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Racism in “Native Son” by Richard Wright

We live in time when the legacy of racism in America is now being assumed a thing of the past, with more and more people adopting interracial tolerance as the integral component of their existential mode. In its turn, this prompts many contemporary social scientists to suggest that, as of today, there are no objectively existing obstacles of the way of American society continuing to grow increasingly multicultural and tolerant. However, one does not have to be overly smart to realize that these types of suggestions do not correspond to the objective reality – nowadays, virtually not a single day goes by without Medias reporting on the outbreaks of racially motivated violence in this country. Apparently, the actual significance of the concept of racism cannot be assessed solely through the lenses of sociology and economics, as proponents of multiculturalism continue to insist upon, but also through the lenses of biology and psychology – it is namely the fact that racist attitudes originate out of the depths of people’s unconsciousness, which explains why these attitudes can hardly be effectively addressed within a framework of logic.

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The reading of Richard Wright’s novel “Native Son” substantiates the validity of this suggestion because in it, author had succeeded in portraying White racism as the essential ingredient of White people’s mentality, regardless of particularities of their social and political affiliation. It is namely the fact that novel’s even most progressive White characters appear being strongly endowed with racial prejudices, which intensified Bigger’s tendency to indulge in socially inappropriate behavior – thus, bringing about his ultimate demise. In its turn, this explains not only why Bigger instinctively felt that he would never be able to benefit from socializing with Whites, but also why education-based approach towards combating racism is being utterly fallacious. As Heidi Nast had put it in her article “Mapping the “Unconscious”: Racism and the Oedipal Family”: “Racism cannot be resolved in spatially mechanistic, conscious fashion… Bussing and forced integration of white schools, for example, mechanistically mixed ‘races,’ but, in most cases, did not produce an ‘integrated’ psyche. Indeed, it often heightened racialized unconscious anxieties, resulting in spatial and bodily violences devastating to those already oppressed” (2000, 220). Thus, Wright novel’s foremost message can be formulated as follows: it is specifically White neo-Liberal “sophisticates” that are being incapable of understanding that the concept of “multicultural utopia” can never be realized in practice, who contribute to the intensity of racial tensions in American society more then anybody else. In our paper, we will aim at exploring this thesis even further.

In his article “I Bite the Hand That Feeds Me”, Richard Wright had rightly suggested that it was due to Daltons’ inability to recognize Bigger’s basic humanity, which allowed him to avoid being arrested for quite sometime, after the murder of Mary Dalton had taken place: “If 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. Did not Bigger himself know that it was the denial of his personality that enabled him to escape detection so long?” (1940, 828). Yet, the residents of Dalton’s household could be referred to as anything but racists. Throughout novel’s entirety, Henry Dalton would never cease proclaiming his adherence to the idea of interracial tolerance, while going as far as donating money to NAACP.

In her conversations with Daltons’ new chauffer, Peggy would always end up referring to Mr. Dalton’s progressiveness as such that should have prompted Bigger to go about executing his professional duties with extra enthusiasm: “”Mr. Dalton’s a fine man,’ Peggy said. ‘Oh, yessum. He is.’ ‘You know, he does a lot for your people.’ ‘My people?’ asked Bigger, puzzled. ‘Yes, the colored people. He gave over five million dollars to colored schools”. (Wright 1993, 205). However, such seemingly illogical situation can be easily explained – while acting as progressive White “sophisticates”, Daltons were the least concerned about African-Americans’ actual well-being. They simply wanted to feel better about themselves, with their charitable activities being nothing but the mean of boosting their existential ego.

In her article “Ghosts of the Harlem Renaissance: ‘Negrotarians’ in Richard Wright’s Native Son”, Amy E. Carreiro points out to the fact that, by promoting the idea of “eracism”, White Liberals would cause “institutionally underprivileged” subjects of their affection more harm then good: “The Daltons exemplified white philanthropists who were concerned with bettering the life of black Americans. Although the Daltons believe that their desire to improve conditions for African Americans is benevolent, it has harmful repercussions for Bigger… In Native Son, the Negrotarians (progressive Whites) appear ignorant as well as naive. Their commitment to the improvement of racial relations sometimes oversimplifies African American culture and its importance to American culture” (1999, 250). In order for us to get an insight on what accounted for the specifics of Daltons’ existential mode, we will simply need to observe the behavior of today’s “open-minded” White yuppies, who lack intellectual integrity to admit even to themselves that the reason why they prefer living in secluded White suburbia is not because such suburbia feratures “safer streets” and “better schools”, but because they are being psychologically appalled by the idea of sharing a neighborhood with colored people.

