The black body has been a site of contention and violence for many centuries. Richard Wright’s Native Son explores this theme through his protagonist, Bigger Thomas, whose stream of consciousness reveals his own self-loathing. Bigger’s self-hatred is almost immediately detectable and transforms into suicidal ideation where he wishes to “blot out” himself and others (70), believing his life to be meaningless (105). This pattern is stark and expansive in the course of the novel, yet I would like to focus specifically on how self-hatred manifests itself physically in the black body. This disgust and shame speak to a larger motif of how tangible blackness (skin, shape, size) can become the tool by which we target black bodies as a near continuation of the subjugating and devastating will of racism.
The hatred Bigger harbors seems to initially stem from his insecure masculinity. He is denied virility and in rebellion, destroys. My argument is centered on the notion of the duality of masculinity and femininity. For Bigger, masculinity and femininity exist in a mutually dependent binary where one defines the other. He describes himself as unacceptably hysterical (among other contextualized feminine vocabulary). He often feels “an urgent need to hide his growing and deeping feeling of hysteria” (28). The phallic power in destroying femininity (as symbolized by Mary and Bessie) becomes the vice by which Bigger identifies himself and revolts against his own castration.
I suggest that in addition to lacking phallic power in his self-concept, Bigger may also hate his body. Bigger is often “conscious of every square inch of skin on his black body” and exclaims that his black skin carries a “badge of shame” (46, 67). This shame directed towards the blackness of his body is not only taught by his family (when they avoid seeing each other dressing/undressing) but enforced because of an idealized and protected white body. Murder, in a twisted way, becomes the tactic by which Bigger learns to cope with his intense fear and hatred of his own body. The self-loathing predisposes his violent nature, and he acts in a way that he believes will restore his supposed broken masculinity and shameful black skin. His crime soon becomes a “barrier of protection between him and a world he feared” (105). His body no longer is a target of society’s aggression, but he has redirected it to serve his murderous impulses. This release is so much so that he feels a “lessening of tension in muscles; he had shed an invisible burden he had long carried” (114). This ease and softening after feeding his violent urges affirms the idea that his body has secured his power as a man. His body, despite initially being the object of his disgust, becomes the tool by which Bigger accomplishes masculinity as if it’s something to be gained.
The fear and hatred of the black body as the ultimate symbol of blackness is not only something I have witnessed within my reading of Native Son, but also in my research regarding race-based origins of fat-phobia, weight stigma, and diet culture (if you are interested further, I suggest Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings, https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/42129163). Obviously, the fear of blackness is more complex than its manifestation in a tangible body, but I feel that the shame of black bodies (both innate and enforced) becomes one catalyst by which racism evolves.
2 thoughts on “Fear & Hatred of the Black Body”
Great stuff here! This comment doesn’t directly apply to the argument you’re making, but your comment on Bigger’s self-hatred of his blackness made me question if there were instances of Euro-centric beauty standards impacting the characters. Toni Morrison included many instances of colorist beauty standards in her novels, mainly focusing on their impact on Black female characters and their self-image. However, in Native Son, I didn’t see this effect being portrayed as much. Instead of playing up the beauty standards and having Mary be the stereotype presentation of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white woman– she has black curly hair. Similarly, when Bigger makes the comparison between Bessie and Mary, he compares their size and softness, but that is the extent of their stated physical contrast. I don’t have a firm point to make, but I thought these were interesting observations as we talk the portrayal of the Black body in this novel.
You’re really hitting on something here. I think you could go further and argue that Bigger’s intense hatred of himself and feelings of needing to blot himself out stem from racism. When you grow up in an environment where you are intensely hated, feared, and (quite honestly) hunted like an animal, you can’t learn to love yourself. You learn that it is natural to hate your body as it exists as a site of contention and is deemed unnatural. In a talk James Baldwin had with Nikki Giovanni, he talks about how the racism his father faced essentially castrated the man. This castration is something that Bigger has to deal with. In a way, because he feels that society can not and will not allow him to be a man, he has to find other facets to demonstrate his manhood. As you mentioned above, his murder of Mary gives him that protection from society’s refusal to treat him like a man. He has taken his fate into his own hands like a man should. He has something that society can not deny him.
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