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.
Two-thirds of the way into Native Son, seeing how Wright writes female characters—especially Bessie— makes me ask how a different treatment of gender and sexuality would address the impact of racism on women’s lives. I recognize the importance of showing how racism prevents Bigger from developing a healthy masculinity, but I remain frustrated with how the novel handles issues of gender and sexual violence. Engaging not just with racism and male identity, but also with racism and female identity, could offer a more compelling portrait of how the intersecting identities of race, gender, and sexuality shape these characters’ lives.
In “Flight,” Wright shows Bigger considering what “rape” means in his life: “Yes, he had raped [Mary]. Every time he felt as he had felt that night, he raped. But rape was not what one did to women,” and goes on to describe rape as the hatred Bigger feels in his environment (227). Passages like this one make it difficult for me to connect with Wright’s project. Bigger’s anxiety to assert his own masculinity is constantly part of the text in language about Bigger’s sense of “hysteria” and in phallic images like knives. To an extent, I understand Wright’s choice to describe the effects of racism with language of sexual violence, because the threat of violence against Bigger looms over the text. As Bigger knows, “[t]o hint that [Bigger] had committed a sex crime was to pronounce the death sentence” (243).
While I want to read this aspect of the novel with more empathy, I can’t get past the way in which Wright treats his female characters as completely disposable. In order to take seriously what I think Wright is trying to do in his discussion of Bigger’s sexuality, and, I think it’s crucial that Wright acknowledge that rape is also “what one did to women,” particularly for Bessie’s character.
Attention to the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality in Bessie’s case is especially important. Just as the language of the introduction describes Mary’s rape as only a possibility, it is similarly cagey about what happens to Bessie, commenting that “Bigger essentially rapes his girlfriend Bessie before killing her” (xviii). I think the language falls short of the reality here, too. Wright (as well as the man who wrote this edition’s introduction) seems to see the female characters in Native Son only as objects of sexual violence. This unwillingness to write agentive women impoverishes the novel. Closer attention to the female characters—and particularly the violence that Bessie faces because of both her race and her gender—would handle these characters’ intersectional identities more thoughtfully. Wright asks his readers to see how racism affects Bigger’s masculinity; there’s much he leaves unsaid about Bessie’s identity. In the final third of the novel, I am curious to see how the theme of gender and sexuality continues to play out.