Native Son (1940)
by Richard Wright (1908-1960)
Richard Wright portrays only a fraction of the darkness of the human condition, that part that he had experienced personally. The universality of the collective human shadow, its dimensions and causes eluded him as it does all of humanity. We remain in denial of the deeper realities of our existence. Nevertheless, the power of Wright’s ability to express the suffering of African Americans is of universal significance to all of us. We all suffer as we create our human stories.
Twenty-year-old Bigger Thomas, a poor, uneducated black man lives in a cramped apartment with his family on the South Side of Chicago. Having experienced the harsh racial prejudice of America in the 1930’s he feels that he has no control over his life and can only look forward to a life of menial, low-wage labor. He continually experiences the afflictive emotions of fear, envy, anger and frustration. His persona of toughness hides a life of despair. Bigger does not see whites as individuals but as a hostile force “pressing” down on him, “a great looming whiteness.”
Bigger takes a job as a chauffeur for Mr. Dalton who owns controlling interest in the company that manages the apartment building where Bigger’s family lives and many other apartment buildings on Chicago’s South Side. Mr. Dalton exploits the African Americans that live in those apartments and alleviates his guilt by donating money to African American schools and by offering jobs to African American boys like Bigger.
On his first day of work, Bigger drives Mary, Mr. Dalton’s daughter, to meet her communist boyfriend Jan. Mary and Jan, to prove that they have progressive ideals and racial tolerance, force Bigger to drive them to a restaurant and to join them in getting drunk. Afterward, Bigger helps a drunken Mary up the stairs to her bedroom and begins kissing her. As he is placing her on her bed, a blind Mrs. Dalton enters the bedroom. To prevent Mary from revealing his presence, Bigger smothers her with a pillow. Bigger tries to conceal the crime by cutting up and burning Mary’s body in the Dalton’s furnace.
Later, Bigger’s girlfriend Bessie gives him the idea of collecting ransom money from the Dalton’s. He signs the ransom note “Red” to play upon the Daltons’ hatred of communists and bullies Bessie into taking part in the ransom scheme. Mary’s bones are found in the furnace and Bigger flees with Bessie to an empty apartment building. There he rapes Bessie and beats her to death because he fears she will give him away.
Bigger is captured and the public, influenced by the press, determines Bigger’s guilt and punishment even before the trial begins. The white mob and authorities use Bigger’s crime to terrorize the entire South Side. Jan visits Bigger in jail and tells him that he understands that he and Mary shamed him and that he had a right to be angry. Jan gets Bigger a pro-bono lawyer, Max and both treat him as a human being. This enables Bigger to see whites as individuals and himself as their equal, which shows he is capable of compassion. Max argues that Bigger is a product of his racist environment but in the end cannot prevent him from receiving a death sentence. The relative truth is that Bigger is a “’native son’: a product of American culture and the violence and racism that suffuse it.”
The Universality of Suffering
“In Wright’s portrayal, whites effectively transform blacks into their own negative stereotypes of ‘blackness.’ Only when sympathetic understanding exists between blacks and whites will they be able to perceive each other as individuals, not merely as stereotypes.” What was just described was how whites project their collective shadow onto blacks. On a personal level, Jan and Mary are also projecting their shadows and fail to see Bigger as a human being. They are also each caught up in the “sensation center” of their false-selves. “Mary and Jan are, in effect, merely entertaining themselves by slumming in the ghetto with Bigger.” All the characters of the play are “human” in the same way. They are all attempting, albeit unsuccessfully, to distract themselves from their unsatisfactory lives, their suffering.
In Search of an Identity
Our identity which is shaped by our worldview, is necessarily out of touch with the deeper realities of P-A. The tragedy of the characters in Native Son is the same as that for all of humanity trapped in the illusion of P-B. They are trying to find their way in life in an unconscious state. They are all searching for the answer to the question: Who am I? “Indeed, racism has severely curtailed Bigger’s prospects in life and his very conception of himself.” And Mary’s pseudo identity limits her ability to see reality. “Though Mary has the best of intentions, she treats Bigger with thoughtless racism.” We all wander through most of our lives in ill-fitting costumes.
