Max’s Case for Bigger: Determinism and Accountability

I was reflecting more after class about how “determined” Bigger was in committing his heinous actions. To a certain extent, I agree that his environment put him in a position where it was easier for him to succumb to his inner beast rather than suppress his feelings of lust. But then I asked myself, “how far back can we take this determinism argument?” The answer, based on Max’s argument for Bigger in the court is infinitely, as he takes the argument past Bigger to his ancestors during the era of American slavery. But I feel that there is something very flawed in this rationale, as it removes any sort of personal accountability for one’s actions.

There is an episode of Bojack Horseman (yeah I know I’m really referencing Bojack Horseman, sorry not sorry) where Bojack considers holding himself accountable for some of the cruel things he has done to other characters in the show. Diane, his friend, comforts him by saying that to a certain extent, society and his upbringing are responsible for his actions. In turn, Bojack goes on to reject the notion that he should be accountable for his behavior and continually claims that he cannot a bad person because it is society’s fault that he behaves poorly. Diane tries to tell him this is not what she meant, and that he should still hold himself accountable for his actions, but Bojack ignores her and goes on to say that he and his actions are insignificant specks in the grand scheme of a predetermined fate created by “society.” This is a rather comical example, but I think it points out some of the more absurd implications of Max’s arguments within Native Son and perhaps the absurdity of some of Wright’s own beliefs.

Max, and by extension Wright, argues that Bigger is not responsible for the murders and rapes he commits because living in the slums of Chicago made him a murderer and a rapist. It is not his fault, but his society’s. The world he lives in made him a murderer and a rapist by giving him no avenues of escape. But there were avenues of escape for Bigger. We briefly discussed in class the option of Bigger going into the military and I believe it is also mentioned towards the end of the book, though I think it is quickly brushed aside due to the military being a mainly white institution in Bigger’s eyes. Bigger also commonly used the movie theater, albeit in a disgusting way, as a method of escape from his reality. Throughout the novel, Bigger’s lack of escape is often portrayed as a nervous voice inside his head encouraging him to commit crimes, so there is a certain extent to which Bigger has agency over his actions even if his surroundings provoked him into giving in to his egregious desires. His upbringing was certainly flawed due to his environment, so some blame should be put on his surroundings when determining who and what was at fault for him falling victim to his inner lust for violence. But if we put all of the blame on his surroundings, we end up with a scenario where personal accountability does not matter. If we accept Bojack, Max, and Wright’s hypothesis that our environment is to blame for our actions, we would in turn live immorally without concern for our immorality.

Who lives, who dies, who rebukes society

Knowing the familiarity that both Richard Wright and James Baldwin had with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and having finished reading Stowe’s novel only a week before finishing Native Son, I expected to find a number of similarities and comparable points. For instance, in Wright’s Mr. Dalton, I recognized Stowe’s Miss Ophelia, a New England debutante who hates slavery but recoils at the sight of Tom holding her young white niece. Each character wants to help the race as a whole, but refuse to recognize the personhood of the individual African-American. While this character comparison served as a significant connection between Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son, the most significant comparison was a lack of satisfaction at the end of the book. At the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom succumbs to his injuries and dies beside his former master, George Shelby. Moments later, George knocks Tom’s murderer to the ground with a punch. Stowe writes, “As [George] stood over him, blazing with wrath and defiance, he would have formed no bad personification of his great namesake triumphing over the dragon” (Stowe 355). With such grand language, Stowe likely intended for this moment to give the reader great satisfaction after having to endure the slave owner’s malice in the preceding chapters. And, while initially I felt such satisfaction at the image of Legree on the ground, I wondered why Tom could not have done same. Why does Tom’s satisfaction have to wait until the next life? Tom, the victim, should rise up and strike Legree, not George. Tom’s docility is painstaking; he should not need the magical appearance of George Shelby to defend himself. Though he makes a choice not to fight back, he still seems to lack the agency to address his current situation.

In a similar way, at the end of Native Son, Mr. Max gives a lengthy speech in defense of Bigger, exhibiting the ways in which society has shaped and created this man. The media portrayal of Bigger deserves a rebuke and Wright allows Mr. Max to give it. Yet, again, while Max’s critique is welcome, the African-American character should have made it instead. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, George’s fist carries the indignation of knowing his friend was murdered. Yet Tom’s fist would have carried so much more: the pain of being separated from family, the beatings for no reason, the purchase of his body as a good at the auction block, the toll of making decisions between one’s own survival and the survival of others. Though the punches might have felt the same to Legree, one had the potential to rebuke society more personally. Similarly, Mr. Max’s speech elaborated on the fact of inequality and the treatment of African-Americans in the country. Yet what Mr. Max describes is present whereas what Bigger could describe is personal. Bigger’s fear and anger hold more weight than a simple recognition of the situation. 

