Oppression by the Oppressed

When reading Native Son and coming across a character like Bigger, I want to feel empathy. I want to understand his plight and the way that his life as a black man in 1930s Chicago has contributed to his current position; however, I find it extremely difficult to do so with this character. He pushes the limit of what actions can be justified by a life plagued by poverty and the social consequences of blackness. His hatred of and treatment of women and relief in rape and murder are deplorable. I think this concept particularly shines through in Bigger’s rape and murder of Mary Dalton. Mary is a young, rich white woman. This country has a long history of white women engaging in sexual relationships with black men then claiming to have been raped by them. This trope is alluded to throughout the novel as well–even Bessie proposes that the police will think that Bigger raped Mary. When first meeting Mary’s character, I thought this might be the situation we see play out. However, that is not what happened. There was no affair, and Mary did not accuse Bigger of having been inappropriate with her or raping her. Bigger raped Mary, and she was written as having asked for it for having been drunk and promiscuous. There was no nuance here, and I myself did not see race relations as being as critical to the moment as I did gender relations, toxic masculinity, and male violence. Of course, there’s the fact that Bigger hated Mary for being who she was as a result of her identity as a rich white woman and feeling a release in her death as he felt that he had hurt the right person as a result of this identity, but it almost feels as though Bigger could have been of any race or background perpetrating the same kind of violence against Mary in this moment. 

Maybe this inconsistency in Bigger’s character has been intentional–at least up to this point in the novel. Perhaps Bigger was made to be hated and irredeemable in order to demonstrate that race is still at play and still matters, even in the most extreme case. This oppressor, however bad, is still oppressed himself. It’s true that Bigger’s life could have been entirely different if he were born a rich white man, and thus, the chain of actions and circumstances that led him to the point of killing Mary and Bessie would not have taken place. However, using the opposite logic, I’m not entirely convinced that another black man in his same position, stricken by the same circumstances, would have made the same choices.

2 thoughts on “Oppression by the Oppressed”

  1. When I was young, I remember my dad, an African-American man who grew up in Virginia, telling me a story about a white woman at a train station. My dad remembered seeing the woman struggling with her bag at this station late at night. My dad, one of the kindest and most generous people I have ever known, chose not to help her for fear of what consequences he might face by being seen with her at such an hour. Now, of course, Bigger’s decision to kill Mary is much different than my father’s decision not to help this woman. However, I think both moments show that race plays a role in the decision making of African-Americans, particularly around white women. I agree that Bigger’s decision is unjustifiable, but I believe his race is foundational to his decision. When Bigger is with Mary and Jan in the car, he is very aware of his black skin–he makes reference to it repeatedly. At the moment that Mrs. Dalton walks into Mary’s room, certainly Bigger is again aware of his skin color. Had no one walked into the room while he was with Mary, the argument that race is important seems much less clear, as you pointed out. Yet, when Mrs. Dalton walks in, the trope you introduced about white women and black men is so present that race seems to be foundational to the decision to kill. Bigger’s decision is unjustifiable but race is a primary cause.

  2. I completely agree that Bigger’s actions are unjustifiable and that initially it is hard to see the relevancy of his race in understanding his violent actions. I think this is the exact issue Wright wants audiences to wrestle with. Although no one would condone Bigger’s actions, we can all recognize the negative circumstances that consumed him. I also agree that his actions speak more to his psyche and emotional instability than they do directly to his identities, but they are all interconnected.

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