CRITICS OF RICHARD WRIGHT'S Native Son have paid much attention to the novel's environment and its power to influence the experiences of those who inhabit it. Understood as the arena in which the consequences of cultural, economic, and ideological practices become manifest, the environment is supposed to offer insight into the lives of individuals within it. Louis Graham, writing in 1972 about what he terms the "white self-image conflict" in Native Son, begins his essay by stating that "there is no question that Richard Wright's Native Son is Bigger Thomas' novel and that Wright places major emphasis on the social, cultural, and economic influences in the development of Bigger's character" ("White Self-Image" 19). Various elements of Bigger's environment--understood as offering insight into the shaping of his internal state of mind or his "character"--have remained a point of focus. More recent claims that Bigger is "a tragic victim of implacable social forces" (Goldstein 120), or that "it is space itself which shapes and limits his agency" (Soto 26) are representative of the tendency to emphasize the external environment's role in shaping Bigger as an individual (or as a stereotype). (1) And while readings of the novel's environment are crucial for understanding Bigger as well as the novel's other characters, the assumption that Bigger is shaped (always in a limiting, rather than productive way) by his environment squelches the possibility of understanding a more reciprocal relationship between Bigger and the world in which he lives.
WE MUST also consider that the novel itself contains a reading of its own environment, and so can be said to anticipate and respond to the kinds of interpretations characterized above. This reading comes by way of Max, who, pleading to the court on Bigger's behalf, draws attention to the social environment, claiming that the "hate" and "fear" which he says underlie Bigger's actions are "woven by our civilization into the very structure of his consciousness, into his blood and bones, into the hourly functioning of his personality" (Wright 400). But the person with the most at stake--Bigger--does not fully understand Max's argument, and it ultimately proves unconvincing and ineffective within the courtroom. Even readers inclined to agree with Max's reasoning may question his belittling references to Bigger as a "boy," or the fact that his argument mainly ignores Bigger as an individual (Wright 383). Through Max, the novel suggests that even those who are aware of and even sympathetic to the realities of Bigger's life are not fully capable of understanding the ways in which those realities influence consciousness, and vice versa.
My argument also centers around the environment experienced by Bigger and, more specifically, the power of the whiteness built into that environment, which is so inescapably and actively present as to be impossible to ignore. But I also argue, with Max's courtroom speech in mind, that paying close attention to the environment is not enough to understand Bigger and his experience fully. This essay, rather than attempting a close analysis of how Bigger's environment has influenced him (as if Bigger is only a passive subject with no will or agency), works toward showing how Bigger's consciousness (formed, in part, by his environment) works to act upon and shape his experience of the world. Drawing on Abdul JanMohamed's incredibly perceptive interpretation, which understands the novel as being "structured like a dream," I argue that the operations of this dream-like environment--the images seen within it, the actions that take place within it, and the acts of thinking that take place within it--are structured, in part, by Bigger's experience of race (77).
THIS EXPERIENCE, which Native Son details so closely and carefully, is important to understand, in part, because it challenges the explanatory power of contemporary, institutionalized, academic racial "theories." Even decades after Native Son, these theories, much like Max's courtroom speech, do not seem able to offer much insight into the realities and subtleties of thought and action represented in the novel. In order to make this argument I pay special attention to two distinct but closely related phenomena: the omnipresence of whiteness in the environment already noted to some extent by critics, and the (largely ignored) ways in which that whiteness, as a racial marker and a concept within Bigger's thinking, is repeatedly associated with natural light and darkness in a way that tangles the racial categories up with natural phenomena which are not usually understood to be associated with race. Images of and references to whiteness, blackness, sunshine, and darkness are so prevalent throughout the novel that it would be impossible to outline even a significant portion of them here. In an attempt to focus on the most meaningful and instructive instances, I want first to draw attention to two moments specifically, both of which come early in the novel, and which make important use of light and dark imagery in ways that are especially useful for this analysis.
