Wright, Baldwin, and the Color-blind Approach

If you couldn’t tell from the ~everything~ about Native Son, Richard Wright was a Communist. Whether through the characters of Mary and Jan, both of whom treat Bigger with some degree of misguided humanity, or of Boris A. Max, who defends Bigger’s destructive behaviors to a white court (and the novel’s white audience), Wright develops a narrative which sympathizes with many aspects of the Communist ideology–most notably, he necessitates the violent birth of a new, equal world order to replace the broken systems of oppression in place. After all, Bigger only develops an identity after he murders a white woman. 

Baldwin, of course, rejects this argument outright; Wright, and, by extension, Communism, reject the possibility of “an elevation of status, acceptance within the present community” (Baldwin 20). Native Son, says Baldwin, only perpetuates the idea that black and white America cannot coexist in a way which prevents any attempt to fix the situation. And this much, to me, is true: Wright represents a world in which white people rob black people of any control, any autonomy by which to live a full, meaningful life. But are Baldwin’s and Wright’s arguments quite so incompatible?

What really interested me this week was the ways in which Richard Wright depicts the failings of Communist thought: if Mary or Jan personifies Communism, why are they so comically ignorant of Bigger’s feelings? If Max quite literally represents the Communist party, why does Bigger ultimately reject his narrative of class struggle?

Max, in Native Son’s final pages, tells Bigger that “[…] in the work I’m doing, I look at the world in a way that shows no whites and no blacks, no civilized and no savages…. When men are trying to change human life on earth, those little things don’t matter. You don’t notice ‘em. They’re just not there. You forget them” (Wright 424). According to him, Bigger is a product of an eternal class struggle: the racism Bigger faces is only a form of the suppression of the working class.

Bigger disagrees, and even alienates Max in their final interaction. Critics argue that Max acts as a mouthpiece for Wright throughout the book–the avenue by which Wright most directly addresses his audience. But I can’t help but wonder if, in at least this one scene, Wright elects Bigger as his representative. Communism, as Max suggests, advocates for complete equality and the erasure of racial and cultural identity. We see this in South Africa, where the Communist party worked with with Nelson Mandela only after identifying Apartheid as a class, rather than a racial, conflict. 

Wright could have had Bigger accept Communism right before his death, but he doesn’t. Instead, he uses Bigger’s final discourse as an opportunity to criticize Communism’s proposals of a perfect, color-blind world order in a way that coincides with Baldwin’s criticisms of a “new society […] in which inequalities will disappear” (20). As has become increasingly clear over the past year, the color-blind approach disregards the various powers and privileges our society affords white people in a way which only prevents the recognition and reform of the systemic racism which proportionately disadvantages minorities. It is equity, not equality, which truly benefits the marginalized.

For all their differences, I believe that this thought binds Wright and Baldwin: if color blindness is what it takes to “not be racist,” it is not enough. We must acknowledge and dismantle the current power structures; we must strive instead to be anti-racist.

Explanation or Justification?

When reading “How Bigger was Born,” I couldn’t help but see Wright’s explanation of how Bigger’s character came to be as rather a justification for creating such a hateable character. His articulation of the different Biggers he had met throughout his own life seemed too shallow to have accounted for the depth of Bigger’s character in the novel. Book Three stressed the idea that Bigger was created by this country and its people–anything that Bigger was resulted from what this country facilitated him to be. So to me, Bigger could be seen as sort of a placeholder for any Black man (I’m intentionally using the word man here because it seems as though Wright wasn’t concerned with Black women). This image of Bigger as representing a group seems undermined by the 5 individuals cited as his muse. 

Additionally, regarding the idea of Bigger as a native son, I’m tempted to ask: what about Bessie? Is she not also born of this country, a native daughter, or is she simply a means to an end? It seems like, to Wright, she was merely the latter, and in writing her as so, I feel as though the message about race becomes undermined almost completely.

