Richard Wright's Native Son, the first bestselling novel by an African American man, broke new literary ground—although, like all groundbreaking events, it involved upheaval. First published in March 1940, this story of a young ghetto man's erupting fury sold a quarter of a million copies in its first month. Bigger Thomas's extreme violence and his aggressive reaction to a society that has him cornered were intended to alert America to the mounting rage of disenfranchised blacks. In "How Bigger was Born," Wright describes his desire to warn people that there would be dues to pay for "the moral … horror of Negro life in the United States." In its message and subject matter, Native Son undeniably foreshadowed the civil rights and black liberation struggles to come.
Much of the criticism that still swirls around Wright's confrontational novel concerns its genre: Native Son is a hybrid of styles. Based on lived experience as well as imagination, the author combines aspects of melodrama and gothic horror with urban realism. The novel draws on diverse influences, including Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment; the novels of Americans Henry James, Sinclair Lewis, and Theodore Dreiser; the social analysis of H. L. Mencken; the economic theory of Karl Marx; and Frederick Douglass's slave narrative. Wright also emphasized the effect of cinema on his novel. There are moments that reflect anti-slavery texts, as well as expressionist scenes in which realism is set aside Page 361 | Top of Articleto bring forth Bigger's disturbing vision. These components meld to produce a new dynamic—a novel that smashes the stereotype of the passively enduring African American. For the first time, a black man's pen allowed white America to see itself as a potential target of retaliation.
Native Son was Wright's second book. The reviews of the first, Uncle Tom's Children, were so warm and sympathetic that in "How Bigger was Born," the author reveals that he resolved to write another book "so hard and deep" that its audience would have to face reality "without the consolation of tears." Depending on the reader, Bigger may inspire shock, apprehension, understanding, or fear, but never easy sympathy.
Native Son was the first book by an African American writer recommended by the Book-of-the-Month Club, but the organization requested significant changes to the original manuscript. The 1940 version reflects their demands; in particular, Wright changed the scene in which Bigger and Jack go the movies before their planned robbery. This edited version is what was originally published, so it is known as the "original version." In 1991, Harper Perennial published Wright's manuscript without these changes, in a version known as the "restored text." This entry follows the restored version of Native Son.
Although Wright's later work never achieved the acclaim of Native Son and his autobiography Black Boy (1945), he continued to publish both fiction and non-fiction until his death, and more of his writing was published posthumously. Even though generations have passed since its publication, Native Son is no artifact. The ideas and attitudes it expresses are still relevant to American race relations; issues like ghettos, gangs, police bigotry, and the shame, fear, and anger of the marginalized still await resolution all over the world.
Book I: Fear
Book I begins with the sound of an alarm clock in the Thomases' one-room apartment in the Chicago ghetto. The two sons, twenty-year-old Bigger and adolescent Buddy, sleep together in one bed. Vera, their sister, and Mama are separated from them by only a narrow space. Tempers are always short in this squalid place, yet they cannot afford a larger apartment unless Bigger takes a job he does not want, as a chauffeur for a rich white man. Jobs are scarce as America pulls out of the Great Depression, especially for blacks. Bigger's situation is more difficult than most, because he has a reform school record and little education. His family survives on welfare, which will be terminated unless Bigger takes the job.
Before the Thomases are even dressed they have to face the day's first challenge. An enormous black rat runs into the room from a hole in the wall. The sons shout and scramble to kill it while the women scream and try to avoid it. This despised creature, its body "puls[ing] with fear" and the life-or-death rage that fuels its struggle, is Bigger's symbolic double or doppelganger. He kills the rat, taunting his sister with its corpse. The women berate his manhood and destructive mentality, prophesying that he will come to harm. Little do they know that behind his curtain of tough reserve, Bigger feels shame, hopelessness, and despair at the way they live. The omniscient narrator (one that can see into the thoughts and motives of all characters), says of Bigger, "He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else."
Bigger leaves his family's kitchenette and meets up with his gang. He and his friends Gus, G. H., and Jack discuss a plan to rob Blum's Delicatessen. They have pulled off smaller robberies in the past, targeting African Americans because the police do not bother prosecuting crimes against blacks. This robbery would be Page 362 | Top of Articledifferent, though, because Blum is white. Although Bigger is desperate to find some money, he is afraid to commit a crime against a white man. He convinces his partners to let him bring his gun, and they agree to get together to rob the shop later that afternoon.
Jack and Bigger go to see a movie to distract themselves while they wait. Before the movie begins, they make a game of masturbating in the theater. A newsreel shows a beautiful young woman playing on the beach in Florida. When Jack says he would like to be there, Bigger tells him if he went somewhere like that, he would be "hanging from a tree like a bunch of bananas." Bigger recognizes girl in newsreel as Mary Dalton, the daughter of his future employer. Jack tells Bigger that "them rich white women'll go to bed with anybody…. They even have their chauffeurs." The newsreel mentions Mary's Communist friend, and Jack and Bigger discuss their idea of Communism. Bigger considers the exotic possibilities of his new job, thinking that if everything he has heard about white people is true, he will get to "see a lot of things from the inside; he'd get the dope, the low-down."
The feature film Trader Horn depicts "primitive" Africans dancing. Bigger has a hard time focusing on this film, although the Africans seem "secure from fear and hysteria" in their homeland. Bigger is lost in thoughts of white society and privilege. He rethinks his upcoming job interview in terms of what he has just seen in the newsreel. He enjoys fantasizing about wealthy Mary Dalton, wondering if she might be the kind of girl to give him money, or at least make him her confidant.