The first is the novel's opening, which places us inside the Thomas family's "dark and silent room" (Wright 3). The novel's first place, then, is a distinctly dark one--complete with a "huge black rat" (Wright 5); it is not until after "light" has "flooded the room and revealed a black boy" that the reader is able to discern the blackness of any of the characters (Wright 3). Blackness and whiteness, even at this early point in the novel, can begin to be seen as interdependent and mutually reinforcing. This moment is also the first instance within the novel of what will become a major thematic element throughout: the pairing of black and white, which finds the two "condensed"--in Freud's conception of the term--into the same moment, same image, or same thought (Freud, Interpretation of Dreams 277).
BIGGER'S AND JACK'S visit to the movie theater serves as a second, and more detailed point of entry into understanding the symbolic roles of dark and white imagery and within Bigger's consciousness. While critics have already shown how elements of mass culture, particularly movies, are a part of what informs how Bigger imagines the world--"I heard it in the movies"--Bigger and Jack are not passive, absorbent spectators who have come only to take in the movie (Wright 18). Instead of being disconnected or distracted by a relationship with mass culture, Bigger and Jack masturbate together, sharing an intimate moment. And instead of just being marked or influenced by the images in the light projected on the white screen, they literally leave their mark as they ejaculate onto the theater's floor and move to new seats. But their time spent in the theater comes only after they have "walked along the street in the morning sunshine" and moved "into the darkened movie" to find their seats (Wright 29). And while the light outside and the darkness inside the theater are made visible to the reader, within the theater itself the interplay of lightness and darkness is necessary for the viewing of images projected onto the screen.
WHILE BIGGER'S AND JACK'S shared moment of intimacy happens, significantly, in the shadows before the projector's light makes them more visible, when the screen does eventually light up the first images show "smiling, dark-haired white girls lolling on the gleaming sand of a beach" (Wright 31, emphasis added). Shortly afterward the onscreen images then shift to "pictures of naked black men and women whirling in wild dances" (Wright 33). Throughout this scene the pairing of darkness/lightness and blackness/whiteness is shown happening at all possible levels, from the world outside the theater all the way into Bigger's imagination. The outside sunlight matches the darkness inside the theater; the darkness inside the theater is paired with the light of the projector; the light of the projector pairs with Bigger's and Jack's black bodies, which are linked to their white semen on the floor. When it shines through the darkness, the light of the projector shows white people and, separately, black people, and this entire close correlation then carries on within Bigger's own imagination, where he envisions "white men and women dressed in black and white clothes" (Wright 33).
JanMohamed's acutely observant reading of Native Son persuasively contends that Wright has set out to "unveil unconscious structures and bring them to consciousness" and so, in order to explore Bigger's unconscious, has made a novel that is "structured like a dream" (The Death-Bound-Subject 77). And while JanMohamed's analysis focuses on the "dialectics of death by which," he claims, "Bigger is produced, bound, and motivated," his model also helps, in part, to explain the novel's sustained close attention to lightness and darkness, where so much of the environment and its people are understood in terms of white, black, dark, light, or some combination of these (The Death-Bound Subject 77). If we understand Bigger's mental state as framed, in part, by ideas about black and white (as paradigms of American race and racism), then it makes sense that, in a novel concerned with conveying the mechanical operations of his psyche, so much of the world would appear to him in terms of black, white, darkness, and lightness.
WITH THESE INSTANCES in mind we can begin identifying the novel s conception of race in greater detail in order to see both how it speaks to more contemporary theories and what it tells us about Bigger's consciousness. As critical and historical points of reference, Richard Dyer's White and Michal Omi's and Howard Winant's Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960's to the 1990's, are especially useful. Both were published decades after Native Son and analyze representations of race. But because Native Son puts forth its own articulation of race and explores the consequences and possibilities of that articulation within Bigger's internal (mental) and external (social) reality, it proves to be its own rich source of insight--one that complicates and encourages the reevaluation of "race theories" like those articulated by Dyer, Omi and Winant as much as those theories may help in interpreting the novel.
