A Jan With A Plan
We admit it: we started out wanting to punch Jan in the mouth. By the end of the novel, though, we wanted to buy him an ice cream sundae. (Native Son pro-tip: make sure you read this book with a pint of your favorite flavor. You'll need it.)
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. And by "Jan is pretty clueless" we mean "Wow, check out the myriad of different ways racism can rear its ugly head."
Jan 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 (Titanic-sized) ignorance:
(Jan): "No, I want to work among Negroes. That’s where people are needed. It seems as though they’ve been pushed out of everything [...] When I see what they’ve done to those people, it makes me so mad... [...] And I feel so helpless and useless. I want to do something [...]"
"Say, Jan, do you know many Negroes? I want to meet some."
"I don’t know any very well. But you’ll meet them when you’re in the Party." (1.201-208)
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.