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.