Duality in Native Son

While Native Son is not my favorite book, Wright does an excellent job of depicting the duality of humanity and the different binaries prevalent in American culture. Wright tells a story about the negative implications of racial prejudice, toxic masculinity, and financial poverty through the heinous, violent, and erratic behavior and story of Bigger. Initially when reading Book One, I did not understand why Wright considered Bigger’s behavior specific or unique to the Black male experience. While reading Book One I considered the majority of Bigger’s actions to be consistent with toxic masculinity or the desire to conform to ideals of manhood promoted in dominant culture. Between his interactions with the Dalton’s, his friends, and Mary, Bigger exhibits violent behavior at times he feels he lacks control. Bigger actions are most extreme at times he feels people are challenging him, especially when he feels his masculinity is challenged. Because Bigger’s self-image is so distorted by societal prejudice, he does not know himself, and resents himself. This resentment is worsened by the struggles he faces because of his identity as a poor Black man from the SouthSide of Chicago. While the audience should obviously be disturbed by Bigger’s actions, even I found myself feeling sympathetic for Bigger at times- as it was clear he was set up to fail. All humans lack the freedom to choose who they are born as, and Bigger’s self-resentment was the consequence of being born into a life with no options, or only bad ones. It is often easy to judge the choices and actions of others when we have not been in their same position. While Bigger’s actions are heinous and inexcusable, the conditions of his life were far less than ideal and he was becoming mentally unhinged due to his lack of control.

Though initially it was hard for me to see anything but toxic masculinity, it is evident that Bigger faced many of his challenges not due to his gender and identity issues, but also because of his race. Bigger’s blackness in a time filled with blatant racial discrimination, certainly contributed to him living a life with less than ideal conditions. I believe that this intersection of Bigger’s identities represents Wright’s conception of struggles unique to Black male experience. Wright is able to depict both the struggles of man, that make audiences sympathize, and the worse of man, that makes audiences uncomfortable. This depiction of the duality of the human experience is what makes the book have depth.

Understanding Bigger’s Humanity through Naturalism

While reading Native Son, I often felt rather uncomfortable, especially during the scenes where Bigger murders/rapes Mary and Bessie. His treatment towards women is horrific, and his general view of humanity is equally frightening. His sympathy for dictators simply because they have the ability to overpower others shows that he views the human spirit not as a method to empathize with others, but to dominate his fellow man. Bigger’s conceptions of humanity are objectively appalling, but in order to understand why he thinks in such a flawed way, we must consider how the genre of naturalism defines humanity and how human interaction functions within this genre. If we delve further into definitions of naturalism, I believe we can more fully understand Bigger and what brought him to such a bleak outlook on human beings.

The genre of naturalism places a great emphasis on the inner beast of humanity, which can clearly be seen in Bigger’s inner monologue in Native Son. In the naturalist genre, the inner beast is loosely defined as the personality that comes out of someone when they give in to their base desires, which are typically lust and greed. And Bigger ultimately falls victim to both of these inner cravings in the novel. First, Bigger craves sex when he brings Mary up to her bedroom; he does not care that she is drunk and unable to consent because she exists in his mind merely as an opportunity for him to have sex. He treats Bessie in a similar fashion, using the money he gives her to support her alcoholism as a means to receive sexual favors. Bigger also attempts to feed his inner cravings for greed by manipulating these women as well. After he accidentally kills Mary, he sees her death as an opportunity to extract wealth out of others, and again uses Bessie as a means to achieve his inner desires, as he tries to force her into collecting the money for him. But why does Bigger only see sex, wealth, and ultimately murder as means of lifting himself out of his dreadful existence? Naturalism argues that these base desires can be equated for traditional means of spiritual fulfillment when the circumstances of one’s environment imply a predetermined fate, which is exactly what Bigger feels he faces.

Bigger does not attempt to find solace in things like education, honest work, or religion because he does not believe these institutions can bring him to any reality better than the one he currently lives in. He refuses education when Mrs. Dalton offers to send him to night school, to work honestly when he decides to sleep with and kill Mary, and to pray for himself when asked by his mother and the preacher. Bigger’s continuous refusal to use traditional means of uplifting one’s status and spirit reflects that he does not believe he can improve his own situation. And this is why Bigger uses his naturalistic inner beast as an escape; he does not think his situation can improve, so he uses the methods of fulfillment given to him at birth. Naturalists argue that the desires for sex and wealth are innate, and that they continually arise out of humans when they feel their existence is not malleable. I do not think that this naturalist interpretation of Bigger’s character should make readers evoke for sympathy for his character, as he commits several heinous and unforgivable crimes. But I do believe we can better understand how Bigger got to this point of being irredeemable by focusing on these naturalist tropes of human nature. When people grow up feeling there is no escaping their bleak existence, I am sure they are more tempted to give in to base desires for sexual fulfillment and greed than those who grow up feeling they have multiple avenues of opportunity in their lives. Like the rat in the beginning of the novel, Bigger felt he had no avenues of escape. So while his actions are horrifying, they are not unpredictable if we apply traditional readings of naturalist texts to his situation.

