The Fall from Light to Darkness: Spiritual Impoverishment and the Deadening of the Soul in Richard Wright’s Native Son
A preacher enters the cell of a young man condemned by all before the trial has even begun, and begins powerfully exhorting the young man to give himself to the Lord Jesus and be redeemed. And yet this young man, standing at the very edge of death, cannot bring himself to find salvation in the religion offered to him, cannot find hope in the cross laid round his neck. Bigger Thomas, the fallen protagonist of Richard Wright’s Native Son, has spent a lifetime in the spiritually deadening climate of 1930s Chicago, and for him religion offers very little. The nihilism pervasive in black life that has so encrusted his soul has been an ever-growing force through the years, first noted in W.E.B. DuBois’ writings, and, many decades later, powerfully argued for in Cornel West’s Race Matters. All three authors are aware of the power that black religious life once held; to uplift the spirit, to enable the individual to find love, self-worth, and personal dignity in a world that sought to deprive them of each. All three authors are also aware of the growing spiritual impoverishment that has struck black American life, contributing in no small part to the conditions so poignantly portrayed in Native Son.
The importance of spiritual fulfillment as a method of social and cultural salvation in black Americans cannot be underscored clearly enough. In the days of slavery, writes DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk, “[the Negro preacher] early appeared on the plantation and found his function as the healer of the sick, the interpreter of the Unknown, the comforter of the sorrowing, the supernatural avenger of wrong, and the one who rudely but picturesquely expressed the longing, disappointment, and resentment of a stolen and oppressed people” (p. 159). The preacher fulfilled a crucial function – uplifting the people, offering them alternatives to despair in a life that seemed to offer little else, and providing them with a crucial structure, the church, upon which to build morals, strengthen family life, and find a cultural point of coherence upon which to rest. West describes the importance that such institutions held for black Americans under such conditions of oppression: “Traditions for black surviving and thriving under usually adverse New World conditions were major barriers against the nihilistic threat. These traditions consist primarily of black religious and civic institutions that sustained familial and communal networks of support” (p. 24). It is important to emphasize the value that these institutions held for black Americans, the crucial role they filled in providing an outlet in which to find faith, culture, pride, and a sense of history and tradition in order to understand why the result of the gradual decay of these institutions was so tragic.
At the time of DuBois’ writing, at the turn of the century, he described a subtle shift occurring in black religious life. Although the black church was still quite clearly the center of black social life (p. 157), Du Bois writes that another “type” of black American was emerging, one who was unable to find hope in religion, bitterly watching as his rights were trampled and his hopes crushed. “The one type of Negro stands almost ready to curse God and die…the [other] is wedded to ideals remote, whimsical” (p. 165). Even at this early date the harsh reality of post-slavery Black life in America was creeping in, and the value of religion as salvation was beginning to falter.
Cornel West, in Race Matters, is speaking from a vantage point many decades after DuBois, and argues strongly that the spiritual impoverishment hinted at in The Souls of Black Folk has grown to its present state, where nihilism is so pervasive that it has resulted in many Blacks in a deadening of the soul and a self-destructive disposition easily turned against others.
“A pervasive spiritual impoverishment grows. The collapse of meaning in life – the eclipse of hope and absence of love of self and others, the breakdown of family and neighborhood bonds – leads to the…[creation] of rootless, dangling people with little link to the supportive networks – family, friends, school – that sustain some sense of purpose in life. We have witnessed the collapse of the spiritual communities that in the past helped Americans face despair, disease, and death and that transmit through the generations dignity and decency, excellence and elegance” (p. 9-10).
West writes that the forefathers of black Americans were able to prevent this growing nihilism through the creation of “buffers”: Religious and civic institutions which served, through the provision of a social outlet and the maintenance of community and family ties, to hold back the sense of worthlessness that could easily have, and according to West seems to have, pervaded black life. West writes, “The genius of our black foremothers and forefathers was to create powerful buffers to ward off the nihilistic threat, to equip black folk with cultural armor to beat back the demons of hopelessness, meaninglessness, and lovelessness” (p. 23). Now, as those institutions gradually fall away, spiritual deprivation results, with disastrous consequences. Criminal behavior in young black men, “is a threat that feeds on poverty and shattered cultural institutions and grows more powerful as the armors to ward against it are weakened” (p. 25). The poverty, discrimination, educational inadequacies and other forces which combined seem almost inevitably to produce criminal tendencies are amplified as the social institutions which once protected against them are gradually worn down.