Omi and Winant give a concise and useful description of the two different strands of thought that can be said to characterize how race is most often thought about within the US: on the one hand race can be understood as an "essence," something which is "fixed, concrete, and objective" (Racial Formation 54). On the other hand, race can be thought of as "a mere illusion, a purely ideological construct which some ideal non-racist social order would eliminate" (Racial Formation 54). In their attempt to "transcend the presumably irreconcilable relationship" between these two conceptions, they claim that "we should think of race as an element of social structure rather than as irregularity within it; we should see race as a dimension of human representation rather than an illusion" (Racial Formation 54-55). Wright does not seem to be particularly invested in any of these options. For example, in one moment he can point out the consequences of the ways in which race and racial inequality are socially stabilized and materialized as an unalterable part of the built environment--"why they make us live in one corner of the city?" (Native Son 20)--while in the next he can have Bigger and Gus "play white" in a way that figures race as a performative, mobile, ideologically constructed illusion (Native Son 17). The ease with which Wright moves across these possibilities, problematizing them, noting their realities, limitations, and consequences, suggests their ideological versatility and incompleteness. Wright also
moves easily through the territory that Omi and Winant will later come to describe as the ideal alternative: understanding race as a "dimension of human representation" which is at the same time "an element of social structure." But this conception begs the question of why and how any social structure becomes one in which "race" develops as a meaningful mode or form of representation. This question is especially important in light of the fact that Omi and Winant note that different modes of thought, discourse, and cultural expression--religious, political, scientific--all function as efficient conductors of racism and "racial awareness" (Racial Formation 61-63).
ALTHOUGH Native Son can be shown to depict race within (and in advance of) the various conceptions that have since become elaborated and institutionalized as racial "theories," that is not my aim. Attempting to interpret the novel's conception of race through these lenses proves impossible, and works more toward showing the limitations of their scope than it does toward illustrating the sharp, nuanced, and insightful understanding of racialized existence articulated by Wright within Native Son. With this reservation fully in mind, I want to turn briefly to Richard Dyer's White- a fairly recent (1997) study which looks closely at visual representations of whiteness. White is useful here mainly as a point of entry into the concepts that Wright was already utilizing and complicating decades earlier in Native Son. The parallels and linkages between these two works are too strong to ignore; however, I don't wish to privilege Dyer's analysis over what I find to be the more productive body of knowledge crafted by Wright. In setting Native Son next to White in this manner, my aim, aside from the larger goal of elaborating Wright's conception of race, is to show how the former anticipates and complicates the latter, if in advance.
AS A SCHOLAR with an interest in visual modes of representation, Dyer notes the racial bias inherent in film and photography. His claim that "the aesthetic technology of photography, as it has been invented, refined, and elaborated, and the dominant uses of that technology, as they have become fixed and naturalized, assume and privilege the white subject" is supported by a wide range of visual depictions. And this bias is inscribed in the particular ways in which these media have come to rely on light and visibility (White 83). Dyer also draws our attention to white people's "special relationship to light" which predates contemporary technologies of visual representation (White 103). Dyer places the relationship between light and white(ness) as a racial category within the context of "modern Western culture" and its "culture of light," which "privileges seeing above all other senses" (White 103). Dyer outlines some of the consequences of the "culture of light" in a passage worth quoting at length:
The culture of light makes seeing by means and in terms of light central to the construction of the human image. Light is a defining term and means of the culture and how different groups relate to it profoundly affects their place in society. Those who can let the light through, however dividedly, with however much struggle, those whose bodies are touched by the light from above, who yearn upward towards it, those are the people who should rule and inherit the earth. (White 121)
It is evident within this passage, and discussed at length by Dyer elsewhere in White, that "white" as a racial category corresponds to much more than the appearance of a person's skin; it also draws on a whole (invisible) world of ideology that is concerned with purity, sacredness, nature, power, visibility, humanness, and so on. A peculiar paradox then emerges:
[W]hites must be seen to be white, yet whiteness as race resides in invisible properties and whiteness as power is maintained by being unseen. To be seen as white is to have one's corporeality registered, yet true whiteness resides in the non-corporeal. (White 45)
While Wright makes note of the reality of white bodies, he also repeatedly emphasizes whiteness as non-corporeal.