Yet, of course, Tom’s punch and Bigger’s speech are impossible. These actions would force them to do something they, by their nature, cannot do; it would require them to be human and dynamic. Baldwin’s critique is correct. In refusing to allow for the humanity of their characters, the reader leaves unsatisfied. More importantly, Tom and Bigger’s deaths seem to have no profound effects on their environments. Bigger’s actions make life worse for African-Americans in the city and Tom’s death leads more slaves toward a docile lifestyle that offers no solution to their life on earth. Understanding these limitations, we must wonder what impact Native Son could have on the white liberal environment toward which Wright seems to write.

Misc. Thoughts on Realism and Empathy

For class on Wednesday, we read two duelling essays about Native Son. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin decries Wright’s depiction of Bigger as disconnected from the true human condition. Baldwin claims that all protest novels “are fantasies, connecting nowhere with reality.” Wright’s retort, in “How Bigger Was Born,” claims just the opposite. According to Wright, there have been many true “Biggers” in his life, and Wright drew on these acquaintances to create the main character. In class, I felt the need to ‘choose a side’ –– to choose whether or not I believe in a “real” Bigger. This is a pressing question, with implications for how one interprets Native Son. But upon further reflection, I am inclined to ask a different question entirely: regardless of whether Bigger “exists,” did Wright have deep empathy for the character? Did Wright try to create a complex character with the same humanity as himself? 

The reason I ask this question is because of an article I read on a tangentially related topic. In “White Writer,” Sarah Schulman investigates the ethics of white writers who depict characters of color (typically they do so very poorly). The article focuses primarily on one author, a contemporary of Wright and Baldwin: Carson McCullers. A white writer assigned female at birth (though McCullers’ gender identity is hotly contested today), McCullers wrote extensively about the South and racial politics in America. Many critics applaud McCullers thoughtful portrayal of characters of color, and I, too, consider McCullers to have been far ahead of their time. Consider the following passage, which even includes a quote from Richard Wright:

“For almost twenty years, I have tried to understand how McCullers embodied what Richard Wright called “an attitude towards life” that “cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically”—one that enabled her to imagine and create consciousness that was not her own, and also one that was not widely available in other novels or movies.”

I do think that Wright, like McCullers, had deep empathy for Bigger. After all, this is the true focus of “How Bigger Was Born” –– Wright’s own relationship to Bigger; his attempt to bring to life Bigger’s “peculiar type of being and consciousness.” At the end of the day, Bigger is nothing more than a creation of Wright’s imagination, regardless of whether Wright claims to have had realistic source material. Still, Wright attempted to imbue the character with tremendous complexity and humanity. 

I am curious if you all agree. Does it matter whether Bigger “exists”? Did Wright successfully enable us, as readers, to feel the same empathy for Bigger that he did as the author?

Bad Religion

Last semester, in a class about how law and religion had shaped U.S. history, I read a book that discussed religion and lynching. The author spoke of America’s “multiple Christianities,” a phrase that’s stuck with me since. I was reminded of this phrase when I noticed the theme of religion in this week’s reading, and I wonder if it might be a good way to think about how Wright and Baldwin view religion and racism. 

For two men who disagree sharply about how to talk about racism in America, Richard Wright and James Baldwin appear to have a lot in common in their understanding of religion. This convergence of their views really interested me, since James Baldwin’s critique of Native Son is rather scathing, but he seems to share Wright’s opinions toward religion. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” he compares novels like Native Sonunfavorably with missionary stories and tropes of white as holy and black as sinful. He finally writes, “Bigger’s tragedy is… that he has accepted a theology that denies him life” (Collected Essays, 18).

If Baldwin is scornful of how themes of sin and sanctity are presented in Native Son, Wright seems equally so. In the final portion of Native Son, religion becomes an especially pronounced theme. Reverend Hammond and Bigger’s mother try to convince Bigger to turn to prayer while in jail. The preacher tells Bigger, “Be like Jesus. Don’t resist” (Wright, 285). But Bigger has no desire for religion, a repulsion that is compounded by the Ku Klux Klan’s burning cross: “The cross the preacher had told him about was bloody, not flaming; meek, not militant. It had made him feel awe and wonder, not fear and panic” (337). Religion, in Wright’s view, is used for negative purposes—either to suppress Black liberation or to empower white supremacists. This dichotomy between the burning cross and the preacher’s cross underscores that white Christianity and Black Christianity are two different things. Wright articulates this divide in “How Bigger Was Born” as well, commenting that there may as well be “a white God and a black God” (437). 