Although Bigger does not want to rob Blum's store because it might hurt his chances at his new job, it is too late to back down. He rushes home to get his gun and preserve his tough-guy image. Jack, Bigger, and G. H. meet at the hall earlier than agreed. When Gus shows up late, a tense and anxious Bigger beats him up, then draws his knife and makes Gus lick the blade. When the proprietor kicks them out, Bigger slashes the pool table with his knife. This quells his fear: after taking violent action, Bigger feels equal to those around him—at least for a time. He insists it is too late for the robbery, even though he realizes they still have plenty of Page 363
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time. He goes home until it is time for his job interview.
Later, he heads to the Daltons' and feels self conscious just walking in the rich, white neighborhood. The Daltons are slumlords who think of themselves as philanthropists. While he is speaking to Mr. Dalton, Mrs. Dalton appears, followed by her large, white housecat; she does not acknowledge him. Her pallid skin, snow white hair, and faded eyes make her seem "like a ghost." Mr. Dalton tells him that she is blind and that "she has a very deep interest in colored people." Mary Dalton, the girl from the news-reel, comes in during the interview and baffles Bigger by asking him questions about unions and capitalism. He worries that she will ruin his chances to get the job. Bigger limits his remarks primarily to "Yessuh" and "Nawsuh," while trying to hide his confusion and fear. Mr. Dalton decides to hire him because, as he explains, he supports the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
Peggy, the Daltons' maid, shows Bigger how to feed the furnace in the cellar—one of his reponsibilities—and then shows him the room where he will sleep. He lies on the soft bed in the large room he will have to himself and thinks about how good things could be there. His only concern is that Mary will get him into trouble, with her political talk and overly familiar manner. When he gets thirsty, he goes to the kitchen where he finds Mrs. Dalton and her cat. Mrs. Dalton wants to know about his hopes to better himself through education, but Bigger has no such plans.
Bigger thinks he is supposed to drive Mary to the university that evening; he is surprised when it turns out that she wants to meet a friend. Bigger wonders to himself if her friend is a Communist, and is wary. They pick up Mary's boyfriend, Jan, whom Bigger recognizes as her "communist friend" from the newsreel. He makes Bigger uncomfortable by shaking his hand and insisting that Bigger not call him "sir," and deciding that he will drive. Bigger feels that Jan and Mary are far too chummy with him. They say he is their equal and they want to be friends, but Bigger feels threatened and confused. He wishes they would leave him alone and let him follow the accepted rules about how blacks and whites should interact. He wonders if they are making fun of him. They ask Bigger to recommend a restaurant on the South Side, then insist that Bigger eat and drink with them. He does not know how to behave when he sees friends inside. Jan buys them a fifth of rum, which helps Bigger relax. He is finally able to look them in the eye as he answers their questions about his background. Mary mentions that she is traveling to Detroit in the morning and tells Bigger to take her trunk to the station before she leaves.
After they leave the restaurant, Bigger drives Jan and Mary around the park while the three continue to drink in the car. He notices the pair's amorous activities in the back seat and becomes aroused himself. After dropping Jan off, Mary joins Bigger in the front seat and they continue drinking as they drive back to the Dalton place. Bigger has to help Mary into the house because she is too drunk to stand. He worries that he will lose his job if he is caught and is angry at Mary for creating the situation. He carries her into her room, and as she clings to him, he becomes aroused by the smell of her hair and feel of her body. He kisses her, and the inebriated girl moves toward him. He lays her on her bed and is kissing her when the door opens, revealing "silent, ghostlike," blind Mrs. Dalton. She calls Page 364 | Top of Articleto her daughter, who mumbles in response. Bigger is terrified of being found in the girl's room. Mrs. Dalton calls to Mary several more times, and Bigger covers Mary's mouth with her pillow to keep her silent. The drunken girl struggles hard, and he pushes until she stops. He eases off the bed and into a corner, watching while the mother approaches her daughter, smells alcohol, assumes Mary has passed out, and kneels to pray before she leaves the room.
Bigger panics when he discovers that Mary is dead. He starts planning a story that will direct suspicion toward Jan while he decides what to do with the body. He stuffs her body inside her trunk and carries it downstairs. He hopes her parents will assume she has gone to Detroit. Down in the cellar, Bigger decides to burn the body in the furnace. He shoves her in feet first, and winds up having to cut her head off to make the body fit. He notices Mrs. Dalton's cat watching him and considers killing it, but does not. After dumping more coal on the fire, Bigger tidies the cellar, turns on the exhaust fan to blow out the smell, and leaves the house. He steals Mary's purse from the car outside and finds it full of cash. He returns home and quickly falls asleep.
Book II: Flight
Though he is even more tense than usual, Bigger tries to act normal with his family on Sunday morning. He answers their questions about his new job, but he is quick to anger. Reflecting on the events of the night before, he thinks of a few ways to improve the cover-up and starts to feel less worried about committing the crime. As he leaves for work, Buddy runs after him to ask if anything is wrong and to give him the wad of money he had dropped—the money from Mary's purse. He gives Buddy some money and swears him to secrecy. He runs into his three friends at the corner drugstore. His mood lifts when he buys each of them a pack of cigarettes and a beer, and giving each one a dollar as well. He tells them he got the job and that he likes it "swell."
He leaves his friends and heads to the Daltons' on the streetcar. He thinks more about Mary's death and decides that she deserved it because of "the fear and shame she had made him feel." He is excited and empowered by his newfound philosophy, a commitment to "act like other people thought you ought to act, yet do what you wanted." He wishes that black people could find a strong leader, one who could inspire them to act together and "end fear and shame."