AS IT APPEARS throughout Native Son, whiteness becomes both concretely embodied--there are plenty of white people and even a white cat--and unmistakably disembodied within more abstract and spectral forms--for example, there is white snow, white sunlight, and a "white blur," just to name a few (Wright 236). And, importantly, in both forms, whiteness is consistently linked with the environment, natural light, and so also with an ideological system that is understood as underpinning racial categories. But even as whiteness is shown to be an omnipresent force in Bigger's world, the novel consistently checks any move to define it as omnipotent. For example, we can turn to a tense sequence in the Dalton basement where Bigger and the Daltons are dealing with members of the press who are eager to break the latest news about Mary's disappearance. In this moment, "Mr. Dalton's face was dead-white and his blood-shot eyes were set deep in his head above patches of dark-colored skin" (Wright 201). Again, blackness and whiteness are condensed into a single place and time, and while race remains firmly embodied, "patches of dark-colored skin" compromise the complete "whiteness" of Dalton's face. Taken even in the most literal, embodied sense, the completeness or purity of whiteness is shown to be unstable and vulnerable.
It is equally instructive to turn to Mrs. Dalton in the same moment. As her presence is introduced the instability of whiteness is further elaborated. Here whiteness begins to move and blend outside of her body even as it remains a part of her body:
... suddenly ... the door behind Mr. Dalton filled with a flowing white presence. It was Mrs. Dalton, her white eyes held wide and stony, her hands lifted sensitively upward toward her lips, the fingers long and white and wide apart. The basement was lit up with the white flash of a dozen silver bulbs. (Wright 201)
MRS. DALTON's whiteness--both the whiteness of her eyes and fingers and her more general and unbounded white "presence"--is tied temporally and figuratively to white light of the camera flashes which (also) light the room. Here whiteness as a disembodied illusion produced by a system and technology of representation and whiteness as concretely or "naturally" embodied are linked and mixed up with each other in a way that encourages us to understand these two possibilities as dependent and mutually reinforcing. In addition, both instances of whiteness are again linked closely both to light and its opposite; Mrs. Dalton is blind. If the instability of both embodied and disembodied whiteness is evident in these two instances, it is because neither of these categorizations fully explains the ways in which whiteness appears throughout the novel. In fact, one cannot understand what the novel is saying about US race and racism if we confine our analysis to instances in which the appearance of whiteness and blackness is linked to actual human bodies. So, to understand more completely the conception of the racial category "white" as it works throughout Native Son we must pay close attention to moments where the presence of whiteness is not directly associated with people or their bodies.
The novel tells us plainly that:
[T]o Bigger and his kind white people were not really people, they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at ones feet in the dark." (Wright 114)
And the novel sustains this vision throughout as it describes the ways in which Bigger experiences various elements of his environment (other than white people) in relation to whiteness (and the accompanying whiteblack pairing). While the influence of whiteness as a disembodied force is obviously present, for example, during Mary's suffocation--where Mrs. Dalton becomes a "white blur moving ... in the shadows of the room"--many other instances are worth close attention (Wright 85-86).
IN BIGGER'S WORLD, understood as representing his subjective/unconscious state, things that may seem unimportant or irrelevant to the plotting or action of the story become conspicuous for the way they come into sharp focus. In a scene that stylistically and thematically echoes Bigger's suffocation of Mary, his much less ambiguous murder of Bessie is accompanied by a similar haunting whiteness which is indirectly connected to Bessie's body and again paired with its dark counterpart: "he saw her breath as a white thread stretching out over a vast black gulf" (Wright 236). When Bigger and Gus smoke together on the street we see their "cigarettes slanting white across their black chins" (Wright 15). In the same scene, "Bigger saw the sun burning a dazzling yellow. In the sky above him a few big white clouds drifted" (Wright 15). In the same moment "a huge truck swept past, lifting scraps of white paper into the sunshine" (Wright 21). Almost immediately afterward, "the sun slid behind a big white cloud and the street was plunged into cool shadow" (Wright 22). And, directly following this, another vehicle passes, this time "a long sleek black car, its fenders glinting like glass in the sun" (Wright 22).
