Richard Wright's Native Son

  • 55 1,051 10
  • Like this paper and download? You can publish your own PDF file online for free in a few minutes! Sign Up
File loading please wait...
Citation preview

Richard Wright’s Native Son


Edited by

Michael J. Meyer

Richard Wright’s Native Son

Edited by

Ana María Fraile

Amsterdam - New York, NY 2007

Cover Design: Pier Post Cover photo: António, Statue dialogue The paper on which this book is printed meets the requirements of “ISO 9706:1994, Information and documentation - Paper for documents Requirements for permanence”. ISBN-13: 978-90-420-2297-3 ©Editions Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam - New York, NY 2007 Printed in the Netherlands

For Juan Luis and Andrés, As always


General Editor’s Preface




Richard Wright and the Reception of His Work


Richard Wright and His White Audience: How the Author’s Persona Gave Native Son Historical Significance Caleb Corkery


From Communism to Black Studies and Beyond: The Reception of Richard Wright's Native Son Philip Goldstein


Gendered Textualities


Sexual Diversity in Richard Wright’s Characterization of Bigger Thomas: Homo-socialism, Homo-eroticism, and the Feminine Yvonne Robinson Jones


Notes from a Native Daughter: The Nature of Black Womanhood in Native Son Carol E. Henderson


Spatial Dynamics


Slavery and Africa in Native Son and Black Power: A Transnationalist Interpretation Babacar M'Baye



Dialogue: Richard Wright’s Native Son

Vortical Blues: Turbulence, Disorder, and the Emplotment of Surplus Meaning in Native Son Herman Beavers


A Polyphony of Genres


Native Son’s “ideology of form”: The (African) American Jeremiad and American Exceptionalism Ana María Fraile-Marcos


Genre in/and Wright’s Native Son Heather Duerre Humann


Bigger’s “Rebellious Complaint”: Biblical Imagery in Native Son Carme Manuel


Native Son Beyond the Page


From Page to Screen: A Comparative Study of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Its Two Film Adaptations Raphaël Lambert


The Hate U Gave (T.H.U.G.): Reflections on the Bigger Figures in Present Day Hip Hop Culture James Braxton Peterson


Notes on Contributors




General Editor’s Preface

The original concept for Rodopi's new series entitled Dialogue grew out two very personal experiences of the general editor. In 1985, having just finished my dissertation on John Steinbeck and attained my doctoral degree, I was surprised to receive an invitation from Steinbeck biographer, Jackson J. Benson, to submit an essay for a book he was working on. I was unpublished at the time and was unsure and hesitant about my writing talent, but I realized that I had nothing to lose. It was truly the “opportunity of a lifetime.” I revised and shortened a chapter of my dissertation on Steinbeck's The Pearl and sent it off to California. Two months later, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that my essay had been accepted and would appear in Duke University Press's The Short Novels of John Steinbeck (1990). Surprisingly, my good fortune continued when several months after the book appeared, Tetsumaro Hayashi, a renowned Steinbeck scholar, asked me to serve as one of the three assistant editors of The Steinbeck Quarterly, then being published at Ball State University. Quite naïve at the time about publishing, I did not realize how fortunate I had been to have such opportunities present themselves without any struggle on my part to attain them. After finding my writing voice and editing several volumes on my own, I discovered in 2002 that despite my positive experiences, there was a real prejudice against newer “emerging” scholars when it came to inclusion in collections or acceptance in journals. As the designated editor of a Steinbeck centenary collection, I found myself roundly questioned about the essays I had chosen for inclusion in the book. Specifically, I was asked why I had not selected several prestigious names whose recognition power would have spurred the book's success on the market. My choices of lesser known but quality essays seemed unacceptable. New voices were unwelcome; it was the tried and true that were greeted with open


Dialogue: Richard Wright’s Native Son

arms. Yet these scholars had no need for further publications and often offered few original insights into the Steinbeck canon. Sadly, the originality of the lesser-known essayists met with hostility; the doors were closed, perhaps even locked tight, against their innovative approaches and readings that took issue with scholars whose authority and expertise had long been unquestioned. Angered, I withdrew as editor of the volume, and began to think of ways to rectify what I considered a serious flaw in academe. My goal was to open discussions between experienced scholars and those who were just beginning their academic careers and had not yet broken through the publication barriers. Dialogue would be fostered rather than discouraged. Having previously served as an editor for several volumes in Rodopi's Perspective of Modern Literature series under the general editorship of David Bevan, I sent a proposal to Fred Van der Zee advocating a new series that would be entitled Dialogue, one that would examine the controversies within classic canonical texts and would emphasize an interchange between established voices and those whose ideas had never reached the academic community because their names were unknown. Happily, the press was willing to give the concept a try and gave me a wide scope in determining not only the texts to be covered but also in deciding who would edit the individual volumes. The Native Son volume that appears here is the second attempt at this unique approach to criticism. It features several well-known Richard Wright experts and several other essayists whose reputation is not so widespread but whose keen insights skillfully inform the text. It will soon be followed by volume on Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding. It is my hope that as each title appears, the Dialogue series will foster not only renewed interest in each of the chosen works but that each will bring forth new ideas as well as fresh interpretations from heretofore silenced voices. In this atmosphere, a healthy interchange of criticism can develop, one that will allow even dissent and opposite viewpoints to be expressed without fear that such stances may be seen as negative or counterproductive.

General Editor’s Preface


My thanks to Rodopi and its editorial board for its support of this “radical” concept. May you, the reader, discover much to value in these new approaches to issues that have fascinated readers for decades and to books that have long stimulated our imaginations and our critical discourse.

Michael J. Meyer 2007


On the eve of Richard Wright’s centennial celebration, the timing for the publication of this collection of essays on Native Son (1940) could not be more propitious. Wright (1908-1960) was born, black and poor, on a Mississippi plantation near Natchez. He was the son of a sharecropper who would later desert his family and of a schoolteacher whose poor health and precarious economic situation forced her to place him and his brother in an orphanage. Later on they would be constantly on the move from one relative’s place to the next. These inauspicious beginnings in the racist and segregated South of the United States prepared Wright to become, nevertheless, through selfdetermination and voracious, thoughtful reading, the writer that would mark a breakthrough in the literary representation of race relations in the twentieth century. Among his unprecedented achievements, Wright was the first African American author to get substantial revenues from his writing and the first to gain an international reputation. Central to Wright’s success was the publication in 1940 of Native Son, the controversial novel that would establish him as a major figure in American literature and as the first African American writer to produce a number one best-seller. In order to convey a sense of the enormous impact of the novel, Irving Howe’s (over)statement that “the day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever” (32), is often cited in critical studies. Indeed, Native Son exploded like a bomb in the postDepression and pre-World War II America, bringing the entire US racial history of violence and crime to the forefront and also determining the course of African American literature for decades. Its reputation is such that noted black scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has not hesitated to claim that “If one had to identify the single most influential shaping force in modern Black literary history, one would probably have to point to Wright and the publication of Native Son” (“Preface” xi). The novel’s influence has been impossible to elude or ignore, forcing later black writers either to adhere to or to contest


Dialogue: Richard Wright’s Native Son

Wright’s aesthetics and ideology. His thematic and stylistic concerns compound a particularly powerful mixture of seemingly contradictory elements, elements that accommodate the Modernism of his lyrical symbolism, Freudianism, universalism and existentialism while still residing within the frame of a large array of genres, trends and political and philosophical ideas—Gothicism, Marxism, naturalistic social protest, integrationist aspirations and black nationalism, African American folk culture and contemporary scientific interests, among the more cited features. Given its multilayered quality, over the sixty-odd years since its publication, the novel has elicited a steady flow of criticism from diverse perspectives, highlighting Wright’s mastery as well as his shortcomings. As the present volume confirms, current readers continue to find in the thematic and aesthetic complexity of the novel material that speaks to them, illuminating in new ways America’s past and present realities. Coinciding with the preparations for the celebration in 2008 of Richard Wright’s 100th birthday, this new collection of critical essays on Native Son attempts to extend a tradition of literary discussion that attests to the importance and endurance of Wright’s controversial work and his reputation as a major figure in American Letters. The essays collected in this volume engage the objective of Rodopi’s Dialogue Series by creating multidirectional conversations in which senior and younger scholars interact with each other and with previous scholars who have weighed in on the novel’s import. Their dialogue is based upon perceptive and incisive analyses which, in keeping with contemporary literary trends and concerns, not only break new ground for innovative interpretations but also expand the current understanding of Wright’s work, his artistry and his thought. The four phases in the criticism of the novel established by Robert Butler in Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Hero (1991) are helpful in understanding the novel’s current status. Fifteen years of critical practice after his proposal, though, it is possible to venture a fifth phase in which Wright’s status in the African American literary tradition is definitely acknowledged—among other similarly important cornerstones. Butler pointed at a period of initial reviews which capture the lasting controversy about the themes and form of the novel, as well as the realization that Native Son was “a landmark work in American literature” (Emergence 12). A second phase that



spans from the mid-forties to the late sixties shows, however, that Wright’s place in the national canon was not secured, as the attacks to the novel—and to his oeuvre in general—during this period managed to obscure and diminish his reputation. Still later, in the national arena the progression of the Civil Rights movement to a more militant positioning, combined with the advent of Black Power—a phrase coined by Wright himself—and the burgeoning Black Arts movement of the 60’s and the beginning of the 70s initiated a third phase in which the positive reassessment of Wright’s aesthetics led to the canonization of the novel. Also, the postcolonial era contributed to a revalorization of Wright’s work from a Pan-African perspective. However, although Wright’s position was secured, a fourth phase can be observed where scholarly attention to his work suffered as a result of two interrelated developments. On the one hand, the novel’s reception was impacted by the upsurge of the new oppositional front that developed in response to the Black Women’s movement as well as by the rise of black women writers and academics since the late 1970s. Consequently, at a time when an African American literary canon was starting to develop around major male writers, research into the overlooked works by African American women evidenced the existence of an alternative tradition that held black women’s sensitivity and experience at its center. Soon Zora Neale Hurston, whose writing and political position seemed to be antithetical to Wright’s,1 would be widely acclaimed in the 1980s as the predecessor of contemporary African American women writers, after being championed by her sister writers and scholars—an effort epitomized in the figure of Alice Walker. This trend of criticism that encompasses the inscription of gender in the literary practice stimulated a much needed interrogation of Wright’s cultural and historical background, contributing to a more accurate reappraisal of his work and relating it to our present literary, political, social and moral concerns. In spite of the seeming polar positions of both writers, Hurston and Wright have lately become unlikely partners.2 Both are often paired and hailed as the two major forerunners of the contemporary African American novel. This development marks a fifth phase wherein the African American literary tradition is no longer viewed simplistically as a game of opposite positions, but rather as an open ground where multiple perspectives intersect and interact. A clear example of this comprehensive view is the creation in 1990 of The Hurston/Wright Foundation, which contributes to support African American literature


Dialogue: Richard Wright’s Native Son

by, among other things, promoting writers of African descent with the annual Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards. Other evidence can be found in the various essays and conferences providing a comparative approach to the works of both writers. Their coupling is perhaps the best illustration of how the politics of affirmation and the politics of social protest may in fact coalesce in spite of their seeming contradictions.It is within this continuum that the dialogue opened up in this book is situated. Following the seminal work on Native Son of a select elite of African American scholars—including Edward Margolies, Michel Fabre, Dan McCall, Keneth Kinnamon, Houston Baker, Robert Stepto, or George Kent, among others—later decades of criticism reflect continued conversations about controversial issues. The decade of the 1990s has proven particularly fruitful. The publication in 1991 of the Library of America unabridged and unexpurgated editions of Lawd Today!, Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son, Black Boy, American Hunger and The Outsider prompted, in a critic’s words, “a Richard Wright renaissance” (Weiss). The number of important monographic studies and of collections of essays attest to Weiss’s assessment. Among the latter, and with special focus on Native Son, the following publications are amongst the most influential: Keneth Kinnamon’s New Essays on Native Son (1990) and Critical Essays on Richard Wright's Native Son, (1997), K. A. Appiah and Henry Louis Gates’s Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (1993), Arnold Rampersad’s Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays (1994), Robert Butler’s Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Hero (1991) and The Critical Response to Richard Wright (1995), Harold Bloom’s Richard Wright’s Native Son: Bloom’s Notes. A Contemporary Literary Views Book (1996), and James A. Miller’s Approaches to Teaching Wright’s Native Son (1997). Moreover, interest in Wright’s work continues to flourish into the twenty first century. For example, the Richard Wright Circle is proving to be a very active agent in the on-going examination and appraisal of Wright’s oeuvre. Among its many fruitful efforts are the panel on “Emerging Scholarship on Richard Wright,” at the American Literature Association conference held in San Francisco in May 2006, as well as the preparations for Wright’s centennial celebration in his hometown, Natchez, MS. These involve a series of events, including public discussions about Wright’s works presented by Jerry W. Ward Jr., the staging of a play version of “Native Son” by the Natchez Little



Theatre, and the issuance of a Richard Wright stamp by the U.S. Postal Service. Furthermore, the forthcoming Richard Wright Encyclopedia, co-edited by Jerry Ward and Robert Butler (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press) will undoubtedly become a powerful and comprehensive tool for future generations to understand the magnitude of Wright’s impact. In the creative arena, Wright’s presence can also be felt. Central, for example, to Percival Everett's novel Erasure (2001) is Everett’s commentary on authority and authenticity in connection with African Americans and African American literature by employing a parody of Native Son. With his updated rendition of Wright’s bleak urban novel, the protagonist Thelonious Ellison—alias Monk—manages to prompt a scathing critique of the current publishing and academic industries which mold African American literature into a monolithic stereotyped commodity. His novel My Pafology—a title Monk eventually changes to just Fuck!—completes Everett’s exercise in postmodern selfreflexivity and metafiction. In addition, Native Son, a novel both hailed and banned, seems to be finding its way even into children’s books as in Lemony Snicket’s best-seller The Penultimate Peril, which informs the young reader of Wright’s ominous prophecy about his native land at the end of his novel when Max states: “Who knows when some slight shock disturbing the delicate balance between social order and thirsty aspiration, shall send the skyscrapers in our cities toppling?” As the New York Twin Towers tumbled down on September eleven, 2001, these words seem to reverberate with the uncanny definitiveness of a fulfilled prophecy, a prophecy that overarches the specific racial history in the United States to expose the international dimensions of inequality. Thus, also in the light of international fundamentalist terrorism targeting major Western and non-Western centers—New York, Washington, Madrid, London, Paris, Mumbai, Algiers, Casa Blanca…—Native Son now has new currency as cautionary tale of racial bigotry. Out of these experiences, the present volume speaks from different and distant corners of the world and reflects a keen interest in Wright’s unique combination of literary strategies and social aims. It is with great pleasure that I present the reader with a dialogue on Native Son that offers new and original readings of the novel in eleven essays, and, at the same time engenders potential new approaches to the work which will further stimulate continued original critical responses.


Dialogue: Richard Wright’s Native Son

**** The following coupling of essays, though not arbitrary, does not preclude different arrangements and combinations since many of the issues raised are not exclusively dealt with by a pair of scholars, but are discussed from multiple perspectives by different authors, therefore offering an interaction on many levels rather than a limited conversation. The present distribution merely serves to highlight a series of links between essays, although the reader will undoubtedly observe many other interconnections. The first two essays provide an apt introduction to the volume by focusing on Richard Wright and on the historical reception of his work. Caleb Corkery’s chapter “Richard Wright and His White Audience: How the Author’s Persona Gave Native Son Historical Significance” opens the book’s dialectic exchange with the controversial argument that Native Son’s success and impact on American culture depended on the audience’s identification of the writer’s work with his living experiences as a black man. Thus linking authority and authenticity, Corkery argues that it is this sort of biographical realism that accounts for Wright’s popularity and eventually became his trademark as an author. Working from the presupposition that the value of Wright’s work relies on his persona as the source of authoritative writing, rather than on aesthetic achievement, Corkery proceeds, Wright’s works have been more or less acclaimed depending on the impact of his presence on the readers’ minds and on the extent to which his writing reflected the image his readers had of him. Furthermore Corkery suggests that when Wright died in 1960 and his presence could no longer reaffirm his work, his literary reputation also declined. This situation was overturned when in the 1970s Wright’s persona was again thrust to the forefront by the publication of numerous biographies on the author which shed new light on his work. Corkery claims that the current historical context has changed, making “his spokesperson status irrelevant,” his “message inert” and his literature only “historical artifact.” Philip Goldstein’s essay “From Communism to Black Studies and Beyond: The Reception of Richard Wright's Native Son” both complements and responds to Corkery’s argument. Also engaging the relation between novel and author and between Wright’s political evolution and the novel’s reception through time, Goldstein focuses



on Max’s controversial long speech at the end of the novel and declares it incompatible with Bigger’s final liberation. The author points out the incoherence between Max’s radical politics—which represent Wright’s intellectual commitment at the time as well as a naturalistic stance—and Bigger’s final individual liberation—which represents Wright’s emotional commitment and turn towards a modernist and existentialist view of the individual, in anticipation of his later work. Instead of relying completely on Wright’s persona to explain the different cycles of popularity, oblivion and eventual canonization of Native Son, as Corkery proposes, Goldstein traces the changing status of naturalism and modernism through the twentieth century and asserts the notion that the rise of Black Studies and multiculturalism have become the deciding factors that now determine most critical assessments of the novel’s success. In “Sexual Diversity in Wright’s Characterization of Bigger Thomas: Homo-socialism, Homo-eroticism, and the Feminine” Yvonne Robinson Jones exposes, like Corkery, the identification of Richard Wright with his male characters, and with Bigger in particular. However, Robinson Jones’s aim is to bring to the forefront the way in which Wright’s personal experiences imbued his male characters with a sexual consciousness which is rooted in the “feminization” of the black male by the oppressing forces of a racist America and the author’s rejection of such feminization. Robinson Jones points to the creation of a homo-social context, a bond between black males, that results in homo-erotic relationships between the writer and Bigger, as well as among the black male characters in the novel. Finally, she argues that the heterosexual relationships in the novel, which are usually fraught with frustration, anxiety and conflict, systematically lead to the abuse of women and to a perennial misogyny in Wright’s work, biases that both run parallel to the emasculation of the black male in his novel. Shifting from the male perspective that Robinson Jones brings forward in her essay, and in dialogue with her analysis of gender and sexuality in Native Son, Carol E. Henderson’s “Notes of a Native Daughter: The Nature of Black Womanhood in Wright’s Native Son” undertakes the task of studying the ways in which Wright’s novel affected the literary production of black women in the 1940s and 1950s. Henderson also illustrates a stage in the history of the novel’s reception, as previously explained by Goldstein. Taking Ann Petry’s


Dialogue: Richard Wright’s Native Son

The Street (1946) and Gwendolyn Brook’s Maud Martha (1953) as examples of novels that follow the Wright School of naturalistic social protest fiction, Henderson shows how both novels actually contest and undermine Wright’s rendering of womanhood in Native Son, establishing alternative sources of consciousness and personal strength that allow for “models of [female] independence, selfreliance and self-determination” that are strangely absent in Wright’s novel. The dynamics of place and space are central to Henderson’s analysis, as she demonstrates how both Petry and Brooks revise Wright’s domestic and urban spaces in their own novels. As in Henderson’s essay, the dynamics of space lie also at the core of Babacar M’Baye’s contribution. However, “Slavery and Africa in Native Son and Black Power: A Trans-nationalist Interpretation” enlarges the spatial dimensions in the interpretation of Native Son as the usual emphasis on the restricted Chicago landscape—the Chicago South Side, the domestic space of Bigger’s kitchenette and their counterpart in the white American spaces— shifts to the international arena of a modern West constructed upon the foundation of slavery. M’Baye focuses, like Goldstein, on Max’s discourse, but he interprets it as an articulation in trans-national and pan-African terms of both Bigger’s and Wright’s black nationalism. Like Corkery and R. Jones, therefore, M’Baye identifies Wright with his work, while exposing his unresolved duality with respect to the West and Africa through the comparative study of Native Son and Black Power. This duality is depicted in Max’s deterministic view of slavery as a necessary economic—rather than (im)moral—phenomenon for the West to overcome Feudalism and, paradoxically, to spread Democracy, at the expense of Africans. It is only through the resistance of blacks to their oppression and in their final success that the Western enterprise of modernity can be fully realized, since no Democracy can materialize while blacks are not considered equal. Next, in his comparative reading of Native Son and Black Power M’Baye examines the impact of slavery on the African American psyche and the resulting internalization of violence towards blacks and the demonizing and rejection of Africans, Africa, and the African cultural heritage. Herman Beaver’s essay “Vortical Blues: Turbulence, Disorder, and the Emplotment of Surplus Meaning in Native Son” bridges this section on spatial dynamics and the next one on literary genres with its analysis of vorticism. Claiming that Wright embraced Edgar Allan Poe’s deployment of vortical symbolism as the trope to explain Bigger’s violence and rage, Beavers links Naturalism,



thermodynamics and stochastic principles in his comments on Native Son. His analysis points at the way in which the novel portrays the transformation of a local event into a catalyst for more wide-ranging forces, illustrating Wright’s belief that “the U.S. was a system spiraling down into entropy.” In order to explain Wright’s “renovation of naturalist aesthetic conventions,” Beavers relies on comparative analyses of Native Son, Poe’s short stories, and Theodore Dreiser’s “Nigger Jeff.” Furthermore, the author provides a detailed analysis of the scenes leading to and taking place in the movie theater, affirming that the latter “becomes that place where Bigger's actual nature as a figuration of instability determines that disorder is manifest.” Gender politics and the novel’s rendering of masculinity are also treated from the point of view of Wright’s fusion of thermodynamic and stochastic principles, thus expanding the discussion on gender previously undertaken by Robinson Jones and Henderson. Beaver's essay closes with an approach to Book Three from the perspective of thermodynamics and the production of surplus meaning, concluding that both Max and Buckley are wrong in their synechdochical interpretation of Bigger as an example of malfunction for exploring social instability. The following three essays undertake the study of the novel from the point of view of its adoption and transformation of various literary genres, focusing respectively on the African American jeremiad, the protest novel, the crime novel and courtroom drama, the bildungsroman, and the Biblical modes of narration. In “Native Son’s ‘ideology of form’: the (African) American Jeremiad and American Exceptionalism” Ana María Fraile-Marcos returns to the national arena. Instead of tracing an international literary or socio-political source for the novel’s thrust, she argues that the novel’s continuing appeal is largely due to Richard Wright’s particular engagement with American exceptionalism as embodied in both the American and the African American rhetorical traditions of the jeremiad. Even though Blackness, as symbolic of the flaws and crevices of American exceptionalism, has been systematically repressed, the “Africanist presence”—in Toni Morrison’s words—has permeated American literature in covert ways from its inception. Wright, Fraile contends, brings that “choked representation of an Africanist presence” to the forefront in the figure of the inarticulate Bigger Thomas. Furthermore, Fraile reads Native Son—and Max’s coutroom monologue in Part III in particular—in the light of the African American jeremiad tradition, with its simultaneous adherence


Dialogue: Richard Wright’s Native Son

to and critique of American exceptionalism. Far from the notion— advanced by the author himself—that Wright’s artistry was alien to African American culture, Native Son appears in Fraile’s analysis as firmly anchored in the African American literary and oratory tradition, which derives from and corrects the American jeremiad rhetoric, thus emerging as a doubly native product. In “Genre in/and Wright’s Native Son” Heather Duerre Humann further explores some of the multiple generic classifications that have been frequently used to inform analyses of the novel. Humann points out that Wright’s use of different genres serves the purpose of forwarding his political statement. However, she suggests, “Wright’s own conflicted views about ideology” also lead to the violation of the genres he borrows. Focusing on the genres of the protest novel, the bildungsroman, the crime novel and courtroom drama, Humann argues that Native Son consistently manages to both combine and resist such generic categories. In conversation with previous essays, Humann also relies heavily on the biographical component of the novel as well as on the audience’s agency in the construction of the literary work. In closing, Humann affirms the collaborative character of the novel as the deciding factor, thus overshadowing the reader’s role in determining the novel’s genre(s). Carme Manuel’s essay “Bigger’s ‘Rebellious Complaint’: Biblical Imagery in Native Son” completes the volume’s exploration of genres with its focus on Wright’s borrowing of biblical themes and models of narration. Manuel refers the reader back to Wright’s childhood and to his Adventist grandmother to explain his familiarity with biblical mythology and its reflection on “the deeply religious nature of Bigger Thomas’s plight.” Manuel’s essay is naturally linked to Fraile’s, as both find common ground in the biblical mythology at the core of the American ideology that suffuses the novel. Manuel points at the opening epigraph of the novel expressing Job’s rebellious complaint as the framework from which Wright sets out to “expose and analyze black suffering in twentieth century America.” She draws from several interpretations of the Book of Job in her reading of Native Son, especially in her rendering of Bigger’s process of selfunderstanding in Book Three of the novel. In addition, Manuel sets a parallelism between the “aggregation of genres” in Native Son— alluded to by both Humann and Fraile—and the generic accumulation in the Book of Job. Furthermore, Manuel traces Bigger’s spiritual alienation back to other Scriptural episodes, allegories, and typologies. Her reading of Book Three in the light of the biblical



wisdom tradition to which the Book of Job belongs not only accounts for the charges of didacticism against the last part of the novel but also explains puzzling aspects of it, such as the rejection of Bigger’s guilt or Wright’s attempt to reverse the inhumanity of murder into a sign of righteousness and humanity. Mary’s and Bessie’s murders emerge as sacrificial rites as Bigger eventually succeeds in “liberating himself from being translated into a social symbol, a ritual sacrificial scapegoat.” The last two essays explore the lasting influence of the novel through its adaptation to other artistic fields, such as the cinema and song in the form of hip-hop. Raphaël Lambert’s analysis in “From Page to Screen: A Comparative Study of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Its Two Film Adaptations” argues that Wright conceived the novel in cinematic terms in an attempt to enhance the realism of the story and thus insure that Bigger’s feelings would be impressed upon the reader as unmediated by words. However, the novel being a written medium, Wright found it difficult to translate Bigger’s inarticulateness onto the page without resorting to an intrusive authorial narrative voice that hinders immediacy. The cinema appears as an apt genre to convey Bigger’s emotions and inarticulateness through action, rather than words, adding immediacy and realism to the story. In the second part of his essay Lambert concludes that in spite of the formal advantages that the adaptation of the novel to cinema may offer, the novel’s thematic audacity has never been reproduced onscreen. The trial scene, for example, which is key to several of the analyses in this volume, virtually disappears in the 1951 and 1986 adaptations, as does Bessie’s murder. Lambert explores the changing historical contexts that account for Pierre Chenal’s and Jerrold Freeman’s changes and attributes their decision about omissions as responses to the political pressure of their times, the decades of the 1950s and 1980s respectively. The very inability to truthfully adapt the novel to the screen in recent times conveys an idea of its currency and of Wright’s brave breakthrough in 1940. If the cinema has failed so far to represent the audacity and complexity of the novel’s controversial themes, hip hop seems to have offered a more apt genre to trace Bigger and his environment up to the present time, according to James Braxton Peterson. In “The Hate U Gave (T.H.U.G.): Reflections on the Bigger Figures in Present Day Hip Hop Culture” Peterson establishes a continuum of African American expressive culture from Richard Wright and Bigger


Dialogue: Richard Wright’s Native Son

Thomas to Hip Hop culture. Thus, a main point in Peterson’s discussion, like in Corkery’s, is the authority invested upon a work that relies on its identification with the writer’s life for its authenticity and realism; but unlike the latter, Peterson emphasizes the parallelism between the present socio-economic conditions and those in Wright’s time. Peterson connects Bigger Thomas and the personas and characters created in the 1980s and 1990s by gansta rappers such as Biggie Smalls (Notorious B.I.G.), Tupac Shakur, DMX, and Eminem. The author also coincides with Corkery and Goldstein in pointing at the important role of the audience in the success of these narratives, as well interacting with Henderson’s critique in pinpointing the problematic public demand for “artistic narratives of misogyny and violence.” The wide range of approaches to Native Son gathered in this collection of essays attests to the continuing interest in Richard Wright’s classic. In the hope of eliciting new responses and interrogations, nothing will be more gratifying than to engage the reader in the dialogue this book presents.

Ana María Fraile-Marcos Universidad de Salamanca 2007

Notes 1 If Wright had criticized Hurston’s masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) as a perpetuation of the stereotyped minstrel image of blacks (in “Between Laughter and Tears”), Hurston corresponded by criticizing Wright’s Uncle Tom's Children (1938) for the book’s display of racial hatred and violence, Wright’s deaf ear to black dialect, his reduction of art to Marxist propaganda, and for ignoring or stereotyping women’s experience. 2

We should be wary, for example, of considering Hurston’s oeuvre as apolitical or not socially engaged. The fact that she was a confessed anticommunist and decried black social protest as “the sobbing school of Negrohood” placed her on the opposite side of Wright on the literary and political spectrum. However, both authors aimed to have a social impact through literature.



Works Cited Appiah, K. A. and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993. Butler, Robert. Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Hero. Boston: Twayne 1991. Butler, Robert J., ed. The Critical Response to Richard Wright, Westport, CN: Greenwood, 1995. Everett, Percival. Erasure. London: Faber & Faber, 2001. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Preface” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K.A. Appiah, eds. Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993. (xi-xvi) Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and N. Y. McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. N.Y.: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997. Hakutani, Yoshinobu. Critical Essays on Richard Wright. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982. Howe, Irving. “Irving Howe on Native Son as an Attack on Both Whites and Blacks” in Harold Bloom, ed. Richard Wright’s Native Son: Bloom’s Notes. A Contemporary Literary Views Book. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 1996. (32-35) Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and N. Y. McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. N.Y.: W.W. Norton, 1997. (1267-1271) Hurston, Zora Neale. “What White Publishers Won't Print” in Negro Digest 8 (1950): 85-89. —. “Art and Such” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed. Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology. New York: Meridian, 1990. (21-26) Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. New Essays on Native Son. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. —. Critical Essays on Richard Wright's Native Son. New York: Twayne, and London: Prentice-Hall International, 1997. Locke, Alain, ed. The New Negro. New York: Atheneum, 1968. Macksey, Richard and Frank E. Moorer, eds. Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1984. Miller, James A., ed. Approaches to Teaching Wright’s Native Son. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1997. Rampersad, Arnold, ed. Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994.


Dialogue: Richard Wright’s Native Son

Walker, Alice. I Love Myself When I Am Laughing... And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: a Zora Neale Hurston Reader. New York: The Feminist Press, 1979. Weiss, M. Lynn. “Review of The Critical Response to Richard Wright” in African American Review 31 (Summer 1997) (Accessed 3-13-2007 in Wright, Richard. “Blueprint for Negro Writing” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and N. Y. McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. N.Y.: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997. (1380-1388) —. “Between Laughter and Tears” in New Masses ( 5 October , 1937): 25-26. —. Native Son. 1940. N.Y.: Perennial, 2001.

Richard Wright and the Reception of His Work

Richard Wright and His White Audience: How the Author’s Persona Gave Native Son Historical Significance

The life of Richard Wright has been a source of interest ever since the publication of Native Son in 1940. His disturbing depictions of African Americans profoundly affected his white American audience because he embodied the meaning of “being black” to them. Wright’s portrayal of African Americans fit the collective Negro types liberal white society was generally familiar with. Wright also managed to connect with this audience through a shared commitment to liberal ideologies. The way he became constructed as a representative of black people advanced his message far beyond his expectations. My contention is that Wright’s uncalculated success was brought on by his audience’s identification with him. Wright’s vulnerable stance as a Negro could only reach a white supremacist view point once he became altered to fit their expectations of a Negro writer. This is a tenuous persona to rely upon. Once the audience’s attitudes change, the ethos is empty, the message inert. In the end, Wright’s significance as an author will be his heroism in addressing an entrenched national mind set that victimized black Americans and the fortuitous impact he had on his audience by symbolizing a step toward recognizing racial injustice.

For an author, being the subject of a literary biography is momentous. It suggests a sort of application for canonicity. It also suggests the source of the author’s ascendancy. Literary biographers who focus on the author’s character more so than the writing produced steer the flattery toward the author’s writing persona. In such cases, the literary power might come from the audience’s awareness of the author’s character. The strength of the writing might draw more from the person behind the words than the words themselves. When Robert Park, the famous University of Chicago sociologist, met Richard Wright, he asked, “How did you come to be?” (qtd. in Ray viii), suggesting a remarkable confluence of influences needed to create Wright’s perspective. Park’s fascination is characteristic of the


Caleb Corkery

mainstream American response to Wright ever since the publication of Native Son in 1940. Sorting through the extensive scholarly writing devoted to Wright, one is struck by the amount devoted to his life. Understanding his background seems so central to appreciating his work that over a dozen book-length biographies have been published on Wright. “In short, Richard Wright the man transcends Richard Wright the novelist” (Unfinished Quest xxix), claims Michel Fabre, justifying his in-depth biography of Wright. This attention to “the man” as a way to understand “his works” acknowledges what is perhaps obvious to anyone familiar with Wright: he was a man whose “literary and social consciences were one” (1), as biographer Keneth Kinnamon characterizes him. Looking into “the man” behind the writing readily reveals how self-conscious Wright was in his role as a writer. He felt it his duty to create values by which his race was to struggle, live and die (Aaron 46). Philosophically, he believed that being black and a writer automatically put him into a representative role, proclaiming “[t]he voice of the American Negro is rapidly becoming the most representative voice of America and of oppressed people anywhere in the world today” (White Man, Listen! 101). Such self-consciousness is what makes Wright exceptional according to Fabre. Wright calls himself “an average Negro” while also claiming the “Negro is the metaphor of America” (Unfinished Quest xxix): According to Wright, the experience of the black American crystallizes a more universal problem of Western culture created by the transition from a familyoriented, and still somewhat feudal, rural existence, to the anonymous mass civilization of the industrial centers. (xxix)

Examining his life, as Fabre sets out to do, reveals how Wright not only exemplifies this metaphor, but also explains how Wright capitalized on a very specific moment in American history: “[T]he wide success of Native Son was largely due to a propitious historical situation, since other Blacks had through their actions and writings done the same thing before him with some, though lesser, results” (xxxi). Conscious of how he was stepping through history, Wright was able to position himself conspicuously by providing white America a portrait of African American life strategic for his race. As he puts it, “I wanted to voice the words in [oppressed black men] that they could not say, to be a witness for their living” (“How ‘Bigger’” 398).

Richard Wright and His White Audience How the Author’s Persona Gave Native Son Historical Significance


Wright’s strategy for initiating social and political change by representing black people made the quality of his character central to his message. One who claims to be portraying the black American experience must satisfy the audience’s expectations of a black spokesperson. This is how Wright enters onto the world stage to forever change his life and how people viewed his life. The way he became constructed as a representative of black people advanced his message far beyond his expectations. His disturbing depictions of African Americans profoundly impacted his audience because he embodied the meaning of “being black” to them. But this portrait, when viewed today, presents him in quite a different light. It is difficult for many to qualify him as representative of a race he describes as “stricken, frightened black faces trying vainly to cope with a civilization they did not understand” (309). In fact, contemporary critics often accuse Wright of creating “unflattering stereotypes” of African Americans (Hakutani 12). Wright’s impressive effect can be understood by examining the dynamics of the rhetorical situation he stepped into upon publishing Native Son. But the outcome was not entirely what the author had in mind. As Kinnamon points out, “The impact of the novel was undeniably great, but at times in ways different from, or even contrary to, those Wright intended” (143). The limited focus of this study is to examine the effect of Wright’s own character on the success of the novel. My contention is that the image of Wright that developed before his white American audience in 1940 is largely what enabled Native Son to change “American culture forever” (Hakutani 1) for literary critics like Irving Howe. This sort of analysis can also illustrate the limits of Native Son’s impact and how Albert Murray, among many others, can call the novel exaggerated and oversimplistic (164). The way authors can present themselves to assist their messages is complex. There is, of course, what authors say publicly about themselves. But more subtle arguments based on ethos can be at work in a text. When considering arguments based on ethos, the central issue to consider is whether the writer is believed to possess moral principles arguing for good causes. This judgment is driven by whether the audience feels the author is fair and credible. Rhetoricians back to ancient times, such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, “stressed that an ethical arguer must have the courage and willingness to argue logically and honestly from a strong sense of


Caleb Corkery

personal integrity and values” (Wood 213). This standard is helpful for evaluating the effect of Wright’s ethical stance. An author’s ethos, of course, is only one aspect of what makes a message effective. Although other rhetorical aspects of Native Son surely contributed to its impact, the goal of this analysis is to see how ethos stands out, making the argument largely dependent upon the image of the man behind the words. Distinguishing the message in the novel as an ethos-based argument ties the importance of the book to the importance of the author. One can see how Wright’s writing persona plays a powerful role in Native Son by examining audience responses to the book as well as Wright’s comments that helped shape his public image. First, though, in order to understand Wright’s constructed image, a discussion of the circumstances that produced the novel is needed. It was certainly a unique situation for a black author to bluntly address white America with racial issues in 1940. Wright felt compelled to do so given his chance to reach a wide audience as an emerging national literary figure. His first book, Uncle Tom’s Children, had just been published in 1938 and won first prize in a writing competition sponsored by the Federal Writers’ Project. And in 1939 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship to finish Native Son. Having reached a national audience with Uncle Tom’s Children, Wright was disappointed that their response did not reflect the message he was trying to get across: When the reviews of that book began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naive mistake. I found that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears. It was this that made me get to work in dead earnest [on Native Son]. (“How ‘Bigger’” 874)

Consequently, Wright approached his new novel with almost desperate urgency. The moment to get out his message was before him. “He therefore felt compelled to include all the ingredients that would make Native Son an ideological bomb in case it would be his last chance to speak out” (Fabre, Unfinished Quest 183). He anticipated “a storm of protest against Bigger” which he feared would silence him forever (Rowley 156).

Richard Wright and His White Audience How the Author’s Persona Gave Native Son Historical Significance


This moment in Wright’s career constitutes a unique rhetorical situation. No African American before him had portrayed the anger in black people that white Americans feared (Baldwin 33). He was positioned to be the first writer to give the white community an understanding that looked past its prejudices and forced it to see the reality of black life in America (Felgar 9). When writing Native Son, Wright targeted a dominant thread of the mainstream: all those who possess distorted, racist stereotypes of black Americans, as purveyed by American culture. Bigger Thomas represented the tragic result of those racist ideas. The novel challenged accepted stereotypes of Negroes by pointing out that the white supremacist attitudes are what shape victims like Bigger Thomas. As Wright explains in “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” “[Bigger] was hovering unwanted between two worlds,” between powerful America and his own stunted place in life, “and I took upon myself the task of trying to make the reader feel this No Man’s Land” (871). Wright goes on to explain how he “had to depict” the “scars” of “Bigger’s relationship to white America, both North and South” (872). Dorothy Canfield Fisher, in her introduction to the original publication of Native Son, describes the attitude Wright assumes in his audience this way: “the outlets of native power which would have been open to any white boy were closed to Bigger. [Wright] knows he does not have to prove this...every one of his American readers will know all that without being told” (xi). The defining characteristic of Wright’s audience seems to be a state of mind, a mainstream mentality cultivated over a long history and posited in the national consciousness. Feeling himself before a national audience possessing this state of mind, Wright used Native Son to deliver his most piercing social commentary: For a long time I toyed with the idea of writing a novel in which a Negro Bigger Thomas would loom as a symbol figure of American life, a figure who would hold within him the prophecy of our future. I felt strongly that he held within him, in a measure which perhaps no other contemporary type did, the outlines of action and feeling which we would encounter on a vast scale in the days to come. (“How ‘Bigger’” 867)

Wright’s opportunity before this audience inspired him to speak not only for African Americans as a group in 1940 America, but also for the future of all Americans. He eagerly assumed the representative


Caleb Corkery

role of a black voice speaking to white America, a point frequently noted by biographers: “The fact that he was a Negro would intrude upon the very mode of his existence and would influence the direction of his thought, and most certainly later did inform the bulk of his public writing” (Brignano 3). In 1940, many reviewers praised the book because they saw it as a new and disturbing vision of black life in America that previous writers lacked the background, understanding, or artistic skill to present in literature. Henry Seidel Canby boldly asserted in the February 1940 issue of Book-of-the-Month-Club-News that Native Son was “the finest novel written by an American Negro,” a book so deeply grounded in black American experience that “only a Negro could have written it” (qtd. in Butler 23). Edward Meeks of “Books of the Times” called it “unquestionably authentic” (Kinnamon 144). Several other commentators explained the originality and depth of Wright’s racial vision in terms of his creating a new kind of central character, a black person whose story provided a fresh perspective on African-American life (Butler 23-42). Clearly, these reviewers are impressed by Wright’s ability to represent the Negro race. Their approval is stated in relation to the “truth” the author is able to present about being black in America. Wright set out to alter the course of mainstream thinking; but what he did was expose divergent attitudes within that group. What Wright had not realized was that part of the mainstream audience he was trying to enlighten not only agreed that negative stereotypes of black Americans existed, but they appreciated his revision of the stereotypes. The white mainstream that sympathized with African Americans found a model for their attitudes in author Richard Wright, victimized black man who speaks for the downtrodden race. And this image served his career very well, as numerous biographers have recognized. Robert Felgar, in 1980, wrote: One of Wright’s triumphs is probably unique in American literature, his successful overcoming of the horrible experiences of the Deep South, which he not only survived but forged into great literary art. This remarkable ability to overcome formidable barriers to literary achievement, whether economic, familial, educational, or racial, is the keynote of much of his writing. (10-11)

Seen as the product of a racist society and admired for his use of language to overcome his circumstance, Richard Wright offered an emblem of racial struggle, an image that romantically conflated the man, his race, and his words. His victimized characters were part of

Richard Wright and His White Audience How the Author’s Persona Gave Native Son Historical Significance


him and he, the poignantly expressive author, was part of the Negro race. Kinnamon’s biography of Wright explains that his racial status, his poverty, the disruption of his family, and his faulty education “collectively and individually left ineradicable scars on his psyche and deeply influenced his thought, but also provided much of the subject matter of his early writing. Social reality determined Wright’s literary personality” (4). Wright’s status as a man who could speak for black people satisfied many readers. And Native Son seems to be the moment that catapults him into this vaunted role. Russell Brignano depicts the special status Wright earned: Anyone aspiring to comprehend the ways in which many Negroes have lived in and responded to their America during this century will be well rewarded from consulting much of Wright’s work. In doing so and in reading the creative literature of other Negroes, he will also learn that Native Son occupies a special place among American letters. (ix-x)

Biographers and reviewers alike have extolled Wright’s writing persona for being the one to explain what black people are like. This is indeed ironic. Wright was afraid that Native Son might silence him forever before white America. But while he had their attention, he wanted to make the most of it: “Wright’s first ambition was to shock his public, largely the white liberals, into realizing the truth of the racial situation” (Fabre, Unfinished Quest 183). Though his message certainly did shock many, white liberals generally applauded him. As rhetoric scholar Roderick Hart points out, “speakers may create messages but, often, messages recreate speakers as well” (48). Wright’s characterizations of Negro life resonated with attitudes in his audience, making him a symbol of their beliefs, as reflected by the many reviewers who described his portrayals as “truthful.” If First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was moved to tears by Wright’s depiction of Bigger Thomas, one can imagine the First Family’s white constituency symbolically pouring out over the grim life of black men. Wright’s uncalculated success was brought on by his audience’s identification with him. Unintentionally, Wright established common ground with the audience which made the author seem similar to them and, therefore, trustworthy. Wright’s writing persona satisfied his audience’s expectations of a black spokesperson because he shared many of their attitudes toward African Americans. How could a liberal white audience who generally enjoyed privilege identify with a black man who grew up poor in the South


Caleb Corkery

resenting white people? The answer is in his complex evolution from a deprived child of the South to a Marxist intellectual of the North. But for the purpose of this study, which is examining his writer self, I want to focus on two aspects of his attitudes that come through in his writing that resonated with his audience in 1940. Like many of his readers, Wright looked upon black people in objective sociological terms. Wright’s portrayal of African Americans fit the collective Negro types liberal white society was generally familiar with. Wright also managed to connect with this audience through a shared commitment to liberal ideologies. Despite living in black communities until the age of nineteen, Wright’s developed attitudes toward his race that were greatly shaped by white people. A colleague of his from the Federal Writer’s Project of the WPA in Chicago describes how his influences shaped him into a pleasing black spokesperson to white intellectuals: All the forces influencing Wright were forces of the white world: he seems to have been shaped very little by black people. As a matter of fact, black people were never his ideals. He championed the cause of the black man but he never idealized or glorified him. His black men as characters were always seen as the victims of society, demeaned and destroyed and corrupted to animal status. He was the opposite of what the liberal white man is called: a nigger lover. He probably never reached the point of hating his black brothers, but he felt himself hated by many of them. Every positive force he recognized in his life stemmed from white forces. Intellectually, his teachers and master-models were all white. He was befriended by whites; he was admired and loved more by whites than blacks. Hatred of the collective white man as a force against the collective black man was nevertheless coupled with genuine admiration and regard for many truly personal benefactors who were white. (Alexander 34)

Understanding Wright is not easy given this seeming contradiction. Even though he depicts a degraded African American life in much of his writing, he was proud of his black identity. “He insisted on his blackness although he pictured black life in America as inhuman and sterile” (viii), as Robert Farnsworth puts it. Applied to Native Son, one can hear the distant language Wright uses to describe Bigger: He had been so conditioned in a cramped environment that hard words or kicks alone knocked him upright and made him capable of action–action that was futile because the world was too much for him. It was then that he closed his eyes and struck out blindly, hitting what or whom he could, not looking or caring what or who hit back. (qtd. in Felgar 96)

Richard Wright and His White Audience How the Author’s Persona Gave Native Son Historical Significance


His distance from the black people he was speaking for makes sense, though, given the privileged status it provided him among a white audience. With conscious intention or not, Wright commanded the attention and company of many whites because he confirmed their broad sociological theories of “the Negro problem” through the representative role he arrogated for himself. It was easy to listen to what a Negro had to say about race issues if he had elevated himself from Negro life through exceptional qualities that permitted him into white society. The New York Sun shows their 1940 audience how easy it was to provide this exceptional position for Wright: Richard Wright is a Negro who has had slightly more than eight years of schooling, who was a bad boy, who has been on relief, on WPA, a street cleaner and a ditch-digger, and who is now being compared to Dostoeyevski, Theodore Dreiser and John Steinbeck. (Kinnamon, Conversations 28)

Examining Wright’s influences one can see how his attitudes paralleled many white intellectuals of his day. Wright knew little of African American literary history (Gayle 103), and instead was drawn to the literature of white writers such as H.L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson and Frank Harris. In the mid-1930s when Wright sought out training to develop his trade, he was steered by his friends in the Communist Party toward the avantguard writers of the period: Marcel Proust, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot (Fabre, Unfinished Quest 111). He was also reading books on Marxism. Nothing he read told him about blacks in America. Wright claimed his creativity suffered due to a lack of theoretical knowledge about black life: Something was missing in my imaginative efforts: my flights of imagination were too subjective, too lacking in reference to social action. I hungered for a grasp of the framework of contemporary living, for a knowledge of the forms of life about me, of eyes to see the bony structure of personality, for theories to light up the shadows of conduct. (qtd. in Fabre, Unfinished Quest 113)

Wright sought out studies in sociology as one way to fill this gap. He borrowed books from the University of Chicago’s Sociology Department to learn more about their empirical methods for studying urban communities. The professor who loaned him the books “was astounded by the thoroughness with which Wright had done the reading” (Rowley 82). These books exposed Wright to an analytical approach to understanding African American lives, like this work of Robert Park’s, who chaired the Sociology Department:


Caleb Corkery

The study of the Negro in America, representing as he does, every type of man from the primitive barbarian to the latest and most finished product of civilization, offers an opportunity to study...the historic social process by which modern society has developed. The Negro in his American environment is a social laboratory. (qtd. in Raushenbush 50)

The attitude of Park and his colleagues toward the Negro as a species to be studied worked well for Wright. He was inspired by “the piles of clippings, figures, maps, and graphs” they had amassed on black urban life (Rowley 250). The analytical sociologist’s eye helped shape his stance as an author: “In Native Son, I said, I had used the concepts of sociology as devised by some of the guys at the University of Chicago” (qtd. in Fabre, Books and Writers 124). Besides studying sociological studies of urban blacks, Wright also used court cases he covered for the New York State Temporary Commission on Conditions among Urban Negroes in the novel (Kinnamon, The Emergence 73). In his explanation of the novel’s main character, “How ‘Bigger’ was Born,” Wright describes Bigger as emerging from numerous “patterns” he observed across African America communities. Detailing various traits he witnessed in African Americans, he forms a representative type shaped by the experience of being black in the United States: “As I grew older, I became familiar with the Bigger Thomas conditioning and its numerous shadings no matter where I saw it in Negro life” (859). Wright’s view of Bigger as a “type” positions him as an objective observer of his race. Wright even adopted Park’s social scientist language as is clear in his explanation of his motives for writing the novel: Just as one sees when one walks into a medical research laboratory jars of alcohol containing abnormally large or distorted portions of the human body, just so did I see and feel that the conditions of life under which Negroes are forced to live in America contain the embryonic emotional pre-figurations of how a large part of the body politic would react under stress. [….] Why should I not, like a scientist in a laboratory, use my imagination and invent test-tube situations, place Bigger in them, and, following the guidance of my own hopes and fear, what I had learned and remembered, work out in fictional form an emotional statement and resolution of this problem? (867)

Clearly Wright’s analytical lens of African American culture appealed to many readers. Reviewers in 1940 were quick to pick up on and affirm Wright’s social scientist position. Milton Rugoff (New York Herald Tribune Review of Books, 3 March 1940) stressed that “the first extraordinary aspect of Native Son is that it approaches the

Richard Wright and His White Audience How the Author’s Persona Gave Native Son Historical Significance


tragedy of race, not through an ‘average’ member but through a criminal” and that such a character is skillfully probed by Wright to “connect one individual’s pathology to the whole tragedy of the Negro spirit in a white world” (Butler xxvii). Even black critics like Sterling Brown (Crisis, June 1940) praised Native Son as a “literary phenomenon” because it was the very first novel about American blacks that provided a “psychological probing of the consciousness of the outcast, the disinherited, the generation lost in the slum jungles of American civilization” (Butler xxvii). Edwin Seaver, in a 1941 interview with Wright, introduces his guest claiming that he “brings home [clearly] to the white reader what it means to be a Negro” (Kinnamon, Conversations 43). Some leftist critics, such as Samuel Sillen (New Masses, 5 March 1940), liked the book for its “revolutionary view of life” and its portrayal of the hero’s “emancipatory” struggles against a capitalistic society intent on crushing him (Butler xxvii). Many other reviewers were also struck by the novel’s extraordinary impact, its power to transform the reader’s social consciousness. May Cameron (New York Post, 1 March 1940) saw Native Son as an “intense and powerful” novel that moved with “tremendous force and speed” to shock the reader into a new awareness of the status of blacks in American society (Butler xxvii). Likewise, Nick Aaron Ford concluded in 1953 that “[the power of Native Son] resides in the ethical and sociological implication of the action” (Ford 141). Another unsuspecting effect Wright had on his audience that allowed for deep identification and powerful rhetorical impact was a latent idealism. Like Wright, many in his audience also saw themselves as committed to justice. Wright’s bold charge against racist attitudes gave white people who felt that blacks were being mistreated a chance to voice the substance behind their liberal stance. Simply agreeing with Wright gave this audience a chance to affirm their own political ideals for justice. And they could do so with little threat to themselves. The novel asks only that they be sympathetic to a poor boy’s plight and to critique rich whites. Identifying with the novel for white liberals is made easy since the story hinges on the audience’s ability to perceive racist attitudes. As Robert Felgar explains, “it takes simply a careful reading to unlock the book’s message once the scales of wish-fulfillment and prejudice


Caleb Corkery

drop from the reader’s eyes” (9). Wright forces his audience into seeing a racist America through the very design of the novel. He challenged his audience to accept a Negro’s view of the world: Perhaps the most controversial literary device was the deliberate and exclusive use of Bigger’s point of view [until Book 3]. This automatically caused the black characters to come alive, while reducing the Whites to stereotypes, since Bigger always remains an outsider to their world. Although it implies a bias, this limitation is in fact an end in itself, almost a symbol, since no other technique could have emphasized so effectively the gap between the two races. (Fabre, Books and Writers 183)

Wright acknowledges the importance of distancing white people from the vantage provided in the novel: I gave the picture of the world from the point of view of Bigger alone and the unreality of the white characters was part of the movement of the story, that is, they formed the motive for Bigger’s acting towards them in such a strange way. Had Bigger seen them as people, the deeds, the crimes he committed would have been impossible. What I’ve done is to give the black world at the expense of the white. (qtd. in Fabre, Books and Writers 188-9)

Wright assumed that white people would collectively resist the meaning of Bigger Thomas. As Felgar puts it, “Whites [who rejected Native Son] did not and do not want to acknowledge what their racism has produced” (98). Wright had not expected that acknowledging Bigger Thomas allowed his audience a convenient opportunity to express their sympathy for Negroes and their disgust for racial injustice. Henry Hansen (New York World Telegram, 2 March 1940) observed that Wright’s novel “packs a tremendous punch, something like a big fist through the windows of our complacent lives.” Similarly, Margaret Wallace (New York Sun, 5 March 1940) sensed a “peculiar vitality” in the book which was likely not only to challenge the reader’s views on race but which would also “father other books” (Butler xxvii). Another reviewer called it “a deeply compassionate and understanding novel” (Kinnamon, The Emergence 144). White people lined up to support Wright for the social statement implied in his writing. Owen Dodson recalls Wright being “surrounded by people who came from various parts of the world and made a special point of visiting him because they so admired what he had done to reveal the life of the Negro” (qtd. in Ray 78). Dodson attributes Wright’s popularity to his “true compassion for the people who, in the eyes of society, were criminals and needed help, not from a prison, but from the embracement of brotherhood” (79). Liberal

Richard Wright and His White Audience How the Author’s Persona Gave Native Son Historical Significance


sentiments were also recorded of Edward Aswell, the Harper and Brothers publisher of Native Son: “I have often thought that if I, or any of my classmates, had been subjected to one half the handicaps and injustices that have been [Wright’s] lot since birth, we would have been defeated by life long ago. But he is not defeated. He is, in fact, one of the most powerful and most widely acclaimed novelists of our time” (qtd. in Rowley 141). In many cases, it seems the audience that identified with Wright’s principles of fairness also connected with his objectified view of black people. In fact, some white people showed their concern for Negro injustices through the omniscient vocabulary of social scientific theorists. Most famous, perhaps, is Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s introduction to Native Son: [O]ur society puts Negro youth in the situation of the animal in the psychological laboratory in which a neurosis is to be cause, by making it impossible for him to try to live up to those never-to-be-questioned national ideals, as other young Americans do. Native Son is the first report in fiction we have had from those who succumb to these distracting cross-currents of contradictory nerve-impulses, from those whose behavior-patterns give evidence of the same bewildered, senseless tangle of abnormal nerve-reactions studied in animals by psychologists in laboratory experiments. (x)

Fisher also recognized the appeal of the novel to liberal sentimentalities. “[The novel] can be guaranteed to harrow up any human heart capable of compassion or honest self-questioning” (x). Fisher positions herself close to Wright by assuming her understanding of Wright’s intentions. She also foretells the audience’s ability to identify with Wright’s just cause: “With a bold stroke of literary divination, he assumes that every one of his American readers will know all [about racial injustice suffered by Bigger] without being told. And he is right. We do” (xi). According to Michel Fabre’s research, Richard Wright was largely ignored after his death. In the mid-1960s, “[Wright’s] poor reputation in academic circles led me to question my own enthusiasm” to research his life (Unfinished Quest xxii). Conversely, in the years until his death, Wright loomed as an international literary figure. And given his vaunted status now, it seems incredible that not until 1971, at an institute of the Program on Afro-American Studies at the University of Iowa, did scholars conclude that “Wright was important to us again” (Farnsworth 1).


