In the presentations on Wednesday, we received multiple lenses through which to compare James Baldwin and Richard Wright. One in particular stood out to me: the lens of Black Radicalism. Susan’s presentation on this topic reminded me of the relationship between white communists and Bigger Thomas in Native Son, especially when she explained that the Black Radical ideology necessitates the rejection of “bourgeois ideology,” which is inherently white.
One lingering question after reading Native Son is whether or not the white communists redeem themselves. Early in the novel, it is clear that they cause trauma for Bigger. For example, Mary asks Bigger if he is in a union in front of Mr. Dalton, and she proceeds to ask, “isn’t he a capitalist, Bigger?” Such a question puts Bigger, an economically vulnerable individual, in an impossible position. Throughout Part 1 of Native Son, Mary and Jan ask Bigger to cross professional boundaries, purchased alcohol and drank with him, etc. Any kindness they show him is the bare minimum, as their “bourgeois ideology” and costly protests do little to create meaningful change.
Ultimately, even Max’s deep empathy for Bigger and his wholehearted efforts to defend Bigger from racially-biased, mob justice fail. As Susan pointed out, Wright moved towards a Black Radical Marxism later in life. His portrayal of white Communists in Native Son might be seen as an indicator of this ideology.
Above all, our readings this week indicated the conflicts between Wright and Richard, with Irving Howe noting in “Black Boys and Native Sons” that “now, precisely because Wright had prepared the way for the Negro writers to come, he, Baldwin, would go further, transcending the sterile categories of “Negro-ness,” whether those enforced by the white world or those defensively erected by the Negroes themselves.” I am excited to see if Baldwin is able to do this, and how he will further expand on the Black Radical ideology that is already present in Wright’s work.