Native Son
(1937)
 
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Ellen Church and Kiimberly Mertz
Candidates, Master of Arts in English Education
Department of English & Theatre
University of North Carolina, Pembroke

I. WORTH BEING FAMILIAR WITH

To fully appreciate the magnitude of Richard Wright’s Native Son, it is necessary to place the novel in a historical context because the novel centers on American racial discrimination and segregation previous to the Civil Rights Movement. While discrimination remains a reality in modern American, the racial tensions and separatist laws that spurred violence and fear between blacks and whites might seem foreign to some students who have not experienced the segregation and the denial of basic human rights that was acceptable practice against blacks in early 20th century America. Being familiar with Jim Crow laws and Wright’s own experiences with racial prejudice are two crucial components worth being familiar with in order to enhance students’ understanding of Native Son’s underlying theme that warns of the dangerous psychological effects of racial oppression upon humanity.

Set in Chicago in the 1930s, the novel depicts the tribulations of Bigger Thomas, a young black man who during a moment of panic unintentionally murders a wealthy debutant as he tries to silence her with a pillow; Bigger feared the girl would expose his presence in her bedroom. He commits a second murder, that of his girlfriend Bessie, in an attempt to keep her silent about the first murder. Though the premise seems extreme, Wright maintained that the scenario was a real possibility considering the era’s laws that trampled blacks’ civil liberties and mandated racial segregation through a system of social control that divided black and white Americans. Schools, restaurants and public transportation are just a few of the public amenities that were separated by color, while subtler laws addressed the “social etiquette” of black and white interaction. Anyone violating the laws’ codes was subject to severe punitive action. Though not based on fact, the myths of blacks as being of an inferior and dangerous group were widely believed and perpetuated in part through negative stereotypes.

David Pilgrim, a professor of sociology at Ferris State University in Michigan and author of What Was Jim Crow?, writes that “[t]he Jim Crow laws and system of etiquette were undergirded by violence” (9). At its worse, Jim Crow statues allowed the gruesome practice of lynchings (a form of torture and murder, usually by hanging) that were thought “necessary supplements to the criminal justice system because Blacks were prone to violent crimes, especially the rapes of White women” (11). Bigger’s terror at the notion of being discovered in a white girl’s bedroom is logical once the severity of the law is made clear. Background information on Jim Crow also adds further clarity to Native Son’s jailhouse scene where the prosecutor Buckley leads Bigger to the window to show him the belligerent mob waiting below as Buckley implies that he is protecting Bigger from a lynching (303). Without the appropriate context the meaning behind these scenes could be difficult for students to conceptualize.

Furthermore, it would be helpful for students to get a firsthand perspective Wright’s personal encounters with Jim Crow brutality, which can be found in his narrative “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch.” An overview of “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” adds further validity to Wright’s depiction of Bigger’s reaction to his environment, as the author describes how despite his inner rage he forces smiles and accepts degradation for fear of crueler repercussions writing: “I learned to lie, to steal, to dissemble. I learned to play that dual role which every Negro must play if he wants to eat and live” (126). Wright’s experience here parallels Bigger’s existence as a petty thief who is willing to protect himself by lying when necessary. While Wright does not result to physical attacks against his oppressors, he reveals the emotional torment of having to navigate his way through daily humiliation and sometimes life-threatening confrontations with white society. Thus “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” shows how the real fear Wright met as a youth directly influenced his creation of the fictional Bigger. Further comparison between Wright’s real life experiences and that of Bigger can be found in “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” when Wright describes how after making a delivery in a white neighborhood near sunset a policeman accosts him. Wright is thrown to the ground, searched, and verbally abused by the officer. Wright observes, “While white strangers may be in these neighborhoods trying to get home, they can pass unmolested. But the color of a Negro's skin makes him easily recognizable, makes him suspect, converts him into a defenseless target” (96). Similarly, in Book One of Native Son, Bigger internalizes his “fear” as he travels to the home of the wealthy Dalton family for a job interview, thinking to himself: “Suppose a police officer saw him wandering in a white neighborhood like this? It would be thought that he was trying to rob or rape somebody” (44). Clearly, the character of Bigger is apprehensive because he is aware of the possible ramifications for being “caught” in the white neighborhood. Bigger’s fear of being falsely accused of rape exemplifies the impact of Jim Crow on Bigger’s psyche and foreshadows the accusations he faces later.