THESE INSTANCES do more than indicate the importance and the ubiquity of the images of white(ness) and black(ness) that underpin Bigger's perception. They also make the lightness and darkness of racial categories present outside the human bodies to which those categories are so often connected and on which they are supposed to be reliant for meaning. Once disconnected from human bodies, these markers are then connected to the environment and its sunlight, shadows, and so on, with the result that the presence of white(ness) and black(ness) can be reconsidered in terms of the way they work and appear in this new form.
This new form, understood within the framework laid out by JanMohamed, is dependent on a reading of the novel which understands its construction to be aimed at conveying the subjective, unconscious, and dream-like thought processes that inform and help to construct Bigger's experience. Because the novel is structured like a dream, the principles of dream interpretation elaborated by Freud offer much insight into how black and white imagery and symbolism function here. Several elements of Freud's interpretive methodology are especially useful: "reversal," "displacement," and "condensation."
The importance of Freud's notion of reversal becomes especially important and apparent at the end of the novel's second book, where Bigger is captured by police. Freud explains that "reversal, or turning a thing into its opposite, is one of the means of representation most favored by the dream-work" (327). Native Son is built upon the structural principle of reversal. For example, the relative freedom of movement utilized by Bigger and his friends at the novel's opening has, by the novel's end, been replaced by his literal confinement and death. And the strong sense of isolation and social and psychical confinement that defines Bigger at the novel's opening is, by the novel's end, almost completely reversed: even though Bigger is now literally confined within a cell, he nevertheless gains a new understanding that stands as a strong reversal of his subjectivity at the novel's opening. The presence and function of black and white imagery also undergo important reversals as the novel moves toward its closing.
TO OUTLINE the reversals that happen with respect to black and white imagery we can begin by noting that this imagery becomes profoundly present in the excruciating moments leading up to and beyond Bigger's capture. The lights which surround and search for him are described variously as "knives," "slashing lances," and "blades," leaving no question about their purpose, use, or meaning for Bigger (Wright 265-266).
These new descriptions stand as a sharp reversal of the free-floating sunlight and abstract 'White blur" that have haunted Bigger up until this point. And while these blades, knives, and slashing lances are metaphors for the searchlights and flashlights mobilized by authorities, the novel also uses this imagery to explain the operations of Bigger's imagination. When a thought comes to him "like a shooting star streaking across a black sky" the image retains the tight condensation of black and white and also fuses the searchlights with the action of his own thought (Wright 260). In case it is not yet clear at this point that lightness and darkness saturate Bigger's experience, the novel offers up another instance: when Bigger hits one of the pursuing officers on the head with his gun, the "clicking sound of the metal against the bone of the skull" enters his thinking in terms of lightness and darkness condensed together: "[the sound] stayed on in his ears, faint but distinct, like a sharp bright point lingering on the front of the eyes when a light has gone out suddenly and darkness is everywhere" (Wright 262).
REFERENCES TO FLASHLIGHTS, searchlights, and metaphorical lightness and whiteness dominate this entire sequence perhaps more than any other in the novel; one can hardly miss that Bigger is imprisoned by light: "bars of light forming a prison, a wall between him and the rest of the world; bars weaving a shifting wall of light into which he dared not go" (Wright 258). Bigger is, soon after, literally captured and imprisoned. After climbing and falling from a white water tower, being dragged down the stairs with his head hitting every step, and, finally, pushed into the snow, the sequence ends with Bigger moving from light into the dark: "his eyes closed, slowly, and he was swallowed in darkness" (Wright 270). This entrance into the darkness of unconsciousness and his prison cell--with its steel bars--is foreshadowed earlier in previously described section of the novel, again through the use of light and dark imagery. When Bigger finds a moment in which to rest, "a wan sun came onto his face, making the black skin shine like dull metal; the sun left and the quiet room filled with deep shadows" (Wright 253).
