I found all the presentations this week interesting, but I particularly enjoyed the one on strangerhood the most. Strangerhood presents the idea of always feeling a sense of not belonging in one’s environment, and just being a stranger. I found this concept being related to Go Tell it on the Mountain interesting because it was something we had discussed during Native Son, and I did not think of the concept of strangerhood in John’s life before the presentations. Seeing the presentation made the connection of John constantly being aware of his strangerhood very obvious. I do wish I had also connected the dots and thought about this earlier. Now, when I think about Go Tell it on the Mountain in light of John’s strangerhood, I think John strangerhood is first clearly stated when Baldwin writes that “the darkness of his sin was in the hardheartedness with which he resisted God’s power.” (Baldwin 31) Here, John feels guilty for not fully taking part in the church and following what he has been told are the church’s teachings. At the same time, he is resistant to accept God’s power, which he has been told, can save him. John has been brought up around the church and its teachings. If he feels guilty for not accepting what he has been taught all his life, by the institution which is supposed to represent the almighty which he must pray to, then he is a stranger to the environment in which he has been raised. Like Bigger, no one in his house really understands him and his thought process. Clearly, John’s strangerhood is a representation of Baldwin’s, which was touched upon in the presentation. Baldwin left everything, including his family, behind in America and moved to France because he was a stranger in the country in which he was brought up. He felt unsafe, from the white folks that he had seen all his life, in his motherland. Since he moved to France, with barely any acquaintances there, he was a stranger there as well.
When reading Native Son and coming across a character like Bigger, I want to feel empathy. I want to understand his plight and the way that his life as a black man in 1930s Chicago has contributed to his current position; however, I find it extremely difficult to do so with this character. He pushes the limit of what actions can be justified by a life plagued by poverty and the social consequences of blackness. His hatred of and treatment of women and relief in rape and murder are deplorable. I think this concept particularly shines through in Bigger’s rape and murder of Mary Dalton. Mary is a young, rich white woman. This country has a long history of white women engaging in sexual relationships with black men then claiming to have been raped by them. This trope is alluded to throughout the novel as well–even Bessie proposes that the police will think that Bigger raped Mary. When first meeting Mary’s character, I thought this might be the situation we see play out. However, that is not what happened. There was no affair, and Mary did not accuse Bigger of having been inappropriate with her or raping her. Bigger raped Mary, and she was written as having asked for it for having been drunk and promiscuous. There was no nuance here, and I myself did not see race relations as being as critical to the moment as I did gender relations, toxic masculinity, and male violence. Of course, there’s the fact that Bigger hated Mary for being who she was as a result of her identity as a rich white woman and feeling a release in her death as he felt that he had hurt the right person as a result of this identity, but it almost feels as though Bigger could have been of any race or background perpetrating the same kind of violence against Mary in this moment.
Maybe this inconsistency in Bigger’s character has been intentional–at least up to this point in the novel. Perhaps Bigger was made to be hated and irredeemable in order to demonstrate that race is still at play and still matters, even in the most extreme case. This oppressor, however bad, is still oppressed himself. It’s true that Bigger’s life could have been entirely different if he were born a rich white man, and thus, the chain of actions and circumstances that led him to the point of killing Mary and Bessie would not have taken place. However, using the opposite logic, I’m not entirely convinced that another black man in his same position, stricken by the same circumstances, would have made the same choices.
In Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, Bigger Thomas commits heinous acts of violence directed toward others, most notably his murder of Mary Dalton and his rape and murder of Bessie. In reflecting on his actions following these murders, Bigger expresses no remorse. He wholeheartedly believes that the initial murder is Mary’s fault, describing, “Hell, she made me do it! I couldn’t help it! She should’ve known better! She should’ve left me alone, Goddammit! He did not feel sorry for Mary; she was not real to him, not a human being” (113-114). In this depiction of Bigger’s emotional state, he attempts to rationalize his brutal murder of Mary by placing the blame solely on how she makes him feel. This recurring sequence of strong emotion followed by excessive violence is a common reaction with this protagonist. In the scene where Bigger brings Mary home and helps her up the stairs, Wright writes, “[Bigger’s] fingers felt the soft curves of her body and he was still looking at her, enveloped in a sense of physical elation. This little bitch! he thought” (83). This character clearly struggles to respond appropriately to his emotions, especially when this emotion is fear.
The reader gets a hint of this early on in the novel when Bigger incites a fight with Gus at Doc’s bar. In anticipation of robbing Blum’s store, Bigger suddenly realizes that he is too afraid and therefore does not want to follow through with the plan that he initiated. Instead of verbalizing his emotions and talking the situation out with his friends to reach an understanding, Bigger self-sabotages their plan and picks a fight with Gus. This results in Bigger holding a knife to Gus’s throat and emotionally abusing him, forcing him to lick the knife and threatening him further. Even though his friends might have understood his hesitation, Bigger chooses to react violently before they have a chance to reach a solution. This displays Bigger’s emotional immaturity and reveals, but does not excuse, why he is able to place so much of the blame for his actions on his victims. By refusing to take any personal responsibility for his emotions and subsequent actions, Bigger tries to avoid dealing with any of the fear and shame that he so often describes. Consequently, this prevents him from treating others as human and allows him to believe that he is above any sort of moral obligation to them.
The sense of fatality that pervades Native Son interested me the most in these last two books. Like in an ancient Greek tragedy, this novel is defined by the looming sense of a determined doom. The first oracle of this doom, for Bigger, is his mother; for the reader, the foreshadowing of the rat scene; and for the white characters, the irony of the furnace.
Bigger tells his mom to “ ‘stop prophesying’ ” after she warns him that someday, he will, overwhelmed by regret, “ ‘set down and cry’ ”(9). Here Bigger does not offer a correction or attempt to see a different path. He simply asks his mom to stop espousing his fate. It is also interesting to note that the first direct depiction of Bigger’s fate mentions a weak, ‘hysteric’ regret. It seems, then, that Bigger is doomed to a fate, not of death, but of emasculation. Perhaps, Wright is attempting to say that there is no difference between death and emasculation? In a patriarchal white supremacy that deals in power, an independent and virile masculinity does provide a certain distance from one’s own pain. This interaction, combined with the line only a page earlier, where Bigger’s mother says “ ‘sometimes I wonder why I birthed you,’ ” connects the female presence in the book with the main character’s awareness of his damned fate (8).
Similarly, the incident with the rat triggers an awareness of a fatalistic tone for the reader. The rat is heard before it is seen as “a light tapping in the thinly plastered walls of the room” (4). Before it is identified, the rat is a nefarious disturbance that looms in the very structure where one is supposed to feel the safest: one’s home. The first drama of the book, where Bigger kills this intrusive rat that has infiltrated their home and then uses its death to terrify Vera, embraces a sense of invasion and fatalism head on, then proceeds to make a mockery of it.
The sense of an ever present doom also extends beyond the novel’s Black characters, though. It resides in the twisted irony surrounding the investigation of Mary’s death, too. The disposal site of Mary’s body is a character in the investigation. As the investigation flounders, “the crimson luster of the fire gleamed on the white men’s faces” (196). In this image, as well as in the smoke scene, the irony makes a joke out of the white men’s search. The literal doom of Mary’s tragic demise burns onto their faces. It is an imminent and tragic discovery, but it is also a twisted joke. No character in Wright’s world seems exempt from the brutality of his fatalism.
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.