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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

I shall witness for Bigger Thomas.

Native Son by Richard Wright

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Dear Blobbists, in a constant effort to mix things up, I have decided to present the plot of this novel in the form of a poem. Bigger = Bigger Thomas, the 20-year-old African-American male protagonist.

Bigger feeling stuck
Bigger offered a job
Bigger accepts

Bigger meets the white Daltons
Learns about Communism
Drives for daughter Mary

Bigger eats with Mary and boyfriend Jan
Bigger hates how they make him feel
Bigger brings Mary home
She's too drunk
To keep her quiet
Suffocation (accidental)

Bigger burns the body
(and chops the parts that need it)
Bigger says nothing

Bigger gets cocky and tries a ransom note
Bigger found out
Bigger on the run

Bigger kills his girl Bessie
To keep his secret

Bigger gets caught

Bigger defended by Communists
Bigger resentful, raging, alone

Bigger is tried
Bigger is killed.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Sometimes you read a book and you feel happy. Sometimes you read a book and you wish for more. And sometimes, in rare cases and in the right circumstances, you read a book and it changes you. 

This was one of those books. 

I read this book in stops and starts, and at times I felt like I was in a fugue state or an alternate reality. The intensity of emotion, the parallels with today's race relations, and the sheer brilliance of Wright's writing held me hostage for the handful of days it took me to finish the work. It was hard to read, acutely painful, on a number of levels. All that being said, if you haven't read it, please consider picking up a copy, or at least read this post in full to get an inkling of it.

I will not apologize for the lengthiness of this post. Race relations in America deserve a prominent place at the literary table, in the resistance, and on my blog. I will also not apologize for the black and whiteness of this post. While I recognize that race relations in America include a much larger set of groups with various interactions and prejudices and problems than simply those two groups, Wright's work focuses with laser precision on people with the color of his skin, and so, for this post, I will follow suit. Without further ado, here are my thoughts.

I don't like to read introductions or extra information about books. I was, however, struck by this line from Arnold Rampersad's introduction to my edition:
"The sound of the alarm that opens Native Son was Richard Wright's urgent call in 1940 to America to awaken from its self-induced slumber about the reality of race relations in the nation."
It's certainly a beautiful line, but what struck me was its similarity to this line from Ta-Nehisi Coates's 2015 "Between the World and Me", a novel told as a letter to his son about race in America:
"When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies."
Are you dreaming now? Were you dreaming, but awoke? I think I alternate between dream-world and 'woke-world', and I am intimately conscious of the luxury of this choice. 

Before we dive into the novel's plot a little more, here are a few lines I think speak eloquently to this struggle:
  • "Wright believed that few Americans, black or white, were prepared to face squarely and honestly the most profound consequences of more than two centuries of the enslavement and segregation of blacks in North America." -Arnold Rampersad
  • "We must deal here with a dislocation of life involving millions of people, a dislocation so vast as to stagger the imagination; so fraught with tragic consequences as to make us rather not want to look at it or think of it; so old that we would rather try to view it as an order of nature and strive with uneasy conscience and false moral fervor to keep it so." -Max, Bigger's attorney
  • "Taken collectively, they are not simply twelve million people; in reality they constitute a separate nation, stunted, stripped, and held captive within this nation, devoid of political, social, economic, and property rights."
How does it feel to be a captive in your own country? Are there ways in which you feel you're a captive, readers?

Wright organizes the novel into three parts - Fear, Flight, and Fate. I've kept his sections and collected quotes that best articulate those themes. I've also added a few themes of my own.

FEAR

  • "His courage to live depended upon how successfully his fear was hidden from his consciousness." I read this line over and over and over.
  • "This boy represents but a tiny aspect of a problem whose reality sprawls over a third of this nation. Kill him! Burn the life out of him! And still when the delicate and unconscious machinery of race relations slips, there will be murder again."
  • "You cannot kill this man, Your Honor, for we have made it plain that we do not recognize that he lives!"
FLIGHT
  • "This was not his world; he had been foolish in thinking that he would have liked it." Bigger, on coming into the white world to drive for the Daltons. For some reason it made me think of this line from Ender's Game - "We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again."
  • "He was following a strange path into a strange land and his nerves were hungry to see where it led."
  • "He was not concerned with whether these acts were right or wrong; they simply appealed to him as possible avenues of escape." Traveling this journey with Bigger was troubling because I wanted to evaluate his actions on a scale of morality, but each decision and each action was so tied up in the history of his very existence and the socialization of his person that it became harder and harder to examine them through a lens of right and wrong. This is not to say that his actions are to be sanctioned, but rather that their impetus and drivers were much bigger than Bigger.
FATE
  • "His crime seemed natural; he felt that all of his life had been leading to something like this."
  • "He was tensely eager to stay and see how it would all end, even if that end swallowed him in blackness."
  • "'Didn't you know that the penalty for killing that white woman would be death?' 'Yeah, I knew it. But I felt like she was killing me, so I didn't care."
  • "It did not seem strange that the papers ought to be full of him now, for all his life he had felt that things had been happening to him that should have gone into them. But only after he had acted upon feelings which he had had for years would the papers carry the story, his story." This is another theme in the book - the idea that only by violating convention could Bigger make himself visible, create his own liberty. It was striking in its suitability.
HATE
In my last post, I spoke about hate, and how it's a sentiment I try to avoid, given its severity. That being said, I'm intentionally including it here because there is no other word for what Wright describes and what Bigger is feeling. I think it's essential that we recognize hate in this form, and the ways in which white people and America as a society have engendered this hatred. 
"Every time I think about it I feel like somebody's poking a red-hot iron down my throat. We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain't. They do things and we can't. It's just like living in jail."
"He would have gladly admitted his guilt if he had thought that in doing so he could have also given in the same breath a sense of the deep, choking hate that had been his life, a hate that he had not wanted to have, but could not help having. How could he do that? The impulsion to try to tell was as deep as had been the urge to kill." Sometimes I wonder (and this is dark, dear blobbists, so fair warning) how a people who have been so wronged by their country and their fellow citizens can even breathe through their emotions. At Breakthrough, we speak from the "I" perspective, so I will not pretend to know anything other than my own feelings, but I know that my rage and my fear and my sadness are but a fraction of what I could feel were I born with a different color of skin.
"They own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die."
I mention these lines in particular because, while in some ways, things are dramatically better or different than they were when Wright wrote this, in other ways things are much the same. I say this not to be pessimistic or dismissive of the various efforts and battles to get to where we are, but rather to draw attention to the work to be done.

