Oppression by the Oppressed

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.

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.