Caleb Corkery

This hiatus from interest in Richard Wright makes sense when viewed through the rhetorical dynamics that propelled his career. Arguments based on ethos are vulnerable to dismissal once the author’s character is no longer present to support the message. For instance, Wright’s self exile in France arguably diminished his reputation despite his international stature. When The Long Dream was published in 1958, Wright’s editor for the project, Edward Aswell, and critic Irving Howe congratulated Wright on the work’s insight and literary polish (Rowley 494, 587). However, the reviews were mostly negative, claiming “‘expatriate Wright’ had lost touch with his homeland” (Rowley 494). Writing from Europe, his persona became a bitter black American out of touch with his subject—and his muse. Wright’s precipitous fall during this period can be seen more dramatically through the eyes of Ralph Ellison, who claimed in 1945 that Wright was “an important writer, perhaps the most articulate Negro American” (Butler xxx). By 1963, though, Ellison had lowered his view of Wright substantially, “presenting him as a very limited ‘protest writer’ whose ‘harsh naturalism’ was outdated and artistically thin” (Butler xxx). Wright’s writing persona has returned, though, supporting sustained interest in him since the 1970s. Literary scholars have immortalized Wright’s persona in numerous biographies. Michel Fabre, among others, describe Wright as a visionary of American history: “Wright may be more widely known as one of the first to have thrown the truth of his resentment in the face of white America” (Unfinished Quest xxxi). Wright’s message is often seen as prophetic in the light of later violent outbreaks between races. And since his persona was central to how his point was received, literary scholars seek out the specter of Richard Wright to understand how his message may still relate to us. Richard Wright is undeniably an American cultural icon. Representative of his race when alive, Wright becomes symbolic of racial issues once dead. According to Fabre, Wright’s quest came from his own experience as much as from humanist philosophy: “if the black man is awakened, and if everyone accepts the ‘black man’ in himself, will not mankind as a whole eventually accept itself” (Unfinished Quest xxxii). Literary critics today continue to use Wright as a way to interrogate a racist society. According to Richard Macksey and Frank Moorer, “What makes Wright exceptional is his steady commitment to address the question of the ‘place’ of the American black.” Wright “founded his career and commanded the

Richard Wright and His White Audience How the Author’s Persona Gave Native Son Historical Significance


conscience of his readers by refusing to look away or to qualify the violence that his insistent question implied” (3). Wright’s status as a fearless voice of Black America still depends upon his authorial credibility, which many have questioned. Zora Neale Hurston claims Wright provides an unrealistic and stereotypical view of the South as a “dismal, hopeless section ruled by brutish hatred and nothing else” (qtd. in Maxwell 154). Hurston seems offended by Wright’s use of black people for political/social effect. In particular, it is the use of Negro types to stand in to tell the story of people who do not match the characterization. This critique is echoed by other critics of Wright, especially James Baldwin. Baldwin observes how social pressures can strangle an artist “who is forced to deal with human beings solely in social terms; and who has, moreover, as Wright had, the necessity thrust on him of being the representative of some thirteen million people” (33). But Baldwin does not excuse this understandable response of an artist as a social being: “It is a false responsibility (since writers are not congressmen) and impossible, by its nature, of fulfillment” (33). He also points out the detriment of this position on the individual artist: The unlucky shepherd soon finds that, so far from being able to feed the hungry sheep, he has lost the wherewithal for his won nourishment: having not been allowed “so fearful was his burden, so present his audience!” to recreate his own experience. (33)

Baldwin almost seems to be taking pity on Wright, given the position of a black writer in the 1940s. Robert Stepto also calls attention to Wright’s ambition to reach a white audience with exaggerated representations of his race. And, like Baldwin, he seems to pity the position history gave him as a black writer before WWII. “Wright was more the victim of his posture than the master of it” (199). Stepto realizes that Wright’s writing persona was not entirely his choosing. Kinnamon claims that Wright’s lasting importance is threefold: social critic, articulator of the black agony, and as American writer (152). However, others have recast him recognizing the rhetorical features of his message in a historical context. For instance, Yoshinobu Hakutani examines Wright’s writing as racial discourse: “[T]he significance of his writings comes not so much from his technique and style as from the particular impact his ideas and attitudes have made on American life” (1). When viewed through the


Caleb Corkery

rhetorical dynamics of author to audience, one can see that Wright’s authorial stance, though perhaps problematic outside of the audience he was addressing, made him a touchstone. He brought to consciousness a concern for racial justice spreading among the American public. The enduring literary value of Wright’s expression is questionable, though, given the writing persona his message depends upon. Wright’s praise comes within the rhetorical context that he daringly stepped into. And though some may surely still identify with his persona, the historical context has changed enough to make his spokesperson status irrelevant to most. Wright was trying to affect American racism, which meant that his target was an imaginary state within white Americans that permitted racism. Wright’s vulnerable stance as a Negro could only reach that supremacist view point once altered to fit their expectations of a Negro writer. His writing persona comes to life for his audience once they shape him into a palatable source. This is a tenuous persona to rely upon. His meaning is only fully appreciated as long as the imaginary context exists. Once the audience’s attitudes change, the ethos is empty, the message inert. The literature becomes historical artifact. This critique is supported by Wright himself who saw his writing in single-minded social activist terms. In this light, Wright might be viewed as a mere sophisticated pamphleteer, as James Baldwin claims of Harriet Beecher Stowe (18). It is my contention that as readers we move further away from the attitudes of 1940 America, Wright’s work will resonate less and less with American audiences. In the end, Wright’s significance as an author will be his heroism in addressing an entrenched national mindset that victimized black Americans and the fortuitous impact he had on his audience in symbolizing a step toward recognizing racial injustice.

Caleb Corkery Millersville University of Pennsylvania

Richard Wright and His White Audience How the Author’s Persona Gave Native Son Historical Significance


Works Consulted Aaron, Daniel. “Richard Wright and the Communist Party” in David Ray and Robert Farnsworth, eds. Richard Wright: Impressions and Perspectives. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1973. (35-46) Alexander, Margaret Walker. “Richard Wright” in Richard Macksey and Frank E. Moorer, eds. Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1984. (21-36) Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon, 1955. Butler, Robert. The Critical Response to Richard Wright. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995. Brignano, Russell Carl. Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1970. Davis, Charles T. “Introduction” in David Ray and Robert M. Farnsworth, eds. Richard Wright: Impressions and Perspectives. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1973. (1-6) Fabre, Michel. Richard Wright: Books and Writers. Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 1990. —. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. 2nd ed. translated by Isabel Barzun. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1993. Felgar, Robert. Richard Wright. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Fisher, Dorothy Canfield. “Introduction” in Native Son by Richard Wright. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1940. (ix-xi) Ford, Nick Aaron. “The Ordeal of Richard Wright” in. Richard Macksey and Frank E. Moorer, eds. Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall, 1984. (139-148) Gayle, Addison. Richard Wright: Ordeal of a Native Son. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980. Hakutani, Yoshinobu. Richard Wright and Racial Discourse. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1996. Hart, Roderick. Modern Rhetorical Criticism. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997. Kinnamon, Keneth. The Emergence of Richard Wright: A Study in Literature and Society. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1972. —. and Michel Fabre. Conversations with Richard Wright. Jackson: U P of Miss, 1993. Macksey, Richard and Frank E Moorer, eds. Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1984. Maxwell, William. New Negro, Old Left. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.


Caleb Corkery

Murray, Albert. Part I: The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture. New York: Outerbridge and Dienstfrey, 1970. Raushenbush, Winifred. Robert E. Park: Biography of a Sociologist. Durham NC: Duke UP, 1979. Ray, David and Robert Farnsworth, eds. Richard Wright: Impressions and Perspectives. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1973. Rowley, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2001. Stepto, Robert B. “I Thought I Knew These People: Richard Wright & The AfroAmerican Literary Tradition” in Robert B. Stepto and Michael Harper, eds. Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro American Literature, Art and Scholarship. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979. (195-211) Williams, John A. A Biography of Richard Wright The Most Native of Sons. New York: Doubleday, 1970. Wood, Nancy V. Perspectives on Argument. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. Wright, Richard. “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” in Early Works. New York: Harper, 1991. (851-881) —. White Man, Listen! New York: Doubleday, 1957.

From Communism to Black Studies and Beyond: The Reception of Richard Wright’s Native Son

In “Fate,” the last section of Native Son, Max the lawyer makes a thirteen page speech arguing that centuries of African-American oppression explain why Bigger Thomas killed Mary Dalton and Bessie Smears and why other Blacks may commit equally brutal crimes. Some critics praised the speech because it urges the judge and the country to break with its history of hatred and repression. Other critics objected that it throws the novel badly out of focus. Still other critics praised its liberating effect on Bigger. Instead of taking a side, I mean to suggest that the dispute has meaning: it indicates that the radical politics of Max do not square with the liberation of Bigger. It echoes, as a result, the political evolution whereby Wright changes from a communist to a Black Power advocate. In addition, the controversy parallels evolving critical practices and literary movements, especially the changing opposition between naturalism and modernism and the emergence of Black studies. Many critics of Native Son maintain that its insights transcend ethnic or racial difference and reveal the universal truths of human nature or capitalist society; however, those critics who justify the analysis of black culture effectively ally the community and the university and promote a multicultural society.

In “Fate,” the last section of Native Son, Max the lawyer makes a thirteen page speech arguing that centuries of African-American oppression explain why Bigger killed Mary Dalton and Bessie Smears and why other Blacks may commit similar crimes. It is well-known that this long speech proved controversial. Some critics praised the speech because it urges the judge and the country to break with what Paul Siegel terms “the pattern of hatred and repression” (97).1 Other critics objected that, as Robert Bone says, “its guilt-of-the-nation thesis, throws the novel badly out of focus” (151).2 Still other critics praised its effect on Bigger, who, they say, achieves personal liberation or psychological freedom because of it.3


Philip Goldstein

Instead of taking a side, I mean to suggest that the dispute has meaning because of the text’s history, which includes not only the changing beliefs of Wright but also the changing character of naturalism and modernism as well as the evolution of Black Studies Programs. In terms of Wright’s changing beliefs, the dispute suggests that the radical politics of Max do not square with the liberation of Bigger. The novel fosters both Max’s politics and Bigger’s liberation, but the pro-communist liberalism of Max, who represents the radical politics of the 1930s, does not accord with the liberation of Bigger, whose existential view of freedom parallels modernist notions of independence and black concepts of liberation. Max’s politics do not accord with Bigger’s sense of freedom because Max, for all of his sympathy, does not understand or cannot accept Bigger’s independence. The coherence of Max’s political discourse and Bigger’s homegrown existentialism breaks down; as Edward Margolies says, “Wright does not seem to be able to make up his mind. The reader feels that Wright, although intellectually committed to Max’s views, is more emotionally akin to Bigger’s” (79-80).4 Margolies is right: Max’s views express the intellectual commitment of Wright, who, in the 1930s, led the left-wing John Reed club and wrote articles for The Worker and other communist publications. Like many other radical African-Americans, he favored the separate, southern black nation advocated by the Communist Party and the autonomous national Soviet republics created by “Comrade Stalin” (Maxwell 6-8; see also Bell 152-54). By contrast, Wright’s emotional commitment to Bigger anticipates Wright’s later work, in which he rejects communist politics and accepts individual existential and African national autonomy. Margolies adds that “It is, then, in the roles of a Negro nationalist revolutionary and a metaphysical rebel that Wright most successfully portrays Bigger” (82). The incoherence of the last section echoes the political evolution whereby Wright changes from a communist who believed that Marxism pointed a way ‘beyond race’ to a Black Power advocate who defends Black autonomy.5 In addition to Wright’s changes, the evolution of critical practices and literary movements, especially the changing status of naturalism and modernism and the emergence of Black studies, also explain the incoherence. Consider, for instance, the changing status of naturalism and modernism. Since the late 1940s, the modernist art of William Faulkner or T.S. Eliot has ranked among the best American works; by contrast, in the 1930s, when Wright produced Uncle Tom’s Children

From Communism to Black Studies and Beyond: The Reception of Richard Wright’s Native Son


and Native Son, the naturalist literary movement of Stephen Crane, Emile Zola, and Theodore Dreiser was very influential, whereas modernist or existential works were considered experimental or regressive and were held in low esteem. Even though Wright was familiar with them, modernist formal or existential works were by no means consonant or on a par with the scientific naturalism whereby, like a scientist, Wright would, as he says, “invent test-tube situations, place Bigger in them, and … work out in fictional form an emotional statement and resolution” (xxi). Since Theodore Dreiser, a fellow member of the anti-fascist League of American Writers and other left-wing writers’ associations, was one of Wright’s favorite writers (See Rowley 60 and 87), it is not surprising that, to produce Native Son, Wright drew on An American Tragedy. Both Bigger and Clyde Griffiths seek the wealth and glamour of the American dream and, as a result, murder their pregnant girlfriends only to be tried, convicted, and executed (See Bone, 14243). Moreover, prosecuted by attorneys seeking political advantage, both Clyde and Bigger undergo trials shining a national spotlight on them. Wright sticks strictly to the viewpoint of Bigger, whose feelings he explains, whereas Dreiser engages in an omniscient narration which tells us why the Griffith family neglects Clyde or why the district attorney decides to prosecute him; however, both Wright and Dreiser show that the trials make the character of the accused a political issue. As Joseph Karaganis points out, thanks to the intense national spotlight, Clyde’s trial confers on him a celebrity status questioning his public or national self (156). In other words, what is at issue is the nature of Clyde’s public or national self, not his guilt or innocence, because it goes without saying that he will get a death sentence. Bigger’s trial raises similar issues. In it too, his guilt is not really in question; rather, thanks to the intense national spotlight, the trial makes an issue of Bigger’s true self.6 In a racist manner, the prosecuting attorney Buckley and the Chicago newspapers insist that Bigger is an animal whose death will make the city and the country safer. Max argues, by contrast, that the death sentence will do nothing to alleviate the oppression which made Bigger a killer and which is creating more Biggers. These arguments and the intense, national spotlight move Bigger to examine himself. In addition, introduced by Jan, who wishes to help Bigger even though he killed Jan’s lover Mary, Max causes


Philip Goldstein

Bigger to examine the feelings which, for most of his life, he has repressed. As the narrator points out when, for example, his mother berates him because he has terrified his sister Vera with the dead rat or has failed to get a good job and support the family, “he knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else” (14). Thanks to the spotlight brought about by the trial and Max’s questioning, Bigger is able “for the first time” to understand himself, his family, and his “pals.” The trials move both Clyde and Bigger to examine themselves, but, unlike the resigned Clyde, Bigger follows an existential line of reasoning. For instance, before the trial, he experienced a new sense of liberation when he killed Mary Dalton and his girlfriend Bessie: “He had murdered and created a new life for himself” (101). That is, as critics point out, the murders free him from cultural stereotypes or racial degradation: “[H]e could see while others were blind” (102; see Fishburn 99, Jackson 132-33, and Baker 18). During Max’s last visit to Bigger, Max faults this feeling of freedom: “Bigger, you killed. That was wrong … It’s too late now for you to . . . work with . . . others who are t-trying to . . . believe and make the world live again” (390). Shocking Max, Bigger rejects such organized political activity and defends his killing: “What I killed for must have been good” (392). While Dreiser’s Clyde is defeated at the end, Bigger feels justified because, to Max’s amazement, he construes the murders as acts of liberation. As a result, the analogy of The American Tragedy and Native Son breaks down but not because naturalism precludes the novel’s sensationalist violence or racial protest, as some scholars say (See Fabre 40, 53, and Baker, “Introduction,” 5);7 rather, Bigger’s homegrown existentialism suggests that, despite the influence of An American Tragedy and the low status of modernism, Native Son has what Craig Werner calls a “modernist subtext” (126; See also Howe 139 and Costello 39-40). One could argue, for example, that, in addition to An American Tragedy, Native Son parallels William Faulkner’s Light in August because Bigger’s sense of liberation is more like the existential selfassertion of Joe Christmas than the defeated sentiments of Clyde. Like Bigger, Christmas rejects his family, including his father’s implacable religion and his mother’s feminine softness, and, faced with an intractable Southern racism, grows violent and belligerent. When his intensely emotional and sexual relationship with Ann Bundren is

From Communism to Black Studies and Beyond: The Reception of Richard Wright’s Native Son


exhausted, he kills her while she tries, but fails, to shoot him. Switching shoes with a Black woman, he successfully evades capture, yet he returns to Mottstown and allows the authorities to arrest him because in that way he escapes the long road of his life and, like Bigger, accepts himself and his death. That is, in an existential manner, he formulates his life as a long road whose circle is broken or escaped only when he surrenders to the Mottstown sheriff. Moreover, he too faces angry racist mobs, who are incited to hang him by Hines, his racist and misogynist grandfather, but he escapes before his trial only to let the proto-fascist Grimm butcher him and to acquire, thereby, an unexpected immortality: in Faulkner’s terms, while the blood rushed out of his body, Christmas “seemed to rise soaring into their memories forever and ever” (407). Bigger achieves no such immortality. Moreover, while Native Son depicts only the viewpoint of Bigger, Light in August allows many narratives besides that of Christmas. The similarities of Bigger and Joe Christmas suggest, nonetheless, that Native Son parallels both Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and Faulkner’s Light in August even though Dreiser’s naturalism takes social oppression or injustice to explain the defeat of human aspirations while Faulkner’s modernism assumes that the artist’s imagination—the “I am”—defeats life’s circumstances and preserves its independence.8 Along with Max’s pro-communist and Bigger’s existential politics, this incompatibility of naturalism and modernism, which has grown in status and influence since the 1940s, explains the incoherence of the last section. Critics have suggested that Native Son also parallels Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was published in 1936, four years before Native Son, and which also fuses sex and death and at the end depicts a trial and the hero or heroine’s independence (See Cooke 87-8 and Portelli 260). Such parallels of Hurston and Wright fail to acknowledge, however, that since the 1930s and 1940s not only the status of modernism and naturalism but also the types of literary criticism have changed greatly. To summarize these changes briefly, left-wing critics complained that, as Wright said, Their Eyes “carries no theme, no message, no thought” because in a modernist fashion it celebrates the independence of Janie’s imagination and the virtues of the Black community, instead of condemning American racial prejudice and social injustice (Appiah and Gates 17; see also Gloster and Turner). These critics also faulted Light In August, whose world, Granville Hicks said, “echoes with the hideous trampling march of lust and disease, brutality, and death”


Philip Goldstein

(Cited in Schwartz, 15). Because of this and other criticism, in the early 1940s Faulkner’s work went out of print, and Faulkner himself worked as a Hollywood screenwriter. Hurston, at the time the most prolific African-American writer, worked as a maid and died impoverished and forgotten in 1959. Her work was not recuperated until the 1970s, when Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Black feminists repudiated protest fiction and revived her positive depictions of black culture. Native Son, by contrast, made Wright famous and wealthy and influenced the next generation of black writers, including his critical friends, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Unlike Hurston, they favored protest fiction, but they complained that the novel did not depict black humanity or intellectual and artistic independence in a positive way. In defense of the novel, Irving Howe and others argued that Wright’s anger with blacks and whites truly reflected his debilitating experience of American social life and that in oedipal fashion Baldwin and Ellison were rebelling against their literary father. Howe’s view lost out, for, to justify American postwar dominance, New York Intellectuals like Lionel Trilling condemned the proStalinist radicalism of naturalist fiction. Moreover, they praised the work of Faulkner, construing him as an American modernist who asserts the universal values of tradition, endurance, and individual will.9 So did New Critics like John Crowe Ransom, who, Lawrence Schwartz says, considered him “imbued with tradition, yet with an avant garde, modernist core”(28).10 While Faulkner’s reputation rose, Wright’s reputation declined because both the New Critics and the New York Intellectuals adopted conservative, modernist accounts of American or western culture. Their views converged despite their political differences. That is, in the 1920s and 1930s the New Criticism supported the Southern Agrarian movement and the modernist avant-garde and condemned the “progress,” industry, liberalism, science, wealth, bureaucracy, and democratic equality of the Yankee North (See Jancovich 1994: 71101); by contrast, in their youth the New York Intellectuals, who included Sidney Hook, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, and James Burnham, and others, forcefully defended Marxist and radical views. Moreover, they feared that the economic security, ideological conformity, and alienating professional jargon of the burgeoning

From Communism to Black Studies and Beyond: The Reception of Richard Wright’s Native Son


modern university would isolate them from the fragile public space of the traditional realist and man-of-letters; nonetheless, to secure their position in the university, these intellectuals allied themselves with the dominant New Critics, turning high modern art into what Lionel Trilling called “a polemical concept.” Moreover, to defend the shrinking public sphere, the New York Intellectuals promoted the nightmare of cultural decline, what Howe called “[t]he spreading blight of television, the slippage of the magazines, the disasters of our school system, the native tradition of anti-intellectualism, the cultivation of ignorance by portions of the counterculture, the breakdown of coherent political and cultural publics, [and] the loss of firm convictions within the educated classes”(Notebook 128). Scholars point out that, fearing this oppressive cultural decline, a broad range of critics justified the subversive force of modern high art and dismissed protest naturalism and popular culture (Huyssen 26; Norris 242; Pietz 65; Ross 42-64; Schaub 17; and Sinfield 102). In the 1960s and 1970s, when student rebellions initiated campus programs in African-American literature and culture, the New York Intellectuals repudiated the “nationalist” African-American critics reviving the work of Wright (Schwartz, 13639), condemning not only African-American Studies but also Women’s Studies and poststructuralist theories as well. Neil Jumonville rightly suggests, however, that the coldwar neoconservatism of the New York Intellectuals and other public critics did not begin in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when these polemics took place, but in the 1940’s, when Howe, Trilling, and others abandoned the radical Marxist politics of their youth and, to preserve the vanishing public sphere and oppose Stalinist communism, joined the New Criticism in advocating a conservative modernist poetics (185). The Black Studies Programs which, despite this opposition, revalued African-American culture, including the radical naturalism of Wright, rejected this defense of the public sphere. As Houston Baker, Jr., says, in the 1970s African-American literary study experienced a “paradigm shift”: the Black Power movement gave rise to a new Black Aesthetics, which dismissed Wright’s realist belief that African-American literature adhered to public, American ideals (Blues 76-7; see also DeCoste 128). As this paradigm shift implies, modern black criticism of Native Son breaks radically with the beliefs and values of Wright and, more generally, the public sphere and pursues its own aesthetic directions.


Philip Goldstein

For instance, formal critics like Robert Stepto and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., claimed that Native Son fails to acknowledge its AfricanAmerican cultural contexts or to employ the aesthetic devices of the Black literary tradition. Gates argues that, unlike Hurston’s Their Eyes, which uses indirect discourse to develop the black tradition’s figural or, in his terms, “signifyin(g)” devices, protest fiction like Native Son continues what he terms the black drive to justify the race’s intelligence, rather than produce great art (30). In addition, echoing cold war anti-communism, Gates parodies the novel’s Marxism, calling it a matter of “race and superstructure.” Other critics, who were formulating a professional canon of African-American literature, claimed that, despite the longstanding opposition, the modernist work of Hurston and the naturalism of Wright was compatible because, as June Jordan said, “the functions of protest and affirmation are not, ultimately, distinct” (5). I have argued that the novel’s radical naturalism is not consistent with its modernist existentialism, whereas in Jordan’s fashion Baker assimilates them to the black experience.11 He claims, for example, that Wright’s existential outlook comes from black culture (“The fundamental conditions of black life in America led him to see that apriori moral values could scarcely be operating in the great scheme of events” (18; see also Jackson 129). As a result, Bigger’s development does not break with community’s traditions and values; it echoes the liberation depicted in nineteenth-century slave narratives: “Bigger’s movement from bondage to freedom follows the same course: he repudiates white American culture, affirms black survival values, and serves as a model hero—a strong man getting stronger” (5; see also Gayle 179). On similar grounds Baker argues that the strong community of Black cultural life, not the nationalist policies of “Comrade Stalin,” explains Max’s pro-communist liberalism. Other critics also consider the novel’s naturalism and its modernist existentialism compatible, but these critics dismiss its black cultural contexts and defend Wright’s aesthetic genius and the novel’s public or universal values. On the formal or rhetorical grounds that Wright’s artistry matters more than the novel’s themes or politics, Joyce Joyce, for instance, construes the novel as a tragedy with universal archetypal or mythic import. Since she believes that Wright’s masterful use of language gives the novel classical status, she dismisses the novel’s “naturalist and existential views” as well as their cultural context.12 As she says, “[N]aturalistic and existential views of Bigger as either a victimized or isolated figure limit the

From Communism to Black Studies and Beyond: The Reception of Richard Wright’s Native Son


dimensions of Bigger’s character and give no attention to how Wright’s use of language punctuates the irony and ambiguity of Bigger’s personality”(172).13 While Baker argues that Bigger’s struggle for survival parallels African-American slave narratives, Joyce, who faults Baker and Gates for accommodating the white literary establishment, ascribes to the novel a universal archetypal or mythic import, identifying it with canonical Greek and Biblical works, not with works of naturalist protest or black aesthetic affirmation.14 Other critics defend its naturalist critique of racial oppression, rather than its Biblical or mythic import, but these critics also defend Wright’s authorial genius and public values and fault affirmative, black or modernist notions of existential freedom, reviving thereby the controversy about Max’s speech (See Bone, Burgum, DeCoste, Gloster, and Howe). For instance, Barbara Foley argues that, by means of Max’s speech, Native Son makes an issue of the social critique which American Tragedy takes for granted. Moreover, she faults critics who object to Max’s “didactic” speech on the grounds that, instead of construing “proletarian fictions as rhetorical acts” (189), they accept Henry James’ “bourgeois” distinction between showing and telling (196). More importantly, like Joyce, Foley terms Bigger’s “surge of existential freedom … a twisted assertion of identity which, in its very deviance, profoundly condemns the social circumstances which have … deprived Bigger of any coherent sense of self” (“Politics” 194: See also Burgum 122 and Decoste 133-43). While Joyce construes the novel as a modern tragedy, Foley takes the novel to defend the communist politics of the 1930s; nonetheless, unlike Baker, who argues that black cultural experience justifies both Bigger’s liberation and Max’s procommunist politics, Foley and Joyce both assume that the novel occupies a public space in which class politics or tragic flaws transcend ethnic or racial difference and reveal the universal truths of human nature or capitalist society.15 Walter Benn Michaels also says that Wright situates Bigger outside black culture (Our America 126). Moreover, he too faults the multicultural critics who, like Baker, treat race as a legitimate category and ignore or dismiss the author’s intentions. He maintains, however, such multiculturalism flourishes only because communism has collapsed: “ideological differences have been replaced by differences that should be understood on the model of cultural or linguistic differences … Readers at the end of history … differ but they do not disagree” (Shape 80).


Philip Goldstein

I have argued that the controversy provoked by Max’s speech reveals the incompatibility of Max’s radical politics and Bigger’s liberation not only because of Wright’s life and times but also because of the changing status of naturalism and modernism and the emergence of Black Studies. I have also suggested that what the convergence of the New Critics and the New York Intellectuals implies is that the modern university and giant corporate media have acquired massive cultural influence undermining the public sphere in the name of which critics revalued modernist fiction and degraded popular culture and the naturalist protest fiction of Wright and others. This cultural influence also indicates that neither the neglect of the author’s genius nor the collapse of communism explains the breakdown of the public sphere. Contrary to Michaels, both communists and anti-communists engaged in draconian tactics— blacklists, prison sentences, torture, and warfare—precluding rational debate. As a result, criticism which assumes, as Joyce, Foley, and Michaels do, that only the neutral public space outside racial differences enables readers to debate the truth of the novel is no longer viable. By contrast, although criticism like Baker’s denies the opposition of Max’s politics and Bigger’s liberation because it neglects the novel’s original contexts, such criticism justifies the novel’s depiction of black culture and experience and, as a result, gives Black Studies and, more generally, multiculturalism a progressive import.

Philip Goldstein University of Delaware

Notes 1

See also Davis, Jr., 75, DeCoste 141 and 143, Foley 95-6, Howe 137, and Hynes


See also Bell 166, Margolies 72, and Burgum 121.

96. 3

For example, Yoshinobu Hakutani, who appreciates the novel's protest against racial discrimination (61), says that Max misunderstands Bigger, but that his speech, a kind of action, enables Bigger to grow (83). Similarly, Jerry Bryant claims that “Bigger is … psychologically free in a way that even Max is not … Max's failure suggests that the Communist party, like Mrs. Dalton, like Bigger's family, is blind,

From Communism to Black Studies and Beyond: The Reception of Richard Wright’s Native Son


too” (24); see also Baker, “Introduction” 5; Bayliss 5; Butler 55; Fishburn 90; George 504; Gibson; Joyce 24-5 and 103-4, and Kennedy 283. 4

See also Joseph Skerrett, who says that the last section presents “an open-ended or suspended argument in which Wright is refusing to allow Bigger's individuality to be swallowed up or subsumed by Max's social analyses” (37); see also Robert Stepto, who says that Max, not Bigger, proves articulate and sensitive, but Bigger is clearly the hero of interest, (64-5). See also Reilly, 58-9. 5

Robert Lee says, “Throughout the Depression years and even into the 1940s [Wright] was regularly taken to reflect the Communist Party view that Marxism pointed a way “beyond race” ... Then, during the Eisenhower Tranquil '50s, … he found himself castigated as some kind of literary dissident, an ungrateful black antiAmerican voice … still enamoured of Soviet Russia … In turn, in the 1960s, … the generation raised on Civil Rights and then marches like that into Selma and inner-city explosions and the rhetoric of Malcolm X and the Panthers seized on him as an exemplary spokesman for Black Power, an early standard-bearer of either-or black militancy” (111). 6 Critics fault Max for not contesting the assumption that Bigger is guilty; however, as Algeo points out, Wright modeled Max on Clarence Darrow, who in the famous Leopold and Loeb case, granted their guilt but argued that their circumstances warranted lesser punishment (51-2). 7

Donald Pizer rightly suggests that, far from excluding violence or protest, naturalism derives its energies from them (20). 8

For example, Esther Merle Jackson, who considers Bigger Thomas “like Joe Christmas in the … dilemmas he endures,” insists that “Native Son is not now primarily a story of racial, political, or social injustice in the America of the thirties and forties”; rather, the novel is “a study of the question … What is man's responsibility in a world where everything is possible?” (133). See also Fishburn 99 and Portelli 260. 9

Lawrence Schwartz says, for example, that “the sharpest definition of Faulkner's role in the 'vital center' of politics and culture came ... from Irving Howe, in whose reading Faulkner turned 'the southern myth into a universal vision of the human condition'” (208). 10

Similarly, the New Critic John Crowe Ransom labeled Faulkner the preeminent postwar American moralist and Cleanth Brooks considered Faulkner the greatest American novelist and Light in August the greatest American novel. 11

See Portelli, who says that “when the time came to rescue the novel for the burgeoning field of African-American studies … Bigger was now most often described as a heroic self who achieves freedom and full humanity,” “rather than an inarticulate victim of his environment” (255). 12 See also Charles Scruggs, who argues that Bigger, whose life was “one long act of rebellion against what society officially considers pious” (166), deserves the electric chair and that, far from atheistic communism, Max describes Chicago in Biblical terms. “If Max gives his redeemed city a Marxist bias, Wright makes sure that readers see it in a more universal light through its archetypal setting” (168).


Philip Goldstein


See also Yoshinobu Hakutani, who argues that, “despite the obvious parallels between Native Son and An American Tragedy, the comparison is of limited value” because, unlike Clyde, who, defeated at the end, never gains any insight into himself or his position, Bigger achieves liberation (86-8). 14 Like Joyce, Cornel West objects that, in general, Black Studies repudiates “the African American literature of racial confrontation during the four decades of the forties to the seventies” because of “the existential needs and accommodating values of the black and white literary professional-managerial classes” (39). 15

See Foley, “Marxism in the Poststructuralist Moment” 5-37; and Joyce, “Black Woman Scholar, Critic, and Teacher” 543-65.

Works Consulted Algeo, Ann M. The Courtroom as Forum: Homicide Trials by Dreiser, Wright, Capote, and Mailer. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. Appiah, K. A. and Gates Henry Louis Jr., eds. Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad Press, 1993. Baker, Houston A., Jr. “Introduction” in Houston A. Baker, Jr., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Native Son; a Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972. ( 1-20) —. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984. Bayliss, John F. “Native Son: Protest or Psychological Study?” in Negro American Literature Forum Fall I (1967): 5-6 . Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: The U Massachusetts P, 1987. Bone, Robert A. The Negro Novel in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale UP, 1958. Burgum, Edwin Berry. “The Promise of Democracy in Richard Wright's Native Son.” in Richard Abcarian, ed. Richard Wright's Native Son; A Critical Handbook. Belmont, Calif., Wadsworth, 1970. (111-22) Cooke, Michael G. Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984. Costello, Brannon. “Richard Wright's Lawd Today! and the Political Uses of Modernism” in African American Review 37.1 (Spring 2003): 39-52. DeCoste, Damon Marcel. “To blot it all out: the politics of realism in Richard Wright's Native Son” in Style 32.1 (Spring 1998): 127-147. Fabre, Michel. “Beyond Naturalism?” in Harold Bloom, ed. Richard Wright. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. (37-56)

From Communism to Black Studies and Beyond: The Reception of Richard Wright’s Native Son


Faulkner, William. Light in August. New York: Random House, 1959. Fishburn, Katherine. Richard Wright's Hero: The Faces of a Rebel-Victim. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1977. Foley, Barbara. “Marxism in the Poststructuralist Moment: Some Notes on the Problem of Revising Marx.” Cultural Critique 15 (Spring, 1990): 5-37. —. “The Politics of Poetics: Ideology and Narrative Form in An American Tragedy and Native Son” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad Press, 1993. (188-99) Gates, Henry Louis Jr. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. Gayle, Addison, Jr. “Richard Wright: Beyond Nihilism” in Richard Abcarian ed. Richard Wright's Native Son; A Critical Handbook. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1970. (177-82) George, Stephen K. “The Horror of Bigger Thomas: the Perception of Form without Face in Richard Wright's Native Son” in African American Review 31.3 (Fall 1997): 497-504. Gibson, Donald B. “Wright's Invisible Native Son” in Richard Macksey and Frank E. Moore, eds. Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1984. (95-105) Gloster, Hugh M. Negro Voices in American Fiction. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1948. Hakutani, Yoshinobu. Richard Wright and Racial Discourse. Columbia: U Missouri P, 1996. Howe, Irving. A Critic's Notebook. ed. and intro Nicholas Howe. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1994. —. “Black Boys and Native Sons” Rpt. in Richard Abcarian, ed. Richard Wright's Native Son; A Critical Handbook. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1970. (135-43) Huyssen, Andreas. “Mapping the Postmodern” in New German Critique 33 (Fall 1984): 5-52. Hynes, Joseph. “Native Son Fifty Years Later” in Cimarron Review 102 (1993): 91-7. Jackson. Esther Merle. “The American Negro and the Image of the Absurd” in Richard Macksey and Frank E. Moore, eds. Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1984. (129-38) Jancovich, Mark. The Cultural Politics of the New Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Jordan, June. “On Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston: Notes Toward a Balancing of Love and Hatred” in Black World (August 1974): 4-8. Joyce, Joyce Ann. “Black Woman Scholar, Critic, and Teacher: The Inextricable Relationship between Race, Sex, and Class” in New Literary History 22.3 (Summer 1991): 543-65.


Philip Goldstein

—.Richard Wright's Art of Tragedy. Iowa City: U Iowa P, 1986. Jumonville, Neil. Critical Crossings: The New York Intellectuals in Postwar America. Berkeley: U California P, 1991. Karaganis, Joseph. “Naturalism's Nation: Toward An American Tragedy” in American Literature 72.1: 153-80. Kennedy, James G. “The form and content of Native Son” in College English 34 (1972): 269-83. Lee, Robert A. “Inside Narratives” in Harold Bloom, ed. Richard Wright. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. (109-26) Margolies, Edward. Native Sons, a Critical Study of Twentieth-century Negro American Authors. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1968. Maxwell, William J. New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars. New York: Columbia UP, 1999. Michaels, Walter Benn. Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism. Durham: Duke U P, 1995. —. The Shape of the Signifier 1967 to the End of History. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004. Pizer, Donald. The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism: Selected Essays and Reviews. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1993. Portelli, Alessandro. “Everybody's healing novel: Native Son and its contemporary critical context” in Mississippi Quarterly: the Journal of Southern Cultures 50.2 (Spring 1997): 255-265. Reilly, John M. “Giving Bigger a Voice” in Houston Baker, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Native Son; a Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972. (35-62) Ross, Andrew. No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 1989. Rowley, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. New York: Henry Holt, 2001. Schaub, Thomas. American Fiction in the Cold War. Madison: The U of Wisconsin P, 1991. Schwartz, Lawrence H. Creating Faulkner's Reputation: The Politics of Modern Literary Criticism. Knoxville, Tennessee: The U of Tennessee P, 1988. Siegel, Paul N. “The Conclusion of Richard Wright's Native Son” in Keneth Kinnamon, ed. Critical Essays on Richard Wright's Native Son. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997. (94-103) Sinfield, Alan. Literature, Politics, and Culture in Postwar Britain. Berkeley: U of California P, 1989. Skerrett, Joseph T., Jr. “Composing Bigger: Wright and the Making of Native Son” in Arnold Rampersad, ed. Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995. ( 26-39)

From Communism to Black Studies and Beyond: The Reception of Richard Wright’s Native Son


Stepto, Robert B. “I Thought I knew These People: Wright and the Afro-American Literary Tradition” in Harold Bloom, ed. Richard Wright. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. (57-74) Turner, Darwin T. In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity. Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois U, 1971. Werner, Craig. “Bigger’s Blues: Native Son and the Articulation of Afro-American Modernism” in Keneth Kinnamon, ed. New Essays on Native Son. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. (117-52) West, Cornell. Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America. New York: Routledge, 1993. Wright, Richard. “Between Laughter and Tears” in K. A. Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad P, Inc., 1993. (16-17) —. Native Son. 1940. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.

Gendered Textualities

Sexual Diversity in Richard Wright’s Characterization of Bigger Thomas: Homo-socialism, Homo-eroticism, and the Feminine

This essay presents the complexity of Wright’s sexual persona in Native Son, focusing primarily on Bigger Thomas. With Bigger prevailing as Wright’s most central figure in his art, the essay explores the link between writer and subject in the context of homoeroticism and homosocialism, which culminate into a forming of Wright’s feminine self. The male bonding, what Eve Sedgwick terms “homosocial desire,” is apparent in most of Wright’s fiction, which is so fecund with gender issues. However, other aspects of sexuality are interpreted in Native Son, coined in the essay as Bigger’s sexual diversity or sexual complexity. Along with this sexual complexity is Wright’s obsession with Bigger—that Bigger, along with most of Wright’s male characters, is drawn from Wright’s extreme preoccupation with the plight of the African American male. And Wright’s obsession with Bigger, which originated in his boyhood as noted in his essay, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” suggests different shapes of his own and his character’s sexuality. The essay alludes to the biographical scholarship on Wright, specifically from the texts of Margaret Walker Alexander (1988) and Hazel Rowley (2001). However, most vital to examining this sexually diverse paradigm in Native Son is Eve Sedgwick’s theory of homosocial desire in Between Men.

Richard Wright’s most treasured, captivating, provocative, and timeless character in all of his fiction is none other than Bigger Thomas, the protagonist in his bestseller and major literary achievement, Native Son. It was primarily Wright’s fiction that created the paradigm, the premise from which successive African American writers, especially those of the 60s, express themselves. Earning the title of the Father of the Black Protest Novel with Native Son, Wright has garnered a place in history by establishing his protagonist, Bigger, as the prototype, the archetype of the angry, rebellious, disenfranchised, dispossessed militant, and even revolutionary African American male, too often victimized by a


Yvonne Robinson Jones

racially divided American society that historically has targeted African American males via lynching, police brutality, and, in most recent years, racial profiling. Prior to writing Native Son, Wright had introduced a cadre of male figures to American audiences, for most of his fiction is grounded in the victimization of African American males. His first literary achievement, a collection of short fiction, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), could have been titled Uncle Tom’s Sons since every protagonist is a male who is victimized by whites, is often killed, and prevails as a tragic hero. In fact, most of Wright’s fictional texts have male signifiers in their titles or male protagonists in their narratives. These include Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), Native Son (1940), Black Boy (1945), Savage Holiday (1954), The Long Dream (1958), Eight Men (1961), Lawd Today (1963), and Rite of Passage (1994). In 1940, Wright debuted his favorite son, perhaps more comrade than son, and what Wright terms America’s native son, Bigger Thomas. Immediately, Wright’s depiction of Bigger elicited a discourse that emphasized a menacing image of black maleness that is so entrenched in America’s literary and social history. Other more critical, tenuous reactions argue Bigger’s redeeming, empathetic qualities. This controversial image Bigger’s characterization has suggested throughout the years is most notably treated in James Baldwin’s essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and in Wright gender and feminist criticism. In addition to the varied interpretations readers have had regarding such a controversial character in American /African American literature, there is a sexual dimension that evolves as a result of the male to male and male to female relations in the novel. Thus, Bigger’s character, along with other males in Wright’ fiction, presents a sexual consciousness that suggests not just sexual ambivalence, as biographer Margaret Walker Alexander has argued, but what may be perceived as sexual complexity or sexual diversity. Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men, which explores a homo-social and homo-erotic dynamic in English literature, offers an appropriate paradigm for examining males and male culture in Wright’s fiction. Sedgwick views sexuality as a continuum that includes the different shapes of sexuality and consisting of a myriad of erotic inclinations involving homo-social relations. In the context of male culture, however, she presents the varied manifestations of male sexuality—a continuum that includes homo-socialism or male bonding, homoeroticism or male desire, and homosexuality, which can be covertly or overtly expressed among males in a historically

Sexual Diversity in Richard Wright’s Characterization of Bigger Thomas: Homo-socialism, Homo-eroticism, and the Feminine


heterosexual, patriarchal, and especially homophobic culture (Sedgwick 4-5). This continuum of male sexuality and especially homoerotic desires in men Sedgwick examines in literature is suggestive of, firstly, the relationship that Wright created with Bigger; secondly, the homo-social bond between males in Wright’s oeuvre; and thirdly, the emasculating or feminizing processes that run through his work. This essay will begin by examining the identification between the author and his male characters. The identification between writer and subject(s) in Native Son will serve as a departure point for exploring several dimensions of Bigger’s diverse sexuality: homo-socialism, homoeroticism, heterosexuality, as well as the emasculating / feminizing dynamics the narrative presents. Considering the corpus of Wright’s art, his fiction and nonfiction, as well as the philosophical worldview that evolves from it, one can certainly discern that Bigger prevails as one character that endured— one who represents all that Wright was awed by and perhaps capable of being had he not been “refined” with books and the literary culture. Wright’s refinement is the result of his insatiable thirst for reading and writing, creating the stature he attained in mainstream American and African American letters. Cross Damon in Wright’s existential novel, The Outsider, is simply a well-read, employed Bigger, given the vestiges of existentialism some critics have attributed to the Bigger character often viewed as a creation who prefigures Cross. And because of the dramatic effect and definitive presentation of Bigger’s thoughts and actions that readers experience in Native Son, one can argue that the relationship between Bigger and Wright is quite discernible. Wright’s essay, “How Bigger Was Born,” and Black Boy, his autobiographical novel, are revelations of the author’s identification with Bigger. This view of Bigger mirroring Wright is shared by Margaret Walker Alexander in her biography, Richard Wright: Demonic Genius. She states, In his creative writing process and effort, Wright and Bigger become momentarily the same; emotionally they are the same. Wright not only becomes involved with Bigger as character; he expresses his own subliminal desires, and in the creative process of transferring reality into fiction, he translates these desires into those of his character, Bigger Thomas. (148)

And though Wright presents Bigger as tough, brutish, and callous, in his interactions with males and females, he creates this male to male bond that exists not only with Wright as creator of Bigger (like


Yvonne Robinson Jones

Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein and the monster he creates), but also a bond that exists between other males in his fiction. It is this link between males in Wright’s fiction that is suggestive of Sedgwick’s concept of homo-socialism, homoeroticism or male desire. When studying the life and works of Richard Wright, there are basically two schools of thought that emerge regarding his sexuality. One is that he was solely a heterosexual whose relations with women were publicly known, and, if he was anything other than heterosexual, such as bisexual or homosexual, there is no documented evidence uncovered by Wright scholars and biographers. Another view regarding Wright’s sexuality emerges from Walker Alexander’s examination of Wright’s fiction which posits the writer of such as sexually ambivalent: heterosexual, but with a compelling feminine side, all pointing to what the biographer terms “sexual conflict, confusion, and revulsion” (319). Specifically, Walker Alexander’s account of an episode in New York created a shroud of suspicion regarding Wright’s sexuality, and she has publicly recounted (in writing and verbally) her version of the incident revealing the estranged relationship that resulted from her New York visit and encounter with Wright in 1939. In summary, she suggests the possibility of Wright having homoerotic inclinations as a result of her observing a suspicious scenario involving the writer and another male, playwright Theodore Ward. However, the homoerotic inferences drawn from Wright’s text do not point to any suggestive innuendoes in his life, and Walker Alexander’s treatment of Wright’s sexuality in her biography is not grounded in any real life observances but rather the sexual dynamics in his fictional texts. However, regardless of how one interprets the encounter Wright and Alexander had in New York, she contends that her frustration was more centered on Wright’s and his friends’ reactions to the incident, their homophobia. More important, Wright’s imperative, “I think the best thing for you to do is pack your things and get out of here the first thing in the morning” (135), apparently caused him to feel that Walker Alexander had the potential for or had already been discussing him in the context of homosexuality, which he and his literary cohorts felt would be damaging to his career; after all, Native Son was awaiting publication the next year, 1940. Juxtaposed with Walker Alexander’s account of the New York episode is that of another Wright biographer, Hazel Rowley, who, in Richard Wright: The Life and Times (2001), characterizes the former as a talkative young girl whose “reputation for gossip was . . . firmly

Sexual Diversity in Richard Wright’s Characterization of Bigger Thomas: Homo-socialism, Homo-eroticism, and the Feminine


established” (171). While Walker Alexander’s account points to the New York incident as an unfortunate set of circumstances, deriving from involuntary comments and remarks innocently or perhaps naively made, Rowley presents her research on the matter, which includes Walker Alexander’s own admission of talking too much and confiding in people (171). Moreover, in a rather acrimonious tone, Rowley further contends that a close contact Walker Alexander observed between Wright and Ward existed because of the small size of a hotel room, which had little capacity to offer roomy accommodations for visitors (172). Some may think that Walker Alexander’s inclusion of the New York incident in her repertoire of Wright scholarship may tend to preclude an unbiased approach to discussions of sexuality in his texts; however, Wright’s fiction is so fecund with sexual nuances and sexual dynamics that any textual analysis of sexuality in it, whether socio-cultural or linguistic, has the potential of unveiling a plethora of hypotheses regarding the writer’s sexual consciousness and the complex and diverse sexual landscape he creates. The pattern of male and female relationships, the recurrence of male homo-socialism and the effect of homo-eroticism, as well as the gathering of males who formulate a discourse that is not only of racial victimization but female vilifying, are fodder for such sexual inferences. Thus, an artistic consciousness permeated with sexual complexity and diversity is evident in Wright’s fiction, particularly with Native Son because of the homo-socialism suggesting the homoeroticism, the heterosexual relationships creating conflict, and the emasculating and feminizing scenarios presenting variations of male subjugation to other males (like female subjugation to males). Houston Baker’s assertion, “it is impossible to understand the aspirations, turnings, and contradictions of his [Wright’s] work without some understanding of his life” (122) points to a substantive link between the autobiographical Wright and his fictional construct, Bigger. In his own testimonial (“How Bigger Was Born”), Wright explains how the character became embedded in his creative consciousness. The reader is apprised of Bigger as the writer’s response to the racial landscape of America—a landscape the writer articulated in poems, essays, and short fiction even before the publication of Native Son. Thus, Bigger, from the outset, becomes a major artistic agent for Wright’s sociopolitical discourse; in fact, Bigger’s voice resonates in all of Wright’s fiction. But along with this


Yvonne Robinson Jones

politicized Bigger is the sexualized one, and there are several areas in the text that demonstrate this sexual diversity. One of the initial scenarios that presents the homo-social, i. e., men promoting the interests of men (Sedgwick 4) is the male to male bonding that occurs with Bigger and his buddies, Jack, Gus, and G.H. The cajoling, the situations of camaraderie, and the fellowship they all share are reminiscent of Big Boy and his friends in “Big Boy Leaves Home.” As in “Big Boy,” there are four buddies who comprise the so-called gang in Native Son. Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet’s examination of the short story label their frolicking as “suspended sexuality,” the homo-social yielding to the homo-erotic; this same dynamic can be observed in Native Son. The gathering of males inside and outside of the poolroom to discuss the robbing of Blum’s store includes moments of mockery, laughter, awe, and fear. Bigger’s disposition moves from critiquing, menacing behavior to what Wright terms as “child-like wonder” (16). In response to the billboard Bigger sees of the State Attorney, Buckley, whose words of warning to urban youth are, “You Can’t Win,” Bigger retorts, astutely, “You let whoever pays you off win!” (13). In contrast, when Bigger states, “Looks like a little bird” (16) in response to a plane flying overhead, readers can perceive a type of softness—a feminine effect—that is often overshadowed by the other harsh and callous incidences pervading the novel. Bigger’s fear in the first section of the novel, labeled “Fear,” includes role playing, mood swings, and threatening behavior that eventually climax into a brutish, sadistic gesture, suggestive of homoeroticism and sodomy. The knife scene with Gus is often critically interpreted as an act of cowardice, but it can also be perceived as homo-erotic. In describing Bigger’s threatening act, Wright states, “Bigger held the open blade an inch from Gus’s lips. ‘Lick it,’ Bigger said, his body tingling with elation” (39). The tingling elation and hand-held knife, a phallic symbol, occurs within the context of this continuum of male companionship that weaves in and out of Wright’s fiction. There are other inferences readers may have other than the dynamics of thuggish, criminal behavior; specifically, they may notice that repressed anger “swells” and expresses itself in a tingling, aggressive gesture of sensual dimensions. This scene continues with Wright’s description of Gus’s subjugation by Bigger. Prior to the knife scene, Gus is physically attacked by Bigger, “The muscles of his body gave a tightening lunge and he saw his fist come down on the side of Gus’s head; he had

Sexual Diversity in Richard Wright’s Characterization of Bigger Thomas: Homo-socialism, Homo-eroticism, and the Feminine


struck him really before he was conscious of doing so” (38). Gus falls to his knees, and this physical attack proceeds with choking. Afterwards, Gus actually is forced to lick the knife, “Gus’s lips moved toward the knife; he stuck out his tongue and touched the blade” (39). As tears stream down Gus’s cheeks, Bigger gives further orders for Gus to put his hands up and continues to use the knife to make physical contact with Gus, “He put the tip of the blade into Gus’s shirt and then made an arc with his arm, as though cutting a circle” (39). In essence, and in street vernacular, Bigger has made Gus his bitch in the midst of the epitome of the male/macho environment—a poolroom. Also, Bigger has “screwed” Gus, whose fate ends with him “flying through the rear door” (40) of the poolroom, resulting in Bigger’s last and final attack. Bigger has dramatically emasculated Gus. However, juxtaposed with Gus’s emasculation is that of Bigger’s. When Bigger further vents his anger by cutting Doc’s pool table with the knife, the poolroom owner gets his gun, another phallic symbol, and spews, “Get out before I shoot you!” (41). Wright comments, “Doc was angry and Bigger was afraid” (41). Reversing the previous role, Doc has now subjugated and victimized Bigger, thus, threatening his manhood in the presence of other males. If the rest of the gang only realized how scared he was, in gang terms Bigger would be considered feminized, i.e., subjugated to another male and in gang vernacular considered a bitch. The emasculation process continues as a result of Mrs. Thomas’ s litany of denigrating comments leveled at Bigger, who has yet to be a resourceful and valued member of his family; he is a nineteen year old dropout who spends most of his time with his gang buddies. Also, the accusatory verbiage that comes from Bigger’s mother reiterates the conflicting relations of mother and son. Mrs. Thomas exclaims, “Bigger sometimes I wonder why I birthed you”; “We wouldn’t have to live in this garbage dump if you had any manhood in you”( 8); and, finally, “Bigger, honest, you the most no-countest man I ever seen in all my life” (9). To this last assailment, Bigger responds, “You done told me that a thousand times” (9). Socioculturally, Bigger has inherited the role of male protector and provider in a household of a single mother and younger siblings who are dependent upon him for their own survival. However, because he is not able to provide for them as needed, he feels impotent. He


Yvonne Robinson Jones

thinks, “He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them” (10). Moreover, Mrs. Thomas’s comments exacerbate this impotence that Bigger is continuously struggling with and trying to break through in order to find some semblance of self-confidence for his manhood, yet his feelings of emasculation of being subjugated and feminized are concretized. Early in the narrative, Bigger’s emasculation creates a polemical characterization of him—the masculine and the feminine. One aspect of Bigger’s character demonstrates strength, aggression, and intimidating behavior, (e.g., the killing of the rat, arguing with his mother and siblings, and, of course, threatening Gus with the knife) while another illustrates fear and doubt, which is masked by this aggression. It is this fearful and doubtful aspect of his personality that according to male/macho standards, suggests softness, often termed a feminine side, that must be masked during his socializing with peers. Bigger enters a homo-social world—male culture—when he is with his buddies, the gang. They role play, mimicking rich white moguls, discussing the robbing of Blum’s store and playing pool. It continues when they decide to go to the movies and are viewing and commenting on the lives and sexuality of rich white people. In his introduction to a new edition of Native Son (1998), Arnold Rampersad reports on Wright’s first manuscript submission in which Wright included one episode in the movie scene that he was required to cut for the 1940 Book-of-the-Month publication: the masturbation scene with Bigger and Jack (xviii). In this unabridged version, Wright gives an overt description of Bigger’s and Jack’s interplay while they are jokingly masturbating before the movie begins. Wright also includes their use of the double entendre in street language as Jack and Bigger are demonstrating what they call “polishing my nightstick” (30). This homo-social event develops into a homo-erotic one even before the movie begins with the presence of a woman on screen—a white female they mock and simultaneously desire. While they sit “listening to the pipe organ playing low and soft” (30), Wright images the boys’ interplay with a type of crescendo dramatic effect, culminating in a language of orgasm: “You gone?,” “You pull off fast,” and “I’m gone. . . . God . . . damn” (30). Jack and Bigger, who anticipate heterosexual experiences— “I wished I had Bessie here now” (30) —, are having self-sex within the close quarters of the movie house, which is akin to the close quarters of their cramped living quarters where privacy is encroached upon by

Sexual Diversity in Richard Wright’s Characterization of Bigger Thomas: Homo-socialism, Homo-eroticism, and the Feminine


the presence of other family members. In addition, by having self-sex together, they suggest having sex vicariously with each other. More important, though, Jack’s and Bigger’s masturbating “competition,” involving who will finish first, seems more important to them than the absent Other—the female. The masturbation scene is followed with mocking statements Bigger and friends make about the lives of rich whites. When Bigger views on the screen “the rich young woman . . . laughing and dancing with her lover,” he states, “I’d like to be there” (32). But that desire is ridiculed by his buddies and, though Bigger expresses the desire to emulate the couple he sees on the screen, his peers remind him of the futility of having such delusions of grandeur, as they poke fun at his looks and his esteemed sense of self. Therefore, guffaws follow when Bigger expresses the desire to be a part of the white world, but such commenting and laughter indicate the gang’s ability to mock and ridicule the very elements of society that can be painful reminders of the impotence which evolves from their socially and economically deprived lives. The homo-socialism in the movie scene, as well as the role-playing on the street corner where Bigger and Gus verbally impersonate J. P. Morgan and the President of the United States in a telephone conversation, is definitely an empowering event. It provides Bigger and his buddies the autonomy and license to resist and respond to socioeconomic inequalities in their communities and lives. However, the seriousness of their condition does not go un-addressed, for Wright has Gus respond to Bigger’s ambition when he observes the plane flying overhead: “If you wasn’t black and if you had some money and if they’d let you go to that aviation school, you could fly a plane” (17). Being cut off, castrated, from white male patriarchal privileges like flying planes and not having credible access to mainstream male communities are significant impotencies that are often consequential for African American males. This lack of access and deprivation can cause a type of aggression that is often channeled into other venues: sexual and social. When Bigger tries to identify with power—whiteness, richness, and white women—his desires are cut off, shut down, and he is reminded of his impotence—his powerlessness—in a capitalist, racialized society that historically is primarily the catalyzing agent for the poverty, joblessness, and slum conditions he must endure.


Yvonne Robinson Jones

The dialogue of Bigger and his buddies in the movie scene presents not only their version of social and economic inequalities, their impotency, but their own exhortations of sexual prowess. This condition makes the female even more necessary for their sexually oriented discourse. This covert critiquing of economic injustice is also an example of Wright’s “refracted voice,” his Marxist voice, expressing his desires vis a vis Bigger and his buddies. It is a factor that is evidenced in the entire narrative of Native Son, but it is nonetheless rendered through male homo-socialism when males are awed at the wealth displayed by the images and actions on the screen. Exclamations of their sexual prowess with the white female are invoked. The phallo-centric nature of their comments not only reflects the emphasis on male sexual power, the phallogocentrism of this male group’s thinking and Wright’s text, but it also presents a dialectic of social and sexual stereotyping of both black and white worlds. Their own sexual touting and the comments they make concerning the deviant behavior of whites not only illustrate their combative and innovative techniques for resisting the white world they encounter vicariously, but it is also self mocking. Critiquing, as well as soliciting, occurs as in the statements aimed at Bigger concerning the white female: “Ah, them rich white women’ll go to bed with anybody from a poodle on up. They even have their chauffeurs. Say, . . . if you run across anything too much for you to handle at that place, let me know.” (33)

The comments that Bigger and his buddies make regarding “rich white folks” and the white female are their way of critiquing this particular class and the historical phenomenon of racism that have contributed to their bleak existence. While they suggest the bestiality of the white female, “Ah, man, them rich white women’ll go to bed with anybody, from a poodle on up,” and the comment that follows, “they even have their chauffeurs” (33), they might also be equating African American males with animals. That is, if white females go to bed with what is deemed as inappropriate and abhorred animals, then they will go to bed with African American men. Since their comments are couched in a mocking and ridiculing mode, the deprivation of their own lives is only covertly addressed. In fact, even though there is a chasm between their world and the world they view on screen, such signifying attests to their ability to cope regardless of the stark reality of white wealth and black struggle. The shared deprivation of Bigger and his buddies provides the impetus for plotting the Blum robbery, and to them, it is an act of empowerment.