At the Daltons' house, Bigger continues his cover-up. He burns a bloody scrap of paper he had overlooked the night before and leaves out some Communist pamphlets Jan had given him. He mentions to Peggy that Mary had a gentleman friend over the night before. Then he waits in the car as if he expects Mary to emerge. When she does not come down, Peggy suggests that she might have already gone to the station and that Bigger should take her trunk to the train. When he returns to the house, he listens as Mrs. Dalton and Peggy share details about the previous night and that morning, and realize that Mary's absence is strange. Mrs. Dalton asks Bigger about the last time he saw Mary, and he again mentions that Mary had a gentleman friend with her. She gives Bigger the day off, and he decides to visit his girlfriend Bessie to relax and forget. The idea that he should have planned the murder and been able to get more money from it nags him. When Bessie mentions a famous kidnapping case, he decides to ask for Bessie's help arranging a ransom scam to get money from Mary's family.
They go out for a drink and Bigger outlines his plan, but Bessie wonders why Bigger is not worried that Mary will turn up. He tells her Mary eloped with a Communist, but Bessie probes, asking "you ain't done nothing to that girl, is you?" Bigger denies that he has hurt Mary and insists no one will suspect a black man of being smart enough to mastermind a kidnapping. He leaves Bessie with the money and returns to the Daltons', feeling that at last "he had his destiny in his grasp."
Back at the mansion, Mr. Dalton has hired a private detective. This man, Britten, suspects Bigger because he is black. Bigger acts intimidated, subservient, and befuddled. He sees their fear for Mary and is pleased to have made these white people feel afraid and insecure, just as he has always felt with them. As Bigger reveals the tale of an inebriated Mary and her Communist boyfriend slumming on the South Side, Britten shifts his suspicions to Jan, who is brought to the house to be questioned. Accused of being the last person to see Mary, at first Jan says he did not see her, then starts supporting Bigger's story that he came home with Mary. But soon he tells the Page 365 | Top of Articletruth, that he took the streetcar, leaving Bigger to drive Mary home. He wonders why Bigger is lying, but Bigger will not change his story, and Britten and the distraught Mr. Dalton believe him. Jan waits outside for Bigger, and when he tries to talk to him, Bigger, in a frenzy, draws his gun. Jan assumes that the powerful people have manipulated Bigger and offers to help him, but Bigger shouts at him and runs away.
Bigger buys an envelope, paper and a pencil to write the ransom note, still debating about whether to send it. He is more interested in "cow-er[ing] Jan and Britten into awe, into fear of him" than in getting away with the crime. He suddenly realizes that Mr. Dalton owns the company from which Bigger and his family rent their small, rat-infested room—the millionaire philanthropist is responsible for the squalid living conditions that poor blacks face all over his neighborhood. He decides: "Yes; he would send the kidnap note. He would jar them out of their senses."
Bigger goes back to Bessie's because they will have to act fast to get the ransom. He writes a note demanding ten thousand dollars and signs it "Red." Bessie no longer wants to be part of the scheme and asks him directly whether he killed Mary. He denies it at first, but then admits it. He tries to coerce Bessie into going along with the plan, saying that she is already an accomplice because she received the money he stole. Then he flatly threatens to kill her, too, if she betrays him now. He walks Bessie through what he wants her to do the following night to collect the ransom.
Bigger returns to the Daltons' house and slips the ransom note under the front door. After Mr. Dalton reads that his daughter has been kidnapped by "Red," Britten has Jan picked up by the police. He also interrogates Bigger down in the cellar. Bigger worries that Mary's bones will block the ash pan in the furnace, so he keeps pouring more coal on the fire. Reporters show up, and Mr. Dalton tells them about the note. Jan turns out to have a solid alibi and can prove he did not come home with Mary. Bigger is ordered to shake down the ashes in the cooling furnace, but when he adds more coal, leery of sifting the pan in front of the reporters, the room fills with smoke. A journalist grabs the shovel from the corner; he rakes and scrapes the ashes, revealing bone shards and an earring. In the excitement, Bigger escapes unnoticed.
Bigger rushes over to Bessie's to stop her from going to pick up the ransom. He tells her everything about how he killed Mary and burned her body. Bessie thinks he will be accused of raping her, as well. Bessie is upset about being involved with this crime, but Bigger forces her to hide with him in a deserted building. He rapes her there, and because she knows too much to be left behind, he kills her. He throws her body down an air shaft to hide it, afterward realizing that his getaway money was in the pocket of her dress. With seven cents left, he flees to another building at dawn. He reads newspaper reports about the police systematically searching the black neighborhood for him; racial tensions have flared because of the manhunt. He also reads that the police suspect a sex crime; they still suspect Jan was involved, because "the plan of the murder and kidnapping was too elaborate to be the work of a Negro mind." Bigger is proud to have fooled the whites all by himself.
He wanders through the night looking for a place to hide. He buys a loaf of bread and breaks into a vacant apartment. He hears two men discussing whether the black community should hide the murderer or turn him in. He eats his bread and sleeps. When he goes out for the next day's newspaper and a new place to hide, he learns that the white force hunting the "Negro rapist and killer" is closing in on his block. Bigger tries to escape over the frozen ghetto rooftops, but he is cornered and the police drench him with a fire hose. Freezing and exhausted, he is dragged down four flights of stairs to the sea of white faces waiting below.
