Request PDF on ResearchGate | Richard Wright: Native Son | native son;richard wright;modernist novels;black modernism;surrealist painting. NATIVE SON With an introductory essay, 'How Bigger was Born*, by the author Richard Wright's story of a Negro youth from the Chicago slums wik. kcIuuvcs. Native Son. (An Excerpt). Richard Wright. Book One. Chapter One: Fear. Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinng! An alarm clock clanged in the dark and silent room. A bed spring.
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The sound of the alarm that opens Native Son was Richard Wright's urgent call in Native Son, but also to an ominous emerging element of which Bigger. Author: Wright Richard The Native Son and the Black Boy. Read more · Richard Wright's Native Son (Bloom's Guides) · Read more. Writing America's Story. Native Son by Richard Wright. Discussion guide by David Long. Richard Wright and the Federal Writers' Project. Richard Wright joined.
He had shut his eyes when he had glimpsed the ball sailing through the air toward him and when he opened his eyes Gus was flying through the rear door and at the same time he heard the ball NATIVE SON 42 hit the floor and roll away A hard pain throbbed in his hand. All day long it had been spnnglike; but now dark clouds were slowly swallowing the sun. Instantly, it rolled over and leaped again. He opened his mouth to reply, but no words came. Richard Wright's Native Son.
It also White community. Native Son was written aims at studying the distorting effects of at a time when the Negroes got awareness racial prejudice on the perception of of their position in the society as a humanity, and identity of the members of community, and as individuals. They were the oppressed community. The novel getting ready to explode and burst into the highlights the emergence of the hero who open for the denied identity.
The fact that belongs to the exploited group. January 1 Editor-In-Chief: Bigger Thomas in Native responsibility for the members of his Son is a symbol of Negro suffering. Bigger oppressed race and thus shows signs of starts his life in a filthy rat infested spiritual growth. He overcomes his anger tenement where he is forced to live with and outrage at the shameless oppression his mother, brother and sister.
It was the widespread poverty, whom he hated at the beginning of the which again is responsible for the forced novel. Negroes to live in congested and gloomy apartments. Though this amuse himself with his friends. In the novel there is lives. In the words position produces frustration in him. Wright the family.
For all his recklessness, he can portrays the protagonist Bigger Thomas of understand the strain of his mother, who the novel as the champion of the suffering. Environment is the villain for both bigger Bigger and his friends plan to rob Blums and his creator.
But discrimination. Both hailed from the south.
Wright seems to them a way of challenging white and bigger learned how to survive in white authority and of asserting themselves. The society through their mothers. Both of motive behind the planned robbery is to them were fatherless. January 2 Editor-In-Chief: Negroes were made to live in such Previously they robbed many Negroes a way that they could not change their way without any fear, because Bigger and his of life and break of out of the cage around friends knew that white men would not them.
Bigger and his friends playing at pay any attention to the crimes committed being the president and the secretary of against Negroes. But in the prevailing state reveals their desire of power. The social system they will not condone crimes idea of playing at power is recognition of committed against whites by Negroes. Their dissatisfaction They feel it is much easier and safer to rob is evident from their deeds. Bigger says to his policemen never really searched diligently friend Gus.
Bigger and other their poverty and are in fact afraid of such Negro children cherish ambitions, which a possibility. Securing a job as chauffeur, they cannot fulfill. Bigger dreams of Bigger enters the Dalton house, where he becoming a pilot, but they know that it is sees the glaring contrast between the impossible, because Negroes are powerless worlds inhabited by Negroes and the against the whites. Whites forced Negroes whites. Bigger wants to join the army.
Moreover he feels fear and But he knows that it is a Jim Crow army. If hate towards the whites. He had not he joins the army he will have to dig expected the job nor hoped for kindness ditches. If he joins in the navy he has to from his employers. He is baffled by Miss wash the dishes. He power and status. What Negroes can do is is puzzled by her lack of fidelity to the to talk wistfully about such jobs.
Bigger class to which her father belongs, here has no patience with the church. Religion, implicit rebellion against capitalism. Though he to whites and accept it, cannot understand cannot articulate it, he realizes that it is her easygoing attitude to Blacks. Understandably, he does not keeping the Negro in subjection. The poor want to lose the job because it is his one Negroes found in it a sort of recompense means to support his family.
At first he was baffled by the an example. Bessie, his girl, also works friendliness of Mary and her friend Jan like a dog from morning till night. Bessie who is communist. Even though they are does not want to bother anybody.
January 3 Editor-In-Chief: He hates them for making him feel Bigger is obviously a man of impulse, uncomfortable with their friendliness, but because he stifles Mary to death just to cannot escape from it, because such a prevent her blind mother discovering his move would cost him his job. He has no concern is to keep his job and not to get specific motive for killing her, except his involved in any situation, which might fear of being found in the bedroom of a result in his losing it.
