The Shame of the Family

We have spent considerable time over the past few weeks discussing sexual assault in Native Son and rightfully so; the sexual assault in the novel overshadows some of the claims Wright attempts to make about race in America. Yet, while this discussion is important, we have not spent as much time discussing the effects of racialized sexual assault throughout history on the Black family. At the beginning of Native Son, Wright describes the Thomas family as they dress for the day, saying, “The two boys kept their faces averted while their mother and sister put on enough clothes to keep them from feeling ashamed; and the mother and sister did the same while the boys dressed” (Wright, 4). The Black body elicits shame within the family, seemingly tearing the bonds between its members apart. The Black female body, victimized by rape especially in the antebellum South, and the Black male body, oversexualized and marked by castration, become shameful even on a familial level. Bigger’s relationship to his family is marked by shame, from the opening scenes in the Thomas home to their visitation in his cell toward the end of the novel. Interestingly, Baldwin’s description of Native Sonas an opposite extreme to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (through the main characters, Bigger and Uncle Tom) holds for this example; Uncle Tom’s Cabin attempts to reveal the immorality of slavery due to physical breaking of familial bonds in the slave trade whereas Native Son showcases these frayed bonds without the physical separation.

Though the Thomas family dynamics remain in the background of the text, it is hard to imagine that Bigger’s familial upbringing does not impact his decision-making. However, to Wright’s ultimate point, that familial upbringing was likely impacted by an oppressive society that crushed Bigger’s parents as much as it crushes him. Though I ultimately am not quite sure what to make of the family dynamics in Native Son other than seeing the remnants of slavery in the shame of the Black body, I think this will be an important theme to track over the course of the semester. Considering that Baldwin was raised by a stepfather who hated him and trampled on his aspirations, I will be interested to see whether his background is reflected onto the family dynamics of his characters or if he attempts to make a claim about the Black family through his fiction writing.

One thought on “The Shame of the Family”

  1. I think your point on the sexualization and/or violence done to black bodies is an excellent and necessary one. I think this is a conversation that Baldwin continued, as seen in the beginnings of “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” in which he rejects “white Christianity’s demonization of the black body but also lambasted the black church’s inability or unwillingness to counter a deeply embedded self-loathing” (Field 439). It seems as if the church in Baldwin’s novel torments the black body as a sight of potential sin, and thus is directly entangled with John’s emerging sexuality. Baldwin seeks to celebrate and santify the body in his understanding of identity, fighting against the shame that Wright narrates.

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