Sexual Diversity in Richard Wright’s Characterization of Bigger Thomas: Homo-socialism, Homo-eroticism, and the Feminine


Other shared experiences are just as empowering, and though Wright presents the resulting complexities of enslavement and a segregated society (poor housing, unemployment, and poor educational opportunities), the bonding dynamics of Bigger and his buddies, their homo-socialism, mockingly address those inequities. The discourse that emanates from them represents their critique of American society’s historically racist and capitalist posture. In the context of heterosexuality in Native Son, Wright clearly establishes Bigger’s feelings of hate and desire for Mary Dalton from the moment he meets her to the moments of her drunken stupor and, finally, to the moments of her death and dismemberment via decapitation. Even though Mary has befriended Bigger, he thinks, “But for all of that, she was white and he hated her” (81). Subsequently, Mary’s death becomes the catalyst for the plot’s development, its raison d’ etre, yet the horror of her death is exacerbated by her decapitation—Wright’s gothic touch—an event that reiterates the text’s anti-female bias. However, her decapitation is necessary for her cremation, and her total destruction is not consummated until she is burned. This decapitation and burning of the female body in Native Son reflect Wright’s Freudian, psycho-analytical influence in addition to the anti-female stance in his fiction; the male’s act of destroying femaleness is symbolic of destroying the power and control females have over males even before the latter enters into other systems of control in society. Such power often attributed to females involves the acknowledgment of their ability to not only biologically continue the development of human beings but also to recognize their expertise in human development because they are the primary nurturers. In Wright’s fiction, it is clear that anti-female behavior usually proceeds from either a heterosexual or homo-social situation. By the time Bigger puts Mary to bed, she has aggravated and annoyed him with her gestures and questions—her liberal overtures. Her drunkenness in the car becomes another facet of her aggravating behavior that causes discomfort for Bigger, just as her suggestion for them to go to the chicken place causes him embarrassment and anxiety. Bigger’s negative attitude is exacerbated especially when his girlfriend, Bessie, observes him with two white strangers, Mary and her boyfriend, Jan. His heterosexual moments proceed from this uncomfortable disposition when he has to assist Mary in her drunken stupor; he thinks, “in spite of his hate for her, he was excited standing there watching her like this” (82). As he is trying to carry her to her


Yvonne Robinson Jones

bedroom and, simultaneously, avoid detection (for his sake especially), readers are informed of his desire for Mary from Wright’s description: He eased his hand, the fingers spread wide, up the center of her back and her face came toward him and her lips touched his, like something he had imagined. He stood her on her feet and she swayed against him. He tightened his arms as his lips pressed tightly against hers and he felt her body moving strongly. The thought and conviction that Jan had had her a lot flashed through his mind. He kissed her again and felt the sharp bones of her hips move in a hard and veritable grind. Her mouth was open and her breath came slow and deep. . . . He tightened his fingers on her breast, kissing her again, feeling her move toward him. (84-85)

Related to this scene are Rampersad’s comments on an earlier scene that was cut from the original manuscript, which has Bigger responding “sexually to a newsreel that shows Mary and apparently other wealthy, carefree young white women cavorting on a beach in Florida” (xviii). His editors later cut it from the 1940 publication because it presents Mary as a sensuous female, an image that would offend whites. Nonetheless, this moment of intimacy and intenseness Bigger has with Mary in her bedroom also is “cut off” by the intrusion of a blind Mrs. Dalton, thus causing Bigger’s justifiable fear—being entrapped clandestinely in the bedroom of a white female. Wright has created a heterosexual situation that is immediately aborted and politicized by the entrance of Mrs. Dalton, another white female, once again reminding his readers of the black male/white female taboo he addresses in Uncle Tom’s Children and other texts, especially The Long Dream. Thus, Bigger’s opportunity to express his heterosexuality is thwarted. Wright reiterates Bigger’s heterosexuality with the relationship he has with Bessie Mears, his girlfriend, who is introduced in the same context as Bigger’s mother and Mary. Like the mother and Mary, Bessie is immediately established as an annoying, irritating character very early in the narrative when Bigger is forced to accompany Jan and Mary to the chicken shack where she works. His presence with two white strangers in a black joint on the Southside of Chicago immediately creates suspicion because of Jim Crowism and the potential the scenario has for creating friction not only with Bigger and his girlfriend but also with other African Americans. Moreover, Wright’s characterization of Bessie renders her as one of the most devalued characters in the text. Race, class, and gender issues surface with Bessie because of her depiction as an alcoholic African American domestic, who earns little, lives in poverty, and

Sexual Diversity in Richard Wright’s Characterization of Bigger Thomas: Homo-socialism, Homo-eroticism, and the Feminine


recognizes the bleakness of her existence. The danger of her accompanying Bigger as an alleged fugitive murderer reflects her hopelessness, “Bigger, please! Don’t do this to me! Please! All I do is work, work like a dog! From morning till night. I ain’t got no happiness” (180). Her status as a commodity is realized because of how she is treated by whites as well as Bigger, with his actions of rape and murder reducing her to nothingness, like the murder and dismemberment of Mary. Readers become cognizant of the status of both females; whether rich or poor, their lives are dispensable, for Wright emphasizes this anti-femaleness with both characters who become the objects of Bigger’s most gruesome acts of violence. Some critics have never understood the necessity of Bessie’s murder. Even Wright’s friend, Jane Newton, who is reported to have offered suggestions regarding Mary Dalton’s dismemberment, was horrified about Wright’s decision to kill Bessie (Rowley 155). Rowley gives the following account: One afternoon in midsummer, Wright came into the kitchen, flopped down in a chair, and said: “Jane, I’m going to kill Bessie.” Jane was horrified. “Oh no, Dick!” she thought it unnecessary in terms of the plot. Nor did she think it would shed new light on Bigger’s character. But Wright had decided that the novel had reached a point where something exciting or violent had to happen . . . . “I gotta kill her . . . she’s gotta go.” (155)

When Bigger kills Bessie by smashing her head with a brick to prevent what he perceives as her disclosure of his murder of Mary, readers are exposed to another realm of Wright’s fascination with horrorific details. As the murder of Mary is followed by dismemberment, the murder of Bessie results in her body’s disposal down the air shaft. Of course, Wright’s and Bigger’s vehemence do not end with the smashed head; readers eventually are informed that Bessie has died of exposure as a result of still being alive when Bigger disposes her body. Wright compounds one act of horror with another. Bessie’s death, like that of Mary, proceeds from a heterosexual experience even though the sexual act she shares with Bigger is a non-consensual one. Perhaps it is more rape than a nonconsensual sex act, given its context; however, because of her race and the historical, social, and political context in which Wright is writing out of, Bessie’s alleged rape is obscured. Mary’s death is viewed as more rape than murder while Bessie’s rape or nonconsensual act becomes more murder than rape or sexual violation. Moreover, since much of the gender/feminist criticism on Native Son finds no substantive reason for Bessie’s heinous murder, it seems that


Yvonne Robinson Jones

Wright utilizes it as a way of exacerbating Bigger’s criminality; Bessie becomes the conduit for Wright’s characterization of Bigger who must continue to formulate Wright’s artistic goal of black protestation. In doing so, he further advances his anti-female stance in the narrative, his misogyny and invites the suggestion of male desire. Thus, heterosexuality in Native Son, as in most of Wright’s fiction, is hardly ever a positive erotic and pleasurable experience; it is accompanied with frustration, anxiety, and conflict. Most, if not all scenarios are of such crafting, like Sarah and the salesman in “Long Black Song,” Cross Damon and the prostitute in The Outsider, Fishbelly’s sexual encounters in The Long Dream, Erskine Fowler and Mabel in Savage Holiday, and, of course, Mary’s and Bigger’s relationship in Native Son. In fact, even though The Outsider’s Cross and Eva prevail as perhaps the most sensuous couple in Wright’s fiction, they never consummate their relationship, and Eva’s suicide precludes any hope for their union. With Wright’s feminizing processes with Bigger being subjugated by the protagonist’s aggression and anger in Native Son, the writer’s “Man of All Work” in Eight Men can certainly pique one’s interest in how effeminacy and the infusion of a projected feminine self can come to fruition in a Wright narrative. By having his male protagonist cross dress and utilize transvestitism in order to save his family from financial ruin, Wright demonstrates how he will innovatively use black masculinity to achieve his ultimate artistic goal. The protagonist, Carl Owens, dresses in his wife’s clothes to secure a job as an African American female domestic in order to survive and overcome his personal challenge(s). In this particular case, Wright has created a tragic comedy that prevails as more slapstick than serious fiction with rather sophomoric humorous elements. However, this replacement of the male persona with a female mask, or this act of masking maleness, does not preclude Wright’s pattern of “staging” more than “developing” dramatic conflict to achieve his artistic goals. The formulaic, mechanistic craftsmanship in Wright has Carl, the male dressed as a female, having to assist in bathing his naked white female employer while having to fend off sexual advances that had been aggressively made to “him/her” by “his/her” employer’s husband. Again, as in most of his fiction, Wright traps his victim, violence occurs, but, surprisingly, unlike most situations in Wright’s fiction, the story has a happy ending. This short fictional narrative and Native Son give credence to Wright’s crafting of varied sexual identities to accomplish the ultimate truth of his art—to once again

Sexual Diversity in Richard Wright’s Characterization of Bigger Thomas: Homo-socialism, Homo-eroticism, and the Feminine


confront America with a myriad of experiences African Americans, especially males, often undergo in order to cope and survive the dehumanizing and oppressing elements that may confront them in a historically racially divided society. Bigger kills for escape a while Cross Damon feigns his identity and Carl Owens feigns femaleness. Thus, “Man of All Work” reveals how Wright will go to any extreme(s) with his males for artistic purposes. Finally, regardless of the critical approach one uses to examine the fiction of Richard Wright, issues of gender, whether male or female, are germane to interpreting his texts. By the latter part of the twentieth century, practically every school of Wright criticism comments on how Wright treats the female character while presenting to his reading public the overt, caustic message regarding a myriad of injustices that historically persons of African descent, particularly males, have inherited from the systems of European imperialism and colonialism, white American enslavement, and the aftermath of American racism. Nonetheless, one would be hard pressed to deny Wright’s sexism and misogyny. His concentration of harsh, demeaning treatments of not just African American females but white females and his consistency in presenting white males as the harbingers of black oppression leave him with only one agent, the African American male, to demonstrate injustice and the call for humanitarianism in his writings. He is his first priority on the gender scale for exposing injustice and promoting his interests and the interests of his male characters (Sedgwick 4); his fiction espouses this. The female character, however, is the most vital agent for leading the reader to the male. She is necessary—the catalyst—yet she must eventually be discarded. Eve Sedgwick asks, “Why should the different shapes of the homo-social continuum be an interesting question? Why should it be a literary question?”(5). Richard Wright’s fiction answers such an inquiry because of the “different shapes” of sexuality in his fiction. The homo-socialism, homo-eroticism, and heterosexuality, as well as the emasculating and feminizing processes the writer employs, unveil an artistic sexual consciousness of complexity and diversity, with Bigger Thomas prevailing as his major artistic accomplishment and his most treasured fictional companion. Yvonne Robinson Jones Southwest Tennessee Community College


Yvonne Robinson Jones

Works Consulted Baldwin, James. “Everybody’s Protest Novel” in Richard Barksdale and Keneth Kinnamon, eds. Black Writers of America. New York: Macmillan, 1972. (725729) Baker, Houston. “Racial Wisdom and Richard Wright’s Native Son.” Long Black Song: Essays in Black American Literature and Culture. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1972. (122-141) Best, Stephen Michael. Representing Black Men. Marcellus Blount and George P. Cunningham, eds. New York: Routledge, 1996. Blythe, Hal and Charlie Sweet. “Yo Mama Don Wear No Drawers: Suspended Sexuality in ‘Big Boy Leaves Home’” in Notes on Mississippi Writers 21.1 (1989): 33-36. Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1940. New York: Random House, 1980. Rampersad. Arnold. “Foreword” in Richard Wright. Lawd Today. Boston: Northeastern U P, 1986. (1-6) —. “Introduction” in Richard Wright. Native Son. 1940. New York: HarperPerennial, 1998. (ix-xxii) —. “Afterword” in Richard Wright. Rite of Passage. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. (117-143) Rowley, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and the Times. New York: Henry Holt, 2001. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homo-social Desire. New York: Colombia U P, 1985. Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius. New York: Amistad, 1988. Wright, Richard. Early Works: Lawd Today, Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son. New York: Harper Collins, 1991. —. Eight Men. 1961. New York: HarperPerennial, 1996. —. “How Bigger Was Born” in Native Son. 1940. New York: HarperPerennial 1998. (433 – 462) —. Native Son. 1940. New York: HarperPerennial, 1998. —. Rite of Passage. New York: Harper, 1994. —. Savage Holiday. 1954. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1994. —. The Long Dream. 1958. New York: Harper, 1987. —. The Outsider. 1953. New York: Harper, 1993.

Notes from a Native Daughter: The Nature of Black Womanhood in Native Son

This essay considers the global implications of Richard Wright’s characterizations of black women in his novel Native Son. Systematically one of the most controversial and troubling aspects of his oeuvre, Wright’s bold literary depiction of the brutal rape and murder of Bessie Mears ushered in a chilling reminder of the cultural license some men take with the bodies and legacies of black women. This essay contemplates Wright’s influence on the field of African American and American letters, directing attention to the ways in which Native Son reordered the literary and cultural landscape of African American realist and naturalist writing for black women in the Americas. African American women writers from Zora Neale Hurston to Gwendolyn Brooks would have to address this architectural staging of womanist expression as they simultaneously reinvent the ways in which voice, identity, and personhood are seen in the urban setting.

I am often amazed and even spiritually puzzled by the rhetorical energy used by critics to recast Bigger Thomas’s cruel behavior towards women, particularly black women, in Native Son. Systematically one of the most controversial and troubling aspects of his work, Wright’s bold literary depiction of the vile dismemberment of one Mary Dalton and of the doubly brutal rape and murder of one Bessie Mears ushers in a new era of literary violence against women that borders on the sadistic. Besides, it serves as a chilling reminder of the cultural license some men take with the bodies and legacies of black women. While “understandable” to some in terms of Wright’s literary objective to condemn social injustice, his portraits of black women, nonetheless, complicate this assessment, as his blueprint for acquiring such justice employs the systematic abuse of black female figures. Given the recent reconsideration of black women’s images both in visual and print media—images sanctioned by an insatiable public


Carol E. Henderson

need to see black people self-humiliate and self-maim themselves—a revisiting of Wright’s work is timely. As part of the process of reading, rereading, and revising the analytical approaches to Richard Wright’s work, I would like to explore the nature of womanhood in Native Son using the signs, symbols, and metaphors of a literary tradition cultivated by black female writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Ann Petry. This tradition is predicated on challenging those preexisting conventions and codes that preclude the creative gestures of resistance and selfexploration so often found in black women’s writing. In negotiating with a cultural and literary terrain that has consciously or subconsciously invested its formulaic aesthetic with the negative stigmas and associations that dominate conventional discussions of black female identity, black women writers have had to dialogue with these practices using a “call and response” technique that reinvests these known signs and symbols with an/other language that is no “mere gesture of empty words,” as bell hooks reminds us, but an expression of one’s movement from “object to subject” (9)—a move that is, for the exploited, the oppressed, a gesture of defiance. This process of liberation allows Ann Petry to rescript the dynamics of place and space in the life of Bessie Mears, for example, utilizing the narrative of her character Min in The Street. Likewise, it permits Gwendolyn Brooks the opportunity to use her semiautobiographical text Maud Martha to reinterpret not only the rat scene in Wright’s Native Son, but the dynamics of the interrelationships of parent/child, man/woman, and sibling/sibling within the domestic space of Wright’s novel. It is in putting these texts in dialogue with each other that we fully ascertain the alternative sources of consciousness and personal strength, those models of independence, self-reliance and selfdetermination that black women writers utilize to mold the lives of their black female characters within the context of more traditional literary conventions. In doing this, writers such as Ann Petry and Gwendolyn Brooks rewrite the dynamics of black womanhood across a wide spectrum of texts like Wright’s as they speak out against the multiple forms of aggression that mark the tenuous lives of their muted sisters.

Notes from A Native Daughter: The Nature of Black Womanhood in Native Son


Engendered Perspectives The challenge of examining Native Son from a female rather than a male perspective is evident in the title of the narrative. Common practice defers to the nativity of the son, not the corresponding reformation of the “native” daughter who, birthed out of a similar experience, must bear the brunt of the societal impact of the aborted promise of the son (and in some cases her brother). The scarcity of critical examinations on the subject speaks for itself. As Trudier Harris concludes, the female characters in Native Son “act in ways that are antithetical or ‘foreign’ to individual black development, but commensurate with or ‘native’ to what whites want for blacks” (63). Such an alliance supports the negative values of the culture at large whose principles Bigger prefers to identify with (63). In short, women become part of Bigger’s problem—not a solution— and their presence in the narrative bears this point out. Critics Maria K. Mootry and Patricia Tuitt support this assessment. Mootry argues, for example, that Wright’s female characters typically fall into two categories: mothers or whores. Tuitt proposes that women are Bigger’s unmitigated legal props, emblems of the law’s violence towards him (and by default towards all black men). Tuitt’s assessments of Wright’s work re-invoke Robert Butler’s observations a number of years prior, when he reasoned that Wright’s violence against women reflect “the deepest recesses of its central character’s radically divided nature” (10). It is this nature, therefore, that drives Bigger to kill Mary Dalton and Bessie Mears, thereby uniting his two divided selves. W. E. B. Du Bois would highlight this very division of the mind decades before Bigger’s appearance when he determined that the reality of black life in America presupposes a dual existence—“two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings…contained in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (3). These warring ideals—one African, one American— belie the premise of Bigger’s treatment of Dalton and Mears. Their murders appear to be the end result of a misinformed and similarly twisted urge on Bigger’s part to be recognized, projected as “bigger,” within the restrictive confines of his mere existence. Yet, as John M. Reilly rightfully determines, it was Wright’s decision to use a “point of view closely identified with Bigger’s which accounts for readers’


Carol E. Henderson

taking his side” (45). And such a view, I would argue, distorts the ways in which readers’ view/see/read women in Native Son. It is my contention that the global impact of Native Son restructured the literary and cultural topography of African American realism and naturalism, especially in the writings of black women. African American female writers from Zora Neale Hurston to Gwendolyn Brooks would have to address Wright’s architectural staging of womanist expression given his influence on the field of African American and American letters. Firstly, and even prior to the publication of Native Son, Wright had disparaged a black female perspective of art and life with his scathing review of Hurston’s work. He dismissed Their Eyes Were Watching God—the novel that would usher in a new wave of feminist expression with the unveiling of her revolutionary female character Janie Crawford—as “facile sensuality” and minstrelsy in its exploitations of the quaint Negro life: The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life…which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the ‘superior’ race. (New Masses, October 5, 1937)

Secondly, Wright’s characterizations of his female characters led to an uneasy alliance, a delicate waltz between opponents of racial and gender disenfranchisement that took center stage in recent decades. Given all the “progress” of a post-feminist/post-womanist world, there seems to be, as Calvin Hernton puts it, a double standard among critics and writers alike when evaluating the hostile attitudes and brutal treatment of black women by black men. This is so much so that while black men feel comfortable calling black women writers “castrators” without fear of reprisal, black women are considered “bull-dykes, black-men haters, and perverse lovers of white men and women” (202) if they should write about or speak out against acts of sexual violence and/or domestic abuse committed at the hands of black men. Despite the legacy of the double standard, black women writers have continued to redesign and revamp the blueprint of a male dominated literary establishment. These women have been persistent in their cause, taking careful pains to speak into existence the simultaneity of their oppression—being black and female. This interdependence of thought transforms minds and liberates spirits. It

Notes from A Native Daughter: The Nature of Black Womanhood in Native Son


is the fundamental condition for self-definition. It is the dynamic that Ann Petry and Gwendolyn Brooks employ to change the nature of womanhood in Wright’s Native Son. Revisioning Domestic Spaces Much has been written about the opening scene of Native Son. Its significance is symbolic of the journey Bigger takes from chattel bondage to de facto independence. From its staged foreshadowing of Bigger’s fate at the hands of America’s judicial system (depicted in his intimate fight with a frightened black rat), to its tolling of the bells of America’s racial climate (demonstrated in the sound of the Brrrrrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiinnnnnnngggggg! that frames the narrative’s opening line), Wright’s Native Son is, as Arnold Rampersad reminds us, America’s urgent call to “awaken from its self-induced slumber about the reality of race relations in the nation”(ix). Yet Wright’s artistic gesture in the opening few pages has not been studied fully in terms of the critical dialogue the narrative shapes concerning not only intra-cultural but also inter-cultural relationships amongst men and women within the domestic space. As Wright’s opening passages suggest, those relationships have often absorbed violence in ways that warp human interaction. Centuries of abuse and exploitation have twisted these relationships with the lethal poisons of poverty and disillusionment. Anyone reading Native Son senses the ominous reach of these dynamics as Bigger, his mother, his brother, and his sister attempt to rebuild their humanity in a narrow space resembling that that exists between the two iron beds in their tiny one bedroom apartment. This space, symbolic of the social promise America bequeaths to this family of four, stands as a startling reminder of “black privilege” in the ghetto. If “white privilege” means that certain Americans are given the benefits of wealth, education, and promise, then “black privilege” is the denial or lack thereof of such benefits, and Wright demonstrates these needs in the limited space he designs for the Thomas family in their one room apartment. With its thinly plastered walls and wooden plank floors, Wright directs the reader towards a literary strategy that interposes personal and public discourses. In this way, the voyeurisms readers and Americans assume are made clear as they watch the Thomas family navigate their insufferable maze of disillusionment on their search for remedies to self-annihilation and non-existence.


Carol E. Henderson

What is also witnessed in this space is the disintegration of parent/child relations (which I will return to latter on in this essay), and the dissolution of male/female relationships, which crumple under the basic human need to survive. Couched in this interface are Wright’s sardonic references to both the idyllic conditions of the Garden of Eden and the shame that comes with knowing you are black and poor. While the reference to the Garden of Eden implies a state of ignorant bliss by those who have not been trained to accept their condition, shame is borne out in the tiny confines of the Thomas’s daily living as every morning, “the two boys kept their faces averted while their mother and sister put on enough clothes to keep them from feeling shame” (4). This shame, like Bigger’s fight with the rat, sets the stage for his need to dominate people, places, and things as he comes into the full awareness of his economic and social predicament. Bigger’s domineering spirit and its resulting aftereffects are clearly illustrated in his interaction with his family. Bigger rules this house with venom. His harassment of his mother and sister—he teases them with the crushed dead body of the rat until his sister Vera faints— establishes the rhetorical link between dominance and subjectivity as the black female voice becomes refigured in Bigger’s violent interactions with his family members. But more importantly, Bigger’s struggle to be recognized as a man and person reveals a compelling tension in the narrative between the subjectivities of black men and women as the premeditative and divisive actions of Bigger function as a metaphor for the systemic philosophies of oppression. Embedded in the signs and symbols of these interlinking narratives are the remnants of a shared experience. Other authors have revisited these codes in their narratives to “speak for” Bessie Mears, Mother Thomas and Vera, signifying and revising those discursive signs of domesticity to more adequately reflect their urban truths. Ann Petry, for example, bears witness to Bessie through her characterization of Min in her 1945 novel The Street. Min acts within her naturalized setting, revising the muted and nongestural form of Bessie, whose body has been effaced— eclipsed—by the narrative structure of Wright’s text that would “offer [into] evidence the raped and mutilated body of one Bessie Mears” (330). This body and voice are viewed by Bigger as a liability, a fleshy manifestation of his own inbred demons. Through the shapeless and formless personage of Min, Petry figuratively situates Bessie’s struggle to be heard above the “sigh of resignation, a giving up, a surrender of something more than her

Notes from A Native Daughter: The Nature of Black Womanhood in Native Son


body” (233) that Bigger thinks he hears before he rapes her. Min is a woman who, by the end of Petry’s novel, not only transforms the distorted figurative signs of domesticity staged in the apartment of her live-in lover The Super, but also gains agency for herself—and likewise Bessie—through a reordering of her living environment that privileges self-realization and self-valuation. As Petry’s narrative discloses, after Min’s meeting with the prophet—who inspires to act for herself—, Min enters the apartment she and the Super share with a quiet dignity. Instead of timidly inserting her key in the lock, she thrusts her key in the door and pushes the door open with sistah girl confidence. Jones frowns as he listens to her enter the room “because on top of that she slammed the door. Let it go out of her hand with a bang that echoed through the apartment and in the hall outside, could even be heard going faintly up the stairs” (139). Min is heard. Yet Min’s ability to transcend the hallway space echoes eerily Bessie’s inability to do so in Native Son. As we are told in Wright’s novel, the space Bessie’s lifeless body transcends is the airshaft Bigger throws her out, letting her body “hit and bump[…] against the narrow sides…as it went down into blackness” (238). The last sound we “hear” from Bessie is her body striking the bottom of the shaft. This haunting of space and place is what Petry creatively transfigures in her portrayal of Min. Hence, it would not be hard to imagine that if Bessie and Min had met, their relationship would resemble that between Pheoby and Janie Crawford in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Their friendship, based on the need to tell and speak for each other, suggests the sort of interventionist practice Petry, Hurston, and others have engaged with in refiguring the black female presence in African American and American letters. Petry and Hurston are not the only ones to respond to Wright’s misogynistic call. As Malin Walther suggests in “Re-Writing Native Son: Gwendolyn Brooks’s Domestic Aesthetic in Maud Martha,” Brooks’s autobio-graphically based narrative signals an alternative theoretical vision of womanist intuition and domestic aesthetic. This “re-wrighting” can clearly be seen in Wright’s infamous rat scene in the opening of his narrative, and in Brooks’s lesser know mouse scene in Maud Martha. Whereas Wright has the Thomas household “galvanize[d] into violent action” (4) upon the intrusion of a foreign body whose belly “pulsed with fear,” and whose voice


Carol E. Henderson

“emitted a long thin song of defiance…its black beady eyes, its tiny forefeet pawing the air restlessly”(6) as if to expose the vulnerability of this familial body’s frightened members, Brooks has Maud’s interaction with a mouse occurring in an atmosphere of mercy—a mercy born out of compassion and a need to acknowledge and respect the life of one of God’s tinniest creatures. As if to foreshadow her own impending maternity, Maud wonders if this mouse’s foray into her domestic space stemmed from a need to feed children, thereby introducing the promise of the future that distinguishes Brooks’ reassessment of the sacred and the familial. Brooks’ vision of family life reshapes the intimacy of Wright’s bleak allegorical representations in ways that underscore America’s failure to acknowledge this humanity. In Brooks’ novel, domesticity is staged as a site of resistance in and of itself that recoups the feminine ideal. In reaffirming nonviolence as a human value in this space, Brooks reclaims the maternal as a cultivator of the spirit, thereby recouping the domestic space for African American people. Love and Marriage Given the historical and sociological challenges African Americans have faced in keeping the family unit whole, the domestic space is a communal institution that has been coded culturally and literarily as a collective buffer that combats the daily hidden injuries of racism. Although this buffer may yield and even bend to the pressures of outside forces, the family unit (and its attending sub-units) should still be viewed as an emancipatory representation of the multi-vocal and contradictory impulses of self-preservation and self-possession. As Ann duCille reminds us in The Coupling Convention, “the disparity between the implicit promises of the marriage ideal…and the explicit impossibilities of the actual social and material conditions of most Americans, especially most black Americans” is a topic readily explored by African American writers from William Wells Brown to Zora Neale Hurston (143). While duCille does not mention them specifically, I would like to add Richard Wright, Ann Petry, and Gwendolyn Brooks to this list. If, as duCille continues, Pride and Prejudice suggests the degree to which the gentry of Jane Austen’s era was preoccupied with money and marriage, the novels of African

Notes from A Native Daughter: The Nature of Black Womanhood in Native Son


American writers … suggest the extent to which black Americans have been similarly concerned with the social, economic, and erotic arrangements of this other peculiar institution. (143)

This can clearly be seen—and echoed—in the chapters that frame the “centerpiece,” of Brooks’ Maud Martha, chapter 16 and 18. In chapter 18, titled “we’re the only colored people here,” Brooks deals with the stigma of racism and class. Whereas Wright’s commentary on economic development in Native Son becomes embodied in the Daltons to the extent that they become the romanticized equivalent of economic mobility, Brooks’s exposé places the political in the personal, demonstrating that change must occur on an intimate level. One should be careful to note that Wright’s romanticization of the economic mobility embodied in the marital unit of the Daltons comes from a misplaced reliance on the success stories of others. As the narrative discloses, Bigger felt it was the rich people who were smart and knew how to treat people. He remembered hearing somebody tell a story of a Negro chauffeur who had married a rich white girl, and the girl’s family had shipped the couple out of the country and had supplied them with money. (34)

This “coupling convention” cloaked in the garments of class and race, leads Bigger to reassess his relationship with Mary Dalton to the extent that “he was filled with a sense of excitement about his new job” (33) after viewing her enlarged image on the movie screen at a local theatre house. It is this celluloid image of seduction that renders Bigger vulnerable to the desires and manipulations of the larger society and makes him desire white women and all that they represent. As Farah Griffin aptly observes, Bigger’s perception of women means that white women are the embodiment of “wealth, desirability, femininity, and power; black women as provincial, ignorant, and stifling” (76). Hence, Bigger’s frustration at his lack of power causes him to redirect that frustration at women in a violent way in order to creatively design alternative forms of economic and social fulfillment. Bigger’s journey to this fulfillment is more revealing than its end and demonstrates the roles women serve not only in Native Son, but also in a text like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In the latter, the protagonist is similarly prodded by a white woman at the bequest of a white male audience, to “caress her and destroy her, to love her and murder her, to hide from, and yet to stroke where the small American flag tattooed upon her belly her thighs formed a capital V” (1527).


Carol E. Henderson

This simultaneous gesture of longing and loathing creates a similar quandary for Bigger whose fantasy to possess the lifestyle of the rich and famous links him to the only image/position available to him on the screen: that of primitive. As the following exchange between Jack and Bigger reveals, Bigger’s desire to be invited to a vacation place like the one he sees in The Gay Woman is circumvented by the reality of those troubling images he sees of Africans as primitive beings on the Trader Horn movie poster. As Jack explains, Bigger is welcome to go to a place like that, “But you’d be hanging from a tree like a bunch of bananas” (32). This startling revelation of lynching means that Jack and Bigger know the cost one incurs for desiring such a fantasy. Thus white women, although the embodiment of economic promise, reinforce that feeling of fear very much associated with this act of racial transgression. As Farah Griffin also reiterates, “there is no place for [Bigger] in that world,” even though as spectator “[Bigger] attempts to place himself in the picture on the screen”(77). Interestingly enough, Wright’s re-visioning of this interaction between Jack and Bigger in another version of this passage in the 1966 edition of Native Son points up the spectacle of black masculinity so evident in the undercurrent of this scene. As the 1966 version states, when Jack responds to Bigger’s request to be invited to that place of palm trees and relaxation, Jack comments, “Man, if them folks saw you they’d run…they’d think a gorilla broke loose from the zoo and put on a tuxedo”(492). This merging of two extremes—of a black and a gorilla, of a tuxedo (formal class) and a zoo (primitive class)—signals the myriad of ways Wright tries to construct an alternative narrative that not only challenges cultural but also social divisions. Some would have Bigger be only a social symbol, “multiplied twelve million times,” (as Max argues in the courtroom), whose collective identity “constitute[s] a separate nation, stunted, stripped, and held captive within this nation, devoid of political, social, economic, and property rights”(397). But Wright also wants Bigger to reflect the consciousness of a nation afraid to face the inconsistencies in its own moral and collective promise. Wright’s commentary on race takes into consideration the vile manner in which the absorbed nihilism of racism spiritually alters the psyche of a people. This same commentary also demonstrates that Wright’s reading of “race” in these instances emphasizes the refiguring of blackness as spectacle on screen and in the courtroom, evoking the strained intercultural and intracultural exchanges that exist amongst blacks and whites, men and women. It is at this juncture

Notes from A Native Daughter: The Nature of Black Womanhood in Native Son


in the narrative that Wright’s literary artistry—like Gwendolyn Brooks and Zora Neale Hurston—reflects how it feels to be black in America from a self-reflexive posture. In Brooks’s case, her venture into the nature of voyeurisms that shape the enterprise of blackness has her rework, for example, Paul and Maud’s perceptions of their experiences at the playhouse. Paul’s desire to have a night on the town is folded into Maud’s dream to “feel rich” at the World Playhouse. This playhouse represents sacred space for Maud; the Caucasian patrons who inhabit the hallways and the auditorium of this space signify wealth and possibilities. However, Maud’s dark skin, and Paul’s blue work shirt make them foreign objects/subjects in this space. Just as the metaphoric rendering of the caged gorilla in Maud’s dream (chapter 3) signals the essence of black manhood on display— caged behind psychological and figurative bars constructed by an inhumane society—Maud and Paul’s being on display at the playhouse (they are the only black there) amplifies the visual language of the body in chapter 18, signaling for the reader an alternative way to read not only urban but also suburban landscapes. This alternative representation of black people’s experiences stands as a metaphor for the spiritual development of a people trying to find the essence of themselves. As Melvin Dixon reminds us in Ride Out the Wilderness, images of physical and spiritual landscapes…reveal over time a changing topography in black American quests for selfhood….Images of land and the conquest of identity serve as both a cultural matrix among various texts and a distinguishing feature of Afro-American literary history (xi).

A close examination of Ann Petry’s and Gwendolyn Brooks’ narratives reveal that, like Wright, these authors’ use of selfhood, identity and landscape shapes our understanding of the body as these same properties also frame a context for understanding African American subjectivity in the urban/domestic aesthetic. Although Wright represents “marriage” as an economic undertaking, and certainly one out of the reach of Bigger, Brooks and Petry depict marriage as a spiritual covenant in the relationships of Paul and Maud, and Lutie Johnson and her husband Jim Johnson, a spiritual connection vital to the sustaining of black family life. This covenant itself becomes a spiritual and figurative landscape to explore the subtleties of personhood within the domestic space in


Carol E. Henderson

both Petry and Brooks’s texts. In the wittingly melodramatic exchange between Maud and Paul, for instance, Brooks marvelously comments on the various “languages” spoken in marriage, and reveals the conflicts that arise when one tries to speak their self into existence despite their prescribed gender roles: They ate, drank, and read together. She Of Human Bondage. He read Sex in the Married Life. They were silent. Five minutes passed. She looked at him. He was asleep. His head had fallen back, his mouth was open—it was a good thing there were no flies—his ankles were crossed. And the feet!—pointing confidently out (no one would harm them). Sex in the Married Life was about to slip to the floor. She did not stretch out a hand to save it. (1666)

Brooks’s humorous foray into the marital bed brings before the public eye a “universal truth” about self-revelation. Because this scene precedes Maud’s mouse scene, the reader is left to speculate about the harm done to Maud’s psyche in her interactions with others. The misfortunes she suffered at the hands of boys of her youth who called her ugly, and the discrimination she endures at the hands of her own family and society at large because of her dark skin makes her uncomfortable in her body, and ill at ease in her role as sexual being in her marriage. Because of this awkwardness, Maud’s mouse scene must then be read as a symbolic gesture of self-expression that counteracts this bedroom scene, thereby making Maud’s surrogate maternal role of the mouse an extension of her desire to be. Familial Ties Brooks’s depiction of domestic life differs starkly from Wright’s portrayal of family life, a life Wright represents as dreadful. If, as Malin Walther determines, “the wholly negative domestic scene, which depicts a home life of violence and antagonistic family relationships … is rescripted in Brooks’ mouse scene,”(143) then one can rightfully argue that in the case of Wright and Petry, it is the “lack” of a traditional vision of the marriage ideal that speaks volumes concerning the sociological impact of poverty on familial and personal development. Petry’s portrayal of Lutie Johnson’s frustration of her husband’s inability to secure sustained employment foregrounds not only her own characterization of marriage and its connection to the American

Notes from A Native Daughter: The Nature of Black Womanhood in Native Son


Dream, but it also speaks to the overwhelming impact of poverty on the material conditions of the urban poor, particularly black women. Lutie’s marriage, a casualty of this conundrum, suffers greatly when she must live at the Chandlers’ residence as a maid while her own family is left to fend for itself. While she watched another woman’s child and cleaned another woman’s house, her marriage broke into so many little pieces that “it couldn’t be put back together again, couldn’t even be patched into a vague resemblance of its former self. Yet what else could she have done?” (30). The fact that Lutie recognizes her predicament sets her apart from other fictional female characters of this period. “Until Petry,” claims critic Calvin Hernton, “there had been no such women as Lutie Johnson, Min, and Mrs. Hedges in the entire history of black fiction” (60). Some critics may dispute Hernton’s assertions, but they must, nevertheless, admit that the rhetorical strategies Petry employs to point up the adverse conditions of working black women set her apart from other renderings of black female characters, particularly Richard Wright’s. As author Toni Morrison reminds us, African American writers come to “tell other stories, fight secret wars, limn out all sorts of debates blanketed in their texts” (4) within a culture-specific context. This self-reflexive posture, inherent in African and African American artistry, forms the basis of African American interpretative and theorizing practices. Petry exemplifies this mode of writing (as does Brooks, and to some degree Wright) as she is the first woman novelist to fully depict a black mother’s struggle to survive in the inner city. Analogously, Petry and Brooks’s creative foresight are expansions of Wright’s urban vision as well as their own feminist intervention. In each novel, Petry and Brooks call attention to the social institutions that oppress African American women. They also focus on the efforts of black women to circumvent those institutions that mark them as Other. Women are viewed as sovereign beings in Maud Martha and The Street, or at the very least they are seen acting in their environments to improve the quality of life for themselves and their families. As is dramatically portrayed in Native Son, Bigger’s mother—who is a nameless prototype of the emasculating Black Medusa in the opening scene of the novel—serves as a doppelganger to Lutie Johnson due to their similar gender status, economic circumstance, and marital woes. Many of the examinations of Native Son and The


Carol E. Henderson

Street compare the experiences of Bigger and Lutie—not Lutie and Bigger’s mother (hereto referred to as Mrs. Thomas)—because, as Calvin Hernton speculates, “Both Bigger and Lutie are ambitious…and [b]oth are conscious of being hated and oppressed by white society” (97). However, in placing these two women in concert, it becomes clear that the economic impediments of single parenthood are dramatically set forth in the material conditions of these women, and their nonmaternal actions towards their children demonstrates the extent of the violence done to them in this existence. For instance, Lutie’s inability to find employment that would enable her to provide a secure environment for her son in Petry’s text makes him vulnerable to the seductions of the street, and this vulnerability is reflected the cyclical nature of poverty as young boys like Bub witness the deterioration of their families and their fathers. As the narrative makes clear: day-by-day, month-by-month, big broad-shouldered Jim Johnson went to pieces because there wasn’t any work for him and he couldn’t earn anything at all. He got used to facing the fact that he couldn’t support his wife and child. It ate into him. Slowly, bit-by-bit, it undermined his belief in himself until he could no longer bear it. And he got himself a woman so that in those moments when he clutched her close to him in bed he could prove that he was still needed, wanted. (168)

In the case of Mrs. Thomas, she forces Bigger to take on the role of surrogate father as he is made to fill the shoes of his absent father. “‘You know Bigger…if you don’t take that job, the relief’ll will cut us off. We won’t have any food,” exclaims Mrs. Thomas (12). Bigger’s downward spiral, and Bub’s subsequent demise at the hands of the Super, who promises Bub that he can make enough money to help his mother, vividly illustrates the paradox of finding agency while negotiating the naturalisms of poverty. While Lutie’s abandonment of her son towards the end of the novel—she flees town after she murders her attempted rapist Boots—, and Mrs. Thomas’s bitter remark “Bigger, sometimes I wonder why I birthed you” (8) taint the maternal images of these women, one must consider that, in some cases, motherhood, like marriage, cannot escape the influence of the menial value placed on black life in a chaotic city. Motherhood itself is disfigured in this vortex. And, as cogitative extensions of each other, Bigger’s fate foreshadows the awaiting life of Bub, whose absent mother and illusive father

Notes from A Native Daughter: The Nature of Black Womanhood in Native Son


rhetoricizes the extent to which the lack of a family buffer costs him his life. It should be duly noted that Bigger’s family ideal is very much tied to the ways in which he reads his own budding maturity and emergent ideals of masculinity. As Native Son relates, Bigger hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair. (10)

Bigger’s inability to adequately fulfill his role as provider for his family evokes those symbolic acts of castration that create the essence of “the shadow” that becomes part of the black man’s reality—and part of the African American imagination. These acts—partly a product of the sexual, criminal, and racial voyeurisms of a nation viscerally obsessed with the image of the black man, and partly the social longings of a “white” nation intent on maintaining economic and political supremacy—are central to a long line of dehumanizing practices connected to the maturation process of African American men that marks their psyche and creates a historical pattern of black male behavior. According to William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, the black man, born under slavery that continues through the present, exhibits the “inhibitions and psychopathology that had their genesis in the slave experience” (60). In slavery, the black man was forcibly emasculated as an owned being, totally dependent on the paternalistic isms of chattel bondage. In the present, this system is affirmed in the material conditions of economic impotence, and physically mimed in the tenement buildings that have now become the new plantations. Bigger’s master has become violence itself—something he experiences in his own environment on a daily basis. From the opening scene of the novel—which finds Bigger at war with a black rat in a small one-room apartment he shares with his mother, brother, and sister—, to the end of the novel—which finds Bigger in an even smaller space, his jail cell—, Wright’s “Frankenstein” is an American-grown product. Bigger has become an incarcerated shell of a man who has murdered to satisfy his yearning to be recognized as a human being, only to be killed again by the system that created him; a dispossessed and disinherited man in the land of plenty, looking, as Wright argues, for a way out. It is in watching Bigger come to terms


Carol E. Henderson

with his own disfigurement, his own disenfranchisement that we see the figurations of a dead man walking. Although Petry addresses in The Street many of the issues raised by Wright through the characterizations of her male figures— especially Boots and the Super Jones, whose basement craziness makes him a shadow of Wright’s Bigger Thomas—, Petry anchors her social critique in the portraits of her female characters as a way to reflect on black men and women relations. She also succeeds in reaffirming the maternal connections of black mother/womanhood so often missing in the sociological critiques of Wright’s work. Wright’s deep animus with the maternal is clearly seen in not only his selfmade narrative Black Boy, but also in the numerous studies of his characterizations of women. Wright is not alone in this instance. Yet, given his prominence at the time, his portraits stand head and shoulders above other insensitive treatments of black women during that era. As Malin Walther reiterates, Brooks—and I would argue Petry—“mark [their] delineation of new, uncharted aesthetic space in the context of Wright’s dominance over Chicago Renaissance literary aesthetics, which emphasized a sociological perspective and ‘protest’ literature” (144). Petry, Brooks and Hurston honor to some degree Wright’s assumptions of the inescapability of racism and poverty in certain cultural arenas by redefining the communicative aspects of body and voice within the space of the narrative. In this respect each author evokes Wright’s literary aesthetic in order to revise it. And as such, interrogates the ideological mappings of cultural and spiritual renewal that “do not necessarily fall within the predictable prescriptions of normalcy,” as Jacqueline Bryant surmises, “but the unpredictable freedom of self-definition” (459). It is in the currents of this rhythm that these artists find a space to refashion a self that liberates the voice of the silent. And in doing so, they call forth the muted stories of their sisters, providing another place for which their spirits may enter in.

Carol E. Henderson University of Delaware

Notes from A Native Daughter: The Nature of Black Womanhood in Native Son


Works Consulted Baldwin, James. “Many Thousands Gone” in Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984. (24-45) Brooks, Gwendolyn. Maud Martha in Henry L. Gates, Jr. et. al., eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 2nd Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004. (1661-1696) Bryant, Jacqueline. “Postures of Resistance in Ann Petry’s The Street” in CLA Journal 45.4 (June 2002): 444-459. Butler, Robert. “The Function of Violence in Richard Wright’s Native Son” in Black American Literature Forum 20.1/2 (Spring-Summer, 1986): 9-25. DeCosta-Willis, Miriam. “Avenging Angels and Mute Mothers: Black Southern Women in Wright’s Fictional World” in Callaloo. Richard Wright: A Special Issue 28 (Summer, 1986): 540-551. Dixon, Melvin. Ride Out the Wilderness. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987. Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Reprint. New York: Bantam Books, 1989. duCille, Ann. The Coupling Convention. New York: Oxford U P, 1993. Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1947. Reprint. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Grier, William H. and Price M. Cobbs. Black Rage. New York: Basic Books, 1968. Griffin, Farah Jasmine. “On Women, Teaching, and Native Son” in James A. Miller, ed. Approaches to Teach Wright’s Native Son. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1997. 75-80. Harris, Trudier. “Native Sons and Foreign Daughters” in Keneth Kinnamon, ed. New Essays on Native Son. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1990. (63-84) Hernton, Calvin C. The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers. New York: Anchor Press, 1987. hooks, bell. Talking Back. Boston: South End Press, 1989. Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1937. Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark. Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1992. Mootry, Maria K. “Bitches, Whores, and Woman Haters: Archetypes and Typologies in the Art of Richard Wright” in Richard Macksey and Frank E. Moorer, eds. Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1984. (117-127) Petry, Ann. The Street. 1946. Reprint. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991. Rampersad, Arnold. Introduction to Native Son. Reprint. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993. (ix-xxii)


Carol E. Henderson

Reilly, John M. “Giving Bigger a Voice: The Politics of Narrative in Native Son” in Keneth Kinnamon, ed. New Essays on Native Son. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. (35-62) Tuitt, Patricia. “Law and Violence in Richard Wright’s Native Son” in Law and Critique 11 (200): 201-217. Walther, Malin Lavon. “Re-Wrighting Native Son: Gwendolyn Brooks’s Domestic Aesthetic in Maud Martha” in Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 13.1 (Spring 1994): 143-145. Wright, Richard. Native Son. 1940. Reprint. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991. —. “Between Laughter and Tears” in New Masses 25 (5 October 1937): 22, 25.

Spatial Dynamics

Slavery and Africa in Native Son and Black Power: A Transnationalist Interpretation

Richard Wright’s Native Son and Black Power denounce the impact of slavery and colonization on Blacks and other formerly colonized people living in different parts of the world. Native Son gave Wright the opportunity to describe the impact of Western enslavement, subjugation, and plundering of Blacks in an African American context, before he was able, years later, to examine these themes in African and Third World contexts. By placing Native Son, Black Power, and the Color Curtain in the international contexts in which Wright decries the consequences of Western oppressions on the formerly enslaved or colonized populations of the United States and the Third World, one can see the connection between the three works, which is Wright’s condemnation of racism in the United States in his global repudiation of oppression in Africa and the rest of the Third World. These aspects unravel the radicalism in Wright’s work and overshadow his ephemeral Eurocentrist, elitist, and condescending views on Africans and other formerly colonized people.

Native Son belongs in the intellectual tradition in which Richard Wright denounces the impact of slavery and colonization on African Americans. Moreover, the novel is part of the internationalist scholarship, including Black Power, in which Wright decries the consequences of Western oppression on the formerly enslaved or colonized populations of the United States and Africa. When it was first published, the book gave Wright the opportunity to describe the impact of Western enslavement, subjugation, and plundering of Blacks in an African American context, before he was able, years later, to examine these themes in African and Third World contexts. In order to suggest the connections between Native Son and Black Power, one must place Wright’s condemnation of racism in the United States alongside his repudiation of colonial tyranny in Africa. This methodology surely reveals the radicalism that overpowers the ephemeral Eurocentrist, elitist, and condescending views that Wright


Babacar M’Baye

developed about Africans in the 1950s. Unearthing this radicalism shows the unresolved duality in Wright’s perceptions of the West and Africa and contradicts the narrow interpretations of his work as either anti-African or anti-Third World. Although it is about Bigger Thomas, a young African American man who reacts under the pressure of American racism and social injustices during the 1930s, Native Son also deals with the impact of slavery on African Americans and the relationships between African Americans and Africans. These international dimensions of Native Son are unknown, however, primarily because critics tend to interpret the book mainly as a sociological exploration of the effects of racism on African Americans of the 1930s. Although this type of interpretation is valid, it loses impetus because it fails to analyze the book as Wright’s representation of the effects of slavery on African Americans, which is fully understood only when it is contrasted with his exploration, in Black Power, of the consequences of slavery on Africans. In “The Road Out of the Black Belt: Sociology’s Fictions and Black Subjectivity in Native Son” (2000), Cynthia Tolentino places Native Son in the scholarship about race, class consciousness, Black agency, national development, modernity and progress that was developed by the Progressives and the Chicago School sociologists in the United States in the 30s (378-379). Tolentino’s thesis, while it is pertinent and accurate, localizes Wright’s concepts of race, class, and Black agency within an African American context only, failing to suggest their international dimensions. Similarly, in “Where Is Bigger’s Humanity? Black Male Community in Richard Wright’s Native Son,” Aimé J. Ellis narrowly interprets Native Son as a story about “Bigger’s relationships with the other black males” and about “how poor urban black males created racial community, combated social alienation in Chicago throughout the 1930s, and ultimately made sense of a world filled with racial terror” (24). Though it is primarily African American, the racial community in Native Son is really more Pan-African because Wright traces the racism against Bigger to the oppression of Europeans against Blacks during slavery in Africa. Bigger’s status as a PanAfricanist is suggested in Wendy W. Walter’s argument in At Home in Diaspora: Black International Writing that Bigger was, like Wright, an uncertain Black nationalist, who lived in in-between “a natal, yet prohibited, Americanism” and “a vague Negro nationalism” (5). Inspired by the trans-nationalist flavor in Walter’s interpretation

Slavery and Africa in Native Son and Black Power: A Transnationalist Interpretation


of the relations between Wright and Bigger, this essay will explore how Wright’s or Bigger’s Black nationalisms are weakened not just by their unsettled Americanism, but also by their unresolved Africanism, the latter being a term that describes their conflicting relationships with Africa. The closest attempt to analyze Native Son from trans-national perspectives is Joko Sengova’s “Native Identity and Alienation in Richard Wright’s Native Son and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Cross-Cultural Analysis.” Sengova states: As historical prototypes, Bigger and Okonkwo seem to share a common genesis: their African ancestry. As cross-cultural symbols of contemporary society, what motivates their behavior and personality is inherent in the state of affairs defined by their respective societies. (327)

Sengova’s approach has practical thematic and methodological values because it goes beyond characterization and localization to emphasize what he defines as Pan-Africanism, that is, the shared “struggle for political emancipation and self-determination” (332) of African Americans and Africans. In order to know how the two struggles relate, one must examine Wright’s views about the transAtlantic slave trade and the class status of Blacks living on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. By contrasting Native Son’s examination of the consequences of the Atlantic trade on African Americans with Black Power’s exploration of the effects of slavery and colonization on Africans, one clearly understands how Wright grappled with his own “in-betweenness” and the plight of oppressed people. The Historical Context of Native Son Native Son derived from the difficult historical context of the first quarter of the twentieth century in which Wright learned what it meant to be Black in America. Faced with the painful legacy of Jim Crow racism, segregation, economic exploitation, and the impossibility to achieve equality in America, African American men, like Bigger and Wright, were forced into poverty and even faced death (Kinnamon 120). Moreover, Native Son emerged out of the excruciating social turmoil Wright witnessed before he finished writing the book. For example, on May 27, 1938, when Wright was halfway through the first draft of the novel, Robert Nixon and Earl Hicks, two Black men from Chicago, were accused of having beaten


Babacar M’Baye

to death a White woman named Florence Johnson. Nixon was executed on June 16, 1939 in the Cook County electric chair in Chicago. Nixon was an example of a northern Black man, like Bigger, who became a victim of American legal injustices during the 1930s. Focusing on Bigger’s execution, Michael J. Pfeifer rightly argues in Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874-1947 that Wright “captured well the social experience and rhetoric” of a transition in the American legal system in which Rough justice was enacted no longer through lynching but through legal executions that combined legal forms, symbolically charged and arbitrary retributive justice, and white supremacy and through racially motivated, lethally excessive urban policing. (150)

Many Blacks, including those who migrated North in the 1920s and 30s or were children of migrants in the North, were subjected to various forms of oppression. As Bart Landry points out in The New Black Middle Class, low-paying jobs, discrimination, and segregation forced most of the urban Black population in the North to “poverty, disillusionment, and misery” (21). Reflecting on the plight of African Americans during the 1940s, Ralph Ellison said in his 1941 review of Native Son: While constituting ten percent of the total population, Negroes are left outside of most American institutions. They are confined to the black ghettoes of our large cities and they live in a Jim Crow world. They receive inferior wages, are restricted from participation in government throughout the country, and in most of the South they are not allowed to vote. The total effect of this discrimination has been to retard the Negro’s penetration into American civilization. (12)

One of the effects of Jim Crow segregation that Wright shows in Native Son is the class-based and institutionalized forms by which White Americans continued to exploit African Americans. Consequently, at Bigger’s trial, Max says, “The relationships 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” (362). Mr. Dalton pays Bigger $ 25 a month from which he deducts the monthly rent of the Thomases. While he makes a million dollar profit from renting rat-infested houses to African Americans, Mr. Dalton invests nothing in the Black community besides donating ping-pong tables to the Youth Club and token money to the NAACP. Being increasingly aware of the inequality between his social and economic conditions

Slavery and Africa in Native Son and Black Power: A Transnationalist Interpretation


and those of the Daltons, Bigger develops irrational hatred and fear of Whites, which leads him to accidentally suffocate Mr. Dalton’s daughter (Mary) to death. Representation of Slavery in Native Son and Black Power Slavery is one of the strongest themes in both Native Son and Black Power. In Native Son, the theme of slavery appears when the character of Max, one of Bigger’s two White lawyers, asserts that White Americans need to come to terms with the consequences of slavery on African Americans. Max says: 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. (358)

Max’s statement reflects Wright’s recognition of the drastic impact of slavery on people of African descent, such as the loss of African lives, human capital, labor, and cultures from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. These effects have been examined in many historical texts including Donald Wright’s African-Americans in the Colonial Era (1990) and, more recently, by Randall Robinson’s speech “The Case for Black reparations.”1 Like these historians, Max believes that Blacks continue to suffer from the violent and institutional impact of slavery. His ideology about Blacks follows the lead of many abolitionists who were convinced that slavery turned the lives of African Americans into that of “degradation and brutal illtreatment, of economic, physical and sexual exploitation,” (Ranson and Hook 93). This abolitionist conviction is consistent with Max’s interpretation of the conditions of African Americans, whose history was shaped by the oppression of slavery and racism, as “injustice.” Max tells the jury: Let us not 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 makes no claim upon you. If you think or feel that he does, then, you too, are blinded by a feeling as terrible as that which you condemn 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. (358)


Babacar M’Baye

Max’s statement reflects his strong belief that the causes of Bigger’s predicament were not just the ongoing injustices and violence that Whites continued to perpetrate against Blacks in America during the 1930s, but also the psychological consequences of such oppression on both Whites and Blacks. By representing White guilt about such history as a feeling that can be as detrimental as Bigger’s own hate of himself and the world, Max forces us to move our critical attention from the psychology of terror and incrimination of Whites and Blacks to the search for equality and justice that such psychology negates in order to persist. Yet, as if to contradict his own principles, Max later represents slavery as a stage of modernity in which oppression is a normal course of empire building and Capitalism. When he addresses the court, Max asserts: 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 to look back upon that in the light of injustice. Let us not be naive: men do what they must, even when they feel 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. (359)

Max’s discourse reveals Wright’s interpretation of slavery more than a historical referent; instead it is a modern experience that developed the economic and cultural institutions of the West despite its brutal oppression of Blacks, imperialism, and feudalism. Resonating Wright’s theory, Max now seems to ask not “who is guilty?” but “how did slavery modernize the dreams of empires?” revealing the unresolved duality about slavery that is apparent in Wright’s writings. Like Wright, Max views slavery as a history that resulted not from racism, but from the Europeans’ search for power outside of their own world. Drawing from Eric C. Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery, Wright developed similar views in Black Power: The kidnapping of poor whites, developed in England, had but to be extended to the African shoreline and the experience gained in subjugating the poor whites served admirably for the taming of the tribal blacks. A hungry cry for sugar rose from all Europe, and blacks were siphoned from Africa to grow the cane. The colonial plantation became an economic and political institution that augmented wealth and power for a few aristocrats, spread misery for countless blacks, and imperiled the democratic hopes of millions of whites. (11-12)

Slavery and Africa in Native Son and Black Power: A Transnationalist Interpretation


Judging from the fact that Wright espoused the ideology of Williams’ about slavery, one could say that Wright perceived slavery as an exploitation that arose out of Europe’s economic greed and disrespect of democratic ideals. This rationale implies that only a restoration of fair economic and political institutions in Western societies could offset the damaging impact of slavery on modern Blacks. This reasoning also infers that African American resistance to slavery transformed the modern world by forcing it to reduce its dependence on the bondage of Blacks with a reliance on the freedom of all people.2 In the 1950s and 60s, Wright transferred this argument to an African context by asking the questions he originally used to pose in an African American context. While he kept asking them during his journey in Africa in the 1950s, Wright ended up giving these questions concrete forms in Black Power. Here, he implicitly suggested that Africans, like African Americans, played a major part in the development of modernity. Wright theorizes modernity as a set of historical experiences in which both African Americans and Africans have participated. He perceived Africans as participants in the economic, social, and cultural development of the West from conditions traceable to the Middle Passage. According to Weiss, the pivotal role of Africans in the building of modernity is noticeable in the questions that Wright asked himself before he was able to arrive at his full conception of modernity: To understand modernity (of which post-colonialism is another chapter) one must understand Africa and the African American’s role in its making. At mid-century, Wright pauses to ask: How did the Africans become slaves? What was the impact of slavery on those who survived the Middle Passage? What was the impact of slavery on white Europeans and Americans? Furthering Du Bois’s “Would America have been America without her Negro people?” Wright contends that “the Negro is America’s metaphor. (130-131)

Wright’s question “How did the Africans become slaves?” is answered through Max’s voice in Native Son. Max points out that Europe needed slaves in order to become modern: “Exalted by the will to rule, they [Europeans] could not have built nations on so vast a scale had they not shut their eyes to the humanity of other men, men whose lives were necessary for their building” (359). A number of works such as John Thornton’s Africa and the Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680 and Joseph E. Inikori’s The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe corroborate Max’s points. These historical


Babacar M’Baye

texts show how the Atlantic slave trade allowed Europeans to develop economically and politically at the expense of Africans whose natural resources and human capital were tragically exploited by this trade. Yet, even if he recognizes the Africans’ role in the development of modernity, Wright represents Africans in condescending and pathetic ways that reveal his Western and patronizing biases towards them. For example, in Black Power, he introduces a named Justice Thomas of the Nigerian Supreme Court, whom he represents as a descendant of a slave from the West Indies who had managed to make his way back to Africa and settle in Freetown (16). Wright suggests that Mr. Thomas is, like him, the product of enslaved Africans who had succeeded in breaking the chains of servitude that prevented them from benefiting from the progress of mankind (understood here as modernity) and putting it to good use. He writes: His enslaved grandfather had desperately pulled himself out of servitude, had lifted himself above the tribal level, and, in doing so, he had been akin to the millions of Europeans and Americans of the nineteenth century who had so valiantly overthrown the remnants of feudalism. Mr. Justice represents the victory of enlightenment: he could read, he could vote, he was free; but he was adamant against the hungers of the new generation. (32)

Yet although he establishes strong connections between Mr. Thomas and himself, Wright views the former as someone who is unable to sustain the course of history, thereby viewing Mr. Thomas as an outsider or an antithesis in (or of) modernity. For example, Wright mockingly says that Mr. Thomas “was living in the wrong century” (32) and that he “had succeeded at the moment when history was about to nullify his triumphs, and he was already confused and bewildered at the new social and political currents swirling about him” (32-33). Perhaps Wright was alluding to what he prejudicially viewed as the incapability of the African leaders who acquired nominal government of their countries from the 1950s onward to organize and develop their nations. Wright based his reasoning on the ethnically and religiously-based national solidarity in these countries that he arrogantly viewed as “tribalism.” In this sense, for Wright, going back to Africa was equivalent to moving from “modernity” into “backwardness.” In her summary of the questions Wright asked himself when he began his 1953 trip to Ghana, Weiss writes: What if one’s roots are in Mississippi but every intricate fiber in the social fabric conspires to conceal this bond? What if one’s rootedness in America goes back four centuries but a racist society accepts Africa as the only

Slavery and Africa in Native Son and Black Power: A Transnationalist Interpretation


legitimate homeland for black Americans? How can the African American honor his/her African origins when that identity is rooted in a profoundly racist ideology? (57)

This statement suggests the dilemma in Wright’s attitudes about Africa, a dilemma which is visible in his inability to answer this central question: how to claim Western modernity or reclaim his American heritage without demonizing Africans? In the end, it appears as though Wright’s prejudices about Africans and his blind faith in the Western conception of modernity prevented him from denouncing the injustices Europeans perpetrated in Africa without repeating their conception of Africa as “the other.” In Native Son, Wright also represents the impact that the violence of Whites on Blacks during slavery has had in the intraracial relationships between Blacks during modern times. One example is when Bigger threatens to beat Gus when the latter is unwilling to help him rob the property of a White storeowner called Old Blum. The narrator says: “He [Bigger] had transferred his fear of whites to Gus. He hated Gus because he knew that Gus was afraid, as even he was; and he feared Gus because he felt that Gus would consent and then he would be compelled to go through with the robbery” (28). While transferring his fear of Whites on his Black neighbors, Bigger internalizes the White-on-Black violence he inherited from history. Similarly, while focusing on Bigger’s psychology, Houston Baker depicts him as a character who enacts the manipulative impulse of the White slave traders that tortured Africans and directs it toward his African American girlfriend, Bessie. Baker writes: “It is not black love (or industrial workers’ wages) that secures the relationship between Bigger and Bessie as far as the former is concerned; it is stolen capital. He [Bigger] is a murderer and petty thief who uses Bessie as a means of passage” (220). Baker’s statement suggests Bigger’s imitation of the exploitative and ruthless tactics that Whites used during slavery time to oppress Blacks. Such strategies are visible in the following passage, where Bigger justifies his violence towards those who stand in his way by comparing it to that of the “white folks”: “If you killed her [Mary] you’ll kill me,’ she said. ‘I ain’t in this.” “Don’t be a fool. I love you.” “You told me you never was going to kill.” “All right. They white folks. They done killed plenty of us” “That don’t make it right.” (168)


Babacar M’Baye

The excerpt shows that Bigger does not know the full consequence of his violence on Blacks. By rationalizing Mary’s death as revenge for the genocides Whites have perpetrated on Blacks, Bigger unconsciously perpetuates the murderous instinct of the White slaveowners who committed heinous crimes during slavery. Luckily, Bigger is compelled to realize the inappropriateness of his reasoning, as the Blacks around him stand against violence that recapitulates the blind cruelty of the White slave traders. Referring to Bessie, Baker points out: Avatar of the violence of traders above deck, undeceived about the exploitative intent of their ‘tools,’ victim of a denigrating Western will to domination—Bessie is accessible, domestic, and unprotected. She possesses the most lucid vision in Native Son. She is the only character in the novel (and one among the few critics of Bigger Thomas) who realizes that Bigger’s murderous course is a mistaken redaction of Western tactics of terror. (219220)

In this sense, Bessie represents an alternative form of resistance against oppression that avoids the controlling and blood thirst impulse of the White slave traders. Wright’s Representation of Africa in Native Son and Black Power On June 16, 1953, Wright arrived in Takoradi, Ghana, where the nation’s Black president, Kwame Nkrumah, invited him. When a young Ghanaian clerk asked him if he knew from what part of Africa his ancestors had come, Wright arrogantly replied, “Well, ... you know, you fellows who sold us and the white men who bought us didn’t keep any records” (Black Power 40). Wright’s response suggests his impression that 1) Africans do not know that most African Americans cannot trace their roots to Africa, and that 2) Africans are not conscious of the enormous impact of slavery on African Americans. These beliefs, which represent Africans as unaware of the history of African Americans, are part of the stereotypes that Wright often revealed in his representation of the relations between Africans and African Americans. As noticeable in his cold response to the Ghanaian clerk, Wright’s inquisitiveness about Africans belied a sense of discomfort and resentment towards Africans that he often revealed in his work. For example, in Native Son, he depicts Africa as a continent inhabited by primitive people.