It seems unquestionable that the conditions in which Bigger Thomas exists are exactly the sort which West describes as breeding spiritual impoverishment. Nihilism, writes West, is, “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness. The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world” (pp. 22-23). Native Son opens with a scene in which Bigger experiences all three of these key components that combine to produce a nihilistic outlook. “Bigger, honest,” his mother screams at him, “you the most no-countest man I ever seen in all my life!” (p. 9). “We wouldn’t have to live in this garbage dump if you had any manhood in you” (p. 8). Bigger’s mother can offer him no clear evidence of her love, yet makes very apparent her disappointment in his ability to care for the family and lift them out of their poverty-stricken situation. The lovelessness and hopelessness Bigger feels from his family combine to produce in him a sense of utter meaninglessness: “He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fulness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair…He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else” (p. 10). The conditions of his life are exactly those which Cornel West describes as breeding criminal behavior in the absence of some spiritual outlet to provide hope and meaning.
Although Bigger was introduced to religion at some level as a child, recalling, “familiar [religious] images which his mother had given him when he was a child at her knee” (p. 283), religion never played a major role in his life, and its influence did not extend beyond early childhood. Bigger recalls that all religious impulses he once felt “he had suppressed and sought to shunt from his life” (p. 283). He recalls attending church as a child, but as he grew older he came to realize that the reality of his life was such that he found it impossible to find solace in God. It seemed unimportant, and served a almost laughably futile purpose in a life in which other things – from survival to the ability to acquire material items – took primary importance. When questioned why he stopped going to church, Bigger replies: “I didn’t like it. There was nothing in it. Aw, all they did was sing and shout and pray all the time. And it didn’t get ’em nothing. All the colored folks do that, but it don’t get them nothing. The white folks got everything” (p. 355). West attributes a great deal of the spiritual impoverishment he perceives amongst young black men to be the result of a market society in which the acquisition of material items has taken utmost importance. “The result [of spiritual impoverishment] is lives of what we might call ‘random nows,’ of fortuitous and fleeting moments preoccupied with ‘getting over’ – with acquiring pleasure, property and power by any means necessary…Post-modern culture is more and more a market culture dominated by gangster mentalities and self-destructive wantonness” (p. 10). The objective of Bigger’s life was not religion or spiritual salvation, but the acquisition of material things, a natural desire given the American tendency towards pleasure and power and his own disadvantaged condition. In West’s view, the pervasive spiritual degradation directly results in criminal behavior in young black men, as there is no realistic and effective force present to stem the desire for pleasure and power that is endorsed by American society.
In such a poverty-stricken environment, with no church to serve as a center of his social and spiritual life, Bigger has no real outlet save for the pool hall he frequents with his friends – certainly no spiritual panacea, indeed, little more than a breeding ground for criminal schemes. With no safe haven, no spiritual outlet set up in Bigger’s life to serve as an interlude in his day, shielding him from the negative influences of his poverty-stricken, emotionally inadequate life, Bigger feels that a life of crime was almost inevitable. When asked by his lawyer if he ever thought that he would one day find himself locked in jail for murder, Bigger replies, “To tell the truth, Mr. Max, it seems sort of natural-like, me being here facing that death chair. Now I come to think of it, it seems like something like this just had to be” (p. 358). Even Bigger’s own mother felt the inevitability of his course in life: “[T]he gallows is at the end of the road you traveling, boy. Just remember that” (p. 9). Every day of his life, every day spent roaming the streets, lounging in movie houses, hanging around the pool hall, with little else to do and nowhere to escape the poverty and misery that was his life, led Bigger to what he viewed as an inevitable end. For Bigger, there was no escape for the life that he had been destined to lead from the moment of his conception.
