Wright, Baldwin, and Afro-pessimism

I’m interested in the question of redemption for Bigger Thomas. He performs some pretty ghastly acts throughout the texts and, equally as poignantly, experiences deep pain and exclusion. The coexistence of these two realities, Bigger as victim and perpetrator, offers a unique nuance to the question of redemption. What could redemption look like for Bigger? In my mind, it would be a combination of remorse, inclusion, and a resounding affirmation of life. This, unfortunately, never occurs. Frank Wilderson and James Baldwin perhaps offer two opposing access points to get at this question of redemption for Bigger Thomas.

The concept of “social death,” for Orlando Patterson, denotes the extreme exclusion and violence of slavery, specifically the enslavement of Black people in America. Frank Wilderson, however, in his essay “Afro-Pessimism and the End of Redemption,” proposes Afro-Pessimism “which is premised on an iconoclastic claim: that Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness. Blackness is social death.” Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas’ saturating exclusion from sociality, language, and institutions of power in this novel seems to provide an example of the Black man who’s Blackness is Slaveness is social death. Indeed, Wright writes of Bigger: “had he not taken fully upon himself the crime of being black?” (296). And as Max later states, “His very existence is a crime against the state” (400). The state, which holds the power, sees Bigger’s life as oppositional to its own. Beyond this, even the concepts and language which are supposed to protect people are contaminated by anti-Blackness. As Max states, “injustice which lasts for three long centuries and which exists among millions of people over thousand of square miles of territory, is injustice no longer; it is an accomplished fact of life” (391). The very definition of justice left Bigger behind. This seems similar to Wilderson’s ideas that the Humanist discourse is premised on Black people’s death and oppression. Furthermore, there is something to be said about the fact that Bigger cannot even defend himself to his jury or his reader. Wright gives the longest and most potentially redeeming words to a white lawyer, who is able to deal in the systems of the oppressor. This only further emphasizes Bigger’s experience of social death. Wright ultimately calls this social death, through Max’s words, a “new form of life,” one that white America does not understand and wants to crush out of guilt (391).

How does social death in Native Son help us understand the arc of redemption? Wright tells us Bigger “had lived outside of the lives of men… their modes of communication, their symbols and images, had been denied him.” After Max’s limited witness and justification of his pain, Bigger hinges his redemption of a certain sense of closure, relation, and understanding with Max. This never comes. In the final scene, “Bigger’s voice was full of frenzied anguish” and “Max’s eyes were full of terror” (429). There is a blindness to Max, the intellectual who negotiates with the system in the language of the system, who “did not turn around” (429). This whole scene leaves Bigger, alone, misunderstood, and angry. He sees himself more fully perhaps, but it does not appear to be a redemption. An Afro-Pessimistic lens might give some insight as to why. WIlderson claims that “social death is aporetic with respect to narrative writ large (and, by extension, to redemption, writ large).” Wilderson’s idea of “redemption as an anti-Black modality” is rooted in the idea that for the Black person in America, social death constitutes a lack of spatiality, reciprocity, and futurity. Wilderson basically claims that there is a whole different temporality that cannot allow for redemption as defined by the current humanist language and discourse. So (I think) for Wilderson, the final scene of Native Son would not be a redemption, but rather an accurate depiction of the temporality of Blackness (as coterminous with Slaveness and social death).

Baldwin, though, offers some contrary thoughts. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin criticizes Native Son for how “below the surface of this novel, there lies, as it seems to me, a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy.” (22) His issue with the book seems to be that it works in the systems and stories that White America uses to exclude Black Americans and enforce social death. On a wider scale, Baldwin offers two lines of reasoning in his general critique of the genre. One that the protest novel is zealous and reductive and another that the protest novel is a mirror of life, rather than accomplishing its lofty goals. He states “the failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended” (23). Interestingly, this critique resembles Jesse McCarthy’s take in “On Afropessimism,” which critiques the reductive nature of Wilderson’s lens. McCarthy contrasts Wilderson’s swooping assumptions about Blackness with more nuanced examples, before ultimately critiquing the isolating and unproductive impulse of the philosophy. Sounds familiar. Does Wilderson then inherit Wright’s legacy? Is Wilderson’s critical work a sort of continuation of the Protest Novel genre which Baldwin critiques? What is the utility of works that so boldly and provocatively hold space for the pain of Black people in America, while still upholding the current system and mythology through negation? Is there any?