Book III: Fate
In jail, Bigger initially refuses to speak or accept food and water, and he faints at the inquest. He reads about himself in the newspaper, which likens him to an uncivilized beast, a "missing link in the human species." A local police captain says that death is the only solution for a problem like Bigger, while a southern newspaper editor wires to add, "We have found that the injection of an element of constant fear has aided us greatly in handling the problem [of Negro restlessness]." His mother's minister appears, then Jan, who forgives him and introduces a communist lawyer, Max, who will defend him for free. Bigger's mother, his siblings, his friends, the Daltons, and the prosecutor Buckley all come with their own beliefs and agendas. Buckley is the last to leave after interrogating Bigger, trying Page 366 | Top of Articleto trick him into admitting to murders of white women that he did not commit. Bigger confesses to killing Mary and Bessie.
Testimony before the grand jury highlights Mr. Dalton's institutionalized racism; it also raises doubts about Jan's motives for associating with black people and presents Bessie's corpse as evidence that Bigger is a monster. He is indicted for Mary's rape and murder. As he leaves the building for jail, the mob outside screams for his death. Police officers take him to the Dalton mansion and up to Mary's room, where they try to make him act out the rape and murder. Bigger refuses. He sees a Ku Klux Klan cross burning on a roof across the street. He feels that Jesus' love and the hope of salvation have been lost to him. At the jail, he throws away the cross that a minister had given him to comfort him.
Max interviews Bigger before preparing his defense. Max's questions focus mostly on the young man's feelings, and Bigger finds himself opening up and trying to express himself in ways that are new to him. His feelings reflect the fear and hopelessness of his life as an African American. He feels sorry for Max because people will hate him for trying to help a black killer. Max says, "The fear of hate keeps many whites from trying to help you and your kind." The conversation with Max inspires Bigger: he wants to be involved with the world, and to live, now, so he will have time to understand what his life means.
Bigger pleads guilty to the crime but Max tries to save his life in the sentencing phase of the trial by offering evidence of mitigating circumstances. Both the prosecution and defense present their ideas about oppressed blacks and white defenders of the status quo. Max argues that Bigger is a victim of lifelong oppression, so society should accept responsibility for its role in making him a murderer. Despite Max's heroic effort to save him, Bigger is sentenced to death. Max tries to get a pardon from the governor, but fails. He says goodbye to Bigger and encourages him to believe in himself. Bigger says he knows that he killed for something and feels good about that—until he killed, he never felt alive. He is trying to console Max but understands that his explanation is terrifying him. In the end, he can only assure Max that he is all right. Max leaves him to his fate without looking at him again.
Ethnicity and Social Stigma
Freed slaves and their descendants encountered racism of an astounding depth and breadth in the late 1800s and early 1900s. African Americans were said to be sub-human, or at the very least different and less developed than whites. Many ethnic minorities endured similar prejudice, but African Americans were said to be particularly "savage" and "primitive" in their instincts. In Native Son, Buckley, the prosecuting attorney, describes Bigger as a "mad black dog," "a subhuman killer," and an "infernal monster." He labels the young man "a piece of human scum" and "a maddened ape." Buckley argues that any white American male should relish the "opportunity to crush with his heel the woolly head of this black lizard." Racist whites used this sort of defective reasoning to justify discrimination in both public and private interactions with African Americans. Wright said that he was strongly influenced by media coverage of the Robert Nixon murder case. In 1938, Nixon, a black Chicago man, murdered a white woman with a brick during the course of a robbery. The Chicago papers described him as a brute and an animal, going on to point out that a rabid wild animal is usually exterminated.
In Native Son, Wright portrays the way African Americans were affected by accepting and internalizing this negative characterization. When Bigger complains to his friends about how society limits blacks, Gus says, "Aw, nigger, quit thinking about it. You'll go nuts." They accept that their skin color automatically disqualifies them from flying airplanes or living in nice houses. Still, Bigger hopes for something more. Later, when he works as Mary's chauffeur, it might seem that some of Bigger's wishes are going to come true: as he drives Mary and Jan around the city in a luxury car, they insist he is their equal and express admiration for ghetto people, whom they romanticize. But instead of feeling warmed by their overtures, Bigger feels suspicious and angry:
He was very conscious of his black skin…. Did not white people despise a black skin?… he was something he hated, the badge of shame which he knew was attached to a black skin.
When the barriers of race and prejudice are pushed away from Bigger, a violent explosion ensues. Wright states in "How Bigger was Born" that Bigger "is a product of a dislocated Page 367 | Top of Articlesociety," and that his response is a protest against a dehumanized life, which has driven him over the edge.
Gender and Sexuality
The gender expectations imposed on black ghetto men is one of the burdens that Bigger shoulders every day. As the oldest male in his family, Bigger is expected to help his family out of poverty without breaking the law. After a rat wakes the family, Bigger's mother declares, "We wouldn't have to live in this garbage dump if you had any manhood in you." Later she cries, "Bigger, honest, you the most no-countest man I ever seen in all my life!" Bigger, barely past his teens, replies, "You done told me that a thousand times." In the ghetto, a "real" man must save his family from financial disaster, even though he is at the bottom of the employment ladder. He must also command respect from his peers on the street. He laughs off broken dreams and social obstacles; "real" men are not allowed to be scared, so he carries weapons, which he uses to maintain dominance. These expectations weigh heavily on twenty-year-old Bigger.