Native Daughters?

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.

An Argument For Empathy

Something that I’ve learned in my Psychology classes is that it’s hard for children who grow up in impoverished and tough conditions to develop certain social skills (including empathy) because they are thrown into a situation where they have to adapt for survival. Another reason why it’s hard for children who grow up in impoverished conditions to learn empathy is because sometimes their parents are often out of the home or are simply despondent due to their own fight with poverty.

As such, they don’t have the first social connection to mirror empathy with.
Then, you have to add on top of that, the racialized part of poverty. Not only are you adapting for survival in poverty, you are also adapting to survive racism. The home is not the only place where you’re supposed to learn empathy. It’s in daily interactions, with friends, with teachers, with strangers. The matter of the fact is, if you’re Black, you are often not shown empathy. There’s often no empathy in your classrooms, in meetings with strangers, and sometimes, there’s no empathy in your friendships either.

Bigger Thomas represents all of that. He is a poor Black person on the Southside of Chicago. Although we do not know much about his mother, we can infer from their interactions that while she is warm in certain circumstances (if you could call someone making you breakfast warm), she is also harsh on and critical of Bigger. Vera has no sympathy or empathy for Bigger and oftentimes disparages him and his capabilities. The only person in Bigger’s family who treats Bigger with something akin to empathy (if idolatization can be called empathy) is Buddy. In Bigger’s friendships with Gus, Jack, and G.H., there is no empathy for Bigger. Instead there is fear and the mutual connection of robbing people. Finally, in Bigger’s interactions with white people, there is sometimes sympathy but not empathy.

In transformative justice, there is the question of how do we go about healing in a way that is survivor centered, even when the survivor of harm has caused harm themselves. In most of the books I’ve read for my Prisons and Policing class and Transformative Justice class (both taught by Pam Butler), it’s been seen that there are survivors who have committed harm who still get the help that they need (as in they aren’t turned away). For example, a woman was seeking help through a transformative justice process because she had been sexually abused by a family member. Only for her to realize and admit that when she was a teenager, she sexually assaulted her own sister. Those running the process did not pack up their bags because she was still a person with a great need who wanted to get better and better her life. This is something that we need to understand when we talk about Bigger.

What Richard Wright is asking us to do is essentially flex our empathy muscles. So many people say that they ‘empathize’ with those who live in poverty and with Black people. Yet, that ‘empathy’ always seems to run out at some point. Sometimes over simple things. Often, once a poor Black person commits a crime (or is accused of committing a crime) people take off their ‘empathy’ hats and say “Oh, they’re a criminal, they deserve all the racism and harm that comes towards them”. This strips Black people of their personhood and their deserving of empathy even when the person has not actually committed the crime they are accused of. Knowing this, people who are deemed criminal deserve empathy. To be more specific, impoverished Black people deserve empathy, even when they are deemed criminal. That’s a hard thing to say, especially when it seems like certain people are the embodiment of evil itself. However, if we strip impoverished Black people deemed criminal of their empathy, we are punching downwards. We are not challenging the system that dehumanizes and punishes impoverished Black people. In fact, we are feeding into it.

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.

Don’t Be Salty

In James Baldwin’s “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies,” the prolific author argues that “[n]o one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country.” (177). In the process of oppressing primarily Black and Indigenous populations, white Americans made “a moral choice” to become white (Baldwin 180). According to Baldwin, this choice has made white Americans “as speechless as Lot’s wife—looking backward, changed into a pillar of salt” (180). Re-reading the essay, I was struck by the parallel between Baldwin’s description and another wife of Lot: Mrs. Dalton from Richard Wright’s Native Son

Wright makes a concerted effort to emphasize Mrs. Dalton’s whiteness. Mrs. Dalton’s “face and hair were completely white; she seemed to [Bigger] like a ghost,” and “her grey eyes looked stony” (49). Mrs. Dalton wears “flowing white clothes,” and often keeps a “white cat” by her side. Truly, the woman is entirely blanched of pigment. Above all, Mrs. Dalton––a living pillar of salt––is allegedly the most sympathetic character to Black Americans. 