He kills her out of While helping an intoxicated Mary to get fear, out of his certain knowledge that he out of the car that night, Bigger feels that would be suspected unjustly of having she is looking inside of him, who is a raped Mary, a white girl.
If a Negro of his Black, because of her communist ideology. He is the acting in panic, he is rational enough to prisoner of centuries of white repression of take care of details like destroying her Blacks and the hatred and fear generated body in the furnace and switching the by such repression.
This is evident from exhaust fan of the furnace to eliminate the his words. Even though he does not responsibility for her death. In killing understand fully what communism means, Mary, he feels that he had destroyed he hates it because he senses danger in it; symbolically all the oppressive forces that he fears that it will cost him his job. Even made his life miserable. When he compares his home make him lose his job. This lurking fear with the Daltons, he sees things with a new makes Bigger feel tense and uneasy all the eye.
Though he had not killed Mary time in the company of Jan and Mary. He intentionally he accepts responsibility for is totally confused by the unfamiliar it. But he did it, prompted by intuition, friendliness of members of the oppressor driven by the fear that he would be race, and does not know how to respond.
In the This is evident from his conduct in the society inhabited by Bigger, rape is a more pub. January 4 Editor-In-Chief: He feels that there is family members. He wants her to be loyal power in and after murder. This is due to to him and obey him unquestioningly. But the inevitable accusations of rape and Bessie refuses to give her loyalty unless killing leveled by white society.
Bigger lets her into what he is doing. Bigger cooks up a story for Bessie in order After murdering Mary, Bigger feels for the to help him execute his plan. He needs her first time that he is living fully and deeply in his plan to defeat the hostile world. He knows that When she compels him to reveal his plan, for the whites Mary will be symbolic of all he feels threatened, and feels compelled to white women, and he, a Black, will be kill her.
This is a manifestation of his will representative of all Blacks, lending all to power. He uses her, and she too uses him hidden meaning to his life. After attaining to obtain what she wants, namely liquor. It is something like a trade-off. Bigger feeling fearful. He was following a hates all these aspects of the life of his strange path into a strange land and race, which are the result of systematic his nerves were hungry to see where oppression.
He has rejected his family and He desires for solidarity with fellow Bessie, and is alienated from his own Blacks, and to bring them together, to rule people. After the discovery of the charred them and get them to act in a desired way. For Bigger, away. He feels that he was fated to be in Whoever does not unquestioningly accept such a situation sooner or later, and now whatever he says is the object of his he is face to face with it.
In He wanted suddenly to stand up and reality, his crime is against a single White shout, telling them that he had killed family, but it was discolored and a rich white girl, a girl whose family misinterpreted, so that he is made the was known to all of them. Yes; if he representative of the whole Negro race, did that a look of started horror and the despoiler of White women. January 5 Editor-In-Chief: The important point is that the who comb the city systematically hunts idea of eliminating her had been in his him.
He feels trapped. The hunt for Bigger mind much before he killed Mary, and serves as an excuse for the whites to later Bessie. He cannot take Bessie along terrorize the entire Negro population. So he attacks her these communists are methods of brutally and leaves her, mangled in face systematic oppression. The tone of the and almost dead, in a derelict building. Bigger, starving and weak, and low in Ironically, Bigger has both raped and spirit, cannot resist the huge force.
At one murdered a Black girl, but the Whites pay stage he wants to die without shame of no attention to it; but in relation to the being caught. He is treated like an animal white girl, they charge him with rape on when they drag him down the stairs. He the basis of nothing more than their racial feels fear and thinks of committing prejudice. The and be a part of this world.
He is ready to face any this we can observe how the mind of a situation. The recognition of not Bigger finds that the world outside has being afraid is itself a great psychological now found that a Negro killed a white triumph for Bigger over his oppressors. He woman from a newspaper, and is able to hear the hysteric shrieks of the immediately they assume that he had raped White mob, to kill him and to lynch him.
In the distorted According to them he is a Black Ape. In such a Negro, and the victim a white woman. The be proved even if they know his whites want to protect their woman against innocence.
Buckley in the sexual powers of Negroes. He is himself an example of their want the agitation to continue and injustice. Their accusation of rape is false.
January 6 Editor-In-Chief: In a fundamental sense, an imaginative novel represents the merging of two extremes; it is an intensely intimate expression on the part of a consciousness couched m terms of the most objective and commonly known events.
It is at once some- thing pnvate and public by its very nature and texture. Con- founding the author who is trying to lay his cards on the table is the dogging knowledge that his imagination is a kind of community medium of exchange: The more closely the author thinks of why he wrote, the more he comes to regard his imagination as a kind of self- generating cement which glued his facts together, and his emo- tions as a kind of dark and obscure designer of those facts.
