A Little Post-Mortem Privacy, Please

I can’t run from the horror of how our protagonist’s story unfolds in the books “Fear” and “Flight” of Richard Wright’s Native Son. Still, beyond this initial horror, Bigger’s overwhelming (and near suffocating) fight for privacy levels to my attention’s surface. In class, we’ve been talking about how Bigger is running from what he considers “femininity,” both around and within himself. He bears a particular hatred for the women in his life (particularly and especially Black women, like Bessie, his sister Vera, and his mother) He associates his own growing “hysteria” with femininity/womanhood, and while he can [inadequately] attempt to hide this “hysteria” from those around him, he cannot run from it within himself.

There are moments in the text when Bigger feels like his inner psyche is hypervisible, like when he is driving Mary Dalton around or even, ironically, when he is around the blind Mrs. Dalton. It is this sense of hypervisibility that Bigger seems to be running from throughout the novel. He wants privacy in his mind; he wants to know that his thoughts are his own. For someone to even attempt to understand his thoughts is to attempt an invasion of his privacy. Think of Mary Dalton. On pages 80-81, Mary, drunk, comments on Bigger’s speech patterns around her, observing, “‘You know, [Bigger,] for three hours you haven’t said yes or no.’” (Wright 80).  She then laughs in amusement at what thoughts may be running through Bigger’s head. Wright writes that “[Bigger] tightened with hate. Again she was looking inside of him and he did not like it.” in this moment of social vulnerability, Bigger’s immediate response to being hypervisible, specifically to a woman, is overwhelming hatred. He takes offense to how Mary perceives him; her attempts to look “inside of him,” according to him, make her worthy of being hated and murdered. After he kills her, Wright notes Biggers thoughts, “Gee, what a fool she was, he thought, remembering how Mary had acted. Carrying on that way! Hell she made me do it! I couldn’t help it! She should’ve known better! She should’ve left me alone, Goddammit!”. Bigger treats an invasion of his mental privacy as a crim punishable by death.

There are other moments when Bigger unlocks a new level of security, secrecy, and privacy in his mind, and the thrill he gets borders on frenzied. The morning after his rape and murder of Mary Dalton, he discovers a new sense of fulfillment at the thought that he can walk around town knowing something that no one else knows. On page 105, Wright writes, “The thought of what [Bigger] had done, the awful horror of it…formed for him for the first time in his fear-ridden life a barrier of protection between him and the world he feared. It was something that was all his own, and it was the first time in his life he had had anything that others could not take from him.” Bigger is able to live without fear, it seems, for the first time in his young life.

Why does Bigger want privacy in his mind? Does he seek control, a space to call all his own? Is he ashamed of the goings on in his head? If so, what is he bearing in his mind that might bring about such shame? I would argue that he has intense shame attached to his own “hysteria”. He cannot handle others knowing that he has real fears and emotions, that he is emotionally impacted by his environment. Because, to him, that is to be seen as less than a man.