Pressure from the Outside: Infiltrating Black Narratives
Richard Wright and Toni Morrison are considerable influences within the African American canon, authoring works that reflect the expansion of the human condition to the conditions of the oppressed. Both authors highlight, within their narratives, the intermediate pressures surrounding their characters, pressures which dictate their lives and control their expectations. Characters such as Shadrack, Eva, Plum, Sarah, and Silas have a clear overwhelming force placed upon them which is environmental, social, and in some cases polarizes their bodies. Through Richard Wright’s “Long Black Song” and Toni Morrison’s Sula it is evident through death, American institutions, and progressive ideologies that the actions of the characters are the result of outside societal pressures which demonize and eventually destroy them.
Eva takes conscious action in order to alleviate her son of the immense pain caused by his inability to persevere post-WWI but it is through this action that love is erroneously disguised as evil. As a young mother Eva was unprepared for the hardships of motherhood. She was unable to provide for her children, especially Plum, whom she loved the most. She left, and presumably sacrificed her leg for a better life for her family, before she returned after eighteen months ready and able to provide. Plum’s addiction causes him to regress back to that of an infant, weak and pathetically laughing through the depths of his own pain. By lighting Plum on fire Eva, actually, makes the ultimate sacrifice choosing to rid her son of all of his pain and allowing him to go out in peace. This evil act, is an act of true love, one that is meant to save both Plum and Eva. Morrison describes, “Quickly, as the whoosh of flames engulfed him, she shut the door and made her slow and painful journey back to the top of the house” (Morrison, 48). Plum’s addiction caused them both to regress rapidly and Eva’s regression means that she will lose her ability to take care of her son and to save him. Her choice was between him dying in pain, like the stool blockage of his youth, or dying in pure bliss. She is emotionally compromised through the loss of her son but the act that she took was an act designed to regain power from outside pressures. The war, a nation-sanctioned ordeal, affected Plum to the point where he could no longer live in his own community. Eva, sensing this, decides that she should and does have the power to control her life and that of her son, not the government.
Plum’s baptism by fire is seen through two different lenses, one is through his participation in the war and the other is through his death at the hands of Eva. Many African American men fought for America in the war because they believed that in sacrificing their lives they would finally gain a significant role as citizens and not just disposable bodies. Plum desires freedom, which he neither loses nor gains through war, but it’s his post-war drug addiction that is a true reflection of the pressures he faces upon his return. Plum’s desire to transcend the turmoil of the world are not just indicative of his war experiences or seen just through his character. It is evident that other black people in the town desire some sort of metaphysical uplifting due solely to the fact that they wanted to live in a place that was call The Bottom of Heaven. Plum’s drug use is a direct result of him fighting for the U.S. military yet another institution that systematically oppresses blacks. Morrison describes the death of Plum as, “some kind of baptism, some kind of blessing, he thought” (Morrison, 47). The spiritual nature of Plum’s death, shows that there was no socio-economic or even physical forms of escape for Plum and thus his life yielded tragedy due to forces outside of his control.
Shadrack further emphasizes the desire for control that the black townspeople hold, but more notably, he demonstrates the unconditional yearning for agency over one’s own body through his own holiday: National Suicide Day. Upon his return Shadrack feels that he, like many other soldiers, fought for a country that continues to abandon them. However, Shadrack is just one of three representations of the underlying destruction of the black male bodies in The Bottom. Chicken Little, Shadrack, and Plum all become disposable bodies. Chicken Little is innocent and lacks a real identity. Plum’s name signifies the consumption of his mind, through the war, and his body through drugs and the fire. Chicken Little and Plum are reminiscent of the soldier whose head gets blown off in the war, they are nameless and faceless and they signify the loss of innocence through death. Shadrack is one of very few characters who maintain hope but he only does so until Sula dies. Sula’s death is a turning point in his life because he realizes that he cannot deviate from the norm and survive, his blackness will lead to his downfall despite his nationalistic endeavor and despite his push for agency. Shadrack’s most poignant suggestion to Sula is simply “always”, a suggestion that is an attempt to instill within the young girl a sense of permanence after she took away the life of Chicken Little. It is not until years later that Shadrack realizes that always was a false ideal that he placed in his head. National Suicide Day, is an annual representation of power or the agency to choose to live or die, but a freak accident turns to day into one of destruction. The lives of the townspeople are destroyed by the New River Tunnel, a tangible sign of progress. On National Suicide Day Morrison describes Shadrack actions as, “not heartfelt this time, not loving this time, he no longer cared whether he helped them or not” (Morrison, 158). Shadrack’s hopelessness stems from the overwhelming power of death and the loss of innocence in the text. The loss of innocence, predominantly, stems from outside sources: the war, society, and expectations of youth. The end of the novel shows the breaking point of Shadrack’s ideals and he, the last one with hope, leads the townspeople to their deaths.
In “Long Black Song” the graphophone man infiltrates the lives of Sarah and Silas, and his intrusion stunts their life and ultimately leads to loss. After Sarah and the graphophone man engaged sexually there is an aura of satisfaction surrounding her. Wright explains, “She said nothing. In her mind she saw the box glowing softly, like the light in the baby’s eyes. She stretched out her legs and relaxed.” (Wright, 1426). The unnamed white man gives her a physical representation of progress. She is filled with hope, like one images a baby would be despite their nativity. Ruth, Sarah’s child, seems to have a rhythmic presence, constantly banging on the old clock as if the infant has a deeper understanding of the dangers of outside influences; in this case the outside influence is time. The constant banging of the clock by Ruth symbolizes the unpleasant force of time entering into a timeless world. Sarah’s contentment is, as the reader soon realizes, false. Sarah is trapped the moment she engages with the white man and she is doomed the moment she takes his gifts, gifts that construct unnecessary order within her life. It is reminiscent of the Adam and Eve creation myth, Sarah is tempted by the white man, but she ultimately flees the scene into nature to survive. The graphophone itself is designed to play music. By connecting the graphophone to the long black song, or a song that reflects a funeral march, it is evident that the white man displaying his power within Sarah and Silas’ realm could only lead to their demise. The graphophone man represents more than just the infiltration of whiteness, he represents American ideals that are used to institutionally oppress blacks. Sarah is asked for monetary payment for the gifts she’s received. Not only does the man symbolically or literally rape Sarah, but he institutes capitalism on the formerly content family of three.
Silas represents a stronghold of black masculinity as he builds a life of his own and is a farmer who uses the land to sustain his family and independence. Silas protects his family and his home, becoming a martyr of black men going at war with the white pressures and infiltration that slowly begins to affect his life. When Silas and the graphophone man face off Wright describes, “Then Silas got up and they faced each other again; like two dolls, a white doll and a black doll, they faced each other in the valley below” (Wright, 1432). Silas and the white man become instruments of their races, pitted against one another due to their own inescapable places in the world. The white man remains nameless for a reason, all the white perpetrators remain nameless in the text as well. This is because Wright is trying to emphasize the power of faceless entities that systematically repress blacks and the struggle it takes to fight back against these powers. The language used to describe the battle between Silas and the white men further polarizes them into two separate categories. Wright describes:
She saw two white men on all fours creeping past the well. One carried a gun and the other a red tin can. When they reached the back steps the one with the tin can crept under the house and crept out again. Then both rose and ran. One fell. A yell went up. Yellow tongue of fire licked out from under the back steps. (Wright, 1435)
The white men, therefore, become animalistic no longer retaining their humanity as they both crawl around the house and desire solely to murder Silas for their own unjustified pleasure. Their cowardice and strategic tactics show the intention of remaining a hidden threat as they light the house on fire in order for Silas to come out into the open and regain their advantage. Like many black narratives, specifically ones that involves violence, black families are placed in the crossfire of their white oppressors. Silas and Sarah were ultimately unable to retain their sense of independence and self-sovereignty because their home was infiltrated and destroyed by outside forces.