I find it difficult–impossible really–to defend sexual violence against women (or anyone). To me, rape and sexual assault are a different level of egregious. As we discussed in class, I understand that Wright wanted us to see an image like the one in Freedom, and think that nobody, not even Biggers, deserve such treatment–and I do. But I also see Bessie and think the same for her. I don’t think Bigger should have been sentenced to die, but not because I was able to empathize with him for his crimes. I don’t think he should have been put to death simply because I don’t believe in capital punishment, but I did feel sorry for him. However, I think it’s important to mention that as much as I felt sorry for Bigger and his “fate,” I felt worse for Bessie and hers. It’s difficult to see Bigger and his crimes as a result of a racist country that created Bigger when Wright failed to address Bessie and her blackness in America as well. He lost me in his treatment of women. Rape is what one does to women, and its effects last a lifetime.

“Rape [is] not what one did to women”

In Wright’s novel, one point of interest was the differences in the violence against white and black women. I found it interesting that Wright seemed to be expressing that Native Son and Bigger are the natural result of what happens when attempted black resistance is called “rape.” After violating Mary’s body, Bigger claimed that “rape was not what one did to women. He committed rape every time he looked into a white face … But it was rape when he cried out in hate deep in his heart as he felt the strain of living day by day.” Here, as I understand it, Wright is in some ways equating rape of woman’s body to the suppression of black resistance and the bodies of black men. This comparison does not work for me due to the violence against women that actually occurs in the novel. This would have been a better comparison if Bigger was only falsely accused of rape. Bigger’s claim of rape not being an act against women turns this violence done to Mary and later Bessie, into a racial battlefield against the powers that be. Even if one argues that Bigger didn’t rape Mary in the “traditional” sense, it is impossible to deny the sexual tension and imagery in Mary’s death. When Bigger forces her body down, he feels “tight and full, as though about to explode” as he presses “all his weight” onto Mary’s body.

Mary’s lack of boundaries excited Bigger to action while Bessie’s reluctance to offer her body to him stirred Bigger’s desires at multiple points in the novel. When Bigger first visits Bessie, he becomes aroused by her cold and standoffish attitude: “he really did not mind her standing off from him; it made him hunger more keenly for her.” As he rapes her in that cold tenement house, he is unconscious to her pleas and protests and even seems to enjoy Bessie’s resignation and the “surrender of something more than her body.” Throughout that entire night, while Bessie’s “no’s” and pleas were ignored or faded away from Bigger, Wright allowed the readers to hear them and recognize what was happening to Bessie. The manner in which Bigger treated his rape and disposal of both women were also points of interest. After killing Mary, Bigger feels “strange … as if he were acting upon a stage in front of a crowd of people.” However, with Bessie, Bigger is aware that no one is watching. Subconsciously, Bigger is aware that those in power don’t care about the rape of a black woman, so he feels free to commit the crime to relieve himself of the pressure he feels. Bessie’s treatment in Native Son can be seen through historical lenses of black women’s devaluation in American society.

Baldwin’s Better Argument

In his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin critiques Uncle Tom’s Cabin and makes a compelling argument for why it is a protest novel. He explains the dangers of its sentimentality and unrealistic characterization, and because of his strong rhetoric, I agree with his position. Baldwin outlines how Uncle Tom’s Cabin denies the complexity of the truth by focusing solely on convincing the reader that slavery is wrong. He details how the book fails to explain what motivated white people to commit such atrocities. In doing so, Baldwin provides strong evidence for his contention that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a protest novel and thus, is “forgiven, on the strength of [its] good intentions, whatever violence [it does] to language, whatever excessive demands [it makes] of credibility” (18). 

Baldwin’s essay only ever addresses Native Son in its final two pages. He gives himself very little room to support his claims with examples and to elaborate upon his comparisons, as he does with Stowe’s book. As a result, his assessment of Wright’s work as a protest novel is less persuasive than it could be, diminishing the strength of his argument. Baldwin alleges that Native Son is “a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy” (22). However, he does not show us why that is. The only support he offers this comparison is his assertion that Bigger must “battle for his humanity” (23). In his view, this battle defines Native Son as a protest novel, since such works deny the humanity of its characters by adhering to the importance of their categorization instead. At that point, Baldwin ends his essay. He does not support his claim that Bigger is battling for his humanity, but rather assumes that point, and he fails to provide a reason why the existence of that supposed battle renders Native Son a protest novel. He writes that “we need not battle for [our humanity]; we need only… to accept it” (23). If Baldwin explained the difference between battling for humanity and learning to accept it; if he showed how Wright’s work is the former and not the latter; and if he clarified why the battle itself constitutes a rejection of humanity, then his argument would be improved. Instead, he leaves the reader with every opportunity to question it.  

