Stuck on the “Rape”

We’ve had a lot of great discussions about Wright’s depiction of sexual assault in Native Son and our experience with the violence against women overshadowing the message of the novel. I was bothered by Wright’s explanation in “How Bigger was Born” when he writes, “So volatile and tense are these relations that if a Negro rebels against rule and taboo, he is lynched and the reason for the lynching is usually called “rape,” that catchword which has garnered such vile connotations that it can raise a mob anywhere in the South pretty quickly, even today” (438). The use of quotations here seems to imply that the rape in the novel was not grounded in the real experience of the novel, but served as more of a symbol of the targeted attacks placed against Black men. Wright continues to connect rape as an experience felt by men instead of against women in the line, “But rape was not what one did to women. Rape was what one felt when one’s back was against a wall and one had to strike out, whether one wanted to or not, to keep the pack from killing one.”

Wright’s use of sexual assault, although problematic, shed light on the larger conversation of sexual politics of race and rape in the 20th Century. He depicts the mob vengeance on any Bigger as a defense of white virginity and sexuality as an excuse to enact violence on Black men. Baldwin discusses the racial tension within sexual violence in, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” that, “within this web of lust and fury, black and white can only thrust and counter-thrust, long for each other’s slow exquisite death.” Angela Davis expands on this idea in her essay “Rape, Racism, and the Myth of the Black Rapist writing, “There were the circumstances which spawned the myth of the Black rapist—for the rape charge turned out to be the most powerful of several attempts to justify the lynching of Black people.” In the same way that Mr. Dalton hides his involvement in aiding systematically racist structures behind performative acts of charity, white men have defended their brutality towards Black men behind the famous justification: “They’re raping our women.” The public’s fear and media sensationalism of this is also portrayed in The Birth of a Nation by having a white woman choose death over the rape of a Black man that must be defended by the heroics of the Ku Klux Klan. This also connects to our discussion of the removal and agitation of Black male sexuality from film.

The false accusations of Black men raping white women can be seen in numerous cases from Emmett Till, the Groveland Four, the Central Park Five, and many others. Wright draws on this reality in “How Bigger was Born” when he writes, “Any Negro who has lived in the North of the South knows the times without number he has heard of some Negro boy being picked up on the streets and carted off to jail and charged with “rape” (455). However with “rape” in quotation marks, Wright applies this connotation of a false allegation it to Bigger’s encounter with Mary where intent to rape was present. Bigger’s actions coincide with the historic and damaging trope that Black men can’t resist their sexual urges towards white women. The implication of the rape’s portrayal is complicated by Rashid Johnson’s decision to remove the rape scenes in his 2019 film adaptation of Native Son because the production team felt “It would’ve hijacked his character. That’s not who he is.” I am left to consider what effect removing the rape would have on my perception of the themes of the novel and my humanization of Bigger.

One thought on “Stuck on the “Rape””

  1. The point you are raising is why Bigger is so problematic as a character. On one hand, Wright is calling attention to false accusations of rape as an excuse to lynch Black men. On the other hand, as you accurately point out, if Mrs. Dalton had not entered the room, that accusation likely would have become a reality. Bigger’s actions, thus, seem to work against Wright’s point rather than toward it. He is justifying that white fear of rape. Yet your post raised another issue for me and that is the way rape is considered from the male perspective. Wright’s description of rape, as you allude to at the end of your first paragraph, seems to refer to a specific type of rape. If we want to discuss rape and race, however, we cannot forget the sexual assault against black women at the hands of white men over the course of the nation’s history. Viewing rape as “what one felt when one’s back was against a wall and one had to strike out” does not seem to fit with the rape of black women by white men in my opinion. Furthermore, in a sense, Bigger is no better than the slave owner; he uses Bessie in the same way. The inability to distance rape from a black, male perspective serves to give some undue level of credence to accusations of Black male rape.

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