Richard Wright and Toni Morrison demonstrate through their works the distinct polarization of black individuals and the power that infiltrating white ideology has on their lives. For all of these distinct characters who grappled with war, capitalism, and white progressivism their lives ended in hopelessness, fear, or an unstable exodus into the wilderness. There is a slow-building initiation of these characters into a world where their community cannot survive or withstand the pressures of outside influences. The actions of these characters, drug use, sex with a white man, desire for agency, and martyrdom are all the result of a significant power struggle between blacks and whites. Wright and Morrison are not demonstrating that all blacks will eventually crumble under the pressure of white infiltration but they are suggesting that the power of these outside forces yields uncharacteristic actions that do not reflect the morality of these black individuals. Furthermore, these writers use their characters to demonstrate how the polarization of their bodies becomes a battleground for sovereignty, and it is a battle that still rages on.
Gates, Henry Louis, and Nellie Y. MacKay. “Richard Wright.” The Norton Anthology of
African American Literature. New York, NY: Norton, 1997. 1419-1436. Print.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Vintage Books, 2004. Print.
Almost a Man: From Childhood to Adulthood
As we grow up, our parents teach us life lessons to prepare us for adulthood. Depending on how we choose to approach these lessons, we may or may not understand how to attain a mature way of acting. In the story, “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” by Richard Wright, the narrator, Dave Saunders, had very little guidance on how to be an adult, and wanted nothing more than to be just that. Dave, wasn’t properly taught the essential information of how to be responsible or familiar with social norms. Dave Saunders’ parents were uneducated and led Dave to be the same way. Knowing the proper characteristics of how to be an adult, is an acquired knowledge. As a result of this, Dave shows the reader he is unaware of what separates a “boy” from a “man” and a “girl” from a “woman”. Dave grew up in a society that taught him to have a negative view towards one’s youth.
In Wright’s short story, the narrator and those surrounding him had a very negative view of youth. “One of these days he was going to get a gun and practice shooting, then they couldn’t talk to him as though he were a little boy” (Wright). This quote from the story, is an example of the way Dave felt. This pessimistic environment, led Dave to feel powerless and weak. With the proper lesson by his parents, Dave could have known how to deal with his emotions. He could have also learned the value of his actions. Early on in the story, Dave goes to talk to a store owner, Joe. Dave explains that he wants a gun, and Joe offers to sell him one. Dave wanted to own a gun because of the weak feeling inside of him. He felt he needed something to make him feel more manly and more like an adult. He wanted this, not only for himself, but to prove this to his town. When Dave arrives home, he initiates a conversation with his mom about him buying a gun. His mom reacts with harsh disapproval. After a very slim amount of arguing is had, his mom agrees to him purchasing Joe’s gun. Dave’s mom couldn’t hold her ground, and this limited parenting contributes to Dave’s immature personality. Dave didn’t seem to have proper parenting, which is essential to be an independent and grown individual. Dave’s mom had one condition to him buying a gun; the condition was that he had to bring it home to her for her husband, Dave’s father, to have. Dave agreed to these terms, and proceeds to buy the gun. Not long after, Dave disobeys his mother’s only request, and he does not go straight home. Dave waited until he knew his family would be asleep before coming home. Also when, his mother awoke him in the middle of the night asking for the gun, and he claims he hid it, meanwhile it was alongside him. The following morning, he leaves for work, bright and early, to avoid giving the gun to her. The preceding examples show the lack of concern that was centered around Dave and his actions. If he was shown the proper parenting, he might have approached his life with a better mindset.
“The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” written by Richard Wright, expresses what it means to be an adult. Throughout the story Dave believes that a boy cannot become a man unless he can shoot a gun properly. However, that’s not the situation. To be considered an adult, it’s important to be responsible, and have an understanding of the value of one’s actions. Dave’s parents treated him like a very young child from early on in the story. His mother felt it was necessary for her to hold onto his payment from work. She didn’t give him the opportunity to be a responsible adult in that situation. When she does give him responsibility, it’s the responsibility of purchasing such a dangerous weapon, and he fails her. Dave heads off to work with his gun, the day after he purchases it. Not only does Dave disrespect and disobey her by holding on to it, he proceeds to make a major mistake. At work, he decides to try shooting it, considering anywhere else in town the shot could be heard. Dave works for Jim Hawkins. While at work, Dave hooks the plow to Mr. Hawkins’ mule. He then travels to be at a decent distance where the shots would be unheard. When he takes the shot, he closes his eyes and accidently shoots Mr. Hawkins’ mule. Now, Dave tries to save the mule, but she dies. When Dave gets back to the farm to share the sad news, he lies about what happened and keeps the situation a secret. Instead of being mature and taking responsibility for his poor actions, he lies. At that moment, Dave proved to the reader that he is very immature. An adult could properly admit to their mistakes, and accept the consequences. When an uproar arose, people were suspicious of Dave’s story. His mother shares the truth about Dave and the gun. Dave eventually confessed, but now he became the laughingstock of the town. He also had to pay Mr. Hawkins for the mule. Now he knew he would be teased for paying “Fifty dollars for a dead mule” (Wright). Dave also feared for the potential beating from his father. Instead of trying to explain to Dave how wrong his choices were, Mr. Saunders decided that beating Dave would be more effective. Dave knew he was too old for it, and it wasn’t going to make any difference. That night, instead of going to return his gun like he was asked to, he decided to go out shooting again. He wanted to prove to himself he was good at shooting and was truly a man. Even during such a delicate situation, Dave risks any of the respect he has. While he’s shooting, he becomes proud of his success, but after he was out of bullets, he realized the reality of his future. He thought that staying home with his parents would never allow him to grow up. He also thought that it would be tough paying Mr. Hawkins each month for his mule. With the flow of stressful thoughts, Dave makes the decision to hop on a train and leave town. Dave does this with no money, food, water or anything that is crucial to his survival. This proves Dave’s actions to be seriously reckless and completely immature. Also, he left his responsibilities behind, despite the severity of what he has done. This can all be brought back to the way he was raised.
As Dave Saunders grew up, he probably had a rough time. It is clear to the reader that he, along with his family, is uneducated. When the author lets you see Dave or his mother’s diction compared to any other character in the story, it’s obvious they weren’t raised the same. This can also be proven by the reaction of the town when the news is out about Dave killing the mule. They all immediately proceed to criticize Dave, and almost make light of the situation. They blame it on his age. It seems to be much deeper than his age. Dave was a seventeen-year old boy, and that seems pretty old for the way Dave acts and is treated. Dave is trusted with such a big job, but isn’t trusted with his own pay. The town is surrounded with negativity, with every aspect. Not only is this town a negative place, but the story itself. The author writes with a pessimistic vibe. Throughout the story, the reader expects a form of “coming of age” clarity, but he never experiences that. He didn’t try to fix anything at any point. His solution to people treating him like a child was to buy a weapon. Not only does he just buy it, he buys it with the intention to hurt someone. “Could kill a man with a gun like this. Kill anybody, black or white” (Wright). This quote from the story, stated by Dave, shows the reader, he is serious about his intentions. Dave was never considering the value of his actions, and his parents were never willing to help him. All of these qualities in his life, don’t allow him to be a true adult.
Throughout “The Man Who Was Almost a Man”, the author, Richard Wright, tried to teach a lesson of self-awareness and adulthood. Wright wants it to be clear to his readers that one needs to truly identify their mistakes before they can be successful. One’s actions has a direct impact on their future. We are meant to be advised and raised by adults throughout our youth. This is to help us see their mistakes and mold our lives into something better. Dave’s parents were unsuccessful with this, and that led the story to end the way it did. Growing up is a very crucial time in life to be aware and responsible.