Always there is something that is just beyond the tip of the tongue that could explain it all. But the moment he makes the attempt his words falter, for he is confronted and defied by the inexplicable array of his own emotions. Emo- tions are subjective and he can communicate thena only when he clothes them in objective guise; and how can he ever be so arrogant as to know when he is dressing up the right emotion in the right Sunday suit?
He is always left with the uneasy notion that maybe any objective drapery is as good as any other for any emotion. Reluctantly, he comes to the conclusion that to account for his book is to account for his life, and he knows that that is impossible. Yet, some curious, wayward motive urges him to supply the answer, for there is the feeling that his dignity as a living being is challenged by something within him that is not understood. So, at the outset, I say frankly that there are phases of Native Son which I shall make no attempt to account for.
There are meanings in my book of which I was not aware until they literally spilled out upon the paper. The birth of Bigger Thomas goes back to my childhood, and there was not just one Bigger, but many of them, more than I could count and more than you suspect. But let me start with the first Bigger, whom I shall call Bigger No. If we were playing games, he would saunter up and snatch from us our balls, bats, spinning tops, and marbles.
We would stand around pouting, sniffling, try- ing to keep back our tears, begging for our playthings. But Bigger would refuse. We never demanded that he give them back; we were afraid, and Bigger was bad. We had seen him clout boys when he was angry and we did not want to run that risk. We never recovered our toys unless we flattered him and made him feel that he was superior to us. That was the way Bigger No. His life was a con- tinuous challenge to others.
At all times he took his way, right or wrong, and those who contradicted him had him to fight. And never was he happier than when he had someone cornered and at his mercy; it seemed that the deepest mean- ing of his squalid life was in him at such times. His swag- gering personality is swallowed up somewhere in the amnesia of my childhood. But I suspect that his end was violent.
Any- way, he left a marked impression upon me; maybe it was because I longed secretly to be like him and was afraid. Since I, too, had grown older, 1 was a little less afraid of him.
And the hardness of this Bigger No. He lived in the dingy shacks of the white landlords and refused to pay rent. Of course, he had no money, but neither did we. We did without the necessities of life and starved ourselves, but he never would. When we asked him why he acted as he did, he would tell us as though we were little children in a kindergarten that the white folks had everything and he had nothmg.
Further, he would tell us that we were fools not to get what we wanted while we were alive in this world. We would listen and si- lently agree. We longed to believe and act as he did, but we were afraid. We were Southern Negroes and we were hungry and we wanted to live, but we were more willing to tighten our belts than risk conflict. Bigger No. There was Bigger No. I once worked as a ticket-taker in a Negro movie house all movie houses in Dixie are Jim Crow; there are movies for whites and movies for blacks , and many times Bigger No.
Presently, the proprietor would come over and ask how things were going. The proprietor would pull down the comers of his lips and speak through his teeth: But later on Bigger No. And then there was Bigger No. The Jim Crow laws of the South were not for him. His rebellious spirit made him violate all the taboos and consequently he always oscillated between moods of intense elation and de- pression.
He was never happier than when he had outwitted some foolish custom, and he was never more melancholy than when brooding over the impossibility of his ever being free. He had no job, for he regarded digging ditches for fifty cents a day as slavery. Then there was Bigger No. I remember one morning his getting into a streetcar all streetcars in Dixie are divided into two sections: The conductor went to him and said: Move over where you belong. But I can guess. The Bigger Thomases were the only Negroes I know of who consistently violated the Jim Crow laws of the South and got away with it, at least for a sweet brief spell.
Even- tually, the whites who restricted their lives made them pay a terrible price. They were shot, hanged, maimed, lynched, and generally hounded until they were either dead or their spirits broken. There were many variations to this behavioristic pattern. Later on I encountered other Bigger Thomases who did not react to the locked-in Black Belts with this same extremity and violence. Bi Dixie there are two worlds, the white world and the black world, and they are physically separated.
There are white schools and black schools, white churches and black churches, white businesses and black businesses, white grave- yards and black graveyards, and, for all I know, a white God and a black God. This separation was accomplished after the Civil War by the terror of the Ku Klux Klan, which swept the newly freed Negro through arson, pillage, and death out of the United States Senate, the House of Representatives, the many state legislatures, and out of the public, social, and economic life of the South.
The motive for this assault was simple and urgent. The imperialistic tug of history had tom the Negro from his African home and had placed him ironically upon the most fertile plantation areas of the South; and, when the Negro was freed, he outnumbered the whites in many of these fertile areas.
Hence, a fierce and bitter struggle took place to keep the ballot from the Negro, for had he had a chance to vote, he would have automatically controlled the richest lands of the South and with them the social, political, and economic destmy of a third of the Republic. But keeping the ballot from the Negro was not enough to hold him in check; disfranchisement had to be supplemented by a whole panoply of rules, taboos, and penalties designed not only to insure peace complete submission , but to guar- antee that no real threat would ever arise.