For further insight into the creation of Bigger Thomas, teachers can examine the short essay, “How Bigger Was Born,” an enlightening explanation of the literary decisions Wright made while composing the novel. The essay expands upon Wright’s personal experience and its effect on the development of Bigger’s character: “I had spent years learning about Bigger, what had made him, what he meant; so, when the time came for writing, what had made him and what he meant constituted my plot” (454, emphasis original). Wright explains that Bigger is a composite of people he has known throughout his life – all of whom have met an early demise because they refused to accept the indignation of Jim Crow discrimination. He writes: “They were shot, hanged, maimed, lynched, and generally hounded until they were either dead or their spirits broken” (437).

At the same time, the Bigger Thomases Wright knew were not always black. In Wright’s opinion, Bigger actually represents a multitude of people, black and white, who were trapped by class divide. He writes that they all shared an intensity and nervousness that was expressed through reactionary violence (446). The cause of the anxieties of these “Biggers” is their exclusion from society because they have been relegated to the lower socioeconomic realms of existence, lacking the voice or authority to change their destiny because their futures are guided by America’s capitalistic hierarchy. This point of view extends from Wright’s Marxist beliefs that framed his early writing career, described in his autobiography Black Boy (1945), which provides background information on Marxist philosophy as well as Wright’s brief ties to the Communist Party. In 1942, Wright officially broke with the party after an ongoing conflict with members’ attempts to control his writing and the party’s failure to confront discrimination within America’s armed forces (Native Son Chronology 474).This biographical information would be helpful prior to or during the study of Native Son, since Marxism plays a significant role in the novel’s plot.

Besides Marxism, Native Son also reflects the influence of naturalism on Wright’s work. American literary scholar Donald Pizer defines naturalism as a literary philosophy that features a detached observer, as if someone is watching an experiment unfold with little commentary about characters or their common lives whose existence is marked by violence. The characters seem as though “they are conditioned and controlled by environment, heredity, instinct or chance.” (qtd. Naturalism 1). Irving Howe agrees that Native Son was of naturalistic origin as Wright “pummel[s] his readers into awareness.” But Howe also observes that Wright defers from pure naturalism because there is no discernable detachment from the subject on Wright’s part (11). In other words, he argues that Wright does not stand back and allow his characters to react solely on the basis of their surroundings, but he is an active voice in the novel, using the characters to express his personal views. Nonetheless, it is obvious that Wright’s point cannot be ignored as it reveals an ugly truth that America previously ignored.

Originally published in 1940 by Harper and Brothers, Native Son was a No. 1 best seller for the Book of the Month Club, making Wright the first African American to make the bestseller list. However, this was not without extensive cuts to Wright’s original submission, which contained strong sexual content and explicit language and violence. The Library of America restored the text of Wright’s original work and published a new version in 1991. With or without cuts, Native Son remains a controversial and provocative text that can prove to be problematic, especially in a high school setting. Students and parents need to be aware of the realistic portrayal of violent crime, sexuality, and charged language prior to reading. Aside from its explicit content, Native Son has endured to become a standard in American literature and a standout among African American works as a novel that attacks racial prejudice at its core, bringing to light the debilitating racial oppression of Jim Crow laws. Prior knowledge of the historical significance of Jim Crow will add to the veracity of Wright’s argument that societal influences could have realistically impaired the protagonist’s judgment to the point that he commits murder.