The next section opens by describing an erasure of night and day which signifies a shift in the novel's attention to lightness and darkness, as well as a significant change in Bigger's consciousness: "there was no day for him now, and there was no night; there was but a long stretch of time" (Wright 273). But references to lightness and darkness hardly stop at this point in the novel. There in Bigger's cell we see "the pale yellow sunshine of a February sky falling obliquely upon him through the cold steel bars of the Eleventh Street police station" (Wright 273).
I'VE CHOSEN to describe these moments near the end of part two and the beginning of part three in detail because they mark a subtle but important reversal in the operation of imagery of light. Whereas prior to Bigger's literal imprisonment, light served as a kind of dominating, omnipresent force imposing its presence onto Bigger and imprisoning him in an abstract sense, even as he was ostensibly "free" to roam the streets (if only certain ones), the reality of his now literal imprisonment creates a change in his mode of thinking and so also a change in how the presence of lightness and darkness function for him. Once imprisoned, and in the moments leading up to his imprisonment, light's presence becomes more concrete; the abstract white blurs and white presences have been replaced by the more physical, concrete, (and unmistakably phallic) "knives," "lances," and "blades."
As in the moments before his capture, inside Bigger's prison cell light remains a potent, physical force. While he and Max share a moment after Max has delivered his speech in court:
Max rose and went to a small window; a pale bar of sunshine fell across his white head. And Bigger, looking at him saw that sunshine for the first time in many days; and as he saw it, the entire ceil, with its four close walls, became crushingly real. He glanced down at himself; the shaft of yellow sun cut across his chest with as much weight as a beam forged of lead." (Wright 423)
Here, light works to illuminate the "crushingly real" confines of Bigger's cell. From this new, literally enclosed vantage point lightness and darkness become more tangible and so can be embraced and confronted in a way that had not been possible before. And this becomes evident in one especially important passage where Bigger, again, incorporates light into his imagination:
[A]nother impulse rose in him, born of desperate needs, and his mind clothed it in an image of a strong blinding sun sending hot rays down and he was standing in the midst of a vast crowd of men, white men and black men and all men, and the sun's rays melted away the many differences, the colors, the clothes, and drew what was common and good upward towards the sun. (Wright 362)
Crucially, the sun and its rays of fight are now invested with the power to abolish or "melt away" the differences that have been so consistently reified through their attachment to light and its accompanying darkness.
THE NOVEL'S narration points readers toward the importance of these "symbols and images" in an important passage describing how Bigger "had lived outside the lives of men. Their modes of communication, their symbols and images, had been denied him" (Wright 422). This shift, then, can be seen as a point where, however tragically, the "symbols and images" of lightness and darkness, which the novel has been so careful to associate with whiteness and blackness as racial markers, become available to Bigger for the first time. The system of symbols and images that has stifled and dominated Bigger's experience throughout the novel has now become the object of his thought. Since the novel ends just before Bigger's inevitable execution, this moment in which he accesses and contemplates this system that has been so instrumental in his destruction might be the height of his empowerment.
It could be argued that the novel, in this respect, contains an argument about what it means to be able to control and access ideas and images. But what is crucial here is that no matter how fully he grasps them, Bigger has never had any say or input in the creation of these ideas and images. They remain the limited and limiting terms of his world and his experience despite the fact that they do not seem to have been crafted with him (or any one who is not white) in mind. This explains, in part, why Bigger feels so free and empowered when he is able to possess and control his own private knowledge of what he has done to Mary. Native Son not only cuts to the core of the issue by depicting Bigger's experience as dominated and confined by signs and forces over which he has had no say and can exercise little control, it also offers a way of understanding how and why these signs and forces have been developed and have come to hold the power that they do. Whiteness and blackness become associated not only with bodies, not only with the social structure and the environment at large, but also with visible light and dark--even as visible lightness and darkness undergo profound shifts or reversals in their significance.
FREUD'S concept of displacement helps explain the important presence and incredible frequency of black and white imagery, which might otherwise be seen as superfluous to the novel's action or plotting. Freud's concept of displacement, which "usually results in a colorless and abstract expression in the dream-thought being exchanged for a pictoral and concrete one," makes it possible (and necessary) to see the in the black and white imagery various "concrete" encapsulations (displacements) of the more "abstract" social and psychical realities of racism detailed in the novel (339).
