Something that I’ve learned in my Psychology classes is that it’s hard for children who grow up in impoverished and tough conditions to develop certain social skills (including empathy) because they are thrown into a situation where they have to adapt for survival. Another reason why it’s hard for children who grow up in impoverished conditions to learn empathy is because sometimes their parents are often out of the home or are simply despondent due to their own fight with poverty.
As such, they don’t have the first social connection to mirror empathy with.
Then, you have to add on top of that, the racialized part of poverty. Not only are you adapting for survival in poverty, you are also adapting to survive racism. The home is not the only place where you’re supposed to learn empathy. It’s in daily interactions, with friends, with teachers, with strangers. The matter of the fact is, if you’re Black, you are often not shown empathy. There’s often no empathy in your classrooms, in meetings with strangers, and sometimes, there’s no empathy in your friendships either.
Bigger Thomas represents all of that. He is a poor Black person on the Southside of Chicago. Although we do not know much about his mother, we can infer from their interactions that while she is warm in certain circumstances (if you could call someone making you breakfast warm), she is also harsh on and critical of Bigger. Vera has no sympathy or empathy for Bigger and oftentimes disparages him and his capabilities. The only person in Bigger’s family who treats Bigger with something akin to empathy (if idolatization can be called empathy) is Buddy. In Bigger’s friendships with Gus, Jack, and G.H., there is no empathy for Bigger. Instead there is fear and the mutual connection of robbing people. Finally, in Bigger’s interactions with white people, there is sometimes sympathy but not empathy.
In transformative justice, there is the question of how do we go about healing in a way that is survivor centered, even when the survivor of harm has caused harm themselves. In most of the books I’ve read for my Prisons and Policing class and Transformative Justice class (both taught by Pam Butler), it’s been seen that there are survivors who have committed harm who still get the help that they need (as in they aren’t turned away). For example, a woman was seeking help through a transformative justice process because she had been sexually abused by a family member. Only for her to realize and admit that when she was a teenager, she sexually assaulted her own sister. Those running the process did not pack up their bags because she was still a person with a great need who wanted to get better and better her life. This is something that we need to understand when we talk about Bigger.
What Richard Wright is asking us to do is essentially flex our empathy muscles. So many people say that they ‘empathize’ with those who live in poverty and with Black people. Yet, that ‘empathy’ always seems to run out at some point. Sometimes over simple things. Often, once a poor Black person commits a crime (or is accused of committing a crime) people take off their ‘empathy’ hats and say “Oh, they’re a criminal, they deserve all the racism and harm that comes towards them”. This strips Black people of their personhood and their deserving of empathy even when the person has not actually committed the crime they are accused of. Knowing this, people who are deemed criminal deserve empathy. To be more specific, impoverished Black people deserve empathy, even when they are deemed criminal. That’s a hard thing to say, especially when it seems like certain people are the embodiment of evil itself. However, if we strip impoverished Black people deemed criminal of their empathy, we are punching downwards. We are not challenging the system that dehumanizes and punishes impoverished Black people. In fact, we are feeding into it.
One thought on “An Argument For Empathy”
I think you touch on a crucial point for understanding Bigger’s role in this book and Wright’s motive for writing a character like Bigger. According to Arnold Rampersad in the Native Son introduction, Wright believed the majority of African American literature at the time contained Black characters who were meant to appease white people, calling them “prim and decorous ambassadors who went a-begging to white America.” In conceptualizing Bigger, Write intentionally creates someone who is unsophisticated, uneducated, and insensitive, a character noticeably different from other Black protagonists. Bigger was not written to be likable or easy to sympathize with. Rather, he requires us to “flex our empathy muscles,” as you said, and acknowledge the systemic failures in America that lead to men like Bigger.
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