Justitia and Prudentia

I had never heard the term, “justice is blind,” or knew the history behind the Roman Goddess, Justitia. I am not sure if this is because I am living under a rock, or because our justice system does not reflect what Justitia stands for. Her blindfold, balance beam, and sword represents a time not affected by racism. In Native Son, we know that the recurring idea of blindness is meant to show, in the end, how blind Bigger has been throughout his life, all the while thinking everyone around him is blind. I think that Wright was trying to show the blind eye everyone turns towards situations they do not understand or do not want to see.  Wright, himself, turning a blind eye towards the violence and the degradation he projects onto his female characters, especially the black female characters. But, in Book Three: Fate, we see the blindness the justice system turns towards Bigger and not in the way that Justitia would want them to. Unfortunately, even with the impassioned words of Max, Bigger had been judged before receiving his sentence. Although he did commit the crimes, and deserves to face punishment for them, the courtroom narrative that he faced is not an uncommon one. The justice system, the media, and society has pushed their unfair narrative onto yet another black man. 

However, in James Baldwin’s “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” he criticizes Native Son and novels deemed “protest” by saying that blindness has gone too far, and the overall acceptance of protest novels are because people believe what happens in them, has nothing to do with us and our society (Baldwin 15). They are doing nothing to help change the struggles of real people in the real world. Baldwin goes on to say that “they are a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American dream” (16). This makes me think of the moment in the novel when Bigger is illuminated by the sun, while in prison, thinking he understands his blindness, and what he really wants. But, of course he would never get the time to do that. Baldwin’s idea of protest novels being “mirrors” had led me to research another Goddess that is often shown as a pair with Justitia, her name is Prudentia. Prudentia carries a mirror and a snake and is meant to represent the ability to govern and discipline oneself through reason. But, what I believe Baldwin is saying is that instead of holding the mirror on ourselves, we are facing it outwards on a broken society and continue to reflect what we see, even when trying not to.

Stuck on the “Rape”

We’ve had a lot of great discussions about Wright’s depiction of sexual assault in Native Son and our experience with the violence against women overshadowing the message of the novel. I was bothered by Wright’s explanation in “How Bigger was Born” when he writes, “So volatile and tense are these relations that if a Negro rebels against rule and taboo, he is lynched and the reason for the lynching is usually called “rape,” that catchword which has garnered such vile connotations that it can raise a mob anywhere in the South pretty quickly, even today” (438). The use of quotations here seems to imply that the rape in the novel was not grounded in the real experience of the novel, but served as more of a symbol of the targeted attacks placed against Black men. Wright continues to connect rape as an experience felt by men instead of against women in the line, “But rape was not what one did to women. Rape was what one felt when one’s back was against a wall and one had to strike out, whether one wanted to or not, to keep the pack from killing one.”

Wright’s use of sexual assault, although problematic, shed light on the larger conversation of sexual politics of race and rape in the 20th Century. He depicts the mob vengeance on any Bigger as a defense of white virginity and sexuality as an excuse to enact violence on Black men. Baldwin discusses the racial tension within sexual violence in, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” that, “within this web of lust and fury, black and white can only thrust and counter-thrust, long for each other’s slow exquisite death.” Angela Davis expands on this idea in her essay “Rape, Racism, and the Myth of the Black Rapist writing, “There were the circumstances which spawned the myth of the Black rapist—for the rape charge turned out to be the most powerful of several attempts to justify the lynching of Black people.” In the same way that Mr. Dalton hides his involvement in aiding systematically racist structures behind performative acts of charity, white men have defended their brutality towards Black men behind the famous justification: “They’re raping our women.” The public’s fear and media sensationalism of this is also portrayed in The Birth of a Nation by having a white woman choose death over the rape of a Black man that must be defended by the heroics of the Ku Klux Klan. This also connects to our discussion of the removal and agitation of Black male sexuality from film.

