Two-thirds of the way into Native Son, seeing how Wright writes female characters—especially Bessie— makes me ask how a different treatment of gender and sexuality would address the impact of racism on women’s lives. I recognize the importance of showing how racism prevents Bigger from developing a healthy masculinity, but I remain frustrated with how the novel handles issues of gender and sexual violence. Engaging not just with racism and male identity, but also with racism and female identity, could offer a more compelling portrait of how the intersecting identities of race, gender, and sexuality shape these characters’ lives.
In “Flight,” Wright shows Bigger considering what “rape” means in his life: “Yes, he had raped [Mary]. Every time he felt as he had felt that night, he raped. But rape was not what one did to women,” and goes on to describe rape as the hatred Bigger feels in his environment (227). Passages like this one make it difficult for me to connect with Wright’s project. Bigger’s anxiety to assert his own masculinity is constantly part of the text in language about Bigger’s sense of “hysteria” and in phallic images like knives. To an extent, I understand Wright’s choice to describe the effects of racism with language of sexual violence, because the threat of violence against Bigger looms over the text. As Bigger knows, “[t]o hint that [Bigger] had committed a sex crime was to pronounce the death sentence” (243).
While I want to read this aspect of the novel with more empathy, I can’t get past the way in which Wright treats his female characters as completely disposable. In order to take seriously what I think Wright is trying to do in his discussion of Bigger’s sexuality, and, I think it’s crucial that Wright acknowledge that rape is also “what one did to women,” particularly for Bessie’s character.
Attention to the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality in Bessie’s case is especially important. Just as the language of the introduction describes Mary’s rape as only a possibility, it is similarly cagey about what happens to Bessie, commenting that “Bigger essentially rapes his girlfriend Bessie before killing her” (xviii). I think the language falls short of the reality here, too. Wright (as well as the man who wrote this edition’s introduction) seems to see the female characters in Native Son only as objects of sexual violence. This unwillingness to write agentive women impoverishes the novel. Closer attention to the female characters—and particularly the violence that Bessie faces because of both her race and her gender—would handle these characters’ intersectional identities more thoughtfully. Wright asks his readers to see how racism affects Bigger’s masculinity; there’s much he leaves unsaid about Bessie’s identity. In the final third of the novel, I am curious to see how the theme of gender and sexuality continues to play out.