Wright, Baldwin, and the Color-blind Approach

If you couldn’t tell from the ~everything~ about Native Son, Richard Wright was a Communist. Whether through the characters of Mary and Jan, both of whom treat Bigger with some degree of misguided humanity, or of Boris A. Max, who defends Bigger’s destructive behaviors to a white court (and the novel’s white audience), Wright develops a narrative which sympathizes with many aspects of the Communist ideology–most notably, he necessitates the violent birth of a new, equal world order to replace the broken systems of oppression in place. After all, Bigger only develops an identity after he murders a white woman. 

Baldwin, of course, rejects this argument outright; Wright, and, by extension, Communism, reject the possibility of “an elevation of status, acceptance within the present community” (Baldwin 20). Native Son, says Baldwin, only perpetuates the idea that black and white America cannot coexist in a way which prevents any attempt to fix the situation. And this much, to me, is true: Wright represents a world in which white people rob black people of any control, any autonomy by which to live a full, meaningful life. But are Baldwin’s and Wright’s arguments quite so incompatible?

What really interested me this week was the ways in which Richard Wright depicts the failings of Communist thought: if Mary or Jan personifies Communism, why are they so comically ignorant of Bigger’s feelings? If Max quite literally represents the Communist party, why does Bigger ultimately reject his narrative of class struggle?

Max, in Native Son’s final pages, tells Bigger that “[…] in the work I’m doing, I look at the world in a way that shows no whites and no blacks, no civilized and no savages…. When men are trying to change human life on earth, those little things don’t matter. You don’t notice ‘em. They’re just not there. You forget them” (Wright 424). According to him, Bigger is a product of an eternal class struggle: the racism Bigger faces is only a form of the suppression of the working class.

Bigger disagrees, and even alienates Max in their final interaction. Critics argue that Max acts as a mouthpiece for Wright throughout the book–the avenue by which Wright most directly addresses his audience. But I can’t help but wonder if, in at least this one scene, Wright elects Bigger as his representative. Communism, as Max suggests, advocates for complete equality and the erasure of racial and cultural identity. We see this in South Africa, where the Communist party worked with with Nelson Mandela only after identifying Apartheid as a class, rather than a racial, conflict. 

Wright could have had Bigger accept Communism right before his death, but he doesn’t. Instead, he uses Bigger’s final discourse as an opportunity to criticize Communism’s proposals of a perfect, color-blind world order in a way that coincides with Baldwin’s criticisms of a “new society […] in which inequalities will disappear” (20). As has become increasingly clear over the past year, the color-blind approach disregards the various powers and privileges our society affords white people in a way which only prevents the recognition and reform of the systemic racism which proportionately disadvantages minorities. It is equity, not equality, which truly benefits the marginalized.

For all their differences, I believe that this thought binds Wright and Baldwin: if color blindness is what it takes to “not be racist,” it is not enough. We must acknowledge and dismantle the current power structures; we must strive instead to be anti-racist.

Hard and Soft Determinism in Native Son

Richard Wright’s Native Son follows Bigger Thomas as he navigates the precipitous race relations of 1930s Chicago. Bigger’s impoverished lifestyle and exposure to systemic racism each inform the events of the novel, most notably his murdering both Mary, a wealthy white heiress, and Bessie, his black girlfriend. Native Son and, indeed, Wright himself argue that Bigger’s actions are not his own; rather, the text employs the philosophical doctrine of determinism.
The hard determinism which characterizes Native Son asserts that all behavior is governed by forces beyond our control: free will is only an illusion. It is Bigger’s upbringing, socioeconomic status, and environment, rather than Bigger himself, which decide his fate: he is followed by “the feeling of being always enclosed in the stifling embrace of an invisible force” (150); in Wright’s eyes, Bigger, then, is not responsible for his crimes. I tend to disagree with this approach, because I believe Bigger does exhibit some degree of autonomy and that he is thus culpable for his actions. What Native Son and Wright neglect to address is the existence of soft determinism.
Soft determinism is a level of determinism which allows for the existence of free will, if only a somewhat restricted form. This would mean that Bigger’s lower class origins do not force him to rob as he has prior to the events of the novel, but rather increase the likelihood that he will rob out of desperation. I would argue that we see Bigger demonstrate this free will when he sabotages the robbery of Blum’s shop: he cleary faces a crossroads and makes a decision that, while strongly influenced by numerous internal (e.g. race) and external (e.g. society) forces, is ultimately his own (41).
Likewise, Bigger’s decisions to kill Mary and especially to rape and murder Bessie, while largely influenced by the racial tensions and intense misogyny which shape the landscape of his life, are still just that: decisions. I may be biased because I admittedly find Bigger a reprehensible character (oop), but I do believe that he is responsible for his crimes. For Wright to take a purely deterministic approach seems both heavy-handed and extreme. It only validates Bigger’s constant victim-blaming and sadism in a way that overshadows what I interpret to be the novel’s entire point, which is to expose the ways in which society cruelly manipulates and dehumanizes black lives.