Max argues that Bigger has had his identity imposed on him by the racist American culture. “The hate and fear society has bred into Bigger are an inextricable part of his personality, and essentially his only way of living … Prison, he says, would be a step up for Bigger. Though Bigger would be known only as a number in prison, he would at least have an identity there.” By the end of the story Bigger has attained a healthier identity and no longer accepts the way the white society sees him and ‘sees himself as the whites’ equal.”
Seeking the Light
Max is the one character who at least partially transcends the racism that has poisoned the American collective unconscious. “Max’s recognition of Bigger’s humanity allows Bigger to understand for the first time that a sympathetic relationship between a white man and a black man is possible. He speaks to Bigger as a human being, rather than simply as a black man or a murderer.” Many decades from the America of the 1930’s, the same lack of awareness on the part of Americans continues to bring about self-destructive behavior. “Max serves as a voice for Wright’s warning to America about the consequences of continued racial oppression.” Wright senses the danger or the unconsciousness of Americans—and like many creative artists—he begins to grasp its magnitude.
“Not surprisingly, then, both blacks and whites see blacks as inferior brutes—a view that has crippling effects on whites and absolutely devastating effects for blacks.” Bigger feels at home in P-B since he has developed a survival strategy that enables him to cope in the world controlled by whites. “Bigger utterly outsmarts the whites by telling them exactly what they want to hear, saying that, on the night of Mary’s disappearance, Jan was talking about these ‘things the Reds were always asking for.’” Nevertheless, Bigger is drawn to P-A, instinctively feeling his “capacity” to awaken. “It is this quest for wholeness that dominates Bigger’s life.”
The Collective Darkness
“Bigger becomes a brutal killer precisely because the dominant white culture fears that he will become a brutal killer.” The white society has projected its collective shadow onto Bigger and is therefore seeing its own shadow in action. “Bigger is not alien to or outside of American culture—on the contrary, he is a ‘native son.’” Bigger is appropriately terrified of the “…great looming ‘whiteness’ pressing down upon him.”
We create our own reality is the fundamental principle at work in Native Son. Unable to see the paradox in their own behavior “the empowered majority sows the seeds of minority violence in the very act of trying to quell it.” Fear and the resultant shadow have become the ultimate reality that has taken over the lives of the characters in Native Son and in the America that the book so accurately describes.
The Self Destructive Shadow
One of the themes of Native Son is the effect of racism on the oppressed—in this case the Black Americans on Chicago’s South Side. To Bigger, “whites … are all the same, frightening and untrustworthy. Wright illustrates the ways in which white racism forces blacks into a pressured—and therefore dangerous—state of mind. As Max argues, it becomes inevitable that blacks such as Bigger will react with violence and hatred.” Another way to look at the effect of racism on the oppressed is to see it more profoundly as the emergence of the shadows of both the “oppressed” and the “oppressors.” Shadow projection blinds both African Americans and whites so that they can only see the threatening “other” and not the humanity beneath the color.
The second theme is, of course, the effects of racism on the oppressor. “Whites effectively transform blacks into their own negative stereotypes of ‘blackness.’ The deleterious effect of racism extends to the white population, in that it prevents whites from realizing the true humanity inherent in groups that they oppress. Racism has destroyed Bigger’s innocence by awakening terrible capabilities within him.”
Shadow projection and false self reaction is at the heart of all human conflict. Seeing individuals or groups of individuals as “the other” creates the self-destructive dynamic of conflict and violence. “When talking to Bigger, Mary uses the phrase ‘your people’ and refers to black Americans as ‘they’ and ‘them.’ Her language implies that there is an alien, foreign aura to black Americans, that they are somehow a separate, essentially different class of human beings.” Seeing other human beings as fundamentally different, even less human than we are, is a necessary first step to shadow projection and the ensuing violence that ultimately follows. We could not treat other people violently if we believed them to be “just like us.” Our natural compassion wouldn’t allow it.
