This case is as clean-cut as this murderer's knife, the knife that dismembered an innocent girl!" Buckley shouted. He paused again and lifted from the table the brick with which Bigger had battered Bessie in the abandoned building. "Your Honor, this case is as solid as this brick, the brick that battered a poor girl's brains out!" Buckley again looked at the crowd in the court room. "It's not often," Buckley continued, "that a representative of the people finds the masses of the citizens who elected him to office standing literally at his back, waiting for him to enforce the law…." The room was quiet as a tomb. Buckley strode to the window and with one motion of his hand hoisted it up. The rumbling mutter of the vast mob swept in. The courtroom stirred.
"Kill 'im now!"
The judge rapped for order.
"If this is not stopped, I'll order the room cleared!" the judge said.
Max was on his feet.
"I object!" Max said. "This is highly irregular. In effect, it is an attempt to intimidate this Court."
"Objection sustained," the judge said. Proceed in a fashion more in keeping with the dignity of your office and this Court, Mr. State Attorney."
"I'm very sorry, Your Honor," Buckley said, going toward the railing and wiping his face with a handkerchief. "I was laboring under too much emotion. I merely wanted to impress the Court with the urgency of this situation….
"The Court is waiting to hear you plea," the judge said.
"Yes; of course, Your Honor," Buckley said. "Now, what are the issues here? The indictment fully states the crime to which the defendant has entered a plea of guilty. The counsel for the defense claims, and would have this Court believe, that the mere act of entering a plea of guilt to his indictment should be accepted as evidence mitigating punishment.
"Speaking for the grief-stricken families of Mary Dalton and Bessie Mears, and for the People of the State of Illinois, thousand of whom are massed out beyond that window waiting for the law to take its course, I say that no such quibbling, no such trickery shall pervert this Court and cheat the law!
"A man commits two of the most horrible murders in the history of American civilization; he confesses; and his counsel would have us believe that because he pleads guilty after dodging the law, after attempting to murder the officers of the law, that his plea should be looked upon as evidence mitigating his punishment!
"I say, Your Honor, this is an insult to the Court and to the intelligent people of this state! If such crimes admit of such defense, if this fiend's life is spared because of such defense, I shall resign my office and tell these people out there in the streets that I can no longer protect their lives and property! I shall tell them that our courts, swamped with mawkish sentimentality, are no longer fit instruments to safe-guard the public peace! I shall tell them that we have abandoned the fight for civilization!
"After entering such a plea, the counsel for the defense indicates that he shall ask this Court to believe that the mental and emotional life of the defendant are such that he does not bear full responsibility for these cowardly rapes and murders. He asks this Court to imagine a legendary No Man's Land of human thought and feeling. He tells us that a man is sane enough to commit a crime, but is not sane enough to be tried for it! Never in my life have I heard such sheer legal cynicism, such a cold-blooded and calculated attempt to bedevil and evade the law in my life! I say that this shall not be!
"The State shall insist that this man be tried by jury, if the defense continues to say that he is insane. If his plea is simply guilty, then the State demands the death penalty for these black crimes.
"At such time as the Court may indicate, I shall offer evidence and put witnesses upon the stand to testify that this defendant is sane and is responsible for these bloody crimes…."
"Your Honor!" Max called.
"You shall have time to plead for you client!" Buckley shouted. "Let me finish!"
"Do you have an objection?" the judge asked, turning to Max.
"I do!" Max said. "I hesitate to interrupt the State's Attorney, but the impression he is trying to make is that I claim that this boy is insane. That is not true. Your Honor, let me state once again that this poor boy, Bigger, enters a plea of guilt…."
"I object!" Buckley shouted. "I object to the counsel for the defendant speaking of this defendant before this Court by any name other than that written in the indictment. Such names as 'Bigger' and 'this poor boy' are used to arouse sympathy…."
"Sustained," the judge said. "In the future, the defendant should be designed by the name under which the indictment was drawn. Mr. Max, I think you should allow the State's Attorney to continue."
"There's nothing further I have to say, Your Honor," Buckley said. "If it pleases the Court, I am ready to call my witnesses."
"How many witnesses have you?" Max asked.
"Sixty," Buckley said.
"Your Honor," Max said. "Bigger Thomas has entered a plea of guilty. It seems to me that sixty witnesses are not needed."
"I intend to prove that this defendant is sane, that he was and is responsible for these frightful crimes," Buckley said.
"The Court will hear them," the judge said.
"Your Honor," Max said. "Let me clear this thing up. As you know, the time granted me to prepare a defense for Bigger Thomas is pitifully brief, so brief as to be without example. This hearing was rushed to the top of the calendar so that this boy might be tried while the temper of the people is white-hot.
"A change of venue is of no value now. The same condition of hysteria exists all over this state. These circumstances have placed me in a position of not doing what I think wisest, but of doing what I must. If anybody but a Negro boy were charged with murder, the State's Attorney would not have rushed this case to trial and demanded the death penalty.
"The State's Attorney has sought to create the belief that I'm trying to spring some surprise upon this Court by having my client enter a plea of guilty; he has sought to foster the notion that some legal trick is involved in the offering of evidence to mitigate this boy's punishment. But we have had many, many such cases to come before the courts of Illinois. The Loeb and Leopold case, for example. This is a regular procedure provided for by the enlightened and progressive laws of our state. Shall we deny this boy, because he is poor and black, the same protection, the same chance to be heard and understood that we have so readily granted to others?
"Your Honor, I am not a coward, but I could not ask that this boy be freed and given a chance at life while that mob howls beyond that window. I ask what I must. I ask, over the shrill cries of the mob, that you spare his life!
"The law of Illinois, regarding a plea of guilty to murder before a court, is a follows: the Court may impose the death penalty, imprison the defendant for life, or for a term of not less than fourteen years. Under this law the Court is able to hear evidence as to the aggravation or mitigation of the offense. The object of this law is to caution the Court to seek to find out why a man killed and to allow that why to be the measure of the mitigation of the punishment.
"I noticed that the State's Attorney did not dwell upon why Bigger Thomas killed those two women. There is a mob waiting, he says, so let us kill. His only plea is that if we do not kill, then the mob will kill.
"He did not discuss the motive for Bigger Thomas' crime because he could not. It is to his advantage to act quickly, before men have had time to think, before the full facts are known. For he knows that if the full facts were known, if men had time to reflect, he could not stand there and shout for death!
"What motive actuated Bigger Thomas? There was no motive as motive is understood under our laws today, Your Honor. I shall go deeper into this when I sum up. It is because of the almost instinctive nature of these crimes that I say that the mental and emotional life of this boy is important in deciding his punishment. But, as the State whets the appetite of the mob by needlessly parading witness after witness before this Court, as the State inflames the public mind further with the ghastly details of this boy's crimes, I shall listen for the State's Attorney to tell the Court why Bigger Thomas killed.
"This boy is young, not only in years, but in his attitude toward life. He is not old enough to vote. Living in a Black Belt district, he is younger than most boys of his age, for he has not come in contact with the wide variety and depths of life. He has had but two outlets for his emotions: work and sex—and he knew these in their most vicious and degrading forms.
"I shall ask this Court to spare this boy's life and I have faith enough in this Court to believe that it will consent."
Max sat down. The courtroom was filled with murmurs.
"The Court will adjourn for one hour and reconvene at one o'clock," the judge said.
Flanked by policemen, Bigger was led back into the crowded hall. Again he passed a window and he saw a sprawling mob held at bay by troops. He was taken to a room where a tray of food rested on a table. Max was there, waiting for him.
"Come on and sit down, Bigger. Eat something."
"I don't want nothing."
"Come on. You've got to hold up."
"I ain't hungry."
"Here; take a smoke."
"You want a drink of water?"
Bigger sat in a chair, leaned forward, rested his arms on the table and buried his face in the crooks of his elbows. He was tired. Now that he was out of the courtroom, he felt the awful strain under which he had been while the men had argued about his life. All of the vague thoughts and excitement about finding a way to live and die were far from him now. Fear and dread were the only possible feelings he could have in that courtroom. When the hour was up, he was led back into court. He rose with the rest when the judge came, and then sat again.
"The State may call its witnesses," the judge said.
"Yes, Your Honor," Buckley said.
The first witness was an old woman whom Bigger had not seen before. During the questioning, he heard Buckley call her Mrs. Rawlson. Then he heard the old woman say that she was the mother of Mrs. Dalton. Bigger saw Buckley give her the earring he had seen at the inquest, and the old woman told of how a pair of earrings had been handed down through the years from mother to daughter. When Mrs. Rawlson was through, Max said that he had no desire to examine her or any of the State's witnesses. Mrs. Dalton was led to the stand and she told the same story she had told at the inquest. Mr. Dalton told again why he had hired Bigger and pointed him out as "the Negro boy who came to my home to work." Peggy also pointed him out, saying through her sobs, "Yes; he's the boy." All of them said that he had acted like a very quiet and sane boy.
Britten told how he had suspected that Bigger knew something of the disappearance of Mary; and said that "that black boy is as sane as I am." A newspaperman told of how the smoke in the furnace had caused the discovery of Mary's bones. Bigger heard Max rise when the newspaperman had finished.
"Your Honor," Max said. "I'd like to know how many more newspapermen are to testify?"
"I have just fourteen more," Buckley said.
"Your Honor," Max said. "This is totally unnecessary. There is a plea of guilt here…."
"I'm going to prove that the killer is sane!" Buckley shouted
"The Court will hear them," the judge said. "Proceed, Mr. Buckley."
Fourteen more newspapermen told about the smoke and the bones and said that Bigger acted "just like all other colored boys." At five o'clock the court recessed and a tray of food was placed before Bigger in a small room, with six policemen standing guard. The nerves of his stomach were so taut that he could only drink the coffee. Six o'clock found him back in court. The room grew dark and the lights were turned on. The parade of witnesses ceased to be real to Bigger. Five white men came to the stand and said that the handwriting of the kidnap note was his; that it was the same writing which they had found on his "homework papers taken from the files of the school he used to attend." Another white man said that the fingerprints of Bigger Thomas were found on the door of "Miss Dalton's room." Then six doctors said Bessie had been raped. Four colored waitresses from Ernie' Kitchen Shack pointed him out as the "colored boy who was at the table that night with the white man and the white woman." And they said he had acted "quiet and sane." Next came two white women, school teachers, who said that Bigger was "a dull boy, but thoroughly sane." One witness melted into another. Bigger ceased to care. He stared listlessly. At times he could hear the faint sound of the winter wind blowing outdoors. He was too tired to be glad when the session ended. Before they took him back to his cell, he asked Max,
"How long will it last?"
