Native Son was published in 1940. During this time, racial segregation is still legal. Richard Wright opens the novel with the sound of an alarm waking up the main character, Bigger Thomas. Bigger is a 20 year old African American man living in the poverty in the Southside of Chicago during the 1930s. It’s ironic how the name “Bigger” makes him seems as if he tough and big, however he is the total opposite.
Bigger felt small and felt oppressed by the white man his whole life. He felt limited in his options in life because he only had completed eighth grade, which left him no option but to do menial labor for a racist landlord. The fear and anger for whites led to Bigger’s dangerous and troublesome lifestyle. As a result, Bigger further plays into the negative stereotypes that the racist society portrayed him as. Bigger appeals to wanting to do better and making something of himself but can’t escape that lifestyle. Throughout the novel, Wright focuses on the mistreatment and the stereotypes of African American males. Wright beautifully displays, in the novel the fight against blacks identity and the anger they have felt because of their exclusion from society.
Wright was born Sept. 4, 1908, the son of a Mississippi sharecropper; his formal schooling ended at ninth grade. His parents were born free after the Civil War; both sets of his grandparents had been born into slavery and freed as a result of the war. He educated himself by forging notes that allowed him to enter segregated libraries and procure books.
Similar to Bigger Thomas, Wright lived with his mother, brother and sister after his father abandoned them. His mother soon became ill and Wright had to provide for his family during his childhood and adolescence. Shortly before the Great Depression, Wright and his family moved to Chicago and he focused more on writing.
In 1934, Wright became a member of the Communist Party publishing articles and poetry. Wright later took a job researching blacks history in Chicago. In 1937, he moved to New York as a editor for a communist newspaper. Around this time he published Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of short stories introducing social reality that African American men had to face during that time. Later, the collection of short stories was banned in different parts of the world.
Much of his work concerns racial themes, especially related to the difficulty of African Americans during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, suffering discrimination and violence in the South and the North (Sparknotes). Wright was determined to express the reality of race relations. Many Literary critics believe Wright’s work helped change race relations within the United States (Wellington, Darryl Lorenzo).
In Native Son, power is connected with race. If you had power, you were white, and if you didn’t you were black. Wright includes a scene of Bigger and Gus, one of his close friends, discussing the opportunities African Americans had versus what the whites had. The two stood outside against a brick wall, and observed a plane. Bigger dreams of flying a plane and Gus preceded to say “If you were white and had some money and if they’d let you go to that aviation aviation school, you could fly a plane” (17).
Flying could be used as a symbol for freedom in which, Bigger dreams of having his own power. Whenever Bigger gets the chance to gain power over something he takes it. The first expression of Bigger’s desire to power comes in the beginning of the book when Bigger’s family finds a black rat in their home and he is told to take care of it which gives Bigger a feeling of power in his household. In addition, when Bigger accidental killings fills him with power instead of guilt. For the first time, he felt as if the whites didn’t have control over his life and his own individuality. In the novel, Bigger and his friend Gus “play white” to emphasize how whites have power and blacks dont. Bigger pretends to be the President of the United States and Gus pretends to be the Secretary of State.
Gus tells Mr. President busy because “…the niggers is raising sand all over the country…” (22) Mr.
President felt action was to be taken quickly, “We’ve got to do something with these black folks. . . ” (22). Each white person they chose has power and uses it against those without. Due to the treatment of racism, the terrible inequity of the American criminal justice system emerges. Wright illustrates how the American judiciary is influenced by the media and the driving ambition of politicians.
The outcome of Bigger’s case is decided before the case ever goes to court. “Though he had killed by accident, not once did he feel the need to tell himself, that it had been an accident. He was black and he had been alone in the room where a white girl had been killed: therefore he had killed her. That was what everyone would say, anyhow, no matter what he said” (102). During this time, racism concluded that a black man who kills a white woman is guilty regardless of the factual circumstances of the killing because he is simply black. Bigger has always felt as if bad things were bound to happen to him because of the color of his skin.”I don’t know.
I just feel that way. Every time I get to thinking about me being black and they being white, me being here and they being there, I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me “(23). Of course, Bigger is guilty of Mary’s and Bessie’s murder. Nonetheless, the justice system still fails him, as he receives neither a fair trial nor an opportunity to defend himself. Max tries to save Bigger from the death penalty saying despite the fact that he is guilty of his crime, he is a product of his environment.
He tries to convince them that fearness is part of the blame.. Giving the reader a feeling of sympathy towards Bigger. Sympathy for his living conditions, his lifestyle, lack of financial stability and inability to own up to being a black male rapist and murderer. The novel is composed of three chapters: Fear, Flight and Fate.
Wright organized the novel in this order to convey the message that no matter the person, there is some type fear of the future. Whenever things aren’t going right in life, a feeling of flight is developed. It seems as if running away from all the problems would be the easiest thing to do. However, fate is something that can’t be escaped. The fate of an individual is something that is already determined, what is meant to be will happen.
Bigger felt his fate was tied to the color of his skin. In the novel, Bigger starts a fight with Gus as a way to hide his fear of robbing a white man’s store, although they had robbed many black owned business before. Not to mention, it was Bigger’s idea to rob the white man. Mrs. Dalton’s blindness plays an important role in Bigger’s escape route of Mary’s death. This symbolism serves as a metaphor for racism in American society. “Blindness” is an idea that recurs throughout this novel.
Almost all the characters are “blind” in a figurative language making them preconceived about what they are actually causing. The characters cause hatred and are unable to see reality. In the novel, Mrs. Dalton is a wealthy, kind and religious woman who is blind. She takes an interest in the NAACP and encourages her husband to use their wealth to change the lives of blacks in Chicago by offering jobs and donating to charities. Mrs. Dalton’s physical blindness is a metaphor for her social and spiritual blindness. She is completely blind to the fact that her family’s wealth is gained through oppression of the same black people she’s trying to help.
Bigger worked for the Dalton’s family and her blindness causes Bigger to turn to violence, “…Mrs. Dalton was blind; yes, blind in more ways than one..
. Mrs. Dalton had not known Mary was dead while she had stood over the bed in that room last night. She had thought that Mary was drunk, because she was used to Mary’s coming home drunk. And Mrs. Dalton had not known that he was in the room with her; it would have been the last thing she would have thought of.
He was black and would not have figured in her thoughts on such an occasion. Bigger felt that a lot of people were like Mrs. Dalton, blind” (102). The inability of whites to see blacks as individuals caused them to live in fear and hatred. Mrs.
Dalton’s blindness also represents the inability of white Americans to view African Americans as anything other than the identity the media views them as-stereotypes.