Social pressure also shapes Bigger's sexuality. He is expected to have a girlfriend and be sexually active, even if the relationship is not sincere or lasting. Bessie lets him have sex with her because he brings her money, or things that money can buy, like the oblivion of alcohol. This trade-off is the best thing he experiences with her, because men are not encouraged to feel tenderness or express affection—sex is the only venue for closeness with a woman. In addition to the physical pleasure it provides, sex helps diminish the tensions of walking the world as a black man: something "laid a quiet finger of peace upon the restless tossing of his spirit" after sex. Even after Bigger knows he will murder Bessie, he forces her into one final sexual act, trying to relieve his overpowering sense of hunger and tension.
Racist whites stereotype African American males as hypersexual and uncontrollably attracted to white females, and rape plays an important role in the white mob hysteria that develops in Wright's novel. The newspapers convict Bigger of raping and murdering Mary Dalton long before he is tried. Described as a "Negro sex-slayer," they suggest he killed her in "a brain-numbing sex passion." A Southern newspaper editor advises that in the future, Northerners should follow Southerners' example and keep "Negroes firmly in their places and … make them know if they so much as touch a white woman, good or bad, they cannot live." Bigger is condemned to death, punished for Mary's murder, but just as much for a rape that exists only in the public's racist imagination. Wright's story also shows how racism affects views of female sexuality. Bigger rapes Bessie, but this rape does not merit punishment; on the other hand, the mere suspicion that he might have raped Mary inspires lynch mobs and a cross burning, because she was white. The myth of white women's purity supports white men's violent, racist acts, while black women's suffering is dismissed.
Post-Civil War America
The Civil War ended in 1865; in March of that year, all of the remaining slaves in the United States were freed. The Confederate states were readmitted to the Union only after accepting the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed African Americans the same rights as whites, and the Fifteenth Amendment granted them the right to vote. Black voters outnumbered whites in many parts of the South, and whites were frightened they would lose political control of those areas. For a time, the U.S. Army occupied the defeated South during Reconstruction to ensure that blacks could vote. When Reconstruction ended and federal troops withdrew, however, African Americans and their rights were at the mercy of local governments, which were often virulently racist.
Freed slaves faced poverty and a terrifying general hostility, leading many to feel that slavery was better than freedom. Belinda Hurmence's book Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories of Former North and South Carolina Slaves includes testimonyfrom Patsy Mitchener, who was a nineteen-year-old slave in 1865. She describes slavery and freedom as poisonous snakes. "The snake called slavery," Mitchener said, "lay with his head pointed south, and the snake called freedom lay with his head pointed north. Both bit the nigger and they was both bad." Hurmence explains that the post-war South was concerned with its own grievous war wounds, not with the Page 368 | Top of Articlesurvival of ex-slaves. Though the North was opposed to slavery and somewhat less racist, it struggled "to cope with four million needy new citizens clamoring for jobs, education, some land of their own." In both the North and the South, Hurmence writes, whites responded with "righteous indignation: the slaves had been set free; why weren't they properly appreciative?… If they wouldn't put their past behind them, they ought at least, for history's sake, to keep quiet about it."
Southern Response to Black Emancipation
Every state had to respect the federal Constitution, which guaranteed equal voting rights to all men. But in 1890, after Reconstruction had ended, Mississippi held a convention to rewrite its state laws, with the goal of excluding black citizens through voter restrictions. A poll tax was levied: a black man who wanted to vote was required to pay a special tax for two years before he could register. If he found money to pay this tax, he next faced a literacy test. This test excluded the sixty percent of black men who were illiterate because, as slaves, they had not been permitted to read or write. The white county voting clerk required literate blacks to read and interpret a difficult passage from the state constitution. Usually they failed, but if they passed, the famous "grandfather clause" restricted voter eligibility to those whose grandfathers could vote before the Civil War. Data released by the Constitutional Rights Foundation shows that racist policies like these caused the percentage of black voters in Mississippi to drop to less than six percent in 1892, down from over ninety percent during Reconstruction.
Other Southern states saw how Mississippi's racist policies affected blacks and quickly enacted their own laws, called Black Codes. Jim Crow laws were another popular strategy for oppressing blacks, stemming from the Supreme Court's "separate but equal" decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). These laws denied African Americans access to white housing, schools, hospitals, restaurants, and even drinking fountains and toilets.
The Northern Response to Emancipation
The South was primarily a failed agrarian economy by the end of the Civil War, while the North had been successfully industrialized. Fleeing white violence and dreaming of prosperity, millions of African Americans fled north to the great ports, steel mills, and slaughterhouses. The North also received waves of immigrants from Western Europe, Mexico, and Asia. However, the urban, industrialized North was not free of racism and offered its own kinds of prejudice and oppression.
Prejudice forced blacks into slums, where they struggled to survive. Slum landlords exploited segregated housing policies, providing non-whites with substandard shelter at exorbitant rents. These ghettoes were frequently attacked by inner-city gangs (often Irish or Jewish), waging street battles that furthered the aims of white politicians and mobsters. The Chicago race riots of 1919 were touched off by a gang attack. On July 30, over two hundred members of the Ragen's Colts gang attacked nine houses along the west border of the ghetto with bricks, stones, and guns, driving black residents out. Thirty-eight African Americans were killed, over five hundred were injured, and a thousand were left homeless—but not one of the gang members was prosecuted. In large Northern cities, there were also "voting gangs," white gangs that tried to scare African Americans away from the polls. In the first half of the twentieth century, the North was scarcely more hospitable to black Americans than the South.