"I don't know, Bigger. You'll have to be brave and hold up."
"I wish it was over."
"This is your life, Bigger. You got to fight."
"I don't care what they do to me. I wish it was over."
The next morning they woke him, fed him, and took him back to court. Jan came to the stand and said what he had said at the inquest. Buckley made not attempt to link Jan with the murder of Mary. G.H. and Gus and Jack told of how they used to steal from stores and newsstands, of the fight that had had the morning they planned to rob Blum's. Doc told of how Bigger had cut the cloth of his pool table and said that Bigger was "mean and bad, but sane." Sixteen policemen pointed him out as "the man we captured, Bigger Thomas." They said that a man who could elude the law as skillfully as Bigger had was "sane and responsible." A man from the juvenile court said that Bigger had served three months in a reform school for stealing auto tires.
There was a recess and in the afternoon five doctors said that they thought Bigger was "sane, but sullen and contrary." Buckley brought forth the knife and purse Bigger had hidden in the garbage pail and informed the Court that the city's dump had been combed for four days to find them. The brick he had used to strike Bessie with was shown; then came the flashlight, the Communist pamphlets, the gun, the blackened earring, the hatchet blade, the signed confession, the kidnap note, Bessie's bloody clothes, the stained pillows and quilts, the trunk, and the empty rum bottle which had been found in the snow near a curb. Mary's bones were brought in and women in the courtroom began to sob. Then a group of twelve workmen brought in the furnace, piece by piece, from the Dalton basement and mounted it upon a giant wooden platform. People in the room stood to look and the judge ordered them to sit down.
Buckley had a white girl, the size of Mary, crawl inside of the furnace "to prove beyond doubt that it could and did hold and burn the ravished body of innocent Mary Dalton; and to show that the poor girl's head could not go in and the sadistic Negro cut it off." Using an iron shovel from the Dalton basement, Buckley showed how the bones had been raked out; explained how Bigger had "craftily crept up the stairs during the excitement and taken flight." Mopping sweat from his face, Buckley said,
"The State rests, You Honor!"
"Mr. Max," the judge said." You may proceed to call your witnesses."
"The defense does not contest the evidence introduced here," Max said, "I therefore waive the right to call witnesses. As I stated before, at the proper time I shall present a plea in Bigger Thomas' behalf."
The judge informed Buckley that he could sum up. For one hour Buckley commented upon the testimony of the State's witnesses and interpreted the evidence, concluding with the words,
"The intellectual and moral faculties of mankind may as well be declared impotent, if the evidence and testimony submitted by the State are not enough to compel this Court to impose the death sentence upon Bigger Thomas, this despoiler of women!"
"Mr. Max, will you be prepared to present your plea tomorrow?" the judge asked.
"I will, Your Honor."
Back in his cell, Bigger tumbled lifelessly onto his cot. Soon it'll all be over, he thought. Tomorrow might be the last day; he hoped so. His sense of time was gone; night and day were merged now.
The next morning he was awake in his cell when Max came. On his way to court he wondered what Max would say about him. Could Max really save his life? In the act of thinking the thought, he thrust it from him. If he kept hope from his mind, then whatever happened would seem natural. As he was led down the hall, past window, he saw that the mob and the troops still surrounded the court house. The building was still jammed with muttering people. Policemen had to make an aisle from him in the crowd.
A pang of fear shot through him when he saw that he had been the first to get to the table. Max was somewhere behind him, lost in the crowd. It was then that he felt more deeply than ever what Max had grown to mean to him. He was defenseless now. What was there to prevent those people from coming across those railings and dragging him into the street, now that Max was not here? He sat, not daring to look round, conscious that every eye was upon him. Max's presence during the trial had made him feel that somewhere in that crowd that stared at him so steadily and resentfully was something he could cling to, if only he could get at it. There smoldered in him the hope that Max had made him feel in the first long talk they had had. But he did not want to risk trying to make it flare into flame now, not with this trial and the words of hate from Buckley. But neither did he snuff it out; he nursed it, kept it as his last refuge.
When Max came Bigger saw that his face was pale and drawn. There were dark rings beneath the eyes. Max laid a hand on Bigger's knee and whispered,
"I'm going to do all I can, son."
Court opened and the judge said,
"Are you ready to proceed, Mr. Max?"
"Yes, Your Honor."
Max rose, ran his hand through his white hair and went to the front of the room. He turned and half-faced the judge and Buckley, looking out over Bigger's head to the crowd. He cleared his throat.
"Your Honor, never in my life I risen in court to make a plea with a firmer conviction in my heart. I know that what I have to say here today touches the destiny of an entire nation. My plea is for more than one man and one people. Perhaps it is in a manner fortunate that the defendant has committed one of the darkest crimes in our memory; for if we can encompass the life of this man and find out what has happened to him, if we can understand how subtly and yet strongly his life and fate are linked to ours—if we can do this, perhaps we shall find the key to our future, that rare vantage point upon which every man and woman in this nation can stand and view how inextricably our hopes and fear of today create the exultation and doom of tomorrow.
"Your Honor, I have no desire to be disrespectful to this Court, but I must be honest. A man's life is at stake. And not only is this man a criminal, but he is a black criminal. And as such, he comes into this court under a handicap, notwithstanding our pretensions that all are equal before the law.
"This man is different, even though his crime differs from similar crimes only in degree. The complex forces of society have isolated here for us a symbol, a test symbol. The prejudices of men have stained this symbol, like a germ stained for examination under the microscope. The unremitting hate of men has given us a psychological distance that will enable us to see this tiny social symbol in relation to our whole sick social organism.
"I say, Your Honor, that the mere act of understanding Bigger Thomas will be a thawing out of icebound impulses, a dragging of the sprawling from the dread out of the night of fear into the light of reason, an unveiling of the unconscious ritual of death in which we, like sleep-walkers, have participated so dreamlike and thoughtlessly.
"But I make no excessive claims, Your Honor. I do not deal in magic. I do not say that if we understand this man's life we shall solve all our problems, or that when we have all the facts at our disposal we shall automatically know how to act. Life is not that simple. But I do say that, if, after I have finished, you feel that death is necessary, then you are making an open choice. What I want to do is inject into the consciousness of this Court, through the discussion of evidence, the two possible courses of action open to us and the inevitable consequences flowing from each. And then, if we say death, let us mean it; and if we say life, let us mean that too; but whatever we say, let us know upon what ground we are putting our feet, what the consequences are for us and those whom we judge.
"Your Honor, I would have you believe that I am not insensible to the deep burden of responsibility I am throwing upon your shoulders by the manner in which I have insisted upon conducting the defense of this boy's life, and in my resolve to place before you the entire degree of his guilt for judgment? But, under the circumstances, what else could I have done? Night after night, I have lain without sleep, trying to think of a way to picture to you and to the world the causes and reasons why this Negro boy sits here a self-confessed murderer. How can I, I asked myself, make the picture of what has happened to this boy show plain and powerful upon a screen of sober reason, when a thousand newspaper and magazine artists have already drawn it in lurid ink upon a million sheets of public print? Dare I, deeply mindful of this boy's background and race, put his fate in the hands of a jury (not of his peers, but of alien and hostile race!) whose minds are already conditioned by the press of the nation; a press which has already reached a decision as to his guilt, and in countless editorials suggested the measure of his punishment?
"No! I could not! So today I come to face this Court, rejecting a trial by jury, willingly entering a plea of guilty, asking in the light of the laws of this state that this boy's life be spared for reasons which I believe affect the foundations of our civilization.
"The most habitual thing for this Court to do is to take the line of least resistance and follow the suggestion of the State's Attorney and say, 'Death!' And that would be the end of this case. But that would not be the end of this crime! That is why this Court must do otherwise.
"There are times, Your Honor, when reality bears features of such an impellingly moral complexion that it is impossible to follow the hewn path of expediency. There are times when life's ends are so raveled that reason and sense cry out that we stop and gather them together again before we can proceed.
What atmosphere surrounds this trial? Are the citizens soberly intent upon seeing that the law is executed? That retribution is dealt out in measure with the offense? That the guilty and only the guilty is caught and punished?
"No! Every conceivable prejudice has been dragged into this case. The authorities of the city and state deliberately inflamed the public mind to the point where they could not keep the peace without martial law. Responsible to nothing but their own corrupt conscience, the newspapers and the prosecution launched the ridiculous claim that the Communist Party was in some way linked to these two murders. Only here in court yesterday morning did the State's cease implying that Bigger Thomas was guilty of other crimes which he could not prove.
"The hunt for Bigger Thomas served as an excuse to terrorize the entire Negro population, to arrest hundreds of Communists, to raid labor union headquarters and workers' organizations. Indeed, the tone of the press, the silence of the church, the attitude of the prosecution and the stimulated temper of the people are of such nature as to indicate that more than revenge is being sought upon a man who has committed a crime.
"What is the cause of all this high feeling and excitement? Is it the crime of Bigger Thomas? Were Negroes liked yesterday and hated today because of what he has done? Were labor unions and workers' halls raided solely because a Negro committed a crime? Did those white bones lying on that table evoke the gasp of horror that went up from the nation?
"Your Honor, you know that that is not the case! All of the factors in the present hysteria existed before Bigger Thomas was ever heard of. Negroes, workers, and labor unions were hated as much yesterday as they are today.
"Crimes of even greater brutality and horror have been committed in this city. Gangsters have killed and have gone free to kill again. But none of that brought forth an indignation to equal this.
"Your Honor, that mob did not come here of its own accord! It was incited! Until a week ago those people lived their lives as quiet as always.
"Who, then, fanned this latent hate into fury? Whose interest is that thoughtless and misguided mob serving?
"The State's Attorney knows, for he promised the Loop bankers that if he were re-elected demonstrations for relief would be stopped! The Governor of the state knows, for he has pledged the Manufacturers' Association that he would use troops against workers who went out on strike! The Mayor knows, for he told the merchants of the city that the budget would be cut down, that no new taxes would be imposed to satisfy the clamor of the masses of the needy!
"There is guilt in the rage that demands that this man's life be snuffed out quickly! There is fear in the hate and impatience which impels the action of the mob congregated upon the streets beyond that window! All of them—the mob and the mob-masters; the wire-pullers and the frightened; the leaders and their pet vassals—know and feel that their lives are built upon a historical deed of wrong against many people, people from whose lives they have bled their leisure and their luxury! Their feeling of guilt is as deep as that of the boy who sits here on trial today. Fear and hate and guilt are the keynotes of this drama!