Wright, Richard “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” 1961 Print
Coping with Grief: “The Management of Grief” and “Big Boy Leaves Home”
Traumatic events leave an unforgettable imprint on people. Often, it is the way in which people handle trauma that determines how they will move on with their lives. Bharati Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief” discusses the bombing of a plane that caused the death of many, and how the families of these people go about dealing with the grief they must face. Richard Wright’s “Big Boy Leaves Home” follows Big Boy as he runs away after killing a white soldier who murdered two of his friends. As he attempts to hide and survive, he must also grieve for his friends. Both stories focus on tragedy and grief, and the ways in which how these characters go about grieving reflects on the realities that affect everyone.
Mukherjee begins her story by setting up a chaotic scene. Many are gathered in Sheila’s home trying to make sense of a plane that had supposedly gone off the grid but that was rumored to have had a terrorist bomb. In order to comprehend the intensity of the situation, Mukherjee writes, “Two radios are going on in the dining room. They are attuned to different stations… The big TV in the den is being whizzed through American networks and cable channels.” (156) The description of this scene depicts how no one knows nor understands what is really going on. Everyone is trying to stay tuned to the media to see if they hear about what happened to the plane. As the story continues to develop, readers get a sense of the desperation and hysteria building between Sheila and the other characters, because deep down they may have realized that their loved ones will not be returning. Mukherjee continues writing, “I wonder if pills alone explain this calm. Not peace, just a deadening quiet. I was always controlled, but never repressed. Sound can reach me, but my body is tensed, ready to scream.” (157) Although it seems as if Sheila is in denial, it seems as if her mind and body have accepted the saddening truth that will soon come their way. This is, unfortunately, a universal reality. Tragedy is never an easy subject to accept, especially if it means losing a large number of loved ones time. Denial is usually the first step many go to because they cannot fathom to accept death, and prefer to be delusional until it is proven otherwise. Nevertheless, once people move one from denial, it does not make acceptance any easier as they try to grasp the reality that their loved ones will not be returning, and that they may not have had the chance to properly say goodbye.
As the story goes on and the characters learn that the plane indeed was bombed and that everyone died, they had to then go and identify the bodies. From there, many processed their grief in varying ways. Mukherjee continues on by writing, “Kusum’s put her house up for sale… Pam’s left for California… Dr. Ranganathan…is changing jobs, going to Ottawa. But Ottawa is over a hundred miles away, and he is forced to drive two hundred and twenty miles a day. He can’t bring himself to sell his house.” (165) Sheila believed that Kusum was running away, even if she justified herself by saying that she was seeking inner peace. Readers can argue that Sheila could have felt the same way about Pam, who also moved to a new place to start anew. However, disconnecting from the place that brings grief is an approach many take. Returning to a place full of memories often becomes too much for them to bear, thus leaving that place behind and starting on a clean slate is their way of dealing with the grief without having to constantly reminisce on people that were no longer with them. With regards to Sheila, she dealt with the deaths of her husband and her two children in an odd way. In a visit to India, her husband spoke to her. Mukherjee writes, “Shall I stay? I ask, but already the image is fading. You must finish alone what we started together.” (164) Sheila’s husband asked her from death to continue living on, even if she was alone. In order to do this, Sheila returned to Canada to resume her life as best as she could, even if it was still difficult for her to come to term with. Once she received a sign from her husband that she had been doing what he asked her to, Sheila then fully felt as if she could begin to really live and move past such a sad period in her life.
The tragedy that follows Big Boy greatly differs from what occurred with Sheila. It had started out innocently enough when Big Boy and his friends Bobo, Buck and Lester decided to skip school and trespass a private area to go swimming. What started out as innocent fun quickly escalated when they were seen by a white woman who screamed because she felt that her life was endangered. Although they did their best to assure her that they simply wished to collect their clothes and leave, they did not escape that easily. As consequence of her screaming, her partner, Jim, who also happened to be a soldier, comes with a gun and threatens to kill them all. Wright writes, “Lester grunted, stiffened, and pitched forward. His forehead struck a toe of the woman’s shoes… Buck stopped at the edge of the embankment, his head jerked backward, his body arched stiffly to one side; he toppled headlong, sending up a shower of bright spray to the sunlight.” (“Big Boy Leaves Home”) Jim ends up shooting and killing two of the boys. Since it all occurred so fast, Big Boy and Bobo may not have had time to process what had happened to their friends, particularly if they were trying to escape to save their own lives. Since they lived during a time when the Jim Crow laws were still in effect, they had no choice but to run away to avoid being lynched. Nevertheless, tragedy followed him as he continued on in his journey.
Big Boy ran until he felt he was a safe distance away, and then hid in a hole in the ground until the coast was clear. However, the mob that wanted to lynch Big Boy and Bobo soon found their way to him, and Big Boy feared for his own life, along with Bobo, because he was supposed to be joining him soon. Unfortunately, the mob ended up catching Bobo and burned him to death with tar. Wright continues on writing, “Big Boy could see the barrel surrounded by flames… His eyes played over a long, dark spot near the fire… That dark spot had moved. Lawd, thas Bobo… He smelt the scent of tar, faint at first, then stronger. The wind brought it full into his face, then blew it away.” (“Big Boy Leaves Home”) The death of his last friend was ultimately too much for Big Boy to take in. He must have felt very lonely, especially considering that he had to leave his family behind, and ultimately even put them at risk of getting hurt. Having to deal with the deaths of all his friends under such a short amount of time and under extremely cruel circumstances did not allow Big Boy to really accept the despair that he felt. Wright described, “He had no feelings now, no fears. He was numb, empty, as though all blood had been drawn from him.” (“Big Boy Leaves Home”) Considering that Big Boy had witnessed death so close to him, it is only appropriate that he went into state of shock and then numbness. It must have been easier for him to deprive himself of feeling because grieving could have been his ultimate downfall into death. Had he chosen to dwell in his grief, he could have turned himself in to take away the pain. Thus, Big Boy’s withdrawal from his emotions and grief is not only reasonable, but ultimately what saved his life.
Grief is a complex emotion that humanity must consistently deal with. In contemporary society, many lose loved ones for varying reasons, but the process never gets any easier. Whichever methods are chosen to deal with grief cannot be considered wrong or inappropriate because everyone handles hardships differently. Eventually, they will come to terms with reality and learn to lessen the pain. Thus, no one can determine what amount of time is adequate to move on. Rather than trying to dictate how long someone should be allowed to grieve, the focus should be more on how to provide healthy outlets for these people to release their sadness so that they can eventually put the pieces of their fragmented life back together.
Mukherjee, Bharati. “The Management of Grief.” Introduction to Literature. Kathleen Shine Cain, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Janice Neuleib, Stanley Orr, Paige Reynolds and Stephen Ruffins, eds. Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2015. 156-169. Print
Wright, Richard. “Big Boy Leaves Home.” xroads.virginia.edu. The University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 12 March 2015.
The Struggle of Finding a Home in African-american Literature
The “American Dream” connotes a vision of a house with a white picket fence, a place of warmth and family, a secure place to lay one’s head at night, a place to just be. Much of African-American literature since the 1900’s demonstrates that the quest of a “home” for most African-Americans, complicated by racism, segregation, and oppression, becomes a frustrating and nearly impossible dream.
In Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “Sweat,” Delia permits her husband Sykes’ unemployment and infidelity; she even allows him to bring a snake onto the premises regardless of her fear of the creature, but Delia balks at the thought of giving up her home. The title of the story describes the work ethic of Delia which is further demonstrated in her discussion with the errant and selfish Sykes, “Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!” (Hurston 1023). When Sykes refers to the house as “his” in saying that he did not want white people’s clothes in his house, Delia quickly and hotly reminds him that it is her “sweat… [that has] paid for this house” (Hurston 1023). Even as Delia comes to realize that it is too late to worry over her relationship with Sykes she realizes that she can never give up “her little home. She had it built for her old days, [she had] planted…the trees and flowers there. It was lovely to her, lovely” (Hurston 1024).