Slavery and Africa in Native Son and Black Power: A Transnationalist Interpretation


One example is the scene in which Bigger goes to the theater with Gus, Jack, and G.H. in order to watch The Gay Woman and Trader Horn. The Gay Woman is about a rich white woman whose lover is killed by a communist who mistakes him for her husband. Trader Horn is an exotic film showing stereotypical scenes of dancing African men and women. Bigger likes The Gay Woman, because it shows attractive “scenes of cocktail drinking, dancing, golfing, swimming, and spinning roulette wheels” (33). In short, Bigger enjoys the Western lifestyle in the film. By contrast, he dislikes Trader Horn because it exposes an African culture that he views as “tribal” and “backward.” The narrator says: He looked at Trader Horn unfold and saw pictures of naked black men and women whirling in wild dances and heard drums beating and then gradually the African scene changed and was replaced by images in his own mind of white men and women dressed in black and white clothes, laughing, talking, drinking, and dancing. Those were smart people; they knew how to get hold of money, millions of it. (35-36)

Bigger’s dismissal of Trader Horn suggests a personal sense of self-denial, acculturation, and uprootedness. His rejection of African tribalism is also reflective of Wright’s own discomfort and shame about African culture, not about the Western representation of such culture as “exotic” and “primitive.” In this sense, Wright was, like Bigger, confused in his personal relations with Africa because he was ashamed of his African past even when he later pretended to embrace it on some level. M. Lynn Weiss explains: Wright’s encounters with Africans usually underscore his distance from them, especially when the encounter takes place in the context of a religious tribal/traditional ritual. Wright did not expect his skin color to make Africa more accessible to him. (This would be the assumption of his American readers). And he was genuinely surprised when certain aspects of Ghanaian culture reminded him of Mississippi. . . Wright’s resistance to the Africans’ religious worldview is related to a personal conviction that such traditions had put millions of black men and women in bondage. (24)

Yet, despite his prejudice and ambivalence about Africa, Wright was aware of his own cultural ties with the continent even when he pretended not to acknowledge them fully. Nevertheless, Wright never seemed to fully embrace these connections even when his intelligence exposed him to them. In Voices of a Native Son (1990), Eugene Miller points out:


Babacar M’Baye

Just how African traits could have survived after several hundred years of transplantation in a new cultural area such as the United States is a question that surfaced in his mind in the motorcade with Nkrumah. He noticed many of the African women along the route performing a kind of foot-shuffling dance that struck him as very familiar: “I’d seen these same snakelike, veering dances before . . . in America, in storefront churches, in Holy Roller Tabernacles, in God’s Temples, in unpainted wooden prayer-meeting houses on the plantations of the Deep South. . . . How could that be?” (12)

Evidently, Wright recognized his cultural ties with Africa even when he perceived religions and traditions as potentially antithetical to modernity. In this sense, the superficial nature of Wright’s relations with Africa stemmed, not from his hatred of Africans or his denial of his African heritage, but from his problematic concept of modernity which compelled him to question the significance of his own African American religious heritage. Wright’s views about religion are apparent during one of the last and most intense moments of Bigger’s trial when Max says: 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 swallows the soul in fullness and wholeness. In art, science, industry, politics, and social action it may take other forms. But these twelve millions 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 primitive form. The environment of tense urban centers has all but paralyzed the impulse for religion as a way of life for them today. (365-366)

The passage shows that Wright’s suspicions about religion derived from some type of agnosticism rather than from a deep-seated resentment of one specific type of religion. Wright was skeptical of not just African religions, but also of African American religions, suggesting that his prejudices towards traditions were generally arbitrary and driven by a logic that transcends nationality and geography. However, it is undeniable that, while he was indiscriminate about his religious views, Wright was particularly prejudiced towards African culture, which is one of the foundations of African American religions. In “An American Hunger” (1997), Andrew Delbanco explains: In the 1920s and ‘30s black literary intellectuals (especially those who participated in what became known as the Harlem Renaissance) turned more openly to a celebration of their African identity—a gesture with which Wright sympathized, but which he suspected of self-delusion and accommodation to the prurient white taste for the exotic. (142)

Slavery and Africa in Native Son and Black Power: A Transnationalist Interpretation


Therefore, Wright continued to avoid embracing and celebrating his African traditions visibly for fear of being perceived as a “primitive” in the eyes of White Americans. This fear of feeding the Europeans’ exotic representation of Africans seriously hampered Wright’s search for his African roots by leaving the imprints of his unresolved relationships with Africa. Clearly, Native Son is an experimental novel in which Wright denounces the social and economic consequences of slavery on African Americans. The poverty and the limited choices that slavery and racism imposed on African Americans are visible in the forces that prevent Bigger from achieving equality in America, and eventually this struggle for equality leads him to a miscalculated violence that results in a trial and his execution. Thus, as David Bakish points out, Bigger’s spiritual death predates his execution because “he is formally killed by the society that had been slowly murdering him all his life” (40). From a cultural point of view, Bigger’s fatal experiences parallel Wright’s efforts to understand his American identity. Like Bigger, Wright knew that slavery and modernity had fragmented his identity and his position in the world. When he addressed the audience at the First International Conference of Negro Artists and Writers, held in Paris in 1956, he said: I have spent most of my adult life and most of my waking hours brooding upon the destiny of the race to which I belong by accident of birth and by accident of history . . . . My position is a split one. I’m black. I am a man of the West. These hard facts condition, to some degree, my outlook. (Chapman 27)

This statement reveals the ambiguity in Wright’s perception of his own position and identity in the modern world. As it is noticeable in both Native Son and Black Power, Wright’s dilemma in modernity is traceable to the history of slavery that he historicizes as a tragedy while also remaining an important catalyst of development in the modern world. This dilemma is unsettled because Wright never fully acknowledged his intimate relationships with Africa. And, even more tragically, he never acknowledged the great roles that Africa played in the development of modernity.

Babacar M’Baye Kent State University


Babacar M’Baye

Notes 1

Donald Wright says that between 1450 and 1850, over 11.5 million Africans were forcefully brought to the Americas and nearly ten million of these people arrived in the New World (17). In his speech “The Case for Black reparations” (2000), Randall Robinson asserts: The enslavement of blacks in America lasted 246 years. It was followed by a century of legal racial segregation and discrimination. The two periods, taken together, constitute the longest running crime against humanity in the world over the last 500 years. Fifteen to twenty-five million Africans were killed in the Middle Passage alone. African social and economic institutions were destroyed. Languages, religions, customs were extinguished. Whole cultures were lost. All memory of Africa’s greatness in antiquity, the source civilizations of Western civilization, were stripped from the consciousness of slavery’s direct and derivative contemporary victims. As a result of the ravages of slavery and the racial strictures that followed it, blacks in America were consigned to this Nation’s economic bottom. A yawning gap was opened. It has been a static gap since the Emancipation Proclamation. This condition can no longer be tolerated. We’re here today to discuss this gap and the lasting social penalties of slavery and how they might be addressed once and for all. 2

Weiss refers to a document in which Wright argues “that the African American’s experience, from slave to sharecropper to industrial worker, was the prototypical American, and by extension, modern, experience. After many years abroad he believed that this experience was the sole redeeming feature of American slavery” (25). The quotation suggests Wright’s conception of modernity as an archetype of resistance and development in the Western world.

Slavery and Africa in Native Son and Black Power: A Transnationalist Interpretation


Works Consulted Baker, Houston. Jr., “On Knowing Our Place” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. Anthony Appiah, eds. Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Amistad: New York, 1993. (200-225) Bakish, David. Richard Wright. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1974. Bradbury, Malcolm, ed. Introduction to American Studies. New York: Longman, 1981. Butler, Robert J, ed. The Critical Response to Richard Wright. Westport, CN: Greenwood P, 1995. Chapman, Abraham. “Concepts of the Black Aesthetic in Contemporary Black Literature” in Lloyd W. Brown, ed. The Black Writer in Africa and the Americas. Los Angeles: Hennessey & Ingalls, 1973. (11-43) Delbanco, Andrew. “An American Hunger” in Keneth Kinnamon, ed.Critical Essays on Richard Wright’s Native Son. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997. (138-146) Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1983. Ellis, Aimé. J. “Where is Bigger’s humanity? Black male community in Richard Wright’s Native Son” in ANQ 15.3 (2002): 23-30. Ellison, Ralph. “Native Son.” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. Anthony Appiah, eds. Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Amistad: New York, 1993. (11-18) Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. Anthony Appiah, eds. Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Amistad: New York, 1993. Hakutani, Yoshinobu, ed. Critical Essays on Richard Wright. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982. Inikori, Joseph E and Stanley L. Engerman. The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Durham: Duke UP, 1992. Jurca, Catherine. White Diaspora: The Suburb and the Twentieth-Century American Novel. Princeton, NJ : Princeton UP, 2001. Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. Critical Essays on Richard Wright’s Native Son. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997. —. “Native Son: The Personal, Social, and Political Background” in Yoshinobu Hakutani, ed. Critical Essays on Richard Wright. Boston: G.K. Hall and Co, 1982. (120-127) Landry, Bart. The New Black Middle Class. Berkeley: U California P, 1987.


Babacar M’Baye

Miller, Eugene E. Voice of A Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright. Jackson: U Mississippi P, 1990. Mudimbe, V.Y. ed. The Surreptitious Speech: Presence Africaine and the Politics of Otherness. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1992. Pfeifer, Michael J. Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874-1947. Urbana: U Illinois P, 2004. Ranson, Edward and Andrew Hook. “The Old South” in Introduction to American Studies. New York: Longman, 1981. (86-103) Robinson, Randall. “The Case For Black Reparations – Transcript Proceedings” in (Accessed October 21, 2005). Sengova, Joko. “Native Identity and Alienation in Richard Wright’s Native Son and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: a Cross-Cultural Analysis” in The Mississippi Quarterly 50 (Spring 1997): 327-51. Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. Tolentino, Cynthia. “The Road Out of the Black Belt: Sociology’s Fictions and Black Subjectivity in Native Son” in Novel 33.3 (2000): 377-405. Walter, Wendy W. At Home in Diaspora: Black International Writing. Minneapolis : U Minnesota P, 2005. Weiss, M. Lynn. Gertrude Stein and Richard Wright: The Poetics and Politics of Modernism. Jackson: U Mississippi P, 1998. Wright, Donald. African-Americans in the Colonial Era: From Origins through the American Revolution. Wheeling, IL: Harland Davidson, 1990. Wright, Richard. Native Son. 1940. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. —. Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos. New York: Harper’s, 1954.

Vortical Blues: Turbulence, Disorder, and the Emplotment of Surplus Meaning in Native Son

Using Richard Wright’s reference to Edgar Allan Poe in “How Bigger Was Born,” the companion essay to his novel Native Son, as a point of critical departure, this essay seeks to understand Poe’s deployment of vortical symbolism in his short stories as a trope Wright embraced in the process of conceptualizing Bigger Thomas. Wright characterized Bigger as a “free agent to roam the streets of our cities, a hot and whirling vortex of undisciplined and unchannelized impulses” and this essay argues that he did so as a way to expand the terms by which naturalism could serve as a method of social commentary and critique. Though Native Son is in step with naturalism’s embodiment of thermodynamic principles, his use of vortical symbolism is meant to suggest the ways that in addition to the ways the laws of conservation and dissipation governed the trajectory of Bigger Thomas, he was equally a product of a collision of static and kinetic forms of motion that allowed Wright to portray the systemic nature of oppression as an indicator of America’s slow descent into entropy. Using chaos theory as an instrument of critical intervention, this essay seeks to understand Bigger Thomas as a figuration of surplus meaning, the product of inadequate methods of determining the nature of the black male subject, whose violence and rage suggest a quality of alienation and disaffection synonymous with chaos.

And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Seems like I gotta do wrong…before they notice me. The Whispers, “Seems Like I Gotta Do Wrong”


Herman Beavers

1 I want to begin this essay by citing Richard Wright’s now-famous declaration, “And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror, horror would invent him.” Wright’s comment constitutes a point of departure for several reasons. First, Wright’s comment is suggestive of the extent he was willing to go to implant into his readers’ minds that Native Son was a work of fiction intended to horrify rather than sentimentalize. Second, Wright’s comment anticipates Betsy Erkkila’s assessment of Poe’s “aesthetic of whiteness,” the manner in which Poe’s introduction of the concept of horror into the American literary idiom was rooted in his anxiety about blackness,1 a concern Wright gestures toward, first in Uncle Tom’s Children, and later in Native Son. The third reason for Wright’s invocation is that it indicates his desire to disrupt the racial assumptions underlying literary naturalism. Having lived in the South and the North, Wright was left with a considerable storehouse of horrific experiences upon which to draw for his fiction. And thus Wright knew that the challenge he faced in Native Son was largely a matter of fashioning a character who was reflective of naturalism’s representation of social determinism even as his life demonstrated the turbulence generated by the persistence of black disenfranchisement and segregation. However, the horrors of African American life notwithstanding, grasping the ways Wright sought to realize his intentions requires a more nuanced approach if we are to view the novel outside of the context of protest fiction. Wright’s insistence that the horrors of the 20th Century lay beyond the scope of Poe’s literary imagination also affirms that America’s tangled racial past was the only instrument available to determine the social and historical contexts embedded within horror’s profaning of meaning. In making the pointed statement that white writers represented the “life preserver of [his] hope to depict Negro life in fiction,” Wright may have been suggesting that Poe represented a touchstone because the gothic and its fascination with the “death in life,” offered him a way to conceptualize what it meant to be Bigger Thomas. Hence, Wright’s reference to Poe may be less about refuting or challenging him and much more about his sense that Native Son constituted an amplification of Poe’s body of work.2

Vortical Blues: Turbulence, Disorder, and the Emplotment of Surplus Meaning in Native Son


Much of our critical understanding of Native Son rests comfortably on the assumption that the novel’s main intent, as Louis Menand insists, was to paint racial injustice “in primary colors straight out of the naturalist paintbox” (81). But what if Wright saw Native Son as a much more speculative gambit? It would be easy to follow up Wright’s observation about Edgar Allan Poe simply by working one’s way through his novels to see where Wright reconstituted Poe’s symbolism, but what might be more useful for our purposes is to see how Native Son sought to expand (if not reimagine outright) the naturalist project. After all, it is perhaps too late in the day to insist that over 60 years of critical practice have yet to limn Wright’s intent. However, expanding the terms we use to ascertain the strategies operative within naturalism could help to resituate Native Son in the critical imaginary.3 And it could be that such an endeavor, ascertained through a determination of Wright’s relationship to Poe, leads to a fresh approach to Wright’s fiction, one that might also illuminate a conscious desire to enlarge the tenets of naturalism. Investigating Wright’s attraction to Poe begins by turning to several of Poe’s short stories, including his first publication, “Metzengerstein” (1832), “MS Found in a Bottle” (1833), “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) and finally, “A Descent into the Maelstrom” (1841). What each of these fictions share is Poe’s use of the vortex as a symbol of nature’s destructive power, but also, by the time he publishes “Descent,” the crossroads between different planes of existence. In the first story, the Palace Metzengerstein is consumed, along with its master, in a “whirlwind of chaotic fire.” And the narrator of “The Fall of the House of Usher” watches in horror as the ruined house disappears in “the fierce breath of the whirlwind.” The narrator of “MS Found in a Bottle” describes the sudden arrival of a storm which kills the entire crew of a ship sailing the Malaysian sea. Caught in the throes of the tremendous storm, only the narrator and an old Swede remain aboard as the ship languishes in a vortex in which “all around were horror, and thick gloom, and a black sweltering desert of ebony.” Soon, the ship and the Swede disappear into the deep abyss of black water, but the narrator saves himself by leaping onto the rigging of a “gigantic ship,” peopled by a crew “imbued with the spirit of Eld.” The narrator, who has authored the eponymous manuscript, falls into what Charles Minahen describes as an “antireality,” reminiscent of the event horizon of a black hole (104), where none of the crew acknowledge his existence and from which he never escapes. In an ingenious turn, the manuscript is all that remains of the


Herman Beavers

narrator, as if to suggest narrativity alone can withstand the force of the vortex.4 In “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” the reader finds a story narrated by a young man who encounters a sailor, with white hair, in a weakened state of health, who relates his escape from what he refers to as the Moskoe-strom, or maelstrom. As is often the case in Poe’s fiction, reflective perhaps of his propensity to create a beautiful effect that is nonetheless destructive, the sailor finds himself thinking about the likelihood of death, but not with terror as the reader might expect. Strangely, upon entering the vortex, the sailor says, “I felt more composed than when we were only approaching [the maelstrom]. Having made up my mind to hope no more, I got rid of a great deal of terror which unmanned me at first” (169). The sailor survives, then, because he comes to regard the maelstrom as a circumstance understood through ratiocination, and he opts for self-preservation over fraternal obligation, as if the vortex can only abide the assertion of personal autonomy. Far from representing a mysterious force, the maelstrom is both a natural force governed by the principles of nature and the product of random chance (an example of the order to be found in chaos). But the sailor’s deliverance comes at a steep price: the loss of his youthful vigor with “weakened limbs and unstrung nerves;” scientific thinking depletes rather than invigorates. Readers can only conclude that the manner in which scientific curiosity displaces terror intimates the ways that Poe’s fiction, like his poems, “is deeply embedded in the socio-historical traumas of his time . (61)” Thus, when we look at the vortical symbols in Poe’s fiction we must be mindful of the fact that a vortex is the product of opposing forces, a juxtaposition of stasis and violence (103), with turbulence as the result.5 The most important trauma of Poe’s time, of course, grew out of American’s national sin: slavery. If the gothic proceeds from the eruption of private sin into public space, then the forces that produce the vortex are analogous to man’s inability to live a life free from sin. Teresa Goddu has argued that gothic novels “actively engaged issues of slavery” (230). And Goddu further asserts, “The terror of possession, the iconography of entrapment and imprisonment, and the familial transgressions found in the gothic novel were also present in the slave system” (230). That Poe consistently utilizes descriptions of the vortex whose most salient feature is that it appears to be “ebony” or a “wall of blackness,” intimates that what lies at the heart of his deployment of vortical symbolism is the sense that the right to own

Vortical Blues: Turbulence, Disorder, and the Emplotment of Surplus Meaning in Native Son


property, along with the systems in place to insure those rights are always in danger of falling into a random state of chaos. I do wish to bear in mind Terence Whalen’s insistence that this should not, of itself, be read as a sign of overt racial animus in Poe’s fiction.6 But readers should nonetheless take note that the publication dates for each of the story fall after the Haitian Revolution of 1789, in proximity to the slave rebellions led by Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser, and the escalation of sectional discord between North and South around the issue of re-colonization, and it is therefore difficult to disregard the literary sleight-of-hand Poe uses to create a gloss of ahistoricity in his work. Whalen continues, “What matters about Poe is not so much his reticence on slavery, nor even his use of racist stereotypes—which are as infrequent as they are offhanded. Instead, the case of Poe matters because both his utterances and his silences were part of a coherent strategy to expel politics from the literary commodity. (34)” Indeed, most of Poe’s stories take place in foreign, exotic settings, which serve to de-politicize the vortex, to close off critical access to the notion that it stands as an allegory for white America’s racial anxieties. And yet readers must consider the manner in which vortical power renders property meaningless. In order to save his life, the sailor must abandon his ship, his main source of income, and his brother. The House of Usher and the Palace Metzengerstein are consumed by the whirlwind, which recalls the manner in which the vortex can serve as “a symbol of divine intrusion into the world. (11)” In each instance, the vortex often involves the eradication of blood ties alongside the loss of property. As Joan Dayan observes, “By a negative kind of birthright, bad blood blocked inheritance, just as loss of property meant disenfranchisement. Yoked together as they are, these terms loosely but powerfully define types of slavery” (118). The manner in which the vortex represents an irresistible force likewise suggests that to fall under its influence is akin, not only to losing one’s freedom, but having that freedom rendered moot in a disorderly system that resists regulation. In light of Wright’s observation in “How Bigger Was Born,” that the novel “is at once something private and public by its very nature and texture,”7 it is not so difficult to make the leap from Poe to Wright, especially if readers consider the ways that the naturalist novel often portrays the antinomical collision of sensibilities across lines of race, gender, and class. Certainly it can be said that Bigger is characterized, as Sheldon Brivic has argued, by a split personality. And one might argue, alongside David Demarest, that Native Son is


Herman Beavers

an instance of what he calls “negative sentimentality.” Along with James Miller, readers could view the novel as the story of Bigger’s quest for voice and audience. And they can finally, as Jerold Savory recommends, note that Bigger can be likened to Job. But remembering that Elijah saw God in the whirlwind leads me in a different direction. Wright’s description of Bigger Thomas as “a hot and whirling vortex of undisciplined and unchannelized impulses (445),” communicates his sense that he saw his role as a write to investigate the nature of chaos as it resided in the orderly, systematic denial of social justice to blacks. Here, Wright invokes the destructive power of Poe’s maelstrom, but does so to suggest that Bigger’s subjectivity can be likened to vortical turbulence which thus accounts for the novel’s depiction of violence and rage. As I examined this imagery throughout the novel, I was struck by the recurrence of vortical symbolism, running throughout Native Son. Again and again, Bigger’s subjectivity is likened to vortical turbulence, or Bigger is discovered in the midst of figurative or actual turbulence. In his book, Beautiful Chaos, Gordon Slethaug describes turbulence as “a mess of disorder at all scales, small eddies within large ones. It is unstable. It is highly dissipative, meaning that turbulence drains energy and creates drag It is motion turned random” (63). He goes on to talk about the field of stochastics, a field of mathematics and economics that is most often concerned with chance, unpredictability, and randomness. Stochastics is a necessary component in this essay largely due to the fact that it functions in the humanities, Slethaug notes, as “a metaphor for the confusion and uncertainty that sometimes accompanies unpredictability” (64). Slethaug’s description leads to my further insistence that Native Son is a novel best understood through the advent of chaos theory. This assertion rests on several important postulates. First, at its heart, Native Son is a heuristic text, growing out of Wright’s sense that African Americans “possessed no fictional works dealing with [the] problems” associated with life in Chicago’s Black Belt. In writing Native Son, Wright sought, in keeping with the dictates of the naturalist project, to investigate the forces acting on a Bigger Thomas. A second postulate is that Native Son is fixated on a local event. For while it is true that the novel places a heavy emphasis on portraying the injustice of African Americans’ plight, Wright ultimately chooses to set the novel in and around Chicago’s Black Belt. This is not to suggest that Wright was not seeking to ruminate upon the collective predicament of African Americans.8 But Wright’s novel created such

Vortical Blues: Turbulence, Disorder, and the Emplotment of Surplus Meaning in Native Son


a memorable impact because it harnessed local events in the service of a more wide-ranging rhetorical engagement with the meanings of black life.9 In other words, Native Son’s effectiveness (and the extent of that effectiveness has long been up for debate) rests on its relentless explication of a local tragedy, implying that the real danger lay in ignoring what that tragedy portends on a grander scale.10 Wright’s description of Biggers 1-5 in “How Bigger Was Born” is meant to suggest the ways that global forms of analysis issue, not from universal truths, but from local phenomena that recur again and again.11 It is not an inaccurate assessment of Native Son to say that it chronicles the tragic outcomes to be found in a system of oppression. And hence the last postulate, which is that Native Son arises from Wright’s sense that the U.S. was a system spiraling down into entropy. As such, Bigger Thomas provided him with a way to show how a minor event could create major forms of social turbulence.12 Wright accomplishes this by working out the microscopic fluctuations within Bigger Thomas that ultimately lead from the deaths of Mary Dalton and Bessie Mears to his own death13 and to the macroscopic social disruption evidenced by the amount of manpower and journalistic space devoted to Bigger’s crime. Put another way, in Native Son, the vortex symbolizes the manner in which blockages— economic, spiritual, cultural, and ideological—create the occasion for turbulence to form.14 Remembering that systems of turbulence are dissipative, requiring periodic infusions of energy to sustain them, I want to advocate that Wright’s novel worked to deconstruct the point made at the end of his autobiographical essay, “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” where a friend of Wright’s observes, “Lawd, man, ef it wuzn’t for them ol’ polices ‘n them ol’ lynch-mobs, there wouldn’t be nothin’ but uproar down here! (15)” This observation is worthy of note, not only because it gives voice to the disciplinary regimes in place to stymie black social aspirations, but also because the speaker is so secure in the soundness of this repressive logic. This is evident when readers consider that the observation is a response to the question, “How do Negroes feel about the way they have to live?” There are deeper implications embedded in this conceptual pairing: it takes violence, administered on a consistent basis for the slightest transgression, to hold social turbulence at bay, prevent it from becoming a quotidian circumstance. Posing Bigger as a radical departure from the fear and intimidation characteristic of black men’s lives in the South, Wright’s description of Bigger’s “snarled and confused” nationalist feelings likewise suggests the ways that his


Herman Beavers

status as a “free agent roam[ing] the streets of our cities” make him a figure of random energy, capable of destroying everything in his path or, turning that energy inward, to engage in acts of self-destruction. 2 In his book Bodies and Machines, Mark Seltzer likens literary naturalism to a machine whose ultimate aim is to manage the problems of production and reproduction. According to Seltzer, “the achievement of the naturalist novel appears at least in part in the devising of a counter-model of generation that incorporates and works to manage these linked, although not equivalent, problems of production and reproduction” (25). Noting the presence of the steam engine in Frank Norris’s novel The Octopus, Seltzer observes that naturalism’s conception of force is a restatement of the first and second laws of thermodynamics. In Seltzer’s view, the two fundamental principles of thermodynamics, the law of conservation and the law of dissipation, “operate…both thematically and formally in the naturalist narrative” (29). And he concludes, “what the naturalist aesthetic requires, then, is a principle of generation that incorporates rather than opposes the machine, a mechanics that forms part of its textuality” (36). What I would suggest is that Wright’s approach to naturalism reflects certain thermodynamic principles, but these are merged with the stochastic principles to be found in the concept of turbulent flow. As we will see, Bigger Thomas’s act of violence is an act of selfcreation, an attempt to nullify female reproduction and conserve masculine energies. But it is just as much an occasion demonstrating that along with production and reproduction, naturalism depicts the social blockages that produce in their turn, vortices of discontent. To understand Native Son’s renovation of naturalist aesthetic conventions, I want to contrast it to the example of Theodore Dreiser’s short story “Nigger Jeff,” published in 1918. Though Wright admired Dreiser’s writing so much that he had asked himself how Dreiser would write about Chicago’s South Side, we see in “Nigger Jeff” a story that exemplifies naturalism’s acceptance of racialized thought (60). Of particular interest is Dreiser’s description of how witnessing a lynching transforms the story’s hero, Elmer Davies

Vortical Blues: Turbulence, Disorder, and the Emplotment of Surplus Meaning in Native Son


The night, the tragedy, the grief, he saw it all. But also with a cruel instinct of he budding artist that he already was, he was beginning to meditate on the character of the story it would make—the color, the pathos. The knowledge now that it was not always exact justice that was meted out to all and that it was not so much the business of the writer to indict as to interpret was borne in on him with distinctness by the cruel sorrow of the mother, whose blame, if any, was infinitesimal. (367, my emphasis)

The story’s fundamental concern is the transformation Davies undergoes from dilettante to professional. As an interpreter of events, Davies’ task is, interestingly, not a matter of objectivity. Clearly, his reaction to the mother, his sudden interest in the story at hand and its potential for moving his readers, making them see, are characteristic of naturalism’s deployment of the visual as an instrument working in the service of rhetorical force. This position is made all the more affecting when we arrive at the story’s last words, when Davies cries out, “I’ll get it all in!” He does this “feelingly, if triumphantly,” as if he has come to understand his writerly task as one in which passion and meticulousness are linked. Further he recognizes that in a story of victimization such as this, narrative power resides in the writer’s ability to capture the dualism of tragedy. Dreiser describes victim’s mother as “an old black mammy doubled up and weeping,” which leads Davies to realize that in reporting on the lynching, there is also the mother’s “guiltlessness…her love (367),” wondering how “one could balance that against the other” (367). Naturalism’s depiction of generative acts are to be found in Dreiser’s story, but with a difference. Mrs. Ingalls’ cries of woe, as they will be preserved in Davies story, lead us to understand his promise to “get it all in,” as the attempt to restore the integrity of the black female womb. Mrs. Ingalls’ “guiltlessness,” points to the manner in which black reproduction is always already caught up in the “flow” of social determinism such that, irrespective of any effort she might make to raise a good son, black men are always destined to be brutes. In order to balance Ingalls’ crime against the mother’s guiltlessness, he must represent Ingalls as the product of a black mammy, a figure historically meant to serve white interests. As Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye makes clear, the black “mammy” is distracted from her children’s everyday plight by the fact that she is in a constant state of mourning regarding the loss of her own sexuality,


Herman Beavers

which can only be redeemed within the white family, through the maternal concern she directs at white children. What this means is that the black brute is the product of an immaculate conception, his circumstance detached from black motherhood, leaving the “mammy” in place to incubate Davies’ artistic potential as she redeems the value of the black race. Once again, the 1st law of thermodynamics is in play: the reader can retain their view that black men deserve their fate when they transgress racial (and sexual) boundaries, but they can also retain their affection for the black mother who may give birth to brutes, but whose redemptive potential lies in her allegiance to the white community. “Nigger Jeff” serves as a kind of critical mise en scene through which I can make an argument regarding Wright’s novel. Native Son’s reliance on naturalist tenets is reflected by the fact that in Book Three: Fate, Wright reproduces in Mrs. Thomas and Vera, the grieving mother and sister of “Nigger Jeff.” Like Jeff Ingalls’ mother, Mrs. Thomas is equally guiltless in the eyes of Mrs. Dalton who tells her, “There’s nothing I can do now…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” (302). Mrs. Dalton’s words echo Davies’ absolution of Mrs. Ingalls. But in addition, Wright’s novel emphasizes regulation alongside dissipation and conservation. Mrs. Dalton declares herself incapable of saving Bigger’s life but she also determines Mrs. Thomas to be free of blame for Bigger’s actions, as if to suggest that there are instances when maternal power, as it regards the black brute, is inadequate to the task of regulation and discipline. Regulation functions in Native Son in very literal ways. As I have noted, Wright’s novel reflects thermodynamic principles, its plot emphasizes regulation alongside dissipation and conservation. In light of the horrific dimensions of Bigger’s crime, enabled by the regulatory function he plays in the Dalton home, the reader will remember that one of Bigger’s tasks is to tend the furnace. Just after Bigger arrives for his first day of work, Peggy, the family cook, takes him to see the furnace and the family car. She informs him that his job involves burning trash, feeding coal into the furnace, cleaning out the ashes, and announcing when more coal is needed. Bigger’s relationship to the furnace is regulatory; his efforts insure that the Dalton home maintains a level of warmth and comfort consistent with their preferences. But the furnace, and to a lesser extent the Dalton family car, demonstrates the ways black bodies are directly involved with the quotidian requirements of the wealthy. Like Lucious

Vortical Blues: Turbulence, Disorder, and the Emplotment of Surplus Meaning in Native Son


Brockway, the paint factory employee who appears in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Bigger is “the machine inside the machine.” Moreover, the job itself constitutes a regulatory circumstance. When Mr. Dalton informs Bigger that he is going to hire him, he tells Bigger that he’ll receive $25 dollars a week, an extra five dollars over what the job calls for. Bigger is to provide his family with $20 so his mother can “keep [his] brother and sister in school” and keep the other five for himself. From the start, Bigger’s relationship to his job is organized around balanced apportionment: feeding the furnace and cleaning it, money for his family and money for himself, maintaining the appearance of the frightened “good boy” for the Daltons against the image of street-wise hustler he holds with his friends. The optimism Bigger feels on the first day of his job represents a radical departure from what he felt at the start of the novel, when he tells Gus, “It’s like I was going to do something I can’t help…” Here, Bigger articulates the ways naturalism negates the idea of personal choice. Bigger resides inside a force that he cannot fully articulate, much less control. In keeping with naturalism’s mandate of depicting “case histories of bodies, sexualities, and populations,” on their way to no good end (Seltzer 43), Native Son seeks to represent Bigger’s entrapment in a “flow” of events that will spell his demise. “I reckon we the only things in this city that can’t go where we want to go and do what we want to do,” he complains to Gus (20). And. like a furnace, Bigger can only conclude that his life is under the control of someone else: Every time I think about it I feel like somebody’s poking a red-hot iron down my throat. Goddamit, look! We live here, and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things, and we can’t. It’s like living in jail. Half the time I feel like I’m on the outside of the world peeping in through a knothole in the fence…(20)

What makes regulation such a powerful trope in Native Son, then, is the manner in which it sustains binary forms of existence, where the tactics of control Seltzer describes as symptomatic of the naturalist novel are felt: each time the protagonist determines the nature of the forces holding him in place, regulatory forces come into play to tamp down the impulse to mount resistance (Seltzer 43). However, it is here that readers can also note Wright’s use of the vortex as a figuration of Bigger’s turn toward self-creation. Just after Bigger and Gus watch a pigeon fly into the air, Bigger says, “Now, if


Herman Beavers

I could only do that.” As Bigger and Gus stand watching the street, they notice a truck driving past, “lifting scraps of white paper into the sunshine.” Caught up in the vortex created by the truck’s mechanically produced force, the paper briefly mimics the flight of the bird only to settle back to earth to become, once more, trash on the street. It is at this moment when Bigger asks Gus “where the white folk live” in relation to the Black Belt. Gus offers a geographical setting (“over there on Cottage Grove Avenue”), but Bigger corrects him, doubling his fist, striking his solar plexus, and declaring that they live, “Right down here in my stomach.” Bigger’s act works on two levels. Certainly, it performs an act of revisionist mapping, insisting that the physical space whites inhabit is localized in his body. But his declaration reflects the ways the vortex signifies stochastic forces are at work; by locating whites at the center of his body, Bigger articulates white supremacy as a blockage that he can feel. It also insists that whatever happens “where the white folk live” by definition negates life in the Black Belt, which leads to Bigger’s declaration, “Nothing ever happens.” But it is the presence of these two opposing states, motion and stasis, that signals the conditions for turbulent flow. As Gordon Slethaug argues, turbulence results as equilibrium, here in the form of the contrast that inheres between black and white, gives way to bifurcation. When Bigger and Gus look up to see the plane overhead, it represents an instance where vortical energy begins to increase. This is signaled by the plane, which is notably engaged in the act of skywriting the phrase “USE SPEED GASOLINE.” After they read the words, Bigger and Gus experience a quickening of consciousness that leads them to decide to “play white,” a game where they imitate “the ways and manners of white folks” (17). In essence, the game proceeds as the “flow” increases. But what has made this possible is the manner in which Bigger and Gus assume the identity of the very thing that “blocks” their motion. Playing the roles of “movers and shakers” like J.P. Morgan or the President of the United States or an Army general, Bigger and Gus put forward a political critique where they link the spoils of capitalism to their plight. Consider that point in the imaginary exchange between Morgan and the President which ends with Bigger declaring that Morgan’s presence is required at a cabinet meeting because “the niggers is raising sand all over the country” (19). Bigger ends the game when he asserts, “They don’t let us do nothing.” The game’s conclusion is likewise important because it imagines a moment when local acts of

Vortical Blues: Turbulence, Disorder, and the Emplotment of Surplus Meaning in Native Son


racial resistance have grown into a collective form of disobedience requiring government intervention. Without recognizing it, Bigger and Gus have used the game to give conceptual shape to the racist anxieties motivating the brand of social control exerted over inhabitants of the Black Belt. In other words, Bigger and Gus employ the vortical act of “raising sand” to explain the workings of racial oppression, which results from the collusion of government and business. Here we find Wright’s complicated turn on naturalism’s use of the symbols of mechanical production. He insinuates that the government “machine” is mindful of “drag” as an impediment to system efficiency and thus it works to eradicate the possibility before it can take shape. 15 The fact that systems are dissipative, spiraling down to randomness, suggests that Wright’s experiments in naturalism sought to conjoin thermodynamics and stochastics because he understood his role as an artist was the portrayal of disorder, the machine in danger of spinning out of control. Wright’s artistic ethos is restated in John A. Williams’ novel The Man Who Cried I Am, in which Harry Ames, a character clearly based on Wright, declares, “I want trouble to be my middle name when I write about America. I wouldn’t like it if a single person slept well. (Williams, 49)” Williams translates Wright’s intent as the antithesis of a desire to “explain” the “race problem” for the majority. Seeing his writing as a gateway to the horrific, Wright’s fiction eschewed “the rich possibilities in the blues tradition,” and used chaos as a way to chart the presence of surplus meaning.16 Though it is easy to view the purpose of protest fiction as one of offering a plea for redistributive justice, Wright’s fiction seeks to portray social disequilibrium, as if he wishes the reader to understand that systems (political, ideological, social, etc.) initiate—and indeed, seek to perpetuate—a state of imbalance. This might explain why Wright’s fiction seems to revel in those moments where the disasters in his fiction become the occasion for didacticism rather than complexity (Menand 80). 3 Because my space is limited, I am unable to discuss each and every manifestation of vortical symbolism in Native Son. In the interest of brevity, I want to focus in on the scenes leading up to and taking place in the movie theater. I also want to introduce the idea of the feedback loop. Though the concept can be confusing, it nonetheless provides readers with a way to understand how Wright was able to stay true to


Herman Beavers

naturalism’s deployment of thermodynamic principles while expanding it to reflect stochastic principles. The feedback loop is an essential concept for both fields and, once again, it argues for the need to understand naturalism’s social project within the context of chaos theory. Second, and more directly, the feedback loop allows us to account for Bigger’s duality: his regulatory function and his embodiment of vortical force. According to Gordon Slethaug, a feedback loop is an aspect of “far-from-equilibrium systems” (57). We can best understand how the feedback loop works by thinking about the thermostat that controls a furnace. It allows conditions to be regulated and modulated because it generates a negative feedback loop. As the room grows colder, the thermostat turns on the heat (or, if it hot, the air conditioning) in order to maintain a constant temperature. In a closed system, a negative feedback loop maintains order, holding entropy at bay because it limits the amount of variability in the system. A positive feedback loop, on the other hand, is distinguished by its lack of regulatory functions. Positive feedback loops, because they lack external checks to maintain equilibrium, are characterized by their potential to spin out of control. Here, “one aspect [of the system] is tremendously amplified, possibly creating discomfort and instability” (57). Let me also note here that feedback loops exemplify the ways that local forms of instability can transmute themselves into global trauma or they can be contained within a closed system where sufficient energy exists to maintain equilibrium, in short, forcing local instability to remain so. What this means is that readers should not disconnect the scenes in the movie theater from the plan to rob Blum’s store. The violent confrontation between Bigger and Gus after the movie exemplifies the workings of a negative feedback loop. Knowing that robbing a white man constitutes “trespassing into territory where the full wrath of an alien white world [could] be turned loose upon” him and his friends, Bigger views the plan as a way to collapse the influence of the negative feedback loop that controls life in the Black Belt. For if he and his friends can enact a successful “trespass,” Bigger can actualize the conditions that exist at the end of the game of “playing white.” Readers should also recall the language used in the game to denote black resistance, “raising sand,” a nod to the vortical force contained in a sandstorm, a positive feedback loop that resists human intervention.

Vortical Blues: Turbulence, Disorder, and the Emplotment of Surplus Meaning in Native Son


Conversely, it is also clear that the robbery offers the possibility of generative force. Robbing Blum represents a form of energy sufficient to divert Bigger’s attention away from the social blockages preventing him from leading a life flying planes or owning capital. In view of patriarchy’s imperative to conserve energy, be it in the form of property or progeny, Bigger’s desire for release points to the ways that nihilism, as Cornel West reminds us, is held in check by stimulation (17). Consider how Bigger dramatizes this state of mind: Bigger felt an urgent need to hide his growing and deepening feeling of hysteria; he had to get rid of it or else he would succumb to it. He longed for a stimulus powerful enough to focus his attention and drain off his energies. He wanted to run. Or listen to some swing music. Or laugh or joke. Or read a Real Detective Story Magazine. Or go to a movie. Or visit Bessie. (28)

Bigger’s nihilistic impulse is, in itself, a vortical symbol in light of Bigger’s sense that only stimulation can slow his descent into the maelstrom. Consider this point alongside the description in “A Descent into the Maelstrom” by Poe’s sailor: Both above and below us were visible fragments of vessels, large masses of building timber and trunks of trees, with many smaller articles, such as pieces of house furniture, broken boxes, barrels and staves. I have already described the unnatural curiosity which had taken the place of my original terrors. It appeared to grow upon me as I drew nearer and nearer to my dreadful doom. I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. (171)

What appears to be a wall of blackness is actually shot through with light sufficient to illuminate objects “in the embrace of the whirl” that speak to the manner in which the vortex seems to be history incarnate, a repository of human existence in which notions of value or distinction collapse. Bigger’s desire for stimulation is such that it can assume any number of forms, ranging from physical exertion to reading pulp fiction to emotional levity. As Wright’s portrayal of Bigger’s dilemma suggests, the most efficient way to regulate the descent into the abyss is, ironically, a matter of dissipation, release. But even if the stimulus assumes sexual form, it is not a quickening of body and soul. Instead, Bigger seeks a means of deceleration to slow his descent. It is through the need for stimulation that Bigger shifts his desire away from his need for money to the desire to see a movie. “In a


Herman Beavers

movie he could dream without effort; all he had to do was lean back in a seat and keep his eyes open” (14). Though Bigger believes the movie represents the removal of an important blockage, it represents instead the act of trading in his dreams for those produced by the cultural machinery of Hollywood which is why Bigger’s idea of dreaming is not a product of sleep. In slumber, where dreams occur at random, the subject cedes control of the dream narrative’s trajectory. As Slethaug insists, too “high a concentration of order paradoxically leads to a certain kind of entropy or disorder,” hence when Bigger begins to watch the newsreel featuring Mary Dalton, this paradox reinitiates the positive feedback loop. Because Wright’s intent, in keeping with the naturalist project, is to dramatize a system in a state of disequilibrium, the movie theater becomes that place where Bigger’s actual nature as a figuration of instability determines that disorder is manifest. As Minahen points out, the vortex is the result of oppositional forces coming into a state of sustained contact. Had Bigger simply watched Mary Dalton on the movie screen, she would simply function as the proverbial dreamwish, unattainable because she would never be present as flesh and blood, regulatory force would remain inviolate. But once Bigger realizes that she is the daughter of his employer, the desire he expresses to Jack collides with the hatred he harbors for whites. As the unabridged version of Native Son makes clear by restoring the scene where Bigger and Jack masturbate while waiting for the movie to begin, Mary Dalton, as the embodiment of a sexual and social taboo in cinematic form, represents the illusion of laminar flow, 17 but her physical presence, where Bigger’s hatred toward her (and by implication, her parents) functions in direct proportion to her attempts to be kind to him, constitutes a blockage that must be removed.18 What makes this important is that the masturbation scene represents the cyclical shape nihilism can assume, where the subject moves from stimulation to release. Also note how Jack and Bigger are engaged in what might be construed as a shameful act but which they view as friendly competition. What prevents it from becoming shameful is that their actions are contained within the context of what is known as the zeroth law of thermodynamics (two systems in a state of thermal equilibrium with a third will remain so with each other). The movies, as the enactment of a visual form of masturbatory power, require Bigger and Jack to enter into a state of equilibrium. The pipe organ playing “low and soft,” (presumably steam powered once again a nod to naturalism’s fascination with the steam engine), invites the

Vortical Blues: Turbulence, Disorder, and the Emplotment of Surplus Meaning in Native Son


boys to reach the state on the other side of release, the satiation that signals that energy has been expended. This leads to an important consideration. By the time the film begins, the boys are prepared for the film’s surrogate function: substituting their response to the image for the self-stimulation they utilized to reach equilibrium. But the zeroth law of thermodynamics is often paraphrased to mean that one has to play the game.19 Thus, when the film, “Trader Horn” begins, Bigger’s thoughts turn to his job working for the Daltons. Watching the images in the film, which assume the vortical shape of “black men and women whirling in wild dances” leads Bigger to replace the film’s images “by images in his own mind of white men and women dressed in black and white clothes, laughing, talking, drinking, and dancing.” The substitution of social ritual for the distorted images of African religious ritual connote Bigger’s place inside the game. “Sure it was all a game,” he observes, “and white people knew how to play” (33). Wright’s fusion of thermodynamic and stochastic principles enables us to grasp the role the movie plays in Bigger’s violent humiliation of Gus afterward. But it also requires us to understand the gender politics inherent in the situation.20 Hegemonic masculinity, with its privileging of arousal (e.g. potency, the constant availability of force) and domination, is distinguished by how it aspires rhetorically to be understood as a positive feedback loop (manhood is synonymous with an increase in force). Governed, though, by conservation, dissipation, and entropy (the first, second, and third laws of thermodynamics), the performance of masculinity ultimately embodies the demands of the negative feedback loop. Here, we might paraphrase Allen Ginsberg’s famous restatement of thermodynamic laws: masculinity is a game one can’t win, in which one can’t break even, and which one can’t quit.21 Hence, when Bigger reaches the conclusion that working for the Daltons is analogous to tapping into whites’ ability to amass capital, it signals the false consciousness that renders the game of “playing white,” with its characteristic signifying and its inherent political critique, void. Bigger confronts Gus because the movie has helped him reach the subconscious conclusion that the “job” of robbing Blum’s Delicatessen, with its high level of risk and potential for serious punishment, represents turbulence that should be avoided because it contains far too many variables to run smoothly. The collaborative energy they used to produce the game of “playing white,” is totally expended. Thus, Bigger finds working for the Daltons preferable


Herman Beavers

because the film has led him to understand interaction with rich whites such as the Daltons as a laminar circumstance, free of the friction that creates turbulence and risk. But the effect of the film, its surrogate function of arousal completed, has given way to the need for more stimulation. When Bigger and Jack arrive at Doc’s Pool Hall, he feels a swelling in his chest that requires release. “His entire body hungered for keen sensation, something exciting and violent to relieve the tautness” (36). But this vortical force is local in its consequences: it is what Bigger requires to loose himself from the Blum robbery and position himself within the “respectable” game of “working” (as opposed to “playing”) white. One might conceptualize Bigger Thomas’ journey through Native Son as one involving his transition from a life characterized by the negative feedback loop to one in which the positive feedback loop reigns supreme. Here, let me speculate that one reason so many critics argue that “nothing happens” in Book Three of Native Son might be that they have failed to understand Wright’s intent. For in looking at Bigger Thomas’s struggle to articulate what his acts of violence mean, what we notice is the ways that Wright uses the “vortex” not only to describe the inner turmoil he feels but also as a way to insinuate the notion of narrative instability. The discomfort created by Bigger Thomas has to do, on one level, with the sense that he was an inadequate exemplum.22 But it also has to do with the ways that, as Kenneth Knoespel insists, “examples are frequently used to demonstrate a closed system” (115). Knoespel argues that chaos theory shares with deconstruction “the crucial importance not of axiomatic or systemic statements but of examples.” And he continues: For each, examples provide a stable means for exploring instability. Their stability, however, is not conventional in the sense that it would enforce allegiance. Rather, it is stability that accompanies anything used as a heuristic device. Examples become phenomenologically rich sources, a means not only of simple affirmation but also of extending inquiry.

Remembering the assertion above that Wright saw Native Son as a heuristic project, let me suggest, along with Knoespel, that extending inquiry can be compared to the “play of surplus meaning.” Which is to say that turbulence provides the occasion for Wright to suggest that black life is, by definition, a matter of dialectics but perhaps more importantly, also a matter of surplus meaning.23 I would submit that

Vortical Blues: Turbulence, Disorder, and the Emplotment of Surplus Meaning in Native Son


whatever one may think about Bigger Thomas, or Wright’s level of artistry, what Native Son confronts us with, and this is particularly the case in Book Three, is the politics of surplus meaning. And in light of this, let me suggest that Wright’s ultimate aim in Native Son was to express the inadequacy of synechdochical thinking. What is significant about Book Three is not only that Max fails and Buckley succeeds (Max assuming a position reflective of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, Buckley reflecting the 1st [remember, his poster announces, “YOU CAN’T WIN]) but rather that Wright’s prose generates a gloss of surplus meaning. To be sure, Wright’s explication of Bigger’s interior state might have been more deftly handled, but I would suggest that what made the novel such a watershed event becomes clear when we try to imagine another point in American literary history where one could find two white men caught in a state of disagreement on what it means to be black in the United States. And didacticism not withstanding, both men’s longwinded analyses lead us to the conclusion we might expect: both are wrong. Max’s “blindness” is evident in his declaration that “every Negro in America’s on trial out there today,” and Buckley’s is apparent when he states, “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 his venom of death” (409). Here, Bigger moves from mammal to lizard to reptile, as if his place outside the human race is so fraught with taxonomic slippage that making Bigger an example constitutes a proliferation of meaning where surplus meaning is the result. What characterizes both statements is their attempt to globalize the meaning of Bigger’s trial when it is nothing more than a local circumstance. Where Max is more accurate than Buckley lies in Max’s awareness that microdisturbances like Bigger’s often incite macro-responses from the status quo, which only heightens the sense that white supremacy signals a system in danger of collapse. The grounds to understand this goal are available from Wright’s own characterization of his life growing up in the South. As Abdul JanMuhammed has argued, Richard Wright’s achievement, both as an artist and as a product of the South, was his ability to resist the hegemonic negation of his subjectivity and to create art that transformed that resistance into prose narrative. (107-108). When Bigger declares, “What I killed for must’ve been good!” we are meant to see it as both triumph and malfunction; the horror that


Herman Beavers

grips Max when he hears this, the way he gropes for his hat “like a blind man,” is meant to suggest that Bigger’s death, like Babo’s at the end of Melville’s “Benito Cereno” may insure the equilibrium of the status quo, but it is, in fact, anything but an assurance of stability. It may well be that the end of Native Son represents Wright’s inability to loose himself from the “politics of outcomes” (80). But as Poe’s vortex reminds us, Wright’s novel demonstrates the ways impending doom that should arrest our attention, but the process of our descent. Herman Beavers University of Pennsylvania

Notes 1 Joan Dayan’s fine work on Poe is persuasive on this point, particularly when she insists upon the importance of “a rereading of Poe that depends absolutely on what has so often been cut out of his work: the institution of slavery, Poe’s troubled sense of himself as a southern aristocrat, and finally, the precise and methodical transactions in which he revealed the threshold separating humanity from animality” (241). Dayan explicates Poe’s gothic fictions as “crucial to our understanding of the entangled metaphysics of romance and servitude” (241). 2 As Louis Menand points out in his essay, “The Hammer and the Nail,” Wright measured himself as a writer against American “masters” like Hawthorne, Melville, James, and Poe. He likewise asserts that Wright’s turn toward protest fiction, far from being a declaration of his desire to tell his readers what to think was actually his attempt to locate himself among the white writers he saw as his models (81). 3 While I do not wish to overstate the case, it is most certainly true that Wright’s novel functions in the cultural imaginary as a “script” helping us to navigate a variety of cultural events. For example, Bigger Thomas was resurrected in the form of O.J. Simpson’s darkened face, as it appeared on the cover of Time magazine after he was accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson. Moreover, the media’s representation of a nation divided along racial lines, with blacks rejoicing when Simpson was exonerated of all charges and whites bemoaning the verdict as a gross miscarriage of justice, one which demonstrated the ways that blacks received preferential treatment. But we could also see Wright’s influence in the rise of a number of cinematic narratives, perhaps most notably “Menace to Society” and “Boyz N the Hood,” which depict black male lives in late 20th Century America as being synonymous with nihilism. 4

Charles Minahen recounts a lecture by Richard Wilbur, who chronicles the abundance of vortical symbols in Poe’s work, from the aforementioned vortex in “Descent” to MS. Found in a Bottle,” to the vortical forces that destroy the House of Usher, to the “whirlwind of chaotic fire” in Poe’s first story, “Metzengerstein,” and concludes that Poe deploys vortical symbolism as a way to represent the “descent of the mind into sleep.” Minahen suggests that the vortex actually represents a way for

Vortical Blues: Turbulence, Disorder, and the Emplotment of Surplus Meaning in Native Son


the subject to step out of linear time, as if crossing the event horizon of a black hole, where oppositionality reigns supreme. pp. 102, 111. 5

Minahen, 103.