"Your Honor, for the sake of this boy and myself, I wish I could bring to this Court evidence of a morally worthier nature. I wish I could say that love, ambition, jealousy, the quest for adventure, or any of the more romantic feelings were back of these two murders. If I could honestly invest the hapless actor in this fateful drama with feelings of a loftier cast, my task would be easier and I would feel confident of the outcome. The odds would be with me, for I would be appealing to men bound by common ideals to judge with pity and understanding one of their brothers who erred and fell in struggle. But I have no choice in this matter. Life has cut this cloth; not I.
"We must deal with the raw stuff of life, emotions and impulses and attitudes as yet unconditioned by the strivings of science and civilization. We must deal here with a first wrong which, when committed by us, was understandable and inevitable; and then we must deal with the long trailing black sense of guilt stemming from that wrong, a sense of guilt which self-interest and fear would not let us atone. And we must deal here with the hot blasts of hate engendered in others by that first wrong, and then the monstrous and horrible crimes flowing from that hate, a hate which has seeped down into the hearts and molded the deepest and most delicate sensibilities of multitudes.
"We must deal here with a dislocation of life involving millions of people, a dislocation so vast as to stagger the imagination; so fraught with tragic consequences as to make us rather not want to look at it or think of it; so old that we would rather try to view it as an order of nature and strive with uneasy conscience and false moral fervor to keep it so.
"We must deal here, on both sides of the fence, among whites as well as blacks, among workers as well as employers, with men and women in whose minds there loom good and bad of such height and weight that they assume proportions of abnormal aspect and construction. When situations like this arise, instead of men feeling that they are facing other men, they feel that they are facing mountains, floods, seas: forces of nature whose size and strength focus the minds and emotions to a degree of tension unusual in the quiet routine of urban life. Yet this tension exists within the limits of urban life, undermining it and supporting it in the same gesture of being.
"Allow me, Your Honor, before I proceed to cast blame and ask for mercy, to state emphatically that I do not claim that this boy is a victim of injustice, nor do I ask that this Court be sympathetic with him. That is not my object in embracing his character and his cause. It is not to tell you only of suffering that I stand here today, even though there are frequent lynchings and floggings of Negroes throughout the country. If you react only to that part of what I say, then you, too, are caught as much as he in the mire of blind emotions, and this vicious game will roll on, like a bloody river to a bloodier sea. Let us banish from our minds the thought that this is an unfortunate victim of injustice. The very concept of injustice rests upon a premise of equal claims, and this boy here today makes no claim upon you. If you think or feel that he does, then you, are blinded by a feeling as terrible as that which you condemn in him, and without as much justification. The feeling of guilt which has caused all of the mob-fear and mob-hysteria is the counterpart of his own hate.
"Rather, I plead with you to see a mode of life in our midst, a mode of life stunted and distorted, but possessing its own laws and claims, an existence of men growing out of the soil prepared by the collective but blind will of a hundred million people. I beg you to recognize human life draped in a form and guise alien to ours, but springing from a soil plowed and sown by all our hands. I ask you to recognize the laws and processes flowing from such a condition, understand them, seek to change them. If we do none of these, then we should not pretend horror or surprise when thwarted life expressed itself in fear and hate and crime.
"This is life, new and strange; strange, because we fear it; new, because we have kept our eyes turned from it. This is life lived in cramped limits and expressing itself not in terms of our good and bad, but in terms of its own fulfillment. Men are men and life is life, and we must deal with them as they are; and if we want to change them, we must deal with them in the form in which they exist and have their being.
"Your Honor, I must still speak in general terms, for the background of this boy must be shown, a background which has acted powerfully upon his conduct. Our forefathers came to these shores and faced a harsh and wild country. They came here with a stifled dream in their hearts, from lands where their personalities had been denied, as even we have denied the personality of this boy. They came from cities of the old world where the means to sustain life were hard to get or own. They were colonists and they were faced with a difficult choice: they had either to subdue this wild land or be subdued by it. We need but turn our eyes upon the imposing sweep of streets and factories and buildings to see how completely they have conquered. But in conquering they used others, used their lives. Like a miner using a pick or a carpenter using a saw, they bent the will of others to their own. Lives to them were tools and weapons to be wielded against a hostile land and climate.
"I do not say this in terms of moral condemnation. I do not say it to rouse pity in you for the black men who were slaves for two and one-half centuries. It would be foolish now to look back upon that in the light of injustice. Let us not e naïve: men do what they must, even when they feel that they are being driven by God, even when they feel they are fulfilling the will of God. Those men were engaged in a struggle for life and their choice in the matter was small indeed. It was the imperial dream of a feudal age that made men enslave others. Exalted by the will to rule, they could not have built nations on so vast scale had they not shut their eyes to the humanity of other men, men whose lives were necessary for the building. But the invention and widespread use of machines made the further direct enslavement of men economically impossible, and so slavery ended.
"Let me, Your Honor, dwell a moment longer upon the danger of looking upon this boy in the light of injustice. If I should say that he is a victim of injustice, then I would be asking by implication for sympathy; and if one insists upon looking at this boy in the light of sympathy, he will be swamped by a feeling of guilt so strong as to be indistinguishable from hate.
"Of all things, men do not like to feel that they are guilty of wrong, and if you make them feel guilty, they will try desperately to justify it on any grounds; but, failing that, and seeing not immediate solution that will set things right without too much cost to their lives and property, they will kill that which evoked in them the condemning sense of guilt. And that is true of all men, whether they be white or black; it is a peculiar and powerful, but common, need.
"This guilt-fear is the basic tone of the prosecution and of the people in this case. In their hearts they feel that a wrong has been done and when a Negro commits a crime against them, they fancy they see the ghastly evidence of that wrong. So the men of wealth and property, the victims of attack who are eager to protect their profits, say to their guilty hirelings, 'Stamp out this ghost!' Or, like Mr. Dalton, they say, 'Let's do something for this man so he won't feel that way.' But then it is too late.
"If only ten or twenty Negroes had been put into slavery, we could call it injustice, but there were hundreds of thousands of them throughout the country. If this state of affairs had lasted for two or three years, we could say that it was unjust; but it lasted for more than two hundred years. Injustice which lasts for three long centuries and which exists among millions of people over thousand of square miles of territory, is injustice no longer; it is an accomplished fact of life. Men adjust themselves to their land; they create their own laws of being; their notions of right and wrong. A common way of earning a living gives them a common attitude toward life. Even their speech is colored and shaped by what they must undergo. Your Honor, injustice blots out one form of life, but another grows up in its place with its own rights, needs, and aspirations. What is happening here today is not injustice, but oppression, an attempt to throttle or stamp out a new form of life. And it is this new form of life that has grown up here in our midst that puzzles us, that expresses itself, like a weed growing from under a stone, in terms we call crime. Unless we grasp this problem in the light of this new reality, we cannot do more than salve our feeling of guilt and rage with more murder when a man, living under such conditions, commits an act which we call a crime.
"This boy represents but a tiny aspect of a problem whose reality sprawls over a third of this nation. Kill him! Burn the life out of him! And still when the delicate and unconscious machinery of race relations slips, there will be murder again. How can law contradict the lives of millions of people and hope be administered successfully? Do we believe in magic? Do you believe that by burning a cross you can frighten a multitude, paralyze their will and impulses? Do you think that the white daughters in the homes of America will be any safer if you kill this boy? No! I tell you in all solemnity that they won't! The surest way to make certain that there will be more such murders is to kill this boy. In your rage and guilt, make thousands of other black men and women feel that the barriers are tighter and higher! Kill him and swell the tide of pent-up lava that will some day break loose, not in a single, blundering, accidental, individual crime, but in a wild cataract of emotion that will brook no control. The all-important thing for this Court to remember in deciding this boy's fate is that, though his crime was accidental, the emotions that broke loose were already there; the thing to remember is that this boy's way of life was a way of guilt; that his crime existed long before the murder of Mary Dalton; that the accidental nature of his crime took the guise of a sudden and violent rent in the veil behind which he lived, a rent which allowed his feeling of resentment and estrangement to leap forth and find objective and concrete form.
"Obsessed with guilt, we have sought to thrust a corpse from before our eyes. We have marked off a little plot of ground and buried it. We tell our souls in the deep of the black night that it is dead and that we have no reason for fear or uneasiness.
"But the corpse returns and raids our homes! We find our daughters murdered and burnt! And we say, 'Kill! Kill!
"But, Your Honor, I say: 'Stop! Let us look at what we are doing! For the corpse is not dead! It still lives! It has made itself at home in the wild forest of our great cities, amid the rank and choking vegetation of slums! It has forgotten our language! In order to live it has sharpened its claws! It has grown hard and calloused! It has developed a capacity for hate and fury which we cannot understand! Its movements are unpredictable! By night it creeps from its lair and steals toward the settlements of civilization! And at the sight of a kind of face it does not lie down upon its back and kick up its heels playfully to be tickled and stroked. No; it leaps to kill!
"Yes, Mary Dalton, a well-intentioned white girl with a smile upon her face, came to Bigger Thomas to help him. Mr. Dalton, feeling vaguely that a social wrong existed, wanted to give him a job so that his family could eat and his sister and brother could go to school. Mrs. Dalton, trying to grope her way toward a sense of decency, wanted him to go to school and learn a trade. But when they stretched fort their helping hands, death struck! Today they mourn and wait for revenge. The wheel of blood continues to turn!
"I have only sympathy for those kind-hearted, white-haired parents. But to Mr. Dalton, who is a real estate operator, I say now: 'You rent houses to Negroes in the Black Belt and you refuse to rent to them elsewhere. You kept Bigger Thomas in that forest. You kept the man who murdered your daughter a stranger to her and your kept your daughter a stranger to him.'
The relationship between the Thomas family and the Dalton family was that of renter to landlord, customer to merchant, employee to employer. The Thomas family got poor and the Dalton family got rich. And Mr. Dalton, a decent man, tried to salve his feeling by giving money. But, my friend, gold was not enough! Corpses cannot be bribed! Say to yourself, Mr. Dalton, 'I offered my daughter as a burnt sacrifice and it was not enough to push back into its grave this thing that haunts me.'
"And to Mrs. Dalton, I say: 'Your philanthropy was as tragically blind as your sightless eyes!'