COLOR
I was struck several times by how often and explicitly Wright refers to the color of his characters. I realized that in part, this drew attention to how often and how unconsciously I assume characters are white. In reading these various lines -"the black mother", "the brown daughter", "his black body", "their black fingers", "blackly naked" - I was reminded of a discussion I had with my friend Dennis, a writer currently working on his own brilliant novel at the MacDowell Colony. (#soproud) 

We were talking about writing and race, and Dennis brought up an interview he'd heard with Toni Morrison where she spoke about race and how she wrote about it in ParadiseMorrison said that she started with race (The novel opens with the line "They shoot the white girl first. . . ") and then erased it by never revealing who the white girl is. I thought of how often we ascribe race to characters without thinking, based on arbitrary or logical descriptors, our own biases, our own natural proclivities, our own identities. What race do you assume characters are?

CHANGE
I was struck by one noticeable change in reading Bigger's opinions on race. Before he goes to work for the Daltons, he spends time with a friend of his and they 'play white'. They poke fun at the formal way white people talk, the kinds of things they say, the power they wield. In particular, playing white involves pretending to be the President of the United States. In reading this section, I was pleased to think that this particular example would no longer work. Though, alas, it could still be a game where we 'play men'.

"It was when he read the newspapers or magazines, went to the movies, or walked along the streets with crowds, that he felt what he wanted: to merge himself with others and be a part of this world, to lose himself in it so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black." Do you feel that you can lose yourself to find yourself, readers? What holds you back?

INTERSECTIONALITY
As a woman (and a feminist) I feel it is my duty to point out that while Wright eloquently depicts the struggles of being a black man in America, in doing so he frequently tramples on black women. I don't want to oversimplify this, because I think there are a lot of complicating factors when we look at the crossroads of race and gender, particularly within a severely oppressed and repressed race. That being said, here were a few lines with which I took umbrage:
  • "A woman was a dangerous burden when a man was running away." oh REALLY? fine, then. leave without us.
  • "That's a woman, always. You want to know something, then you run like a rabbit." oh yes. we're just a bunch of Ridiculous Rabbits, we women.
  • "All I do is work, work like a dog! From morning till night. I ain't got no happiness. I ain't never had none. I just work. I'm black and I work and don't bother nobody..." This is a line from Bessie, and it reminded me a great deal of Beyoncé's Lemonade and the exploration of female blackness. Bessie REALLY drew the short straw in this book (and in life) and I felt for her.
Referents and Reverberations 
(This is a new section I'm including when the spirit moves me. It refers to when a work reminds me of other works that came before or followed suit. I've made this version a guessing game - see if you can guess the novel based on the cropped cover art and the quotes I chose from Native Son to match!)


Year of Publication: 1866

"Could people tell he had done something wrong by the way he acted?"


"During the last two days and nights he had lived so fast and hard that it was an effort to keep it all real in his mind."


ANSWER: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky


Year of Publication: 1932

"The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had been somehow cheated, but had now evened the score."


ANSWER: Light in August by William Faulkner



Year of Publication: 1937

"Why did he and his folks have to live like this? What had they ever done? Perhaps they had not done anything."



ANSWER: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston




Native Son by Richard Wright - 1940 
(Just to help you place it on the timeline)




Year of Publication: 1942

"He was not so much in a stupor, as in the grip of a deep physiological resolution not to react to anything."


"Was this the all, the meaning, the end?"



ANSWER: The Stranger by Albert Camus


Year of Publication: 1952

"Had he not done what they thought he never could? His being black and at the bottom of the world was something which he could take with a new-born strength."



 ANSWER: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison



Year of Publication: 1960

"What's the use? When folks say things like that about you, you whipped before you born. I'm black. I don't have to do nothing for 'em to get me."


ANSWER: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

That line reminded me of this exchange, an all-time favorite I've referenced many times on this blob: 

"Atticus, are we going to win it?"
"No, honey."
"Then why-"
"Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win."