Native Son: The Story of Racial Discrimination in America
Richard Wright’s influential novel, Native Son, published in 1940, created an awareness of the reality of racial tensions in America by outlining the menace and complexity of social, political, and economic aspects. Wright brilliantly pieced together Marxist ideals, political abstractions, the impacts of social oppression, and the sexualization of women in order to portray the main character, Bigger, as a beast-like product of systematic oppression which many African Americans felt the impacts of during this time period. In combining these attributes, Wright undoubtedly shaped his novel into one that highlighted the inevitable outcome and fate for a majority of African Americans living in inner cities as well as one that reflected upon what it means to be black in a country built upon centuries of slavery and indentured servitude. The enslavement, segregations, and dehumanization of the black masses unquestionably generated an abundance of consequences which Wright hoped to communicate with Bigger’s actions and thoughts throughout the book.
Thomas Bigger, a young boy only nineteen years of age, is introduced as a trivial criminal from the ghettos of South Side Chicago, a city widely associated with poverty, crime, gangs and mafias, yet also a major center of commercial activity largely dominated by political machines, evidently seen through Mr. Dalton who served as a symbol for capitalist power. In establishing the premises of the novel, Wright begins by detailing the appalling living conditions which Bigger and his family experience on a daily basis and reflects the unfortunate reality for many poor African Americans inhabiting the inner cities. This experience was far too familiar to the author himself as he endured family hardships, including, abandonment and spent a long period of time in orphanages where the lack of nurturing figures withered his development. Though Wright was able to progress into a respected author, he attempted to illustrate the unfortunate truth that most people of color faced during this era through the main character. Living in a shoebox-sized apartment, Bigger’s family of four were literally and metaphorically stuck dealing with a rat that instilled paralyzing fear into Bigger’s mother and sister while the boys remained unfazed.
After having mercilessly killed the rat, Bigger tormented his sister by approaching her with the dead rat, “enjoying his sister’s fear” (Wright 7). This not only serves as foreshadow for his murdering of two innocent women but also serves as an understanding as to how his living environment has psychologically “stunted his growth” and development (Butler 3). Centuries of abuse and exploitation among blacks never disappeared but rather transformed into a passive manner imposed by white America through segregation and institutional oppression, unaware of the sociological and psychological impacts on the African American masses. Such consequences include the growth of a poor and uneducated population which further lessened their socioeconomic status. This left many, including Bigger, “powerless to help” and turned to theft, rape, and murder as a coping mechanism and ultimately became their new way of life (Wright 10).
While in recovery from the Great Depression in the 1930’s, unemployment rates reached over 50% making it more challenging for blacks to get decent jobs in order to provide for their families, as can be seen when Bigger is pressured by his mother to take a job offered to him by Mr. Dalton. Once again, Wright reiterates the repercussions and influences of a hostile environment when he describes Bigger’s ambitions of becoming a pilot, but systematic racism does not allow such opportunities to be presented to people of lower socioeconomic status. A combination of his extreme poverty and dark skin tone drives him to believe that people like him “can’t hope for nothing” in a nation largely dominated by thriving white oppressors that offer little hope for a better life for African Americans (Wright 353). The discriminatory treatment of black populations by white Americans explains why Bigger is a prime example of the negative results from a society that constantly enforces white superiority, and in a way justifies his reactions and logic throughout the novel. Another argument made by Wright revolves around the idea that people of color are seen as insignificant before the law and take little to no interest in Negro affairs. This inadmissible concept explains why Bigger’s involvement in theft crimes was limited to robbing businesses owned by black people since “white policemen never search diligently for Negroes who committed crimes against other Negroes” (Wright 14). Similar thinking is applied when comparing the murder of Mary Dalton, a daughter of white millionaires, and Bessie Mears, a young black woman in a relationship with Bigger upon convenience. As seen in Book III, Fate, Bigger endures a long and exhausting trial for the murder and supposed rape of Mary in which he is made out to appear as a ruthless monster. Although “white and black women bear the brunt of the violence precipitated by the race-class system,” it is the death of the white woman that is punished for rather than that of the black woman’s, whose mutilated body is merely used as convenient evidence (Guttman 7).
Wright cleverly contrasts the consequences of a crime against whites and a wrongdoing against blacks to show that, before the law, true “crime for a Negro was only when [they] harmed whites, took white lives, or injured white property,” otherwise “white people never searched [or punished] Negroes who killed other Negroes” (Wright 331). The idea of survival of the fittest was promoted and used as a justification for allowing utter destruction and chaos among African Americans in order for whites to have less people to contend with. Wright intended to “illustrate how social forces confused Bigger” as well as expose the repulsive ideology of racist America that remained responsible for the creation the stereotypical “brute Negro” that lacked morals (Guttman 3).
Wright’s portrayal of Bigger as a victim of a racially segregated society, however, prompted multiple critics to claim that the accusations of the upper white class were unfair and blown out of proportion in an attempt to confront the issue and make the public aware of the corrupt social construct. Some noted that the treatment of black in America was far less disturbing than that described in the book and felt that Bigger was rather an exaggerated case that outlined the worst of society rather than “efforts” for black rights and equality. Others argued that while the book was intended to “advance the cause for racial justice for american blacks,” in reality it only reversed progress made toward equal opportunity and enforced the stereotypes which many writers have attempted to eliminate since the Gilded Age, as seen with The Talented Tenth by Du Bois.
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