"And to Mary Dalton, if she can hear me, I say: 'I stand here today trying to make your death mean something!'
"Let me, Your Honor, explain further the meaning of Bigger Thomas' life. In him and men like him is what was in our forefathers when they first came to these strange shores hundreds of year ago. We were lucky. They are not. We found a land whose tasks called forth the deepest and best we had; and we built a nation, mighty and feared. We poured and are still pouring our soul into it. But we have told them: 'This is a white man's country!' They are yet looking for a land whose tasks can call forth their deepest and best.
"Your Honor, consider the mere physical aspect of our civilization. How alluring, how dazzling it is! How it excites the senses! How it seems to dangle within easy reach of everyone the fulfillment of happiness! How constantly and overwhelmingly the advertisements, radios, newspapers and movies play upon us! But in thinking of them remember that to many they are tokens of mockery. These bright colors may fill our hearts with elation, but to many they are daily taunts. Imagine a man walking amid such a scene, a part of it, and yet knowing that it is not for him!
"We planned the murder of Mary Dalton, and today we come to court and say: 'We had nothing to do with it!' But every school teacher knows the restrictions which have been placed upon Negro education. The authorities know that it is not so, for they have made it plain in their every act that they mean to keep Bigger Thomas and his kind within rigid limits. All real estate operators know that it is not so, for they have agreed among themselves to keep Negroes within the ghetto-areas of the city. Your Honor, we who sit here today in this courtroom are witnesses. We know this evidence, for we helped to create it.
"But the question may be asked, 'If this boy thought that he was somehow wronged, why did he not go into a court of law and seek a redress of his grievances? Why should he take the law into his own hands? Your Honor, this boy had no notion before he murdered, and he has none now, of having been wronged by any specific individuals. And, to be honest with you, the very life he has led has created in him a frame of mind which makes him expect much less of this Court than you will ever know.
"This boy's crime was not an act of retaliation by an injured man against a person who he thought had injured him. If it were, then this case would be simple indeed. This is the case of a man's mistaking a whole race of men as a part of the natural structure of the universe and of his acting toward them accordingly. He murdered Mary Dalton accidentally, without thinking, without plan, without conscious motive. But, after he murdered, he accepted the crime. And that's the important thing. It was the first full act of his life; it was the most meaningful, exciting and stirring thing that had ever happened to him. He accepted it because it made him free, gave him the possibility of choice, of action, the opportunity to act and feel that his actions carried weight.
"We are dealing here with an impulse stemming from deep down. We are dealing here not with how man acts toward man, but with how man acts when he feels that he must defend himself against, or adapt himself to, the total natural world in which he lives. The central fact to be understood here is not who wronged this boys, but what kind of a vision of the world did he have before his eyes, and where did he get such a vision as to make him, without premeditation, snatch the life of another person so quickly and instinctively that even though there was an element of accident in it, he was willing after the crime to say: 'Yes; I did it. I had to.'
"I know that it is the fashion these days for a defendant to say: 'Everything went blank to me.' But this boy does not say that. He says the opposite. He says he knew what he was doing but felt he had to do it. And he says he feels no sorrow for having done it.
"Do men regret when they kill in war? Does the personality of a soldier coming at you over the top of a trench matter?
"No! You kill to keep from being killed! And after a victorious war you return to a free country, just as this boy, with his hands stained with the blood of Mary Dalton, felt that he was free for the first time in his life.
"Multiply Bigger Thomas twelve million times, allowing for environmental and temperamental variations, and for those Negroes who are completely under the influence of the church, and you have the psychology of the Negro people. But once you see them as a whole, once your eyes leave the individual and encompass the mass, a new quality comes into the picture. Taken collectively, they are not simply twelve million people, in reality they constitute a separate nation, stunted, stripped, and held captive within this nation, devoid of political, social, economic, and property rights.
"Do you think that you can kill one of them—even if you killed one every day in the year—and make the others so full of fear that they would not kill? No! Such a foolish policy has never worked and never will. The more you kill, the more you deny and separate, the more will they seek another form and way of life, however blindly and unconsciously. And out of what can they weave a different life, out of what can they mold a new existence, living organically in the same towns and cities, the same neighborhoods with us? I ask, out of what—but what we are and own?
"Your Honor, there are four times as many Negroes in America today as there were people in the original Thirteen Colonies when they struck for their freedom. These twelve million Negroes, conditioned broadly by our own notions as we were by European ones when we first came here, are struggling within unbelievably narrow limits to achieve that feeling of at-home-ness for which we once strove so ardently. And, compared with our own struggle, they are striving under conditions far more difficult. If anybody can, surely we ought to be able to understand what these people are after. This vast stream of life, damned and muddied, is trying to sweep toward the fulfillment which all of us seek so fondly, but find so impossible to put into words. When we said that men are 'endowed with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,' we did not pause to define 'happiness.' That is the unexpressed quality in our quest, and we have never tried to put it into words. That is why we say, 'Let each man serve God in his own fashion.'
"But there are some broad features of the kind of happiness we are seeking which are known. We know that happiness comes to men when they are caught up, absorbed in a meaningful tasks or duty to be done, a task or duty which in turn sheds justification and sanction back down upon their humble labors. We know that this may take many forms: in religion it is the story of the creation of man, of his fall, and of his redemption; compelling men to order their lives in certain ways, all cast in terms of cosmic images and symbols which swallow the soul in fulness and wholeness. In art, science, industry, politics, and social action it may take other forms. But these twelve million Negroes have access to none of these highly crystallized modes of expression, save that of religion. And many of them know religion only in its more primitive form. The environment of tense urban centers has all but paralyzed the impulse for religion as a way of life for them today, just as it has for us.
"Feeling the capacity to be, to live, to act, to pour out the spirit of their souls into concrete and objective form with a high fervor born of their racial characteristics, they glide through our complex civilization like wailing ghosts; they spin like fiery planets lost from their orbits; they wither and die like trees ripped from native soil.
"Your Honor, remember that men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread! And they can murder for it, too! Did we not build a nation, did we not wage war and conquer in the name of a dream to realize our personalities and to make those realized personalities secure!
"But did Bigger Thomas really murder? At the risk of offending the sensibilities of this Court, I ask the question in the light of the ideals by which by which we live! Looked at from the outside, maybe it was murder, then what was the motive? The prosecution has shouted, stormed and threatened, but he has not said why Bigger Thomas killed! He has not said why because he does not know. The truth is, Your Honor, there was no motive as you and I understand motives within the scope of our laws today. The truth is, this boy did not kill! Oh, yes; Mary Dalton id dead. Bigger Thomas smothered her to death. Bessie Mears is dead. Thomas battered her with a brick in an abandoned building. But did he murder? Did he kill? Listen: what Bigger Thomas did early that Sunday morning in the Dalton home and what he did that Sunday night in that empty building was but a tiny aspect of what he had been doing all his life long! He was living, only as he knew how, and as we have forced him to live. The actions that resulted in the death of those two women were as instinctive and inevitable as breathing or blinking one's eyes. It was an act of creation!
"Let me tell you more. Before this trial the newspapers and the prosecution said that this boy had committed other crimes. It is true. He is guilty of numerous crimes. But search until the day of judgment, and you will find not one shred of evidence of them. He has murdered many times, but there are no corpses. Let me explain. This Negro boy's entire attitude toward life is a crime! The hate and fear which we have inspired in him, woven by our civilization into the very structure of his consciousness, into his blood and bones, into the hourly functioning of his personality, have become the justification of his existence.
"Every time he comes in contact with us, he kills! It is a physiological and psychological reaction, embedded in his being. Every thought he thinks is potential murder. Excluded from, and unassimilated in our society, yet longing to gratify impulses akin to our own but denied the objects and channels evolved through long centuries for their socialized expression, every sunrise and sunset make him guilty of subversive actions. Every movement of his body is an unconscious protest. Every desire, every dream, no matter how intimate or personal, is a plot or a conspiracy. Every hope is a plan for insurrection. Every glance of the eyes is a threat. His very existence is a crime against the state!
"It so happened that that night a white girl was present in a bed and a Negro boy was standing over her, fascinated with fear, hating her; a blind woman walked into the room and that Negro boy killed that girl to keep from being discovered in a position which he knew we claimed warrants the death penalty. But that is only one side of it! He was impelled toward murder as much through the thirst for excitement, exultation, and elation as he was through fear! It was his way of living!
"Your Honor, in our blindness we have so contrived and ordered the lives of men that the moths in their hearts flutter toward ghoulish and incomprehensible flames!
"I have not explained the relationship of Bessie Mears to this boy. I have not forgotten her. I omitted to mention her until now because she was largely omitted from the consciousness of Bigger Thomas. His relationship to this poor black girl also reveals his relationship to the world. But Bigger Thomas is not here on trial for having murdered Bessie Mears. And he knows that. What does this mean? Does not the life of a Negro girl mean as much in the eyes of the law as the life of a white girl? Yes, perhaps, in the abstract. But under the stress of fear and flight, Bigger Thomas did not think of Bessie. He could not. The attitude of America toward this boy regulated his most intimate dealings with his own kind. After he had killed Mary Dalton he killed Bessie Mears to silence her, to save himself. After he had killed Mary Dalton the fear of having killed a white woman filled him to the exclusion of everything else. He could not react to Bessie's death; his consciousness was determined by the fear that hung above him.
"But, one might ask, did he not love Bessie? Was she not his girl? Yes; she was his girl. He had to have a girl, so he had Bessie. But he did not love her. Is love possible to the life of a man I've described in this Court? Let us see. Love is not based upon sex alone, and that is all he had with Bessie. He wanted more, but the circumstances of his life and her life would not allow it. And the temperament of both Bigger and Bessie kept it out. Love grows from stable relationships, shared experience, loyalty, devotion, trust. Neither Bigger nor Bessie had any of these. What was there they could hope for? There was no common vision binding their hearts together; there was no common hope steering their feet in a common path. Even though they were intimately together, they were confoundingly alone. They were physically dependent upon each other and they hated that dependence. Their brief moments together were for the purpose of sex. They loved each other as much as they hated each other; perhaps they hated each other more than they loved. Sex warms the deep roots of life; it is the soil out of which the tree of love grows. But these were trees without roots, trees that lived by the light of the sun and what chance rain that fell upon stony ground. Can disembodied spirits love? There existed between them fitful splurges of physical elation; that's all.