II. IMPORTANT TO KNOW AND DO

Wright effectively engages the literary devices of motif and symbolism throughout Native Son to reinforce the novel’s underlying theme that the American racial divide has created a volatile atmosphere that will ultimately culminate in violence. It is necessary to understand and identify the significance of Native Son’s symbolism for a meaningful interpretation of the novel. Melba Joyce Boyd, author of “Literacy and Liberation of Bigger Thomas,” observes that because students often interpret symbolism “matter-of-factly, it is essential that these signs are identified or else the metaphorical level of seeing escapes their reading” (38). Without understanding the connection between the symbolic objects or gestures within the novel and the symbols’ deeper meanings students might miss the essence of Wright’s purpose. For example, the novel opens with the loud ring of an alarm clock that rouses the Thomases from slumber. The alarm clock’s purpose is not simply to wake up the family, but is to also a metaphorical wake-up to American citizens, black and white, who have been lulled into accepting the status quo that supports racial discrimination and white supremacy.

Boyd writes that symbolic blindness in Native Son is a symptom of “ignorance or arrogance … that …. affects judgment, distorts perception, and restricts intelligences” (35). This is demonstrated literally and figuratively in the form of Mrs. Dalton who views herself as an advocate for black Americans by giving money to charitable organizations and promoting education. Fundamentally, Mrs. and Mr. Dalton represent liberal whites who suppress their guilt of racial indignities through monetary gifts, yet still contribute to oppressive conditions of the people they are trying to help. For example, Bigger’s lawyer Max identifies Mr. Dalton’s distorted assumptions during a courtroom examination, pointing out that Mr. Dalton participates in racial oppression through his refusal to rent to blacks outside of Chicago’s Black Belt, where he charges high rates for Bigger’s family to stay in a one-room, rat-infested apartment. Max accuses Mr. Dalton of using charity as a way “to salve the ache of [his] own conscience” (328). Bigger refers to his own blindness as well as that of his family who “did not want to see what others were doing if that doing did not feed their own desires” (106) as they see what they want and blindly ignore the realities of their existence. In essence, Wright is blaming black and white people, suggesting that both groups have chosen to turn a blind eye to their contributions to the existing oppressive. From this angle, students could be prompted to observe modern sources of oppression and identify how everyone plays a role in society’s hierarchy by remaining silent and allowing the status quo to remain quietly in place.

After the murder of Mary, Bigger achieves a new sense of “sight” that makes him feel superior and in control for the first time in his life because he has physically destroyed an abstract barrier that presented itself in a tangible form through Mary. His newfound ability to “see” what is happening gives Bigger a twisted feeling of power: “[T]here was in everyone a great hunger to believe that made him blind, and if he could see while others were blind, then he could get what he wanted and never be caught at it,” (107). For a short while, Bigger’s plan to play into others’ blindness works as he manipulates stereotypical beliefs in his favor. Nonetheless, the discovery of Mary’s scorched bones reveals the truth of which forces Bigger to revert to hiding from his white oppressor.

Similarly, snow appears as a symbol of white oppression that is a “natural force,” in Bigger’s life, not unlike “stormy weather” that keeps Bigger and others like him at bay from white privileges (Native Son 114). Nearly every aspect of Bigger’s life is controlled by white society, from his education and employment to his social life. Bigger is surrounded by a white veil of snow that begins slowly, but eventually engulfs the city in a blizzard. Bigger becomes immersed in snow as he jumps from his bedroom window at the Dalton’s home to escape capture: “Snow was in his mouth, eyes, ears; snow was seeping down his back” (220). Rather than being an external force, the snow overcomes Bigger’s entire being and leaves him helpless. Near the end of his flight, Bigger’s white captors surround him and shove his body deeper into the snow to restrain his movements, sealing his fate. This connects back to the tradition of naturalism in that Bigger is a victim of his environment of which he cannot escape.

Students who can successfully decipher the symbolic meaning woven throughout Native Son will derive a higher level of understanding of the structure of Wright’s novel and the message he is trying to convey. Without the skills to identify and discuss motif, theme and symbolism, the prevailing intent of Native Son could easily be lost. Therefore, a firm foundation of literary terms established prior to or during the course of the reading of the novel is essential for reasonable interpretation and appreciation of Wright’s work as a whole.