As Whalen asserts, “The way white people relate to each other: this is what haunts Poe, this is what motivates his fantasies of a neutral culture, and this, to an extent seldom acknowledged, is what burdens the current critical discourse on race…This is why attempting to read politics back into Poe’s work have proven so vexing.” (34) 7 Indeed, one way to think about the gothic novel is as an expression of the turbulence that results when private terrors erupt into public space. Wright’s description of the South as a “delicately balanced state of affairs,” intimates that those terrors were in danger of erupting at any given moment, which required the South to be a space controlled by such rigid regulatory practices. 8 As Jonathan Elmer points out the history of slavery, in creating the African Diaspora, “most often induces meditations about trauma (768)” that lead us to ponder larger truths. 9

It is well known that Wright utilized the journalistic accounts of the trial of Robert Nixon, an eighteen-year-old black man who broke into a white woman’s home and murdered her with a brick in 1938, while he was engaged in the planning of Native Son (152). Wright was also fascinated as well by the Leopold and Loeb case in which two Jewish teenagers, both students at the University of Chicago, both from wealthy backgrounds, kidnapped a 14-year-old boy, murdered him, and burned his clothes in the furnace of the Loeb home. They sent the boy’s father a ransom note asking for $10,000. It is clear Wright incorporated many of these details into the plot of Native Son. 10 The reader may remember that Wright begins “How Bigger Was Born” by suggesting that the character took shape from social observation rather than pure imagination. The model for Bigger Thomas, Wright suggests, was distilled from five different iterations, referred to as Biggers 1-5, all of whom he remembers from growing up in the South, each more rebellious and violent than the one before. According to Wright, they are nothing if not transgressive, ignoring the strict boundaries established by Jim Crow laws meant to consign blacks to a world separate from whites. As solitary figures living by their own set of codes, they terrorize black and white alike; fulfilling their own desires constitutes their highest priority. Wright’s grudging admiration for these young men confirms as well his sense that these prototypical Biggers live lives rendered tragic by their unwillingness to conform to social dictates. The problem, of course, is that their resistance is directed to the sole purpose of self-gratification. True, they embody a kind of proto-nationalism in that they opt for death or incarceration over a spirit broken by the likes of Jim Crow racism, but their hubris is destructive, as if the cost of their resistance is borne at the community’s expense. That none of these proto-heroic black men escapes from their oppressive circumstances unscathed is, Wright suggests, the price each pays for rebellion. We can also understand Biggers 1-5 as figures of turbulence, which means that Wright’s impulse to create a racial exemplar rested on local agents of disturbance. 11

The danger, Elmer reminds us, is that Wright’s novel “can never be entirely free of the suspicion that its representations are repetitions rather than revisions,


Herman Beavers

contributions to racial impasse and the violence of stereotype rather than exposes of them” (772). 12 An example of this, more recently, is to be found in the city of Los Angeles in 1992, which spun out of control after residents of South Central Los Angeles learned that six white policeman had been exonerated of charges in the assault of black motorist Rodney King. What may have begun as an instance of politically motivated civil disobedience quickly transmogrified into looting and random violence that destroyed millions of dollars in property and caused extensive loss of life. 13

As Gordon Slethaug points out, equilibrium, creating it and sustaining it, are important aspects of social systems. If we use the science of fluid dynamics as an analogy, turbulence results “as the flow of a liquid around an obstacle is, at a slow speed, nearly steady, regular, and orderly,” but which gathers speed to create what is known as turbulent flow. 14

As N. Katherine Hayles describes it, turbulence results when: microscopic fluctuations within a flowing liquid cancel each other out, as when a river flows smoothly between its banks. In this case, each water molecule follows the same path as the one before it, so that molecules starting close together continue to be close. Sometimes, however, microscopic fluctuations persist and are magnified up to the macroscopic level, causing eddies and backwaters to form. Then molecules that began close together may quickly separate, and molecules that were far apart my come close together. As a result, it becomes extremely difficult to calculate how the flow will evolve (154-55). 15

Wright suggests as much in “How Bigger Was Born,” when he asserts, “But keeping the ballot from the Negro was not enough to hold him in check: disfranchisement had to be supplemented by a whole panoply of rules, taboos, and penalties designed not only to insure peace (complete submission), but to guarantee that no real threat would ever arise” (438). 16

This is underscored by Wright’s feeling, after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Children, that his failure lay in allowing his reader—which he constructs as a white female (the banker’s daughter)—to view black life as a catalyst for sympathy. In opting to produce an anti-hero, Wright sought to immerse his reader within a moral vortex, where the disorientation would produce a greater sense of what sort of nation America actually was; not the “Land of the Free,” but instead a swirling mass of contradictions. 17 By “laminar” I refer to that circumstance where flow is stable and uninhibited because there exists a minimum level of drag on a surface. Cf. “Turbulence” in Wikipedia. 18 Let me credit here Jonathan Elmer’s essay, “Spectacle and Event in Native Son.” Elmer reaches the same conclusion that I do regarding Mary’s murder. Though he does not describe it as such, his description: “Mary’s murder answers just this description; we have there a blockage and bottleneck building up pressure, which results in the change of state figured in Deleuze’s metaphors of fusion, condensation, and boiling.” Where we differ is that Elmer’s description tends toward a thermodynamic emphasis, whereas mine is stochastic. 19 “The zeroth law of thermodynamics states that thermodynamic equilibrium is an equivalence relation. For my purposes, it means that the film leads Bigger to the

Vortical Blues: Turbulence, Disorder, and the Emplotment of Surplus Meaning in Native Son


conclusion that he can play the game with the same results as whites, the film produces the false sense that he is equivalent to the Daltons. 20

Space does not allow me to elaborate fully, but let me suggest that the feminist response to Wright’s depiction of women in Native Son, most notably in the work of Trudier Harris and Sherley Anne Williams, identifies the manner in which Wright employed a stochastic model of gender hierarchy. If we look, for example, at the way that Bigger comes to see Bessie as a liability, we see that Bigger feels her—and indeed, all black women—as a “drag” that inhibits motion. As “dangerous burden,” Bessie cannot assume a more three-dimensional shape in Wright’s narrative because to do so invalidates the need for black men to seek their place in the mythic construct of American masculinity which foregrounds acts of rugged individualism and backgrounds interdependency. Cf. Harris, “Native Sons and Foreign Daughters,” and Williams, “Papa Dick and Sister Woman,” as well as David Ikard’s forthcoming study, Breaking the Silence: Toward a Black Male Feminist Criticism, which signals the emergence of a sustained critique of black men’s adherence to hegemonic masculinity, seeing it, in fact, as a “drag” on the black community’s prospects. 21

“Laws of Thermodynamics.” Wikipedia accessed 9/15/06.


As Hazel Rowley’s recent biography makes clear, Wright’s novel was received with a brand of ambivalence which began as privately expressed discomfort but quickly swelled into a more overt distaste. For example, the novelist Nelson Algren, who had been a friend to Wright while he lived in Chicago, congratulated Wright on the novel’s conceptual and structural brilliance but concluded, “What does get me is that it’s such a threat. I mean a personal threat” (202). And among black intellectuals, there were similar sentiments. Shirley Graham, soon to become the wife of W.E.B. DuBois, wrote her mentor and future husband that the novel turned her “blood to vinegar” and made her “heart weep for having borne two sons.” And by 1946, Langston Hughes would declare in print, ‘It’s about time some Negro writer wrote a good novel about good Negroes who do not come to a bad end” (193). 23

Knoespel defines surplus meaning as complex psycho-lingual phenomena which are generated by interpretive acts but which remain unacknowledged in the formulation of a response. Surplus information pertains to data which may be quantified but not necessarily comprehended through a single formulation

Works Consulted Brivic, Sheldon. “Conflict of Values: Richard Wright’s Native Son” in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 7. 3 (Spring 1974): 231-245. Brown, Stephanie and Keith Clark. “Melodramas of Beset Black Manhood? Meditations on Topos and Social Menace, An Introduction” in Callaloo. 26.3 (Summer, 2003): 732-737.


Herman Beavers

Dayan, Joan. “Amorous Bondage: Poe, Ladies, and Slaves” in American Literature. 66.2 (June 1994): 239-273 Demarest, David P. Jr. “Richard Wright: The Meaning of Violence” in Negro American Literature Forum 8,3. (Autumn, 1974): 236-239. Dreiser, Theodore. “Nigger Jeff” in Francis E. Kearns, ed. The Black Experience: An Anthology of American Literature for the 1970s. New York; Viking Compass Books, 1970. ( 341-367) Elmer, Jonathan. “Spectacle and Native Son” in American Literature 70.4. (December, 1998): 763-798. Erkkila, Betsy. “The Poetics of Whiteness: Poe and the Racial Imaginary” in Gerald Kennedy and Lilliane Weissberg. Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2001. (41-74) Goddu, Teresa. “The Ghost of Race: Edgar Allan Poe and the Southern Gothic” in Henry B. Wonham, ed. The Color of Criticism. New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers U P , 1995. (230-250) Harris, Trudier, “Native Sons and Foreign Daughters” in New Essays on Wright’s Native Son. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. (63-84) Hayles, N. Katherine. Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990. JanMohamed, Abdul. “Negating the Negation as Form of Affirmation in Minority Discourse: The Construction of Richard Wright as Subject.” in Arnold Rampersad, ed. Richard Wright: A Collection of Essays. Edgewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995. (107-23) Kennedy, J. Gerald and Liliane Weissberg, eds. Romancing the Shadow; Poe and Race. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001 Kinnamon, Keneth,ed. New Essays on Native Son. Cambridge; Cambridge UP, 1990. Knoespel, Kenneth J. “The Emplotment of Chaos: Instability and Narrator Disorder” in N. Katherine Hayles, ed. Chaos and Order. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1991. (100124) Menand, Louis. American Studies. New York: Farrar Strauss, and Giroux, 2002. Miller, James A. “Bigger Thomas’s Quest for Voice and Audience in Richard Wright’s Native Son” in Callaloo. 28.3 (Summer, 1986): 501-506. Minahen, Charles. Vortex/t: The Poetics of Turbulence. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State U P, 1992. Murray, Albert. The Omni-Americans. 1970. New York: Vintage Books,1984. Poe, Edgar Allan. Thirty-Two Stories. Eds. Stuart Levine and Susan F. Levine, Indianapolis IN: Hackett Publishing Co. 2000. Rampersad, Arnold, ed. Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edgewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995. Rowley, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. New York: Owl Books, 2001.

Vortical Blues: Turbulence, Disorder, and the Emplotment of Surplus Meaning in Native Son


Savory, Jerold. “Bigger Thomas and the Book of Job: The Epigraph to Native Son” in Negro American Literature Forum. 9.2. (Summer, 1975): 55-56. Seltzer, Mark. Bodies and Machines. Ithaca NY: Cornell UP, 1992. Siegel, Paul N. ‘The Conclusion of Richard Wright’s Native Son” in PMLA. 89.3. (May, 1974): 517-23. Slethaug, Gordon. Beautiful Chaos: Chaos Theory and Meta-chaotics in Recent American Fiction. Albany: SUNY Press, 2000. West, Cornel. Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. Whalen, Terence. “Average Racism: Poe, Slavery, and the Wages of Literary Nationalism.” in J Gerald Kennedy and Liliane Weissberg, eds. Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2001. (3-40) Williams, John A. The Man Who Cried I Am. 1967. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1992. Williams, Sherley Ann. “Papa Dick and Sister Woman: Reflections on Women in the Fiction of Richard Wright” in Arnold Rampersad, ed. Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1995. Wright, Richard. Native Son. 1940. New York: Harper Collins Books, 2005. —. Uncle Tom’s Children. 1937. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.

A Polyphony of Genres

Native Son’s “ideology of form”: The (African) American Jeremiad and American Exceptionalism

The critical consensus established around the canon of Richard Wright’s thirteen published works has tended to divert the attention to either Wright’s particular brand of Black Nationalism or to his creation of “the Negro” as a metaphor of the modern—alienated, deracinated, and disoriented—Western man. Instead, this essay will attempt to analyze the novel’s engagement with American idealism from within the African American tradition which has, from its inception, both embraced and criticized American exceptionalism. Native Son continues holding a prominent position in both the American and the African American literary traditions because, I would like to contend, Wright inscribed the novel in the national cultural continuum of the American jeremiad, exploiting its rhetoric, symbolism and typology, rather than because the novel successfully combined the more international or universal tenets of Marxism, naturalism, or existentialism. The analysis stems from Wright, Ellison and Morrison’s coincident observations about the centrality of the Black experience in America, an experience that returns the image of the nation’s betrayal of its foundational principles, as well as it reflects the humanity of blacks and their legitimate claim to freedom and equality.

Above all, we must not hesitate to discover the Americanness of Richard Wright. [...] Wright’s departures from Afro-American traditions generally serve to confirm his place in the mainstream of American letters, and, for the moment, it seems like the knowledgeable Afro-Americanist critic is best suited to articulate Wright’s stature in both literary worlds. Robert B. Stepto

The critical consensus established around the canon of Richard Wright’s thirteen published works, which simplistically proclaims the success of his American production while declaring the lesser quality of his European output, has tended to divert the attention to either


Ana María Fraile-Marcos

Wright’s particular brand of Black Nationalism or to his creation of “the Negro” as a metaphor, “a central symbol in the psychological, cultural, and political systems of the West as a whole” (Gilroy 158). However, Wright’s novel Native Son stands at the crossroads not of a double, but of a triple intersection where the African American experience works its way from the margins to the center of both American idealism and the Western understanding of modern man. This essay will attempt to analyze the novel’s engagement with American idealism from within the African American tradition which has, from its inception, both embraced and criticized American exceptionalism.1 It is my contention that the novel’s status as both an American and an African American classic is due, to a large extent, to Wright’s adherence to the sanctioned discourse of the nation’s exceptionalism, but by employing the African American rhetoric that has consistently pointed to its shortcomings. Native Son can also be seen as a contributor to the coherence of a national (American) identity while simultaneously reinforcing a sense of an African American national identity. Furthermore, the novel’s universalist call, based on its Marxist content and on the creation of Bigger as a representative modern man, connects directly with the pursuit of universal social perfectibility which lies at the core of American exceptionalism. Wright’s novel appears to be, therefore, a doubly native product, just like its main character, of whom Wright himself writes: “Bigger was attracted and repelled by the American scene. He was an American, because he was a native son; but he was also a Negro nationalist in a vague sense because he was not allowed to live as an American” (“How ‘Bigger’” xxiv). In spite of the novel’s “blemishes, imperfections [...] [and] unrealized potentialities” (Wright xxxiii), its engagement with the meta-narrative of the nation warrantees its central position in the American literary canon, whose creation responded from the beginning to “a standard of Americanness rather than a standard of excellence” (Baym 125)—this, however, is not to say that the American canon of literature is lacking any form of excellence. Likewise, Native Son responds to the conjunction of form and social political ideology that has historically shaped the African American canon of literature—as the contributors to Houston Baker and Redmond’s Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s agree

Native Son’s “ideology of form”: The (African) American Jeremiad and American Exceptionalism


upon. This essay’s objective will, therefore, be the study of Native Son’s “ideology of form,” to borrow from Frederic Jameson. It is my argument that Wright’s engagement with American idealism grounds his work both in the African American and in the national cultural continuum of protest and self-affirmation as articulated by the jeremiad rhetorical tradition.2 American Exceptionalism in Black and White During the era of the American Revolution, literature became instrumental for the promotion of nationalism. As new writers aspired to be “equal to the challenge of the new nation” (Baym 125), old texts gained momentum when put to the service of the exceptionalist cause, and the American literary canon was shaped to promote an exceptionalist ideology.3 The Puritan colonial experience offered, for example, John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” which became the paradigmatic text of America’s exceptional origins. This sermon reinforced the republican idea of a model society using the metaphor of the “City upon a hill,” and added the notion of the United States’ special status as God’s Chosen People. In the nineteenth century this would support the notion of America’s “Manifest Destiny,” backing the country’s expansionist and imperialist thrust. Religion and secular ideology joined forces to produce the exceptionalist American civil religion.4 However, by the time that the democratic values of the nascent nation had been articulated in the Declaration of Independence (1776), which confidently asserted the “self-evident truths” “that all men are created equal” and that among their inalienable rights are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” it had become obvious that the American reality was a long way off from achieving its ideals with regard to race, class and gender. As historian Joyce Appleby points out, American exceptionalism emerged as a “peculiar form of Eurocentrism” which “offered eighteenth-century Americans a collective identity before they had any other basis for spiritual unity” (25), but it foreclosed any other interpretation of reality, and turned the Other invisible. The resulting construction of a national identity shunned any interpretation that, acknowledging the authentic ethnic diversity of the country, might have included a multicultural perspective. Slavery, especially, contradicted the egalitarian


Ana María Fraile-Marcos

democratic ideals by excluding people of African descent from fully participating in American society. Like any ideology, American exceptionalism conditions thought, its structures and figures, becoming inescapable; what Louis Althusser calls “a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (162). Accordingly, “the process of organizing American coherence through a displacing Africanism became the operative mode of a new cultural hegemony” (8), as Toni Morrison puts it in her 1992 study, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. This displacement was not, however, an erasure, and Africanism acquired a covert presence, characterizing American exceptionalism and its cultural manifestations, as Morrison insists: In the scholarship on the formation of an American character and the production of a national literature, a number of items have been catalogued. A major item to be added to the list must be an Africanist presence—decidedly not American, decidedly other. (48)5

The repression of the problems of race, class and gender has proven “highly productive of canonical American literature” (Byers 57), which usually critiques from within the ideology the breach between the ideal and the reality. Thus, as Toni Morrison perceptively notes, the optimistic spirit which was grounded in the Enlightenment humanist belief in the inherent goodness of man was paradoxically paired in literature with explorations of evil that are, more often than not, translated into symbols and rituals involving blackness and whiteness, the absence or presence of guilt, fear, sin, death. Literature becomes, hence, “one significant site of the return of the exceptionalist repressed” (Byers 57). Hence, many of the present-day canonical American texts, either by white or black authors— Winthrop, Cooper, Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, James, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Booker T. Washington, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, and Toni Morrison, among many others—contain an intriguing textual tension that relies heavily on the possibility of America’s failure to live up to its ideal, to its exceptionalist destiny. However, their critique usually emerges from within the ideology, and “does not challenge the ideological paradigm” (62). Richard Wright is a notable addition to the above list, as his angry indictment in Native Son signaled a point of inflection in the protest tradition of African American literature and a landmark in American

Native Son’s “ideology of form”: The (African) American Jeremiad and American Exceptionalism


culture. However, the prominent position that Native Son holds in the American and African American literary traditions stems, I would like to contend, from the inscription of the novel in the national cultural continuum of the American jeremiad. The novel presents the indictment of both blacks and whites for the roles they play in perpetuating an unjust society, thereby forever deferring the fulfillment of the American promise and eventually forecasting both the explosion of the American Dream—to allude to Langston Hughes’ poem “What happens to a Dream Deferred?”—and the final damnation of the Chosen People. Thus, Native Son emerges as an American novel that simultaneously partakes in and corrects the traditional ways in which “Americans choose to talk about themselves through and within a sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence” (Morrison 17). In the vein of the African American tradition, Wright undertakes the task of addressing the nation by talking about Americans—both black and white—as an American by making use of the allegorical and metaphorical tradition Morrison mentions, but above all, by bringing that “choked representation of an Africanist presence” to the forefront in the form of the inarticulate Bigger Thomas. In his essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born”—included as a preface to the novel since 1942 (Kinnamon 2)—Wright identified the black race as the background against which Americans analyze human nature and their own identity as individuals and as a people, inscribing Native Son in the context of the American literary tradition when he asserts: we have no group acceptable to the whole of our country upholding certain humane values; [...] But we do have in the Negro the embodiment of a past tragic enough to appease the spiritual hunger of even a James; and we have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy even the gloomy broodings of a Hawthorne. And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him. (“How ‘Bigger’” xiv)

Other African American writers agree with Wright’s observations. Thus, Ralph Ellison was drawn to analyze how “the white American seeks to resolve the dilemma arising between his democratic beliefs and certain antidemocratic practices” (85) in his essay “TwentiethCentury Fiction and the Mask of Humanity” (1946). After referring to the denial of the blacks’ humanity as the rhetorical strategy Americans used to excuse the contradictory reality of a race of people submitted to another in a country that boasted of being the cradle of


Ana María Fraile-Marcos

freedom and democracy, Ellison suggests picturing “the whole of American life as a drama acted out upon the body of a Negro giant” (85). This drama, Ellison argues, is reflected in the literature of the nation, where blacks have been consistently portrayed in the works of white Americans as stereotypes, depleted of the “complex ambiguity of the human” (82). For Ellison, this false representation of blacks “both in the literary work and in the inner world of the white American” (84) is the result of a “process of institutionalized dehumanization” “so that white men could become more human” (85). He adds, we see that the Negro stereotype is really an image of the unorganized, irrational forces of American life, forces through which, by projecting them in forms of images of an easily dominated minority, the white individual seeks to be at home in the vast unknown world of America. Perhaps the object of the stereotype is not so much to crush the Negro as to console the white man. (97)

In the same vein, Toni Morrison explained that “Nothing highlighted freedom—if it did not in fact create it—like slavery” (38), and by the same token, nothing highlights humanity like a dehumanized race. Deriving from Ellison’s observations, Morrison definitely drew attention to the “Africanist presence”—or absence— as the overlooked mirror held up to reflect the American psyche and to explain the paradoxical moral anxiety at the core of American literature. And like Ellison, Morrison concludes that blacks have served to objectify white Americans’ fear of freedom, transferring “internal conflicts to a ‘blank darkness,’ to conveniently bound and violently silenced black bodies” (38) (emphasis added). African Americans have consistently contested this stigmatization of darkness that both sanctioned the institutional oppression of blacks and excluded them from the “broader American ideals” with which they, nevertheless, usually identified (Ellison 82).6 It is precisely this identification that returns the image of the nation’s betrayal of its foundational principles, as well as the blacks’ humanity and their legitimate claim to freedom and equality. And it is out of this African American tradition that Richard Wright produces Native Son, despite his own denial of African American forerunners. Native Son and exceptionalism Native Son embraces the ideology of American exceptionalism—and blends it with the Marxist doctrines that fed scientific socialism as

Native Son’s “ideology of form”: The (African) American Jeremiad and American Exceptionalism


well as with modernist existentialism as articulated both by Eurocentric tenets and by African American folk expressions such as the blues7—in order to launch a harsh critique of the way in which American civil religion was falling short of its ideals by exploiting, oppressing and contributing to the dehumanization of African Americans, therefore leading to the moral and physical disintegration of the nation. American exceptionalism is explored in the novel mainly through the figures of Bigger Thomas and his lawyer Boris Max. In “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” Wright points to the “dual character of Bigger’s social consciousness” (xxiv), but underlines his absorption of exceptionalism. Hence, Bigger’s identity as an American emerges as his prime defining characteristic, even more important than his black nationalism or his alienation from the religion and the folk culture that sustain—or fail to sustain—his own African American community: Above and beyond all this, there was that American part of Bigger which is the heritage of us all, that part of him that we get from our seeing and hearing, from school, from the hopes and dreams of our friends; that part of him which the common people of America never talk about but take for granted. Among millions of people the deepest convictions of life are never discussed openly; they are felt, implied, hinted at tacitly and obliquely in their hopes and fears. We live by an idealism that makes us believe that the Constitution is a good document, that the Bill of Rights is a good legal and humane principle to safeguard our civil liberties [...] I don’t say that Bigger knew this in the terms in which I’m speaking of it [...] But he knew it emotionally, intuitively, for his emotions and his desires were developed, and he caught it, as most of us do, from the mental and emotional climate of our time. (xxiv-xxv) (Emphasis added)

As Bigger’s articulate counterpart, Max will help Wright proclaim Bigger’s belonging in the American polity, as well as Bigger’s dual role as either redeemer or destructor of American society and of American idealism. The novel’s angry condemnation and warning inscribes it, as I suggested above, in the tradition of the American jeremiad,—amply studied by Sacvan Bercovitch in his seminal book The American Jeremiad (1978)—, and turns it into a truly native product. As David Howard-Pitney explains, the term Jeremiad, meaning a lamentation or doleful complaint, derives from the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah, who warned of Israel’s fall and the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by Babylonia as punishment for the people’s failure to keep the Mosaic covenant. Although Jeremiah denounced


Ana María Fraile-Marcos

Israel’s wickedness and foresaw tribulation in the near-term, he also looked forward to the nation’s repentance and restoration in a future golden age. (6)

“In current scholarship”, Emory Elliott observes, “the term ‘jeremiad’ has expanded to include not only sermons but also other texts that rehearse the familiar tropes of the formula” (257). It is in this latter and more ample understanding of the term jeremiad that I refer to Native Son as Wright’s own—probably inadvertent— inscription in the (African) American rhetorical tradition of the Jeremiad. Wilson Moses pointed to the jeremiad as the earliest expression of black nationalism and used the term Black jeremiad to refer to “the constant warnings issued by blacks to whites, concerning the judgement that was to come from the sin of slavery” (30-31). Being an accepted cultural and rhetorical instrument deeply embedded in American culture and traditionally used to express poignant social criticism, the jeremiad allows African Americans to express their discontent and to demand their own liberation for the redemption of America, thus fully embracing the tradition they criticize and becoming an integral part of the nation’s body politic.8 As I have explained elsewhere, African Americans have historically used the jeremiad rhetoric with the double aim of asserting blacks as a chosen people within another chosen nation which, as such, had the covenantal obligation to be just to them. Consequently, the African American struggle aims not only at their own liberation but, through its achievement, also at the redemption of America and, ultimately, of the entire human race. The use of the jeremiad rhetoric by black leaders signals, as Howard-Pitney pinpoints, “their virtually complete acceptance of and incorporation into the national cultural norm of millennial faith in America’s promise” (13), at the same time as it asserts black nationalism. This apparent paradox of claiming one’s Americanness while asserting one’s difference was paradigmatically explained by W. E. B. Du Bois when he defined African Americans’ identity as being determined by a sensation of “double-consciousness.” What African Americans wish, he stated is “to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American” (365). The result has been a paradoxical communal identity which is both American and separate. Contradicting Robert Stepto’s view that Wright “was either unaware of, or simply refused to participate in, those viable modes of speech represented in history by the [African American] preacher and

Native Son’s “ideology of form”: The (African) American Jeremiad and American Exceptionalism


orator and in letters by the articulate hero” (527), the novel participates fully in the African American rhetorical tradition, as well as in the broader American one on which the African American jeremiad impinges. Like other African American authors who have found in the American jeremiad a suitable genre to articulate their protest from within American culture, simultaneously critiquing and adhering to it, Native Son appears as an appropriation and transformation of the genre. 9 Wright does not speak, therefore, “from the margins of Euro-American discourse” (Werner 141), nor from outside Afro-American discourse, but from the very center of both rhetorical traditions, at the point where they intersect. Unlike the works of the white canonical writers discussed by either Ellison or Morrison and mentioned by Wright, Native Son brings the Africanist presence to the forefront by focusing on the life of a black youth whose first direct encounter with the white world from which he is alienated leads him to accidentally kill a rich white girl. This fortuitous crime spirals into a series of other crimes—the decapitation and burning of Mary’s corpse, the incrimination of the girl’s communist boyfriend, the forgery of kidnapping notes asking for ransom, and above all, his most heinous crime, though belittled by the white prosecuting officer of the State of Illinois, his plotting and murdering of his girlfriend Bessie after abusing her sexually. The context of the novel is clearly that of a disordered society where violence can explode at any moment. This is, curiously, the wasteland landscape from which both modernism and the jeremiad emerged. If the parallelisms between Native Son and genres such as the “plantation tale” (Stepto 530), or the blues (Werner) enrich our interpretation of the novel by investigating its African American rhetorical roots, to read Native Son from the prism of the (African) American jeremiad seems even more in keeping with Wright’s aspirations to make an impact on American reality. On the one hand, Native Son embodies above all the jeremiadic lament and condemnation, warning, and urgent exhortation to both admit the nation’s downfall and incite it to change. The direct influence of the jeremiad as a political instrument aimed at acting upon reality differentiates it from “Wright’s view of folk expression as politically passive” (Werner 144). On the other hand, because the jeremiad is doubly grounded in the American and the African American cultural traditions, it can reach both audiences. Of the three stages that the American jeremiad contemplates, —“citing the promise; criticism of present declension,


Ana María Fraile-Marcos

or retrogression from the promise; and a resolving prophecy that society will shortly complete its mission and redeem the promise” (Howard-Pitney 8)—, Native Son is firmly grounded in the second moment of declension, “a time of catastrophe” (Fabre 64) brought about by the economic Great Depression of the 1930s, the ideological, moral, and spiritual fracture that followed the Great War and preceded World War II, and the repeated eruptions of violence in the country during this inter-wars period. The promise of an earthly paradise is the antithesis of the Chicago ghetto where the Thomas family lives, which in turn proves that the American Dream is a failure. Thus, undermining the model society encapsulated in Winthrop’s figure of the City on the Hill, Wright presents Chicago as a city of contrasts and extremes, an indescribable city, huge, roaring, dirty, noisy, raw, stark, brutal; a city of extremes, torrid summers and sub-zero winters, white people and black people, the English language and strange tongues, foreign born and native born, scabby poverty and gaudy luxury, high idealism and hard cynicism. (“How ‘Bigger’” xxvi)

Wright’s plight in this context is that of the African American writer who must speak with a double voice so that his dire warning may reach both a white and a black audience. Wright’s friend JeanPaul Sartre perceptively captured this fact when he applied Baudelaire’s phrase “a double simultaneous postulation” to Wright’s achievement: Had he [Wright] spoken to the whites alone, he might have turned out to be more prolix, more didactic and more abusive; to the Negroes alone, still more elliptical, more of a confederate, and more elegiac. In the first case, his work might have come close to satire; in the second, to prophetic lamentations. Jeremiah spoke only to the Jews. But Wright, a writer for a split public, has been able both to maintain and go beyond this split. (qtd. Gilroy 146)

Rather, Wright creates a Jew—Max—who launches a jeremiad to white Americans, and hence illustrates the belief of many black writers of the 1930s in the possibility of biracial solidarity and understanding (Bell 150). Because of his dual target audience, Wright does not wish to present blacks in the role of the passive victim. On the one hand, to portray blacks as objects would be detrimental for the race’s self-esteem and nationalism. On the other, it would only serve to reinforce the stereotypical misreading that reduced blackness to a subhuman state, given the supposed inability of blacks to act autonomously. Thus, Bigger turns into an agent, an active subject who

Native Son’s “ideology of form”: The (African) American Jeremiad and American Exceptionalism


is able to choose within his very restrictive environmental limitations and who accepts responsibility for his own actions. This, according to Paul Gilroy, is an ongoing characteristic linking “Wright’s output beneath his ideological shifts and the profound changes in his philosophical perspective” (154). Bigger is aware of the racist conditions that imprison him and make it impossible to realize his potential as a human being, or as an American, something which his comments about his frustrated dream to become an aviator demonstrate. He is even aware of the violent consequences of his “deferred dream” when very early on in the novel he foresees his tragic outcome: We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like living in jail. Half the time I feel like I’m on the outside of the world peeping in through a knot-hole in the fence….” [....] “Sometimes I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me.” (23)

However, in spite of his awareness, Bigger’s double consciousness and his internalization of racism come to the surface when he has to face whites: He stood with his knees slightly bent, his lips partly open, his shoulders stooped; and his eyes held a look that went only to the surface of things. There was an organic conviction in him that this was the way white folks wanted him to be when in their presence. (50)

It is this acceptance of the prevailing white view of black inferiority that James Baldwin decried when he wrote, For Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold, or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth. (“Everybody’s Protest Novel” 1659)

However, after murdering Mary, Bigger manages to reject the negative, subservient identity imposed on him by, paradoxically, embracing it and using it to his advantage. Thus, his self-conscious adherence to the ignorant but serviceable black type allows him to divert attention away from himself when Mary’s absence sets off the alarms. Furthermore, his self-esteem as a cunning man who is able to fool whites is reinforced: “He saw it all very sharply and simply: act like other people thought you ought to act, yet do what you wanted. In a certain sense he had been doing just that in a loud and rough manner


Ana María Fraile-Marcos

all his life” (108). Indeed, were it not because Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was published twelve years after Wright’s novel, Bigger would seem to be following the advice offered by the Invisible Man’s grandfather to live with his head in the lion’s mouth and “overcome ‘em [whites] with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction”—of course, both Bigger’s attitude and that of the Invisible Man’s grandfather are engrained in the multiple trickster figures of African American folklore. However, when Bigger’s mask is finally lifted by the white journalists, the police and the State attorney Buckley, it only reveals another racist stereotype: that of the Bad Nigger. Though endowed with self-asserting qualities in African American culture, the Bad Nigger confirms the embodiment of pure evil in the Manichean mentality of white America. This is the image of Bigger that Buckley tries to instill as he turns Bigger into a “half-human black ape” (373), likened to the devil himself in the shape of the Biblical snake when he calls white men to crush with their heels “the wooly head of this black lizard” (373). Hence, Bigger illustrates unequivocally how American racism works against American exceptionalism, affecting the psyche and the actions of the individual, and eventually putting the whole national dream at risk. Wright shapes Bigger as a “monster created by the American republic,” a “social symbol revelatory of social disease” (Baldwin, Notes 41, 34), precisely to involve white Americans in the so-called Negro problem by presaging their own destruction. Nevertheless, some whites, such as Jan and Max, envision the possibility of an American identity that lives up to its ideals. As a result, they resist the received construction of blacks as essentially inferior by identifying the racist and capitalistic forces at work in such a construction. For the sympathetic characters who support Bigger, he is both a victim and a symbol of redemption, not of an external evil that Americans must annihilate. This is made patently clear in Max’s plea in Bigger Thomas’ behalf in Book three. For Max, like for Wright, Bigger “hold[s] within him the prophecy of our future” (Wright xx), and his speech turns into a jeremiad as he equates Bigger’s fate to that of the nation: 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 [...] 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 everyman and woman in this nation can stand and

Native Son’s “ideology of form”: The (African) American Jeremiad and American Exceptionalism


view how inextricably our hopes and our fears of today create the exultation and doom of tomorrow. (354)

Wright’s African American jeremiad is articulated at the end of the novel by a white American Marxist Jew, thus establishing crossnational, cross-racial, and cross-generational alliances that may be read from our current standpoint as prefiguring those set up during the Civil Rights era. However, the paradox of having a white man articulate an African American Jeremiad indictment and exhortation to reform was not something new in African American letters, and can be compared to the white voices that framed slave narratives and attested to their authenticity. Eliminating from his novel the religious connotations of divine election present in the classic American jeremiad sermon, Wright addresses two American peoples whose destinies are intertwined. As Bernard Bell puts it, Richard Wright was a man with a mission and a message: his mission was to overwhelm the sensibilities of the white world with the truth of his naturalistic vision and the power of his craftsmanship; his message was that the AfroAmerican was America’s metaphor. (154)

Wright’s “naturalistic vision” also involves a modern wasteland landscape that propels the Jeremiad lament; his craftsmanship relies on a system of symbols—a typology of biblical connotations which allows the reader to interpret reality in racial, historical and economic terms. Thus, the novel openly aims to represent and to act on the collective American consciousness despite the focus on Bigger’s individuality that emerges from the summary of the plot. Wright’s use of symbols and metaphors which are deeply engrained in the American psyche successfully manages to turn the individual into a representative and the physical experience into a metaphysical one. The power of Bigger’s portrait made it impossible for the reader—or as it was Wright’s hope, for white America—to ignore the “Africanist presence” and the version of reality it embodied, to the extent that critic Irving Howe could claim that “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever” (Bloom 32). The last section of the novel particularly overshadows the fact that America’s denial of Bigger’s social, economic, and political freedom “has a crippling effect on those who control Bigger’s life as well as on Bigger” (Joyce 63). Toni Morrison reiterates this notion when she


Ana María Fraile-Marcos

both demands and undertakes the study of “the impact of racism on those who perpetuate it” (11): “The scholarship that looks into the mind, imagination, and behavior of slaves is valuable. But equally valuable is a serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behavior of masters” (11-12). Native Son is, as such, an analysis of the effects of racism on both blacks and whites, the oppressed and the oppressors. Thus, fear, hate and guilt are not only the obvious feelings that trigger Bigger’s behavior, but, as Max perceptively points out in his “guilt of the nation” thesis, the main ingredients to explain white America’s persistent oppression and mistreatment of its minorities: “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! (357)

Wright is outspokenly intent on showing how “oppression has harmed whites as well as Negroes”: Did I not have my character, Britten, exhibit through page after page the aberrations of whites who suffer from oppression? [...]Did I not make the mob as hysterical as Bigger Thomas? Did I not ascribe that hysteria to the same origins? The entire long scene in the furnace room is but a depiction of how warped the whites have become through their oppression of Negroes. (“Reply to David L. Cohn” 66)

Wright has Max construct his defense speech upon the three main phases outlined above as characteristic of the jeremiad. In the appropriately woeful tone of the genre, Max first reminds his audience of the promise, recurring to the mythic past and linking it to the present—“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” (363). Then, he likens the plight of blacks and other oppressed or marginalized people alike, to that of the white forefathers and points to the difficulty the former encounter because, having been excluded from white society, they are nevertheless allured by and made to believe in its ideals, which inevitably results in a feeling of resentment and “the balked longing for some kind of fulfillment and exultation” (368). This, Max argues,

Native Son’s “ideology of form”: The (African) American Jeremiad and American Exceptionalism


“forms the quicksands upon which our civilization rests” (368). Having identified the sources of social unrest and scrupulously following the typical sequence of jeremiad sermons, Max goes on to warn of the dangers that await a society which is unwilling to make all its members partake fully in its exceptionalist creed. So, with a foresight that makes us shudder, especially after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of New York on September 11, 2001, Max apocalyptically presages Who knows when some slight shock, disturbing the delicate balance between social order and thirsty aspiration, shall send the skyscrapers in or cities toppling? Does that sound fantastic? I assure you that it is no more fantastic than those troops and that waiting mob whose presence and guilty anger portend something which we dare not even think! (368-9)

Equally, and probably more credible at the time because it was already part of American history, Max warns of the threat of “another civil war in these states” (369). After the mention of the promise, the observation of a failure to keep up with the ideals, and an apocalyptic prophecy, Max proceeds to build Bigger’s trial as a climax, a cathartic turning point that may either put an end to this period of declension and redeem America by renewing the faith in the promise, or precipitate the final downfall. Bigger’s murders—but especially his murder of the rich white woman, Mary—are the catalyst for America’s reaction. Max asks that Bigger’s life be spared and that he be sentenced to prison for life instead because he wishes white society to accept its responsibility in Bigger’s crimes. By sharing the blame with him, his humanity would be acknowledged and “He would be brought for the first time within the orbit of our civilization” (369). Although Max does not produce an explicit religious discourse, his interpretation of Bigger’s destiny is in keeping with Wight’s portrayal of him as a Christ figure at the moment of his detention, and Americans, in the figure of the judge, may, like Pilate, redeem themselves by not condemning him to death, as Max’s last words convey: “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!” (370). Bigger’s “chronicle of personal catastrophe,” which Ralph Ellison interpreted in terms of the blues (90), is transmuted into a chronicle of a communal, national catastrophe as well as into a call for national regeneration and self-creation. Far from going “a-begging to white


Ana María Fraile-Marcos

America” (Wright, “Blueprint” 37), as Wright believes previous African American writers have done, he indignantly exhorts America to change for its own good. Wright is acutely aware of the fact that the more unsettling aspect of his novel for the majority of (white) readers is not his portrayal of the black community or of the threat it may pose, but the explicit reference to America’s responsibility and blame, as illustrated by his reply to David L. Cohn: “And what alarms Mr. Cohn is not what I say Bigger is, but what I say made him what he is” (65). He foresaw this reaction when he made Max argue: “Of all things, men do not like to feel that they are guilty of wrong, and if you make them feel guilt, they will try desperately to justify it on any grounds; but, failing that, and seeing no 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 this is true of all men, whether they be white or black; (360)

In Max’s terms, when Bigger is finally sentenced to death, the prophecy of a better future for America crumbles down, since the nation is unwilling to “see and know” (369). The same idea is stated at the end of 12 Million Black Voices when Wright says “What we want, what we represent, what we endure is what America is. If we black folk perish, America will perish” (240). Wright himself believed that Native Son would be his last chance to exhort America because, as with Bigger, Americans would ostracize and condemn him after reading the novel, turning their back on his message. Instead, he was hailed by liberal whites and became the most (in)famous and the best paid black author ever, as well as an unavoidable reference for blacks. The place of Native Son as an American classic is not, however, such a surprising outcome when considered from the perspective of the jeremiad as a cultural manifestation which accommodates dissent within the American exceptionalist ideology, as Werner Sollors explains in his Beyond Ethnicity. However, Max’s disappointment turns to terror when he interprets Bigger’s self-assertive words “But what I killed for, I am!” (391-2) not only as a confirmation of Bigger’s definitive alienation and isolation at the very instant when he claims his humanity and his communion with the rest of the world, but as an irrevocable condemnation of America at large for leading Bigger to such a conclusion. Max’s understanding of the situation provokes in him a terror akin to Benito Cereno’s when he exclaims “The Negro! The Negro!” in Melville’s classic, or to Kurtz’s “The horror! The horror!” at the end of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Native Son’s “ideology of form”: The (African) American Jeremiad and American Exceptionalism


Thus, Bigger arises as a negative representation of the American Adam and his life as a mockery of the American Dream. He is ironically a native son, deeply grounded in the American context and its racial construction. Wright himself points to Bigger’s inarticulateness and to his “individual anger and hatred” (xx) as the characteristics that mark him as unequivocally American, the product of “America’s educational restrictions on the bulk of her Negro population” and of “American oppression” (xx). Hence, Bigger embodies the contradictions that lie at the heart of American identity because of his un-American oppressed status as a black man. An insider outside of society, he truthfully reflects the values and dynamics of that society. Thus, the novel represents the paradoxical “merging of two extremes” (vii): on the one hand, an idealism that makes us believe that the Constitution is a good document of government, that the Bill of Rights is a good legal and humane principle to safeguard our civil liberties, that every man and woman should have the opportunity to realize himself, to seek his own individual fate and goal, his own peculiar and untranslatable destiny. (xxiv-xxv)

And on the other hand, the most blatant betrayal of those principles and that idealism. Underlined is Wright’s belief that African Americans are a mirror to mainstream society: “Look at us and know us and you will know yourselves, for we are you, looking back at you from the dark mirror of our lives!” (12 Million 240-241). Although Bigger’s development toward agency and subjectivity, selfconsciousness and a sort of articulateness at the end of the novel complicate his image as a mere mirror, it makes him a more apt symbol of the universal modern man, illustrating Frantz Fanon’s claim one decade later that “[t]he Negro”—and not just the African American—“is comparison” (Black Skin 211). Thus, through the novel’s modernist existentialism and its endorsement of socialism, which universalize the (African) American experience and turn it into a cautionary tale, Richard Wright manages, curiously, to reproduce the universalizing thrust of American Exceptionalism. If “The propagandists of American democracy breached the geographic isolation of their country by universalizing what was peculiar to Americans: their endorsement of natural rights, their drive for personal independence, their celebration of democracy” (Appleby 32), Wright broke the isolation of African Americans by turning them into a symbol of oppressed humankind across the world.


Ana María Fraile-Marcos

In Wright’s scheme, Bigger passes from representing a sector of the African American population—“the only Negroes I know of who consistently violated the Jim Crow laws of the South and got away with it, at least for a sweet brief spell” (xi)—, to embody “a symbolic figure of American life” (xx), and further still, to represent the existential dilemma of the modern world at a time when the traditional social and cultural structures have crumbled under the weight of industrialization and mercantilism. Bigger’s blackness thus becomes a mirror that both emphasizes race and deconstructs it. His reflexive capacity as both a racial and an a-racial figure is overshadowed when Wright declares that “the shadings and nuances which were filling in Bigger’s picture came, not so much from Negro life, as from the lives of whites I met and grew to know” (xvi) and attributes Bigger’s behavior to “certain modern experiences [which] were creating types of personalities whose existence ignored racial and national lines of demarcation” (xix). Hence, as Wright aligns himself with the American literary tradition that exploits an “American Africanism” in order to obtain a reflection of the larger national and international picture, Native Son embodies The fabrication of an Africanist persona [a]s reflexive; an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious. It is an astonishing revelation of longing, of terror, of perplexity, of shame, of magnanimity. (Morrison 17)

Native Son is, therefore, both an admonition and an indictment of white America, a shocking and apocalyptic representation of the way America is falling short of its ideals, betraying the foundational principles adopted by the new nation that saw itself as a City upon a Hill. Far from this image of perfection the Chicago ghetto portrayed in the novel is, like Bigger, the “undeveloped negative” that threatens American civilization with destruction, death and havoc. However, the same as the negative holds the potential to be developed into a photograph—a truthful reflection of its object—, both Bigger and white Americans hold in themselves the potential to act upon the present in order to transform it into a truthful reflection of the American ideal. Therefore, in spite of the novel’s inscription in the deterministic tradition of naturalism, Wright intended the novel to be a dire call for change, which underlines his hope in the possibility of a better future. The creation of Bigger as a representative of “black Americans as pathological social deviants”—which can be viewed as

Native Son’s “ideology of form”: The (African) American Jeremiad and American Exceptionalism


“the most serious flaw in Native Son” (Bell 165)—is also Wright’s most important asset to build the apocalyptic vision that can more effectively lead to change. And the possibility of change is not only at the basis of Wright’s Marxist and naturalist inclinations (Gibson. 88), but at the core of the jeremiad, because, following the pattern established by the Biblical prophet Jeremiah, the (African) American jeremiad never questions America’s destiny and promise. The essence of the jeremiad, argues Sacvan Bercovitch, lies in “its unshakable optimism” (6), that is, in the faith that repentance and reform will bring about a future golden age and the eventual fulfillment of America’s mission. As in the jeremiad, hopefulness—and not determinism—lies at the center of Wright’s literary effort as he wished the novel to move the nation to face its moral decline and responsibility “without the consolation of tears” (xxvii). For him, America stands suspended at that moment of declension when “the prophecy for the future” may result in redemption or in damnation, depending on America’s will to admit responsibility for the current state of affairs. The possibility of a national redemption is lost in the novel after Bigger is sentenced to death, but it seems to be Wright’s hope that the reader may be shocked into recognition and into action after having read this cautionary tale. Ideally, whites should be moved to return to an inclusive version of their foundational dream and blacks to recognize and actively claim their own humanity after Bigger’s cue. If both of these occur, Bigger’s life and death would certainly hold the promise of a better future.

Ana María Fraile-Marcos Universidad de Salamanca

Notes 1

The history of the United States has been molded by the ideology of exceptionalism, a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831. This ideology did not only claim the USA’s difference with respect to the rest of the world—and more specifically to the metropolitan European center represented by England—, but the nation’s unique moral value and responsibility, thereby asserting its superiority. The United States emerges, thus, as a model society which offers opportunity and hope for humanity based on a unique balance of public and private interests governed by


Ana María Fraile-Marcos

constitutional ideals that are focused on personal and economic freedom (see; consulted November 27 2006). The American Revolution boosted the exceptionalist mythos by severing the ties with the British mother land and instilling the republican belief that sovereignty belongs to the people, not to a hereditary ruling class, as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense made clear. The rejection of the past linked to the freedom of choice and to the metaphors of the clean slate, the Frontier and the American Adam; individualism, and “the concept of a uniform human nature with its ascription of universality to particular social traits” (Appleby 34), became the cornerstones of an exceptionalism that set the United States up as “the pilot society for the world” (35). Among the works dealing with the concept of American exceptionalism and its revaluation, the following stand out: Byron Shafer’s Is America Different? A New Look at American Exceptionalism, David K. Adams and Cornelius A. van Minnen’s Reflections on American Exceptionalism, Seymour Martin Lipset’s American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword; Deborah L. Madsen’s American Exceptionalism, and Dale Carter’s Marks of Distinction: American Exceptionalism Revisited. 2 George E. Kent undertakes the study of Wright’s “identification with and rejection of the West” (Kent 91-2) in his book Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture (1972). He identifies the “West” as the “symbols, rituals, and personalities of the white culture” (94), or “the System.” Robert Shulman’s “Subverting and Reconstructing the Dream: The Radical Voices of Le Sueur, Herbst, and Wright” (1994), while articulating more precisely Wright’s engagement with the national mythos, focuses on the writer’s early piece “Fire and Cloud.” 3

See Annette Kolodny’s “Letting Go Our Grand Obsessions: Notes Toward a New Literary History of the American Frontiers.” 4 According to Robert Bellah, who stimulated much of the discussion on civil religion with his seminal essay of 1967, civil religion in America is “an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality”. The widespread use of the term, however, prompted Russell Richey and Donald Jones in 1974 to offer a useful five-category schema for the organization of civil religion literature. These categories were folk religion, transcendent religion of the nation, religious nationalism, democratic faith and Protestant civic piety. 5 Obviously, the impact of the African has not only been felt in the Americas, as Morrison herself recognizes, and a European Africanism also exists. James Baldwin called for “a study in depth of the American Negro in the mind and life of Europe, and the extraordinary peril, different from those of America but not less grave, which the American Negro encounters in the Old World” (qtd. in Gilroy 146). This is an enterprise that has recently been undertaken by studies in the African Diaspora, boosted by perceptive analyses of the impact of Africans on the development of Western modernity by critics such as Paul Gilroy. 6 Among those influential blacks who rejected American exceptionalism, in contrast with its common acceptance among African Americans, are Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. See Howard-Pitney, 14-15. 7

See Craig Werner’s “Bigger’s Blues: Native Son and the Articulation of AfroAmerican Modernism.”

Native Son’s “ideology of form”: The (African) American Jeremiad and American Exceptionalism


8 See David Howard-Pitney’s The Afro-American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America. 9

Some of the most noteworthy African Americans who master the jeremiad rhetoric are Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Jackson.

Works Consulted Adams, David K. and Cornelius A. van Minnen, eds. Reflections on American Exceptionalism. Keele: Keele UP, 1994. Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971. Appleby, Joyce. “Recovering America’s Historic Diversity: Beyond Exceptionalism” in Dale Carter, ed. Marks of Distinction: American Exceptionalism Revisited. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus UP, 2001. (24-42) Baker, Houston A., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Native Son. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall Inc. , 1972. Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon P, 1955. —. “Everybody’s Protest Novel” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr. & N. Y. McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997. (1654-9) Baym, Nina. “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors” in American Quarterly 33 (1981): 123-39. Bell, Bernard. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: The U of Massachusetts P, 1987. Bellah, Robert: “Civil Religion in America” in Daedalus 96 (1967): 1-21. Bercovitch, Sacvan. Typology and Early American Literature. Connecticut: The U of Massachusetts P, 1972. —. The American Jeremiad. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1978. Bloom, Harold, ed. Richard Wright’s Native Son: Bloom’s Notes. A Contemporary Literary Views Book. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 1996. Butler, Robert. Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Hero. Boston: Twaine Publishers, 1991. Byers, Thomas B. “A City Upon a Hill: American Literature and the Ideology of Exceptionalism” in Dale Carter, ed. Marks of Distinction: American Exceptionalism Revisited. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus UP, 2001. (45-68)


Ana María Fraile-Marcos

Carter, Dale, ed. Marks of Distinction: American Exceptionalism Revisited. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus UP, 2001. Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk in Nathan Huggins, ed. W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings. New York: The Library of America College Edition, 1996. (357-549) Elliott, Emory. “New England Puritan Literature” in Sacvan Bercovitch, ed. The Cambridge History of American Literature. Vol. I. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994. (169-306) Ellison, Ralph. “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity” in John F. Callahan, ed. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. New York: The Modern Library, 1995. (81-99) Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin White Masks, 1952. trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove P, 1967. Fabre, Michel. The World of Richard Wright. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1985. Fraile-Marcos, Ana María. “Hybridizing the City Upon a Hill in Toni Morrison’s Paradise” in MELUS 28.4 (Winter 2003): 3-33. Gibson, Donald B. “Richard Wright: Aspects of his Afro-American Literary Relations” in Yoshinobu Hakutani, ed. Critical Essays on Richard Wright. Boston, Mass: G.K. Hall & Co., 1982. (82-90) Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London & New York: Verso, 1993. Howard-Pitney, David. The Afro-American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1990. Joyce, Joyce Ann. Extract from Richard Wright’s Art of Tragedy in Harold Bloom, ed. Richard Wright’s Native Son: Bloom’s Notes. Broomail, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 1996. (61-64) Kent, George E. Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture. Chicago: Third World Press, 1972. Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. New Essays on Native Son. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. Kolodny, Annette. “Letting Go Our Grand Obsessions: Notes Toward a New Literary History of the American Frontiers” in Michael Moon and Cathy N. Davidson, eds. Subjects and Citizens: Nation, Race, and Gender from Oroonoko to Anita Hill. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1995. (9-26) Lipset, Seymour Martin. American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. New York: Norton, 1996. Madsen, Deborah L. American Exceptionalism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1998. Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Native Son’s “ideology of form”: The (African) American Jeremiad and American Exceptionalism


Moses, Wilson Jeremiah. Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1982. Shafer, Byron, ed. Is America Different? A New Look at American Exceptionalism. Oxford: Clarendon, 1991. Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. Stepto, Robert B. “‘I Thought I Knew These People’: Richard Wright & the AfroAmerican Literary Tradition” in The Massachusetts Review 18.3 (Autumn, 1977): 525–41. Shulman, Robert. “Subverting and Reconstructing the Dream: The Radical Voices of Le Sueur, Herbst, and Wright” in Gert Buelens & Ernst Rudin, eds. Deferring a Dream: Literary Sub-versions of the American Columbiad. Basel: Birkhäuser, 1994. (24-36) Werner, Craig. “Bigger’s Blues: Native Son and the Articulation of Afro-American Modernism” in Keneth Kinnamon, ed. New Essays on Native Son. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. (117-152) Wright, Richard. “Blueprint for Negro Writing” 1937 in Ellen Wright and Michel Fabre, eds. Richard Wright Reader. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997. (36-49) —. Native Son. 1940. New York: Perennial, 2001. —. “Reply to David L. Cohn” in Ellen Wright and Michel Fabre, eds. Richard Wright Reader. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997. (62-67) —. 12 Million Black Voices. 1941 in Ellen Wright and Michel Fabre, eds. Richard Wright Reader. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997. (144-241)

Genre in/and Wright’s Native Son

Ever since Native Son’s initial publication in 1940, critics and audiences have held wide-ranging views on the novel’s generic classification. Native Son has been labeled as a work of social protest fiction, a crime fiction, a courtroom drama, and a bildungsroman. Ultimately, though, the novel resists any easy generic classification, precisely because Wright violates all of these genres as they are traditionally understood: Native Son is a protest novel with a not wholly sympathetic protagonist (in fact, Bigger Thomas is an anti-hero, of sorts), a crime novel/courtroom drama where justice does not prevail, and a bildungsroman without any of the traditional outcomes (Bigger is ultimately incapable of either flight or escape and he does not reach maturity, at least in any traditional sense of the word). By examining the diverse ways that Native Son has been characterized over the past six and a half decades, this essay analyzes the complexity of genre in Native Son and explores how genre itself is complicated by how readers approach texts.

Since the novel’s initial publication in 1940, critics and audiences have taken a wide range of views on both Native Son’s theme and its generic classification. In their assessment of the novel as a whole, critics have placed it into several different categories; it has been called, among other things, a work of social protest fiction, a crime fiction, a courtroom drama, and a bildungsroman. When critics evaluate the three separate books within the novel—“Fear,” “Flight,” and “Fate”— individually, they further complicate the question of Native Son’s generic classification. Even those critics who confidently make pronouncements about how the novel should be categorized reveal—through the peculiar ways in which they discuss the book—that Native Son resists any easy generic classification.1 Part of this difficulty may stem, as Edward Margolies suggests in his book The Art of Richard Wright, from Wright’s own conflicted views about ideology (which, in turn, have an impact on both the messages he wants to convey in Native Son and the generic traditions


Heather Duerre Humann

he chooses to employ). Margolies argues that the “chief philosophical weakness of Native Son is […] that Wright himself does not seem to be able to make up his mind” (113). Native Son, however, is also difficult to categorize because it simply does not fit into any one generic group. Instead, Wright uses several different generic forms within the novel. Native Son functions, at various points, as a bildungsroman (a novel of formation), a social protest novel, and (though, perhaps to a lesser extent) a crime/courtroom drama. By combining these genres, Wright is able to successfully make a political statement—both an assessment and a critique—about not only Bigger Thomas, as a character and a type, but also about the society in which he lives (Bigger’s society encompasses both his immediate environment—Southside Chicago—and the greater society to which he belongs, that is mid-twentieth century America). Though Native Son functions—at different points—as each of these genres previously mentioned, the novel also violates all three genres as they are traditionally understood. Native Son is a bildungsroman without any of the traditional outcomes: Bigger is ultimately incapable of either flight or escape and he does not reach maturity, at least in any traditional sense of the word. Native Son is a protest novel with a not wholly sympathetic protagonist: Bigger is an anti-hero, of sorts. It is a crime novel/courtroom drama where justice does not prevail: Bigger ends up being executed for his accidental killing of Mary and, at the novel’s end, his family seems to be in much the same situation—at least socially and financially—as they were at its start (and, further, after Bigger’s death they no longer have the hope that he may one day be able to provide for them). In conjunction with his use of various literary genres, Wright relies upon setting, descriptions, and characters in such a way that they also contribute to the novel’s theme (and overall effect). He employs realistic settings and scenarios in “Fear,” the first section of Native Son; this heightens the political aspect of the novel. In “Flight” and “Fate,” the second and third sections of the novel, Wright, already having set the events into motion that will lead to Bigger’s conviction and execution, largely abandons the early part of the novel’s realism to emphasize Native Son’s political and social messages. Wright’s technique only adds to the fact that Native Son remains a complicated novel to classify, yet it is precisely because of his employment of these various techniques and generic forms that Wright is able to create his finished product. A closer examination of each potential genre will illustrate my contention.