"Your Honor, is this boy alone in feeling deprived and baffled? Is he an exception? Or are there others? There are others, Your Honor, millions of others, Negro and white, and that is what makes our future seem a looming image of violence. The feeling of resentment and the balked longing for some kind of fulfillment and exultation—in degrees more or less intense and in actions more or less conscious—stalk day by day through this land. The consciousness of Bigger Thomas, and millions of other more or less like him, white and black, according to the weight of the pressure we have put upon them, forms the quicksands upon which the foundations of our civilization rest. Who knows when some slight shock, disturbing the delicate balance between social order and thirsty aspiration, shall send the skyscrapers in our cities toppling? Does that sound fantastic? I assure you that it is no more fantastic that those troops and that waiting mob whose presence and guilty anger portend something which we dare not even think!
"Your Honor, Bigger Thomas was willing to vote for and follow any man who would have led him out of his morass of pain and hate and fear. If that mob outdoors is afraid of one man, what will it feel if millions rise? How soon will someone speak the word that resentful millions will understand: the word to be, to act, to live? Is this Court so naïve as to think that they will not take a chance that is even less risky than that Bigger Thomas took? Let us not concern ourselves with that part Of Bigger Thomas' confession that says he murdered accidentally, that he did no rape the girl. It really does not matter. What does matter is that he was guilty before he killed! That was why his whole life became so quickly and naturally organized, pointed, charged with a new meaning when this thing occurred. Who knows when another 'accident' involving millions of men will happen, an 'accident' that will be the dreadful day of our doom?
"Lodged in the heart of this moment is the question of power which time will unfold!
"Your Honor, another civil war in these states is not impossible; and if the misunderstanding of what this boy's life means is an indication of how men of wealth and property are misreading the consciousness of the submerged millions today, one may truly come.
"I do not propose that we try to solve this entire problem here in this court room today. That is not within the province of our duty, nor even, I think, within the scope of our ability. But our decision as to whether this black boy is to live or die can be made in accordance with what actually exists. It will at least indicate that we see and know! And our seeing and knowing will comprise a consciousness of how inescapably this one man's life will confront us ten million fold in the days to come.
"I ask that you spare this boy, send him to prison for life. What would prison mean to Bigger Thomas? It holds advantages for him that a life of freedom never had. To send him to prison would be more than an act of mercy. You would be for the first time conferring life upon him. He would be brought for the first time within the orbit of our civilization. He would have an identity, even though it be but a number. He would have for the first time an openly designated relationship with the world. The very building in which he would spend the rest of his natural life would be the best he has ever known. Sending him to prison would be the first recognition of his personality he has ever had. The long black empty years ahead would constitute for his mind and feelings the only certain and durable object around which he could build a meaning for his life. The other inmates would be the first men with whom he could associate on a basis of equality. Steel bars between him and the society he offended would provide a refuge from hate and fear.
"I say, Your Honor, give this boy his life. And in making this concession we uphold those two fundamental concepts of our civilization, those two basic concepts upon which we have built the mightiest nation in history—personality and security—the conviction that the person is inviolate and that which sustains him is equally so.
"Let us not forget that the magnitude of our modern life, our railroads, power plants, ocean liners, airplanes, and steel mills flowered from these two concepts, grew from our dream of creating an invulnerable base upon which man and his soul can stand secure.
"Your Honor, this Court and those troops are not the real agencies that keep the public peace. Their mere presence is proof that we are letting peace slip through our fingers. Public peace is the act of public trust; it is the faith that all are secure and will remain secure.
"When men of wealth urge the use and show of force, quick death, swift revenge, then it is to protect a little spot of private security against the resentful millions from whom they have filched it, the resentful millions in whose militant hearts the dream and hope of security still lives.
"Your Honor, I ask in the name of all we are and believe, that you spare this boy's life! With every atom of my being, I beg this in order that not only may this black boy live, but that we ourselves may not die!"
Bigger heard Max's last words ring out of the courtroom. When Max sat down he saw that his eyes were tired and sunken. He could hear his breath coming and going heavily. He had not understood the speech, but he had felt the meaning of some of it from the tone of Max's voice. Suddenly he felt that his life was not worth the effort that Max had made to save it. The judge rapped with the gavel, calling a recess. The court was full of noise as Bigger rose. The policemen marched him to a small room and stood waiting, on guard. Max came and sat beside him, silent, his head bowed. A policeman brought a tray of food and set it on the table.
"Eat, son," Max said.
"I ain't hungry."
"I did the best I could," Max said.
"I'm all right," Bigger said.
Bigger was not at that moment really bothered about whether Max's speech had saved his life or not. He was hugging the proud thought that Max had made the speech all for him, to save his life. It was not the meaning of the speech that gave him pride, but the mere act of it. That in itself was something. The food on the tray grew cold. Through a partly opened window Bigger heard the rumbling voice of the mob. Soon he would go back and hear what Buckley would say. Then it would all be over, save for what the judge would say. And when the judge spoke he would know if he was to live or die. He leaned his head on his hands and closed his eyes. He heard Max stand up, strike a match and light a cigarette.
"Here; take a smoke, Bigger."
He took one and Max held the flame; he sucked the smoke deep into his lungs and discovered that he did not want it. He held the cigarette in his fingers and the smoke curled up past his bloodshot eyes. He jerked his head when the door opened; a policeman looked in.
"Court's opening in two minutes!"
"All right," Max said
Flanked again by policemen, Bigger went back to court. He rose when the judge came and then sat again.
"The Court will hear the State," the judge said.
Bigger turned his head and saw Buckley rise. He was dressed in a black suit and there was a tiny pink flower in the lapel of his coat. The man' very look and bearing, so grimly assured, made Bigger feel that he was already lost. What chance had he against a man like that? Buckley licked his lips and looked out over the crowd; the he turned to the judge.
"Your Honor, we all dwell in a land of living law. Law embodies the will of the people. As an agent and servant of the law, as a representative of the organized will of the people, I am here to see that the will of the people is executed firmly and without delay. I intend to stay here and see that that is done, and if it is not done, then it will be only over my most solemn and emphatic protest.
"As a prosecuting officer of the State of Illinois, I come before this honorable Court to urge that the full extent of the law, the death penalty—the only penalty of the law that is feared by murderers!—be allowed to take its course in this most important case.
"I urge this for the protection of our society, our homes and our loved ones. I urged this in the performance of my sworn duty to see, in so far as I am humanly capable, that the administration of law is just, that the safety and sacredness of human life are maintained, that the social order is kept intact, and that crime is prevented and punished. I have no interest or feeling in this case beyond the performance of this sworn duty.
I represent the families of Mary Dalton and Bessie Mears and a hundred million law-abiding men and women of this nation who are laboring in duty and industry. I represent the forces which allow the arts and sciences to flourish in freedom and peace, thereby enriching the lives of us all.
"I shall not lower the dignity of this Court, not the righteousness of the people's cause, by attempting to answer the silly, alien, communistic and dangerous ideas advanced by the defense. And I know of no better way to discourage such thinking than the imposition of the death penalty upon this miserable human fiend, Bigger Thomas!
"My voice may sound harsh when I say: Impose the death penalty and let the law tae its course in spite of the specious call for sympathy! But I am really merciful and sympathetic, because the enforcement of this law in its most drastic form will enable millions of honest men and women to sleep in peace tonight, to know that tomorrow will not bring the black shadow of death over their homes and lives!
"My voice may sound vindictive when I say: Make the defendant pay the highest penalty for his crimes! But what I am really saying is that the law is sweet when it is enforced and protects a million worthy careers, when it shields the infant, the aged, the helpless, the blind and the sensitive from the ravishing of men who know no law, no self-control, and no sense of reason.
"My voice may sound cruel when I say: The defendant merits the death penalty for his self-confessed crimes! But what I am really saying is that the law is strong and gracious enough to allow all of us to sit here in this court room today and try this case with dispassionate interest, and not tremble with fear that at this very moment some self-human black ape may be climbing through the windows of our homes to rape, murder, and burn our daughters!
"Your Honor, I say that the law id holy; that it is the foundation of all our cherished values. It permits us to take for granted the sense of the worth of our persons and turn our energies to higher and nobler ends.
"Man stepped forward from the kingdom of the beast the moment he felt that he could think and feel in security, knowing that sacred law had taken the place of his gun and knife.
"I say that the law is holy because it makes us human! And woe to the men—and the civilization of those men!—who, in misguided sympathy or fear, weaken the stout structure of the law which insures the harmonious working of our lives on this earth.
"Your Honor, I regret that the defense has raised the viperous issue of race and class hate in this trial. I sympathize with those whose hearts were pained, as mine was pained, when Mr. Max so cynically assailed our sacred customs. I pity this man's deluded and diseased mind. It is a sad day for American civilization when a white man will try to stay the hand of justice from a bestial monstrosity who was ravished and struck down one of the finest and most delicate flowers of our womanhood.
"Every decent white man in America ought to swoon with joy for the opportunity to crush with his heel the woolly head of this black lizard, to keep him from scuttling on his belly farther over the earth and spitting forth this venom of death!
"Your Honor, literally I shrink from the mere recital of this dastardly crime. I cannot speak of it without feeling somehow contaminated by the mere telling of it. A bloody crime has that power! It is that steeped and dyed with repellent contagion!
"A wealthy, kindly disposed white man, a resident of Chicago for more than forty years, sends to the relief agency for a Negro boy to act as chauffeur to his family. The man specifies in his request that he wants a boy that is handicapped either by race, poverty, or family responsibility. The relief authorities search through their records and select the Negro family which they think merits such aid: that family was the Thomas family, living then as now at 3721 Indiana Avenue. A social worker visits the family and informs the mother that the family is to be taken off the relief rolls and her son placed in private employment. The mother, a hard-working Christian woman, consents. In due time the relief authorities send a notification to the oldest son of the family, Bigger Thomas, this black mad dog who sits here today, telling him that he must report for work.
"What was the reaction of this sly thug when he learned that he had an opportunity to support himself, his mother, his little sister and his little brother? Was he grateful? Was he glad that he was having something offered to him that ten million men in America would have fallen on their knees and thanked god for?
"No! He cursed his mother! He said that he did not want to work! He wanted to loaf about the streets, steal from newsstands, rob stores, meddle with women, frequent dives, attend cheap movies, and chase prostitutes! That was the reaction of this sub-human killer when he was confronted with the Christian kindness of a man he had never seen!
"His mother prevailed upon him, pled with him, but the plight of his mother, worn out from a life of toil, had no effect upon this hardened black thing. The future of his sister, an adolescent school girl, meant nothing to him. The fact that the job would have enabled his brother to return to school was not enticing to Bigger Thomas.
