James Baldwin: A Prodigal Son?

I found James Baldwin’s reflections on the tumultuous relationships with both of the father figures in his life in “Notes of a Native Son” and later in “Alas, Poor Richard” to be some of the more powerful pieces we have read thus far. It is especially striking to consider the similarities between his stepfather David Baldwin and mentor Richard Wright, as they both had profound impacts on the life and work of James Baldwin long after they passed. 

To say the least, Baldwin did not have a picturesque relationship with either of these individuals. Baldwin recalls only one time in all his life with his stepfather David in which they had really spoken to one another. Baldwin adds that he cannot remember a time when he and his siblings were happy to see their father return home (79). He experienced a similar distancing with Wright, noting that their dialogues “became too frustrating and acrid” (265). Tragically, Baldwin reconciled with neither paternal figure in his life before they died. 

I would argue that Baldwin saw a bit of himself in both David and Richard, and this realization of similarity is part of the reason for their tense relationships. By this I mean, Baldwin watched how qualities of these father figures eventually led to their deaths, in a physical sense for his stepfather and a metaphorical one for his mentor as an author. I think he feared that, because of their likeness, he might face a similar fate. Baldwin explains that David “lived and died in an intolerable bitterness of spirit” that frightened him “to see how powerful and overflowing this bitterness could be” and it was now his (65). In a similar vein, of Wright Baldwin says, “They despised him… It was certainly very frightening to watch. I could not help feeling: Be careful. Time is passing for you, too, and this may be happening to you one day” (266). For Baldwin, David and Wright are comparable not only in their relationship to him as some sort of distorted father figure but also in that they serve as a warning. Yet, despite the turmoil they caused him, he longs for their presence. Baldwin laments, “Now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now” (84). Similarly, he speaks to Wright: “Whoever He may be, and wherever you may be, may God be with you, Richard, and may He help me not to fail that argument which began in me” (258). This desire for reunion with David and Wright evokes for me the image of the prodigal son… has he returned home?

White Savior Complex

Throughout Richard Wright’s Native Son, Bigger suffers the effects of visible displays of racial prejudice and violence. However, there is the less obvious and more subtle harm from characters acting with a White Savior Complex, as Bigger ultimately experiences more subjugation from their “progressive” attitudes. The White Savior Narrative has been an ongoing trope in literature and film, featuring a heroic white character that swoops in to save a POC from their circumstances. Organizations and programs that seek to help those in need with the conscious or unconscious mentality that they are superior to the people they are helping also fit under this complex. The privilege they hold combined with their lack of genuine understanding and empathy, results in their efforts having a more negative than positive impact, because It is ultimately serving the white ego and eliminating any guilt they might have felt. For example, to make up for the fact that Bigger cannot go to aviation school and earn a job himself, the white relief aid gives Bigger a job and expects gratitude for this consideration. However, Bigger still feels the loss and asks, “Why they make us live in one corner of the city? Why don’t they let us fly planes and run ships?” (20).

This is also evidenced by the dichotomy between Mr. Dalton’s charity and the central role he plays in the systematic oppression of Black communities. “You see Bigger, I’m a supporter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People” (53). This appearance is accepted by white people in their community as Peggy tells Bigger about the support “his people” are receiving and that “Mrs. Dalton’s always trying to help somebody” (55). However, in court when Max questions Mr. Dalton about donating money, he is publicly accused with charging higher rent for worse conditions and under his excuse that “I think Negroes are happier when they’re together” (327).

Mary and Jan also operate under a White Savior Complex. Their misguided attempts of helping Bigger are done in a demeaning manner that ultimately makes Bigger feel more afraid and emasculated. The message their behavior conveyed to him was that he could only feel like a man in their presence because they allowed it. “Mary said ‘After all I’m on your side now.’ What did that mean? She was on his side. What side was he on?” (64). Mary tries to align herself with Bigger’s problems without even getting to know him. Mary is infatuated with the idea of helping people but does not actually have a personal connection to the community. She says, “No, I want to work among Negroes…When I see what they’ve done to those people it makes me so mad” but then on the next page she says “Say, Jan, do you know many Negroes? I want to meet some” (77). She is only concerned with her personal gratification and does not listen when Bigger said he was uncomfortable eating with them. Jan struggles to come to terms with his White Savior Complex towards the end of the novel when he tells Bigger in jail, “I was kind of blind…in a certain sense, I’m the one who’s really guilty” (287).

The question I pose is: Does Max resolve the White Savior Complex? Max asks Bigger questions no one else had ever bothered to ask, because he wanted to get to know him and understand his motives on a more personal level. He also admits from the beginning he is unsure if he can save Bigger but tries regardless and ultimately wants Bigger to fight for himself and his life. This is an on-going question today as we evaluate white advocacy and question what spaces of activism white people should enter.

Fear & Hatred of the Black Body

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.