Richard Wright’s “Long Black Song” also describes the struggle to have a home in the rural South. “Long Black Song” is set shortly after World War II and tells the story of Sarah and Silas, so poor they “ain got not money t be fixin no clocks” (Wright 1422). Although Silas does not fill the space in her heart left by Tom, Sarah is grateful to Silas for “[giving] her her own home… more than many others had done for their women” (1431). Silas has slaved for “ten years…t git [his] farm free” (1433) and is proud to finally be doing well enough to hire another hand to work his farm. But both Sarah and Silas’ dream of a home and farm owned free and clear turns nightmare as a result of an interaction with a white man. Whether Sarah is raped, has sex willingly, or merely acquiesces, the fact infuriates Silas who has fought too long to be his own man. In his article “Charles W. Chestnutt’s ‘The Web Of Circumstance’ and Richard Wright’s ‘Long Black Song’: The Tragedy of Property” suggests that “a Black Man’s attempt to participate fully in the white economic system might very well lead to tragedy” (Delmar). Silas encounter with the white men results in the death of one of them. Knowing the white men will be back for vengeance, his choice comes down to running away and giving up his home or to stay and surely give up his life. Despising the whites, he sends Sarah and the baby elsewhere and chooses to stay and die with his self-respect and on his own grounds.
In his article, “Pro & Con: “The Great Sharecropper Success Story,” Nicholas Lemann discusses the failure and success of “the overall transition of black America from being three-quarters rural to three-quarters urban in the half-century from 1910 to 1960” (Lemann). Lemann finds that the migrations did not always result in better personal circumstances for African-Americans. Langston Hughes’ two poems “Madam and the Rent Man” and “Ballad of the Landlord” both show the beginnings of ghettoization and indifferent slum lords. The speakers in both poems cite numerous, even hazardous and unsanitary conditions in their rented residences only to find that the landlords and rent agents are only concerned with the collection of money not with providing reasonable repairs. In “Madam and the Rent Man” an agent of the landlord comes by to collect the rent. While insisting that he must have the rent, Madam explains that “The sink is broke, / The water don’t run… Back window’s cracked, / Kitchen floor squeaks, / [and] There’s rats in the cellar, /And the attic leaks” (Madam 11-18). She points out that she had raised these concerns previously and yet neither “rent man” nor land lord “done a thing… [they] promised to’ve done” (Madam 13-14). While Madam ultimately refuses to pay, the poem ends with the frustration of both her and the rentman, an ironic note of agreement. “Ballad of the Landlord” takes a similar idea a step further. As the speaker refuses to pay a landlord for similar faulty conditions, the landlord threatens the speaker with eviction. The speaker reacts by threatening the landlord with bodily harm. Frustratingly, police involvement does not result in the landlord’s enforced repairs, but instead results in headlines that read “TENANT HELD NO BAIL / JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL” (Ballad 32-33).
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is about a working-class and poor family. The drama, set “sometime between World War II and the present” (Hansberry 1772), takes place in a Southside Chicago ghetto. Michelle Gordon, in her article entitled “Somewhat Like War: The Aesthetics of Segregation, Black Liberation, and A Raisin in the Sun,” says that “Hansberry directly engages crises produced by ghetto economies and dehumanizing living conditions” (Gordon 123). The five member Younger family is nearly living on top of each other in a two bedroom apartment where the varying personalities begin to wear on each other. The tiny apartment was never supposed to be a permanent situation. Mama explains how she and Big Walter, upon their marriage, hadn’t “planned on living here no more than a year… [They were] going to set away [money], little by little, and buy a little place…. [They] even picked out the house” (1.1). As children came along and finances tightened the dream had faded. With the next generation Ruth has the same thoughts and bemoans how the dream of “the way [she and Walter] were going to live [is] starting to slip away” (2.1). Mama decides to buy a house so that they can have enough space for the new baby that Ruth carries, but not without reservations. While Mama buys a house they can afford, it is in a white neighborhood, and despite the attempts of the white neighborhood to buy them off, they make the move anyway. Hansberry almost ends on a happy note as the family reverts to their everyday squabbling, but their future seems perilous. More than likely they will encounter extreme and possibly violent reaction to their presence in a white neighborhood.
In 1943 A.H. Maslow wrote his paper entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation” in which he posits that human beings most basic needs begins with physiological needs such as food, water, and sleep. Once these basic needs are met, human beings tend to look for safety. Shelter or a secure home is part of this need for safety. The quest for a secure home then becomes a need that must be essentially satisfied before human beings can consider the need for love and belonging, or the next step, esteem, and the final step, self-actualization. “Human needs arrange themselves in hierarchies of prepotency. That is to say, the appearance of one need usually rests on the prior satisfaction of another, more prepotent need…. Also no need or drive can be treated as if it were isolated or discrete; every drive is related to the state of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of other drives” (Maslow 370). Further, he discusses how the chronic “deprivation” (Maslow 375) of any particular need not only becomes the sole focus of a human being, but causes major psychological trauma.
If it can be conceded that the African-American literature examined in this article is a fair representation of society, then it becomes evident that racism, oppression, and segregation has impeded many African-Americans from finding a safe and secure environment in which to live. Denying the basic need of safe and secure shelter, the stepping-stone to other needs, then prevents an entire culture from achieving its full potential, certainly a major fault in American society.
Delmar, P. Jay. “Charles W. Chestnutt’s ‘The Web of Circumstance’ and Richard Wright’s ‘Long Black Song’: The Tragedy of Property.” Studies in Short Fiction 17.2 (1980): 178-181. Academic Search Complete. Web. 26 Feb. 2013.
Gordon, Michelle. “Somewhat Like War: The Aesthetics of Segregation, Black Liberation, and A Raisin in the Sun.” African American Review 42.1 (n.d.): 121-133. Arts & Humanities Citation Index. Web. 26 Feb. 2013.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nded. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 2004.1771-1830. Print.
Hughes, Langston. “Madam and the Rentman.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nded. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 2004. 1304. Print.
Hughes, Langston. “Ballad of the Landlord.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nded. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 2004. 1302-1303. Print.
Hurston, Nora Zeale. “Sweat.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nded. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 2004. 1022-30. Print.
Wright, Richard. “Long Black Song.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nded. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 2004.1419-36. Print.
Lemann, Nicholas. “Pro & Con: “The Great Sharecropper Success Story.” Public Interest 105 (1991): 107-22. ERIC. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.
Maslow, A. H. “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Psychological Review 50.4 (1943): 370-396. PsycARTICLES. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.
Richard Wright’s Experience to His Successful Writing Career
Richard Wright was a writer and author. His childhood was mostly him being hungry and poor. He struggled with becoming a writer. But even with the hardships, he still had a lot of accomplishments. Even though Richard Wright’s childhood was rough, he became a great author. Richard Wright had a rough childhood. He was born near Natchez, Mississippi, on September 4th, 1908. He was the son of Ella Wilson who was a school teacher and Nathaniel Wright who was a sharecropper. He had a brother named, Leon Alan Wright. Richard was never connected with his father. He claimed that he was a stranger to him [Richard Wright]. His father wasn’t emotionally there for them.When he was 6, his father left his family to move with another woman. Richard said that it didn’t affect him too much emotionally but he was affected physically. The mom was stressed out since she had to take care of two kids by herself. The family started having financial issues. Richard was hungry most of the time now, but it wasn’t major. Unfortunately, his mother became ill and wasn’t allowed to do any domestic job. Since his mother couldn’t support the family anymore, Richard and his brother were sent to an orphanage. During the orphanage, he went to Howard’s Institute but that didn’t last long since the family moved to Jackson and then to Arkansas.