Had the Negro lived upon a common territory, separate from the bulk of the white population, this program of oppression might not have assumed such a bmtal and violent form. But this war took place between people who were neighbors, whose homes ad- joined, whose farms had common boundaries. Guos and dis- franchisement, therefore, were not enough to make the black neighbor keep his distance.
The white neighbor decided to limit the amount of education his black neighbor could re- ceive; decided to keep him off the police force and out of the local national guards; to segregate him residentially; to Jim Crow him in public places; to restrict his participation in the professions and jobs; and to build up a vast, dense ide- ology of racial superiority that would justify any act of vio- lence taken against him to defend white dominance; and further, to condition him to hope for little and to receive that little without rebelling.
But, because the blacks were so close to the very civiliza- tion which sought to keep them out, because they could not help but react in some way to its incentives and priTes, and because the very tissue of their consciousness received its tone and timbre from the strivings of that dominant civiliza- tion, oppression spawned among them a myriad variety of reactions, reaching from outright blind rebellion to a sweet, other-worldly submissiveness. In the main, this delicately balanced state of affairs has not greatly altered since the Civil War, save in those parts of the South which have been industrialized or urbanized.
Now for the variations in the Bigger Thomas pattern. Others, dinging still to that brief glimpse of post- Civil War freedom, employed a thousand ruses and strata- gems of struggle to wm their rights. Still others projected their hurts and longings into more naive and mimdane forms — blues, jazz, swing — and, without intellectual guidance, tried to build up a compensatory nourishment for themselves.
Many labored under hot suns and then killed the restless ache with alcohol. Then there were those who strove for an educa- tion, and when they got it, enjoyed the financial fruits of it in the style of their bourgeois oppressors.
Usually they went hand in hand with the powerfull whites and helped to keep their groaning brothers in line, for that was the safest course of action.
No explanation based upon a hard and fast rule of conduct can be given. But there were always two factors psychologically dominant in his person- ality. First, through some quirk of circumstance, he had be- come estranged from the religion and the folk culture of his race. Second, he was trying to react to and answer the call of the dominant civilization whose glitter came to him through the newspapers, magazmes, radios, movies, and the mere imposing sight and sound of daily American life.
In many respects his emergence as a distinct type was inevitable. As I grew older, I became familiar with the Bigger Thomas conditionmg and its numerous shadings no matter where I saw It in Negro life.
It was not, as 1 have already said, as blatant or extreme as in the originals; but it was there, never- theless, like an undeveloped negative. I feel like I want to burst. They segregated me even when I was offering my life for my country. There was in the back of their minds, when they said this, a wild and intense longing wild and intense because it was suppressed!
It was not until I went to live in Chicago that I first thought seriously of writing of Bigger Thomas. Two items of my ex- perience combined to make me aware of Bigger as a mean- ingful and prophetic symbol. First, being free of the daily pressure of the Dixie environment, I was able to come into possession of my own feelings. Second, my contact with the labor movement and its ideology made me see Bigger clearly and feel what he meant.
I made the discovery that Bigger Thomas was not black all the time; he was white, too, and there were literally mil- lions of him, everywhere.
The extension of my sense of the personality of Bigger was the pivot of my life; it altered the complexion of my existence. It was as though I had put on a pair of spectacles whose power was that of an x-ray enabling me to see deeper into the lives of men. I sensed, too, that the Southern scheme of oppression was but an appendage of a far vaster and in many respects more ruthless and im- personal commodity-profit machine.
Trade-union struggles and issues began to grow meaningful to me. The flow of goods across the seas, buoying and de- pressmg the wages of men, held a fascination.
The pro- nouncements of foreign governments, their policies, plans, and acts were calculated and weighed in relation to the lives of people about me. I approached all of these new revelations in the light of Bigger Thomas, his hopes, fears, and despairs; and I be- gan to feel far-flung kinships, and sense, with fright and abashment, the possibilities of alliances between the Ameri- can Negro and other people possessing a kindred conscious- ness. As my mind extended in this general and abstract manner, it was fed with even more vivid and concrete examples of the lives of Bigger Thomas.
The urban environment of Chi- cago, affording a more stimulating life, made the Negro Big- ger Thomases react more violently than even in the South. More than ever I began to see and understand the environ- mental factors which made for this extreme conduct. The process was like a swinging pendulum, each to and fro motion throwing up its tiny bit of meaning and significance, each stroke helping to develop the dim negative which had been implanted in my mind in the South.
I began to sense that they had their own kind of Bigger Thomas be- havioristic pattern which grew out of a more subtle and broader frustration. The waves of recurring crime, the silly fads and crazes, the quicksilver changes in public taste, the hysteria and fears — all of these had long been mysteries to me. But now I looked back of them and felt the pinch and pressure of the environment that gave them their pitch and peculiar kind of bemg. Let me give examples of how I began to develop the dim negative of Bigger.