Wright and Baldwin’s shared cynicism towards religion is an important area of overlap. While they may see “multiple Christianities,” their perspective seems to be that all religion blinds people to the work of racial justice. Seeing how these two different novelists relate to religion, in particular their critique that Christianity is just as segregated as the rest of the United States, is an invitation to think more deeply about how we can engage with these authors as students at a Catholic university and enter more honest conversations about the role of religion in promoting or frustrating racial justice.


I’ll be upfront, I do not know much about fascism. With the election of Donald Trump, we saw an increase in the amount of people fighting against fascism in America. There were so many people afraid of the rise of a fascistic movement in America that they came together in an antifascist movement and were deemed “antifa”. While America has not yet become a complete fascist state, in its colonialism, imperialism, and treatment of Black people, America is well on its way. In knowing this, one would assume that Black people would be at odds with fascism.

However, while reading How Bigger Was Born, Wright talks about how Black Americans praised different fascist movements. On Page 440, Wright writes “I’ve even heard Negroes, in moments of anger and bitterness praise what Japan is doing in China, not because they believed in oppression (being objects of oppression themselves), but because they would suddenly sense how empty their lives were when looking at the dark faces of Japanese generals… I’ve even heard Negroes say that maybe Hitler and Mussolini are all right; that maybe Stalin is all right. They did not say this out of any intellectual comprehension of the forces at work in the world, but because they felt that these men ‘did things,’ a phrase which is charged with more meaning than the mere words imply””.

Wright is writing that the Black people who supported fascist movements, were doing so only because they lacked an understanding of what was actually happening in those movements and that they felt those taking part in fascist movements were doing things and not allowing things to happen to them. However, it is unfair of Wright to assume this. To say that Black people were unable to comprehend what was happening in fascist movements and only supported them is naïve or downright insulting.

Mark Christian Thompson, author of Black Fascisms, would agree. During the time period that Wright is talking about, there were Black people who believed in and supported fascism. Thompson included Richard Wright (interestingly enough), Zora Neale Hurston, Marcus Garvey, George Schuyler, and Claude McKay in the mix.

All these people were well written, well spoken, and well researched individuals of the time. Would they be considered unable to comprehend what fascism really was? To go further, Marcus Garvey is known for saying “‘We [Black people] were the first Fascists. We had disciplined men, women and children in training for the liberation of Africa. The black masses saw that in this extreme nationalism lay their only hope and readily supported it. Mussolini copied fascism from me but the Negro reactionaries sabotaged it’” (Gilroy, 2000).

Fascism is always a looming threat for Black people. However, that doesn’t exempt them from supporting fascist movements and fascist beliefs. Even today, you can see parts of fascism in conversations in Black barbershops or in the hotep movement. People can hear the painting of Black people as the one true race, the ones chosen by God, and the ones with the right to demonize other races.

It is not that Black people do not understand fascism and simply idolize the power fascists have. It is that there are Black people who believe in the tenets of fascism and would like to see Black people be fascists and rule over their oppressors, which James Baldwin sort of touches on in Everybody’s Protest Novel. On page 17, Baldwin writes “What is meant by a new society is one in which inequalities will disappear, in which vengeance will be exacted; either there will be no oppressed at all, or the oppressed and the oppressor will change places.”. James Baldwin illustrates a piece of what some Black people are thinking when it comes to freedom. It’s to either become the oppressor or seek equality for all. For many of those who seek to become the oppressor, fascism is an avenue for that.

Drama Queen Bigger

Society puts Bigger through a lot of hardships simply because of the color of his skin. He is restricted from applying to flying school because it is meant for the white folks. He must live on a certain side of Chicago, which is separate from where the lighter skinned people live. And, he has to listen to his mother’s constant bickering about how useless he is. It seems like Bigger is stuck in a trap created for him. He begins his journey as a small-time crook who steals from stores with his friends, because he has been told all his life that his opportunities are restricted due to the color of his skin. He tries to get out of this trap and create a better life for himself, and his family, by taking a job he is qualified for and serving white people. Yet, he ends up worse off and becomes a murderer and a rapist. It seems that Wright is trying to argue that the criminal Bigger is a creation of society which has undermined his race and forced him to become someone who ends up in jail. However, I think it is not just society, but Bigger’s dramatic nature which turned him into a criminal.  

