Jazmin Vera 3/28/2012 AML-4607 Professor Heather Russell Racism and the Oppressed Black Man—Bigger Thomas In 20th Century African-American Literature, the students were instructed to write a critical analysis on one of five texts reviewed throughout the course. This paper will provide an analytical approach on the concept of race and identity as reflected in, Richard Wright’s, Native Son. Bigger Thomas’ instinct for survival plays a key role for the reasons behind his actions in this novel. Was it mere survival instinct that jolted Bigger to murder?
Or did he, as he mentioned— “kill for something”? Whether the instinct was survival or “for something”, Bigger was driven to murder and showed little regret for his actions. Author Richard Wright, provides a fictional account of a young black man, Bigger Thomas, born and raised in poverty. As the protagonist of Native Son, the reader is enthralled by the struggles faced by Thomas as a result of his horrid choices. The nature of his environment facilitated his rebellious behavior and an ill-fated circumstance with a wealthy white woman, led to his ultimate demise.
By the mere age of twenty, Thomas’ life revolved around petty crimes and acts of illicit behavior. His job as a chauffeur for a wealthy family introduced him to Mary Dalton, his first victim. Dalton’s inappropriate behavior, for example her interrogation of Bigger’s life style, contributed to his apprehension and agitation, which later ignited his fatal act. Following a rowdy night of drinking and sexual tension between Thomas and Ms. Dalton, they both ended up in an unpredictable, yet highly compromising situation.
To avoid detection from the Dalton matriarch, Thomas unintentionally murders Ms. Dalton, and his life then spirals out of control, resulting in the second murder of his girlfriend, Bessie. After avoiding the authorities for several days, Thomas is eventually caught and found guilty of the murder and alleged raping of Mary Dalton, with similar charges faced for the death of Bessie Mears. Regardless of the efforts from his defense attorney, Boris Max, Thomas is found guilty of both murders and sentenced to death by electrocution or “the chair”— as mentioned by Bigger.
In the end, Thomas explains to his attorney: “’I didn’t want to kill… But what I killed for I am! ’”. He further states: “’When a man kills, it’s for something…I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ‘em’” (Wright 429). Even with death closely approaching, he shows minimal remorse for his actions and more concern for his mother than for the victims or their families— an indication of Bigger’s character. At the end of the novel, the author provides an insight on how the protagonist was conceived.
The character, Bigger Thomas, is based on Wright’s personal experiences living in the ghetto with bullies and street thugs from his childhood in Jackson, Mississippi. Despite Bigger’s faults, the reader can still manage to empathize with the character and forgive him for his misdoings. From the first page I was utterly captivated by Wright’s writing style and the tragic story of Bigger Thomas. Bigger is a victim of his own society that was racially segregated and oppressed by the wealthy white class.
Racism, more specifically towards blacks, has been around for centuries. It was, and still is, an intrinsic part of American society and an integral part of the black and white public in the 1930s, defining who and what a person could become. More closely related to the story line, is the historical aspect of slavery, how it pertains to the African-American society, and its long-term effects on racism. The term slavery is most commonly described as the state of a human being owned and empowered by another.
The institution of slavery dates as far back as the ancient Egyptian civilization. In the U. S. , slavery is often associated to the oppression endured by blacks in the 1700s. Although abolished, society continued to historically identify blacks as an inferior race, which in turn contributed to the racism depicted within Native Son. When Wright wrote Native Son, the cultural bias against African-Americans was at its peak during this period in time. The treatment endured by this culture caused many to see the “white man” as untrustworthy and evil.
While blacks were forced to live in cramped quarters, the white population lived a more abundant lifestyle simply because of the color of their skin. After years of such treatment, culturally, it was an acceptable practice to treat blacks as savages, or commonly referred to in the book as “apes”. Prior to the first murder, Bigger admits to being ashamed of his “black skin” and the narrator states: “He felt he had no physical existence at all right then; he was something he hated, the badge of shame which he knew was attached to his black skin.
It was a shadowy region, a No Man’s land, the ground that separated the white world from the black that he stood upon. ” (Wright 67). Culturally, the segregation of the whites and blacks clearly identified whose culture was important and whose was worthless. Throughout the novel the author exemplifies the way in which racism forces blacks into a state of mind where they are unworthy of equivalent rights; such as Bigger’s state of mind when he is alone in Ms. Dalton’s room. When Mary’s blind mother enters the room, Bigger’s survival instinct arises and supersedes his rationale.