The family then moved back to Jackson to stay with his grandparents and his aunt. Richard never got a good education due to the fact that they kept on moving to find a better place to live. Richard moved school to school and finally settled to Smith Robertson Junior High School graduating the 9th grade. He then went to Lanier High school but soon dropped out due to the fact that he had to start taking care of his family.He had some issues at home. His grandmother was very religious and Richard wasn’t comfortable due to that. He rebelled against religion due to his grandmother. He took a lot of jobs to save up, to move. He soon got enough money to move to Memphis. He soon began to focus on writing more.Richard Wright’s writing career started when he was 15. He wrote his first story called The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Arch. The story was published in a local black newspaper. His grandmother was very religious and started hating on the title because of the word Hell. In fact, his grandmother wouldn’t let any books in, especially fiction because it is the devil’s work. Due to this situation, Richard Wright couldn’t read as much at home. Instead he would go to the library. But he couldn’t take any books out since he was black. He had to borrow a library card from an Irish worker and forge notes just to take out books. He moved to Memphis and he started reading more contemporary American Literature.He then moved to Chicago to leave the south because of the Jim Crow Laws. In 1935, he started to write a bunch of short stories and a novel. He then decided to hit big and move to New York. When he was in New York, he worked as an editor of Daily Worker.During his free time, he worked on his writing. His short story collection, Uncle Tom’s Children, got published in 1938! This is when his writing finally got launched and noticed.
After that, he started to publish so much more writing and started to get awards for them.Even though he had a lot of hardships, he still became very successful. He accomplished a lot in his literary career.In 1939, he was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship award from his Uncle Tom’s Children short story collection, which had a prize of $500. In 1949, he awarded the “Spingarn Medal” by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He wrote successful books such as Native Son and Black Boy. In fact, Native Son was put on the Times Magazine’s list of 100 Best English Novels from 1923 to 2005. Black Boy also became a bestseller at one point and that book inspired James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. He won so many achievements during his career. Richard Wright was an amazing writer. Even with his tough childhood, he still became this talented writer. He inspires people and shows that if you give hard work and effort to something, you can achieve your dreams! In conclusion, Richard Wright was a talented writer who had a rough past but didn’t let that affect him.
The Emotion of Fear in Richard Wright’s “Native Son”
David J. Schwartz, an American motivational writer and coach, once stated “Action cures fear”. In short, doing something to stop your fear will no longer make you scared of your fear. Schwartz’s quote connects to the character Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s, Native Son. Bigger is controlled by the fear of white people and this fear caused Bigger to kill Mary Dalton, daughter of Mr and Mrs. Dalton, however unlike Schwartz’s quote killing Mary Dalton didn’t cure Bigger’s fear of white people as it only made it worse. Richard Wright uses symbolism and intense diction to make an argument that fear enables people in particular African-Americans to fight for their lives which leads to consequences.
The book starts off with Bigger Thomas waking up and getting dressed until his sister Vera shaking with fear told Bigger that there was a rat. The rat was “pulsed with fear” as it “ emitted a long thin song of defiance … pawing the air restlessly” (Wright 6). The rat and Bigger share a lot of similarities such as living in unsanitary conditions but also foreshadows Bigger’s character as someone who fights every day for survival as his actions are motivated by fear. The rat also symbolizes the struggle that African-Americans at the time have to live in and were forced to live in ghettos as everyday they struggle to survive. African-Americans and the rat also face violence more frequently as they are both exposed to savage murder and violence such as lynching for African-Americans done by white Americans. Gus,a friend of Bigger, was walking with Bigger and as they were walking Bigger saw a plane and says “I could fly a plane if I chance” which caused Gus to reply back by saying “ If you wasn’t black and if you had some money and if they’d let you go to that aviation school, you could fly a plane”(Wright 17). The plane shows the gap between white and black and how much they can achieve. The term “the sky’s the limit” only refers to white Americans while African-Americans can only reach as far as the ground. Bigger and Gus are below the plane while the white man is above them which shows how divided whites and blacks.
The symbol of the plane also justifies white’s authority over blacks as planes are above in the air and they are being flown by white people. White Americans look down over African-Americans making them feel superior to America. Later on in the book, Bigger, Mary, and Jan ,Mary’s boyfriend, were driving to Ernie’s Kitchen Shack for a meal. Mary told Bigger that she wanted to know “ just [to] see how your people live I want to know these people”(Wright 70). Even though Mary and Jan are showing sympathy towards Bigger and the whole community but they are unable to see how uncomfortable Bigger was as “ his heart was beating fast and he struggled to control his breath”(Wright 70). Mary and Jan were blind to Bigger’s emotions and feelings as they were unable to make Bigger feel comfortable but more towards discomfort. Blindness is also when Mrs.Dalton was unable to see Bigger when he murdered Mary as in the text it states “ Mary? Is that you? … Mary! Are you ill?”(Wright 86).
Analysis of Native Son by Richard Wright
According to a collection of maps in an article on the Big Think webpage, there were at least 126 occurrences of lynching between 1930 and 1938. However, in opposition to these concrete statistical analyses, one man published a novel in 1940 that would oppose the theory of a physical warfare, and claimed that the era of the 1930s was home to a “battle of words”. This man is Richard Wright, and his novel, “Native Son”, introduced the protagonist Bigger Thomas as a character whom was oppressed by racism leading to his murder of 2 women.
The novel involved 3 detailed chapters separated as “Fear”, “Flight”, and “Fate”, each with a major theme in mind. Bigger Thomas was triggered by a fear of oppression that forced him into placing the blame of murder on other individuals. Furthermore, the protagonist’s decision to challenge authorities ignited a crowd of thousands. Unfortunately, toward the end of the novel, Bigger was jailed to show the childish attempt of walking in a blizzard with a torch of passion.
Despite the various methods of bodily harms that were inflicted on Negroes in the 1930s, the major source of conflict in “Native Son” came from verbal arguments and well-constructed lies. In the first chapter, “Fear”, the author expressed the theme of “Damage Heads” whereas several characters in the novel were injure in their head, which is the shell of their mind, after failing to make an impact with their words. For example, on page 70, Bigger felt a sense of hatred toward Mary after she had questioned about the lifestyle of blacks. Ultimately, Bigger silenced Mary in her room with a pillow and tossed her in the furnace. Once again, Mary’s existence was in defiance with Bigger’s goal of hiding his murder, and her head was cut off. Furthermore, the conflict of beliefs was demonstrated on page 152 when Bigger felt cornered out of fear of the law. Britten, a private investigator, smashed Bigger’s head against the wall to show the imminent exposure of Bigger’s murder and Britten’s ability to overlook Bigger’s lies.
A second theme of Native Son was introduced by a static character, Bessie, whom has often complained about her poor lifestyle. “I ain’t never bothered nobody. I just worked hard every day as long as I can remember, till I was tired enough to drop.” Bessie said on page 215. The author of “Native Son” corrected the fallacy of passiveness by showing that doing nothing could still trigger negative emotions from an activist: Bigger murdered Bessie because she was reluctant to escape with him. Another example of the theme “Lead or Be Lead” is expressed toward the end of the first chapter, “Fear”, whereas Mary has simply donated money to the communist party instead of taking an active role. Mary could’ve done a lot more to help the Negroes. In Mark 12:41-44, Jesus called his disciples together after seeing a widow put a few cents into the church’s offering box and told them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.” Mary is like the rich people whom came before the widow and put their excess earnings, for donating $3,000 out of her families million-dollar treasury is a miniscule amount. Richard Wright also modeled the character of Bigger after the poor widow that followed the rich and started a revolution. Mary did not put enough effort into making a better future for Negroes and paid the consequences with her own life under the hand of an activist.