I met white writers who talked of their responses, who told me how whites reacted to this lurid American scene. But what was more important still, I read their novels.
Here, for the first time, I found ways and techniques of gauging meaningfully the effects of Ameri- can civilization upon the personalities of people. I took these techniques, these ways of seeing and feeling, and twisted them, bent them, adapted them, until they became my ways of apprehending the locked-in life of the Black Belt areas.
This association with white writers was the life preserver of my hope to depict Negro life in fiction, for my race pos- sessed no fictional works dealing with such problems, had no background in such sharp and critical testing of experience, no novels that went with a deep and fearless will down to the dark roots of life.
There is in me a memory of reading an interesting pam- phlet telhng of the friendship of Gorky and Lenin in exile. The booklet told of how Lenin and Gorky were walking down a London street. Lenin turned to Gorky and, pointing, said: For a moment nothing would come, but I remained convinced that I had heard the meaning of those words sometime, somewhere before.
Then, with a sudden glow of satisfaction of havmg gained a little more knowledge about the world m which I lived. The feeling of looking at things with a painful and unwar- rantable nakedness was an experience, I learned, that tran- scended national and racial boundaries.
It was this intolerable sense of feeling and understanding so much, and yet living on a plane of social reality where the look of a world which one did not make or own struck one with a blinding objec- tivity and tangibility, that made me grasp the revolutionary impulse in my life and the lives of those about me and far away. I remember reading a passage in a book dealing with old Russia which said: Actions and feelings of men ten thousand miles from home helped me to understand the moods and impulses of those wallung the streets of Chicago and Dixie.
But 1 did hear the lispings, the whispers, the mutters which some day, under one stimulus or another, will surely grow into open revolt unless the con- ditions which produce Bigger Thomases are changed. In another source of information was dramatically opened up to me and I saw data of a surprising nature that helped to clarify the personality of Bigger.
From the moment that Hitler took power in Germany and began to oppress the Jews, I tried to keep track of what was happening. And on mnumerable occasions I was startled to detect, either from the side of the Fascists or from the side of the oppressed, re- actions, moods, phrases, attitudes that remmded me strongly of Bigger, that helped to bring out more clearly the shadowy outlines of the negative that lay in the back of my mind.
I read every account of the Fascist movement in Germany I could lay my hands on, and from page to page I encoun- tered and recognized familiar emotional patterns. What struck me with particular force was the Nazi preoccupation with the construction of a society in which there would exist among all people German people, of coursel one solidarity of ideals, one continuous circulation of fundamental beliefs, notions, and assumptions.
And I could hear Bigger Thomas standing on a street comer in America expressing his agonizing doubts and chronic suspicions, thus: Everything is a racket and everybody is out to get what he can for himself. Maybe if we had a true leader, we could do something. We need a nation, a flag, an army of our own. We ought to take Africa and have a national honae. But I could not smile, for I knew the truth of those simple words from the facts of my own life. The results of these observatioas made me feel more than ever estranged from the civilization in which 1 lived, and more than ever resolved toward the task of creating with words a scheme of images and symbols whose direction could enlist the sympathies, loyalties, and yearnings of the millions of Bigger Thomases in every land and race.
But more than anything else, as a writer, I was fascinated by the similarity of the emotional tensions of Bigger in America and Bigger in Nazi Germany and Bigger in old Russia.
All Bigger Thomases, white and black, felt tense, afraid, nervous, hysterical, and restless. It was a highly geared world whose nature was conflict and action, a world whose limited area and vision impenously urged men to satisfy their organisms, a world that existed on a plane of animal sensation alone.
Eagerly they took another drink, wanting to avoid the dull, flat look of things, then still another, this time stronger, and then they felt that their lives had meaning. Speaking fig- uratively, they were soon chronic alcoholics, men who lived by violence, through extreme action and sensation, through drowning daily in a perpetual nervous agitation. From these items I drew my first political conclusions about Bigger: I felt that Bigger, an American product, a native son of this land, carried within him the potentialities of either Communism or Fascism.
He is not either. But he is product of a dis- located society; he is a dispossessed and disinherited man; he is all of this, and he lives amid the greatest possible plenty on earth and he is looking and feeling for a way out. But, granting the emo- tional state, the tensity, the fear, the hate, the impatience, the sense of exclusion, the ache for violent action, the emo- tional and cultural hunger, Bigger Thomas, conditioned as his organism is, will not become an ardent, or even a luke- warm, supporter of the status quo.
Here, I felt, was drama! Who will be the first to touch off these Bigger Thomases in Amer- ica, white and black? For a long time I toyed with the idea of writing a novel in which a Negro Bigger Thomas would loom as a symbolic figure of American life, a figure who would hold within him the prophecy of our future. Just as one sees when one walks into a medical research laboratory jars of alcohol containing abnormally large or distorted portions of the human body, just so did I see and feel that the conditions of life under which Negroes are forced to live in America contain the embryonic emotional prefigurations of how a large part of the body politic would react under stress.
