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.

Freedom and Black Existentialism in Native Son

While reading Native Son by Richard Wright and observing the class discussions, it is clear to me that there are some tensions surrounding Bigger Thomas’ control (and lack thereof), freedom, and humanity. I want to probe these topics further by examining Bigger through the lens of Black Existentialism. In mainstream Existentialism, which was shaped significantly by French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre in the mid 20th century, there is a clear emphasis on the individual. Sartre argues, in his essay “Existentialism is a Humanism,”that humans are not born with an essence or purpose, but rather form themselves through their unique experiences. In other words, no common thread links us and we are fully responsible for ourselves. Black Existentialism critiques this view, though, because it often fails to take into account the full spectrum of systematic oppression holding some individuals back more than others. For example, the black community in the U.S., and their more acute connection to racial violence, death, and exclusion from society, forms individuals in a profound way. 

Some questions arise, then. Do Bigger’s actions carve out a space where he can be free, or do they take away whatever freedom he had (if any)? To what extent is Bigger an example of a person imbued with real dignity and control over his life? For this blog post, I will focus on the first question. 

To answer the first question, I think it is important to define what freedom really means. On the one hand, freedom is a multitude of choices and the ability to live out your desires. On the other hand, freedom is the ability to not have to do something. For example, in a safe and just society, you would have freedom from constant fear. Since Bigger lives in a society where most of his “freedoms from” are not taken care of, he values actions that fulfill his immediate desires and give him choices. He describes this feeling after the murder of Bessie: “He had brought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply… never had his will been so free…” (239). Bigger claims that killing two women were moments of true freedom. Through a black existentialist lens, one could argue that Bigger is acting freely because he is forming his identity in opposition to a society that socially and structurally oppresses him. 

However, I think the lens of black existentialism finds the type of freedom Bigger attains reprehensible. One key tenet of black existentialism is the belief that one can find meaning through community, even if the community is shared oppression. But Bigger isolates himself completely from everyone in the story. He refers to them as “blind,” kills a white woman and a black woman, and barely bats an eye when his actions result in the unfair stop and searching of all the black men in his neighborhood. So, he does not really seem to have a identity rooted in love or community for anyone. This total disregard for other people, as well as the real racism he faces, put him in a situation not unlike the rat in the first pages, fated for an early death.