The false accusations of Black men raping white women can be seen in numerous cases from Emmett Till, the Groveland Four, the Central Park Five, and many others. Wright draws on this reality in “How Bigger was Born” when he writes, “Any Negro who has lived in the North of the South knows the times without number he has heard of some Negro boy being picked up on the streets and carted off to jail and charged with “rape” (455). However with “rape” in quotation marks, Wright applies this connotation of a false allegation it to Bigger’s encounter with Mary where intent to rape was present. Bigger’s actions coincide with the historic and damaging trope that Black men can’t resist their sexual urges towards white women. The implication of the rape’s portrayal is complicated by Rashid Johnson’s decision to remove the rape scenes in his 2019 film adaptation of Native Son because the production team felt “It would’ve hijacked his character. That’s not who he is.” I am left to consider what effect removing the rape would have on my perception of the themes of the novel and my humanization of Bigger.

Wright’s failed protest (novel)

I have found Native Son off-putting since we began reading. However, besides the heinous violence, I found it challenging to articulate what exactly I did not like about Wright’s novel. In our class discussion about why “Biggers” exist, I finally understood the title, Native Son. Still, I strongly disagreed that Bigger’s behavior represented anything innate or native to a person. Baldwin’s critique of “Native Son” as “a failed protest novel, that rejects life and fails to accept humanity” articulates how this novel is unnecessarily dark, twisted, and brutal. Baldwin explains that Bigger’s biggest problem was not his race or class but that his feelings of constraint caused him to reject his humanity and others’. The most heinous elements of the novel reflect a complete lack of understanding or empathy for humanity on Bigger’s part, and arguably Wright in some instances. While it’s clear that the structural and systemic oppression Bigger faced is native and institutionalized in American society, Wright’s creation of Bigger seemingly reveals more about his psyche and perception of people than about the reality of being a “native son.”

This may sound strong, especially considering Wright’s extended defense of this character in “How Bigger was Created,” however, Wright himself admits that Bigger was a product of his imagination and thought process. He writes,

 “So, with this much knowledge of myself and the world gained and known, why should I not try to work out on paper the problem of what will happen to Bigger? 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 fears, what I had learned and remembered, work out in fictional form an emotional statement and resolution of this problem?”

I understand that Wright is passionate about revealing the consequences or results of systemic oppression; still, the book’s extremity, violence, and sexual nature may have been influenced by his own emotional state. In this quote, Wright seemingly embraces his creation of Bigger and defends it by crediting his imagination. The sexual violence, murder, misogyny, and racism depicted in the novel often appear senseless and the brutality unnecessary. I agree that American society has these issues, but not every person who faces Bigger’s conditions exhibits the same behavior. The creation of this monstrous character and this tragic story do little to aid the effects of this oppression. Instead, it emphasizes a lack of humanity and attempts to explain unjustifiable violence. 

Baldwin’s notion of Native Son as a failed protest novel led me to consider the novel a failed protest from Richard Wright. The structures that create conditions of inequity are, if anything, promoted in this novel. Wright perpetuates the same lack of humanity these structures do in his creation of Bigger. I agree with Baldwin that valuing humanity is innate, so Native Son missed the mark.

Wright, Baldwin, and Afro-pessimism

I’m interested in the question of redemption for Bigger Thomas. He performs some pretty ghastly acts throughout the texts and, equally as poignantly, experiences deep pain and exclusion. The coexistence of these two realities, Bigger as victim and perpetrator, offers a unique nuance to the question of redemption. What could redemption look like for Bigger? In my mind, it would be a combination of remorse, inclusion, and a resounding affirmation of life. This, unfortunately, never occurs. Frank Wilderson and James Baldwin perhaps offer two opposing access points to get at this question of redemption for Bigger Thomas.