So, with this much knowledge of myself and the world gained and known, why should I not try to work out on paper the problem of what will happen to Bigger? Why should I not, like a scientist in a laboratory, use my imagination and invent test-tube situations, place Bigger in them, and, follow- ing the guidance of my own hopes and fears, what I had learned and remembered, work out in fictional form an emo- tional statement and resolution of this problem?
But several things militated against my starting to work. Like Bigger himself, I felt a mental censor — product of the fears which a Negro feels from livmg in America — standing over me, draped in white, warning me not to write. Will they not at once say: And yet, and this was what made it difficult, I knew that I could not write of Bigger convincingly if I did not depict him as he was: And would not whites misread Bigger and, doubting his authenticity, say: Another thought kept me from writing.
What would my own white and black comrades in the Communist party say? This thought was the most bewildering of all. Politics is a hard and narrow game; its policies represent the aggregate desires and aspirations of millions of people.
Its goals are rigid and simply drawn, and the minds of the majority of politicians are set, congealed in terms of daily tactical maneu- vers.
Though my heart is with the collectivist and proletarian ideal, I solved this problem by assuring myself that honest politics and honest feeling in imaginative representation ought to be able to meet on com- mon healthy ground without fear, suspicion, and quarreling.
Further, and more importantly, I steeled myself by coming to the conclusion that whether politicians accepted or rejected Bigger did not really matter; my task, as I felt it, was to free myself of this burden of impressions and feelings, recast them into the image of Bigger and make him true. Lastly, I felt that a right more immediately deeper than that of poli- tics or race was at stake; that is, a human right, the right of a man to think and feel honestly.
And especially did this personal and human right bear hard upon me, for tempera- mentally I am inclined to satisfy the claims of my own ideals rather than the expectations of others. It was this obscure need that had pulled me into the labor movement in the be- ' ginning and by exercising it I was but fulfilling what I felt to be the laws of my own growth. There was another constricting thought that kept me from work.
It deals with my own race. I asked myself: Never did they want people, especially white people, to think that their lives were so much touched by anything so dark and brutal as Bigger. Their attitude toward life and art can be summed up in a single paragraph: Wright, there are so many of us who are not like Bigger. Smile when a white per- son comes to you. Never let him feel that you are so small that what he has done to crush you has made you hate himl Oh, above all, save your pride!
What Bigger meant had claimed me because I felt with all of my being that he was more important than what any person, white or black, would say or try to make of him, more important than any political analysis designed to explain or deny him, more important, even, than my own sense of fear, shame, and diffidence.
But Bigger was still not down upon paper. For a long time I had been writing of him in my mind, but I had yet to put him into an image, a breathing symbol draped out in the guise of the only form of life my native land had allowed me to know mtimately, that is, the ghetto life of the American Negro.
But the basic reason for my hesitancy was that an- other and far more complex problem had risen to plague me. Bigger, as I saw and felt him, was a snarl of many realities; he had in him many levels of life. First, there was his personal and private life, that intimate existence that is so difficult to snare and nail down in fiction, that elusive core of being, that individual data of conscious- ness which in every man and woman is like that in no other.
Then I was confronted with that part of him that was dual in aspect, dim, wavering, that part of him which is so much a part of oil Negroes and all whites that I realixed that I could put it down upon paper only by feeling out its meaning first within the confines of my own life.
Bigger was attracted and repelled by the American scene. He was an American, be- cause he was a native son; but he was also a Negro nationalist in a vague sense because he was not allowed to live as an American. Such was his way of life and mine; neither Bigger nor I resided fully in either camp. In other words, his nationalist complex was for me a concept through which I could grasp more of the total meaning of his life than I cbuld in any other way. Yet, Bigger was not nationalist enough to feet the need of religion or the folk culture of his own people.
The most that I could say of Bigger was that he felt the need for a whole life and acted out of that need; that was all. Above and beyond all this, there was that American part of Bigger which is the heritage of us all, that part of him which we get from our seeing and hearing, from school, from the hopes and dreams of our friends; that part of him which the common people of America never talk of but take for granted. Among millions of people the deepest convictions of life are never discussed openly; they are felt, implied, hinted at tacitly and obliquely in their hopes and fears.
His emotional and intellectual life was never that articulate. But he knew it emotionally, intuitively, for his emotions and his desires were developed, and he caught it, as most of us do, from the mental and emotional climate of our time.
Big- ger had all of this in him, dammed up, buried, implied, and I had to develop it in fictional form. Here again, I had to fall back upon my own feelings as a guide, for Bigger did not offer in his life any articulate verbal explanations.