Like Lot’s wife, Mrs. Dalton is unmoving in her whiteness, to the point where she is incredulous to her maintenance of systems of oppression. Bigger is clear: even Mrs. Dalton only “wanted him to do the things she felt that he should have wanted to do [emphasis added]” (Wright 61). Although Mrs. Dalton prompts her husband to donate millions to charities, sends a single Black man to college, and is generally amicable towards Bigger, she is blind to the fact that her wealth is exploited from Black families. She and her husband employ Bigger at a wage of $25 per week, which is ostensibly generous until the reader realizes that their daughter has a discretionary budget of thousands of dollars (equivalent to hundreds of thousands today). 

It is easy to read a novel like Richard Wright’s Native Son and talk about Blackness. It is harder, yet equally necessary, to talk about the construction and preservation of whiteness in the novel and in our own society. One of the most important lessons that we might draw from Wright’s characterization of Mrs. Dalton is that even the most well-intentioned white Americans uphold and profit from systemic anti-Blackness. It is not enough to merely post anti-racist infographics on Instagram. Black activists have popularized a number of vital ways for white Americans to be more ethical: donate to mutual aid funds; buy from Black-owned businesses; etc. While heeding those calls, white Americans might also learn from Native Son and investigate the sources of their income. 

If white readers like myself and many of my classmates do not turn our critical lens inward, we make the grave error of being blind to our own actions. However, as we know from our novel’s introduction, Wright’s overarching project in Native Son was to speak with “forthrightness and independence” to both Black and white Americans, whom he believed “continued to cling to a range of fantasies about the true nature of the relationship between the races.” Even today, many white Americans cling to the fantasy that implicit bias trainings and a Democratic President will automatically undo centuries of oppression. While these liberal projects (like Mrs. Dalton’s) are well-intentioned, they are not enough. We must ask ourselves probing questions. Are you invested in a real-estate firm that profits from red-lined neighborhoods? Do your parents own a business that pays starvation wages to POC? Does your University invest in private prisons (hint: it does!). These are just examples, but my point is simple: we must not be frozen in our privilege. We must break free from the salt that encapsulates us.

Fear & Hatred of the Black Body

The black body has been a site of contention and violence for many centuries. Richard Wright’s Native Son explores this theme through his protagonist, Bigger Thomas, whose stream of consciousness reveals his own self-loathing. Bigger’s self-hatred is almost immediately detectable and transforms into suicidal ideation where he wishes to “blot out” himself and others (70), believing his life to be meaningless (105). This pattern is stark and expansive in the course of the novel, yet I would like to focus specifically on how self-hatred manifests itself physically in the black body. This disgust and shame speak to a larger motif of how tangible blackness (skin, shape, size) can become the tool by which we target black bodies as a near continuation of the subjugating and devastating will of racism.  

The hatred Bigger harbors seems to initially stem from his insecure masculinity. He is denied virility and in rebellion, destroys. My argument is centered on the notion of the duality of masculinity and femininity. For Bigger, masculinity and femininity exist in a mutually dependent binary where one defines the other. He describes himself as unacceptably hysterical (among other contextualized feminine vocabulary). He often feels “an urgent need to hide his growing and deeping feeling of hysteria” (28). The phallic power in destroying femininity (as symbolized by Mary and Bessie) becomes the vice by which Bigger identifies himself and revolts against his own castration.

I suggest that in addition to lacking phallic power in his self-concept, Bigger may also hate his body. Bigger is often “conscious of every square inch of skin on his black body” and exclaims that his black skin carries a “badge of shame” (46, 67). This shame directed towards the blackness of his body is not only taught by his family (when they avoid seeing each other dressing/undressing) but enforced because of an idealized and protected white body. Murder, in a twisted way, becomes the tactic by which Bigger learns to cope with his intense fear and hatred of his own body. The self-loathing predisposes his violent nature, and he acts in a way that he believes will restore his supposed broken masculinity and shameful black skin. His crime soon becomes a “barrier of protection between him and a world he feared” (105). His body no longer is a target of society’s aggression, but he has redirected it to serve his murderous impulses. This release is so much so that he feels a “lessening of tension in muscles; he had shed an invisible burden he had long carried” (114). This ease and softening after feeding his violent urges affirms the idea that his body has secured his power as a man. His body, despite initially being the object of his disgust, becomes the tool by which Bigger accomplishes masculinity as if it’s something to be gained. 

The fear and hatred of the black body as the ultimate symbol of blackness is not only something I have witnessed within my reading of Native Son, but also in my research regarding race-based origins of fat-phobia, weight stigma, and diet culture (if you are interested further, I suggest Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings, https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/42129163). Obviously, the fear of blackness is more complex than its manifestation in a tangible body, but I feel that the shame of black bodies (both innate and enforced) becomes one catalyst by which racism evolves.