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Native Son, set in the 1930s, tells of a twenty-year-old black male, Bigger, living in a period and place where there was rampant racism. When he starts working for a White man, things go downhill for him. He accidentally kills the daughter of his employer due to fear of being found in her bedroom by her mother. Later, he rapes and kills her girlfriend. He is eventually caught and sentenced to death.
Racism in Native Son
The popular media works to reinforce racism even more. Bigger watches a movie at the theatre showing the great life of wealthy White people. He is drawn to the whiteness and buys into the notion that their life is the best. In the popular media, especially film, Whites are often shown in an opulent world, while Blacks are often portrayed as savages, criminals, inferior, humble, and dangerous.
These media images work to reinforce stereotypes in the minds of the people, who end up believing that this is the reality, yet these images are stereotypes.
Bigger stays with his family in the South Side of Chicago. It is a congested and dirty neighborhood. The owner of the building, Mr. Dalton, does not rent houses to Black people in other locations. This causes the rent to go up due to the presence of many Black people in the area while the housing facilities are limited.
He is portrayed as a hypocritical philanthropist who likes to give extorted money to charitable causes that involve Blacks. He is only doing it to assuage his guilt over oppressing the Black community. The racist environment and culture has affected Bigger so much that, when he is in the presence of the Daltons looking for work, he is intimidated by their lavish surroundings.
Mrs. Dalton is blind, which is symbolic of society’s blindness to the devastating effects that racism and segregation are having on the black community. This is something that Marx keeps repeating in his address to the court in defense of Bigger. He argues that society and the oppressive environment led to Bigger’s actions. If society does not respond by changing the status quo, things can only continue to deteriorate.
To deal with the situation, Blacks have turned to alcohol, sex, and religion to numb the pain. However, this does not help, and the rate of crimes will just keep increasing because of the oppressive conditions. Bigger and the Daltons are blind; they cannot see each other as individuals. The Daltons see Bigger as the Black community, poor people who can be exploited but are also most likely to be the recipients of charity. For Bigger, the Daltons are just part of the oppressive “whiteness.”
Racism is further seen in the way the Blacks are limited in their opportunities to empower themselves. There are professions that the Blacks cannot enter into. There are companies they cannot work for. After college, the Black youth are frustrated by their lack of opportunities. They end up forming gangs in their free time, stealing from people and being up to no good.
Due to the lack of employment and business opportunities, the Blacks keep getting poorer and poorer and instead of the Whites’ addressing the problem, they are hypocritical philanthropists. The book highlights poverty among the Blacks.
One out of every four African Americans is living below the poverty line; this is double the number of Whites living below the poverty line (Bennet, pg 3).
Biggie is in a gang with two other young men. They tell Bigger of a plan to rob Mr. Blum’s shop however he is highly reluctant. Bigger and his gang understand that stealing from Black people is not right. However, stealing from Whites is considered to be a whole different matter as it reinforces the widely held perception that Blacks are savages and criminals. Biggie, afraid of the huge repercussions, intentionally stabs Guy, one of the gang members, so that they cannot commit the robbery.
Later in the story, when Bigger kills Bessie and Mary, he knows he has reinforced the society’s mentality and the portrayal in popular culture that Blacks are savages. He feels ashamed of what he has done. He actually feels that he has failed his Black community. The Blacks, due to the racist mentality in society, feel that they must prove to the world that they are not savages or dangerous. This obligation weighs heavily on them.
Peggy, the housekeeper in the Dalton’s household, is a racist. Even though, with Bigger working as a chauffeur, they are both workers in the house, she feels superior because she is White. She actually tells Bigger that Mr. Dalton is always helping Bigger’s “people.” Secondly, every time she speaks of the Dalton’s household, she speaks of “us,” excluding Bigger
Racism is also seen in Jan and Mary. They meet Bigger and are obsessively friendly to him in a bid to show him that they are not racist. They tell Bigger that they want to eat at a restaurant on the South Side.
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He is reluctant to take them to the restaurant because of the shocked reactions he will obviously get from the Blacks there. The scene shows the extent of segregation at that time. There are places that the Blacks should go and places that Whites should go. With these segregation rules in mind, which Bigger knows both Jan and Mary know, he is totally stunned by their desire to go to a restaurant in his neighborhood (Black, pg 393).
At the end of the evening in the restaurant, while taking Mary to sleep in her bedroom since she is drunk, Bigger becomes aroused and starts kissing and touching her.
He is overwhelmed by the proximity of the White woman. He has never been that close to one before. This shows the extreme limited social interaction between the Whites and Blacks that existed at that time. Bigger’s knowledge of what goes on in the White man’s world comes from the popular media, through the movies and television. Blacks and Whites stick to their own social circles.