The concept of “social death,” for Orlando Patterson, denotes the extreme exclusion and violence of slavery, specifically the enslavement of Black people in America. Frank Wilderson, however, in his essay “Afro-Pessimism and the End of Redemption,” proposes Afro-Pessimism “which is premised on an iconoclastic claim: that Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness. Blackness is social death.” Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas’ saturating exclusion from sociality, language, and institutions of power in this novel seems to provide an example of the Black man who’s Blackness is Slaveness is social death. Indeed, Wright writes of Bigger: “had he not taken fully upon himself the crime of being black?” (296). And as Max later states, “His very existence is a crime against the state” (400). The state, which holds the power, sees Bigger’s life as oppositional to its own. Beyond this, even the concepts and language which are supposed to protect people are contaminated by anti-Blackness. As Max states, “injustice which lasts for three long centuries and which exists among millions of people over thousand of square miles of territory, is injustice no longer; it is an accomplished fact of life” (391). The very definition of justice left Bigger behind. This seems similar to Wilderson’s ideas that the Humanist discourse is premised on Black people’s death and oppression. Furthermore, there is something to be said about the fact that Bigger cannot even defend himself to his jury or his reader. Wright gives the longest and most potentially redeeming words to a white lawyer, who is able to deal in the systems of the oppressor. This only further emphasizes Bigger’s experience of social death. Wright ultimately calls this social death, through Max’s words, a “new form of life,” one that white America does not understand and wants to crush out of guilt (391).

How does social death in Native Son help us understand the arc of redemption? Wright tells us Bigger “had lived outside of the lives of men… their modes of communication, their symbols and images, had been denied him.” After Max’s limited witness and justification of his pain, Bigger hinges his redemption of a certain sense of closure, relation, and understanding with Max. This never comes. In the final scene, “Bigger’s voice was full of frenzied anguish” and “Max’s eyes were full of terror” (429). There is a blindness to Max, the intellectual who negotiates with the system in the language of the system, who “did not turn around” (429). This whole scene leaves Bigger, alone, misunderstood, and angry. He sees himself more fully perhaps, but it does not appear to be a redemption. An Afro-Pessimistic lens might give some insight as to why. WIlderson claims that “social death is aporetic with respect to narrative writ large (and, by extension, to redemption, writ large).” Wilderson’s idea of “redemption as an anti-Black modality” is rooted in the idea that for the Black person in America, social death constitutes a lack of spatiality, reciprocity, and futurity. Wilderson basically claims that there is a whole different temporality that cannot allow for redemption as defined by the current humanist language and discourse. So (I think) for Wilderson, the final scene of Native Son would not be a redemption, but rather an accurate depiction of the temporality of Blackness (as coterminous with Slaveness and social death).

Baldwin, though, offers some contrary thoughts. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin criticizes Native Son for how “below the surface of this novel, there lies, as it seems to me, a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy.” (22) His issue with the book seems to be that it works in the systems and stories that White America uses to exclude Black Americans and enforce social death. On a wider scale, Baldwin offers two lines of reasoning in his general critique of the genre. One that the protest novel is zealous and reductive and another that the protest novel is a mirror of life, rather than accomplishing its lofty goals. He states “the failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended” (23). Interestingly, this critique resembles Jesse McCarthy’s take in “On Afropessimism,” which critiques the reductive nature of Wilderson’s lens. McCarthy contrasts Wilderson’s swooping assumptions about Blackness with more nuanced examples, before ultimately critiquing the isolating and unproductive impulse of the philosophy. Sounds familiar. Does Wilderson then inherit Wright’s legacy? Is Wilderson’s critical work a sort of continuation of the Protest Novel genre which Baldwin critiques? What is the utility of works that so boldly and provocatively hold space for the pain of Black people in America, while still upholding the current system and mythology through negation? Is there any?