Genre in/and Wright’s Native Son


First of all, Native Son has many of the characteristics of a social protest novel. Its protagonist, Bigger Thomas, lives in abject poverty in the slums of Southside Chicago. He is systematically denied privacy, education, opportunity, a decent living, and many other of the most basic human needs. Moreover, as Wright narrates Bigger’s story, he provides an insight into the stultifying conditions under which so many people live. These details are not simply incidental to the events that occur within Native Son; instead, they prove to be the catalysts that lead to Bigger’s crimes and subsequent punishment. In this way, Native Son is a highly political work. Fredric Jameson comments on the political-ness of novels in his book The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. He claims that “political interpretation […] is the absolute horizon of all reading and interpretation” (400). As a corollary to this assertion, Jameson persuasively argues about the usefulness of Marxism, claiming that “only Marxism offers a philosophically coherent and ideologically compelling resolution to the dilemma of historicism” (401). Marxism is highly relevant to any discussion of Native Son. Not only is Native Son an overtly Marxist and an all-around politically charged work, but Wright himself was a sometime associate of the Communist Party (through his membership in the Chicago John Reed Club). In her book, Richard Wright’s Hero: The Faces of a RebelVictim, Katherine Fishburn comments on how Wright’s political stance shaped his fiction; she notes: Since Wright’s own view of life during the thirties was strongly influenced by the Communist Party […] his style of writing shows the mark of its spokesmen, the proletarian novelists, who themselves drew on the realistic and naturalistic traditions in literature to express party dogma. Using detailed physical descriptions and concentrating on the common man as their subject, the communists protested shrilly against the injustices inherent in a capitalistic country. Meeting with these writers at the Chicago John Reed Club, Wright became excited by their ideas and their passionate commitment to a new order. (63-64)

As these remarks suggest, Wright was invested in the social and political challenges of his era, and this, in turn, likely contributed to how (and why) he communicated the political messages within Native Son. Another common criticism, and one that also points to the political messages within the novel, was that Native Son was too propagandistic. Some readers criticized the novel’s style and claimed that Wright (in Native Son, at least) focused too much on the political.


Heather Duerre Humann

In his hallmark essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin denounces Native Son as a work of propaganda. He writes: To flee or not, to move or not, it is all the same; his doom is written on his forehead, it is carried in his heart. In Native Son, Bigger Thomas stands on a Chicago Street corner watching the airplanes flown by white men racing against the sun and ‘Goddam’ he says, the bitterness bubbling up like blood, remembering a million indignities, the terrible rat-infested house, the humiliation of home-relief, the intense, aimless, ugly bickering, hating it; hatred smolders through these pages like sulphur fire. All of Bigger’s life is controlled, defined by his hatred and his fear. And later, his fear drives him to murder and his hatred to rape; he dies, having come, through this violence, we are told, for the first time, to a kind of life, having for the first time redeemed his manhood. (22)

Here Baldwin faults Wright’s novel because he sees it as solely showing Bigger as a victim of circumstance. As Irving Howe explains in his essay “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Baldwin disapproves of Native Son for just these reasons: “The protest novel, wrote Baldwin, is undertaken out of sympathy for the Negro, but through its need to present him as merely a social victim or a mythic agent of sexual prowess, it hastens to confine the Negro to the very tones of violence he has known all his life” (Howe 353). Moreover, according to Baldwin’s stance, Wright’s “Bigger is so thoroughly trapped by his circumstances and his environment that he […] is stripped of his humanity” (Portelli 255). Baldwin is not alone in thinking that Wright focused too much on the political in Native Son. Margolies, for example, also sees the novel as propaganda. He is quite critical of Native Son’s aesthetics; he faults the style of the novel’s prose, among other things, and he attributes these faults to the attention Wright pays to the political. He asserts that “in certain respects Native Son possesses many of the characteristic failings of proletarian literature” (104). Elsewhere Margolies quantifies why he sees Native Son as lacking in various respects. He explains: First, the novel is transparently propagandistic—arguing for a humane, socialist society where such crimes as Bigger committed could not conceivably take place. Secondly, Wright builds up rather extensive documentation to prove that Bigger’s actions, behavior, values, attitudes, and fate have already been determined by his status and place in American life. Bigger’s immediate Negro environment is depicted as being unrelentingly bleak and vacuous—while the white world that stands just beyond his reach remains cruelly indifferent or hostile to his needs. Thirdly, with the possible exception of Bigger, none of the characters is portrayed in any depth—and

Genre in/and Wright’s Native Son


most of them are depicted as representative ‘types’ of the social class to which they belong. Fourthly, despite his brutally conditioned psychology, there are moments in the novel when Bigger, like the heroes of other proletarian fiction, appears to be on the verge of responding to the stereotyped Communist vision of black and white workers marching together in the sunlight of fraternal friendship. Finally, Wright succumbs too often to the occupational disease of proletarian authors by hammering home sociological points in didactic expository prose when they could just as clearly be understood in terms of the organic development of the novel. (104-105)

Though Margolies, like Baldwin, is harsh in his criticism, his assertions here (along with Baldwin’s) help to highlight the political nature of Native Son. Yet, even as Margolies decries Native Son for being too-political, other parts of his study assert and even underscore the generic complexity of the novel. In fact, some of his remarks help to problematize the novel’s generic classification. At one point he observes, “the reader may properly ask: was not Wright himself somewhat deluded as to the efficacy of his Communist frame of reference? The answer must be to a certain extent, yes” (106). He continues along this vein, pointing out Since moral responsibility involves choice, how can Wright’s deterministic Marxism be reconciled with the freedom of action that choice implies? The contradiction is never resolved, and it is precisely for this reason that the novel fails to fulfill itself. For the plot, the structure, even the portrayal of Bigger himself, are often at odds with Wright’s official determinism. (107)

So, even though Margolies argues that the novel functions as a social protest, he still recognizes that there are aspects of the novel that this classification fails to account for, including important questions about how choice and agency factor into Bigger’s story. It is precisely these notions—“choice” and “agency”—that Native Son leaves unresolved if we view it solely as a work of social protest. Reading the novel as a bildungsroman will allow for some of the concerns that emerge in my reading of Margolies and Baldwin’s criticism to be addressed, but this categorization, too, brings with it some problems. In his book, The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture, Franco Moretti analyzes the bildungsroman as a genre. Though Moretti’s discussion seems interested primarily (perhaps even solely) in the European bildungsroman, the disclaimer he gives about why his remarks do not apply to American novels does not seem to pertain to Native Son. In a Note, Moretti provides a disclaimer that explains one reason why he sees his characterization as applicable to European novels but not to


Heather Duerre Humann

American ones. He asserts that the European bildungsroman functions as it does because its actions and events generally occur within an urban environment (247). Moretti excludes American novels from his discussion because he sees them as occurring out in nature and the outdoors (247). The events within Native Son, however, unlike those in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and so many other classic American “coming of age” novels, does not occur out in “nature.” In contrast to the American novels that Moretti is alluding to, Native Son is set within the maze-like urban environment of Southside Chicago. Vincent Perez also examines the importance of Native Son’s urban setting in his article “‘Running’ and Resistance: Nihilism and Cultural Memory in Chicano Urban Narratives.” Perez points to “undaunted yearning” and the violence and entrapment intrinsic to certain urban areas; included in his analysis2 is a discussion of how the urban environment within Native Son works to exacerbate (and, in part, cause) Bigger’s turmoil. Perez sees Bigger as a “nihilistic figure,” and further, he argues that (as a “nihilistic figure”) Bigger “renounces institutions and ideologies which are perceived to maintain a repressive social and racial order” (135). Perez believes that education is a “trope” for the protagonists of “running narratives” (136). (Education, then, according to Perez’s reading of the novel, functions as a trope for Bigger Thomas, as well.) By emphasizing that education is so central to his claim, Perez shows the relationship between it the urban environment, and these “nihilistic figures.” This discussion highlights, as well, the fact that Native Son possesses many of the characteristics of a bildungsroman (since a bildungsroman, by definition, is a novel of “initiation” or “education”). Continuing in his assessment, Perez explains “Whether it be in the classroom or on the street, ‘education’ serves as the central trope for the narrator’s troubled upbringing” (136). Thus, it is “only by accepting” his identity as a “nihilistic” figure that Bigger Thomas can “derive a meaning from a life of suffering, alienation, and violence” (144). Therefore, as Margolies puts it, “Bigger acts violently in order to exist” (116). Like Moretti, Hugh Holman discusses the bildungsroman as a genre in his book, Windows on the World: Essays on American Social Fiction. Holman, however, argues that there is a subgenre of the American Bildungrsoman3. He posits that a trait specific to the American Bildungsroman is the character of a narrator who “witnesses the action of the protagonist in the main story, and from this observation gains an insight into the nature of experience” (170-

Genre in/and Wright’s Native Son


171). In this way, Native Son deviates from Holman’s characterization (there is no such character within the novel), but by distinguishing the American Bildungsroman from its European counterpart by the way that characters, in the American version, “reach their mature attitudes as a result of what they see rather than what happens to them or what they do” (193), Holman establishes yet another aspect of the genre. In this aspect, although much of Native Son differs from Holman’s account of how the American Bildungsroman operates, it does, however, conform in part to the definition Holman provides about the bildungsroman as a broad category. Holman asserts that the bildungsroman is “usually a record of a series or rites of passage, of initiations for the young, unusually sensitive and intelligent protagonist, trials in which he is tested and instructed” (168). Clearly , Native Son is a “record” of Bigger’s life and it shows his encounters and his various rites of passages (getting hired for the job at the Dalton’s can be seen as a “rite of passage” for Bigger as can his encounters with—and killing of—Mary, among other things). Also, we can see Bigger face various trials in which he is tested and instructed (in the novel, for instance, Bigger deals with various people and negotiates within a society that offers him little or no choice). Yet, because Bigger has so few opportunities (he is uneducated and deprived of so many things), he does not come across as the “unusually sensitive and intelligent protagonist” that Holman describes. Though neither Moretti nor Holman’s characterization of the bildungsroman (as a genre) fit perfectly with the situation depicted in Native Son, both nonetheless can offer insights into what occurs within Wright’s novel. Moretti posits that, as a genre, the bildungsroman is all-important in novel theory. He points out that “it occupies a central role in the philosophical investigations of the novel” (15). Moretti further claims that this category or genre reappears under various headings (‘novel of formation,’ ‘of initiation,’ ‘of education’) in all of the major literary traditions. Even those novels that clearly are not Bildungsroman or novels of formation are perceived by critics or readers against this conceptual horizon; so they speak of a “failed initiation” or of a “problematic formation” (15). It is precisely with this measure that readers can track Bigger’s progress (or lack thereof). Central to Moretti’s argument is his observation that the conflict between “selfdetermination and the equally imperious demands of socialization” gets played out in a bildungsroman (15). Moretti’s claim is highly


Heather Duerre Humann

relevant to Native Son. Bigger is caught between an urge to be autonomous and society’s expectations of him. Ironically, it is only by becoming what society has seen him as all along (a dangerous criminal) that Bigger is able to achieve any sort of autonomy. As Margolies points out, “by identifying himself with the world of violence and strife he knows to be true, Bigger has given his life meaning and clarity” (116). In fact, the time when Bigger arguably exhibits the most agency is when, after accidentally killing Mary, he lies to her parents and the police and then plots his escape. In his article, “Giving Bigger a Voice: The Politics of Narrative in Native Son,” John M. Reilly comments on this. He argues that Bigger takes “the first premeditated action of his life against the white world by concocting alibis, false charges, and conspiracy to extract ransom from the Daltons” (Reilly 54). A further irony is the fact that it is Mary’s death that initiates Bigger fully into society. As Reilly asserts, only after killing Mary does Wright represent “Bigger as instructed by the facts of black life” (55). Though it is Mary’s death that initiates Bigger into society, previous events have contributed to both his situation and his worldview. The now famous battle between Bigger and the rat in his family’s squalid, tiny apartment (which occurs in the novel’s first few pages) is one such example. In this scene, Bigger attempts to kill the rat, an effort which Wright describes as both violent and trapped: “Bigger looked around the room wildly, then darted to a curtain and swept it aside and grabbed two heavy iron skillets from a wall above a gas stove. He whirled and called softly to his brother, his eyes glued to the trunk” (Wright 4). This passage highlights the oppressive environment in which Bigger lives by detailing how a rat roams freely in the family’s tiny residence. Further, this scene emphasizes that this rat has more freedom than Bigger and this passage also underscores the filthy living conditions under which Bigger suffers. Also, Bigger is shown here to be capable of violence; without hesitation, he grabs onto makeshift weapons (the two skillets) and readies himself to kill the animal. Further, this scene foreshadows both Bigger’s killing of Mary (by placing him in the position of aggressor) and how he, too, will remain trapped just as he is trapped in a rat-infested apartment now. Another scene that proves telling is the one where Bigger reveals to his friend Gus that he’d like to fly a plane: Bigger: “I could fly a plane if I had a chance.”

Genre in/and Wright’s Native Son


Gus: “If you wasn’t black and if you had some money and if they’d let you go to aviation school you could fly a plane.” (17)

As Bigger’s statement here indicates, he does have aspirations in life. He is in need of and searching for an identity, but, despite this desire, the stultifying conditions under which he lives preclude any real possibility for him to develop as an individual. As Gus relays to Bigger, it is precisely because Bigger is “black” and has no “money” that the possibility of becoming a pilot is closed off to him. Right after their conversation about the airplane, Bigger and Gus play a game, entitled “white,” where the boys act as they think wealthy, white people do. That the boys see the relationship between their race, poverty, and lack of opportunity is apparent here, as well. In the case of all three of these scenes, what emerges is that Bigger is oppressed by society. What’s more important is the fact that he realizes as much. Further, these passages underscore how Bigger is trapped between wanting to set and achieve his own goals and being prevented from attaining any autonomy because of harsh conditions under which he is forced to live. Because Bigger is caught between society’s expectations and his own desires, he is enacting a dilemma familiar to the bildungsroman (recall how Moretti asserts that such a struggle is a typical part of the bildungsroman). However, most, if not all, of Bigger’s problems (as they are spelled out in these passages) arise from his material conditions of existence—his poverty and lack of opportunity are, as I read them, tied directly to his race and class. Because Wright is so vehemently speaking out against the discrimination and disenfranchisement that plagues Bigger, the same struggle that paints Native Son as a bildungsroman also speaks to the claim that Native Son is a work of social protest. What further complicates this discussion is the importance of individuality and identity. As both Moretti and Holman’s assertions imply, the notions of individuality and identity are paramount to a bildungsroman. Bigger, deviating from how the traditional hero of the bildungsroman is usually depicted, never fully comes across as an individual, nor does he seem to have his own, unique identity. When Bigger seems to have the most agency is when, as I have discussed previously, he plots to dispose of Mary’s body after he has accidentally killed her and attempts to deceive her parents and the police. Even Wright’s explanation as to how he invented the character of Bigger points to this lack of individuality and agency. In his essay, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Wright comments on how Bigger is a type. Of Bigger as a character, he explains “he is a product of a


Heather Duerre Humann

dislocated society; he is a dispossessed and disinherited man; he is all of this, and he lives amid the greatest possible plenty on earth and he is looking and feeling for a way out” (446-447). Wright reveals in this same essay that he had conceived of writing about Bigger for a while and that he viewed Bigger as a symbol (rather than an individual): “For a long time I toyed with the idea of writing a novel in which a Negro Bigger Thomas would loom as a symbolic figure of American life” (447). Indeed, as Wright’s own comments indicate, Bigger, instead of existing as an individual, has a largely symbolic function in the novel. There is no doubt that Wright’s Bigger Thomas represents those who are disgruntled and disenfranchised by mid-twentieth century America and that Wright invented Bigger (as a type) from witnessing others in related situations with similar mindsets. Wright notes that he can recall encountering no fewer than five “Biggers” (“How ‘Bigger’ Was Born”). He acknowledges how seeing different people occupy this role encouraged him to create the Bigger of Native Son while also admitting that “[i]f I had known only one Bigger I would not have written Native Son” (435). Wright saw in these people a certain attitude about the world. According to Katherine Fishburn’s assessment of the novel: “The Biggers that Wright remembers stand out in his mind because they stubbornly challenged the system that sought to ‘keep them in their place.’ In their own desperate and pitiful ways they fought the status quo” (60). Instead of speaking of Bigger as having a unique identity, Wright refers to “Bigger’s longing for self-identification” (“How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” 447). Unlike the hero of the traditional bildungsroman, Bigger’s lack of individuality is in itself one of his defining characteristics. As Craig Werner argues in his essay, “Bigger’s Blues,” this “inability to sound his call is his call; his despair of envisioning a response is his response to the alienation of the AfroAmerican community” (147). Fishburn also sees Bigger Thomas as a type. She claims that he wants to be an individual, but the world in which he inhabits will not allow him to function as one: All Bigger wants is to be accepted as a human being, wishing once and for all to shed his cloak of invisibility and to be respected as a man among men. He succeeds in forcing the world to admit his existence, but he comes into being only as a criminal.” (62)

Indeed, it is through acting as a type (the stereotypical criminal that he becomes) that Bigger is able to relate to the world. Because of

Genre in/and Wright’s Native Son


how others see him (and because he is not altogether sympathetic), Bigger could, as Fishburn argues, “accurately be called an anti-hero” (Fishburn 62). Furthermore, since Bigger fails to emerge as an individual, he differs from the traditional hero of the bildungsroman (also, that Bigger functions as a type also highlights the political nature of both his character and the novel, as a whole). Finally, Native Son also has some of the characteristics of a crime fiction/courtroom drama. The “Book of the Month Club” that selected the censored version of the novel seems to have chosen this title on the basis of this genre’s selling power. Several scenes in Native Son, and in particular the long, courtroom monologue by Bigger’s lawyer Max (which takes place within the novel’s third section, “Fate”), support such a categorization. One example occurs when, in a courtroom speech, Max points to Bigger’s lack of choices: “Listen, I’ve talked with the boy. He has no education. He is poor. He is black. And you know what we’ve made these things mean in this country” (Wright 403). Here, like the stereotypical courtroom advocate, Max is making an impassioned plea on behalf of his client and, in this light, this scene makes him seem like a character typically found in courtroom dramas. Yet, the specific way that Max refers to Bigger highlights the social protest aspect of the novel. Something similar occurs when Max speaks out about the futility of executing Bigger: What would prison mean to Bigger Thomas? It holds advantages to 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 a number. (404)

Again, Max’s zealousness as Bigger’s attorney likens him to the lawyers present in many courtroom dramas, but, at the same time, the way he expresses the depravity of Bigger’s existence underscores social protest. Another aspect of the scene calls the reader’s attention to certain traits typical of the bildungsroman, by emphasizing the importance of Bigger’s identity and how that identity is crucial to one’s formation (or lack thereof). Such multiple possibilities suggest that though Native Son has some of the attributes of a courtroom drama, there are problems with this categorization, as well. Margolies further complicates the way that these courtroom scenes should be read in his discussion of the “Fate” section of the novel. In this analysis, he points to how Native


Heather Duerre Humann

Son falls short of working as a traditional courtroom drama. He further alleges that the courtroom scenario is unbelievable, suggesting that it would have been more plausible for Bigger to avoid a trial altogether: A more realistic approach to the intensely hysterical courtroom atmosphere Wright describes would have been for Max to plead Bigger guilty of some sort of insanity—rather than to suggest that Bigger is a helpless victim of American civilization. (114)

Ultimately, Native Son proves to be so difficult to categorize because it simply does not fit neatly into any one generic group. This is due in part to the fact that Wright, as has been demonstrated, relied on the traits of different generic forms—the bildungsroman, the social protest novel, and (perhaps to a lesser degree) the crime/courtroom drama. By combining these genres, Wright is able to successfully make a political statement—both a commentary and a critique—about both Bigger Thomas, as a character and a type, and about the society in which he lives. Though Wright does employ various techniques in his novel, the fact that it is so difficult to fit Native Son into any one category stems, as well, from complex issues surrounding how a novel is generically classified. Reilly’s comments point to the complicated nature of genre and how a novel’s category is primarily affected by how the reader approaches the text. In fact, he argues that inherent in the idea of a contract between author and reader is the fact that a novel is collaborative. Existing only as it is read, the novel makes writer and reader more or less equal partners—the reader’s subjectivity becomes as significant as the objectification of the writer’s imagination in the text. (49)

Though Reilly makes these comments specifically about how Wright complicates issues of race in Native Son, his assertion also works to underscore how deciding upon a novel’s genre is also a collaborative process. This is perhaps especially the case with Native Son, a novel that readers approach in so many different ways (because of the readers’ various perspectives) and one that employs such a diverse range of techniques.

Heather Duerre Humann University of Alabama

Genre in/and Wright’s Native Son


Notes 1

I would like to thank Fred Whiting (for looking at an early draft of this essay) and Madison Humann (for his support). 2

In this article, the crux of Perez’s argument is that Wright’s Bigger Thomas and various Chicano adolescents (all from Chicano Urban narratives) function as “nihilistic figures.” Moreover, Perez likens these contemporary Chicano adolescents to Bigger Thomas. 3

To this end, Holman looks at various canonical American novels including Melville’s Moby Dick, James’s Daisy Miller and The Ambassador, Cather’s My Antonia, and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, among others.

Works Consulted Baldwin, James. “Everybody’s Protest Novel” in Notes of a Native Son. 1955. Boston: Beacon, 1984. (13-23) Fishburn, Katherine. Richard Wright’s Hero: The Faces of a Rebel-Victim. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow P, 1977. Holman, C. Hugh. Windows on the World: Essays on American Social Fiction. Knoxville, TN: U Tennessee P, 1979. Howe, Irving. “Black Boys and Native Sons” in Dissent (Autumn, 1963): 353-368. Jameson, Fredric. From The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach in Michael McKeon, ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. (400-413) Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. New Essays on Native Son. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. Margolies, Edward. The Art of Richard Wright. Carbondale,: Southern Illinois UP, 1969. Moretti, Franco. The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture. trans. by Albert Sbragia. London: Verso, 2000. Perez, Vincent. “‘Running’ and Resistance: Nihilism and Cultural Memory in Chicano Urban Narratives” in MELUS 25.2 (Summer, 2000): 133-146. Portelli, Alessandro. “Everybody’s Healing Novel: Native Son and its Contemporary Critical Context” in Mississippi Quarterly 50.2 (Spring, 1997): 255-265. Reilly, John M. “Giving Bigger a Voice: The Politics of Narrative in Native Son” in Keneth Kinnamon, ed. New Essays on Native Son. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. (35-62)


Heather Duerre Humann

Werner, Craig. “Bigger’s Blues: Native Son and the Articulation of Afro-American Modernism” in Keneth Kinnamon, ed. New Essays on Native Son. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. (117-152) Wright, Richard. “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” in Native Son. 1940. New York: Harper Collins, 1998. (vii-xxxiv) —. Native Son. 1940. New York: Harper Collins, 1998.

Bigger’s “Rebellious Complaint”: Biblical Imagery in Native Son

Many critics have traced back the origins of Native Son and the impact of scientific discourses on Wright. He is recognized as the unquestionable champion of black literary protest and naturalistic fiction, the author who bluntly exposed a belief in art as a crucial arena to debate political and social questions. Ralph Ellison’s condemnation of Wright’s defense of novels as “weapons” as well as his opinion that “true novels, even when most pessimistic and bitter, arise out of an impulse to celebrate human life” (114) are well-known. As such, many readings of the novel have capitalized on Wright’s negative view of the black community. Yet, what seems to have drawn little, if any, interest about Native Son is the deeply religious nature of Bigger Thomas’s plight. I want to argue in this paper that Native Son is firmly rooted in biblical models of narration and theme indicated by the protagonist’s spiritual isolation and despair. Bigger realizes most bitterly the breach existing between himself and others (family, friends, society in general) in scenes which recreate his alienation and show the corruption that white America inscribed on blackness.

How many are my iniquities and sins? Job

I am just a black guy with nothing. Richard Wright, Native Son

In 1945 Richard Wright wrote an introduction to Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake’s study of African American Chicago, Black Metropolis. In it he highlighted two relevant facts: the importance of the research of the Chicago sociologists as an inspiration for his works and the weight of their influence in his own creation and formation as a writer:


Carme Manuel

I did not know what my story was, and it was not until I stumbled upon science that I discovered some of the meanings of the environment that battered and taunted me. I encountered the work of men who were studying the Negro community, amassing facts about urban negro life, and I found that sincere art and honest science were not far apart, that each could enrich the other. […] It was from the scientific findings of the late Robert E. Park, Robert Redfield, and Louis Wirth that I drew the meanings for my documentary book, 12,000,000 Black Voices; for my novel, Native Son; it was from their scientific facts that I absorbed some of that quota of inspiration necessary for me to write Uncle Tom’s Children and Black Boy. (xvii-xviii)

The findings of these sociologists, Wright asserts, explained to him the otherwise hidden illegibility of the environment and Black Metropolis served to illuminate and justify his narrative texts: If, in reading my novel, Native Son, you doubted the reality of Bigger Thomas, then examine the delinquency rates cited in this book; if, in reading my autobiography, Black Boy, you doubted the picture of family life there, then study the figures on family disorganization given here. (xx)

Thus, the writer emphasized the scientific origin of his literature and carved himself a niche within the pantheon of past and contemporary realistic writers. Many critics have traced back the origins of Native Son and mentioned the impact of scientific discourses on Wright. He is recognized as the unquestionable champion of black literary protest and naturalistic fiction, the author who bluntly exposed a belief in art as a crucial arena to debate political and social questions. Yet Ralph Ellison’s condemnation of Wright’s defense of novels as “weapons” as well as his opinion that “true novels, even when most pessimistic and bitter, arise out of an impulse to celebrate human life” (114) are also well-known. As such, many readings of the novel have capitalized on Wright’s negative view of the black community. Unfortunately, what seems to have drawn little, if any, interest about Native Son is the deeply religious nature of Bigger Thomas’s plight. I want to argue in this paper that Native Son is firmly rooted in biblical models of narration and theme indicated by the protagonist’s spiritual isolation and despair. Bigger’s most bitter realization is the breach existing between himself and others (family, friends, society in general) in scenes which recreate his alienation and show the corruption that white America inscribed on blackness.

Bigger’s “Rebellious Complaint”: Biblical Imagery in Native Son


Michel Fabre explains what it meant for the young Richard Wright to live with his grandmother’s strict Adventist beliefs. The theological basis of this religion placed a heavy burden on the boy: Granny intimated boldly, basing her logic on God’s justice, that one sinful person in a household could bring down the wrath of God upon the entire establishment, damning both the innocent and the guilty, and on more than one occasion she interpreted my mother’s long illness as the result of my faithlessness.” (Black Boy 60, qtd. in Fabre 34)

According to Fabre, Grandmother Wilson was responsible for the young black boy’s “intellectual death,” since she “burned the books that he brought home.” Not only was he obliged to rise and go to sleep with the sun, but every meal was an opportunity to recite verses from the Bible, and every reprimand a pretext to call upon the Almighty. Even if Richard could get out of reading prayers, using homework as an excuse, and merely pretended to kneel, he could not escape the Saturday worship. While all his friends were playing or working, he grouchily followed his grandmother and Aunt Addie to church. (34)

Fabre further explains that although Richard was revolted by this faith which seemed meaningless to him, completely opposed to immediate joys of life, he was not impervious to the force of religion. The dogmas of the church did not succeed in breaking his spirit, but their form did leave their mark: ‘I responded to the dramatic vision of life held by the church, feeling that to live day by day with death as one’s sole thought was to be so compassionately sensitive toward all life as to view all men as slowly dying, and the trembling sense of fate that welled up, sweet and melancholy, from the hymns, blended with the sense of fate that I had already caught from life.’ (Black Boy 60, qtd. in Fabre 35, my emphasis)

The French critic continues by tracing young Wright’s immersion in religious life and states that the extraordinary stories in the Bible were also bound to capture his imagination, in the same fashion as fairy tales and horror stories. Although the austere Adventists did not go in for dramatic sermons, the elders in the parish often preached with direct inspiration from the Bible: ‘The elders of her church expounded a gospel clogged with images of vast lakes of eternal fires, of seas vanishing, of valleys of dry bones […] A cosmic tale that began before time and ended with the clouds of the sky rolling away at the Second Coming of Christ; chronicles that concluded with the Armageddon; dramas thronged with the billions of human beings who had ever lived or died as God judged the quick and the dead… (Black Boy, qtd. in Fabre 89)


Carme Manuel

Moreover, what Fabre underlines from this childhood experience is that “this compulsory church attendance, in fact, provided early instruction in the understanding of fiction.” On the one hand, Wright learned to decipher the system of representation set forth in these sermons and parables [and he l]ater borrowed some of his most beautiful images from these preachers, while many a symbol in his work is taken directly from the biblical mythology with which he became so familiar. (35, my emphasis).

In a footnote to this paragraph Fabre adds that “These biblical images occur in Wright’s early poems, are implied in ‘Big Boy Leaves Home,’ which is a kind of parable of earthly paradise and sin, and are especially evident in The Long Dream and the unpublished novel ‘Tarbaby’s Dawn’” (534). And, as a conclusion to his biographical research, the critic stresses the fact that all through his life Wright remained an American (brought up in spite of himself on Horatio Alger and the Bible), and the epithet ‘expatriate,’ which became attached to his name after a certain date, can be misleading in that it neglects his allegiance to and membership in the American society which he criticized so vehemently. (529, my emphasis)

As Fabre points out, Wright had already experienced the “tragic sense of life” at twelve (529). In “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” the writer explains that he imagined a negro Bigger Thomas who “would loom as a symbolic figure of American life, a figure who would hold within him the prophecy of our future” (xx). Thus in this attempt to write a great American novel, Wright creates a protagonist based upon a conception which privileges an individual at war with his culture. This basically Romantic idea of the black male, the black isolato subject, goes hand in hand with his rejection of his own black community and his marginality within a mainstream white culture. It is obvious that the victimization of the black man is not an invented shibboleth since a plethora of American attempts to crush the black self have made his persecution clear through national history. Yet, the way that victimization is portrayed fictionally by Wright conforms less to naturalistic patterns than to mythical ones. Bigger’s construction as a fictional hero has to do, then, with both the mythic Adamic American male story and with sociological/historical data of the time. Nina Baym’s description of this image which pervades American canonical male writing is of consequence here: The myth narrates a confrontation of the American individual, the pure American self divorced from specific social circumstances, with the promise

Bigger’s “Rebellious Complaint”: Biblical Imagery in Native Son


offered by the idea of America. This promise is the deeply romantic one that in this land, untrammeled by history and social accident, a person will be able to achieve complete self-definition. Behind this promise is the assurance that individuals come before society, that they exist in some meaningful sense prior to, and apart from, societies in which they happen to find themselves. (71)

Wright’s revision of this myth might be put in the following terms: The black myth narrates a confrontation of the black American individual, the not pure American self not divorced from specific social circumstances, without the promise offered by the idea of America. This promise is not the deeply romantic one that in this land, trammeled by history and social accident, a black person will be able to achieve complete self-definition. Behind this promise is not the assurance that black individuals come before society, or that they exist in some meaningful sense prior to, and apart from, societies in which they happen to find themselves.

In Wright’s re-imagining of Baym’s assertion, America becomes a destructive space. Native Son expresses the frustration, the selfloathing, the sense of meaningless and worthlessness, the utter nihilism of growing up desperately poor, black, brutalized, and neglected in the first half of twentieth-century United States. In “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Wright explains that Bigger’s revolt can be better understood if “two factors psychologically dominant in his personality” are taken into account: First, through some quirk of circumstance, he had become estranged from the religion and the folk culture of his race. Second, he was trying to react to and answer the call of the dominant civilization whose glitter came to him through the newspapers, magazines, radios, movies, and the mere imposing sight and sound of daily American life. (xiii)

Bigger Thomas is the center of the action, the privileged focus of the narrator’s point of view—though this has been questioned by several critics—but lacks a voice. In fact, the novel tells about Bigger’s journey from his position of “voicelessness” to one of “voicefulness,” what Barbara Johnson describes as “his ascension to the status of speaking subject” (149). Yet, in a way, Bigger is born well before his physical birth, as he is advanced by an overabundance of identities reflected in the white American definitions, images and discourses about his black self. In that sense, his life is but a completion of a foreordained narrative, a corruption of the “word made flesh.” As a black suffering servant, Bigger is defined by his victimhood (his calvary and death). Enchained physically and


Carme Manuel

spiritually by a system which negates any autonomy, he is thrown into the world to follow a previously written script. Wright tells the reader that Bigger Thomas is “the product of a dislocated society; he is a dispossessed and disinherited man; he is all of this, and he lives amid the greatest possible plenty on earth and he is looking and feeling for a way out” (xx). When he talks about hearing Negroes say that maybe Hitler and Mussolini are all right because they “‘did things,’” it is because There was in the back of their minds, when they said this, a wild and intense longing (wild and intense because it was suppressed!) to belong, to be identified, to feel that they were alive as other people were, to be caught up forgetfully and exultingly in the swing of events, to feel the clean, deep, organic satisfaction of doing a job in common with others. (xiv, my emphasis)

This hunger for “belonging” is unsatisfied since the civilization which had given birth to Bigger contained no spiritual sustenance, had created no culture which could hold and claim his allegiance and faith, had sensitized him and had left him stranded, a free agent to roam the streets of our cities, a hot and whirling vortex of undisciplined and unchannelized impulses. (xix)

What has received little attention is the fact that these feelings of dispossession and disinheritance are recreated in the book through biblical imagery. In 12 Million Black Voices Wright paints a picture where exists a ‘fragile’ black family possessed of a kinship system of its own and sustained by institutions (patterns of behavior) that include codes of conduct vis-à-vis whites and standards of life, hope, and value that find objective correlatives in the Afro-American church and in Afro-American sacred and secular song. (Baker 94)

In contrast, in Native Son he shows how the corruption of these values by the white world achieves such depths that it threatens to destroy them altogether. The citation which opens Native Son is crucial to an understanding of the protagonist’s place in the world: “Even today is my complaint rebellious, My stroke is heavier than my groaning. —Job.” These biblical words frame the narrative and are the first clue to recognize the development of Bigger’s predicament and to understand what Addison Gayle thinks is the key to his character—his “acute sensitivity” (204). Wright, like so many other authors, finds

Bigger’s “Rebellious Complaint”: Biblical Imagery in Native Son


inspiration from one of the most enriching of the sacred books. The words, taken from the 1901 American Standard Version of the Bible, belong to the Book of Job 23:2. Chapters 23 and 24 are considered to be Job’s expression of his deepest problem. At this point of his narrative, he does not even attempt to answer the arguments of his counselors, but simply cries out, heavy with bitter complaint and groaning in their presence; he also reasserts his longing to find God and presents his case with these words to find an answer. The citation encapsulates, then, Wright’s intention in Native Son: how to expose and analyze black suffering in twentieth-century America. Many commentators have debated the question of the specific kind of literature that the Book of Job represents. This debate is no doubt motivated by the fact that the book is not contained by history, philosophy, rhetoric, epic, drama, or lyric, but rather includes all these genres within its aesthetic boundaries. As Walter L. Reed explains, “in Bahktin’s terms, this would make Job a special case of heteroglossia, an encyclopedic or Menippean aggregation of genres” (118).1 In the same way, Native Son could also be considered a heteroglossic text where Bigger Thomas’s quandary consists of achieving a sense of self independent from the racialized American white texts which define his ontological and epistemological status. Similarly, Sabine Sielke thinks that Native Son “constitutes an ultimate form of mimicry, parodically enacting the racist projections of black masculinity” (103). James Baldwin’s view that Wright reduces character and theme to “simplistic formulae” might be correct if we understand that the biblical Job has to struggle in the same way to liberate his sense of self where dominant theology has fixed it—in the realm of orthodox Judaism (the sufferer is justly punished because he has sinned). Bigger Thomas has, thus, to come to terms with a new understanding of a self different from the one dictated by white American culture which identifies male blackness with savagery and rape. This process of self-understanding will be dramatized fully in Book 3, a reenactment of the Book of Job and, as such, a black revision of the initial biblical citation. Bigger’s spiritual alienation, however, has to be traced back to the two previous books, especially to those moments in which he displays his estrangement from his religion and folk culture in Chicago, an urban space used to create a symbolic geographical map, a culturally significant migration site in which white American conventions on blackness could be explored. Bigger’s immersion in the “whiteness” of the White city (Chicago) might be evocative of Expressionism, as


Carme Manuel

developed in the visual arts, where line and color were given independence from nature, manipulated freely to express emotional response, and, consequently, had symbolic meanings which tried to shock the viewer and which were linked to the subjectivity of the artist and the expression of his inner life. Although Wright uses color similarly to Eugene O’Neill in The Emperor Jones, he suffuses the text with “whiteness” to emphasize the perversion of one of the most often mentioned colors in the Scriptures, where it serves as a symbol of righteousness and spiritual cleanness. White people are “a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one’s feet in the dark,” (109) thereby making the white snowstorm that falls on Chicago after Bigger’s murder “symbolic of the hostile white world” (Siegel 520). For Joyce Anne Joyce, snow symbolizes “the malevolence of the white world and by implication identifies Bigger’s animal-like will to survive.” But snow is also used as an introduction to Bigger’s entering his struggle to comprehend his irrational world. In the same way, God shows Job’s ignorance by telling him: “Have you entered the treasury of snow, Or have you seen the treasury of hail, Which I have reserved for the time of trouble. For the day of battle and war?” (Job 38: 22-23). Book 1 is titled “Fear” and clearly several books of the Bible distinguish between a proper fear and an improper fear. The former may be wholesome and cause the individual to proceed with due caution in the face of danger, thereby avoiding disaster. The latter may be morbid, destroying hope and weakening a person’s endurance, even to the point of bringing about death. It is this gruesome fear which pervades Bigger’s mind and soul throughout his life. His desire to be recognized as a “native son” with the same inalienable rights in the mythic American community and his deep awareness of his exclusion by racism and classism, and therefore of his spiritual maiming, are deeply rooted in his “fear-ridden life.” Robert Butler believes that Wright’s conscious use of Christian motifs in his major fiction is “for ironic purposes” (94). Yet, it may be conventional religious imagery is repeatedly undercut by irony throughout the novel not because it reminds Bigger of his family’s resignation and his impotence, but because it brings home the sense of his own alienation from the only world which might offer him affirmative images. There are three moments in which he is made painfully conscious of his estrangement within the black community, what the narrator describes as living with them “but behind a wall, a

Bigger’s “Rebellious Complaint”: Biblical Imagery in Native Son


curtain” (14). The first two are tied to the singing of his mother, the character that incarnates his link to his racial origins. The first one takes place only some time after he has killed the rat. Mrs. Thomas is making breakfast and sings: “Life is like a mountain railroad/ With an engineer that’s brave/ We must make the run successful/ From the cradle to the grave…” (14). Bigger’s reaction to this gospel song is one of displeasure: “The song irked him and he was glad when she stopped and came into the room” (14). His mother’s attitude towards life—trust in the Almighty—contrasts sharply to his utter despair and hopelessness. This is so because in Bigger’s valley of shadows God has been replaced by a white face staring at its inhabitants from a poster which is, in Houston A. Baker‘s words, “a parodic sign invented for black territories” (87). The image of Buckley, the candidate for State Attorney, is introduced in the first pages of the book foreshadowing his ominous and determining presence in Book 3. The poster—reminiscent of the image of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby—is described in this way: The white face was fleshy but stern; one hand was uplifted and its index finger pointed straight out into the street at each passer-by. The poster showed one of those faces that looked straight at you when you looked at it and all the while you were walking and turning your head to look at it it kept looking unblinkingly back at you until you got so far from it you had to take your eyes away, and then it stopped, like a movie blackout. Above the top of the poster were the tall red letters: IF YOU BREAK THE LAW, YOU CAN’T WIN! (16)

As J. Lee Greene explains, because it is in harmony with Wright’s adaptation of the Judeo-Christian myth of human origin, Buckley’s slogan is akin to “the first law the Creator issued to regulate life in the first human social community, as his close paraphrase of Genesis 3:2 indicates” (185). Ironically, this omniscient white eye controls blacks’ life and yet it is blind to their misery, as they themselves live in blindness in this wasteland. The Bible attributes greater importance to spiritual than to physical sight. The apostle John declares that those who profess to be Christians but are not conscious of their spiritual need are blind and naked, since they do not discern their pitiful condition (Revelation 3:17). Just as being in darkness for a long period of time will cause blindness to the natural eyes, John also points out that a Christian who hates his brother is walking aimlessly in a blinding darkness (1 John 2:11); and Peter warns that one having love, is “blind, shutting his


Carme Manuel

eyes to the light” (2 Peter 1:5-9). Bigger lives among blind and hating Christians. As to his family, “He felt in the quiet presence of his mother, brother, and sister a force, inarticulate and unconscious, making for living without thinking, making for peace and habit, making for a hope that blinded” (102). As for the rest, “Jan was blind. Mary had been blind. Mr. Dalton was blind. And Mrs. Dalton was blind; yes, blind in more ways than one” (102). In Book 3, Max brings together all these images of blindness in a final vision of Americans proceeding to their fate like sleepwalkers. The second moment when Bigger feels deep isolation comes some time later. After he has been planning the Blum robbery with his friends, he walks back home drenched in fear. He goes up the steps, inserts the key in the lock and again he hears his mother singing behind the curtain: “Lord, I want to be a Christian,/ In my heart, in my heart,/ Lord, I want to be a Christian,/ In my heart, in my heart…” He tiptoes into the room, lifts the top mattress of his bed, pulls forth the gun and rushes into the street “feeling that ball of hot tightness growing larger and heavier in his stomach and chest” (37). Mrs. Thomas’ song is a prayer, in which the singer aspires to become a follower of Christ on the inside, which means that her thoughts must originate from the heart. These feelings must be sincere since what’s on the outside is a reflection of what is in the inside, the true character. In 1 Peter 4:16, we find: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.” As a Christian the singer is expected to suffer and to bear that suffering without protests and complaints, while continue to praise God. This singing, then, establishes a link between the first scenes of the novel and Book 3 as a black revision of Job’s suffering and his defense of the absolute glory and perfection of God and Bigger’s challenging reconsideration of Christianity as defined by white law. The third moment in which Bigger feels alienated from his own people appears in Book 2, “Flight,” when he tries to dodge his pursuers. After raping and murdering Bessie and hiding in the empty apartment, he overhears other blacks talking about the consequences of his murders. He falls asleep and when he wakes up, goes to the window and looks out. He sees a dimly-lit church, where “a crowd of black men and women stood between long rows of wooden benches, singing, clapping hands, and rolling their heads.” Ironically his watch has stopped running because he had forgotten to wind it. In this timeless image

Bigger’s “Rebellious Complaint”: Biblical Imagery in Native Son


The singing from the church vibrated through him, suffusing him with a mood of sensitive sorrow. He tried not to listen, but it seeped into his feelings, whispering of another way of life and death, coaxing him to lie down and sleep and let them come and get him, urging him to believe that all life was a sorrow that had to be accepted. He shook his head, trying to rid himself of the music. How long had he slept? What were the papers saying now? He had two cents left, that would buy a Times. He picked up what remained of the loaf of bread and the music sang of surrender, resignation. Steal away, Steal away, Steal away to Jesus… He stuffed the bread into his pockets; he would eat it some time later. He made sure that his gun was still intact, hearing, Steal away, Steal away home, I ain’t got long to stay here… It was dangerous to stay here, but it was also dangerous to go out. The singing filled his ears; it was complete, self-contained, and it mocked his fear and loneliness, his deep yearning for a sense of wholeness. Its fulness contrasted so sharply with his hunger, its richness with his emptiness, that he recoiled from it while answering it. Would it not have been better for him had he lived in that world the music sang of? It would have been easy to have lived in it, for it was his mother’s world, humble, contrite, believing. It had a center, a core, an axis, a heart which he needed but could never have unless he laid his head upon a pillow of humility and gave up his hope of living in the world. And he would never do that. (237-238)

In this scene, Wright introduces an old Negro spiritual. “Steal Away, steal away”2 was sung by runaway slaves before embarking on their perilous journey north. According to the music historian Mark Miles Fisher, some slave spirituals—“Go Down, Moses” and “Steal Away to Jesus,” among others—conveyed secret messages among slaves in underground meetings and in plots to escape from their plantations. “Steal Away to Jesus” may be construed as a “communal summons or inducement to individual slaves to ‘steal’ themselves from bondage to freedom” ( Smith 126). The phrase “steal away” meant escaping; “Jesus” and “home” symbolized the yearning for freedom in the North; and the words “I ain’t got long to stay here” meant that flight northward was imminent. However, other critics warn against an approach that treats spirituals as coded speech disguising for political meanings. Theophus H. Smith conjectures that “a post-emancipatory shift occurred in black religious experience— the shift from a covert use of conjurational strategies to a more transparent mode of spirituality” (127). This alternative mode of spirituality which is contemplative and revelational is what Bigger recognizes and, as happened with his mother’s previous singing, these lyrics stand as a stark contrast to his feelings of despondency. They are the remainder of his origins and, as such, they offer a soothing spiritual balm. But, unfortunately, the world he has been forced to live in makes it impossible for him to accept this respite the song offers


Carme Manuel

Some critics have dismissed Book 3 as a polemic moral rant,3 yet its richness comes into full display if we bear in mind its original inspiration, the Book of Job, and the literary form in which biblical wisdom presents itself. Specifically, the Book of Job takes the form of a prose story interrupted in the middle by a poetic dialogue.4 It is, according to Herbert M. Schneidau, “the climax of the Old Testament” (6). More recently, scholars have argued that it is a critique of the concept of tragedy in human affairs (Reed 115). It belongs to the biblical wisdom tradition, the practical side of which explained that playing “by the rules was a guarantee of success in life,” whereas there was a contrasting side in which life was seen “as a puzzle, perhaps a meaningless one, in which someone who played by the rules might as easily fail as succeed” (Gabel et al. 55). The Book of Job is an example of this latter form: Job is puzzled by the apparent injustice of life and desperately seeks to understand his unjust treatment, to get an answer to his questions. He is made to suffer horribly as a result of a casual wager between God and “Satan” or “the Adversary.” Consequently, Job—ignorant of the wager but aware that he does not deserve his suffering—hurls questions and challenges at the Almighty that verge on blasphemy. In his anguish, he interrogates God’s justice and receives a response which takes the form of a series of more questions intended to belittle Job—to crush him into insignificance by virtue of his being a mere man. In the book of Job and the other wisdom writings, no special truths are revealed from heaven; those of men’s questions that cannot be answered from the observation of nature and of human society must remain forever without an answer. (Gabel et al. 134)

The charges of didacticism against the last part of Native Son find justification in the fact that, similar to the Book of Job and the other four works of wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclessiastes and two books in the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus and The Wisdom of Solomon), it takes the form of “something like a classroom lecture in which the instructors in wisdom undertake three tasks: to describe what they have observed in life, to advise their hearers/readers how to live, and to praise wisdom as a quality” (Gabel et al. 142). In one way, the Book of Job seems a parable, in another way, a drama. Schneidau explains that Helen Gardner places the book and the “Suffering Servant” songs of Deutero-Isaiah, “very close to tragedy” in feeling; indeed, she concludes that it is “not wholly improper to set [Job] beside Greek tragedy as a work of literary art,”5 not only because of its “quasi-dramatic” form but because it preserves the tragic

Bigger’s “Rebellious Complaint”: Biblical Imagery in Native Son


ambiguity of suffering, and “rejects any attempt to explain human suffering in terms of the guilt or sin of the sufferer” (qtd. Schneidau 219). Just like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Job tackles the question of whether one’s behavior determines one’s fate in life. Similarly, Book 3 is Wright’s attempt to explain black suffering and to reject it in terms of the guilt of Bigger Thomas as dictated by white society. This is the reason why this part of the book turns out to be most deeply immersed in theological motifs. Christians used to interpret the Book of Job as an allegory foreshadowing the life of Christ in terms of the need for suffering (Schneidau 219-220). Bigger Thomas dies on a Friday, and throughout the first part of Book 3, his rejection of food and drink can be interpreted as religious fasting or as his preparation for sacrifice. In the Bible rightly motivated fasts were intended to show pious sorrow and repentance for past sins, but they were also fitting in the face of great danger, when one is in sore need of divine guidance, enduring tests and meeting temptations, or while studying, meditating, or concentrating on God’s purposes (2 Chronicles 20:3, Ezra 8:21, Esther 4:3, 16; Matthew 4:1, 2). Fasting was not a form of selfinflicted punishment, but a humbling of oneself before God. Yet, to be acceptable, the fast must be able to be accompanied by a correction of past sins (Isaiah 58:6, 7). Bigger’s correction of past sins, however, is reversed here and takes the form of an affirmation, what Keneth Kinnamon calls “the terrible knowledge of his self-realization through murder” (“How Native Son Was Born” 118), which leaves him in a sort of existential solitude, facing and accepting his inexorable fate as a suffering Christ. For Schneidau, the Book of Job takes up “the question of evil” and, meditating on suffering and guilt, its author comes to a daring conception: “Job suffers not because of his sins but because of his righteousness” (218). To accept Bigger’s murders, “the reader must willingly suspend rational belief” and accept the idea of a universe in which “murder is not a mark of man’s inhumanity, but of his humanity, not an act denoting the degenerate, but the hero, not an effort at self-destruction, but an attempt to validate manhood,” states Addison Gayle (204). From this perspective, Bigger becomes a righteous man and indeed there are some elements in the novel which support such a reading of Native Son. For example, the apostle Peter refers to trials or sufferings as a “fire” that proves the quality of the Christian’s faith. Later, he associates suffering for the righteous to a burning when he tells his fellow Christians: “Do not be puzzled at the


Carme Manuel

burning among you, which is happening to you for a trial, […] you are sharers in the sufferings of the Christ, that you may rejoice and be overjoyed also during the revelation of his glory” (1 Peter 1:6,7 and 4:12, 13). Such suffering for righteousness has a beneficial effect, and a person who faithfully and successfully passes through a difficult “burning” trial is stronger and more solidly established as a result of his endurance (Acts 14:22). Fear and shame rise “hot” in Bigger on many occasions (67, 85, 108, 141). As mentioned above, Wright has Bigger Thomas suffer through no fault of his own. Here is where the book parts from the naturalistic mode and delves into a symbolic and metaphysical understanding of the protagonist’s existence. In the same way that Job argues that there is no relationship between the good or evil a man does and what happens to him in life, Wright argues that the fate of the black man in America is determined well before he is even born. If Bigger were guilty of sin, his suffering could be understood as God’s way of reproving and chastening him for his own good. This is the principle defended by the friends who gather around Job in his time of trouble and by some of the white “counselors” who confront Bigger in Book 3. But what makes Native Son more difficult to understand is the fact that that is not the answer to account for Bigger’s existential malaise in the narrative. On a naturalistic level Bigger is guilty of his crimes, though he has been driven to them by deterministic circumstances. He has murdered two women with his own hands, but what has driven him to commit these heinous acts? In On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche states that one of the tragedies of humanity is that “blood and cruelty is the foundation of all ‘good things.’” Sacrifice becomes necessary to affirm “a few primal postulates of social intercourse” that the group considers crucial to its way of life: When man thinks it necessary to make for himself a memory, he never accomplishes it without blood, tortures and sacrifice; the most dreadful sacrifice and forfeitures (among them sacrifice of the first-born), the most loathsome mutilation (for instance, castration), and the most cruel rites of all the religious cults (for all religions are really at bottom system of cruelty)—all these things originate from that instinct found in pain in its most potent mnemonic. (213)

Bigger’s poignant feelings of exclusion can only be exorcised through violence and sacrificial death; therefore Mary’s murder has to be explained on a symbolic level. If Bigger stands not as an

Bigger’s “Rebellious Complaint”: Biblical Imagery in Native Son


individual, but as a representation of how black native sons in America are treated by a system which deprives them of their rights to life, Mary’s sacrifice becomes a communal activity. Anthropologists, such as Mary Douglas, affirm that such a sacrifice purges a threatened social world and that it resolves a specific crisis of transition through the shedding of blood. Yet, Bigger kills alone, and this reinforces even more his isolation within his own community, especially when the ritual he performs will be mirrored by a “covert system of sacrifice” (23), that is to say, the modern judicial system at the end of the novel. Bigger’s killing is a sacrificial act which not only initiates him into knowledge but also into liberation. René Girard’s treatment of ritual scapegoating may prove useful to understand the mythical and religious meaning of this act. Girard insists that Christian traditions of scapegoating and ritual violence are consistent with the sacralization of violence typical in all religious cultures throughout history. This equation between violence and “the sacred” is called the “primitive sacred” of the human species. Within the world which Bigger is forced to inhabit, Mary stands as an ultimate threat to his existence, as the epitome of white evil.6 To exorcise the danger she poses to him, Bigger kills her following a most sacred ritual. She is smothered to death, beheaded and burnt to ashes. Beheading was a form of execution in ancient Israel. When a beheading was performed, it was usually after the individual had been slain and was generally done to bring the person’s death to public attention as a reproach or as a public notice of judgment or warning. In the same way, fire and salt were associated with the sacrifices offered at the temple. Orlando Patterson summarizes Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss’s acute statements on sacrificial rites and stresses the fact that “the fire was important in itself, for it invariably symbolized the deity. As the victim was consumed by the flames, he was symbolically devoured by the god” (182). On the other hand, in biblical times the most thorough means of destruction was fire. Hence Jesus at times used the term “fire” in an illustrative way to denote the complete destruction of the wicked (Matthew 13:40-42 49, 50). Finally, what remained of the victim after he had been killed and burnt might be allotted completely to the sacred world, or it might be allotted completely to the secular world, in which case it was eaten, or parts might be given to the gods and parts kept by the sacrificers (qtd. in Patterson 183). What is left of Mary and what will stand as final evidence of her sacrifice is one of her earrings. The jewel, handed


Carme Manuel

down from her grandmother to her mother to her, is a token of the uninterrupted white family tradition and now bears testimony to its disruption. Yet, in Isaiah 3:16, 19, the Lord says that earrings are among the things he would take away from the arrogant daughters of Zion to punish their haughtiness. Mary’s superciliousness towards Bigger and what he represents is thus castigated and reproached. According to Addison Gayle, Jr, Mary’s sacrifice performs a vital psychological function for Bigger—“the catalyst that propels Bigger upon the search for manhood” (204). Bessie’s rape and murder, however, stand on a different level. Although her killing has been generally interpreted as an act of betrayal showing Wright’s hate for black womanhood, Sabine Sielke believes that in Native Son, “the invocation of black women’s suffering constitutes black male subjectivity” (27). It is important to note here that Bessie is murdered by having her head crushed, an action that Bigger had already performed when killing the rat, an unclean animal (Leviticus 11:29, Isaiah 66:17). In the Bible, the act of killing by crushing the head is linked to the Serpent. In Genesis 3:15, the first veiled prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, God says to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The Son will directly crush the serpent’s head. For Trudier Harris, Bessie’s death represents Wright’s failure—his blindness, in a way—to develop her potential: “In her comments to Bigger about her life, she makes a necessary step in the direction of self-revelation, but Wright stifles that potential by refocusing attention on Bigger and how Bessie is a burden to him” (80). Bessie becomes, then, a “serpent,” what Baker calls “a hated symbol to be eradicated by aspiring black male consciousness” (108) because for Wright the black woman represents “a backwash of conscious history” (Baker 101). Yet, what makes the act racially suicidal is the fact that Bigger drinks milk some time before committing it: The milk on the stove boiled over. Bessie rose, her lips still twisted with sobs, and turned off the electric switch. She poured out a glass of milk and brought it to him. He sipped it slowly, then set the glass aside and leaned over again. They were silent. Bessie gave him the glass once more and he drank it down, then another glass. (214)

The Promised Land is repeatedly described in the Bible as flowing with milk and honey, denoting abundance and prosperity due to God’s

Bigger’s “Rebellious Complaint”: Biblical Imagery in Native Son


blessing; milk—the liquid which helps physical growth into maturity—is also linked to elementary Christian doctrine, a necessity to grow and absorb solid food, the deeper spiritual truths (1 Corinthians 3:2). Bessie’s murder by Bigger—a fatherless son and a son who rejects his mother—is Bigger’s ultimate act of estrangement from his origins. What does Bigger feel after performing these sacrifices? For the first time in his life, Mary’s murder forms for Bigger “a barrier of protection between him and a world he feared.” And it also “create[s] a new life for himself” (101). Challenging his society’s interpretation, Bigger believes that all his life had been leading to that moment: The hidden meaning of his life—a meaning which others did not see and which he had always tried to hide—had spilled out. No; it was no accident, and he would never say that it was. There was in him a kind of terrified pride in feeling and thinking that some day he would be able to say publicly that he had done it. It was as though he had an obscure but deep debt to fulfill to himself in accepting the deed. (101) He felt that he had his destiny in his grasp. He was more alive than he could ever remember having been […] he was moving toward that sense of fullness he had so often but inadequately felt in magazines and movies. (141)

Patterson affirms that “the sacrificial ritual created not only a compact between the sacrificers and their god but a compact of fellowship among the sacrificers themselves… it strengthened the power of the community and its most strongly held values” (183). Accordingly, as Bigger looks at the black people on the sidewalks, he felt that one way to end fear and shame was to make all those black people act together, rule them, tell them what to do, and make them do it. Dimly, he felt that there should be one direction in which he and all other black people could go whole-heartedly; that there should be a way in which gnawing hunger and restless aspiration could be fused; that there should be a manner of acting that caught the mind and body in certainty and faith. (109)

These feelings achieve full articulation at the end of Book 3. At this point, Bigger’s murders as “acts of creation” can only be accounted for, if understood as sacrificial rites. Girard affirms that the need to create is necessitated by the threat of chaos and violence and believes that in sacrifice—as a way of dealing with violence in the absence of legal institutions—the victim diverts and displaces the violence that threatens to tear both the self and the community apart. As such, Bigger’s killings are rites of passage from ignorance to


Carme Manuel

knowledge and, paradoxically, from exclusion to inclusion into humanity. Book 3 starts by recreating a sense of timelessness. J. Lee Greene highlights how the initial biblical images and allusions bring into relief “the Judeo-Christian myths of the world’s cosmogony and the origin and the Fall of man.” For this critic, this biblical imagery, the use of which also pervades the closing section of this book, brings to “a logical culmination the thematic and structural pattern of birthdeath-rebirth, which corresponds to the novel’s three books” (177). But Greene does not relate this last part to any specific section in the Bible. Although the parallelisms with Job are accentuated in the first pages of this section when the narrator explains that Bigger has refused to speak and eat during three days and is “in the grip of a deep physiological resolution not to react to anything,” but “his desire to crush all faith in him was in itself built upon a sense of faith […] 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” (255). Similarly, Job regrets his birth (3:11). Yet, for Bigger, as for Job, “the conviction that there was some way out surged back into him, strong and powerful, and, in his present state, condemning and paralyzing” (256). His struggle and his victory will consist of liberating himself from being translated into a social symbol, a ritual sacrificial scapegoat: not only had they resolved to put him to death, but that they were determined to make his death mean more than a 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. (257)

His description in the Tribune and his rejection of it makes him spring back into action “alive, contending” (257) and try to carve for himself some sense of individuality. Bigger will have to confront three “counselors” in this last part: Reverend Hammond, Buckley and Max. The three of them represent different visions of the protagonist, but they coincide in their attempts to explain the yet unspeaking Bigger. Reverend Hammond’s words are 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

Bigger’s “Rebellious Complaint”: Biblical Imagery in Native Son


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. (263)

These images belong to the Book of Genesis, to the beginning of time and the creation of man. Listening to the preacher’s words and looking at his sad face “made him feel a sense of guilt deeper than that which even his murder of Mary had made him feel” (264). Moreover, “He had killed within himself the preacher’s haunting picture of life even before he had killed Mary; that had been his first murder” (264). Echoing the religious scenes which appeared in the previous parts of the novel, Wright exposes the real tragedy of Bigger’s life—his suicidal separation from the values of his black community. His bitter feelings at not being included in the picture of Creation, of not being a “native son,” and that sense of exclusion, “as cold as a block of ice,” had made him kill, because “To live, he had created a new world for himself, and for that he was to die.” In a sense, Bigger has defied God, the only legitimate creator, and consequently has to pay for his sinful act. Yet, he reasons that he was driven to it on the false assumption that he lived and acted alone without realizing that “what he had done made others suffer” (277). This shock of black brotherly recognition takes place in a scene in which Mrs. Thomas adopts the role of a black stabat mater. Observed by whites, Bigger begs her to forget him three times. Later, in an extraordinary act of signifying and knowing that she cannot save her child’s life, she begs the Daltons to have mercy on her family and prevent their eviction from their rented apartment. In a desperate act of Christian charity, Reverend Hammond gives Bigger a wooden cross. Bigger is taken through the mob (312-313) reenacting Jesus’s passion, while he is insulted and “he felt hot spittle splashing through his face” (Matthew 27:28, 30-31). At the same time he sees “a flaming cross” which “was not the cross of Christ, but the cross of the Ku Klux Klan” (313). Bigger’s hope is shattered when he witnesses the corruption of the Christian symbol in the hands of whites, a vision which makes him rebuke the reverend’s 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” (313).