Richard Wright utilized realism in his novel by also presenting the negatives to an exorbitant amount of passion. On page 255, the narrator described Bigger’s state after being captured for his crimes, “Even when they snatched him up by the collar, his weak body easily lending itself to be manhandled, he looked without hope or resentment…” Too great a passion is often followed by technical miscalculation and costly consequences. In an article titled “Why Passion for Your Work Isn’t Always a Good Thing” published by Anna Medaris Miller, a Senior Health Editor at U.S. News, workers whom exhibited symptoms of passion in the workplace often claims that they cannot think about anything else. Bigger was too passionate in his attempt to challenge the large white world and in the process murdered 2 innocent bystanders.
Richard Wright wrote “Native Son” to share his enthusiasm for the bullies in his life, as demonstrated in the author’s note at the beginning of the novel. Even though Richard was attacked physically and emotionally by the bullies, some part of him wanted to be a bully, to be brave enough to stand up against the injustice of the 1930s. Evidences of Richard’s eagerness toward speaking out are shown through Bigger’s contemplation on page 110, “He liked to hear of how Japan was conquering China; of how Hitler was running the Jews to the ground…” Bigger knew that Hitler and Mussolini was murderer, but he did not care because they were activists, and Bigger acknowledged their bravery. These two historic figures changed the way Americans and people from various other countries see the world. During Hitler’s era, there were supporters of his plan that eventually realized Hitler’s cruel methods of “purging” Germany. What if someone stood up for injustice instead of creating injustice? Bigger Thomas has acted out of his boundary as a Negro and brought with him individuals such as Max and Jan whom could now build a more convincing claim against racial inequality. Bigger had acted out of repressed rage and became a murderer. However, in the last sentence of the novel, Bigger was smiling as he freed himself of his desires. “Therefore, instead of stressing out about matching passion with purpose, just do it. Do something. Anything” said Viktorija Veltmane, an author of Prsuit. Bigger did something, he expressed his concerns and gathered a mob at court. Richard Wright did something too, he published a book attacking injustice during a time that might cost him his life. Richard Wright’s message of assertiveness were received and confirmed with the introduction of leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. A dream has changed the world; an act could change a lot more.
Power Struggle in Richard Wright’s Novel Native Son
Power Struggle in Native Son
When moments of fear and uncertainty fall upon us, as humans, we often react in surprising ways. In Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, and his peers deal with a constant feeling of suppression and unease due to the color of their skin. White people stood on much higher ground than black people in Chicago in the 1930’s. Throughout the book, Bigger struggles to find a balance between being who he is and being trusted and accepted in society. When faced with the absolute power of white people, Bigger reacts dramatically and fatally. In the face of confrontation of someone else’s power, the feeling of fear within Bigger is what causes him to react so negatively. Consciously, he decides to turn that fear around into an attempt to free himself from the firm grips of white power. The need to feel like an individual who has self-power is more important to Bigger than his freedom and the life of others. Powerlessness in a power-hungry person creates a never ending circle of trying to break free.
Initially, a crippling fear of white people lives inside Bigger and causes him to feel extreme emotions and perform extreme acts. The first section of the book, entitled “Fear”, shows Bigger going on an emotional rollercoaster from rage to panic to indifference all in a single day. As he gets more nervous about the job with the Daltons, he begins to act on his violent emotions. The closer he gets to white people, the less he can control his actions. This extreme feeling of trepidation within Bigger always arises when he is faced with interaction with a white person. First, when he and his friends sort a plan to rob a white man, Bigger is too frightened to go through with it and subsequently threatens his friend’s life. Next, when Bigger is in Mary Dalton’s room and Mrs. Dalton enters, he feels scared that the white women will hurt him. Because of this, he suffocates Mary. Ironically, Bigger is much larger and stronger than both the women, Mary being extremely intoxicated and Mrs. Dalton being frail and blind, and would easily be able to (and in Mary’s case, does) physically restrain them from him. But because he knows that they are white and have more societal power over him, he is panicked to the point that he smothers an innocent person. This death is ironic because although Bigger feels completely powerless, he is able to gain power over the person who is the exact representation of who has the ultimate power over him in the first place. The fear within Bigger exemplifies how although Wright created a dislikable and violent character through Bigger, his actions are only a result of the suppression of black people by white people.
After the death of Mary, Bigger realizes that he is not as powerless as he had originally thought and begins to free his mind from the controlling grasp white people have on it. This second section of the book, entitles “Flight”, metaphorically shows Bigger’s escape from the white people’s power over him. Wright sets the character of Bigger up, initially, as a monster, then justifies it by displaying how it was white people and their power in the first place that created that monster. Bigger does not feel any guilt for the death of Mary because he sees it as a symbol of finally finding a way to have power over white people. The fact that the Daltons are rich and famous white people further exposes Bigger’s sense of pride at being able to strip them of their power.
Although white people are the ones in the story who have the power, Bigger is the one who desires it the most. He will do, and does do, anything he can to accomplish his goal of having more power than white people. Bigger is a power-hungry, monstrous, angry person who was pushed into that mindset by the hopelessness of being black in a society that gives no power to black people. Wright shows how trying to constrain the power of an entire culture and hand it to another will only worsen things for both cultures.
Native Son by Richard Wright: Representation of the Black Men in a Violent System
Native Son questions
According to Wright, what did Bigger Thomas represent?
Bigger Thomas represents all black men existing in a system where it is impossible for them to exist without crime or violence. Their behavior was dictated by their hatred of white people. They were an oppressed community full of anger and frustration that they could not achieve what whites could achieve. The American Dream was off limits to them. The limitations of the black American culture were extremely evident in Native Son. Bigger mentions early in the novel that he was “sick of his life at home…but what could he do?” (Wright 22). Bigger felt trapped by society.
Bigger thinks at one point, “why should not this cold white world rise up as a beautiful dream… in which it would be easy to tell what to do and what not to do” (Wright 198). Even though he was talking about snow, it can be symbolic of the white oppression that he was surrounded by. Bigger, as representative of all other black men in his situation, longs for a world in which he can succeed and move freely without hatred or discrimination, but he is instead given a world in which is is despised at every corner and denied the freedoms that other white men get.
Black men still endure oppression in today’s society. Whether it is from police brutality, racial profiling, or racists acts of violence, black people still do not possess the complete and unlimited freedom that white people get just because of their skin color. Black people must surpass many more obstacle stacked against them than black people. Even in the decades since Wight’s novel’s publishing, the racism in this country still lingers on.
What two events inspired Wright to create Bigger Thomas?
Wright explains that Bigger was created based on real life people he had met in his lifetime. He describes 5. The first Bigger was was a bully who terrorized Wirght as a child. The other Biggers were people who violently reacted against the white system that held them down in some way or another (Wright 10). These black Biggers reflected the “failures of modern civilization” (Wright 10). The other event that helped Nixon to create Bigger Thomas was the Nixon trial that occurred in 1938 (Wright 11). Essentially a black man named Robert Nixon was arrested and charged with the murder of a white woman. Wright used many details from the case and the white racism portrayed in it as material to help him create Bigger.
A revealing moment in the mentality of Bigger is when he thinks to himself that he “hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them…and the moment he allowed himself to feel to feel to its fullness of how they lived…he would either kill himself or someone else” (Wright 20). The extreme despair and frustration displayed in this quote allows us to sort of understand Bigger to commit the horrible crimes that he did.
When people feel boxed in, ignored, hated, or any other array of negative feelings, they often feel no other way out than by violence. Why should they bother following the rules of a society that hates them? When a person is treated so badly, they oftentimes resort to extreme measures to feel some kind of worth or achievement, like when Bigger killed Mary. Even though it was accidental, afterwards he felt like he had accomplished something great because it was an act out against the white race that had oppressed him.
Why is Book One entitled “Fear”?
Book one is entitled Fear because it is referring the fears that Bigger is experiencing throughout the first part of the novel. The same fears that contribute to him committed the heinous crimes later in the novel. In one particular instance, Bigger becomes so scared with the thought of robbing Blum’s that he attacks one of his own partners to keep it from happening (Wright 42). Bigger is scared of his life never getting any better than it is when the novel begins, he is scared of being a black man in the society he lives in, and it is fear that eventually drives him to accidentally kill Mary.
