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.
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.