Carme Manuel

Bigger’s horrified contemplation of the burning cross at this point of the narrative is relevant because the scene recreates Christianity’s central symbol of Christ’s sacrificial death as it became identified with the crucifixion of the Negro, “the dominant symbol of the Southern Euro-American supremacist’s civil religion” (Patterson 218). Patterson explains that the burning cross is perhaps the most corrupted manipulated degraded icon and manifestation of white perversion (223). Blacks had resisted whites in their own cultural domain by means of usurping and subverting religion. Reverend Hammond’s use of Genesis imagery as well as giving Bigger the wooden cross is an attempt to convey black religious resistance to Bigger, to instill in him not an act of resignation but of heroic contemplation of the triumphant sacrified Christ. However, the mesmerizing power of the burning cross “with malevolent perfection” discards the Negro and the sacrifice of Christ (Patterson 223). The power of white manipulation is the reason which impels Bigger to reject the figure of the redeeming humbled Christ presented by Reverend Hammond and, ironically, leaves him with the bitterness, humiliation and muted rage which impel him to abandon the idea of God. As J. Lee Greene puts it: “rejecting the color white and the cross as sacred symbols signifies Bigger’s repudiation of a socio-religious philosophy that prescribes his passive suffering and sanctions his destruction” (185). The burning cross is, then, used by Wright as what Patterson calls “an obscene parody of the cross of Christ” (218). Bigger’s search for “voicefulness” to counteract the crushing burden of his categorization by whites ends up in his declaration of guilt to his second “counsellor” and “white God,” Buckley. His confession is introduced with the following words: “Listlessly, he talked” (287). This recalls the citation from Job which frames the novel, since another translation for Job 23:2 (The New King James Version), says: “Even today my complaint is bitter; my hand is listless because of my groaning.” Job believes that if he talked to God “I would be delivered forever from my Judge” (23:7). Similarly, Bigger feels indifferent. His confession to Buckley is an act which implores understanding from the powerful “watcher,” but which, paradoxically, leaves him “more lost and undone than when he was captured” (287). Schneidau explains that Job’s friends offer the clichés that had been developed to obscure the starkness of the Yahwist vision: you must have sinned, for only the wicked suffer, etc. But Job mercilessly demythologizes these assurances (218). Similarly, Bigger cannot comfort himself with any promises about God’s care for man from

Bigger’s “Rebellious Complaint”: Biblical Imagery in Native Son


Reverend Hammond’s words or indeed from Buckley’s racist listening. Boris Max becomes the third counselor Bigger faces. As Paul N. Siegel points out, (518) his speech is not an address to a jury. He does not dare to put Bigger’s fate in the hands of a white jury and enters a plea of guilty, which by the laws of Illinois permits him to reject a trial by jury and to have the sentence rendered by the presiding judge. In the same way as Elihu contradicts Job’s friends, Max speaks to this judge and tries to make him understand the significance of Bigger. That understanding, however, is built upon the Mosaic Law, which included extensive legislation regarding the taking of human life. It differentiated between deliberate and accidental slaying. Factors considered as weighing against a person claiming to be an accidental murder were: if he had formerly hated the slain person; had lain in wait for the victim; or had used an object or implement capable or inflicting a mortal wound. Unintentional murderers (those who had not felt hatred toward the victim) could preserve their lives by availing themselves of the safety accorded them in the cities of refuge where an accidental shedder of blood could find protection and asylum from the avenger of blood (Nu 35:6-32). Max affirms that Bigger has “murdered Mary Dalton accidentally, without thinking, without plan, without conscious motive” (364). In fact, Max tries to commute the death sentence to life imprisonment, which actually equals entering a city of refuge since this might give him an opportunity to “build a meaning for his life” and “steel bars between him and the society he offended would provide a refuge from hate and fear” (370). On the other hand, and following the biblical tradition, Max equates hatred with murder. “Fear and hate and guilt are the keynotes of this drama!,” he says (357), and because of white hate Bigger “was guilty before he killed!” (369). In the Scriptures murders issue forth from the heart of an individual, therefore anyone hating his brother would be a manslayer: “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” According to 1 John 3:15, Jesus also associates murder with wrong attitudes such an individual’s continuing wrath with his brother, speaking abusively to him, or wrongly judging and condemning him as a “despicable fool” (Matthew 5:21, 22). Such hatred may lead to actual murder, as appears in the words of James 5:6 (“You have condemned, you have murdered the just”), and Jesus believes that one who acts like this figuratively murders the Son of God. Max’s last


Carme Manuel

agonized words ringing out in the courtroom to the judge echo this understanding of condemnation: “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!” (370). At the end of Book 3, Bigger finds his voice and an understanding of himself. However, this entails bitter consequences. Max is not willing to talk to Bigger about the significance of his life, but Biggers’s insistence forces him to do so. However, he does not turn out to be the receptive listener Bigger once felt he was. When the black man reminds the lawyer of the questions he asked him, Max does not remember. Nor does he remember the night Bigger opened up to him, and he treated him like a man. Bigger’s bitter disappointment is shown in his reaction to the lawyer’s forgetting: “Bigger felt he had been slapped” (387). And recalling Matthew 7:2427, the narrator comments: “Oh, what a fool he had been to build hope upon such shifting sand!” (387). But Max does not know and does not understand because his words show Bigger that “the white man was still trying to comfort him in the face of death.” Max’s last words—“you’ve got to b-believe in yourself” (391)—ironically launch Bigger to go deeper into his search for his self and liberate him from the stereotypical image that Max had also created of him. In fact, Bigger’s reaction is one of derision: “Bigger laughed” (391). For Laura E. Tanner, with Bigger’s laugh, the delicate, philosophical world that Max (and the narrator) have constructed around the skeletal framework of Bigger’s actions comes tumbling down like Wittgenstein’s house of cards, felled by one breath of the man who committed those actions, who knows he is to die, who stands firmly on the ground beneath him. (145)

In fact, the black man’s disdain applies to his rejection not only of racism but also of Max’s liberal condescending attitude. In his trial speech, Max turns Bigger into a social symbol which in the end is not very different from the white fossilization of black manhood which had defined, commanded and appropriated his self-image all his life: 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 quite 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. (307)

Bigger’s “Rebellious Complaint”: Biblical Imagery in Native Son


Bigger has been forced to read images and is further made by Max to read himself from the point of view of whites as, through dissociation, he has been made into a representational object. Throughout slavery, the slave was no longer a man because to credit him with human attributes would have jeopardized the justification of the institution. According to Patterson, it is this dissociation that made the ex-slave the most exquisitely appropriate representational object. As Patterson continues he explains that, in his analysis of Ndembu rituals, Victor Turner draws on William James’s ‘law of dissociation’ in explaining the dual nature of symbolic objects—their tendency to be both man and beast or both man and monster. […] The association of ‘blackness’ first with humans, then with beasts, leads to the disassociation of blackness from both, thereby becoming an object of intense contemplation. This not only thoroughly alienated ‘blackness,’ but the exclusive humanness of ‘whiteness.’ (211)7

“But what I killed for, I am! […] What I killed for must’ve been good! […] I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ‘em…” (392), is, then, Bigger’s paradoxical assertion of his humanity against the burden of representation with which Max categorizes him. Moreover, his statement is “a verbal signification of his subjectivity that repeats, with a difference, God’s statement to Moses is Exodus 3:14: ‘I AM WHO I AM’” (Greene 187). Harold Cruse thinks that Richard Wright and his Negro intellectual colleagues never realized the plain truth that no one in the United States understood the revolutionary potential of the Negro better than the Negro’s white radical allies. They understood it instinctively, and revolutionary theory had little to do with it. What Wright could not see was that what Negro’s allies feared most of all was that this sleeping, dream-walking black giant might wake up and direct the revolution all by himself, relegating his white allies to a humiliating second-class status. (184)

But this is exactly what happens at the end of Native Son. Max, the Negro’s ally, tries to comfort Bigger with a vision which can place him inside American society, but when Bigger laughs at his words in mockery and shows him that he has finally come to grips with a new sense of identity on his own terms, Max recoils in terror because he realizes that the Negro stands now on a path that leads to greater power and independence than the black man has ever dreamed for himself.


Carme Manuel

The Book of Job calls into question the counsel of the wise. Job’s three friends or ‘comforters” grossly mistake proverbial truth. Job speaks as a half-outsider and, according to Reed, the fact that Job can speak ‘what is right’ (42:7) of God and receive corrective instruction from him face to face apart from the dialogic apparatus of law and prophecy is unsettling enough. But the fact that he does so in the generic mode of a Babylonian lament is a distinct challenge to the requirements of the Law and the Prophets. (119)

In the same way, racist and Marxist discourses dissatisfy Bigger because none of them serve him right, and both, blind to his real needs, misinterpret him. The “Book of Bigger,” then, appears to call white paradigms into question as privileged descriptions of the way in which blacks stand in America. At the end of Native Son, only Jan Erlone recognizes Bigger as a human being; therefore, Bigger can say of Jan that “the word had become flesh” (268). This paraphrase of John 1:14 supports the theme of Bigger’s self-creation through language to “dwell” among the rest of humanity. The record of Bigger’s struggle—his yearning for communication and for “a wholeness which had been denied him all his life” (335)—ends in a transcendental optimism capable of overcoming America’s perverted racism implying that new images are needed to mediate the communication and draw “what was common and good” between “white men and black men and all men” (335). In the same way that “through his long debate with his ‘comforters,’ Job pleads that God appear (in court, as it were) and state plainly what wrong Job has committed that warrants such ill fortune” (Gabel et al. 137), Bigger tries desperately to cast off the images and definitions which describe his ontological being in American society, and instead he wishes to be recognized for his humanity. Yet, in contrast to the Book of Job, where the problem of suffering can never be solved, but humankind must forever maintain the anguished attempt to solve it, Native Son argues that the search for meaning in the constant flux of everyday events in America is not unending but starts with the recognition of the humanity of blackness and the implementation of justice heretofore unseen. Michel Fabre in his article “The Poetry of Richard Wright” explains that Wright’s poetry, especially after 1937, centered on the world of the workers and the poor. He continues by contending that readers are first struck by the fact that Wright is as realistic in his poetry as he is in his novels. However, “the real world, naked and violent, is never

Bigger’s “Rebellious Complaint”: Biblical Imagery in Native Son


incorporated in its everyday form: either the Marxist interpretation transforms it into a significant universe or else the author’s imagination recreates it through a religious, elemental, or mythical symbolism.” This is so because in a “paradoxical component of these Communist poems” there are “a wealth of Biblical references” (272). Native Son drinks from the same fountains.

Carme Manuel Universitat de València

Notes 1

Robert Alter explains that “what the Bible offers us is an uneven continuum and a constant interweaving of factual historical detail (especially, but by no means exclusively, for later periods) with purely legendary ‘history’; occasional enigmatic vestiges of mythological lore; etiological stories; archetypal fictions of the founding fathers of the nation; folktales of heroes and wonder-working men of God; verisimilar inventions of wholly fictional personages attached to the progress of national history; and fictionalized versions of known historical figures. All of these narratives are presented as history, that is, as things that really happened and that have some significant consequence for human or Israelite destiny. The only evident exceptions to this rule are Job, which in its very stylization seems manifestly a philosophic fable (hence, the rabbinic dictum, ‘There was no such creature as Job; he is a parable’) and Jonah, which, with its satiric and fantastic exaggerations, looks like a parabolic illustration of the prophetic calling and of God’s universality” (Art 33). 2 The complete text for this spiritual is: “Steal away, steal away, /steal away to Jesus! / Steal away, steal away home, /I ain’t got long to stay here. /1 My Lord, He calls me, / He calls me by the thunder, /The trumpet sounds within-a my soul, /I ain’t got long to stay here. /2 Green trees a-bending, /po’ sinner stand a-trembling,…” 3 See Siegel 517-518. 4 For Schneidau, “to an involuted Puritan like Herman Melville, the concept of truth hidden under the surface of words became so ominous that it seemed capable of holding a vast cosmic secret, that of innate depravity not only in man but in the power that ordained the world. Melville turns Christianity against itself, appositely using the Job story in Moby Dick to imply his message. But this tactic only shows the depth of his indebtedness to the Bible” (283). This would explain Wright’s debt to Melville via the Book of Job. For an analysis of Melville’s influence on Native Son, see Elizabeth Schultz, “The Power of Blackness: Richard Wright Re-Writes Moby-Dick” in African American Review 33.4 (Winter 1999): 639-654. 5 6

Helen Gardner, Religion and Literature (London: Faber, 1971), 58-60.

Mary conforms also to other patterns established by Hubert and Mauss. They believe that there were always certain sets of ideas about the victim. He was symbolic of good or evil, depending on the objective of the sacrificial ritual. The victim mediated between the sacred and the profane “Killing the victim involved not just the


Carme Manuel

gift of a valued object but the liberation of his life-spirit and the creation of a compact between the sacrificers and God or some transcending entity. For this reason, there was usually some form of physical contact made with the victim” (qtd. in Patterson 183). Bigger’s contact is established through kissing. 7 Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1967), 105.

Works Consulted Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981. Alter, Robert and Frank Kermode eds. The Literary Guide to the Bible. London: Harper Collins, 1997. Baym, Nina. “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors” in Elaine Schowalter, ed. The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory. New York: Pantheon, 1985. (63-80) Bigsby, C. W. E. “The Self and Society: Richard Wright’s Dilemma” in The Second Black Renaissance: Essays in Black Literature. Westport, CN: Greenwood P, 1980. (54-84) Baker, Houston A., Jr. “Richard Wright and the Dynamics of Place in Afro-American Literature.” in Keneth Kinnamon, ed. New Essays on ‘Native Son.’ Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. (85-116) Bone, Robert. The Negro Novel in America. New Haven: Yale UP, 1958. Brignano, Russell C. Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works. Pittsburgh: U Pittsburgh P, 1970. Butler, Robert. Native Son: The Emergence of a New Black Hero. New York: Twayne, 1991. Cooke, Michael G. Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy. New Haven, CN: Yale UP, 1984. Cruse, Harold. “Richard Wright” in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual from its Origins to the Present. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1967. (181-189) Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. 1964. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1994. Fabre, Michel. “The Poetry of Richard Wright” in Yoshinabu Hakutani, ed. Critical Essays on Richard Wright. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. (252-272) —. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. Urbana: U Illinois P, 1993. Gabel, John B., Charles B. Wheeler and Anthony D. York. The Bible as Literature: An Introduction. New York, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.

Bigger’s “Rebellious Complaint”: Biblical Imagery in Native Son


Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and K. A. Appiah eds. Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993. Gayle, Addison, Jr. The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor P/Doubleday, 1976. Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1977. Greene, J. Lee. Blacks in Eden: The African American Novel’s First Century. Charlottesville: UP Virginia, 1996. Hakutani, Yoshinobu, ed. Critical Essays on Richard Wright. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1982. Harris, Trudier. “Native Sons and Foreign Daughters” in Keneth Kinnamon, ed. New Essays on ‘Native Son.’ Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. (63-84) Kinnamon, Keneth, ed. New Essays on ‘Native Son.’ Cambridge, New York: Cambridge UP, 1990. —. “How Native Son Was Born” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr, and K. A. Appiah, eds. Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993. (110-131) Johnson, Barbara. “The Re(ad) and the Black” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr, and K. A. Appiah, eds. Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993. (149-155) Joyce, Anne Joyce. “The Figurative Web of Native Son” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr, and K. A. Appiah, eds. Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993. (171-187) Nietzsche, Friederich. On the Genealogy of Morals. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Patterson, Orlando. Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries. New York: Basic Books, 1998. Reed, Walter L. “Who Is This That Darkens Counsel? Cross-Talk in the Book of Job” in Dialogues of the Word: The Bible as Literature According to Bakhtin. New York, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. (114-138) Schneidau, Herbert N. Sacred Discontent: The Bible and Western Tradition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1976. Schultz, Elizabeth. “The Power of Blackness: Richard Wright Re-Writes Moby-Dick” in African American Review 33.4 (Winter 1999): 639-654. Siegel, Paul N. “The Conclusion of Richard Wright’s Native Son” in PMLA 89.3: 517-523. Sielke, Sabine. Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, 1790-1990. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002. Smith, Theophus H. Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America. New York, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994. Tanner, Laura E. “Uncovering the Magical Disguise of Language: The Narrative Presence in Richard Wright’s Native Son” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr, and K. A.


Carme Manuel

Appiah, eds. Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993. (132-148) Wright, Richard. Native Son. 1940. New York: Harper Perennial, 1989. —. “Introduction” in St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, eds. Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. 1945. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1993. (xviixxxiv)

Native Son Beyond the Page

From Page to Screen: A Comparative Study of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Its Two Film Adaptations

The problem of authorial intrusiveness in Native Son becomes acute because Bigger’s inability to express himself conflicts with the very nature of literature, which is a medium of words. This disparity is exacerbated with protest literature whose discourse is rhetorical and loaded with messages. In this view, the cinema, with its seemingly unmediated way of addressing spectators, appears to be the appropriate medium for Bigger Thomas—a detail that did not elude Wright as he intended his prose to exude cinematic qualities. But Native Son proved deceptively easy to adapt onscreen.

In 1940, Richard Wright’s novel Native Son appeared on the “Book of the Month Club,” and its success has continued unabated ever since. Native Son, the first bestseller by a black writer, brought African American literature in the limelight. The story was made into film twice: first in 1951 by French director Pierre Chenal, and more recently in 1986 by American director Jerrold Freedman. Through a close reading of Wright’s seminal essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” the first part of this reflection explores Wright’s craftsmanship and endeavors to show how Bigger Thomas, the central character in Native Son, was conceived by Wright in terms akin to film techniques. This part suggests that the cinema, with its intrinsic qualities, may have been a better medium for the Bigger Thomas character to blossom to its full potential. The second part of this reflection focuses on both film adaptations of Native Son in some detail since Chenal’s and Freedman’s respective works were made more than four decades apart and in very different circumstances but both responded to Wright’s provocative novel with significant modifications. What posed problems to both directors was not so much the form—i.e., the style or syntactic structure of the novel—as the content of the story itself, and both Chenal and Freedman had to


Raphaël Lambert

put up with the political pressure of their time. Hence the second part’s goal will be to contextualize both films and to show what elements of the novel were edited in each and to what ends. 1. What Is Bigger Thomas Made of? In his 1937 manifesto Blueprint for Negro Writing, Richard Wright stigmatized African American literature for being under the cultural and financial tutelage of white society. Embarrassed by the outpouring of good sentiment that followed the publication of Uncle Tom’s Children a year later, Wright commented that Uncle Tom’s Children was a book “even banker’s daughters could read and weep over and feel good about [and] I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears” (“How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” 454). That unyielding book is of course Native Son, which is raw, candid, and intransigent. Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a youth of the Great Depression era, whose deterministic environment—Chicago’s South Side ghetto— leads to double homicide. Bigger first accidentally smothers to death Mary Dalton, a wealthy college girl he chauffeurs around. He proceeds to cut her body up and cremate her in the basement furnace of the Dalton’s mansion. A few days later, and for no other apparent reason than anger and frustration, Bigger smashes open the brain of his dipsomaniac girlfriend, Bessie Mears. The last part of Wright’s novel, “The Trial,” is a straightforward indictment of the American judicial system and its racist ideology. The Court focuses exclusively on Bigger’s murder of the white girl Mary Dalton, while his slaughtering of his black girlfriend, Bessie Mears, is totally overlooked. As for the long, compassionate, and socially oriented plea of Communist defense lawyer Boris Max, it is dismissed as preposterous and completely ignored by the jury. Bigger is sentenced to death for an unpremeditated murder he committed out of fear. Although the commercial success of Native Son suggested a genuine need for a more socially conscious art, many critics deplored the fact that Wright’s urban realism had done away with aesthetics altogether. James Baldwin was one of the first to pinpoint the symptomatic shortcomings of both Native Son and protest literature. Such books, Baldwin argued, “are forgiven on the strength of [their] good intentions, whatever violence they do to language, whatever

From Page to Screen: A Comparative Study of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Its Two Film Adaptations


excessive demands they make of credibility” (15). Baldwin also denounced Native Son’s sordid depiction of the black community, contending that it reinforced the stereotypes it meant to challenge in the first place. In his essay, “Richard Wright’s Blues,” Ralph Ellison went a step further as he captured what can be viewed as an artistic lapse in Native Son: In order to translate Bigger’s complicated feelings into universal ideas, Wright had to force into Bigger’s consciousness concepts and ideas which his intellect could not formulate. Between Wright’s skill and knowledge and the potentials of Bigger’s mute feelings lay a thousand years of conscious culture. (89)

With the exception of a few scholars, such as Valérie Smith who argues that Wright’s use of free indirect speech enables Bigger to find a voice, most critics concur with Ellison’s observation and point out that the discrepancy between the elegant speech pattern of the literate third person narrator and the dialect of the uneducated main protagonist tends to take credibility away from the Bigger character.1 If the author’s intrusive voice makes Bigger Thomas less plausible as a fictional character, it is this very issue Wright struggles with in “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” originally a speech delivered at Columbia University shortly after the first publication of Native Son and now considered an appendage to the novel. Wright wants to make Bigger a “living personality” (448), and Bigger is to be the embodiment of the black youth—“resentful toward whites, sullen, angry, ignorant, emotionally unstable, depressed and unaccountably elated at times” (448). Bigger also corresponds to actual people with whom Wright interacted when he was a “bareheaded, barefoot kid in Jackson, Mississippi” (434). In Wright’s descriptions, Bigger is always associated with verbs of emotion such as “to feel” and “to sense.” Bigger does not “think.” He is a sort of a brute who lives in the realm of the sensory rather than in the realm of the rational. Ultimately, Wright wants the reader to feel what Bigger feels, but Bigger’s inability to voice his own feeling thwarts such an endeavor: “Then I’d find it impossible to say what I wanted to say without stepping in and speaking outright on my own” (458). Tellingly, Wright finishes this statement in a quasi-apologetic tone: but when doing this I always made an effort to retain the mood of the story, explaining everything only in terms of Bigger’s life and, if possible, in the rhythms of Bigger’s thought (even though the words would be mine). (458)


Raphaël Lambert

This problem of character’s authenticity can be inferred from the very first lines of “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” as Bigger Thomas does not represent one but multiple characters. Wright starts his essay picturing different kinds of Biggers, and he numbers them: Bigger No.1, Bigger No.2, etc. The Bigger we know from the novel is a combination of at least five Bigger Thomases—a montage that tends to objectify Bigger. Wright also sees these Biggers as types more than actual individuals. Later in the essay, the autobiographical Bigger becomes more allegorical as Wright adds that not all Biggers are black and that in fact, there are millions of white Biggers everywhere. All Biggers are the same regardless of race, borders or nationalities — a statement apparently serving his Marxist ideals. The fictional veneer of Native Son is too thin for its didactic purpose. As burdensome as authorial presence may be in the text, Native Son remains a rich, multilayered story in which Richard Wright experimented with modernist techniques such as stream of consciousness, interior monologue, and direct rendering of a dream state—so many literary tools meant to compensate the so-called loss of realism inherent to written fiction. According to Russian Formalist thinker and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, the best alternative to this verbally-constructed reality is the cinema where reality materializes directly on-screen. The belief that the camera does not lie is of course a naïve belief, since, as a medium, the cinema is an agent of communication between two entities. By essence, the cinema is the bearer of messages, points of view, and ideologies. Eisenstein’s opinion, however, can help the reader / viewer understand a major distinction between literature and the cinema. What distinguishes both arts can be grasped in the difference of meaning between two verbs with the same etymology, “to construct” and “to construe.” Fiction readers must interpret the words in order to picture what they read. They have to construct knowledge, to combine and arrange the elements they are given into something coherent. Film screening is more passive. The picture first assails the viewers, who, then, must read, i.e., construe the stark reality presented to them. Therefore, film images first appeal to the viewer’s sensorial system whereas the literary text first appeals to the reader’s intellect. This immediacy and this spontaneity typifying the cinematic experience must have appealed to Richard Wright as many of his remarks in “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” suggest that his intention was

From Page to Screen: A Comparative Study of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Its Two Film Adaptations


to recreate on the page the kind of emotions the film spectator undergoes: I wanted the reader to feel that Bigger’s story was happening now, like a play upon the stage or a movie unfolding upon the screen. Action follows action, as in a prizefight. Wherever possible, I told of Bigger’s life in close-up, slowmotion, giving the feel of the grain in the passing time. (459)

Earlier in the essay, Wright describes his own craft, and what he experienced during the writing of Native Son bears a striking resemblance to the qualities attributed to film. As images springing out of the screen, Richard Wright tells “there are meanings in my book of which I was not aware until they literally spilled out upon the paper” (434) (Emphasis mine). In Wright’s imagination, Bigger often appears as a mere constellation of sensations, and he intends to draw Bigger trusting his own feelings. Then, describing the varieties of Bigger Thomases that inspired him, Wright comments: “their actions had simply made impressions upon my sensibilities,” and as he set out to write, “these things came surging up, tangled, fused, knotted, entertaining me by the sheer variety and potency of their meaning and suggestiveness” (457). Richard Wright’s writing of Bigger’s story becomes the decoding, then the rationalization of mental images, of “impressions which crystallized and coagulated into clusters and configuration of memory, attitudes, moods, ideas” (457). This semantic play with cinematic terms leaves no doubt as to Wright’s understanding of the power of persuasion that film images carry. And this may explain why Native Son’s plot seems to have been designed for the screen, as scholar Laura L. Quinn suggests in a recent essay: Voice does not seem to be the source of Native Son’s power. We find that source, rather in the novel’s scene-making capacity, in the elaboration of such moments as the rat-killing opener, the arduous movement up the stair with drunken Mary Dalton to her bedroom and her death, that very long interval with the gentleman of the press in the furnace room when the burnt body is discovered, Bigger’s capture on the roof, and the family reunion or gathering at the police station that culminate in Bigger’s shame and rage as his mother kneels before Mrs. Dalton. Bigger is delivered to us not orally so much as visually or viscerally; the novel is cinematic rather than voiced. (46) (Emphasis mine)

Considering Quinn’s observation along with film’s capacity to make us believe that we are experiencing reality, we may fancy that Bigger was really born onscreen, that both his physical and


Raphaël Lambert

psychological reality were restored when French director Pierre Chenal first adapted Native Son in 1951, with Richard Wright himself as the scriptwriter and in the lead role. Unfortunate circumstances, however, impaired the quality of Chenal’s work. 2. Bigger Goes to the Movies The first hurdles Chenal faced when he decided to make Native Son into a film were of political order. His intention to shoot in France was turned down by French officials for “reasons dictated by international policy” (Fabre 337). In other words, in the context of postwar relations, with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) spurred by Senator McCarthy’s anti-Communism, the country that had rescued Europe from Fascism would not accept being pictured as racist. Furthermore, France was under the Marshall plan and ethics were brushed aside for obvious reasons of state. State funds were removed from the project, and Chenal moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Once in Argentina, the movie could hardly be shot in optimum conditions, not only because resemblance between sunny Buenos Aires and snowy-windy Chicago was slight, but also because the unpropitious situation favored a number of financial irregularities that heightened tensions between the people involved. However, Native Son premiered in Buenos Aires under the title Sangre Negra (Black Blood) in March 1951 and was, in spite of all its imperfections, a success. Once ready for the American market, the New York State Board of Censors cut about 25 minutes out of the original. As expected, Richard Wright, author of the novel, co-author of the screenplay, and screen incarnation of Bigger Thomas, reacted bitterly, as a letter to his agent shows: People everywhere know that the film was cut, that the killing of the rat was cut, that making of the home gun was cut, that the real heart of the boys’ attempt at robbery was cut. […] But the cut that did the greatest damage was the cutting of the trial. […] The trial is shown with arms waving and mouths moving, but nothing is heard. (qtd. in Fabre 348)

As much as he identified with his fictional character, Richard Wright was not an actor and the rest of the cast was quite amateurish too. For instance, a young Californian tourist played Jan Erlone; an archeology major at the University of Chicago, Gloria Madison, played Bessie; and a former conductor from California who was living in Argentina, Don Dean, played Boris Max, Bigger’s

From Page to Screen: A Comparative Study of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Its Two Film Adaptations


Communist lawyer. According to contemporary reviews, Richard Wright as Bigger Thomas was the most unconvincing and unsatisfying portrayal of all. It must be said that professional actor Canada Lee, who had embodied Bigger in Paul Green’s stage adaptation in 1941, was hospitalized at the time of the film’s shooting and was only then replaced by Richard Wright. To play the role, Wright lost almost 35 pounds. Unfortunately, Wright was already in his forties and his natural compunction, as well as his features, demanded too much effort and indulgence from the audience that witnessed the immature behavior of an adult to his deterministic environment instead of the desperate response of a tormented and alienated black youth. Wright’s unskilled embodiment of Bigger Thomas is not the only shortcoming in Chenal’s movie. Reviewers and scholars have pointed out, helter-skelter, the embellishment of Ernie’s Kitchen Shack, a modest South Side honky-tonk, which was turned into a fashionable nightclub with a ring for boxing matches, a jazz band, cabaret singers and habitués all dressed up; the transformation of Bessie Mears from a depraved alcoholic into “a very proper graduate of a white-gloves Southern black girls’ academy” (Brunette 134); Bigger and Bessie’s surreal romantic interlude in the Dalton’s limousine shortly after Bigger is hired as the Dalton’s chauffeur; and more conspicuously, the absence of the snow so important and symbolic in the book. However, these changes did not modify the story thematically. There are other changes that are much more disturbing in Chenal’s adaptation. As mentioned earlier, the American censorship deleted most of the trial scene. In that scene, Boris Max’s defense speech stigmatizes American society and judicial system and aims at convincing the jury (and the reader) that racism is the true culprit in Bigger Thomas’s dilemma. In the truncated version, Max seems to have metamorphosed into a complacent, almost conniving ally of Farley, a malicious, prejudiced reporter, and a symbol of perverted / unfair American justice in general. More surprisingly, the trial is not given prominence in Jerrold Freedman’s 1986 version either. As Washington Post reviewer Richard Harrington notes: “The defense lawyer’s final plea, a blistering indictment of American society, is condensed from 18 pages to 2 nonspecific sentences.” Although the 1980s in President Ronald Reagan’s America were marked by a revival of antiCommunism, this time period cannot be compared to the hysterical


Raphaël Lambert

McCarthy years and therefore cannot account entirely for the deletion of the trial in Freedman’s adaptation. The lack of action in Book Three (Fate) may be invoked on the count that it is not good film material, but the frequency of trial scenes in American movies indicates otherwise2. The absence of trial in the 1986 version does not seem to correspond to any rational decision. It should be noted, however, that even if Diane Silver, the producer of the 1986 version, had wanted to have the trial scene reproduced in the movie, she could have only offered a very modified version of it since she deleted Bessie’s murder from the story. In doing so, Silver somehow reproduces the attitude of the Court in the novel who never shows any concern for Bigger’s inexcusable raping and slaughtering of his black girlfriend. Yet the murder of Bessie Mears by Bigger Thomas is central to Native Son. Bigger commits his first murder out of fear. Scared by blind Mrs. Dalton, who has just entered the bedroom where he has just carried the unconscious, inebriated Mary Dalton, Bigger accidentally smothers Mary to death while trying to silence her with a pillow. Bigger has become a murderer, but readers understand the strong extenuating circumstances. In contrast, readers find no such solace for the murder of his girlfriend, Bessie. It is brutal, calculated, and unjustifiable. This second murder is Wright’s stratagem to force readers to confront their own prejudices, and above all, to force them to reflect on the cause of Bigger’s violence, instead of contemplating in disgust the consequences of his actions. As a reviewer of the 1986 version put it, “Wright’s Native Son is characterized by a furious absence of sentimentality” (Hoberman 64) and therefore any attempt to soften Bigger’s character goes against the spirit of the novel. Thus, in the 1951 adaptation of Native Son, Bessie is murdered, but the circumstances of the crime are quite altered. Bigger kills Bessie in their hideout on the assumption that she ‘has snitched’ (sic) on him. In other words, he is given a motive for his second killing, and in fact, he even repents later when he learns that he was wrong, stating that “after all, there is love in this world.” Bigger’s cruelty is significantly mitigated by this re-interpretation of the second crime. It may seem odd that Richard Wright would accept such an infringement of his story, but Chenal’s project was the best offer Wright had been made so far: earlier, in 1947, Hollywood producer Harold Hecht had offered to make an adaptation of Native Son in which Bigger Thomas would be white, but Wright refused. In 1941, Wright authorized Paul Green’s stage adaptation in which Clara

From Page to Screen: A Comparative Study of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Its Two Film Adaptations


(Bessie), is killed but by a policeman’s bullet. On several occasions, Wright had consented to significant modifications of his story. The publication of the unexpurgated version of Native Son by the Library of America in 1991 reveals that in order to see his novel published in 1940, Wright had been constrained to edit his own text, deleting important explicit sexual descriptions.3 The fact that the original text of Native Son underwent so many modifications in the 1940s and 1950s by a film director, a playwright, and the author himself is not so surprising considering the socio-political pressure at the time. As the first bestseller by an African American author, Native Son surely contributed to heighten public awareness of the African American community’s lot, and most certainly changed many a biased view about African Americans. Alterations of the original were unfortunate, but Wright also knew it was the price to be paid for his work to be endorsed and published. And as we will see shortly, the treatment and reception of Native Son by later generations suggest that in spite of Wright’s self-censorship and editing, Native Son still retained enough provocative scenes and ideas to prompt further bluepenciling and revisions. When Richard Wright died in Paris in November 1960, he had been living in France since 1947 and had witnessed from afar only the premises of significant improvements in race relations in the United States. The Civil Rights movement, however, became the major issue of the next two decades and eventually spawned better, if still strained, race relations. The situation is far from perfect in 1986, when novice producer Diane Silver sets about to adapt Native Son to the screen, but real progress has been made, and, in a personal interview, Silver posits herself as one of those who wanted to keep the flame of greater race cooperation ablaze. In fact, one of her alleged motivations for choosing Native Son was that “it might be possible to make the human connection with Bigger as an emblem of Black unemployed youth in the 1980s, even though the setting is the 1930s” (McHenry 16). At that time Silver’s enthusiasm was commendable, but her view of Bigger Thomas (“an emblem of black unemployed youth”) suggests a limited understanding of the novel’s complexity. Surely, Bigger Thomas is an emblem and is timeless, but Wright’s focus is not solely on the predicament of black unemployed youth. In fact, this is only a pretext to hit the true target: readers—especially white readers—for whom Bigger’s unbearable violence challenges the distorted (and sometimes buried) feelings towards people of color.


Raphaël Lambert

Just like her predecessors, but without the alibi of a similarly hostile socio-political environment, Diane Silver modified the story revealing of a whole new mentality for this new adaptation of Wright’s masterwork. Silver imposed on Richard Wesley, her scriptwriter, and Jerrold Freedman, her director, cuts that severely affected Wesley’s script (which was quite faithful to the original). Indeed, most reviewers have pointed out Silver’s oversimplification of the novel. New York Times columnist Vincent Canby wrote a scathing review: “The original work has been so softened that it almost seems upbeat, which would have infuriated Wright” (Canby C14). Richard Harrington for the Washington Post echoed Canby stating that Silver turned the novel into “a pious liberal document” (Harrington B8). What started the controversy over the 1986 adaptation is Silver’s excision of Bessie’s murder from the story. Director Jerrold Freedman was strongly opposed to Silver’s cut for, as he suitably explained, “By deleting Bessie’s murder, Miss Silver has tampered with Mr. Wright’s intended statement” (Harmetz C.14). But Freedman’s disapprobation did not stop Silver. She actually fired Freedman’s postproduction team so that, according to Silver herself, the money would not fall apart. Furthermore, she managed to raise another $250,000 to modify the film at her convenience (qtd. in McHenry 17). There are several interpretations of Silver’s decision. In her article for Ms., Susan McHenry retraces Silver’s career and life until the making of Native Son. She emphasizes her feminist sympathies and reports that Silver agreed with feminists who denounced Richard Wright’s misogynist prose. In order to assert his manhood, Bigger kills two women—one by accident, the other deliberately and for no good reason—and never shows any emotion or regret for it. By eliminating Bigger’s murder of Bessie, Silver made it easier for feminists to respond to the story. Bessie’s appalling death erased from the plot, women do not look so much as disposable tools for Bigger’s self-realization, and therefore, McHenry argues, the revision allows for greater compassion for Bigger’s predicament. Another justification for Silver’s cut came from Lindsay Law, the producer of the PBS series American Playhouse who partly financed the 1986 film. The book had more layers than you could explore in a two-hour film. Once the terrible accident has taken place, Bigger has this giddying sense of control over his life for the first time, and his freedom causes him to kill Bessie. Even when we were reading the screenplay, we asked ourselves many times, ‘Why is an audience going to want to attempt to understand this man if he goes this step further?’ (Harmetz 14)

From Page to Screen: A Comparative Study of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Its Two Film Adaptations


As Wright was writing Native Son at the end of the 1930s, he was betting on American people’s willingness to tackle a challenging novel and to question themselves about their racial prejudices. Almost five decades later, Law, a producer for PBS—the ‘brain’ channel on American TV—took the exact opposite view of Wright, assuming that American audience did not possess enough intellectual capacity to follow a somewhat complex story. “Why would people attempt to understand?” asks Law. Indeed, why would they, when the media can serve them a rationalized and sanitized version of an otherwise disturbing story? Why should the American movie industry stimulate the supposedly dormant intellect of its audience when all this audience asks for is to consume superficial, feel-good products? Behind Law’s good intentions lies a genuine contempt for moviegoers, as well as the seeds of an Orwellian world where people’s every move is monitored, their thoughts controlled, and their critical mind kept undeveloped via the use of cheap pleasures. What happened in the years separating Wright from Law? Wright was an idealist and a fighter. Law seems to have succumbed to the sirens of political correctness—a social phenomenon whereby any painful social issue or tension is anaesthetized, so that everyone can ignore the problem with impunity. The force of political correctness confronts us with a paradoxical dilemma. On the one hand, it does better than solving problems by pretending there is no problem. On the other hand, political correctness is not considered wrong. People who are politically correct are proud to be so. This is why, of her adaptation of Native Son, Silver says: The most important thing is that the movie’s out there. There was no other reason to do this movie, except to have people see it, discuss it, and discuss poverty, racism, the intricacies of white and black people knowing each other, and the dangers of our not knowing each other. (McHenry 17)

In her righteous, sentimentalist tone, Silver tells us that her movie—made on a shoestring budget and in dire need of making a profit—is good for us; and, in a way, she’s right: it is good for us in the sense that it leaves our consciousness unsullied. The 1986 adaptation of Native Son refuses to be thought-provoking entertainment. Silver had the best conditions ever combined for a controversial film—talented scriptwriter, director, actors, and auspicious time period—she had the potential to do justice, at last, to Richard Wright’s masterpiece. Instead, by making Bigger a victim only, Silver did what Wright, as quoted earlier, feared most: write a


Raphaël Lambert

story that even “banker’s daughters could read and weep over and feel good about” (“How ‘Bigger’” 454). Both Lindsay Law’s and Diane Silver’s points of view reveal the problems at the heart of political correctness. However, what can be inferred from their statements might just be the tip of the iceberg; in fact, Silver’s justification for the cut of Bessie’s murder may dissimulate and mask much more serious motivations for the excision. In “Cinematic Censorship and the Film Adaptations of Richard Wright’s Native Son,” Ruth Elizabeth Burks reminds us that “Wright’s Bigger exploded the myth of black male sexuality visually exploited by Griffith and subsequent Hollywood filmmakers by showing them to be racist and stereotypic constructions used by whites to deny blacks their humanity” (1). Burks implies that both adaptations of Native Son, by deleting such scenes as Mary’s responsiveness to Bigger’s overtures,4 Bigger’s rape of Bessie, Bigger’s trial—all scenes concentrating on Bigger’s sexuality— perpetuate the Hollywood pattern. Otherwise, explains Burks, why neglect the newspapermen’s racial slurs and conviction that Bigger raped Mary (to the point of asking him to re-enact the rape for them)? Why ignore Buckley’s crossexamination of Bigger based on Bigger’s alleged animalistic sexuality and possible rape of Mary (whose skin color is strongly emphasized for the occasion)? Why not reproduce Max’s speech, which exposes Buckley’s blatant bigotry? Could Silver dream of better scenes to have people discuss the dangers of racial prejudices? Considering the choice to remove the trial from the movie, Burks comments: “To include Buckley’s prosecution of Bigger in the film adaptations of Native Son […] is to reveal the extent to which the white race is absorbed with the idea that black men are bent on defiling white women” (7). Burks’s analysis unmasks what really lurks behind Silver’s professed goals: the worst kind of racism because it is almost impossible to detect. Anchored in each individual, it is part of the culture, and comforting good intentions are not enough to uproot such intolerance because it is often unconscious. The unexpurgated version of Chenal’s Native Son is presently unavailable and cannot be assessed with fairness. Yet, if we judge by the success of the Buenos Aires premiere as well as by Wright’s anger in the letter to his agent, we come to the paradoxical conclusion that there must have been less hypocrisy regarding racial injustice in 1951 than in 1986. The turmoil of the Civil Rights in the 1960s and 1970s has generated undeniable improvements, but it seems that by the

From Page to Screen: A Comparative Study of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Its Two Film Adaptations


1980s this good spirit has been thwarted. The fight for racial equality has not been forgotten but it has been turned, as Silver’s words demonstrate, into a discourse alone. This discourse is not even negative. It is simply dull, meant to numb, and Silver’s reductionist adaptation of Native Son is a perfect illustration of such a phenomenon. The problem of authorial intrusiveness in Native Son becomes acute because Bigger’s inability to express himself conflicts with the very nature of literature, which is a medium of words. This disparity is exacerbated with protest literature whose discourse is rhetorical and loaded with messages. In this view, the cinema, with its seemingly unmediated way of addressing spectators, appears to be the appropriate medium for Bigger Thomas—a detail that did not elude Wright as he intended his prose to exude cinematic qualities. But Native Son proved deceptively easy to adapt onscreen. Thus the murder of Bessie Mears, Bigger’s girlfriend, is either modified in order to look justifiable, like in the 1951 version, or completely done away with, like in the 1986 version. The murder of Bessie makes everyone feel uneasy because it is morally indefensible, as has been shown, and probably accounts for producer Diane Silver’s decision to omit it altogether in the second attempt to film the novel. PBS producer Lindsay Law backed up Silver, but she also invoked the multi-layered quality of the novel and the impossibility to explore it all in a two-hour film. Respecting the book to the letter and giving as much weight to the murder of Bessie as to the murder of Mary Dalton might prove too ambitious a project for a film. It would force the film to re-center its attention on Bessie and give prominence to the trial scene used by Richard Wright to hammer home his political agenda. With two very distinct murders, the importance of the trial scene would grow exponentially and would likely become quite confusing within the frame of an average feature-length movie. In addition, while a novel can deal with several topics and swing back and forth between them at will, narrative cinema operates according to a rather linear causal structure. There is a considerable gap between both murders when it comes to Bigger’s motive, and it may prove difficult for a cinematic version to deal with both at the same time without giving the impression of a disorderly amalgam. Thus, the deletion of Bessie’s murder is not only meant to make Bigger the


Raphaël Lambert

object of viewers’ empathy. It also streamlines the story so that viewers can easily relate to it. One last question is left unresolved: so far, the idea of adapting Native Son with the murder of Mary Dalton out of the picture has occurred to no one. And it probably never will because, ultimately, what fascinates people in Native Son is that a poor, uneducated black hoodlum has the guts and the wits to cut out and cremate the body of a wealthy white girl. In the novel, the reporters cannot believe it. Neither can many readers today. More than six decades after Native Son was written, many in our society still associate Bigger’s blackness with brutality and brainlessness. This is what Richard Wright had understood and wanted readers of his time to confront. This is what a politically correct society has also understood and wants us never to confront.

Raphaël Lambert Tsukuba University, Japan Notes 1

See for instance, Laura L. Tanner’s “The Narrative Presence in Native Son,” and Klaus Schmidt’s “Teaching Native Son in a German Undergraduate Literature Class.” 2 The fascination with the dispensation of justice in America has been particularly virulent lately. Some TV series invariably end up in a courtroom (Law and Order for instance), some sitcoms revolve around judicial cases (Ally Mc Beal for instance), and some shows simply feature real cases (Judge Judy, Divorce Court, etc.). 3

See section “Notes” in Richard Wright: Early Works: Lawd Today! / Uncle Tom’s Children / Native Son. (New York: The Library of America, 1991), 915-936. 4

For Chenal’s defense, it must be said that American censorship not only cut a scene where Mary Dalton kisses Bigger, but even most likely destroyed the footage, since it is nowhere to be found in “the extant film copy on file at the Library of Congress” (Brunette 136).

From Page to Screen: A Comparative Study of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Its Two Film Adaptations


Works Consulted Baldwin, James. Collected Essays. New York: The Library of America, 1998. Bloom, Harold, ed. Major Literary Characters: Bigger Thomas. New York, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990. Brunette, Peter. “Two Wrights, One Wrong” in Gerald Peary and Roger Shatzkin, eds. The Modern American Novel and the Movies. New York: Ungar, 1978. (131142) Burks, Ruth Elizabeth. “Cinematic Censorship and the Film Adaptations of Richard Wright’s Native Son.” Diss. University of California, Los Angeles, 1993. Canby, Vincent. “Rage Unleashed” in The New York Times (24 December 1986): C.14. Col 2. Chenal, Pierre. Native Son (1951). With Richard Wright and Jean Wallace. © International Film Forum, 1988. Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. 1953. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1994. Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. 1973. Translated by Isabel Barzun. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Freedman, Jerrold. Native Son. With Matt Dillon, Elizabeth McGovern and Oprah Winfrey. Diane Silver Productions, 1986. Harmetz, Aljean. “Problems of Filming Native Son” in The New York Times (23 December 1986): Sec. C14, col. 4. Harrington, Richard. “Diluted Native Son, Based on Wright’s Novel” in The Washington Post (16 January 1987): Sec. B8, col. 1. Hoberman, J. “Bigger Than Life” in The Village Voice (30 December 1986): 64. Mc Henry, Susan. “Producer Diane Silver and the Making of Native Son” in Ms. (March 1987): 15-17. Miller, James A., ed. Approaches to Teaching Wright’s Native Son. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1997. Quinn, Laura L. “Native Son as Project” in James Miller, ed. Approaches to Teaching Wright’s Native Son. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1997. (42-47) Schmidt, Klaus. “Teaching Native Son in a German Undergraduate Literature Class” in James Miller, ed. Approaches to Teaching Wright’s Native Son. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1997. (28-34) Smith, Valérie. “Alienation and Creativity in Native Son” in Harold Bloom, ed. Major Literary Characters: Bigger Thomas. New York, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990. (105-114)


Raphaël Lambert

Tanner, Laura E. “Narrative Presence in Native Son” in Harold Bloom, ed. Major Literary Characters: Bigger Thomas. New York, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990. (127-142) Wright, Richard. “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” in Native Son. 1940. New York: Perennial Classics, 1998. (431-462) —. Native Son. 1940. New York: Perennial Classics, 1998.

The Hate U Gave (T.H.U.G.): Reflections on the Bigger Figures in Present Day Hip Hop Culture

The Bigger Figures in Hip Hop Culture investigates a continuum/trajectory of African American expressive culture from Richard Wright and Bigger Thomas to Hip Hop culture and several of its lyricists who report similar cultural, racial, social, and economic phenomenon. The essay extracts lyrical examples from the artistic repertoires of Biggie Smalls (Notorious B.I.G.), Tupac Shakur, DMX, and Eminem. Through these examples specific connections are made between several important aspects of Richard Wright’s most significant literary figure, Bigger Thomas. Although the relationship between the authors and their narrative characters are explored, the arguments find their greatest strength in the unfortunate similarities between the oppressive environs detailed in Native Son and the realities articulated and reported on by some of the most popular and most gifted lyricists of Hip Hop Culture.

The image of black men that sells to the rest of America wasn’t mapped out by Biggie Smalls, but Bigger Thomas. Ta-Nehisi Coates

My mission in this essay is to explore sociological and aesthetic relationships between the powerfully drawn portrait of Bigger Thomas, an original thug, in Richard Wright’s modernist classic, Native Son and certain emcees within Hip Hop Culture who have, in turn, achieved big success by mimetically returning to the socioeconomic mapping referenced in the epigraph above. The transition from literary Bigger figure to oracular thug/Bigger figures in Hip Hop culture reflects a continuum of social conditions that continue over


James Braxton Peterson

time to contribute to the existential challenges of these figures (and those they represent).1 If, as Houston Baker asserts, “Bigger’s culture is that of the black American race, and he is intelligible as a conscious literary projection of the folk hero who embodies the survival values of a culture” (11), then the oral narratives and characters that reflect certain conceptual and social resonances with the character of Bigger Thomas can be considered examples of a similar representational characterization within Hip Hop Culture. My reflections in this essay revolve around three interlocking culturally significant issues. Firstly, the character, Bigger Thomas, created by the late Richard Wright, confronts a set of racial and socioeconomic challenges and forces within the urban environs of America that are still readily present in our society. Secondly, these conflicts between the individual and society are most poignantly articulated by and through various rappers—some of whom are relegated to the category of ‘gangsta rappers.’ And thirdly, the importance of the autobiographical factor in the construction of these Hip Hop personae and characters parallels the importance allowed to Wright’s vital experience as factors in the characterization of Bigger Thomas and of the social situation portrayed in Native Son. Similarly, the general lack of economic opportunity along with the police brutality that characterize the post-industrial inner cities of Hip Hop era are rendered through realistic and naturalistic techniques that match those employed by Wright to articulate similar challenges in the urban environment of Native Son. There are dozens of rappers that could be used to explicate this set of relationships. Many rappers hail from post-industrial inner city environments where the educational systems are dilapidated, the communal relationship with the police force is violent and contentious, and the lack of economic opportunity is a continuous fact of urban living. I have deliberately chosen the most popular artists who fit this Bigger Figure paradigm within Hip Hop Culture in order to demonstrate the pervasiveness of these reflective themes. Thus the Bigger Figures in Hip Hop discussed in this essay are several of many that reflect and represent even more and certainly much more anonymous Bigger figures in Hip Hop culture. They are as follows: Christopher Wallace whose rapper/character sports the names he is better known by, Biggie Smalls and the Notorious B.I.G.; Earl Simmons, only known as DMX (which stands for Dark Man X); Marshall Mathers, also known as Eminem; and Tupac Shakur, whose

The Hate U Gave (T.H.U.G.): Reflections on the Bigger Figures in Present Day Hip Hop Culture


rapper moniker, 2Pac, maintains a powerful homological and ideological connection to his real name. Each of these rappers exemplify particular aspects of the ways in which Bigger Thomas is reflected in Hip Hop Culture. Yet it must be pointed out here at the outset that Richard Wright and these alleged artistic counterparts in Hip Hop are operating through very different media and although there are ways in which Wright’s urban naturalism is readily apparent in the works of these rappers, the distinction between 1940s American novel and 1990s rap is certainly worth noting here in a proper definition of the form known as gangsta rap. Gangsta Rap is an expressive art form that originates from a complex set of cultural and sociological circumstances. The term itself is a media term partially borrowed from the African American vernacular form of the word gangster. When the popularity of rap music shifted from NYC and the east coast to Los Angeles and the west coast, this geographic re-orientation was accompanied by distinct stylistic shifts and striking differences in the content and sound of the music. West Coast rap sampled more Parliament and Funkadelics than it did James Brown (if it sampled at all). The funkified aesthetics of George Clinton and Bootsy Collins (synthetic sounds with extraordinarily catchy bass rifts) form the musicality of the Funk movement. The music’s content focused on a politics of escape centered on multilayered allusions to space travel via the ‘Mother Ship.’ James Brown, on the other hand provided the soul of Hip Hop’s musical origins most often and still regularly exemplified through break beat samples of James Brown’s most contagious rhythms such as those found in “Funky Drummer.” Accordingly, the beat-per-minute rates in gangsta rap were less, not signifying a slower pace of life but a more stretched-out landscape. But these are only the stylistic differences. West Coast rappers embraced (in their music and lyrics) the nihilistic attitudes that resulted from unchecked gang warfare, police brutality, and the injection of crack cocaine in its poorest communities. According to Eithne Quinn’s brilliant investigation into the world of gangsta rap: “Although clearly the outcome of highly mediated and commercialized forces, Gangsta rap is in most ways a natural extension of badman lore—a hyper-mediated version of the folk process in which stories about the exploits of real men fueled and informed myth” (19). My emphasis is on ‘stories’ here because these gangsta raps are narratives. The hyper-mediated reporting on the


James Braxton Peterson

actual lives of some of these gangsta rappers serves the dual purpose of authenticating their lyrics and enhancing the retail consumption of their records by a predominantly young white male buying audience. This shift took place in the late 80s through the early 90s and is most readily represented in the career peak of late 80s politically conscious group Public Enemy (PE) and the subsequent meteoric rise of the much more nihilistic gangsta rap vanguard, Compton’s NWA (Niggaz With Attitude). Just as the marketing and retail potential of rap music was coming into prominence (both PE and NWA were early beneficiaries of rap music’s now legendary platinum selling potential), the music industry media clamored to find the terminology to report on this new, powerful and vulgar phenomenon. Since the challenges of gang warfare in Los Angeles (and gangster narratives in general—consider The Godfather Saga and Scarface especially) were already journalistic—and cinematic—legend, the term gangsta rap was coined and it stuck. Gangsta Rap forced scholars, journalists and critics to confront the cruel realities of inner city living—initially in the South Bronx and Philadelphia with KRS ONE and Schooly D and almost simultaneously with Ice-T and NWA on the west coast. The whole point of a rapper rapping is to exaggerate through narrative in order to ‘represent’ one’s community and one’s culture in the face of violent social invisibility—consider our collective shock at the rampant poverty in New Orleans. According to De Genova, “The lyricists and performers of gangster rap are also intellectuals; indeed, as nonacademic but highly articulate cultural practitioners, they are extraordinarily public intellectuals” (94). It is not surprising then that gangsta rap was a radical wakeup call to the aforementioned social ills. Yet, only the very general realities of poverty, police brutality, gang violence, and brutally truncated opportunity were subject to any such literal hearings /comprehension. Thus the popularity of gangsta rap is more a reflection of pop culture’s insatiable appetite for violent narratives than it is a reflection of any one individual rapper’s particular reality. The relationships between author and narrative or rapper and rap lyric are not necessarily autobiographical, but these narratives in their most authentic forms do tend to be representative of certain post-industrial inner city realities. This point is much more clearly articulated by Perrine and Arp:

The Hate U Gave (T.H.U.G.): Reflections on the Bigger Figures in Present Day Hip Hop Culture


When poets put themselves or their thoughts into a poem, they present a version of themselves; that is, they present a person who in many ways is like themselves but who consciously or unconsciously, is shaped to fit the needs of the poem. We must be very careful therefore about identifying anything in a poem with the biography of the poet. (25)

Gangsta rap lyrics are poetic narratives deliberately based on reality for the desired literary effects traditionally known as Realism and, in the case of Wright, urban Naturalism. The style (exaggeration, rhyming, and signifying), and content (misogyny, murder, and antisocial behavior) of the music clearly reveal that so-called gangsta rap is in reality a recent manifestation of the African American oral and folk tradition; a tradition that obviously includes the work of Richard Wright and his anti-hero, Bigger Thomas, in Native Son. This tradition originates in the verbal practices of slaves, develops through the spirituals and the blues, through Jazz music and Harlem Renaissance poetry, and finds its most comparable links to gangsta rap in/through the tradition of ‘toasting.’ Toasting is a black folk oral practice involving the spontaneous performance of long and occasionally improvised narrative poems. These toasts were most typically performed and exchanged by men in street corner conversations, barbershops, and prisons (Quinn 17). Moreover, along this trajectory there are very direct connections/reflections between Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas and several emcees/rappers and their narrative personas—e.g. Christopher Wallace and Biggie Smalls or Notorious B.I.G. and Marshall Mathers and Eminem or Slim Shady. In order to conceptually organize these reflections on the Bigger figures in Hip Hop Culture I rely heavily on Richard Wright’s taxonomy of Bigger Thomases detailed in the—dictated—essay “How Bigger Was Born.” Not long after the earliest critiques and praise directed at Native Son, Richard Wright lectured on the ethnographic experiences that introduced him to the nihilistic subjectivity of a number of Bigger Thomases with whom he crossed paths in the Jim Crow south as well as the industrially developing Midwest/North of the mid-20th Century. With a tinge of obituary-like prose, Wright summarizes five Bigger Thomases biographically in “How Bigger Was Born.” Each of these Biggers met a terrifically predictable fate due to to their behavior and the racial climate in which they acted out. Bigger 1 was basically a bully. Bigger 2 deliberately hustled his way through every outpost of white economic power. Bigger 3 bum-rushed


James Braxton Peterson

the movie theater every week. Bigger 4 ended up in an insane asylum and Bigger 5, who deliberately and blatantly flouted the separatist rules of Jim Crow, more than likely ended up dead: “They were shot, hanged, maimed, lynched, and generally hounded until they were either dead or their spirits broken” (Wright 27). For a young Richard Wright these Bigger Thomases were the only indication that there was any kind of willful resistance in the South due to the conditions of white supremacy and racial terror. Similarly, Richard Wright had lived and observed many of the experiences expressed in Native Son. The Bigger types inhabiting the South Side of Chicago were familiar to Wright because he spent over a decade living and working “in cramped and dirty flats with his aunt, mother, and brother, and [he] had visited scores of similar dwellings while working as an insurance agent” (Kinnamon 120): The general similarities between Wright at the age of twenty and the fictional character (Bigger Thomas) are obvious enough: both are Mississippi-born blacks who migrated to Chicago; both live with their mothers in the worst slums of the Black Belt; both are motivated by fear and hatred; both are rebellious by temperament; both could explode into violence (Kinnamon 119).