And, accompanying this first fear, is, for the want of a better name, a reflex urge toward ecstasy, complete sub- mission, and trust.
The springs of religion are here, and also the origins of rebellion. Then there was the fabulous city in which Bigger lived, an indescribable city, huge, roaring, dirty, noisy, raw, stark, brutal; a city of extremes; torrid summers and sub-zero win- ters, white people and black pleople, the English language and strange tongues, foreign bora and native bora, scabby poverty and gaudy luxury, high idealism and hard cynicism! But a city old enough to have caught within the homes of its long, straight streets the symbols and images of man's age-old destiny, of truths as old as the mountains and seas, of dramas as abiding as the soul of man itself!
A city which has become the pivot of the Eastern, 'Western, Northern, and Southern poles of the nation. But a city whose black smoke clouds shut out the sunshine for seven months of the year; a city in which, on a fine balmy May morning, one can sniff the stench of the stockyards; a city where people have grown so used to gangs and murders and graft that they have honestly forgotten that government can have a pretense of decency!
With all of this thought out, Bigger was still unwritten. Two events, however, came into my life and accelerated the process, made me sit down and actually start work on the typewriter, and just stop the writing of Bigger in my mind as I walked the streets. Here, on a vast scale, I had an opportunity to ob- serve Bigger in all of his moods, actions, haunts. Here I felt for the first time that the rich folk who were paying ray wages did not really give a good goddamn about Bigger, that their kindness was prompted at bottom by a selfish motive.
I felt that I was doing a kind of dressed-up police work, and I hated it. Prove to the bastards that gave you these games that life is stronger than pmg-pong. Show them that full-blooded life is harder and hotter than they suspect, even though that life is draped in a black skin which at heart they despise.
The police blotters of Chicago are testimony to how much they did. When the reviews of that book began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naive mistake. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears. It was this that made me get to work in dead earnest. Now, until this moment I did not stop to think very much about the plot of Native Son. The reason I did not is because I was not for one moment ever worried about it.
I had spent years learning about Bigger, what had made him, what he meant; so, when the time came for writing, what had made him and what he meant constituted my plot. But the far- flung items of his life had to be couched in imaginative terms, terms known and acceptable to a common body of readers, terms which would, in the course of the story, manipulate the deepest held notions and convictions of their lives. The moment I began to write, the plot fell out, so to speak.
At bottom, what happened is very easy to explain. Life had made the plot over and over again, to the extent that I knew it by heart. Many of the newspaper items and some of the incidents in Native Son are but fictionalized versions of the Robert Nixon case and reVvrites of news stories from the Chicago Tribune.
Black gave the nation a long and vivid account of the American police methods of handling Negro boys. Let me describe this stereotyped situation: A crime wave is sweeping a city and citizens are clamoring for police action. Squad cars cruise the Black Belt and grab the first Negro boy who seems to be unattached and homeless. He is held for perhaps a week without charge or bail, without the privilege of communicating with anyone, including his own relatives.
Why does he confess? After the boy has been grilled night and day, hanged up by his thumbs, dangled by his feet out of twenty-story windows, and beaten in places that leave no scars — cops have found a way to do that , he signs the papers before him, papers which are usually accompanied by a verbal promise to the boy that he will not go to the electric chair.
Of course, he ends up by being executed or sentenced for life. Even well-disposed Negro lawyers find it difficult to defend him, for the boy will plead guilty one day and then not guilty the next, according to the degree of pressure and persuasion that is brought to bear upon his frightened personality from one side or the other. So far removed are these practices from what the average American citizen encounters in his daily life that it takes a huge act of his imagination to believe that it is true; yet, this same average citizen, with his kindness, his American sportsmanship and good will, would probably act with the mob if a self-respecting Negro family moved into his apartment building to escape the Black Belt and its terrors and limita- tions.
Now, after all of this, when I sat down to the typewriter, I could not work; I could not think of a good opening scene for the book. Twenty or thirty times I tried and failed; then I argued that if I could not write the opening scene, I'd start with the scene that followed. I did. The actual writing of the book began with the scene in the pool room. Now, for the writing. During the years in which I had met all of those Bigger Thomases, those varieties of Bigger Thomases, I had not consciously gathered matenal to write of them; I had not kept a notebook record of their sayings and doings.
Their actions had simply made impressions upon my sensibilities as I lived from day to day, impressions which crystallized and coagulated into clusters and configurations of memory, attitudes, moods, ideas.
And these subjective states, in turn, were automatically stored away somewhere in me. I was not even aware of the process. With the whole theme m mind, in an attitude almost akin to prayer, I gave myself up to the story. In an effort to capture some phase of Bigger's life that would not come to me readily, rd jot down as much of it as I could.
And then, while writing, a new and thrilling relationship would spring up under the drive of emo- tion, coalescing and telescoping alien facts into a known and felt truth. That was the deep fun of the job: It had a buoying and tonic impact upon me; my senses would strain and seek for more and more of such re- lationships; my temperature would rise as I worked.