The Communist Party and the Black Community
The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) made a policy of defending the black working class in the early and mid-1900s. It rallied against Jim Crow laws, integrating its own social events and expelling members for "white chauvinism." The CPUSA organized black miners, steel and smelter workers, and the huge force of Chicago meatpackers. It also sought to help blacks unionize for equal pay, which led to "hate strikes" and race riots by white workers. The party worked to help blacks gain admission to industries that had excluded them, such as transport, and to integrate professional sports like baseball. Emerging communities of urban African Americans responded with hope and trust, and many illustrious blacks became involved with the CPUSA, including Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Richard Wright.
The Communist Party, and later the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), directed public attention to the false rape charges that were Page 369 | Top of Articlefrequently pressed against black men. The claim that a black man had raped a white woman often resulted in white mob executions called lynchings. (According to R. L. Zangrando's "About Lynching," the 3,330 recorded lynchings of blacks in post-Civil War America is only the tip of the iceberg.) The "Scottsboro Boys" case is one famous example of this rape hysteria. In March 1931, nine black teenagers were accused of raping two white women in Alabama. A group of white men and black youths had fought while they were riding as hoboes on a freight train, and the white men had been forced from the train. When the train stopped in Paint Rock, Alabama, the black teenagers were arrested. Two white women found hiding on the train claimed the boys had raped them. Within ten days, local white jurors convicted all nine and sentenced all but one of them to die.
The International Labor Defense (a communist legal organization) and the NAACP worked to defend the innocent Scottsboro boys and prevented their executions. During the six years of trials surrounding the Scottsboro case, a rift developed between the CPUSA and the NAACP. Many African Americans began to separate from the party, defining their problems as matters of race and prejudice, not class.
Native Son was published in 1940 by Harper and Brothers. Before publishing the book, Harper and Brothers sent bound copies of the manuscript's proof pages to the Book-of-the-Month Club, which was interested in the novel as an upcoming selection. In "Notes on the Text" in the Harper Perennial edition of the novel, Arnold Rampersad records that Wright's editor told him that the Book Club's was particularly concerned about the masturbation scene in the movie theater, writing, "I think you will … understand why the Book Club finds it objectionable. They are not a particularly squeamish crowd, but that scene, after all, is a bit on the raw side." Wright agreed to alter the section, omitting the masturbation scene and substituting a fictional movie (The Gay Woman) for what had been a newsreel about Mary Dalton. This altered version, known as the "original text," was published in March 1940 and the Book Club chose it as one of its selections that year.
The first piece of criticism on Native Son came from Wright himself, in an essay entitled "How Bigger Was Born." This essay was originally published separately, but is included in many later editions of the book. In it, Wright explains that a proper portrayal of Bigger Thomas's disturbed awareness required him to avoid the inner workings of his other characters: "[F]rom the start to the finish, it was Bigger's story, Bigger's fear, Bigger's flight, and Bigger's fate that I tried to depict." Wright is most interested in what he calls Bigger's "character-destiny"; as the archetypal black youth of the ghetto, Bigger's "social, political, and personal [experiences]" are the foundation and reality of Wright's story.
Native Son was published in a climate of racial tension stoked by the Great Depression. Many whites (especially those in Southern states) took the novel as evidence that black people hated whites and were awaiting their chance to be violent. The novel also fueled the racist delusions of extremist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Nonetheless, the book was an instant success. It sold a quarter of a million copies in its first month. The 1930s produced the most vicious racism the country had seen since the Civil War; in "How Bigger Was Born," Wright challenges black and white readers to become aware of "Bigger's relationship with white America, both North and South,… a relationship whose effects are carried by every Negro, like scars, somewhere in his body and mind."
A flood of critical interest made Native Son the first bestseller by an American black man. Charles Poore reviewed it in the New York Times on the day it was published, calling the book "enormously stirring." Poore agreed with critic Henry Seidel Canby's judgment that Native Son was the best novel that had been written by a black American. Great writers of the day—including Zora Neale Hurston, Sinclair Lewis, and James Farrell—weighed in on it, as did groups like the Communist Party and the NAACP. More than twenty years after Wright's book was published, critic Irving Howe's "Black Boys and Native Sons" validates the initial response to the work:
The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. No matter how much qualifying the book might later need, it made impossible a repetition of the old lies…. Richard Wright's novel brought into the open, Page 370 | Top of Articleas no one ever had before, the hatred, fear, and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture.
Many passionate critical debates center on Native Son. One recurring argument focuses on the women in Wright's novel. Bessie, Mama, Mrs. Dalton, and Mary Dalton are not especially admirable characters; among their faults are passivity, impotence, "blindness," thrill-seeking, and shallowness. Some critics believe that Wright was guilty of misogyny (the hatred of women). Others argue that these figures accurately portray the narrow lives and cultural norms available to women, both white and black, in male-dominated, 1930s America.
In 1949, author James Baldwin started a discussion that continues today. Baldwin suggests that Bigger is isolated from the black community. African American scholar Cornel West agrees in his essay "Philosophy and the Afro-American Experience": "Wright tried to create an Afro-American self-image that rests solely on personal revolt," rather than an identity that "presupposes a community, a set of common values and goals, at which a marginal man like Wright can only sneer." Scholar Aime J. Ellis rejects this interpretation in his recent essay "Where is Bigger's Humanity? Black Male Community in Richard Wright's Native Son":
However unsavory Bigger's male world might have appeared … [his] deeply emotional conversations with his homeboys constitute a site of black male community that allows them to purge the psychic pain of urban blight as well as to create an intimate space for sharing their dreams, aspirations, and joys.