“Do Things”

In “How Bigger was Born” Richard Wright effectively uses his protagonist to express his views on the larger society. Through character development, Wright is able to comment and message on the world as he sees it. For example, Bigger’s study of and connection to fascist movements across the world stood out. Wright grew up and wrote during an era where fascism was on full display. He would have been a child during WW1 but a grown man during WW2. The debate around the effectiveness of governments and regimes would have been in full swing. Because Bigger studied and commented on its effectiveness, means Wright used his protagonist to explore polarizing topics. Bigger wanted to be powerful, he wanted to be in control of his life, he wanted to matter. Naturally, he sought out examples. And while it may be abhorrent to admire these fascist leaders, especially through today’s lens, what Bigger and possibly Wright saw were men who were feared and effective.

After reading and processing this part of the origin story, Bigger made a lot more sense to me. Whether it was Bigger 2, whose hardness was directed toward the whites in the South, Bigger 5 who rode the streetcars and sat wherever he pleased, or Bigger Thomas who gazed up at the planes in the sky knowing his ceiling would never reach that high, there was a clear understanding that there was a larger life at stake. But other than a few fleeting moments, these Biggers were, for the most part powerless. The small acts of rebellion, while feeding their need to fight back, could not do much to change their situation at large other than land them in and out of the prison system. 

The attraction to and admiration of the Hitlers and Mousillinis, therefore, seems natural. They “did Things”. The Biggers of the world, knowing there is more to life, are angry and frustrated by being subdued in their environments. They gravitate towards those who can effect change. Bigger’s attraction to a leader stems from the deep desire for change but the lack of opportunity to do so. It is through this vantage that I see the parallels to Malcolm X. Malcolm Little was an aware, frustrated, angry young man with few options. He, like Bigger, landed in jail.  From there, he fashioned the tools and skills that would lead him to prominence and a place where he could effectively advocate for change. Young Malcolm grew up poor and endured many of the same racial tensions and racist encounters as Bigger. Thus, in their youth, they both turned to a life of crime, neither having the ability to give their inner Bigger a productive outlet. However, the key difference is that Malcolm X was introduced to a platform that allowed him a prism to project his Bigger. His intelligence and leadership abilities were not wasted – he had an incredible impact on Black lives, on the Civil Rights movement, and on American and global culture. Because Malcolm was “found” and cultivated, he could put his gifts to work.  Arguably, Bigger Thomas was a decision or two away from having a different path in life. The larger question is how many Biggers do we have today rotting in our prison systems or on the streets, unable to share their gifts with society. How many Malcolm’s are yet to be discovered?  

Mr. Dalton’s Performative Activism

In Native Son, one aspect that stands out to me during Bigger Thomas’s trial is Mr. Dalton’s insistence that he is someone who truly cares about the wellbeing of Black people while not understanding how little he is really doing. He adheres vehemently to the belief that he is a man who bears no ill will toward Black people, describing how he has worked for years to help them in whatever ways he can. His efforts are, in reality, very minimal and not actually effective.

Mr. and Mrs. Dalton believe that their hiring Black individuals and contributing to the South Side Boys’ Club are sufficient actions that mark them as being true advocates for all Black people. Several times throughout the novel, Mr. Dalton mentions how he “sent a dozen ping-pong tables to the South Side Boys’ Club” with a sense of pride and accomplishment, as though he has done some great service to the Black community in Chicago (294). However, Max calls him out on this belief, saying, “My God, man! Will ping-pong keep men from murdering? Can’t you see? Even after losing your daughter, you’re going to keep going in the same direction? Don’t you grant as much life-feeling to other men as you have? … This boy and millions like him want a meaningful life, not ping-pong…” (295). Max attempts to show Mr. Dalton the ridiculous mismatch between what he thinks Bigger needs to live a good life and what Bigger actually needs in order to be able to do that. Mr. Dalton fails to recognize or admit that even with the help he tries to provide, he still places Black people at a disadvantage in other ways, such as by only renting them apartments in certain neighborhoods and raising the prices for them. While he tries to come off as this kind gentleman concerned with equity and justice, his actions align more with the concept of performative activism. He claims to care a lot about the problems that Black people face but makes no effort to incite real change. In order to truly help the individuals he claims he wants to, Mr. Dalton would need to analyze the systems of oppression that are in place and work to address and alleviate the issues that prevent Black people from having the “meaningful life” that Max tells him they deserve.