The manic intensity with which Bigger attacks Gus in the store is a direct result of his fear at robbing the white man’s store. Wright describes Bigger throughout the scene as having “hard, bloodshot eyes” and a “twisted, crooked smile” (Wright 44). Wright gives us the feeling that Bigger is enjoying the torture of Gus, which is scarier than the idea of Bigger attacking Gus just to get out of the robbery. The cruel way in which the attack on Gus is described may be indicative of how Bigger feels personally attacked everyday by society.
Many acts of war today are a result of “shoot now, ask questions later.” Some people are so fearful that they may be attacked in some way that they attack first themselves. This can also be related on a smaller scale, like in bullying. A student is so scared that they may be picked on that they start a rumor about someone else first in order to draw the attention away.
Why does Wright bring in the confrontation with the rat?
In the opening pages of the novel, we are presented with the image of a large ugly black rat clinging to Bigger’s trousers. Right in the first few pages, we are made aware of the conditions Bigger and his family live in. A shabby apartment ridden with rats and filth is indicative of the poverty they endure. Bigger feels trapped by the life he has in that apartment and it contributes to his overall frustration and despair.
I believe that this confrontation with the rat is symbolic of the racism Bigger experiences in society. When the rat comes into the apartment, obviously hated, it rears up in defense. When it realizes that it is trapped in the apartment and cannot run, it tries to attack the dominating force and is ultimately killed. This event is similar to Bigger entering Mary’s room. When Mrs. Dalton enters the room, Bigger does the only thing he knows to do out of fear and even though he manages to escape that night, he is ultimately killed by the confrontation.
Many Americans today still live in poverty or starvation. It can seem nearly impossible to achieve dreams when your every thought is consumed by need money or food. Financial hindrance is a huge obstacle to overcome and it kept Bigger working menial jobs just to make ends meat. It is the reason we still need programs and initiatives to combat poverty and starvation numbers in the United States, and larger scale than that, the world.
Who was Bessie? What was pathetic about her life?
Bessie was Bigger’s girlfriend, even though they had a prostitution-type relationship. Bessie was an overworked black woman who only wanted to drink when she had time off. “[Bessie] wanted liquor and he wanted her. So he would give her the liquor and she would give him herself.” What was so sad about Bessie was that she felt like she “lived their lives when she was working in their home” and that was the reason for why she drank (Wright 119). She was so unhappy and so desperate for a drink that she would give herself to Bigger in exchange for money.
Bigger described Bessie’s life as working seven days a week with only Sunday afternoons off. When Bessie was off work for that singular afternoon, Bigger said she wanted “hard and fast fun, something to make her feel that she was making up for the starved life she was living.” Wright is able to create the image of a girl worked hard every single week just to survive. Bigger uses a metaphor to describe her saying “she was very blind.” Maybe Bigger thought she was being blind, but I believe it was just her way of coping with the sadness in her life.
Alcoholism is a relatively common way to deal with depression and unhappiness/anger in American society. Alcoholism kills thousands every year by itself and with the help of drunk driving. Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and others help people cope with their addiction. More people need to understand that alcohol is a depressant and is not a long term solution to the problem they are experiencing. In Bessie’s case, she reached out for the only thing that she felt could take her away from her problem.
Why does Bigger kill Mary Dalton?
Bigger kills Mary Dalton because he is gripped by a “hysterical terror” of being caught by Mary’s blind mother, Mrs. Dalton (Wright 80). Bigger was certain that if he didn’t keep Mary from making noise or mumbling, he would be discovered. He does the only thing he can think to do. He grabs the pillow and pushes it down over her face with all his might. It appears he doesn’t intentionally kill Mary by his surprise that her bosom isn’t moving anymore, but one can imagine that he may have subconsciously wanted to kill her when he continued to press down the pillow even after she stopped resisting.
Wright describes Bigger’s attack as being “dominated by frenzy,” which is a use of anthropomorphism. Bigger didn’t feel in control of his own emotions, rather, they were in control of him. He acted without thinking and without contemplation. He was like the rat in the apartment in the first scene of the novel. Once cornered, he felt his only choice was to fight back.
The ‘fight or flight’ response is a very real phenomenon in humans. When cornered or under intense stress, a person will have to choose immediately whether to prepare to fight or run away. Bigger in this instance chose to fight. He mentions having the idea to “knock her out of the way and bolt form the room” (Wright 80). Today, many crime of passion murders of attacks are a result of the fight or flight response. A person choosing in the exact moment to fight it out rather than run. Bigger’s instincts told him to attack Mary because he was legitimately in fear for his life.
How does the concept of blindness relate to the work?
It is Mrs. Dalton’s physical blindness that prompts Bigger to murder Mary. He believes that if she cannot see him and he can keep Mary quiet, Mary will not reveal his presence. Bigger thinks to himself, “Mrs. Dalton was blind; yes, in more ways than one” (Wright 94). Metaphorically, this represents the racism that Bigger experiences as a black man. Mrs. Dalton is unable to literally see Bigger, but she also simultaneously representing other white people who fail to see black people (Bigger, specifically) as a human beings.
The stereotypes of black people were so potent at the time that it caused them to live their lives in fear. It is why Bigger reacted in such a terrible way to Mary’s mother walking into the room. He was fearing for his life and did the only thing he could think to do that would save him. The crime then sent him tumbling down a road of no return.
Many people are in denial today that racisms till exists. They prefer to turn a blind eye to the signs around them that indicate mistreatment of blacks and other people of color. In order to move forward as a society, we need to openly address the problem that racism still exists. We must remove the figurative blindness from our sights and understand race relations for what they are and begin to take action.
After Mary’s murder, what drastic action does Bigger take? How did the community respond to the murder?
After killing Mary, he is convinced he must get rid of the evidence. He brings Mary’s body down to the basement to shove into the furnace to burn, but it won’t quite fit. In is insanity, we decides he must decapitate the head off of Mary’s body so that it can go into the furnace. Some imagery and recurrence of the color white is brought back in when Bigger “look[s] at Mary’s white throat. Could he do it? He had to” (Wright 84). Once he realizes that his pocket knife will not cut of the head, he reaches for a hatchet to hack it the rest of the way off. Once he got the body shoved into the furnace, he lit it ablaze and left for home. Eventually the body is discovered, and the media descends into a frenzy. Their news headline read, “HUNT BLACK IN GIRL’S DEATH” (Wright 198). Bigger hears that nearly 8000 men are on the hunt for him. The community falls into a mob mentality and when they finally capture Bigger, they beat him until he is secured by police.
When Bigger is finally captured, “two men stretched his arms out, as though to crucify him. This is an obvious allusion to the crucifixion of Jesus. Here was Bigger, a black man, dying for the wrongs of so many white people that drove him to commit heinous acts of violence. Except in this case, no redemption was to awarded to the people who eventually sentenced him to death.
Mob mentality occurs when everyone is influenced by other people in the mob to adopt certain, usually outlandish, behaviors. A recent example of mob mentality is Cologne attacks. Essentially hundreds of men gathered at train stations in Frankfurt, Cologne, and Hamburg, Germany and proceeded to harass, rob, and sexually assault hundreds of women. Mob mentality is so dangerous because the members of the group continue to justify each the group’s actions.
What happened to Bigger’s personality after the murder and at what point did he give up on religion?
In a sense, after imprisonment for the murders, Bigger felt a sense of relief. He tells Max, his lawyer, that it may sound bad, but “I ain’t worried none about them women I killed. For a little while I was free…I was doing something (Wright 278). Bigger describes how he felt a little deeper when he says, “I been scared and mad all my life and after I killed that first woman, I wasn’t scared no more for a little while” (Wright 278). Bigger was less tense, he was more or less at peace with his fate.