Bigger seems to be a man who loves drama. Native Son begins with a dramatic scene where everyone in the apartment is trying to catch a rat. All the people in that scene are of the same color, they belong to the same family, and have the same financial problems. Yet, it is Bigger who sees himself as the rat being chased around by society just trying to run away. Not move forward, but away. Bigger is the rat with “black beady eyes glittering, [his] tiny forefeet pawing the air restlessly.” It is because he sees a reflection of himself, that Bigger’s swing of the skillet is a tad late and he first misses the rat. No one else in that room identifies themselves as the rat. He is also rude to his mother who only wants what is best for him – a job. Even if Bigger does not want the job, he can say so politely or just hear what she has to say and not reply while continuing to do his own thing. But, he replies to every insult and advice with arrogance, and even his little sister has to intervene at times. His love for drama is also evident when he creates a plan to rob a store, gets afraid of doing so, and then blames Gus for being afraid to rob it. His treatment of Gus is unnecessary, but Bigger likes to create a scene. He humiliates Gus, instead of just letting him go. If Bigger wanted, he could have ended the drama there. Yet, he “slashed [Doc’s] table and dared him to use his gun.” His love for drama in his life pushes him to become the worst possible version of himself.  

It is because of Bigger’s love for drama around him that he constantly creates it, and then becomes a victim of his own creation. He does not need to drop Mary to her room, or kill her. Bigger’s a man with a flair for drama. He takes one dramatic step after the other, and eventually spirals down to becoming a murderer. 

Blinded by the Light?

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.

Post-Mortem Treatment of Whiteness and Blackness

One of the things that stuck with me from our discussions this week – in a horrific, searing kind of way – was that of the post-mortem treatment of whiteness and blackness. We see this most precisely in Mary and Bessie, who, because of their differing races, face significantly different care post-mortem. During the courtroom proceedings, Wright chooses to include an explicit objectification of Bessie’s body in service of a white woman’s justice. 

Bessie is neglected in life and in death. She explains the social death that characterizes her life to Bigger; she exists solely to work for white people and the white-benefitting systems that oppress her. Bessie’s neglect within the text is authenticated by Bigger, her rapist and murderer: his “eyes widened. He had not thought of Bessie but once since his capture. Her death was unimportant beside that of Mary’s; he knew that when they killed him it would be for Mary’s death, not Bessie’s” (Wright 304). He forgets, again, later on: “He had completely forgotten Bessie during the inquest of Mary” (Wright 331). Bessie’s social death is ignored during her life with Bigger, yet is corroborated in her actual murder by the same person. Not only is Bessie’s own death completely neglected as deserving of justice, but it is further demoralized when her body becomes a spectacle within the courtroom. “They were bringing Bessie’s body in now to make the white men and women feel that nothing short of a quick blotting out of his life would make the city safe again…Though he had killed a black girl and a white girl, he knew that it would be for the death of the white girl that he would be punished. The black girl was merely evidence” (Wright 331). Bessie’s “bloody and black” body is objectified by the coroners/judge/lawyers in justice-seeking for Mary. Bessie, then, is raped twice in death: once by Bigger after her social death, and yet again by the white public and courtroom, after Bigger has murdered her (Wright 331). Mary’s body, contrastingly, is burnt, in a near-cremation. Her corpse, thus, is free from post-mortem objectification. She carries freedom even in death. 

This notion becomes further convoluted because a black body is being used to prosecute a black body. In other words, Bessie’s body, as black, becomes the proof of which to prove male black monstrosity and secure white justice. Bessie becomes an exhibition, for the eyes and cameras of the white people, whom she felt had killed her in social death long prior. An exhibition, in which she would have “resent[ed]” (Wright 331). When viewed through the lens of film critic Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”(1975), the female body is fetishized to displace anxiety of the male spectator. The mechanism by which we view Bessie’s post-mortem body is dissecting, dehumanizing, and objectifying. All processes of which continue in service of racism and whiteness.

A Little Post-Mortem Privacy, Please

I can’t run from the horror of how our protagonist’s story unfolds in the books “Fear” and “Flight” of Richard Wright’s Native Son. Still, beyond this initial horror, Bigger’s overwhelming (and near suffocating) fight for privacy levels to my attention’s surface. In class, we’ve been talking about how Bigger is running from what he considers “femininity,” both around and within himself. He bears a particular hatred for the women in his life (particularly and especially Black women, like Bessie, his sister Vera, and his mother) He associates his own growing “hysteria” with femininity/womanhood, and while he can [inadequately] attempt to hide this “hysteria” from those around him, he cannot run from it within himself.

