The first part of “Bright and Morning Star” begins with the protagonist, Sue, standing at the window, looking into the rain, wondering when her son Johnny-Boy will come home. He is late, and Sue is worried. She fears for her son because he is involved in organizing his community in order to gain power through the Communist Party. Her son Sug is already in jail for the same practices.
Sue is proud of her sons because they are strong enough to withhold secret information about the members of the Communist Party, even when pain is inflicted upon them by the sheriff and his men. Sue is a descendent of slaves, living in the South where Jim Crow laws prevail, under which blacks are systematically denied civil and political rights and their labor is exploited. Sue lives in poverty and stress. She is fearful of white people because of her own lack of power. Early in her life, Sue turned to Christianity to help ease the horrendous conditions under which she lived. She sought solace in religion, which promised her everlasting reward upon her death. All Sue had to do was make it through this life, avoiding all contamination from sin, and she would go to heaven. This meant that she had to be kind to her aggressors, submissive to their threats and abuses, and humble in her requests.
Sue’s sons, on the other hand, take a different turn in their lives. They discover socialism as defined by the Community Party. They believe that they must take their lives into their own hands and fight for what is rightfully theirs. Slowly, Sue has come to understand her sons’ philosophy, although she still holds on to some of her religious beliefs. She also holds onto her fear and mistrust of white people, something that her sons attempt to resolve, because they believe that they need sympathetic white people to help them gain power.
While Sue is jointly involved in reminiscing and worrying about the late arrival of her son Johnny-Boy, she hears footsteps on her front porch. It is the young white girl Reva, who has a crush on Johnny-Boy and who also helps him in his attempts to organize the community. Sue and Reva have a brief conversation in which Reva tells Sue that one of the members of the secret group has told the sheriff about an upcoming meeting. Although Sue is troubled about Johnny-Boy, she does not tell Reva about her concern. She does not want Reva to worry. Sue only tells her that Johnny-Boy is a little late coming home and that maybe Reva should tell her father to get the word out on his own. Reva then leaves, and Sue ponders about the girl, wondering why she is so naive about becoming involved with her son. Interracial marriages or even physical contact between the sexes was not only illegal or forbidden in the South, it could be deadly
As the second part opens, Sue hears footsteps in the mud outside her house. She recognizes them as the sounds of her son Johnny-Boy. He enters the house in silence, and Sue, as is her custom, doesn’t look his way. The narrator explains that Sue and Johnny-Boy have a way of communicating in silence. Instead, Sue thinks about her husband and wonders how he might have affected the lives of her sons. She also thinks about Reva and Johnny-Boy, knowing that Reva loves him, but Sue is still worried about the dismal future of that relationship.
Johnny-Boy and Sue then engage in a brief conversation. Sue feeds him and dries his clothes before she tells him the news about the sheriff having found out about the secret meeting. She gives Johnny-Boy time to relax. When Sue does tell him, she begins a familiar argument with him, telling him that he shouldn’t trust white people so much. Sue suspects that it is one of the white people in the group who has snitched to the sheriff. JohnnyBoy chastises her, telling her that white people and black people have to work together if black people are ever to succeed.
Before he leaves, Johnny-Boy hands his mother a wad of paper money that he has taken out of his pocket. He tells her to keep it should something happen to him. It is money that belongs to the Communist Party, and Johnny-Boy wants to make sure that it goes toward the party’s success. Sue insists that Johnny-Boy keep the money. She tells him that she has been saving money to get her son Sug out of jail. She can use that money instead. When Johnny-Boy finally leaves, Sue senses that he will never return.
As Sue sleeps, a group of white men enter her home. She awakens to their voices. The men are rude and overtly racist. They make statements like, “Gee, this place smells like niggers!” and “Niggers make good jam!” They proceed to examine all the food Sue has in the kitchen, and when they are about to start eating it, the sheriff reminds them that they did not come there to eat the food, that they are looking for Johnny-Boy.
Sue rises from bed and approaches them, telling them to get out of her house. One of the men throws cooked greens into her face and asks, “How they taste, ol [b ]?” Caught up in the spirit of rebellion, Sue talks back to the men, trying to demonstrate that she is not afraid of them. They ask her to tell them where her son is, but she refuses. She responds, “Don yuh wished yuh knowed?” This irritates the sheriff, and he slaps her. She continues to be noncompliant, and the sheriff slaps her again.
The narrator states that Sue was “consumed with a bitter pride” at this point. She did not care what they did to her; she would never tell them anything. The sheriff is eventually convinced that this woman will not reveal the whereabouts of her son or of the meeting, so he begins to leave. However, Sue, somewhat pumped up with that bitter pride, taunts the sheriff one more time. The sheriff has had enough. He walks back up the steps of her porch and beats Sue until she is unconscious.
The fourth part opens with Sue by herself, lying in a dark hallway. She is just rousing herself back to consciousness. As she tries to gain some clarity of thought, she notices that something is standing before her. This something makes her nervous, but she does not know why. A few minutes later, she realizes that it is Booker, a white man who has recently joined the Communist Party. She is suspicious of him, but he eases his way into her thoughts, telling her that someone needs to warn the members that the sheriff is onto them. Booker, having just recently joined, does not know the names of the other members. As he helps her up and cleans her wounds, she slowly gives into his pleas and reveals the names of the members. When Booker leaves and Sue’s thoughts become clearer, she fears that she might have made a horrible mistake.
As Sue sits in her house contemplating this awful thing she might have done, Reva comes back. She also nurses Sue’s wounds and announces that her father has told her that Booker is the one who leaked the information about the meeting to the sheriff. Sue is terrified by this news. It confirms her worst suspicions. However, she does not want to tell Reva what she has done. Instead, she convinces Reva to go to bed. Once Reva is asleep, Sue pulls out an old gun, wraps it in a sheet, and goes looking for Booker, determined to kill him before he can tell the sheriff the names of all the members.
The sheriff had warned Sue earlier that it did not matter if she did not tell them where Johnny Boy was, that he would find him anyway. When he did find him, if Johnny-Boy did not talk, Sue should plan to come to the sheriff with a sheet so she could wrap Johnny-Boy’s body in it, for he would be dead. So when Sue shows up and faces the sheriff and his men with a sheet wrapped around her arms, they assume that she has come for her son’s body. The men, however, tell her that Johnny-Boy is not yet dead. He is tied up and lying in the mud when she finds him. When the sheriff sees Sue, he comments that he must have slapped some sense into her after all, since she has come with the sheet as he told her to do.
In her presence, the group of men continue to ask Johnny-Boy to tell them the names of the people involved in the Communist Party and where they will be holding their next meeting. Johnny-Boy is silent. The men beat him, and at one point they place his legs over a log and break them with a crowbar. Then the sheriff pops Johnny-Boy’s eardrums.
Sue watches all of this, waiting for Booker to appear. She hopes that she has time, after killing Booker, to put her son out of his misery. When Booker finally shows, Sue shoots him, but she then enters into a mental state that she refers to as having given up “her life before they took it from her.” The sheriffs men then shoot both Sue and JohnnyBoy. Sue’s last words are: “Yuh didnt git whut you wanted!”
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Richard Wright, Published by Gale, 2002.