The mistake we all make in P-B is to project our own individual shadows and our collective shadow instead of becoming conscious of where our afflictive emotions, our reactions, are coming from and take responsibility for them. Americans have imagined “an enemy within” for centuries. And in truth there has indeed been an enemy within—but it is within each of us—and has been systematically projected upon the beasts of the dark primeval colonial forests, the Native American “savages,” witches, our Canadian neighbors, our Mexican neighbors, slave “insurrectionists,” “papists,” Mormons, “ignorant” immigrants, Communist “Reds” and today’s “terrorists” to name a few. “Wright’s urgent warning that if American social and economic realities did not change, the oppressed masses would soon rise up in fury against those in power.” Warnings related to “the oppressed masses” cited by Wright and other black writers such as James Baldwin have not yet come to pass. In any case, they did not identify the real problem, only a related illusion. As Seth states in The Nature of Personal Reality, “In your society therefore the black race has represented what you think of as the chaotic, primitive, spontaneous, savage, unconscious portions of the self, the underside of the ‘proper American citizen.’”
“The deleterious effect of racism extends to the white population, in that it prevents whites from realizing the true humanity inherent in groups that they oppose. Other white characters in the novel—particularly those with a self-consciously progressive attitude toward race relations—are affected by racism in subtler and more complex ways. This pretense [is] an effort to avoid confronting their guilt.” On one level this is true but the deeper truth is that what is being avoided is reality itself. It is the nature of unconsciousness humans to use all means available to avoid awareness, to avoid waking up.
A Blinded Nation
Unconsciousness and blindness are related themes of the human condition. Mrs. Dalton’s inability to see Bigger symbolizes the inability of whites in general to see blacks. Blacks come to feel invisible to whites since they are not treated as human beings. “The inability of whites to see blacks as individuals causes blacks to live their lives in fear and hatred. Bigger sees white people not as individuals, but rather as an undifferentiated ‘whiteness,’ a powerful, threatening, and hateful authority that denies him control over his own life and identity.” This invisibility works both ways in Native Son. “Indeed, Bigger later realizes that, in a sense, even he has been blind, unable to see whites as individuals rather than a single oppressive mass. Native Son is a novel filled with characters who are blind literally and metaphorically.”
When Bigger begins to feel hope in his jail cell brought about by beginning to awaken, he quickly represses these feelings. “This hope is tantalizing and torments him with uncertainty. Bigger wonders if perhaps his blind hatred is the better option anyway, since hope anguishes him more than it comforts him.” But later in the chapter we see Bigger experience the benefits of his increasing awareness. “Thanks to his discussion with Max, he now feels free from the tensions of his life. He no longer sees whites as just a ‘looming mountain of hate,’ but rather as individuals.” He then has a profound insight into the universality of the suffering in P-B. “He imagines everyone—white and black, rich and poor—trapped alone in his or her own jail cell, longing for connection.” And finally Bigger comes to a critically important realization that the ultimate reality is within. “Fighting this battle within himself, he realizes that to win the battle for his life on the outside he must first win it on the inside.”
Unconsciousness is the ultimate source of all human problems and hence all human suffering. Bigger lacks the awareness necessary to understand the source of his fear and why he behaves the way he does. “The fear, hatred and anger that racism has impressed upon Bigger Thomas ravages his individuality so severely that his only means of self-expression is violence.” Bigger is imprisoned, not ultimately by racism, which he could transcend, but by not consciously understanding what is happening to him. “His own consciousness is a prison, as a sense of failure, inadequacy, and unrelenting fear pervades his entire life.”
Such is the human condition.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.