Richard Wright, “Native Son”

1940

In Native Son, Richard Wright suggests an inevitable fate for Bigger Thomas. He works for the Daltons, driving Mary and her communist boyfriend Jan around. Mary gets drunk and as Bigger puts her to bed, he suffocates her for fear that she will betray him when Mrs. Dalton enters the room. She goes away, but Mary is dead. He cuts her up and burns her in the furnace. Bigger discovers during the ensuing chaos that Dalton owns the filthy flat where his family lives. Bigger is asked to clean the furnace. Mary’s bones and earring are discovered in the ashes as Bigger stirs them into a cloud. He writes a false kidnap note for money and he and Bessie try to run away. The kidnap note is most interesting in its invisibility to the whites – “do what this letter say,” it reads, and is signed “red.” It is a color deterrent whose own diction, in the form of a missing letter, should give itself away, but somehow does not. No one in the house sees him as clever enough to write it – or to write anything, to be a man of letters, as it were. Bessie is paralyzed with fear, so Bigger beats her to death with a brick. The only money he has is from her pocket. He is captured by the police. Jan hires him a communist lawyer, Max.

Biblical allusions to Job abound in the novel, but are delivered with an ironic tone, since Bigger must answer to himself in the end, not God. Max is just “the man who had lured him on a quest toward a dim hope” 352. His moment of “I-I” in the final pages of the novel is both self-articulation and split consciousness. He has been abandoned by language itself, and has no recourse to art to comfort him: “Distractedly, he gazed about the cell, trying to remember where he had heard words that would help him. He could recall none. He had lived outside of the lives of men. Their modes of communication, their symbols and images, had been denied him” 353. It is almost as though Wright suggests that if he did have aesthetics, he could have been saved. What he realizes is that “Max is not a friend” either, and that “anger was useless” 353. What is left with Max is the memory of the night of questioning: “You asked me questions nobody ever asked me before. You knew that I was a murderer two times over, but you treated me like a man” 354. Max ends up spewing some Communist stuff about how belief and fear hold up the material world of men: “Die free… Every time you try to find a way to live, your own mind stands in the way… because others have said you were bad and they made you live in bad conditions” 357.

Bigger’s self-realization is not exactly what Max was hoping for: “They wouldn’t let me live and I killed… what I killed for, I am! It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill!… What I killed for must’ve been good!… I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em” 359. Max is horrified, but Bigger ends with a wry smile.

James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel”

1949

The contemporary novel of Negro experience only repeats what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did – a moral rectitude that says “This is terrible! You should be ashamed of yourselves!” The novels of oppression, on the other hand [probably Native Son?] have a raging paranoiac quality that only reinforces the stereotypes they protest. Sentimentality is the enemy of real lived experience. All of Stowe’s black characters are but lovable types – only George, Eliza, and Tom are real people to us, and the first two are “as white as she can make them.” This is only a sort of fear of damnation on the part of the author. But do we really want a novel so didactic, filled with “hardworking ciphers,” rather than real people? In Bigger Thomas’ murder and rape, in his death that is a sort of life because a reclamation of manhood, Baldwin finds the evil twin of the sentimental novel. If Stowe is scolding and exhorting us, Wright is cursing and damning us. The protest novel puts too much on the categories imposed on us – we need not battle for our humanity with the bestial qualities we are told we have (Bigger) – we have only to accept our humanity, and to move towards transcendence.