III. ENDURING UNDERSTANDINGS

Teaching Richard Wright’s Native Son lends itself to a range of possible interpretations and lasting impressions; however, key to the novel’s enduring understandings is the reception of Wright’s message that all humans must be valued as individuals and not judged through stereotypical labels. Considering the diversity of today’s classroom, prompting critical thinking about how opinions are shaped and influenced is an important part of teaching Native Son. As Melba Joyce Boyd writes: “[T]he teaching of Native Son involves a moral lesson for us all ... Native Son not only identifies the consequences of racial oppression, it also illuminates the cultural thought that encourages inequities, [and] hatred” (35-36). Many people who do not fit the expected societal norms are often subject to discrimination and subtle forms of oppression, which can be found in today’s television, movies, music and newsprint, similar to Bigger’s media experiences depicted within Native Son.

Teachers can make this concept relevant by drawing on current stereotyping of groups of people. For example, because of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center the new American enemy is anyone of Middle Eastern descent who is portrayed as a scheming terrorist, compared to the former enemy of many of our own youths and that of Wright’s era, the Russians. Once a group of people have been established as “the enemy” it becomes socially acceptable to publicly ridicule, humiliate, and demean their political views and social values as inferior to the dominant culture. Popular rhetorical ridicule of Middle Eastern ethnic groups include epithets like “sand nigger” and “towelhead” as they have become the butt of comedians’ jokes and the target of destruction in movies, videos and television productions. Stereotypes of blacks as “ghetto” similar to Wright depiction of Bigger in Native Son continue to persist today, while others categorize whites as “rednecks.”

In essence, stereotypical beliefs depicted in Native Son are a form of blindness that impairs nearly all of the characters’ judgment and do not allow Bigger to be judged as an individual. From Bigger’s first meeting with Jan and Mary until the end of his trial, stereotyping affects each aspect of the narrative. In fact, Bigger counts on the police’s misconception of his inferior intellect as a way to evade suspicion. It is also Bigger’s awareness of the preconceived notions of Communists that enable him to manipulate yet another stereotype in his favor by laying blame on Jan, a Communist party member, if only for a little while. Even the early newspaper coverage of the murders implies that Bigger is incapable of concocting the crime and its cover-up: “The police feel that the plan of the murder and kidnapping was too elaborate to be the work of a Negro mind (245). Wright asserted in an Atlantic Monthly response essay that “(i)f there had been one person in the Dalton household who viewed Bigger Thomas as a human being, the crime would have been solved in half an hour. … The one piece of incriminating evidence … was Bigger’s humanity, and the Daltons, Britten, and the newspaper men could not see or admit the living clue of Bigger’s humanity under their very eyes” (828). Bigger Thomas is a victim of the environment created by the racial hierarchy of the era, and reacts naturally, as a human, to inhumane conditions, but because Bigger is black, his human qualities are never considered.

Wright recognized that the media’s manipulation of language and images played a role in enabling such misconceptions to germinate in the American mind, thus adding to the racial hysteria that follows Mary’s murder. The newspapers reporters in the novel are cast as catalyst for maintaining stereotypical beliefs through its derogatory rhetoric. For example, the news articles contain blatant racial slurs such as “jungle beast,” “sex-slayer,” and “negro rapist” (279) that uphold stereotypical viewpoints and condemn Bigger well before he goes to trial. Wright says in “How Bigger was Born” that he simply drew from what he had already seen and experienced, pointing out that Bigger’s news items in the novel were “fictionalized” “rewrites” of an actual murder trial covered in the Chicago Tribune (455). Boyd cites the use of media in the novel as a “significant point” that should be explored in the study of Native Son, explaining that the media are maintained by “institutions of control” that do not provide a definitive truth of reality. The institutions of control are maintained through the white-dominated society, which filters what the public hears and sees about each other. The lesson here is to encourage critical consideration of all information in order to avoid pitfalls of blindly allowing one’s judgment to be swayed by inaccurate information.