"But, suddenly, after three days of persuasion by his mother, he consented. Had any of her arguments reached him at long last? Had he begun to feel his duty toward himself and his family? No! Those were no the considerations that drove this rapacious beast from his den into the open! He consented only when his mother informed him that the relief would cut off their supply of food if he did not accept. He agreed to go to work, but forbade his mother to speak to him within the confines of the home, so outraged was he that he had to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. It was hunger that drove him out, sullen, angry, still longing to stay upon the streets and steal as he had done before, and for which he had once landed in a reform school.
"After seeing a movie that Saturday morning, he went to the Dalton home. He was welcomed there with lavish kindness. He was given a room; he was told that he would receive extra money for himself, over and above his weekly wages. He was fed. He was asked if he wanted to go back to school and learn a trade. But he refused. His mind and heart—if this beast can be said to have a mind and a heart!—were not set upon any such goals.
"Less than an hour after he had been in that house, he met Mary Dalton, who asked him if he wanted to join a union. Mr. Max, whose heart bleeds for labor, did not tell us why his client should have resented that.
"What black thoughts passed through that Negro's scheming brain the first few moments after he saw that trusting white girl standing before him? We have no way of knowing, and perhaps this piece of human scum, who sits here today begging for mercy, is wise in not telling us. But we can use our imagination; we can look upon what he subsequently did and surmise.
"Two hours later he was driving Miss Dalton to the Loop. Here occurs the first misunderstanding in this case. The general notion is that Miss Dalton, by having this Negro drive her to the Loop instead of to school, was committing an act of disobedience against her family. But that is not for us to judge. This is for Mary Dalton and her God to settle. It was admitted by her family that she went contrary to a wish of theirs; but Mary Dalton was of age and went where she pleased.
"This Negro drove Miss Dalton to the Loop where she was joined by a young white man, a friend of hers. From there they went to a South Side café and ate and drank. Being in a Negro neighborhood, they invited this Negro to eat with them. When they talked, they included him in their conversation. When liquor was ordered, enough was bought so that he, too, could drink
"Afterwards he drove the couple through Washington Park for some two hours. Around two o'clock in the morning this friend of Miss Dalton's left the car and went to visit some friends of his. Mary Dalton was left alone in that car with this Negro, who had received nothing from her but kindness. From that point onward, we have no exact knowledge of what really happened, for we have only this black cur's bare word for it, and I am convinced that he is not telling us all.
"We don't know just when Mary Dalton was killed. But we do know this: her head was completely severed from her body! We know that both the head and the body were stuffed into the furnace and burned!
"My God, what bloody scenes must have taken place! How swift and unexpected must have been that lustful and murderous attack! How that poor child must have struggled to escape that maddened ape! How she must have pled on bended knee, with tear in her eyes, to be spared the vile touch of his horrible person! Your Honor, must not this infernal monster have burned her body to destroy evidence of offenses worse than rape? That treacherous beast must have known that if the marks of his teeth were ever seen in the innocent white flesh of her breasts, he would not have been accorded the high honor of sitting here in this court of law! O suffering Christ, there are no words to tell of a deed so black and awful!
"And the defense would have us believe that this was an act of creation! It is a wonder that God in heaven did not drown out his lying voice with a thunderous 'NO!' It is enough to make the blood stop flowing in one's veins to hear a man excuse this cowardly and beastly crime on the ground that it was 'instinctive'!
"The next morning Bigger Thomas took Miss Dalton's trunk, half-packed, to the La Salle Street Station and prepared to send it off as though nothing had happened, as though Miss Dalton were still alive. But the bones of Miss Dalton's body were found in the furnace that evening.
"The burning of the body and the taking of the half-packed trunk to the station mean just one thing, Your Honor. It shows that the rape and murder were planned, that an attempt was made to destroy evidence so that the crime could be carried on to the point of ransom. If Miss Dalton were accidentally killed, as this Negro so pathetically tried to make us believe when he first 'confessed,' then why did he burn her body? Why did he take her trunk to the station when he knew that she was dead?
"There is but one answer! He planned to rape, to kill, to collect! He burned the body to get rid of evidence of rape! He took the trunk to the station to gain time in which to burn the body and prepare the kidnap note. He killed her because he raped her! Mind you, Your Honor, the central crime here is rape! Every action points toward that!
"Knowing that the family had called in private investigator, the Negro tried to throw the suspicion elsewhere. In other words, he was not above seeing an innocent man die for his crime. When he could not kill any more, he did the next best thing. He lied! He sought to blame the crime upon one of Miss Dalton's friends, whose political beliefs, he thought, would damn him. He told wild lies of taking the two of them, Miss Dalton and her friend, to her room. He said that he had been told to go home and leave the car out in the snow in the driveway all night. Knowing that his lies were being found out, he tried yet another scheme. He tried to collect money!
"Did he flee the scene when the investigators were at work? No! Coldly, without feeling, he stayed on in the Dalton home, ate, slept, basking in the misguided kindness of Mr. Dalton, who refused to allow him to be questioned upon the theory that he was a poor boy who needed protection!
"He needed as much protection as you would give a coiled rattler!
"While the family was searching heaven and earth for their daughter, this ghoul writes a kidnap note demanding ten thousand dollars for the safe return of Miss Dalton! But the discovery of the bones in the furnace put that foul dream to an end!
"And the defense would have us believe that this man acted in fear! Has fear, since the beginning of time, driven men to such lengths of calculation?
"Again, we have but the bare word of this worthless ape to go on. He fled the scene and went to the home of a girl, Bessie Mears, with whom he had long been intimate. There something occurred that only a cunning beast could have done. This girl had been frightened into helping him collect the ransom money, and he had placed in her keeping the money he had stolen from the corpse of Mary Dalton. He killed that poor girl, and even yet it staggers my mind to think that such a plan for murder could have been hatched in a human brain. He persuaded this girl, who loved him deeply—despite the assertions of Mr. Max, that godless Communist who tried to make you believe otherwise!—as I said, he persuaded this girl who loved him deeply to run away with him. They hid in an abandoned building. And there, with a blizzard raging outside, in the sub-zero cold and darkness, he committed rape and murder again, twice in twenty-four hours!
"I repeat, Your Honor, I cannot understand it! I have dealt with many a murderer in my long service to the state, but never have I encountered the equal of this. So eager was this demented savage to rape and kill that he forgot the only thing that might have helped him to escape; that is, the money he had stolen from the dead body of Mary Dalton, which was in the pocket of Bessie Mears' dress. He took the ravished body of that poor working girl—the money was in her dress, I say—and dumped it four floors down an air-shaft. The doctors told us that that girl was not dead when she hit the bottom of that shaft; she froze to death later, trying to climb out!
"Your Honor, I spare you the ghastly details of these murders. The witnesses have told all.
"But I demand, in the name of the people of this state, that this man die for these crimes!
"I demand this so that others may be deterred from similar crimes, so that peaceful and industrious people may be safe. Your Honor, millions are waiting for tour word! They are waiting for you to tell them that jungle law does not prevail in this city! They want you to tell them that they need not sharpen their knives and load their guns to protect themselves. They are waiting, Your Honor, beyond that window! Give them your word so that they can, with calm hearts, plan for the future! Slay the dragon of doubt that causes a million hearts to pause tonight, a million hands to tremble as they lock their doors!
"When men are pursuing their normal rounds of duty and a crime as black and bloody as this is committed, they become paralyzed. The more horrible the crime, the more stunned, shocked, and dismayed is the tranquil city in which it happens; the more helpless are the citizens before it.
"Restore confidence to those of us who still survive, so that we may go on and reap the rich harvest of life. Your Honor, in the name of Almighty God, I plead with you to be merciful to us!"
Buckley's voice boomed in Bigger's ears and he knew what the loud commotion meant when the speech had ended. In the back of the room several newspapermen were scrambling for the door. Buckley wiped his red face and sat down. The judge rapped for order, and said:
"Court will adjourn for one hour."
Max was on his feet.
"Your Honor, you cannot do this…. Is it your intention … More time is needed…. You …"
"The Court will give its decision then," the judge said.
There were shouts. Bigger saw Max's lips moving, but he could not make out what he was saying. Slowly, the room quieted. Bigger saw that the expressions on the faces of the men and women were different now. He felt that the thing had been decided. He knew that he was to die.
"Your Honor," Max said, his voice breaking from an intensity of emotion. "It seems that for careful consideration of the evidence and discussion submitted, more time is …"
"The Court reserves the right to determine how much time is needed, Mr. Max," the judge said.
Bigger knew that he was lost. It was but a matter of time, of formality.
He did not know how he got back into the little room; but when he was brought in he saw the tray of food still there, uneaten. He sat down and looked at the six policemen who stood silently by. Guns hung from their hips. Ought he to try to snatch one and shoot himself? But he did not have enough spirit to respond positively to the idea of self-destruction. He was paralyzed with dread.
Max came in, sat, and lit a cigarette.
"Well, son. We'll have to wait. We've got an hour."
There was a banging on the door.
"Don't let any of these reporters in here," Max told a policeman.
Minutes passed. Bigger's head began to ache with the suspense of it. He knew that Max had nothing to say to him and he had nothing to say to Max. He had to wait; that was all; wait for something he knew was coming. His throat tightened. He felt cheated. Why did they have to have a trial if it had to end this way?
"Well, I reckon it's all over for me now," Bigger sighed, speaking as much for himself as for Max.
"I don't know," Max said.
"I know," Bigger said.
"Well, let's wait."
"He's making up his mind too quick. I know I'm going to die."
"I'm sorry, Bigger. Listen, why don't you eat?"
"I ain't hungry."
"This thing isn't over yet. I can ask the Governor …"
"It ain't no use. They got me."
"You don't know."
Max said nothing. Bigger leaned his head upon the table and closed his eyes. He wished Max would leave him now. Max had done all he could. He should go home and forget him.
The door opened.
"The judge'll be ready in five minutes!"
Max stood up. Bigger looked at his tired face.
"All right, son. Come on."
Walking between policemen, Bigger followed Max back into the court room. He did not have time to sit down before the judge came. He remained standing until the judge was seated, then he slid weakly into his chair. Max rose to speak, but the judge lifted his hand for silence.
"Will Bigger Thomas rose and face the Court?"
The room was full of noise and the judge rapped for quiet. With trembling legs, Bigger rose, feeling in the grip of a nightmare.
"Is there any statement you wish to make before sentence is passed upon you?"