Bigger talk about his abandonment of religion with Max as well. Max asks Bigger if he could be happy in religion right then, would he be? Bigger replies curtly, “Naw. I’ll be dead soon enough. If I was religious, I’d be dead now” (Wright 280). This is a stark contrast metaphorically saying that religion effectively aids white people in the manipulation of blacks. Essentially, it helps soothe their existence in the hateful society so that white people could more easily take advantage. Like Bessie’s alcohol, religion helps people cope but doesn’t solve any problems.
Who is the insane man? Why does Wright bring him in as a character?
The insane man was a young black man who was brought to the prison from his university screaming. All of the other cell mates just tell Bigger to leave him alone because he is crazy. They say that he was crazy because he was “studying too much at the university…[and had] got to the bottom of why colored folks are treated bad” (Wright 270). I believe Wright brought him into the novel to give the reader and idea of the weight of the burden that the truth about all of the injustices done to black people must have weighed. To be fully conscious about all of the wrongs that had been done to you and your people and why was enough to drive this young man insane.
When witnessing the insane man’s rant, Bigger was fearful that “the man’s driving frenzy would suck him into its hot whirlpool.” The whirlpool represented the overwhelming, drowning sense of truth the insane man was feeling. I believe Bigger knew this, and felt that if he too succumbed to the whirlpool he may never come back.
Today we have much better care facilities for the insane and mentally disabled. In the time that this novel was written, mental health facilities were virtually non existent. Mental health is taken much more seriously today and cases such as the insane man’s would have been handled with more care instead of just strapping him down and carting him away.
How is religion brought out in the work?
Bigger’s mother was extremely religious. She participated in it in Bigger’s eyes much as Bessie participated in alcohol consumption. Bigger saw both as an escape from the world. Bigger even wishes at one point to be able to receive the same comfort from religion that his mother did but knows it will never result in a concrete escape form the racist hatred he endures everyday as a black man.
He inherently wishes for a life far removed from his own, but unfortunately he never gets to experience it. Even in the face of execution, he still refuses the religion and faith Rev. Hammond offers him. The hatred of his world has corrupted everything for him, even the sanctity of Christianity. Religion represents to Bigger, as mentioned above, a coping mechanism, not a solution to a problem. That is why everyone around him seems to be blind.
Religion is a topic of discussion frequently today. Recently, there was much debate on the religious affiliations of the presidential candidates. People value religion. Religion is a deciding factor for a lot of people for even simpler things than their presidential choice. People curb their choices in partner based on religion. And it can affect their school choice. The importance of religion certainly is still very much relevant today.
Point out examples of animal imagery in the work. What do the images represent?
There are two black rats mentioned in the story. One is in the beginning of the piece that was described earlier. The other rat is mentioned Bigger feels trapped in the city after Mary’s bones are found. The rat leaps across the snow and escapes into a hole in the wall where Bigger watches after it “wistfully” (Wright 202). Both of these rats are symbolic of Bigger.
The other significant animal that was described in the piece was Mrs. Dalton’s white cat. The white cat follows Dalton around and he feels watched and pressured by it. When Bigger is disposing of Mary’s body, the cat is there to watch him. In his frenzy, he considers throwing the cat into the furnace too because it knows what he did. Later, the cat seems to look at Bigger with “big round black eyes [with] twin pools of secret guilt” (Wright 186). The white cat is symbolic of the white society. It is also a good symbol because in most of the novel white society takes the body of a singular character; Doc, Mary, etc.
Animal imagery continues to still be widely used. For instance, the republican party is represented as an elephant and the democratic party is represented by the donkey. Animals take on our projections in many other ways, like in the way as the United States’ national bird is the Eagle. Another example of animals taking on other roles are dogs taking on more of a support system role. Many people find support and aid in guidance dogs or emotional support dogs.
Society’s Condemnation: Bigger Thomas
“Southern trees bear strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”-Billie Holliday. Consider being condemned by someone or something even before you were cognizant of their existence. More specifically, this emcompasses the ficticious narrative of Bigger Thomas in the novel Native Son, by Richard Wright. Bigger represents the impoverished African American community of Chicago who is forced into subservience by Whites. Bigger’s struggles also signify some of other common problems that plague the Black community at present such as gang violence and widespread feelings of pessimism in face of oppression. In Book one of the novel Native Son, Wright uses the symbolism and juxtaposition in order to suggest that when one is confined societal norms it perpetuates immense fear and causes one to be violent in response to such confines.
To begin Wright uses the symbols of a rat, a gun and Mrs. Dalton’s blindness in order to establish the societal positionality of bigger and to suggest than when one is confined it causes them to become violent in response. The first book of the novel is titled fear and Wright depicts this initial fear in the lines, “ it reared once more and bared long yellow fangs, piping shrilly… He’s over a foot long” ( Wright 6). The phrases “long yellow fangs” and “over a foot long” depicts the rat as vile creature, which is capable of vast destruction.
Through this illustration of the rat it accomplishes two things: it establishes the impoverished state of the Thomases as their home is overrun with vermin and it emphasizes the portrayal of “fear” of this animal. The symbol of a rat shows the substandard living environment that the whites force blacks into and the inferior position of African Americans on the economic ladder.. More generally, rats tend to dwell in unlit locations where they have access to garbage and food. Rats are seen as a pest and they are mostly undesirable in any home. This notion and widespread connotation of rats causing the Thomases to experience this initial “fear”. Bigger eventually kills the rat but the line “The huge black rat squealed and leaped at Bigger’s trouser-leg” (Wright 5) helps to generate the idea that no matter how hard one struggles they will always fall victim to the system. Similar to the rat, Bigger is a force that is already disliked by the larger White majority and no matter what he does his resistance is futile. He is disadvantaged and like the rat, Bigger is also trapped and he has no choice but to surrender. Subsequently the symbol of a gun is also a compelling factor in the development of book one.
The gun is introduced when Bigger says, “ We better take our guns this time…but I’ll feel safer with a gun this time”. Guns are a typically a symbol of , masculinity, power, and safety, and this can be seen with Bigger and his gun. In a society teeming with oppression and racism, Bigger sees his gun as the only way to resist societal pressures. However this struggle is futile because this material strength doesn’t provide him enough power to resist the institutionalized oppression. Additionally Wright strategically uses Mrs. Dalton’s blindness to represent the view of the world through the “white lens” at this time. Wright introduces this by saying, “ He went to the sink… feeling that she could see him even though he knew that she was blind”. Traditional blindness concerns the loss of sight. However, in a more figurative sense Wright does this to suggest that Ms. Dalton is numb and is not empathetic to the issues of the black community. Mrs. Dalton is also symbolically blind to what black people face. She claims to help educate blacks but contributes to the injustice that has built her husband’s fortune. Furthermore, her blindness reflects the blindness all of white society has to the suffering of the black community. White society fails to see the injustice it causes
To add on, Wright uses juxtaposition in order to further emphasize that when one is pressured by the confines of society, it causes them to be helpless and violent. This can be explicitly seen within Bigger’s interactions with Jan and Mary. This is depicted in the lines, “ She doubled with laughter. He tightened with hate. Again she was looking inside him” (Wright 81)”. The words “laughter” and “hate” are words with remote connotations one dealing with immense joy and the other extreme anger. Wright includes this scene in order to portray the view of Bigger’s world both through a White and an African American lens. Like most other whites Mary is numb to advantages she gains by being white, and this contributes to Bigger’s source of anger. Bigger is enraged and feels that he has to submit to a larger power. Despite this being a misunderstanding Bigger’s hatred is birthed from the intrinsic racism of his society. Overall Wright includes this juxtaposition in order to contrast the view of the world contingent on race. This also emphasize how oppressed groups respond to social confines. Moreover Wright also provides a juxtaposition by describing the living conditions of the Dalton family.