Jan Erlone is Mary’s boyfriend, a Communist, and a union organizer. Aside from Bigger, Jan is the character who gains the most self-knowledge in the course of the novel. Though he wants to fight against racial oppression, just like he is fighting for the redistribution of wealth throughout society and for workers’ rights, Jan is pretty clueless about African-American culture at the start of the book. He tries to bridge the gap by reaching out to Bigger, but his fumbling attempts leave Bigger embarrassed and ashamed, and do little to change Jan’s ignorance. Jan is initially arrested as a suspect in Mary’s disappearance. Assuming that Mr. Dalton was trying to smear the Communist party through a rigged-up kidnapping, Jan grows angry and refuses to leave the prison when he’s released.
Jan’s enlightenment occurs only after Bigger’s arrest. As he grieves Mary’s death, Jan begins to understand how Bigger might have felt and why an oppressed person might act out in this way against an innocent person. Though we never know whether Jan understands Bigger’s actions the way Max does, it’s clear that he’s decided to be Bigger’s friend. He doesn’t to seek revenge, recognizing that somebody has to stop the cycle of misunderstanding, fear, and suspicion among black and white people. So he arranges for Boris Max to represent Bigger, and he tells the truth on the stand. This allows Bigger to realize that not all white men are his enemy.