Interestingly, it is not difficult to identify several of the most popular and successful figures in Hip Hop culture with Wright’s Bigger figures. They are, in no particular order, nor specific referential connection to Wright’s delineation of Bigger Thomases: Biggie Smalls, DMX, Eminem, and Tupac Shakur. Each of these emcees—all in some way connected to or representing the gangsta rap subgenre of Hip Hop—has a particular relationship to their own artistic personas, the sociological conditions of their respective postindustrial urban environments, and the millions of people who purchase and listen to their music. However, the oratorical authors enacting the Bigger Figures in Hip Hop shift identities within their narratives and over various songs/albums and film performances, sometimes taking on the personas of multiple characters. This proliferation of characters does not necessarily distance the author from the characters’ realities. Thus the relationships between Christopher Wallace/Biggie Smalls and the album Ready to Die—Biggie’s equal parts suicidal thug and Dionysian recording debut—are comparable to the canny authorial and at times autobiographical connections between Richard Wright and Native Son. That is, as Kinnamon notes in the excerpt above (and

The Hate U Gave (T.H.U.G.): Reflections on the Bigger Figures in Present Day Hip Hop Culture


as I argue with regards to the Bigger Figures) certain specific claims can be made about the common circumstances and/or challenges that exist for both the author and his creation(s). Furthermore, the economic success of both Wright’s novel and gangsta rap, thug tales that span cultural eras at least 30 years apart, may force critics to wrestle with the socioeconomic realities at play in the sales and circulation of these narratives. Stories that depict violent (if at times strategic) responses to economic and racial oppression in the narrow spaces and places of depression-era (à la Wright) or in post-industrial Black life (via Biggie Smalls) undeniably have extraordinary cultural and monetary capital. Native Son and Ready to Die both exemplify this. In the preface to his now classic critical assessment of black youth cultural expression in The Hip Hop Generation, Bikara Kitwana reflects on the plight of Bigger Thomases of this generation: Understanding the new crises in African American culture that have come about in my generation’s lifetime—high rates of suicide and imprisonment, police brutality, the generation gap, the war of the sexes, Blacks selling Black self hatred as entertainment—I often wonder what life will be like for the generation of African Americans that follows. (xi)

With so many racial and socio-economic challenges in common, Bigger Thomas the literary figure, functions as the sui generis focal point of an artistic trajectory that employs a mimetic two-step as it depicts the lived realities of African American men.2 For example, the resonance of certain real life exigencies—take for example the institutional racism of the American Justice system—is central to the authentic connection between the Bigger Thomas figure in the American literary tradition and the broader reading public of the 1940s and beyond.3 This original Bigger Figure, wrestling with a cruel urban environment, an abiding sense of misogynistic retribution and socio-economic worthlessness, finds eloquent re-articulation in/through the narratives of the MCs who will be glossed in this essay. In the examples that follow I will pinpoint these similarities. Christopher Wallace Since Biggie Smalls bears such striking resemblances to Bigger Thomas in both nomenclature and in their shared nihilistic narrative


James Braxton Peterson

content, exploring his debut album is an important point of entry to the discussion of the Bigger Figures in Hip Hop Culture. Especially important is Ready to Die, his initial album which was released in September 1994. In order to fully understand the impact and significance of this momentous debut we must also understand the state of Hip Hop at this time. Two years earlier Dr. Dre had released The Chronic. This multi-platinum g-funk inspired West Coast gangsta rap record crystallized the dominance of West Coast artists on the international rap landscape. Although New York City, the birthplace and mecca of Hip Hop culture had not produced a multi-platinum star in years, West Coast styled gangsta rap had dominated the culture and industries of Hip Hop. However, as Dee explains, He single-handedly shifted the musical dominance back to the East Coast. From [19]91 to [19]94, the West Coast style of rap was the dominant force in Hip Hop. Biggie, with the guidance of Puffy, used familiar melodic R&B loops, combined with his voice texture and rhyme skills, and caused a Hip Hop paradigm shift (Dee 264).

In many ways, the New York/East Coast audiences were given to the belief that the center of the Hip Hop universe had shifted to Los Angeles. But “[i]n just a few short years the Notorious B.I.G. went from Brooklyn street hustler to the savior of East Coast hip hop . . .” (Huey 359). Ready to Die was East Coast rap’s saving grace for many reasons. The cinematic intro to the album promised a fresh and gritty portrait of the urban underground hustler turned rap artist. The intro track on Ready to Die features snippets of four previously released songs with various voiceover skits corresponding with key moments in B.I.G.’s life. The first ‘scene’ is B.I.G.’s birth featuring an ironically proud pappa—who isn’t in B.I.G.’s life too much beyond his toddler years—coaxing B.I.G.’s mother to ‘push!’ The soundtrack for this portion of the intro interpolates snippets from Curtis Mayfield’s classic, “Super Fly” released during the year of B.I.G.’s birth, 1972. The second scene begins with Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight, the single that inaugurated Hip Hop culture in the mainstream music industry circa 1979. The voiceover here is an argument started by B.I.G.’s father who finds out that his son has been caught shoplifting. Of course he wonders profanely why neither he nor B.I.G.’s mom can control the youngster.4 The music snippet here is important because it provides listeners with a sense of where B.I.G. was when “Rappers

The Hate U Gave (T.H.U.G.): Reflections on the Bigger Figures in Present Day Hip Hop Culture


Delight”—and by extension modern popular rap music—exploded onto the American pop cultural landscape. The third and most powerful scene features B.I.G. in a heated conversation with an anonymous crime partner. B.I.G. challenges his partner in crime to “get this money” just as they are about to rob a New York City subway train. The musical snippet for this scene is the classic single by Audio Two, “Top Billin’” released in 1987. As “Top Billin” fades out and then back in, B.I.G.’s shouts, gunshots, and screams from his victim flesh out the scene. The final cinematic portrait of the intro track features an exchange between B.I.G. and a prison CO. As B.I.G. is leaving prison the CO claims that he will be back, “you niggas always are” (B.I.G.). The musical snippet for this scene is taken from “Tha Shiznit” on Snoop Dogg’s debut album, Doggystyle, released in 1993. Even though this particular sample/snippet gives no credit to Snoop in the Ready to Die liner notes, listeners can actually hear Snoop rapping in the background of the final piece of B.I.G.’s cinematic introduction. Moreover Snoop’s Doggystyle was an important model for Ready to Die because of its extraordinary success and its ability to straddle the hardcore gangsta rap tensions and a lighter sensibility with popular mainstream appeal. The remainder of Ready to Die realizes the power and complexity of this four-part introduction and indeed went on to achieve extraordinary success. What is most important is the fact that Biggie Smalls enacts a Bigger figure in Hip Hop as Wallace’s persona reifies the nihilistic pathologies that continue to permeate the lives and mentalities of inner city youth. Most of the tracks on B.I.G.’s Ready to Die flip back and forth between two polar opposite themes. One theme is the celebration of success in the music industry. Perhaps the most significant distinction between Wright’s Bigger figures and the ones in gangsta rap narratives is the nihilistic willingness to attain economic success by any means necessary in Hip Hop. Partying, running through numerous anonymous women, and flashing (or flossing) newly acquired monetary resources dominate the content of these songs. On the opposite side of the spectrum, other songs are much more thematically aligned with the album title. These rhymes reflect a pursuit of material sustenance and/or wealth that transcends relentlessness: “These [s]ongs . . . express the futility of ghetto life in terms explicit and real enough to speak to the streets, but human enough to avoid myopia” (Mao 309). In each of these darker tracks, B.I.G.’s narrators are literally ready to die for material gain, but this


James Braxton Peterson

preparedness is not glorified. It is not sexy or appealing. In fact, B.I.G. makes it clear that being ready to die for material things is in many real life cases, the equivalent of already being dead. This peculiar relationship between material desire and the thin existential line between life and death are also apparent in certain reflections that appeal to Bigger Thomas early on in “Book Two: Flight” of Native Son. After he has experienced the material wealth of the Daltons’ lives, he engages in a deep moment of self-hate with regards to himself and his own family’s abode He hated this room and all of the people in it, including himself. Why did he and his folks have to live like this? What had they done? . . . Maybe they had to live this way precisely because none of them had ever done anything right or wrong that mattered much. (105)

Bigger’s self-directed hate here is a growing death wish—he is in fact ready to die—that results from the utter lack of opportunity and options in his life. After contemplating his gruesome murder of Mary Dalton, he inverts his logic regarding material lack and inactivity into the following conclusion: “He had murdered and had created a new life for himself” (105). Along with several other debut albums from New York City artists—Nas’ Illmatic, Wu-Tang’s Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, and Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage—, Ready to Die recaptured the flag for East Coast Hip Hop when it went on to sell millions of records. It was solidified as a quadruple platinum release on October 19, 1999. But none of these other artists enjoyed the meteoric rise to fame that Biggie enjoyed and most, if not all of them, avoided the ultra-violent pitfalls of over exposure that surely contributed to B.I.G.’s early and unfortunate death. Spoken word poet and self-professed Hip Hop ‘head,’ Saul Williams explains this clearly in perfect Hip Hop idiom: “We nodded our heads in affirmation and then when Biggie named his first album Ready to Die we all acted surprised when it happened. Word is bond, son. Plain and simple” (171). Marshall Mathers Besides the similarity between Biggie Smalls and Wright’s protagonist, the relationship between Marshall Mathers and his rapping alter egos, Eminem and Slim Shady also parallels that of Wright and his fictitious and autobiographical characters, Big Boy,

The Hate U Gave (T.H.U.G.): Reflections on the Bigger Figures in Present Day Hip Hop Culture


Bigger Thomas, and himself (especially in Black Boy). This authorial relationship is constructed in order to artistically wrestle with severe social and familial alienation. Of all the Bigger Figures in Hip Hop, Eminem represents most poignantly the familial and natal alienation articulated through the character of Bigger Thomas. Eminem’s oedipal hatred for his mother has been documented in his music, in the media, and in the film 8 Mile, a loosely based bio-picture in which a voluptuous, drugged-out Kim Basinger plays his mother. A brief excerpt from Eminem’s “Cleaning Out My Closet” will bear all of these points out. Now I would never diss my own momma just to get recognition Take a second to listen for who you think this record is dissin But put yourself in my position; just try to envision witnessin your momma poppin prescription pills in the kitchen Bitchin that someone's always goin throuh her purse and shit's missin Goin through public housin systems, victim of Munchausen's Syndrome My whole life I was made to believe I was sick when I wasn't 'til I grew up, now I blew up, it makes you sick to ya stomach doesn't it? Wasn't it the reason you made that CD for me Ma? So you could try to justify the way you treated me Ma? But guess what? You're gettin older now and it's cold when your lonely (Mathers)

Here Eminem references his own (earlier) diatribe against his mother in the song, “Mommy,” on the previously released Slim Shady EP. His mother responded with a CD of her own and he answers her here in “Cleaning Out My Closet.” Aside from his troubled relationship with his mother Eminem also references Mathers’ economic challenges in the public housing system as well as his sense of the public health community’s response to his troubled childhood. Each of these elements is reminiscent of the challenges encountered by Bigger Thomas and the real life subjects from which Richard Wright drew the Bigger inspiration. In the second verse of “Rock Bottom” off of the Slim Shady LP, Eminem fleshes out key socioeconomic and domestic aspects of his Bigger figure resonance: My life is full of empty promises and broken dreams I'm hopin things look up; but there ain't no job openings I feel discouraged, hungry and malnourished Living in this house with no furnace, unfurnished And I'm sick of workin dead end jobs with lame pay And I'm tired of being hired and fired the same day (Mathers)


James Braxton Peterson

The corollary experiences in the narratives of Bigger Thomas and Eminem obscure the character’s attendant racial distinctions. Bigger Thomas also abhors his living conditions and reflects upon them immediately following the residential perspective granted to him through his initial experience working with the Daltons. He reflects thus on his family’s one-room public housing unit: “He hated this room and all the people in it, including himself. Why did he and his folks have to live like this? What had they ever done?” (105). He ultimately concludes that his family’s socio-economic condition is a result of the fact that none of them had ever done anything either good or bad. Bigger’s contemplation here reveals a burgeoning psychotic rationale for his murderous actions. That is, committing any action, even that of murder is better than the economic stasis to which he feels utterly condemned. The economic humiliation of public housing is not the only challenge that Eminem and Bigger have in common. They both share a healthy disdain for their mothers. Eminem’s hatred stems from his mother’s neglect, her drug abuse, and her general ineptitude at providing for the family unit. Bigger’s humiliation does not derive from any substance abuse on the part of his mother although one can interpret Wright’s depiction of Bigger’s mother’s Christian piety in the Marxist vein through which Wright often castes the opiate-like qualities of religion. The most striking similarity here though is the willful alienation from the mother manifested in thoughts of hatred and disgust. Bigger is humiliated daily by the fact that his entire family must dress in their one room unit with little or no privacy, much less, dignity. The morning after he murders Mary Dalton and stuffs her dismembered body into the Dalton’s furnace, he is extra anxious when his mother awakes as he is packing for the ‘flight’ section of the novel: “He heard her getting out of bed; he did not dare look around now. He had to keep his head turned while she dressed” (101). The reader is drawn to this moment because in it a daily humiliation (having to dress/undress in front of one’s family) engenders epic significance through Bigger’s guilt and anxiety stemming from his crime. He needs to look his mother in the eye and appear to be normal in order to avoid too many questions from her but he cannot adequately cover-up his guilt because of the economic oppression built into his residential space. Lastly though, Bigger exudes sheer hatred for his mother in certain key passages of the novel. In this same scene, before his mother rises to dress herself to his turned back she asks him several questions

The Hate U Gave (T.H.U.G.): Reflections on the Bigger Figures in Present Day Hip Hop Culture


about the time at which he returned home and his experiences with his new job. Even as he tries to contain his guilt and anger he responds to his mother’s questions by thinking the following: “He knew that his mother was waiting for him to give an account of himself, and he hated her for that” (100). Earlier at the onset of the novel Bigger confronts a huge rat that has been harassing his family, seemingly for some time. After Bigger squares off with the over-sized vermin and before he disposes of the body, he causes his sister Vera to faint from the disgusting spectacle of it all. Bigger’s mother responds immediately: “Bigger, sometimes I wonder why I birthed you . . .” To this Bigger responds: “Maybe you oughtn’t’ve. Maybe you ought to left me where I was.” The natal alienation of this scene underscores the expressed alienation in Eminem’s ongoing feud with his own mother, in reality as well as in the film 8 Mile and in his music. Dark Man X Yet a third gangsta rapper who mirrors Wright’s Bigger Thomas is DMX. Coming from extreme poverty in post-industrial New York, Dark Man X emerges artistically as a simulacrum for abused stray pit bulls abandoned first by society and sometimes by owners who breed them for internecine battle royals that often maim and kill. DMX (government name—Earl Simmons), hails from Yonkers, New York. Close examination of His Ruff Ryders/Def Jam debut, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, reveal that this release is rife with imagery and themes that directly reflect and riff on the most potent themes in Richard Wright’s Native Son. First, the narrator/rapper, DMX is a self-professed robber. This is an important distinction amongst most gangsta rap narratives since for the most part these narratives tend to focus on drug dealing, gang or drug organization violence, sexual exploits and consumerism. DMX narrates the exploits of a thug-thief who robs not because he wants to, but because he has to. Bigger Thomas is also confronted with this apparent option: “He walked home with a mounting feeling of fear. When he reached his doorway, he hesitated about going up. He didn’t want to rob Blum’s; he was scared. But he had to go through with it now” (35). Bigger’s decision to rob is not clear to him. He knows that he has an opportunity to work for the Daltons, but subconsciously this opportunity to work presents its own challenges of racial and economic humiliation which are both manifest in his first night as


James Braxton Peterson

Mary’s chauffeur. His anticipation of these dehumanizing elements in his singular option for employment are what force him to decide to rob Blum even as his plans for this robbery are dogged by his subconsciously inclinations and the general incompetence of his crew. The robber-theme develops and segues into other imagery for DMX such as bestialized references to Black men. These references are central to understanding DMX as one of several Bigger figures in Hip Hop Culture. In the lead single, “Get at Me Dog,” Dark Man X crystallizes his rationale for embracing various forms of canine imagery throughout all of his music: “What must I go through to show you shit is real/And I ain't really never gave a fuck how niggaz feel/Rob and I steal, not cause I want to cause I have to . . .” (DMX). This embrace includes countless references to dogs—his pets as well as his crew, friends, boys, etc—, growling and barking sounds and several paradigmatic rehearsals of the traditional dog-cat power dynamic. These canine themes reflect agency, ferociousness, loyalty, and undying dedication. Similarly, Bigger reads several bestial references to himself in the newspaper coverage of the manhunt to bring him to justice. Also, during his trial the prosecutor Mr. Buckley refers to him as follows: “In due time the relief authorities send notification to the oldest son of the family, Bigger Thomas, this black mad dog who sits here today, telling him that he must report to work” (409). This ‘black mad dog’ reference is one of many—others include: ‘moron,’ ‘subhuman,’ ‘savage’ and ‘beast’—such references designed to utterly diminish Bigger’s humanity in the eyes and minds of the white jury with his fate in their hands.5 This strategy works to perfection as the judge needs little deliberation to sentence Bigger to death.6 These bestial images that both DMX and Bigger Thomas engage and employ with vastly different results reflect a confrontational, empowered engagement with what cultural critic Karla Holloway refers to in Codes of Conduct as turning over to others, who do not have our best interests at heart, the power of the image: [K]nowing what others may imagine they see when they look at us is necessary and critical information. Without this awareness, we behave as if our bodies and our color do not provoke a certain stereotype and initiate a particular response. (34)

DMX is aware of the subhuman bestial ascriptions directed toward young men of color and depicted in/by the media and various institutions (especially the criminal justice system). He simply uses

The Hate U Gave (T.H.U.G.): Reflections on the Bigger Figures in Present Day Hip Hop Culture


the art form of rapping to play on these ascriptions in order to detail the human elements of modern-day economic oppression and to personally profit from the mainstream consumption of the bestial African American image. DMX assumes canine imagery as an artistic and narratalogical strategy to harness the power of the stereotypical black male bestial image. He is somewhat successful in this strategy—Its Dark and Hell is Hot purportedly achieved multiplatinum record sales—but the striking interactive engagement with Wright’s native son is even more remarkable. In the refrain to “Let Me Fly,” DMX chants: “Either let me fly, or give me death/ Let my soul rest, take my breath /If I don't fly I'ma die anyway, I'ma live on /but I'll be gone any day” (DMX). These lyrics ruminate on the conversation between Gus and Bigger very early on in the novel. In this conversation, Bigger and Gus lament that the freedom to fly is granted only to white men. As many scholars have suggested, this scene is a metaphor for how Bigger envisions his socio-economic limitations in a white supremacist society: “Maybe they right in not wanting us to fly . . . Cause if I took a plane up I’d take a couple of bombs along drop ‘em as sure as hell” (15). Thus DMX’s “Let Me Fly” distills Bigger’s sense of frustration into a spiritually inflected lyric that wrestles with multiple meanings of flight, including freedom, transcendence, and existence itself. This trope of flight can ultimately be traced back to the classic folk tale in the African American oral tradition, ‘The People Who Could Fly.’7 In addition, DMX’s role in the Ernest Dickerson film, Never Die Alone, is the emblematic gem of his macabre career reflections of the Bigger figure. DMX plays King, a mid-level hustler who flees— literally flying across country—his ‘hood in order to avoid conflict with a super-thug boss. After taking flight from New York City to Los Angeles, he quickly sets up shop as a dealer in LA. He immediately hooks an attractive blonde-haired Caucasian woman on heroin. He is calculated as he seduces her and secretly gives her heroin rather than cocaine. After he takes control of her body sexually and physiologically, he takes pleasure in ruining her life and nearly killing her. King executes the same design for his African American love interest with some startling differences. King has genuine feelings for his Black (Bessie-like) girl friend. It is only after she rejects his sincere and serious approach to their relationship that he turns on her, hooks her on heroin through deception, and finally rapes her as payment both for her inability to pay for drugs and her unwillingness to be with him in a serious, committed relationship.


James Braxton Peterson

King’s relationship to his black and white love/lust interests echoes Bigger Thomas’ existential and ultimately violent interactions with the females in Native Son, Mary Dalton and Bessie Smith.8 Unfortunately Bigger’s limited sense of his own humanity is projected first onto Mary because they are in a sense both alienated outsiders in their respective worlds. This feeds their illicit attraction for each other but ultimately also provides the taboo circumstances that encourage Bigger to brutally murder and dismember her. Similarly, Bigger projects his environmental frustrations onto Bessie even as he coerces her into his criminalized existence. Since Bessie reflects the forces of racism and urban naturalism that haunt—and hunt—Bigger, he ultimately cannot act out his desire to control her very existence in any other way but through rape and murder. Robert Butler’s essay on the function of violence in Native Son makes this point clearly: Bigger’s consciously formulated thoughts [about Bessie] therefore have little to do with his actual treatment of Bessie. Their entire relationship, especially his murder of her, is instead a revelation of his deepest subconscious drives. (15)

As the experiences with the women in the film Never Die Alone render a distinct portrait of DMX/King as a Bigger figure within Hip Hop culture, DMX’s portrayal of King updates the experiences of and the ideological considerations found in Wright’s Bigger narratives, Native Son and “How Bigger Was Born.” Tupac Shakur More so than any other Hip Hop generational Bigger Figure, Tupac Shakur embodies the socio-economic challenges and frustrations of Wright’s classic anti-hero. Tupac Shakur’s binary star shone so brightly in the popular public spheres that his constituents and the broader pop cultural audience still struggle to separate his gangsta rap narratives and film performances from his real life collisions with the criminal justice system and lethal inner city violence. He is a classic Bigger figure in the sense that his alienated interactions with an oppressive racist and classist society end ultimately in his demise, the circumstances of which are utterly exacerbated by his counterhegemonic instincts and extraordinary verbal expressions. In this instance, Tupac’s representational Bigger narratives became an impending reality that he was unable to survive.

The Hate U Gave (T.H.U.G.): Reflections on the Bigger Figures in Present Day Hip Hop Culture


Though over a decade has passed since his death, Tupac Amaru Shakur (b. 1971, d. 1996) is a figure who remains vibrantly alive in the minds of many people. His status as one of the most visible figures in Hip Hop culture remains undiminished nearly a decade after his unsolved murder. Perhaps his fans still wrestle with Tupac’s memory and continue to consume his posthumously released music because of his life’s elusive implications. He was murdered in a very public drive by shooting after an extraordinary life and career. As a child of Black Panther revolutionaries, Pac was poised and primed to become one himself. He said as much in interviews during his preteen years. His lyrics and poetry are also thoroughly informed by his varied regional experiences. Born in New York City, his family moved to Baltimore City, where he attended the school of performing arts, and then to Marin City, California. Although this migratory pattern from Northeast to South to West does not mirror that of Richard Wright from South too Midwest to Northeast and beyond, certainly, Pac’s movements reflectively continue the tradition of migration as one of the touchstones for certain representational experiences and authorial certitude in African American narratives. As Walter Edwards explains, He had lived the life of a poor young Black male in inner cities on the East and West coasts; he understood the struggles, temptations, triumphs and strength of the urban poor; and he knew the sense of oppression that racial and economic discrimination engenders in most members of these communities. (63)

The social and literary elements of the Bigger figures are nearly ubiquitous in Tupac’s life and lyrics. Tupac’s life was riddled with contradictions; he was at once a gangsta and a brilliant poet, a conscious leader and a gun-wielding menace, a feminist and a misogynist. As an extraordinary figure of popular culture, Tupac consistently resists categorization. It is for this reason that he was and remains so profoundly significant to his fans and so profitable to those who have commercially released his music. Tupac’s early career, reflected in his first solo album 2Pacalypse Now released on a major label, was the portrait of a revolutionary sonas-artist. He poignantly chronicles the plight of teenaged motherhood in “Brenda’s Got a Baby” and challenges us to understand the new slavery of the prison system in “Trapped.” His angst in narrative and real life situations reflected a troubled and dangerous upbringing plagued by surveillance, poverty and drug addiction: “You know they got me trapped in this prison of seclusion/Happiness, living on tha


James Braxton Peterson

streets is a delusion/Even a smooth criminal one day must get caught/Shot up or shot down with tha bullet that he bought . . .” Here Pac probes the reduction of ghetto spaces to a naturalist environmental prison. The narrator’s ‘seclusion,’ a stark kind of alienation captured by many gangsta rap narratives, works hand in hand with his ‘delusion’ with happiness and life in the streets. In this realm everyone gets caught or captured, suggesting literal imprisonment or they are faced with the rampant homicidal suicides that constantly claim the lives of young black people in America.9 Walter Edwards explains: “Tupac had gained first-hand knowledge of central behaviors in the urban 'hood, including its rich vernacular language, its thug subculture and the crime, violence and nihilism which result from poverty and social neglect” (64). Lyrics from the song, “Trapped” will bare this out: Cause they never talk peace in tha black community All we know is violence, do tha job in silence Walk tha city streets like a rat pack of tyrants Too many brothers daily heading for tha big penn Niggas commin' out worse off than when they went in (Shakur)

These lyrics from “Trapped” cover the sociological template for Tupac’s T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. movement which was designed to harness the nihilism spreading amongst young Black males in order to channel constructive energy toward the systemic forces that continue to oppress urban Black America—especially the criminal justice system. In the absence of peace, violence is the central episteme for the Black community according to the environment outlined in “Trapped”. Laboring in silence is the order of the day and people—most likely Black men in this instance—are rat-like tyrants. Finally, Tupac critiques the prison system that so readily incarcerates but rarely rehabilitates. T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. is an acronym for “The Hate yoU Gave Little Infants Fucks Everybody.” These sociological conditions foster generations of dispossessed alienated Black youth. Tupac fully realized his representational status beyond the discourse of his Bigger figure narratives. He also understood that through the experiences detailed in his lyrics he could leverage a more directly political influence over his listeners and constituents. This understanding was essentially what birthed the THUG LIFE movement. He immediately inducted those in his immediate artistic circle to this movement by dubbing them The Outlawz and set about making music that spoke directly to thugs. The alienated figure or the THUG, may be reached

The Hate U Gave (T.H.U.G.): Reflections on the Bigger Figures in Present Day Hip Hop Culture


through narratives such as Native Son or “Trapped” and his/her alienation and angst could then be channeled toward political consciousness and socio-economic progress. The culpable “U” in the acronym begs the question of who is responsible for the rampant inner city conditions of poverty in the United States. Whether this “U” takes the form of the US government, white supremacists, or the at times self-righteous Civil Rights generation, it plants a seed of understanding the challenges of inner city living beyond the Moynihanian ascriptions of deficiency and the nihilistic framings of Cornel West.10 In this sense, the “U” also interprets the violence and the narratives that treat inner city violence as a mechanism to cope with a fierce environ that must be faced daily. Everybody is ‘fucked’ by the hate that results. Moreover the violence and its accompanying mimetic narratives—especially gangsta rap—will spill over into the larger society. Thus, the emphasis on ‘everybody.’ We might now come to terms with Tupac’s more violent lyrics that took hold on his second album, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. (1993) but found their fullest initial expression on his first collaborative project entitled: T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. Volume One (1994). In “Under Pressure,” Tupac raps: “Right before I die I'll be cursin the law/Reincarnated bitch, even worse than befo' / My fo'-fo' screamin payback / My underhanded plan to get them niggaz while they laid back . . .” Arguably, this kind of violent intensity in Pac’s narratives is not merely the glorification of lawlessness and gun-toting reincarnation. It is similar to the strategy that scholars such as Robert Butler and Walter Edwards perceive in Wright’s Bigger configurations. Thus, Butler explains that “Wright’s extensive portrayal of violence in Native Son . . . is neither gratuitous nor sensationalist. Rather it is a powerful reflector of both the central character’s drive for selfhood and the social environment which is intent on wasting that drive” (24). If only we could pause to hear the pain in the voice of Tupac Shakur and the chorus of Bigger Figures reflected upon in this essay, we might direct our critical attention to the social, racial and economic forces that collude not just to diminish the drive for selfhood—what Wright might refer to as the individual—but to challenge as well the very existence of young Black inner city men. As violent, misogynistic and powerful as these creative narratives are, they should not obscure the environments upon which they are attempting to report. As readers become aware of the current reflections of


James Braxton Peterson

Bigger in the newer form of artistic production that is gangsta rap, a double conclusion is reached. If, on the one hand they mirror our own realities, they also underline the continued desire to consume artistic narratives of misogyny and violence that results from lack of money and goods.

James Braxton Peterson Pennsylvania State University

Notes 1

This essay is dedicated to the loving memory of my late best friend, David Lamont Holley. 2 I realize that Baldwin, amongst many others, argued the exact antithesis of this statement, as he suggested in his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” that Bigger Thomas is not representative at all. 3 By authentic here, I merely mean to gesture toward the various discourses about authentic black (male) identity and whether or not Bigger Thomas is a representative figure of certain (potentially) essentialist African American experiences. 4 Please note here that according to Voletta Wallace, Christopher Wallace actually was a model child until his HS school years when the allure of the streets simply overwhelmed her domestic influences (16). 5 The rest of these dehumanizing references are found on pages 409, 410 and 411 respectively. 6 Note here also that some of the most compelling passages in Native Son that reveal a news media all too eager to dehumanize and condemn Bigger Thomas are based on actual cases that developed in Chicago in the midst of Wright’s writing process. Professor Kinnamon asserts that “this case involved Robert Nixon and Earl Hicks, two young blacks with backgrounds similar to that of Bigger” (Kinnamon 121). 7

“The People Who Could Fly” is a traditional African American folktale in which field slaves with dormant powers of flight escape the brutal lashings of an evil overseer—and the institution of slavery itself—when a mysterious African whispers to each of them an unknown word that triggers their ability to fly. 8 This argument regarding Bigger’s existential relationship to both Mary and Bessie is made convincingly by Robert James Butler. 9

I argue elsewhere (“Dead Prezence . . .” Callaloo Fall 2006) that the high rates of Black on Black homicide elide the suicidal nihilism that haunts many young, violent perpetrators. 10

See Cornel West’s classic text, Race Matters, Chapter One, “Nihilism in Black America,” Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

Works Consulted Baker, Houston. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Native Son: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972. B.I.G., Notorious. “Intro” on the album Ready to Die. New York: Bad Boy Records, 1994. Butler, Robert James. “The Function of Violence in Richard Wright’s Native Son” in Black American Literature Forum 20. 1-2 (1986): 9-25. Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Keepin’ It Unreal: $elling the Myth of Black Male Violence, Long Past Its Expiration Date” in Mickey Hart, ed. De Capo Best Music Writing 2004. New York: De Capo Press 2004. (51-60) De Genova, Nick. “Gangster Rap and Nihilism in Black America: Some Questions of Life and Death” in Social Text 43 (1995): 89-132. Dee, Kool Moe. There’s a God on the Mic: The True 50 Greatest MCs. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003. Edwards, Walter. “From Poetry to Rap: The Lyrics of Tupac Shakur” in The Western Journal of Black Studies 26.2 (2002): 61-70. Holloway, Karla. Codes of Conduct: Race, Ethics, and the Color of Our Character. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1995. Huey, Steve. “The Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace)” in Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, and John Bush, eds. All Music Guide to Hip Hop: The Definitive Guide to Rap and Hip Hop. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2003. (359-360) Kinnamon, Keneth. The Emergence of Richard Wright: A Study in Literature and Society. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1972. Kitwana, Bikari. The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture. New York: Basic Civitas, 2002. Mao, Chairman. “If You Don’t Know . . . Now You Know: Discography” in Cheo Hodari Coker, ed. Unbelievable: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of The Notorious B.I.G. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003. (301-331) Mathers, Marshall. “Cleaning Out My Closet” on (the album) The Eminem Show. Los Angeles: Interscope / Slim Shady Records, 2002. Perrine, Laurence and Thomas R. Arp. Sound and Sense: Introduction to Poetry. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1992 Quinn, Eithne. Nothing but a ‘g’ Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap. New York: Columbia UP, 2004. Shakur, Tupac. “Trapped” on the album 2Pacalypse Now. Los Angeles: Interscope Records, 1992.


James Braxton Peterson

Wallace, Voletta and Tremell McKenzie. Voletta Wallace Remembers Her Son, Biggie. New York: Atria Books, 2005. Williams, Saul. The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip Hop. New York: MTV Books, 2006. West, Cornel. Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1940. —. “How Bigger Was Born” in Houston Baker, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Native Son: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: PrenticeHall, Inc., 1972. (21-47)

Notes on Contributors

Herman Beavers is Associate Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. He the author of the book Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson (U of Penn Press, 1995), as well as over 30 articles and book chapters. His creative works include the chapbook, A Neighborhood of Feeling as well as poems that have appeared in Rain, Black American Literature Forum (now African American Review), Dark Phrases, The Cincinnati Poetry Review, Cave Canem I and II, XConnect. Peregrine, and most recently, Callaloo and the anthology, Gathering Voices. Caleb Corkery is an Assistant Professor of English at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. His recent publications include: “New Negroes, Clean Names: How 19th Century African American Women Changed Their Reputations from Strumpets to Straightlaced.” (The Middle-Atlantic Writers Association Review. June/December 2002), “Literacy Narratives and Confidence Building in the Writing Classroom” (Journal of Basic Writing. Spring 2005), “Shaping American Literary Traditions from African Stories Rewritten for American Children: A Rhetorical Case Study of Sundiata” (Sankofa: A Journal of African Children’s and Young Adult Literature). Ana María Fraile-Marcos teaches at the University of Salamanca, Spain. She has published Planteamientos estéticos y políticos en la obra de Zora Neale Hurston (2003), as well as a number of articles on canon formation, ethnicity, diaspora, and gender for different national and international journals, among which is her essay on Toni Morrison’s Paradise (MELUS 28.4 (2003): 3-33). She has also contributed to the Rodopi Perspectives of Modern Literature series with chapters about the works of Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, and Joy Kogawa, and is the editor of bilingual (English/ Spanish) editions on the works of Jacob A. Riis, Como vive la otra mitad (2001), Langston Hughes, Oscuridad en España (1998), and Zora Neale Hurston, Mi gente! Mi gente! (1994). She is currently at work on a project about writing by blacks in Canada.


Dialogue: Richard Wright’s Native Son

Philip Goldstein earned his Ph.D. in English from Temple University in 1984 and in 2001 was promoted to Professor of English at the University of Delaware. Recently he has published PostMarxism: An Introduction (SUNY-Albany Press 2005) and, with James Machor, has edited Reception Study: Theory, Practice, History (Routledge 2000) and Reception Study: Reconsiderations and New Prospects (Oxford University Press 2007). Carol E. Henderson is Associate Professor of English and Black American Studies at the University of Delaware, Newark campus. Her publications include the edited book James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain: Historical and Critical Essays (Peter Lang, 2006) and Scarring the Black Body: Race and Representation in African American Literature (U of Missouri P 2002). In addition to numerous articles in professional journals and critical volumes, she has two forthcoming essays: in James Baldwin and Toni Morrison: Comparative Critical and Theoretical Essays, Eds. Lovalerie King and Lynn O. Scott (Palgrave 2006), and in Folklore and Popular Film, Eds. Mikel Koven and Sharon Sherman (Utah State U P 2007). She is currently at work on an edited collection entitled Imag(in)ing America: The African American Body in Literature, a monograph entitled The Hottentot Venus Revisited: Literary Responses to Sarah Baartman’s Story, and an international reader that considers the impact of Sarah Baartman’s story on world culture. Heather Duerre Humann received her M.A. in English from The University of Alabama. Her articles and book reviews have been published in African American Review, Chelsea, Indiana Review, Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, Obsidian III, and Southern Historian, and she is a contributor to Home Girls Make Some Noise!: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology, Encyclopedia of the Reconstruction Era, and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore. She currently serves as an assistant fiction editor for the literary journal Black Warrior Review and teaches in the English Department at the University of Alabama, where she is a doctoral candidate. Yvonne Robinson Jones is a full Professor in the Department of Fine Arts, Languages and Literature at Southwest Tennessee Community College where she teaches courses in composition and literature. She is a Richard Wright specialist, and one of the advisory members of the Richard Wright Circle. She is a contributing writer for the first

Notes on Contributors


African American anthology textbook for high school students titled African American Literature: Voices in a Tradition (Holt Rinehart, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc., 1992). Also, an essay on “Censorship and the African American Writer” is included in The Oxford Companion to African American Literature (U of Oxford P, 1997). Raphaël Lambert is a French citizen and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in June 2001. Currently, he is a research fellow with the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science. His research project, “Fictionalized History and Historical Fiction: The Telling of History in African American Novels and their Film Adaptations” expands on his doctoral work. Carme Manuel is Associate Professor of American Literature at the Universitat de València (Spain). She is general editor of the Biblioteca Javier Coy d’estudis nord-americans (Universitat de València) and co-editor of Biblioteca de Autoras Norteamericanas (Ellago Ediciones). She has written books and essays on American literature and has translated Emily Dickinson, Gerald Vizenor, Anne Bradstreet and a selection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Afroamerican Women Poets, among other American authors, into Catalan. She is currently working on a book about African American Women and the Bible. Babacar M’Baye teaches African American and Pan-African Literature at Kent State University. His research is on Black Atlantic theories, slave narratives, and Black travel writing. He has published numerous essays about the works of Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano, Martin Delany, Mary Prince, W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin. James Braxton Peterson is an Assistant Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University (Abington College). He is a visiting lecturer and preceptor in African American Studies at Princeton University and was the founding Media Coordinator for the Harvard University Hiphop Archive. He has written numerous scholarly articles on Hip Hop Culture, African American Literature and linguistics as well as Urban Studies which have been published in Black Arts Quarterly, XXL, Technitions, and Lexani magazine. He is currently working on a co-authored project on the influence of Hip Hop Culture on marketing, branding and advertising with Bikari Kitwana (The Hip Hop Generation, Why White Kids Love Hip Hop).


African American folklore, xii, 102, 125, 127, 130, 134, 138, 161, 163, 204, 205, 207, 217 African American music: blues, vi, xviii, 27, 32, 35, 91, 103, 125, 127, 133, 138, 141, 152, 156, 189, 207; gangsta rap, 204-211, 215, 218, 220-223; hip hop, vi, xxi, 203-227; jazz, 193, 207; spirituals, 167, 207 Africanism, xix, 76, 122-124, 127, 131, 136, 138 Alger, Horatio, 160 Alter, Robert, 181, 182 American Adam, 135, 138, 160 American Dream, 67, 123, 128, 135 Anderson, Sherwood, 11 Appiah, K. A., xiv, xxiii, 25, 32-33, 35, 89, 183-184 Appleby, Joyce, 121, 135, 138-139 archetype, 28, 31, 39, 88, 181 Aswell, Edward, 15-16 authenticity, xv-xxii, 131, 190 Baker, Houston, xiv, 24, 27-32, 34, 43, 54, 83-84, 89, 120, 139, 162, 165, 172, 182, 204, 223-224 Baldwin, James, 7, 17-19, 26, 40, 54, 71, 122, 129, 130, 138, 139, 146, 147, 155, 163, 188, 201, 222, 226, 227 Baym, Nina, 120-121, 139, 160-161, 182 Bell, Bernard W., 22, 30, 32, 128, 131, 137, 139 Bellah, Robert, 138-139 Bercovitch, Sacvan, 125, 137, 139140

Bible, xx, 131, 157-165, 168-169, 171-172, 174, 177, 181, 182, 183, 227; Book of Job, xx, 96, 115, 157, 162-164, 166, 168-170, 174, 176-177, 180-181, 183; Elijah, 96; Exodus, 179; Genesis, 165, 172, 175-176; Jeremiah, 125, 128, 137, 141; Moses, 125, 167, 177, 179; Old Testament, 125, 168; Revelation, 165; Scriptures, 164, 177; typology, 139 Biggie Smalls, xxii, 203, 204, 207, 208, 209, 211, 212 bildungsroman, xix, xx, 143-155 biography, vii, 3-4, 8-9, 40-42, 113, 207 Black Arts, xiii, 227 Black Metropolis, 157-158, 184 Black nationalism, xii-xviii, 125-126 Black Nationalism, 76, 119-120 Black Power movement, v, xiii, xviii, 21-22, 27, 31, 75- 77, 79, 80-82, 84, 87, 90 Black Studies, v, xvi, 21-22, 27, 30, 32, 223, 227 Black Women’s movement, xiii, 26 Bloom, Harold, xiv, xxiii, 32, 34-35, 131, 139-140, 201-202 Bone, Robert, 21, 23, 29, 32, 182 Brignano, Russell Carl, 8-9, 19, 182 Brivic, Sheldon, 95, 113 Brooks, Gwendolyn, xviii, 31, 55, 56, 58, 59, 61-63, 65-67, 70-72; Maud Martha, xviii, 56, 61, 63, 67, 7172 Brown, Sterling, 13, 62, 89, 110, 113, 205 Brunette, Peter, 193, 200-201 Bryant, Jacqueline, 30, 70-71


Dialogue: Richard Wright’s Native Son

Burks, Ruth Elizabeth, 198, 201 Butler, Robert, xii, xiv, xv, xxiii, 8, 13, 14, 16, 19, 31, 57, 71, 89, 139, 164, 182, 218, 221-223 Byers, Thomas B., 122, 139 Canby, Henry Seidel, 8, 196, 201 Canby, Vincent, 196 canon, viii, xiii, 3, 28, 29, 119-122, 127, 155, 160, 225 capitalism, 102 Cather, Willa, 155 censorship, 193, 195, 200 chaos theory, 91, 96, 104, 108 Chenal, Pierre, xxi, 187, 192-194, 198, 200-201 Chicago School, 76 City upon a hill, 121 Civil Rights movement, xiii, 31, 131, 195, 198, 221 Coates, Ta-Nehisi, 203, 223 Cohn, David L., 132, 134, 141 colonial, 75, 80, 121 Communism, v, xvi, 11, 19, 21, 22, 30, 31, 34, 145, 147, 181, 188, 192, 193 Conrad, Joseph, 134 courtroom drama, xix, xx, 143-144, 153-154 Crane, Stephen, 23 crime novel, xix-xx, 143-144 Cummings, E.E., 11 Dayan, Joan, 95, 110, 114 De Genova, Nick, 206, 223 Dee, Kool Moe, 210, 223 Demarest, David P. Jr., 95, 114 diaspora, 76, 89, 90, 111, 138, 225 didacticism, xxi, 29, 103, 109, 128, 147, 168, 190 Dixon, Melvin, 65, 71 DMX, xxii, 203, 204, 208, 215, 216, 217, 218 domestic space, xviii, 56, 59, 60, 61, 62, 65 Dreiser, Theodore, xix, 11, 23, 24, 25, 32, 98, 99, 114; Works; An American Tragedy, 23, 24, 25, 32, 33, 34; “Nigger Jeff,” xix, 98, 100, 114

Du Bois, W.E.B., 57, 71, 81, 126, 139-140, 227 duCille, Ann, 62, 71 Edwards, Walter, 219-221, 223 Eliot, T.S., 11, 22 Elliott, Emory, 126, 140 Ellis, Aimé J., 76, 89 Ellison, Ralph, xv, 16, 26, 54, 63, 71, 78, 89, 91, 101, 119, 122, 123124, 127, 130, 133, 140, 157-158, 182-189, 201; Works; Invisible Man, 54, 63, 71, 91, 101, 130; Shadow and Act, 182, 201; “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Mask of Humanity,” 123 emasculation, xvii, 41, 43, 45, 46, 53, 67 Eminem, xxii, 203-204, 207-208, 212-215, 223 Erkkila, Betsy, 92, 114 ethos, 3, 5, 6, 16, 18, 103 Everett, Percival, xv, xxiii exceptionalism, vi, xix, 119-122, 124, 130, 135, 137-141 existentialism, xii, 22, 24, 28, 41, 119, 125, 135 Fabre, Michel, xiv, 4, 6, 9, 11-12, 1416, 19, 24, 32, 128, 140-141, 159160, 180, 182, 192, 201 Fanon, Frantz, 135, 140 Faulkner, William, 11, 22, 24, 25-26, 31, 33-34, 122; Light in August, 24-25, 31, 33 Federal Writer’s Project, 10 feedback loop concept, 103-108 Felgar, Robert, 7-8, 10, 13-14, 19 film, xix, xxi, 46-48, 63-64, 85, 103, 104-107, 112, 161, 165, 173, 187, 190-200, 208, 213, 215, 217-218 Fishburn, Katherine, 24, 31, 33, 145, 152-153, 155 Fisher, Dorothy Canfield, 7, 15, 19, 167 Fitzgerald, F. Scott, 122, 155; Works; The Great Gatsby, 155, 165 Foley, Barbara, 29, 30, 32, 33 Freeman, Jerrold, xxi Freud, Sigmund, xii



Gabel, John B., 168, 180, 182 Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., xi, xiv, xxiii, xxiv, 25, 28, 29, 32, 33, 35, 71, 89, 139, 183 Gayle, Addison, 162, 169, 172 gender, xix, 140 Gibson, Donald B., 31, 33, 137, 140 Gilroy, Paul, 120, 128, 129, 138, 140 Ginsberg, Allen, 107 Goddu, Teresa, 94, 114 Gothic, xii, 114 Green, Paul, 193, 194 Greene, J. Lee, 165, 174, 176 Grier, William H., 69, 71 Griffin, Farah, 63, 64, 71

Kinnamon, Keneth, xiv, xxiii, 4, 5, 8, 9, 11-14, 17, 19, 34-35, 54, 71-72, 77, 89, 114, 123, 140-141, 155156, 169, 182-183, 208, 222-223 Kitwana, Bikari, 209, 223, 227 Knoespel, Kenneth J., 108, 113, 114

Hakutani, Yoshinobu, xxiii, 5, 17, 19, 30, 32, 33, 89, 140, 182, 183 Harlem Renaissance, 86, 207 Harmetz, Aljean, 196, 201 Harrington, Richard, 193, 196, 201 Harris, Trudier, 57, 113, 172 Herton, Calvin, 58, 67, 68, 71 Holloway, Karla, 216, 223 Holman, C. Hugh, 148-149, 151, 155 homophobia, 42 homosexuality, 40, 42 hooks, bell, 56, 71, 217 Howard-Pitney, David, 125-126, 128, 138-140 Howe, Irving, xi, xxiii, 5, 16, 24, 26, 27, 29-33, 131, 146, 155 Huey, Steve, 210, 223 Hurston, Zora Neale, xiii, xxii, xxiii, xxiv, 17, 25-26, 28, 33, 35, 55, 58, 61-62, 65, 70-71, 225; The Hurston/Wright Foundation, xiii; Their Eyes Were Watching God, xxii, 25, 28, 58, 61, 71

Mao, Chairman, 211, 223 Margolies, Edward, xiv, 22, 30, 34, 143, 146-148, 150, 153, 155 Marxism, xii, xxii, 10-11, 22, 26-28, 31-33, 48, 119-120, 124, 131, 137, 145, 147, 180-181, 190, 214 Mc Henry, Susan, 201 McCarthyism, 192, 194 Meeks, Edward, 8 Melville, Herman, 110, 122, 134, 155, 181 Menand, Louis, 93, 103, 110, 114 Mencken, H.L., 11 Middle Passage, 81, 88 Miller, James A., viii, xiv, xxiii, 71, 85, 90, 96, 114, 155, 201 Minahen, Charles, 93, 106, 110, 111, 114 Modernism, xii, xvii, 21, 22, 24, 25, 30, 32, 34, 35, 90, 127, 138, 141, 156 modernity, xviii, 76, 80, 81, 82, 83, 86, 87, 88, 138 Mootry, Maria K., 57, 71 Moretti, Franco, 147, 148, 149, 151, 155 Morrison, Toni, xix, 26, 67, 71, 99, 119, 122-124, 127, 131, 136, 138, 140, 225-226; Works; Paradise, 140, 225; Playing in the Dark. Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, 71, 122, 140; The Bluest Eye, 99 Moses, Wilson, 126 Multiculturalism, xvii, 29, 30

James, Henry, 29 Jameson, Frederic, 121, 145, 155 jeremiad, vi, xix, 119, 121, 123, 125128, 130-132, 134, 137, 139-140 Jim Crow, 50, 77-78, 111, 136, 207 John Reed Club, 22, 145 Johnson, Barbara, 161 Joyce, James, 11 Joyce, Joyce Anne, 28-33, 121, 131, 139-140, 164, 183

Landry, Bart, 78, 89 Law, Lindsay, 196, 198, 199 Lewis, Sinclair, 11 Library of America, xiv, 140, 195, 200-201 literay genre, xx, 143-144, 147, 154, 180


Dialogue: Richard Wright’s Native Son

Murray, Albert, 5, 20, 114 mysoginy, 61, 209, 221 naturalism, xvii, 16, 21-22, 24-25, 27-28, 30-31, 58, 91-93, 98-99, 101, 103-104, 106, 119, 136, 205, 218 New Criticism, 26-27, 30, 33 New York Intellectuals, 26-27, 30, 34 Nietzsche, Friedrich, 170, 183 Norris, Frank, 27, 98 Notorious B.I.G., xxii, 203-204, 207, 210, 223 O’Neill, Eugene, 164 Paine, Thomas, 138 Pan-African, xiii, 76-77, 227 Park, Robert, 3, 11-12, 20, 114, 141, 158 Patterson, Orlando, 171, 173, 176, 179, 182-183 Perez, Vincent, 148, 155 Perrine, Laurence, 206, 223 Petry, Ann, xvii, 56, 59-71; The Street, xviii, 56, 60, 67-71 Pfeifer, Michael J., 78, 90 Poe, Edgar Allan, xviii, 91-95, 105, 110-111, 114-115, 123; Works; “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” 93, 94, 105; “Metzengerstein,” 93, 95, 110; “MS Found in a Bottle,” 93; “The Fall of the House of Usher,” 93 Portelli, Alessandro, 25, 31, 34, 146, 155 postcolonial, xiii primitivism, 12, 64, 84-87, 171 propaganda, xxii, 146 protest, xii, xiv, xviii, xxii, 143, 144, 145, 147, 151, 153-154 protest novel, xix-xx, 143-144, 146 Proust, Marcel, 11 Quinn, Eithne, 205 Quinn, Laura L., 191, 201, 207, 223

Rampersad, Arnold, xiv, xxiii, 34, 46, 50, 54, 59, 71, 114, 115 Ransom, John Crowe, 26, 31 realism, xvi, xxi, xxii, 32, 58, 144, 188, 190 rebellion, 31, 111 Reed, Walter L., 163 Reilly, John M., 31, 34, 57, 72, 150, 154-155 religion, 24, 86, 125, 138, 159, 161, 163, 176, 214; Adventist, xx, 159; African religions, 86; Christianity, 121, 164-166, 169, 171, 173-175, 214; civil religion, 121, 125, 138, 176; Judaism, 111, 128, 131, 163, 172 Robinson, Randall, 79, 88 Rowley, Hazel, 6, 11-12, 15-16, 20, 23, 34, 39, 42, 51, 54, 113-114 Sangre Negra, 192 Sartre, Jean-Paul, 128 Savory, Jerold, 96, 115 Schneidau, Herbert M., 168 Sedgwick, Eve, 39, 40, 42, 44, 53-54 Wallace, Christopher, 204, 207-209, 222-223 feminism, 40, 51, 58, 67, 113, 196, 219, 226 Simmons, Earl, 204, 215 Mathers, Marshall, 204, 207, 212, 213, 223 Seltzer, Mark, 98, 101, 115 Sengova, Joko, 77, 90 sexuality, xvii, 39, 40-46, 53, 100, 198 Siegel, Paul, 21, 34, 115, 164, 177, 181, 183 Sielke, Sabine, 163, 172 Silver, Diane, 194-199, 201 slave narrative, 28, 29, 131, 227 slavery, v, xviii, 28-29, 69, 75-88, 9495, 110-111, 115, 121, 124, 126, 131, 167, 179, 183, 219, 222, 227 Slethaug, Gordon, 96, 102, 104, 106, 112, 115 Smith, Valérie, 189 Snicket, Lemony, xv sociology, 3, 10-13, 62, 66, 70, 76, 90, 147, 160, 203, 205, 208, 220 Sollors, Werner, 134, 141


Stepto, Robert B., xiv, 17, 20, 28, 31, 35, 119, 126-127, 141 stereotype, 5, 7-8, 14, 17, 24, 84, 95, 112, 124, 128, 130, 152-153, 178, 189, 216-217 stochastics, 96, 103 Stowe, Harriet Beecher, 18 symbolism, xii, xviii, 91, 93-94, 96, 103, 110, 119, 181 Tanner, Laura E., 178, 183, 200, 202 terrorism, xv, 133 thermodynamics, xix, 98, 100, 103, 106-109, 112-113; entropy, xix, 91, 97, 104, 106-107 Tocqueville, Alexis de, 137 Tolentino, Cynthia, 76, 90 Trilling, Lionel, 26, 27 Tuitt, Patricia, 57, 72 Tupac Shakur, xxii, 203-204, 208, 218, 221, 223 Twain, Mark, 122, 148 universalism, xii Walker Alexander, Margaret, 39, 4043 Walker, Alice, xiii, 26, 225 Wallace, Voletta, 222, 224 Walther, Malin, 61, 66, 70, 72 Ward, Jerry W., xiv, 42-43


Weiss, M. Lynn, xiv, xxiv, 81, 82, 85, 88, 90 Werner, Craig, 24, 35, 127, 134, 138, 141, 152, 156 Wesley, Richard, 196 West, xv, xviii, 4, 32, 35, 75, 80-88, 105, 115, 119-120, 138, 140, 183, 205, 210, 219-224 Williams, John A., 103 womanism, 55, 58, 61 Wright, Richard: Works; American Hunger, xiv, 86, 89; “Between Laughter and Tears,” xxii, xxiv, 35, 72; Black Boy, xiv, 33, 40, 41, 70, 146, 155, 158-159, 213; Black Power, v, xiii, xviii, 21-22, 27, 31, 75-77, 79-84, 87, 90; Eight Men, 40, 52, 54; “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” 4, 6-7, 12, 20, 39, 120, 123, 125, 128, 151, 152, 156, 160, 161, 187-190, 198, 202; Lawd Today, xiv, 32, 40, 54, 200; Rite of Passage, 40, 54; “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” 97; The Long Dream, 16, 40, 50, 52, 54, 160; The Outsider, xiv, 41, 52, 54; Uncle Tom’s Children, xiv, 6, 22, 40, 50, 54, 92, 112, 115, 158, 188, 200; White Man, Listen!, 4, 20 Zola, Emile, 23