Wright’s contemporaries accused him of deliberately playing into black male stereotypes to appease a white audience, therefore validating white Americans’ perceptions of how blacks behave. James Baldwin wrote of Bigger Thomas in his essay “Many Thousand Gone” that “Bigger . . . and his furious kin, serve only to whet the notorious national taste for the sensational and to reinforce all that we now find it necessary to believe” (36). Furthermore, Baldwin asserts that “[t]he American image of the Negro lives also in the Negro’s heart, and when he has surrendered to this image life has not other possible reality” (38). Thus the novel does not call for change, but confirms what people already believe. Baldwin implies that if the image of the black male as a hateful, murderous subhuman is believed and accepted by whites as well as blacks, the image, truth or myth, will continue to be portrayed in both fiction and reality. On the other hand, J.D. Jerome, in a 1940 book review of Native Son, commends Wright for deferring from previous depictions of “exceptional colored Americans” and shifting focus to the “underprivileged Negro constituting the main problem in the American social order” (252). By focusing on Bigger, a petty thief and liar, rather than a character of honor and perseverance, Wright is able to more forcefully explicate the immediate need for attention to the American race issue. Wright reveals that society is not churning out productive citizens, but instead, angry, militants who will violently release suppressed emotions stifled by oppression.

Implementing discussion of Wright’s call for action against white oppression could be divisive in a high school setting. However, framing discussion around the concept of how Bigger is portrayed through the media and how it impacts opinion can ease potential classroom tensions. James C. Hall in “Teaching Intercultralism: Symbiosis, Interpretation and Native Son” comments that classroom discussion can be directed toward the idea of ethical reading and writing of popular culture and how it affects outcomes. For example, Hall suggests questions that prompt discussion about the “relation between the newspaper words and the community’s action. How is Bigger defined as a beast, and how is such sensationalism an inhibitor of rational … interpretation?” (88). Real life connections can be made by referencing current conditions that exist in American society and how the media play up or down certain stereotypes. By asking students such questions, there is the opportunity to encourage students’ growth as conscious citizens who are aware of their own vulnerability to language and image manipulation and how it affects their views of others as well as themselves.

Essentially, all stereotypes reinforce preconceived notions, limit communication, and distort reality. In the same manner, the stereotypes presented in Native Son create barriers that block opportunities and communications, leading to disastrous consequences, not only for Bigger, but for everyone with whom he is connected. Students can relate to the concept of modern stereotypes, which could lead to discussion about how language and imagery influences public opinion. In turn, students might understand their own role in oppression as bystanders who do nothing to correct misinformation whether they are the oppressed or the oppressor. Doing so can add to the enduring understanding that people should be judged on their personal merits, not on what is vicariously seen and heard. In terms of the modern American classroom, this enduring understanding can also extend beyond the realm of racial and ethnic lines to include gender, sexual orientation, physical and mental attributes.

Note: The framework that structures this conceptual overview -- "Worth being familiar with," "Important to know and do," and "Enduring understandings" -- comes from Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design, expanded 2d. ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall, 2005). See Teaching African American Literature, "Understanding by Design."

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Abrams, M.H., and Geofrey Harpham, eds. A Glossary of Literary Terms. New York: Wadsworth, 2008.

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon P, 1955.

Boyd, Melba Joyce."Literacy and the Liberation of Bigger Thomas." In Miller 35-41.

Campbell, Donna M. "Naturalism in American Literature." Literary Movements 14 July 2008. Accessed online 6 Dec. 2008 http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/natural.htm.

Hall, James C. "Teaching Interculturalism: Symbiosis, Interpretation, and Native Son." In Miller 81-88.

Howe, Irving. "Black Boys and Native Sons." Dissent (Autumn 1963). Accessed online 12 Nov. 2008 http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/howe-blackboys.html.

Jerome, D.J. Book Reviews. Journal of Negro History 25:2 (April 1940): 252.

Miller, James A., ed. Approaches to Teaching Wright's Native Son. New York: Modern Language Association, 1997.

Pilgrim, David. Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Ferris State U. Accessed online 21 Nov. 2008 http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/.

Wright, Richard. "How Bigger Was Born." In Native Son.

---. "I Bite the Hand that Feeds Me." The Atlantic Monthly (June 1940): 826-828.

---. Native Son. 1940. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993.

---. "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: A Biographical Sketch." New York: Viking P, 1937. 39-52.

THE AUTHORS

Ellen Church is ... Kimberly Mertz is ...

© 2008 | Last rev. Jan. 27, 2009