When the preacher enters Bigger’s cell, through a moving sermon about Creation entreating him to look to God for salvation, Bigger is momentarily seized with an understanding of the place religion could fill in his soul. As the preacher begins to talk, the images, “[sprawl] before his eyes and [seize] his emotions in a spell of awe and wonder” (p. 283). Here we see the potential that religion had to serve as a saving force in Bigger’s life, if only it had been more accessible to him. He rejects its offer of hope, however, “kill[ing] within himself the preacher’s haunting picture of life even before he had killed Mary; that had been his first murder” (p. 284). It was his rejection of religion that was the first step down the path that led him, finally, to the death chamber. He is aware of the potential religion has to fill a spiritual void, but he recognizes as well that religion was something that disappeared from his life many years ago for a multitude of reasons, and thus no longer has the power to save him, even if he were to accept it.
Although Bigger tries to find salvation in the preacher’s words, he is ultimately unable to accept religion, even in his last few days of life. The preacher is unable to reach Bigger because even though he may want to accept the gift of religion, his soul has been so deadened by the conditions of his life that he is unable to. Wright writes, “To those who wanted to kill him he was not human, not included in that picture of Creation; and that was why he had killed it. To live, he had created a new world for himself, and for that he was to die” (p. 285). After a lifetime of bearing witness to the poverty, degradation and inadequacy that was his life, Bigger had come to believe that religion was for a different sort of person, the kind of person included in the picture of Creation, not those like him. A traumatic experience with photographers sparks in Bigger a recognition of the way in which he is viewed by many whites: The photo depicts Bigger as an animal, “his back against a wall, his teeth bared in a snarl” (p. 336). Bigger knew that to many, he was viewed as less than human, and was excluded from the religion that they took solace in. Wright explains, “He feared and hated the preacher because the preacher had told him to bow down…but his pride would not let him do that” (p. 311). In order to keep some vestige of pride alive, he turned away from religion, condemning himself to a life of spiritual as well as physical poverty, and ultimately leading him to his tragic fate.
The cross that Bigger allowed the priest to hang around his neck symbolized an acquiescence, a small acceptance of the possibility of spiritual salvation, but even that small hope was destroyed by Bigger’s final understanding of his total exclusion from the spiritual life that others enjoyed. Shortly afterwards the experience with the photographer, he sees a burning cross atop a building, and realizes that the cross is a symbol of white disgust for him: “That cross was not the cross of Christ, but the cross of the Klu Klux Klan” (p. 338). The cross around his neck, he realizes, allies him with a religion that only seeks to reject him, a religion that views him as an outsider. Wright states, “He had a cross of salvation round his throat and they were burning one to tell him that they hated him!” (p. 338). The burning cross, to Bigger, is a symbol of white supremacy, and, beyond that, a symbol of his exclusion from religion.
Not only did Bigger realize that religion was forbidden to him, but further, that it served as a method by which whites could try to control him. When asked by Mr. Max why he did not turn to the church, Bigger replies that he “didn’t want that kind of happiness. The white folks like for us to be religious, then they can do what they want to with us” (p. 356). Bigger feels that religion serves as a mere tool by which whites seek to pacify blacks, turning their eyes from the truth of the conditions in which they live.
In truth, Bugger desires the safety and hope that religion offers, but his life, the “psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair so widespread in black America” (West p. 20) has produced in him a nihilism that slowly degrades his ability to find a meaningful social or spiritual outlet. Religion could not be to him what he wished it to be, and so he was unable to accept the possibility of salvation even as he stood condemned to death.
An understanding of the hopelessness and spiritual and physical poverty of Bigger’s life may seem to excuse his criminal behavior. Indeed, Cornel West writes that “Post-modern culture is more and more a market culture dominated by gangster mentalities and self-destructive wantonness. This culture engulfs all of us – yet its impact on the disadvantaged is devastating, resulting in extreme violence in everyday life” (p. 10). The purpose of understanding the effects that such conditions can have on an individual is not to excuse their actions, but to see why such actions were produced in order to instigate change. As the religious, social, and cultural institutions which once served in part to protect against the nihilistic threat are worn down, the black community is at greater risk. One must acknowledge the factors which contribute to the tragic effects portrayed in Wrights’ Native Son, not to excuse the behavior, but only, as Mr. Max explains, to understand why the crime existed before the event itself.
DuBois, W.E.B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. USA: Penguin Books.
West, Cornel. (1994). Race Matters. USA: Vintage Books.
Wright, Richard. (1940). Native Son. USA: HarperCollins.
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