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.

Boxers on the Wall: Masculinity and Freedom

In the opening scenes of the novel, Peggy, the Daltons’ housekeeper, shows Bigger to his room, a space formerly occupied by Green, the previous African-American chauffeur. The room was “covered with pictures of girls’ faces and prize fighters” (Wright 58). Peggy does not comment on the content of these pictures, only noting that Green liked pictures, but, when he returns, Bigger stands in the middle of the room looking at them. The narrator says, “There were pictures of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, and Henry Armstrong; there were others of Ginger Rogers, Jean Harlow, and Janet Gaynor” (Wright 59). Though a small detail, these walls symbolize the world in which Bigger feels trapped like the mouse in the opening scene. Of the four boxers whose pictures adorn Green’s wall, three are African-Americans and the other, Dempsey, has both Irish and Cherokee heritage. The three women are white American actresses. Just as Green and Bigger serve as opposites in the text, the boxers and Bigger act as opposites in terms of masculinity. While Bigger often attempts to prove his masculinity using weapons (e.g. knife, gun), the boxers simply prove it through their fists. Though both proofs require violence, the boxers’ fighting is fair and on equal footing whereas the Bigger’s violence is cowardly as he ambushes Gus, Mary, and Bessie.

Over the course of the novel, Wright argues that society forces Bigger to show his masculinity in this way. This argument could lead one to believe that boxers then escape this dilemma. Yet the example of the boxers and of Green show that a comfort in masculinity does not lead to freedom for African-Americans. Green’s comfort in his own masculinity allowed him to work for the Daltons for ten years, during which time “Mrs. Dalton made him go to night school” (Wright 55). The wording is important: Green does not choose to go to night school, but rather Mrs. Dalton “made him go.” This fact shows that Green does not control his own future but rather depends on the help of his white employers. Similarly, the boxer’s dalliance with white society depends on his ability to both continue winning and maintain a socially acceptable demeanor. Jack Johnson, the first boxer mentioned, is a perfect example. The first African-American heavyweight champion, Johnson consorted with and later married white women. His disregard for the color line resulted in the government enforcing the Mann Act against him, forcing him to flee the country. Even though he controlled his aggression, he could not escape the control of powerful white men over his life.

As Bigger’s life falls apart, we could view Green and the boxers as the hope, a path out of the entrapment that Bigger recognizes. Yet Green is powerless as well; he does not have freedom to access the white women he has on his wall. Just as the edges of the paper that display those boxers and actresses do not intersect, so too Green’s masculinity, or self-control, does not intersect with freedom. This is the dilemma of society, the problem against which Bigger lashes out. His solution is radical but his feelings are legitimate.