In his article “Yuppie Racism: Race Relations in the 1980s”, Richard Lowy makes a perfectly good point while stating: “A variety of beliefs about race relations are upheld by various segments of White population which, when analyzed and compared to factual data, turn out to be ideological smokescreens for the perpetration of racism. Racism does not vanish when Whites are able to convince themselves that they are no longer villains, consciously promoting negative attitude about minorities” (1991, 453). Apparently, it is not their conscious wickedness, which makes the majority of White people to act as subtle racists, but a simple fact that they are being genetically programmed to act in such a way. And, the more they try to act as African-Americans’ best friends, the more their hypocritical attitudes towards the people of color are being exposed. In “Native Son”, the theoretical soundness of this suggestion is being continuously illustrated throughout novel’s entirety.

For example, while trying to help Bigger to feel more or less comfortable in their company, Mary and Jan could not come up with anything better then beginning to fraternize him, as if they have known him for years: “First of all,’ Jan continued, putting his foot upon the running-board, ‘don’t say Sir to me. I’ll call you Bigger and you’ll call me Jan. That’s the way it’ll be between us. How’s that?” (1993, 107). By shaking hands with Bigger, Jan and Mary naively believed that they would be able to instantly alleviate their ancestors’ historical guilt in the eyes of a Black chauffer. Such their behavior can have only one explanation – apparently, Jan and Mary never ceased remaining completely ignorant as to the essence of issues they considered themselves being experts on. However, as a Black male with highly developed sense of intuition, Bigger was able to instantly identify both individuals’ friendliness as being utterly hypocritical, simply because their adherence to the ideal of racial equality was essentially Eurocentric – it is only White people that had never experienced any hardships in their lives, who are capable of operating with the concept of equality with such an apparent ease.

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Why do White Liberals continue to insist that there is absolutely no difference between races, even while being presented with overwhelming evidence as to the sheer fallaciousness of such their assumption? This is because they were never able to rid their mentality of racial prejudices – whereas; a century ago, White colonists believed that it was a part of “White men’s burden” to bring the light of civilization to savages, while killing them during the course of a process; nowadays, their descendents believe that it is the part of “White men’s burden” to spread the message of egalitarianism across the globe. Therefore, we can only agree with William Willhelm, who in his article “The Economic Demise of Blacks in America: A Prelude to Genocide?” had stated the following: “Equality is intrinsically racist for at least two rather obvious reasons: (1) the assertion that Blacks are to be treated just like Whites requires that White standards and White conceptions about equality be imposed upon Blacks; and (2) Blacks have neither been allowed to decide whether or not equality is to be the basis for establishing Black/White relations not have they been permitted to contribute their very own conceptions in formulating the meaning of equality” (1986, 238). The manner in which Daltons and their “progressive” affiliates used to refer to Bigger can be compared with how not overly bright adolescents refer to tigers and lions in a zoo – they think of them as being nothing big pets that enjoy being stroked. However, the objective reality punishes these people’s perceptional ignorance with utter severity – those who try to stroke wild animals, while being fascinated with these animals’ cuteness, often end up losing their arms.

Just as it is the case with caged lions and tigers, which do not particularly enjoy being deprived of their freedom, Bigger was perfectly aware that there could be no mutual understanding between himself and those who had caged him within the boundaries of Eurocentrism: “To Bigger and his kind, White people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one’s feet in the dark” (1993,109). Unlike White degenerates, who persisted with patronizing him, Bigger was just too real to believe in nonsense. Apparently, despite Jan and Mary’s fraternizing attempts, Bigger never stopped viewing them as not just being oppressors, but particularly cruel oppressors: “Were they making fun of him? What was it that they wanted? Why didn’t they leave him alone? He was not bothering them. Yes, anything could happen with people like these” (1993, 108).

