One of the things that stuck with me from our discussions this week – in a horrific, searing kind of way – was that of the post-mortem treatment of whiteness and blackness. We see this most precisely in Mary and Bessie, who, because of their differing races, face significantly different care post-mortem. During the courtroom proceedings, Wright chooses to include an explicit objectification of Bessie’s body in service of a white woman’s justice.
Bessie is neglected in life and in death. She explains the social death that characterizes her life to Bigger; she exists solely to work for white people and the white-benefitting systems that oppress her. Bessie’s neglect within the text is authenticated by Bigger, her rapist and murderer: his “eyes widened. He had not thought of Bessie but once since his capture. Her death was unimportant beside that of Mary’s; he knew that when they killed him it would be for Mary’s death, not Bessie’s” (Wright 304). He forgets, again, later on: “He had completely forgotten Bessie during the inquest of Mary” (Wright 331). Bessie’s social death is ignored during her life with Bigger, yet is corroborated in her actual murder by the same person. Not only is Bessie’s own death completely neglected as deserving of justice, but it is further demoralized when her body becomes a spectacle within the courtroom. “They were bringing Bessie’s body in now to make the white men and women feel that nothing short of a quick blotting out of his life would make the city safe again…Though he had killed a black girl and a white girl, he knew that it would be for the death of the white girl that he would be punished. The black girl was merely evidence” (Wright 331). Bessie’s “bloody and black” body is objectified by the coroners/judge/lawyers in justice-seeking for Mary. Bessie, then, is raped twice in death: once by Bigger after her social death, and yet again by the white public and courtroom, after Bigger has murdered her (Wright 331). Mary’s body, contrastingly, is burnt, in a near-cremation. Her corpse, thus, is free from post-mortem objectification. She carries freedom even in death.
This notion becomes further convoluted because a black body is being used to prosecute a black body. In other words, Bessie’s body, as black, becomes the proof of which to prove male black monstrosity and secure white justice. Bessie becomes an exhibition, for the eyes and cameras of the white people, whom she felt had killed her in social death long prior. An exhibition, in which she would have “resent[ed]” (Wright 331). When viewed through the lens of film critic Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”(1975), the female body is fetishized to displace anxiety of the male spectator. The mechanism by which we view Bessie’s post-mortem body is dissecting, dehumanizing, and objectifying. All processes of which continue in service of racism and whiteness.
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.