Romantic relationships and intermarriage would be frowned on. In fact, they are such a foreign concept that Buckler, during the trial, says that Bigger was Jan’s accomplice in murdering Mary since Jan had promised to give him White women to sleep with.
It is in these desperate environmental conditions that, when Mary’s mother comes looking for Mary, Bigger is scared to death. Even though the woman is blind, Bigger knows that if she finds out he is in Mary’s room, all hell will break loose. Filled with extreme fear, he covers Mary with a pillow to prevent her from crying out.
In the process, she is smothered to death. The fear in Bigger that causes him to commit an accidental murder shows us that, at that time, Blacks had no power. Because of the negative perception of Blacks in the White community, Mrs. Dalton will believe the worst of him and his explanations will matter.
Racism is further shown in the police interrogation of the members of the household. For the first time, Bigger is able to use the negative stereotype of Blacks to his advantage. When being questioned about Mary’s murder, he behaves in the way that Blacks are expected to behave.
He acts really clumsily, shy, ignorant, and stupid. The act actually pays off until he is caught. The only person who is ever suspicious of Bigger is Buckley, and that is because he is a highly racist individual who believes the Blacks are always up to no good and that they are murderous savages.
Jan, Mary’s boyfriend, is moved by Bigger’s situation with the law and the public outcry for the death penalty. Even though Bigger had wanted to frame him for the murder, Jan is willing to help and tells Marx, a defense attorney, to act on Bigger’s behalf. It is only then that Bigger starts to see White people as individuals.
Previously, they were just a mass of oppressive “whiteness.” Bigger is shocked that Jan wants to help him. The racism in society had increased the hostility between the Blacks and Whites so that they rarely help each other. In fact, Bigger expects Jan to take the side of the White people against him to push for Bigger to get the death sentence.
During Bigger’s court hearings and trial, his lawyer comments on the racism that has to stop and the segregation that comes with it. He points out that, even in the courthouse; the Blacks are seated on one side of the room while the Whites are seated on the other side.
Mary’s death is a pivotal point in the story. It is the point where the story starts unraveling at a fast pace. For Bigger, it signifies the beginning of a metamorphosis in his perception of himself. Even though he is scared and feels guilty for killing Mary, he is feels powerful with respect to the White man. He no longer feels that they are controlling him. He later rapes his girlfriend, Betsy, and kills her while she is sleeping.
At the prison, Bigger starts thinking that the deaths of these two women are so important to him. “He had done this. He had brought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him” (Wright, pg 293). In jail, Bigger feels that, if he were instructed to fully explain why he had killed the two women, he could not do so. It would be like explaining his whole life.
Their murders symbolize many things in his life. Bessie’s death is the end of Bigger’s escaping the police. Mary is the character that the author uses to show the repercussions of a crime between Black and White people. Bigger knew that, even if it was Mary who had reached out to him, should things go wrong, he would be the one to take the blame; society would not take it kindly.
Mary’s death also makes Bigger delusional, as he believes that killing Mary is a good thing since it shows that the Blacks are tired of the White man’s oppression. When he rapes Betty, he starts thinking of the fact that White people were always raping Blacks anyway. He feels that the Whites have killed enough Blacks already. The Whites’ oppressive culture causes Bigger to become violent. His violent actions confirm the Whites’ fears. Blacks eventually become the stereotype that Whites perceive them to be.
At the end of the novel, Bigger realizes that the fiercest battles are in his mind. He has to deal with his self-perception and identity as a person to be whole. By the end of the trial, even after being sentenced to death, he is a better person, as he has come to view people as individuals and is filled with a desire to help people who have experienced pain like he has. Seeing people as individuals makes him understand that he is an equal to the people around him.
The novel Native Son is a deep story that speaks of the racism in America that existed in the 1930’s. The book explores the negative influences of the popular culture that glorified the White race. Bigger is a young man who is confused with inferiority complex due to the prevailing negative societal mentality of the Whites towards Blacks.
His interaction with the Daltons’ family unravels the dangers of racism. A daughter is murdered and a young black man is hanged for the crime. As his lawyer argues, two people lose their lives unnecessarily. The society is challenged by the lawyer to change the status quo that exists and embrace equality.
Bennet, Cappers. “The Trial of Bigger Thomas: Race, Gender, and Trespass” N.Y.U. Review of Law and Social Change 31.1(2006): 1-49. Web.
Black, Marc. “Fanon and Duboisian Double Consciousness.” Human Architecture, Summer (2007): 393-404. Web.
Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper Publishers, 1998. Print.