He tried to open his mouth to answer, but could not. Even if he had the power of speech, he did not know what he could have said. He shook his head, his eyes blurring. The court room was profoundly quiet now. The judge wet his lips with his tongue and lifted a paper that crackled loudly in the silence.
"In view of the unprecedented disturbance of the public mind, the duty of this Court is clear," the judge said and paused.
Bigger groped for the edge of the table with his hand and clung to it.
"In Number 666-983, indictment for murder, the sentence of the Court is that you, Bigger Thomas, shall die on or before midnight of Friday, March third, in a manner prescribed by the laws of this State.
"This Court finds your age to be twenty.
The Sheriff may retire with the prisoner."
Bigger understood every word; and he seemed not to react to the words, but to the judge's face. He did not move; he stood looking up into the judge's white face, his eyes not blinking. Then he felt a hand upon his sleeve; Max was pulling him back into his seat. The room was in an uproar. The judge rapped with his gavel. Max was on his feet, trying to say something; there was too much noise and Bigger could not tell what it was. The handcuffs were clicked upon him and he was led through the underground passage back to his cell. He lay on the cot and something deep down in him said, It's over now…. It's all over….
Later on the door opened and Max came in and sat softly beside him on the cot. Bigger turned his face to the wall.
"I'll see the Governor, Bigger. It's not over yet …"
"Go 'way," Bigger whispered.
"You've got to …"
"Naw. Go 'way…."
He felt Max's hand on his arm; then it left. He heard the steel door clang shut and he knew that he was alone. He did not stir; he lay still, feeling that by being still he would stave off feeling and thinking, and that was what he wanted above all right now. Slowly, his body relaxed. In the darkness and silence he turned over on his back and crossed his hands upon his chest. His lips moved in a whimper of despair.
In self-defense he shut out the night and day from his mind, for if he had thought of the sun's rising and setting, of the moon or the stars, of clouds or rain, he would have died a thousand deaths before they took him to the chair. To accustom his mind to death as much as possible, he made all the world beyond his cell a vast gray land where neither night nor day was, peopled by strange men and women whom he could not understand, but with those lives he longed to mingle once before he went.
He did not eat now; he simply forced food down his throat without tasting it, to keep the gnawing pain of hunger away, to keep from feeling dizzy. And he did not sleep; at intervals he closed his eyes for awhile, no matter what the hour, then opened them at some later time to resume his brooding. He wanted to be free of everything that stood between him and his end, him and the full and terrible realization that life was over without meaning, without anything being settled, without conflicting impulses being resolved.
His mother and brother and sister had come to see him and he had told them to stay home, not to come again, to forget him. The Negro preacher who had given him the cross had come and he had driven him away. A white priest had tried to persuade him to pray and he had thrown a cup of hot coffee into his face. The priest had come to see other prisoners since then, but had not stopped to talk with him. That had evoked in Bigger a sense of his worth almost as keen as that which Max had roused in him during the long talk that night. He felt that his making the priest stand away from him and wonder about his motives for refusing to accept the consolations of religion was a sort of recognition of his personality on a plane other than that which the priest was ordinarily willing to make.
But he did want to see Max and talk with him again. He recalled the speech Max made in court and remembered with gratitude the kind, impassioned tone. But the meaning of the words escaped him. He believed that Max knew how he felt, and once more before he died he wanted to talk with him and feel with as much keenness as possible what his living and dying meant. That was all the hope he had now. If there were any sure and firm knowledge for him, it would have to come from himself.
He was allowed to write three letters a week, but he had written to no one. There was no one to whom he had anything to say, for he had never given himself whole-heartedly to anyone or anything, except murder. What could he say to his mother and brother and sister? Of the old gang, only Jack had been his friend, and he had never been so close to Jack as he would have like. And Bessie was dead; he had killed her.
When tired of mulling over his feeling, he would say to himself that it was he who was wrong, that he was no good. If he could have really made himself believe that, it could have been a solution. But he could not convince himself. His feelings clamored for an answer his mind could not give.
All his life he had been most alive, most himself when he had felt things hard enough to fight for them; and now here in this cell he felt more that ever the hard central core of what he had lived. As the white mountain had once loomed over him, so now the black wall of death loomed closer with each fleeting hour. But he could not strike out blindly now; death was different and bigger adversary.
Though he lay on his cot, his hands were groping fumblingly through the city of men for something to match the feelings smoldering in him; his groping was a yearning to know. Frantically, his mind sought to fuse his feeling with the world about him, but he was no nearer to knowing than ever. Only his black body lat there on the cot, wet with the sweat of agony.
If he were nothing, if this were all, then why could not he die without hesitancy? Who and what was he to feel the agony of a wonder so intensely that it amounted to fear? Why was this strange impulse always throbbing in him when there was nothing outside of him to meet it and explain it? Who or what had traced this restless design in him? Why was this eternal reaching for something that was not there? Why this black gulf between him and the world: warm red blood here and cold blue sky there, and never a wholeness, a oneness, a meeting of the two?
Was that it? Was it simply fever, feeling without knowing, seeking without finding? Was this the all, the meaning, the end? With these feelings and questions the minute passed. He grew thin and his eyes held the red blood of his body.
The eve of his last day came. He longed to talk to Max more than ever. But what could he say to him? Yes; that was the joke of it. He could not talk about this thing, so elusive it was; and yet he acted upon it every living second.
The next day at noon a guard came to his cell and poked a telegram through the bars. He sat up and opened it.
BE BRAVE GOVERNOR FAILED DONE ALL POSSIBLE SEE YOU SOON
He balled the telegram into a tight knot and threw it into a corner.
He had from now until midnight. He had heard that six hours before his time came they would gibe him some more clothes, take him to the barber shop, and then take him to the death cell. He has been told by one of the guards not to worry, that "eight seconds after they take you out of your cell and put that black cap over your eyes, you'll be dead, boy." Well, he could stand that. He had in his mind a plan: he would flex his muscles and shut his eyes and hold his breath and think of absolutely nothing while they were handling him. And when the current struck him, it would all be over.
He lay down again on the cot, on his back, and stared at the tiny bright-yellow electric bulb glowing on the ceiling above his head. It contained the fire of death. If only those tiny spirals of heat inside that glass globe would wrap round him now—if only someone would attach the wires to his iron cot while he dozed off—if only when he was in a deep dream they would kill him….
He was in an uneasy sleep when he heard the voice of a guard.
"Thomas! Here's your lawyer!"
He swung his feet to the floor and sat up. Max was standing at the bars. The guard unlocked the door and Max walked in. Bigger has an impulse to rise, but he remained seated. Max came to the center of the floor and stopped. They looked at each other for a moment.
Silently, Bigger shook hands with him. Max was before him, quiet, white, solid, real. His tangible presence seemed to belie all the vague thoughts and hopes that Bigger had woven round him in his broodings. He was glad that Max had come, but he was bewildered.
"How're you feeling?"
For an answer, Bigger sighed heavily.
"You get my wire?" Max asked, sitting on the cot.
"I'm sorry, son."
There was silence. Max was at his side. The man who had lured him on a quest toward a dim hope was there. Well, why didn't he speak now? Here was his chance, his last chance. He lifted his eyes shyly to Max's; Max was looking at him. Bigger looked off. What he wanted to say was stronger in him when he was alone; and though he imputed to Max the feelings he wanted to grasp, he could not talk of them to Max until he had forgotten Max's presence. Then fear that he would not be able to talk about this consuming fever made him panicky. He struggled for self-control; he did not want to lose this driving impulse; it was all he had. And in the next second he felt that it was foolish, useless, vain. He stopped trying, and in the very moment he stopped, he heard himself talking with tight throat, in tense, involuntary whispers; he was trusting the sound of his voice rather than the sense of his words to carry his meaning.
"I'm all right, Mr. Max. You ain't to blame for what's happening to me…. I know you did all you could…." Under the pressure of a feeling of futility his voice trailed off. After a short silence he blurted, "I just r-r-reckon I h-had it coming…." He stood up, full now, wanting to talk. His lips moved, but no words came.
"Is there anything I can do for you, Bigger?" Max asked softly.
Bigger looked at Max's gray eyes. How could he get into that man a sense of what he wanted? If he could only tell him! Before he was aware of what he was doing, he ran to the door and clutched the cold steel bars in his hands.
Slowly, Bigger turned and came back to the cot. He stood before Max again, about to speak, his right hand raised. Then he sat down and bowed his head.
"What is it, Bigger? Is there anything you want me to do on the outside? Any message you want to send?"
"Naw," he breathed.
"What's on your mind?"
"I don't know."
He could not talk. Max reached over and placed a hand on his shoulder, and Bigger could tell by its touch that Max did not know, had no suspicion of what he wanted, of what he was trying to say. Max was upon another planet, far off in space. Was there any way to break down this wall of isolation? Distractedly, he gazed about the cell, trying to remember where he had heard words that would help him. He could recall none. He had lived outside of the lives of men. Their modes of communication, their symbols and images, had been denied him. Yet Max had given him the faith that at bottom all men lived as he lived and felt as he felt. And of all the men he had met, surely Max knew what he was trying to say. Had Max left him? Had Max, knowing that he was to die, thrust him from his thoughts and feelings, assigned him to the grave? Was he already numbered among the dead? His lips quivered and his eyes grew misty. Yes; Max had left him. Max was not a friend. Anger welled in him. But he knew that anger was useless.
Max rose and went to a small window; a pale bar of sunshine fell across his white head. And Bigger, looking at him, saw that sunshine for the first time in many days; and as he saw it, the entire cell, with its four closed walls, became crushingly real. He glanced down at himself; the shaft of yellow sun cut across his chest with as much weight as a beam forged of lead. With a convulsive gasp, he bent forward and shut his eyes. It was not a white mountain looming over him now; Gus was not whistling "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down" as he came into Doc's poolroom to make him go and rob Blum's; he was not standing over Mary's bed with the white blur hovering near;—this new adversary did not make him taut; it sapped strength and left him weak. He summoned his energies and lifted his head and struck out desperately, determined to rise from the grave, resolve to force upon Max the reality of his living.
"I'm glad I got to know you before I go!" he said with almost a shout; then was silent, for that was not what he had wanted to say.
Max turned and looked at him; it was a casual look, devoid of the deeper awareness that Bigger sought so hungrily.
"I'm glad I got to know you, too, Bigger. I'm sorry we have to part this way. But I'm old, son. I'll be going soon myself…."
"I remembered all them questions you asked me…."