The principal debate, still hotly contested, is illustrated in a longstanding critical duel between eminent black author Ralph Ellison and Irving Howe, Jewish American critic and founder of the journal Dissent. Howe and Ellison clashed in four essays published in that journal. In "Black Boys and Native Sons," Howe insists that Wright created Bigger Thomas to illustrate the prototypical African American "experience of a man with a black skin…. How could a Negro put pen to paper, how could he so much as think or breathe, without some impulsion to protest?" Ellison argues that protest fiction robbed blacks of both diversity and potential, by locking them into roles built around rage and violence. Baldwin and Ellison defend the perspective of the black intellectual, rather than that of Bigger Thomas, whose intellect was undeveloped and largely untapped.
In the twenty-first century, notable scholars such as Henry Louis Gates Jr., Houston Baker Jr., and Harold Bloom have offered further insight into Native Son. Regardless of critical opinions, Wright seems to have achieved his goal of informing the world that poor, black males are not passive, patient, or pardoning. The Modern Library recently named Native Son as one of the one hundred most important books of the twentieth century.
In the following excerpt, Smethurst traces a strong thread of gothic horror throughout Native Son and African American experience in general. However, he points out that this novel, after following the main features of a gothic tale, moves beyond endless terror to become "anti-gothic," the forerunner of a new kind of African American literature.
Native Son intimates that the Daltons of the world will continue to encounter the Biggers. And neither will be able to understand the other because the rules which guide their world are hidden in a web of gothic figuration. In fact, that both the Biggers and the Daltons perceive each of their worlds as largely disjunct from that of the other is actually another form of mystification which will hinder them from objectively apprehending the nature of their social order.
The fundamental reason that none of the characters that we see in the first two sections of the novel understands the underlying rules of society is that they are caught up in various narratives the function of which is to perpetuate the power relations of American society and, again, to mystify the true nature of those relations. Some of these narratives are basically ghosts of a past era of American society. These narratives are not simply accounts of the past which make sense of the present and offer a guide to conduct—this is implicitly or explicitly true of all the narratives in the text—but are holdovers from the past. This category of ghosts would include both Mrs. Thomas's stoic and accommodationist Christianity, which has its ultimate origin in the slave South, as well as the older Daltons' paternalistic narrative of philanthropy. Both of these older narratives no longer have the desired impact on a new generation of uprooted and marginalized young people represented by Bigger and his gang: They have no desire to defer desire until the next world or go to night school in order to become better educated servants. Of course, the Daltons have an interest in not demystifying these narratives despite the death of their daughter.
Wright sees virtually all black literature before Native Son as essentially part of these mirroring narratives of stoic deference and paternalism. It is also interesting, though disturbing, to see how Wright, like Claude McKay in the novels Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929), assigns gender to these narratives so that the conservatism of the black folk culture and its accommodation to white paternalism are seen as feminine, as opposed to an implicit masculine narrative of rebellion andliberation. Even in the case of the equally uprooted and marginalized Bessie, her response to her confinement in the face of extravagant mass culture narratives of desire is basically passive, whereas Bigger's is active. It is also notable that Bigger's greatest sense of validation comes from acts of extreme misogyny which are not fully repudiated by the novel.
Bigger and his gang are alienated from the folk culture that his mother represents, from the black politicians of the South Side who hold their positions through accommodation with the white power structure, and from the white power structure itself, whether in its more blatantly corrupt and hostile form, as represented by State's Attorney Buckley, or in the more apparently benign and unconscious form represented by the Daltons. Bigger and his peers are caught in narratives of mass culture and the hungers and fears inculcated by those narratives which glamorize the lifestyles of the rich and famous while demonizing the poor, particularly African Americans, and the politically radical, especially the Communists. For example, the first of the two movies that Bigger and Jack see, The Gay Woman, titillates with the possibility of a chaotic modern world of unlimited gratification, represented as threatening in the figure of a Communist assassin, which ultimately is repelled with a return to a mythic past of "family values." The second movie, Trader Horn, is an equally eroticized narrative of a mythic Africa in which Africans, and by extension African Americans, are shown to be "savage" and therefore terrifying as well as "natural" and therefore desirable. In both cases, what is seen is ultimately a justification of the present social order through narratives of the past which are literally projections of the present. The problem for society is that the desire that these mass culture products incite to attract consumers is not so easily sated or repressed.
Practically all Bigger's knowledge of the world, particularly outside the ghetto, and of how to conduct oneself in that world whether as a lover or as the writer of a ransom note, comes from mass culture—tabloids, news-reels, Page 372 | Top of Articlemovies, detective stories, and so on. Like Emma Bovary, and in a less tragic manner Catherine Morland in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Bigger is the victim of these mass culture narratives. As models of how to act, they cannot help but lead him to disaster.
And as models of normative desire, desire that he can never satisfy, they are equally disastrous. Of course, African Americans are not the only ones caught in such narratives. The posse of the 8,000 racist white police and the racist mob screaming for Bigger's blood outside the courthouse in the third section are clearly inflamed by a narrative of black bestiality retailed by the popular press. Ironically, this mob is comprised largely of people who might be categorized as white Biggers, other uprooted and marginalized people whom—along with marginalized blacks such as Bigger—Wright sees as the potential basis for a mass fascist movement in America.