In its turn, this explains why he killed Mary with such an apparent ease – at the time when it happened, Bigger was driven by his primeval instincts alone. For a split of a second, Bigger had forgotten his oppressed status, while addressing suddenly emerged danger in cruel but utterly efficient manner – he eliminated the individual who posed this danger. This is why Bigger had such a hard time, while trying to explain the motives behind his murderous act: “I don’t know. She didn’t do nothing to me.’ He paused and ran his hand nervously across his forehead. ‘She….It was….Hell, I don’t know” (1993, 901). It appears that Bigger was being endowed with particularly strong self-preservation instincts. The irony lays in the fact that, instead of benefiting Bigger in variety of different ways, as it would have been the case had he lived in Africa; such his instincts had brought about Bigger’s ultimate downfall.

During the course of Bigger’s trial, Boris A. Max used to indulge in lengthy philosophizing as to the fact that his client could only be partially held accountable for the crimes he had committed, while implying that Bigger was nothing a but a product of racially oppressive American society: “Every movement of his body is an unconscious protest. Every desire, every dream, no matter how intimate or personal, is a plot or a conspiracy. Every hope is a plan for insurrection. Every glance of the eye is a threat. His very existence is a crime against the state!” (1993, 705). This kind of argumentation has now became a classic of shyster rhetoric – after all, it is namely because he was being declared a victim of institutionalized racism that O.J. Simpson was able to walk away with murder. Yet, the real reason why Bigger had committed two murders in a particularly gruesome manner is because of clearly defined anthropological atavism, on his part – he simply happened to be close to nature.

In his famous book “Criminal Man”, the founder of Positivist Criminology Cesare Lombroso stated: “Atavism remains one of the most constant characteristics of the born criminal, in spite of, or rather together with pathology. Many of the characteristics of primitive man are also commonly found in the born criminal, including low, sloping foreheads, overdeveloped sinuses, overdevelopment of jaws and cheekbones, prognathism, oblique and large eye sockets” (1876, 222). And, here is how Bigger has been described by journalists who were present at the trial: “He [Bigger] is about five feet, nine inches tall and his skin is exceedingly black. His lower jaw protrudes obnoxiously, reminding one of a jungle beast” (1993, 322). Therefore, it is absolutely inappropriate to refer to Bigger as being some sort of a tragic hero, as many today’s “progressive” literary critics do. However, it is equally inappropriate to refer to Bigger as maliciously-minded subhuman, who derived a sadistic pleasure out of killing people, as it has been suggested by Buckley, during the course of Bigger’s trial: “Some half-human black ape may be climbing through the windows of our homes to rape, murder, and burn our daughters!” (1993, 520). It appears that Bigger was simply unfortunate enough to live in time when his existential spontaneity could not have benefited him in any way, whatsoever, simply because back then, the concept of behavioral appropriateness was associated with Judeo-Christian spiritual values.

Yet, Bigger did not have anything to do with these values, which is why the full scope of his deeds’ gravity never became apparent to him. The validity of such our suggestion is being supported by the fact that, throughout the novel, Bigger strived to realize the illusive essence of his own racial identity. There is a memorable scene of Bigger being fascinated by a sight of Black Africans performing a native dance: “He looked at Trader Horn unfold and saw pictures of naked black men and women whirling in wild dances and heard drums beating and then gradually the African scene changed and was replaced by images in his own mind of white men and women” (1993, 36). Apparently, novel’s main character could never understand what constituted Whites’ moral right to judge him in the first place. And, the reason he could not, is because there is none.

As we have suggested earlier, novel’s White characters kept trying to provide Bigger with advices as to how he should have proceeded with addressing life’s challenges, while in fact, it is namely Bigger who could have enlightened them on a subject matter, simply because unlike White “sophisticates” around him, Bigger was physically and psychologically adequate. For example, while in jail, Bigger could never grasp what had prompted Jan to come paying him a visit, given the fact that he had murdered a woman Jan used to be in love with – if Jan was a normal person, he would never do this, not even to mention accepting a part of a guilt over Mary’s death: “It’s your right to hate me, Bigger. I see now that you couldn’t do anything else but that; it was all you had… Was this a trap? He looked at Jan and saw a white face, but an honest face” (1993, 332). The chances are – if Bigger had urinated on Jan, the latter would not take it as an offence either.