"What questions?" Max asked, coming and sitting on the cot.
"What night, son?"
Max did not even know! Bigger felt that he had been slapped. Oh, what a fool he had been to build hope upon such shifting sand! But he had to make him know!
"That night you asked me to tell all about myself," he whimpered despairingly.
He saw Max look at the floor and frown. He knew that Max was puzzled.
"You asked me questions nobody ever asked me before. You knew that I was a murderer two times over, but you treated me like a man…."
Max looked at him sharply and rose from his coat. He stood in front of Bigger for a moment and Bigger was on the verge of believing that Mac knew, understood; but Max' next words showed him that the white man was still trying to comfort him in the face of death.
"You're human, Bigger," Max said wearily. "It's hell to talk about things like this to one about to die…." Max paused; Bigger knew that he was searching for words that would soothe him, and he did not want them. "Bigger," Max said, "in the work I'm doing, I look at the world in a way that shows no whites and no blacks, no civilized and no savages…. When men are trying to change human life on earth, those little things don't matter. You don't notice 'em. They're just not there. You forget them. The reason I spoke to you as I did, Bigger, is because you made me feel how badly men want to live…."
"But sometimes I wish you hadn't asked me them questions," Bigger said in a voice that had as much reproach in for Max as it had for himself.
"What do you mean, Bigger?"
"They made me think and thinking's made me scared a little…."
Max caught Bigger's shoulders in a tight grip; then his fingers loosened and he sank back to the cot; but his eyes were still fastened upon Bigger's face. Yes; Max knew now. Under the shadow of death he wanted Max to tell him about life.
"Mr. Max, how can I die!" Bigger asked; knowing as the words boomed from his lips that a knowledge of how to live was a knowledge of how to die.
Max turned his face from him, and mumbled,
"Men die alone, Bigger."
But Bigger had not heard him. In him again, imperiously, was the desire to talk, to tell; his hands were lifted in midair and when he spoke he tried to charge into the tone of his words what he himself wanted to hear, what he needed.
"Mr. Max, I sort of saw myself after that night. And I sort of saw other people, too." Bigger's voice died; he was listening to the echoes of his words in his own mind. He saw amazement and horror on Max's face. Bigger knew that Max would rather not have him talk like this; but he could not help it. He had to die and he had to talk. "Well, it's sort of funny, Mr. Max. I ain't trying to dodge what's coming to me." Bigger was growing hysterical. "I know I'm going to get it. I'm going to die. Well, that's all right now. But really I never wanted to hurt nobody. That's the truth, Mr. Max. I hurt folks 'cause I felt I had to; that's all. They was crowding me too close; they wouldn't give me no room. Lots of times I tried to forget 'em, but I couldn't. They wouldn't let me…." Bigger's eyes were wide and unseeing; his voice rushed on: "Mr. Max, I didn't mean to do what I did. I was trying to do something else. But it seems like I never could. I was always wanting something and I was feeling that nobody would let me have it. So I fought 'em. I thought they was hard and I acted hard." He paused, then whimpered in confession, "But I ain't hard, Mr. Max. I ain't hard even a little bit…." He rose to his feet. "But … I—I won't be crying none when they take me to that chair. But I'll b-b-be feeling inside of me like I was crying…. I'll be feeling and thinking that they didn't see me and I didn't see them…." He ran to the steel door and caught the bars in his hands and shook them, as though trying to tear the steel from its concrete moorings. Max went to him and grabbed his shoulders.
"Bigger," Max said helplessly.
Bigger grew still and leaned weakly against the door.
"Mr. Max, I know the folks who sent me here to die hated me; I know that. B-b-but you reckon th-they was like m-me, trying to g-get something like I was, and when I'm dead and gone they'll be saying like I'm saying now that they didn't mean to hurt nobody … th-that they was t-trying to get something, too….?
Max did not answer. Bigger saw a look of indecision and wonder come into the old man's eyes.
"Tell me, Mr. Max. You think they was?"
"Bigger," Max pleaded.
"Tell me, Mr. Max!"
Max shook his head and mumbled,
"You're asking me to say things I don't want to say…."
"But I want to know!"
"You're going to die, Bigger…."
Max's voice faded. Bigger knew that the old man had not wanted to say that; he had said it because ha had pushed him, had made him say it. They were silent for a moment longer, the Bigger whispered,
"That's why I want to know…. I reckon it's 'cause I know I'm going to die that makes me want to know…."
Max's face was ashy. Bigger feared that he was going to leave. Across a gulf of silence, they looked at each other. Max sighed.
"Come here, Bigger," He said.
He followed Max to the window and saw in the distance tips of sun-drenched buildings in the Loop.
"See all those buildings, Bigger?" Max asked, placing an arm about Bigger's shoulders. He spoke hurriedly, as though trying to mold a substance which was warm and pliable, but which might soon cool.
"Yeah. I see 'em…."
"You live in one of them once, Bigger. They're made out of steel and stone. But the steel and the stone don't hold 'em together. You know what holds those building up, Bigger? You know what keeps them in their place, keeps them from tumbling down?"
Bigger looked at him, bewildered.
"It's the belief of men. If men stopped believing, stopped having faith, they'd come tumbling down. Those buildings sprang up out of the hearts of men, Bigger. Men like you. Men kept hungry, kept needing, and those buildings kept growing and unfolding. You once told me you wanted to do a lot of things. Well, that's the feeling that keeps those buildings in their places…."
"You mean … You talking about what I said that night, when I said I wanted to do a lot of things?" Bigger's voice came quiet, childlike in its tone of hungry wonder.
"Yes. What you felt, what you wanted, is what keeps those buildings standing there. When millions of men are desiring and longing, those buildings grow and unfold. But, Bigger, those buildings aren't growing any more. A few men are squeezing those buildings tightly in their hands. The buildings can't unfold, can't feel the dreams men have, men like you…. The men on the inside of these buildings have begun to doubt, just as you did. They don't believe any more. They don't feel it's their world. They're restless, like you, Bigger. They have nothing. There's nothing through which they can grow and unfold. They go in the streets and they stand outside of these buildings and look and wonder…."
"B-b-but what they hate me for?" Bigger asked.
"The men who own these buildings are afraid. They want to keep what they own, even if it makes other suffer. In order to keep it, they push men down in the mud and tell them that they are beasts. But men, men like you, get angry and fight to re-enter those buildings, to live again. Bigger, you killed. That was wrong. That was not the way to do it. It's too late now for you to … work with … others who are t-trying to … believe and make the world live again…. But it's not too late to believe what you felt, to understand what you felt…."
Bigger was gazing in the direction of the buildings; but he did not see them. He was trying to react to the picture Max drawing, trying to compare that picture with what he had felt all his life.
"I always wanted to do something," he mumbled.
They were silent and Max did not speak again until Bigger looked at him. Max closed his eyes.
"Bigger, you're going to die. And if you die, die free. You're trying to believe in yourself. And every time you try to find a way to live, your own mind stands in the way. You know why that is? It's because others have said you were bad and they made you live in bad conditions. When a man hears that over and over and looks about him and sees that life is bad, he begins to doubt his own mind. His feelings drag him forward and his mind, full of what others say about him, tells him to do back. The job in getting people to fight and have faith is in making them believe in what life has made them feel, making them feel that their feelings are as good as those of others.
"Bigger, the people who hate you feel just as you feel, only they're on their other side of the fence. You're black, but that's only a part of it. Your being black, as I told you before, makes it easy for them to single you out. Why do they do that? They want the things of life, just as you did, and they're not particular about how they get them They hire people and they don't pay them enough; they take what people own and build up power. They rule and regulate life. They have things arranged so that they can do those things and the people can't fight back. They do that to black people more than others because they say that black people are inferior. And the rich people don't want to change things; they'll lose too much. But deep down in them they feel like you feel, Bigger, and in order to keep what they've got, they make themselves believe that men who work are not quite human. They do like you did, Bigger, when you refused to feel sorry for Mary. But on both sides men want to live; men are fighting for life. Who will win? Well, the side that feel life most, the side with the most humanity and the most men. That's why … y-you've got to b-believe in yourself, Bigger…."
Max's head jerked up in surprise when Bigger laughed
"A, I reckon I believe in myself…. I ain't got nothing else…. I got to die…."
He stepped over to Max. Max was leaning against the window.
"Mr. Max, you go home. I'm all right…. Sounds funny, Mr. Max, but when I think about what you say I kind of feel what I wanted. It makes me feel I was kind of right…." Max opened his mouth to say something and Bigger drowned out his voice. "I ain't trying to forgive nobody and ain't asking for nobody to forgive me. I ain't going to cry. They wouldn't let me live and I killed. Maybe it ain't fair to kill, and I reckon I really didn't want to kill. But when I think of why all the killing was, I begin to feel what I wanted, what I am…."
Bigger saw Max back away from him with compressed lips. But he felt he had to make Max understand how he saw things now.
"I didn't want to kill!" Bigger shouted. "But what I killed for, I am''! It must've been pretty deep in me to make me kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder…."
Max lifted his hand to touch Bigger, but did not.
"No; no; no…. Bigger, not that…." Max pleaded despairingly.
"What I killed for must've been good!" Bigger's voice was full of frenzied anguish. "It must have been good! When a man kills, it's for something…. I didn't know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for 'em…. It's the truth, Mr. Max. I can say it now, 'cause I'm going to die. I know what I'm saying real good and I know how it sounds. But I'm all right. I feel all right when I look at it that way…."
Max's eyes were full of terror. Several times his body moved nervously, as though he were about to go to Bigger; but he stood still.
"I'm all right, Mr. Max. Just go and tell Ma I was all right and not to worry none, see? Tell her I was all right and wasn't crying none…."
Max's eyes were wet. Slowly, he extended his hand. Bigger shook it.
"Good-bye, Bigger," he said quietly.
"Good-bye, Mr. Max."
Max groped for his hat like a blind man; he found it and jammed it on his head. He felt for the door, keeping his face averted. He poked his arm through and signaled for the guard. When he was let out he stood for a moment, his back to the steel door. Bigger grasped the bars with both hands.
"Yes, Bigger," He did not turn around.
"I'm all right. For real, I'm."
"Good-bye, Mr. Max."
Max walked down the corridor.
Max paused, but did not look.
"Tell … Tell Mister … Tell Jan hello…."
"All right, Bigger."
"Good-bye!"He still held on to the bars. Then he smiled a faint, wry, bitter smile. He heard the ring of steel against steel as a far door clanged shut.