One could argue that what makes Bigger's existence truly gothic is the wild terror and the extravagant desire that are produced when these narratives of mass culture act on an individual for whom the normative markers of identity—markers of class, race, gender, sexuality—have broken down and who is confined within the rigid and narrow limits of the ghetto. It is this intersection of fear, desire, and confinement that produces the doubling, the projection, the transference, the transgressive sexuality—which includes rape—both real and imagined, followed by murder, real and imagined miscegenation, symbolic homosexual coupling and the possibility of incest, the anxiety about who one is and how one should act, the apprehension and misapprehension of possible meanings, and the sense of an inescapable past which is also the future so common to the gothic genre.
Perhaps the most telling moment of Native Son is the book's opening. First, an alarm clock goes off. The clock ostensibly is a reminder of linear time. But in fact the alarm clock is a symbolical of cyclical time marking the beginning of a day, a journey that will be almost exactly like yesterday and tomorrow. Immediately after the bell goes off, we are introduced to themes of confinement and transgressive sexuality. Then a black rat appears, both terrified and terrifying. In the first moment of doubling in the text, Bigger kills his rat double, who attacks Bigger in a fit of terror, hunger, and defiance. Bigger goes on to terrify his sister with the dead rat, enjoying her fear. Bigger's mother prophesies a tragic end for him. End of story. But not really. There will be more rats. The slum buildings of the ghetto produce an endless stream of hungry and fearful rats.
Native Son, then, would seem to be a gothic text in which history is destined to repeat itself as both tragedy and farce. In fact, if the book ended with Bigger's capture and the signing of the confession the State's Attorney gives him, then it would be a sort of gothic. Why is it an antigothic? Bigger, primarily through his interaction with the Communist lawyer Boris Max and the particular Marxist-Leninist ideology that Max embodies, attains a genuine self-consciousness or at least recognizes his ability to attain some sort of true self-consciousness, even if his execution will cut the process short. Of course, it is important to note that it is not merely Max's ideas that begin to move Bigger in a new direction away from the gothic, but also Max's willingness to act on those ideas:
Bigger was not at that moment really bothered about whether Max's speech had saved his life or not. He was hugging the proud thought that Max had made the speech for him, to save his life. It was not the meaning of the speech that gave him pride, but the mere act of it. That in itself was something.
This willingness to act on his stated ideals, as well as to expound them directly and clearly, are at least as important in distinguishing Max from the other white speakers who either disassociate their acts from their ideals (as in the case of the slumlord Mr. Dalton) or conceal the real significance of their acts with appeals to allegedly commonly held ideals (as does the corrupt State's Attorney Buckley, who invokes God and civilization in his opening statement at Bigger's trial).
Bigger begins to understand the motivations for his actions and the social laws which have shaped his actions, or at least he sees that such an understanding may be possible. The way Wright represents the process is not as a simple linear progression—and how far the process has moved by the end is ambiguous. Rather it is a process that moves in fits and starts. Neither is it a process by which the Communist Party gives Bigger the truth: The white Communists Boris Max and Jan Erlone learn at least as much from Bigger as Bigger learns from them. In fact, Bigger's vision of himself at the end may well be clearer than Max's own self-knowledge. Ultimately, Bigger rejects the various narratives which have shaped his life and his self-perception and takes Page 373 | Top of Articleresponsibility for his actions. He no longer feels terror, even about his impending execution. In essence, he takes control of his own narrative, basing it on himself rather than trying to conform himself to the various narratives of mass culture.
The gothic then is crucial to Wright's project because it is the perfect literary analogue to what Wright sees as the ideology and psychology guiding the relations between black and white Americans under what he viewed as late capitalism. The highly developed gothic rhetoric of extreme social anxiety or terror on the part of the individual subject with respect to social identity as well as the repression of that anxiety by the subject with the concomitant return of the repressed as the uncanny allowed Wright graphically to represent the pathology of American racism. Yet as in the Communist critique of Freudianism which gothic literature prefigured and influenced, it is in part rejected because of its focus on individual terror rather broader social forces—a limitation that remains even when the gothic is used to figure social conflict and anxieties. Also, because of the relation of black literature to the gothic genre, the representation of the gothic and its limitations can also be seen as a critique of black expressive culture, particularly literature, and a statement of the need for a new type of African American literature of which Native Son was to be the forerunner.
Source: James Smethurst, "Invented by Horror: The Gothic and African American Literary Ideology in Native Son," in African American Review, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring 2001, pp. 29-40.
Constitutional Rights Foundation, www.crf-usa.org/brown50th/race_voting.html (November 21, 2005).
Ellis, Aime J., "Where is Bigger's Humanity? Black Male Community in Richard Wright's Native Son," in ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews, Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer 2002, pp. 23-24.
Howe, Irving, "Black Boys and Native Sons," in Dissent, Vol. 10, No. 4, Autumn 1963, pp. 353-54.
Hurmence, Belinda, ed., Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories of Former North and South Carolina Slaves, Mentor Books, 1990, pp. viii-ix, 64-69.
Poore, Charles, "Books of the Times," in New York Times, March 1, 1940, p. 25.
Rampersad, Arnold, "Notes on the Texts," in Native Son, Harper Perennial, 2001, pp. 574-75.
West, Cornel, "Philosophy and the Afro-American Experience," in Philosophical Forum, Vol. 9, Winter/Spring, 1977–1978, pp. 117-48.
Wright, Richard, Native Son, Harper Perennial, 2001, originally published in 1940.
――――――, "How Bigger Was Born," in Native Son, Harper Perennial, 2001, pp. vii-xxxiv.
Zangrando, R. L., "About Lynching," Modern American Poetry: An Online Journal and Multimedia Companion to Anthology of Modern American Poetry, Department of English of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, www.liu.edu/cwis/cwp/library/african/2000/lynching.html (2002).