When reading and discussing Native Son, the idea of blindness came up several times. At the end of the text, it is clear that Wright is using blindness to illustrate the effects of systematic racism. The text argues that the depravity of humanity leads to the darkest crimes. Through the Dalton family, another argument emerges: that much of the responsibility for the continual racism falls on the white, rich, liberal who would rather supply surface level fixes than address structural issues. The point is most clear during Max’s testimony when he says, “I plead with you to see a mode of life in our midst, a mode of life stunted and distorted… an existence of men growing out of the soil prepared by the collective but blind will of a hundred million people” (388). In short, Max argues against seeing Bigger’s actions in a vacuum, but rather as a result of the collective actions of white Americans.
I am curious, though, how Wright portrays Bigger’s own journey of realization, of learning to “see.” On the individual level, what is Wright saying about how Bigger evolves throughout the text? Does his blindness persist?
In the last section, the image of sunshine emerges, which acts both as an enlightening and blinding symbol. Bigger explains a moment of revelation while in his cell: “Another impulse rose in him…an image of a strong blinding sun sending hot rays down and he was standing in the midst of a vast crowd of men, white men and black men and all men, and the sun’s rays melted away the many differences, the colors…and drew what was common and good upward toward the sun” (362). The sun in this hallucination experience is “blinding.” But the blindness seems to have a different meaning. On one reading of the passage, the experience is akin to the famous Allegory of the Cave. In The Republic by Plato, he describes a prisoner being dragged out of a cave and into the light. The experience is blinding and difficult, but ultimately reveals to him the true nature of reality (unlike his former reality within the dark cave). So, it is possible that Bigger is dragging himself out of the darkness of his previous beliefs in this passage. If so, Bigger seems to be imagining a world devoid of race, color, or any difference. This is a vision of unity, but also of erasure. I felt uncomfortable reading this passage because Bigger seems to advocate for a world where people are separated out from their particular circumstances and unique attributes. This simplified solution to his problem does not seem like much of a real revelation, or escape from blindness.
I will say, though, that Bigger does have an evolution of some sort. He begins to question the world and reach beyond it. Sitting in his cell he asks a number of questions to himself, including “Why was this strange impulse always throbbing in him when there was nothing outside of him to meet it and explain it? Who or what had traced this restless design in him?” Bigger exercises a type of agency in this line of questioning. He ponders philosophically, expanding his world by testing the limits of his own knowledge. He does not necessarily find answers or profess his guilt in a satisfactory way, but he does, for the first time, “see” outside of himself.
One thought on “Blinded by the Light?”
I definitely agree with your argument that although vague, the idea of blindness/vision may be Wright’s way of making systemic racism a metaphor. It seemed to me, further, that Wright sometimes made this most clear with Max’s closing statement at the end of book three. Wright says, “The central fact to be understood here is not who wronged this boy, but what kind of vision of the world did he have before his eyes, and where did he get such a vision as to make him, without premeditation, snatch the life of another person so quickly and instinctively that even though there was an element of accident in it, he was willing after the crime to say: ‘Yes; I did it. I had to’ ” (Wright 396). With this inclusion, it seems that Bigger was influenced so significantly by systemic racism that his vision became distorted by a murderous impuse.
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