There are moments in the text when Bigger feels like his inner psyche is hypervisible, like when he is driving Mary Dalton around or even, ironically, when he is around the blind Mrs. Dalton. It is this sense of hypervisibility that Bigger seems to be running from throughout the novel. He wants privacy in his mind; he wants to know that his thoughts are his own. For someone to even attempt to understand his thoughts is to attempt an invasion of his privacy. Think of Mary Dalton. On pages 80-81, Mary, drunk, comments on Bigger’s speech patterns around her, observing, “‘You know, [Bigger,] for three hours you haven’t said yes or no.’” (Wright 80).  She then laughs in amusement at what thoughts may be running through Bigger’s head. Wright writes that “[Bigger] tightened with hate. Again she was looking inside of him and he did not like it.” in this moment of social vulnerability, Bigger’s immediate response to being hypervisible, specifically to a woman, is overwhelming hatred. He takes offense to how Mary perceives him; her attempts to look “inside of him,” according to him, make her worthy of being hated and murdered. After he kills her, Wright notes Biggers thoughts, “Gee, what a fool she was, he thought, remembering how Mary had acted. Carrying on that way! Hell she made me do it! I couldn’t help it! She should’ve known better! She should’ve left me alone, Goddammit!”. Bigger treats an invasion of his mental privacy as a crim punishable by death.

There are other moments when Bigger unlocks a new level of security, secrecy, and privacy in his mind, and the thrill he gets borders on frenzied. The morning after his rape and murder of Mary Dalton, he discovers a new sense of fulfillment at the thought that he can walk around town knowing something that no one else knows. On page 105, Wright writes, “The thought of what [Bigger] had done, the awful horror of it…formed for him for the first time in his fear-ridden life a barrier of protection between him and the world he feared. It was something that was all his own, and it was the first time in his life he had had anything that others could not take from him.” Bigger is able to live without fear, it seems, for the first time in his young life.

Why does Bigger want privacy in his mind? Does he seek control, a space to call all his own? Is he ashamed of the goings on in his head? If so, what is he bearing in his mind that might bring about such shame? I would argue that he has intense shame attached to his own “hysteria”. He cannot handle others knowing that he has real fears and emotions, that he is emotionally impacted by his environment. Because, to him, that is to be seen as less than a man.

Capitalism & Communism: the Framing of Ignorance and Prejudice

In reading Wright’s Native Son, one could infer the implications of ignorance and prejudice related to capitalist views of society. In doing some research, I found that Wright himself was a part of the communist party, and that Native Son was published right after the peak of the first “Red Scare” in the United States, which in my personal opinion cannot at all be named a coincidence. In reading his novel, I believe that Wright’s intention was to utilise the communist party and its philosophies as a tool to contrast and highlight the faults of capitalism.

The two individuals who were either explicitly communist or associated with the party in some way (Jan and Max) are normally treated with prejudice and contempt, even if the points they raise and everything else about them fits society’s norms of what an upstanding American man would be (white, male, straight, good job). Additionally, any mention of the communist party is also met with instant hysteria and immediate distrust in the novel.

We can see an example of this during the trial, when Max questions Mr. Dalton’s decisions to make rent higher for Black people and tries to have him acknowledge that his “charitable” actions are done only to appease his white guilt. This is also seen earlier when Max confronts Mr. Dalton about his decision to send ping-pong tables to the South Side Boys club, exclaiming “Will ping-pong keep men from murdering? Can’t you see?… This boy and millions like him want a meaningful life, not ping-pong.” These examples highlight Mr. Dalton’s ignorance and blindness towards the motivation for his own actions, and how he is inevitably further and perpetuating the cycle of oppression by trying to solve problems with money and helping Black people in a way that still maintains his status as a white saviour. 

A way that Wright uses communism to highlight the flaws of capitalism is in Max’s discussion about why Bigger signed the ransom note with a communist symbol. Max explains to Buckley that Bigger signed the name of the communist party to the kidnap note because he “got the idea from the newspapers,” and because “men like [Buckley] made him what he is… He had heard men like [Buckley] lie about the communists so much that he believed them.” Max ends this point with “if I can make the people of this country understand why this boy acted the way he did, I’ll be doing more than defending him.” From this last sentence, the reader can see the influence of Wright’s political beliefs in positioning the communist party to consist of those who could see through the ignorant and prejudiced schemes of capitalism, and that they recognise the structural motivations behind actions like Bigger’s because they can see the structural inequities and prejudices that drove his actions.