We must, then, account for the significance of the fact that the concrete, pictoral images of black and white--which operate as displacements of more abstract racial constructions--so often find the two closely paired together, sharing a linked presence within the same single moments, images, and thoughts. Freud's concept of condensation is crucial here. He finds that "the formation of dreams is based on a process of condensation" (283), and that, among others, "the construction of collective and composite figures is one of the chief methods by which condensation operates in dreams" (293). Mr. Dalton's "dead-white" face, with its "patches of dark colored skin," is a perfect example of one such composite figure, into which whiteness and blackness have been condensed. And it is the novel's many moments in which black and white are tightly condensed (a small portion of which I've attempted to outline here) in which we discover that the ways in which Bigger perceives and experiences are so often filtered through conceptions of racial(ized) whiteness and blackness.
ELABORATING on how representation functions within dreams, Freud explains that "whenever [dreams] show us two elements close together, this guarantees that there is some specially intimate connection between what correspond to them among the dreamthoughts" (314). Additionally, we can consider that "[dreams] reproduce logical connection by simultaneity in time" (314). While Freud's observations might encourage readers to look for and describe the "intimate" or "logical" connection between images blackness and whiteness, which so often appear close together and in the same moments within Native Son, it is precisely the fact that there/s an intimate connection between blackness and whiteness writ large throughout the novel that I find radically significant.
The significance of blackness and whiteness as they operate in Native Son is to be found in their profound, "intimate" interdependence--a mutually constructed and shared relationship in which each element is completely dependent on the other for its meaning. There are two ways in which Native Son depicts this interdependence. The first is through the condensation of the two symbols/images. Because they are so often found operating together and in a balance that seems to require their simultaneous presence, it becomes (literally) hard to see one without the other. The second technique finds the novel repeatedly associating whiteness and blackness (as ideological or "scientific" constructions which become manifest when condensed into images) with things that are literally natural--snow, sunlight, shadows, and black rats, just to name a few. By making these associations, many of which, like light and darkness, are naturally interconnected, Native Son invites us to wonder about how the racial constructs of whiteness and blackness might also be interconnected.
IF THIS INTERPRETATION of the novel appears to describe a deconstructionist project, we must observe that Native Son's publication predates the emergence of postmodern deconstruction by decades. This observation should encourage us to question the power and importance of "theories" in relationship to the power and importance attributed to the thinking that happens in novels. While Native Son models what eventually emerges and is developed as "deconstruction," it also models a process of coming to consciousness which is simultaneously a model of coming to a critical understanding of US race(ism) --a model that consists of making the generative power of US racial symbology the object (rather than the frame or setting) of one's thought.
Brown, Lloyd. "Stereotypes in Black and White: The Nature of Perception in Wright's 'Native Son.'" Black Academy Review: Quarterly of the Black World. Vol 1, No 3, 1970.
Dyer, Richard. White. New York: Routeledge, 1997.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans.
James Strachey. New York: Basic Books, 1953.
Goldstein, Philip. "Richard Wright's Native Son: From Naturalist Protest Novel to Modernist Liberation and Beyond." New Directions in American Reception Study. Ed. Philip Goldstein and James L. Machor. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Graham, Louis. "The White Self-Image Conflict in Native Son." Studies in Black Literature. Vol 3. No 2, 1972.
JanMohamed, Abdul. The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright's Archeology of Death. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005.
Sisney, Mary. "The Power and Horror of Whiteness: Wright and Ellison Respond to Poe." CLA Journal. Vol 29, 1985.
Soto, Isabel. "'White People to Either Side': 'Native Son' and the Poetics of Space." The Black Scholar. Vol 39, No. 1-2, 2009.
Wright, Richard. Native Son. [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940] repr. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.
(1.) Goldstein makes this claim as an example of one possible reading rather than a reading that is fully supported by the text. For further discussion of whiteness and the environment in Native Son, see Lloyd Brown and Mary Sisney.