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The sheer ease, with which Bigger was initially able to get away with murder, had opened his eyes onto the fact that he was not just equal with Whites, but superior to them. Despite lacking a formal education, Bigger had proven himself being am utterly effective psychologist: “Things were becoming clear; he would know how to act from now on. The thing to do was to act just like others acted, live like they lived, and while they were not looking, do what you wanted. Now, who on earth would think that he, a black timid negro boy, would murder and burn a rich white girl and would sit and wait for his breakfast like this? Elation filled him” (1993, 120). It is not by an accident that the allegorical theme of White people’s blindness in “Native Son” appears to have recurring subtleties. However, unlike what it is being assumed by majority of literary critics, this theme cannot be thought of as such that reflects Whites’ inability to think of African-Americans as human beings. What author had in mind by implying blindness, on the part of White Liberals, is that they are being increasingly deprived of their existential vitality, which in its turn, causes them to remain utterly ignorant as to their own racial agenda.

Even after having been sentenced to death, Bigger could not bring himself to feel sorry for what he had done: “I didn’t know I was really alive in this world, until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em… It’s the truth, Mr. Max. I can say it now, ‘cause I’m going to die. I know what I’m saying real good and I know how it sounds. But I’m all right. I feel all right when I look at it in that way” (1993, 930). These Bigger’s last words provide us with a better understanding as to what accounted for the process of novel’s main character attaining an emotional comfort with his own identity – apparently, Bigger had realized that all of the injustices, he has been subjected to throughout his life, were not objectively predetermined. It was due to Blacks’ willingness to accept their inferior status, which created preconditions for the emergence of White racism.

Apparently, Bigger was able to realize what used to prevent him from attaining equality with those that he used to simultaneously despise and awe – it was the fact that he never thought of himself as being superior to Whites, despite the fact that there were good reasons for him to do that. Whatever the ironic it might sound – it is only after he committed a murder that Bigger’s humanity has been recognized by Whites. And the reason for this is simple – Whites will only be willing to think of Blacks as equal, for as long as Blacks act arrogantly superior, while actively professing their allegiance to the principles of racial solidarity. Contrary to White Liberals’ naïve beliefs, interracial harmony cannot be enforced by legislative acts. In multicultural society, the growing socio-political weight of representatives of a particular ethnic community automatically implies the lessening of such weight, on the part of representatives of another ethnic community.

This paper’s foremost conclusion can be articulated as follows: Despite the fact that the character of Bigger in Richard Wright’s novel “Native Son” cannot be thought of as an embodiment of African-American virtues, due to his less then admirable behavior, he nevertheless represents a new type of a Black personhood. By killing Mary and Bessie, Bigger had lost his existential innocence, while becoming aware of its life as such that has value in itself: “He had done this. He had brought all this about. In all his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes. Never had he had the chance to live out the consequences of his actions; never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight” (1993, 277). In the eyes of his oppressors, he was transformed from being one-dimensional figure of Black servant, into three-dimensional figure of a villain, just like many Whites themselves, thus dispelling racist myth as to African-Americans’ inability to premeditate crime rationally.


Carreiro, Amy “Ghosts of the Harlem Renaissance: ‘Negrotarians’ in Richard Wright’s Native Son”. The Journal of Negro History 84.3 (1999): 247-259. Print.

Felgar, Robert. Student Companion to Richard Wright. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2000. Print.

Lombroso, Cezare. Criminal Man. Durham: Duke University Press,1876 (2006). Print.

Lowy, Richard “Yuppie Racism: Race Relations in the 1980s”. Journal of Black Studies 21.4 (1991): 445-464. Print.

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Nast, Heidi “Mapping the ‘Unconscious’: Racism and the Oedipal Family”. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90.2 (2000): 215-255. Print.

Willhelm, William “The Economic Demise of Blacks in America: A Prelude to Genocide?”. Journal of Black Studies 17.2 (1986): 201-254. Print.

Wright, Richard “I Bite the Hand that Feeds Me”. Atlantic Monthly 165 (1940): 820-828. Print.

Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper, 1993. Print.

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