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Native Son by Richard Wright (2) (contains spoilers)
‘... If only ten or twenty Negroes had been put into slavery, we could call it injustice, but there were hundreds of thousands of them throughout the country. If this state of affairs had lasted for two or three years, we could say that it was unjust; but it lasted for more than two hundred years. Injustice that lasts for long centuries and which exists among millions of people over thousands of square miles of territory, is injustice no longer; it is an accomplished fact of life. Men adjust themselves to their land; they create their own laws of being; their notions of right and wrong. (...) Your Honor, injustice blots out one form of life, but another grows up in the its place with its own rights, needs and aspirations. What is happening here today is not injustice, but oppression, an attempt to throttle or stamp out a new form of life. And it is this form of life that has grown up here in our midst that puzzles us, that expresses itself, like a weed growing from under a stone, in terms we call crime. Unless we grasp this problem in the light of this new reality, we cannot do more than salve our feelings of guilt and rage with more murder when a man, living under such condition, commits and act with we call a crime...’
With these words, defence lawyer Boris A Max puts the entire American society in the dock in the closing pages of Native Son. In order to understand the flaws of the American War of Independence and its subsequent Civil War, we needn’t look further than Bigger Thomas, here characterising the uneducated black man, coming from the lowest rung on the American social and economic ladder. As his options comprise no more than menial jobs, Bigger’s life becomes a trap, which feeds him nothing but resentment and hate. He fears the whites, who determine his existence and this fear makes him see the white race as a collective that tells him where to live, where to work and what to do.
The setting of the novel, black and white colours with shades of grey thrown in and cloudy skies, eases the reader into the desperate plight the main character, Bigger Thomas, has. He is the focus of the novel and the embodiment of racism in the psyche of its black victims. Bigger and his compadres suffer from a popular assumption that whites are sophisticated whereas blacks are either subservient or savage. All throughout the novel and up until the dénouement Bigger’s thoughts change from shame (of his family’s abject poverty) to fear (of the whites who control his life).
Native Son is one of those novels that, although they focus on social and political issues, draw heavily from the work of other writers whose oeuvre might not be directly related to the issues raised in the novel in question. In this case it's that other great American writer, Edgar Allan Poe whose short-stories are the leverage that produce the effect in the novel . In Native Son, I saw clearly ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. The feeling of paranoia caused by the ‘vulture eye’ in ‘Tell-Tale Heart’ is on a par with Bigger’s mix of hate and fear towards Mary Dalton. The criminal modus operandi is the same. Both perpetrators smother their victims. They both stay in the same room where their dead victim is, as the police or investigator search the premises. They both panic in a moment of self-consciousness. Poe’s narrator begins to hear a faint noise that grows louder and louder. Bigger avoids replenishing the furnace. The atmosphere is the same, repressed, silent, grim and cold.
There’s an important lesson in Native Son and it’s mainly aimed at the liberal, white, middle class person. Mary Dalton, the victim and turning point in Bigger’s life, professes a benign type of racism, one whose own naïveté escapes its owner. Richard Wright, very deftly, criticises Mary’s attitude towards blacks, and specifically towards Bigger. Her youth and immaturity do not allow her to see beyond those rose-tinted spectacles she wears and therefore she fails to recognise Bigger’s signs of confusion and surprise when she approaches him in a such an open and friendly manner. Her assumption that Bigger will accept her friendship proves to be one of many fatal errors she and Jan, her boyfriend, make.
This is not to excuse Bigger. I wrote in the first part of my analysis of Native Son that as a father and husband, Bigger’s deeds tested my liberal credentials. They still do. But I feel now in a much better position to judge, and not too harshly, this human being who, rather than acting, was re-acting to the society that put him in that condition in the first place.