While Bigger’s initial intentions may have been harmless, the fact that he was in Ms. Dalton’s room late at night, was socially unacceptable and equivalent to rape, whether or not the act occurred. At that moment all his years of oppression, anger and fear, were released through the strength in his hands to suppress “the white man”—in the form of suffocating and murdering Mary Dalton. Considering his upbringing in the ghetto and the racism he experienced throughout his life, it would not be farfetched, metaphorically speaking, to compare Bigger Thomas to a “caged animal”.
As a caged lion would instinctively react to a life-threatening situation, Bigger responds similarly when presented with the possibility of discovery. If he were Jan, for example, the consequences would have been drastically altered. But the color of Bigger’s skin made all the difference, especially in his eyes because he knew how the general public would react to his circumstance; hence, the comparison to the “caged animal” whose only interest is survival. Bigger killed to avoid capture, and this moment in Native Son proves to be the catalyst in Bigger’s eventual downfall.
The murder of Mary Dalton was not premeditated, having occurred during the “heat of passion”. But, the lack of Bigger’s remorse for Dalton’s death and his actions afterwards, can lead the reader to believe his crimes were intentional, perhaps subconsciously, but intentional nonetheless— leading back to the central point of this paper whether Bigger’s killings were instinctual or subconsciously premeditated. After reading Native Son, I have come to the conclusion that Bigger acted in self-defense, but also, his years of oppression brought out the killer in him, so to speak.
The more he killed, the easier the act became. While Dalton was murdered by suffocation, Bigger’s act to dispose of her body could be considered a “textual lynching”. The extreme measures he takes to eliminate the evidence, reflects an attempt of eradicating whites— his form of racial retribution. As the novel continues, Bigger pushes the envelope further and loses touch with his rationale, relying solely on survival instinct. I firmly believe the political statement made by the author was directed towards the black society in hopes of preventing further generations of Bigger Thomas’s.
Richard Wright clearly indicates his fear and disdain of the aggressive black man in the section of “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born”. He mentions the protagonist was not directed towards one particular individual, but many he encountered throughout his life. At each stage form his youth to his manhood, the Bigger Thomas’s grew more dangerous and volatile. It is my impression the novel is Wright’s form of illustrating to his culture what can happen when an “animal” is left unleashed.
The novel, Native Son, holds an important place within African-American literary tradition, as it depicts the everyday struggles faced by the black community within the 1930s. In addition to portraying the obstacles faced by the minority race, it also contains an important message that consequences must always be paid, whether white or black. Journalist, Peter Monro Jack states: “The story is a strong and powerful one and it alone will force the Negro issue into our attention.
Certainly “Native Son” declares Richard Wright’s importance, not merely as the best Negro writer, but as an American author as distinctive as any of those now writing” (Monro Jack ). Jack further credits Native Son as the “Negro ‘American Tragedy’”. Wright’s ability to bring a sense of humanity to his characters provides depth and emotion to the story line. His writing techniques are superb as he transports his readers into the world of Bigger and blurs the line between fiction and reality. In my opinion, this is why the novel is of utmost importance to African-American literature.
In conclusion, Richard Wright’s, Native Son, is a critical element of African-American literature. It realistically depicts a horrific period of U. S. history and presents the readers with a disturbing picture of what racism entails, and how it negatively affected the black community. The protagonist, Bigger Thomas is a young black man, struggling to survive in a world where he and his people are clearly unwanted. Despite the best efforts of his poverty-stricken family, Bigger is morphing himself into a person that is a menace to society.
Finding himself in an unfortunate circumstance, Bigger’s survival instincts are activated and results in the death of Mary Dalton. As mentioned in the beginning of this critical analysis; was it Bigger Thomas’ survival instinct that jolted him to murder? Or did he, as he mentioned— “kill for something”? After reading the novel, it is my interpretation that he killed out of instinct for a metaphorical survival of his race, but also killed for “something”. As Bigger explains to his attorney, Mr. Max: “… I didn’t mean to do what I did. I was trying to do something else. But it seems like I never could.
I was always wanting something and I was feeling that nobody would let me have it. So I fought em’. I thought they was hard and I acted hard” (Wright 425). Bigger is a product of his environment, where the survival instinct supersedes acceptable behavior. I believe Mr. Wright’s intentions were to highlight the issues faced throughout everyday life in the Black Belt, in hopes of improving conditions for his people through literature. References Monro Jack, Peter. “Life In America. ” New York Times 03 03 1940, n. pag. Web. 27 Mar. 2012. . Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: 2005. Print.