That is writing as I feel it, a kind of significant living. The first draft of the novel was written in four months, straight through, and ran to some pages. But in the writing of scene after scene I was guided by but one criterion: That is, to objectify in words some insight derived from my living in the form of action, scene, and dialogue.
If I felt that it did not, I ripped it out. Dalton, Mrs. But I wanted those people in that cell to elicit a certain important emotional response from Bigger.
And so the scene stood. I felt that what I wanted that scene to say to the reader was more important than Us surface reality or plausibility. Always, as I wrote, I was both reader and writer, both the conceiver of the action and the appreciator of it. And always I tried to render, depict, not merely to tell the story. If a thing was cold, 1 tried to make the reader feel cold, and not just tell about it. As I wrote I followed, almost unconsciously, many prin- ciples of the novel which my reading of the novels of other writers had made me feel were necessary for the building of a well-constructed book.
Action follows action, as in a prize fight. Then again, as much as I could, I restricted the novel to what Bigger saw and felt, to the limits of his feeling and thoughts, even when I was conveying more than that to the reader. I had the notion that such a manner of rendering made for a sharper effect, a more pointed sense of the character, his peculiar type of being and consciousness.
Throughout there is but one point of view: This, too, I felt, made for a richer illusion of reality. I kept out of the story as much as possible, for I wanted the reader to feel that there was nothing between him and Bigger; that the story was a special premiere given in his own private theater. I kept the scenes long, made as much happen within a short space of time as possible; all of which, I felt, made for greater density and richness of effect. In a like manner I tried to keep a unified sense of back- ground throughout the story; the background would change, of course, but I tried to keep before the eyes of the reader at all times the forces and elements against which Bigger was striving.
And, because I had limited myself to rendering only what Bigger saw and felt, I gave no more reality to the other char- acters than that which Bigger himself saw. This, honestly, is all I can account for in the book. If I attempted to account for scenes and characters, to tell why certain scenes were written in certain ways. All else in the book came from my feelings reacting upon the material, and any honest reader knows as much about the rest of what is in the book as I do; that is, if, as he reads, he is willing to let his emotions and Imagination become as in fluenced by the ma- terials as I did.
I don't know. My emotions and imagination just like to work that way. One can account for just so much of life, and then no more. At least, not yet. With the first draft down, I found that I could not end the book satisfactorily. In the first draft I had Bigger going smack to the electric chair; but I felt that two murders were enough for one novel. I cut the final scene and went back to worry about the beginning. I had no luck. The book was one-haft finished, with the opening and closing scenes unwritten.
With the help of it, I began to remember many things which I could not remember before. One of them was that Chicago was overrun with rats. But the rat would not leave me; he presented himself in many attractive guises. So, cautioning myself to allow the rat scene to disclose only Bigger, his family, their little room, and their relationships, I let the rat walk in, and he did his stuff. Many of the scenes were tom out as I reworked the book.
For example, the entire guilt theme that runs through Native Son was woven in after the first draft was written. At last I found out how to end the book; I ended it just as I had begun it, showing Bigger living dangerously, taking his life into his hands, accepting what life had made him.
The writmg of Native Son was to me an exciting, enthralling, and even a romantic experience. It is good to live when one feels that such as that will happen to one. Life becomej'sufficient unto life; the rewards of living are found in living.
The mere wnting of it will be more fun and a deeper satisfaction than any praise or blame from anybody. Early American writers, Henry James and Nathaniel Haw- thorne, complained bitterly about the bleakness and flatness of the American scene. We have only a money-grubbing, industrial civiliza- tion. But we do have in the Negro the embodiment of a past tragic enough to appease the spiritual hunger of even a James; and we have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy even the gloomy broodings of a Hawthorne.
And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him. New York, March 7, Native Son Even today is my complaint rebellious, My stroke is heavier than my groaning. A bed spring creaked. A woman's voice sang out impatiently: Naked feet swished dryly across the planks in the wooden floor and the clang ceased abruptly. Light flooded the room and revealed a black boy standing in a narrow space between two iron beds, rubbing his eyes with the backs of his hands.
From a bed to his right the woman spoke again: I got a big washing on my hands today and I want you-all out of here. The woman also rose and stood in her nightgown. The two boys averted their eyes and gazed into a far comer the room. The woman rushed out of her night- gown I'ud put on a pair of step-ins. She turned to the bed from which she had risen and called: Get up from there! Sleepily, she sat on a chair and fumbled with her stockings. The two boys kept their faces averted while their mother and sister put on enough clothes to keep them from feeling ashamed; and the mother and sister did the same while the boys dressed.
Abruptly, they all paused, holding their clothes in their hands, their attention caught by a light tapping in the thinly plastered walls of the room. They forgot their con- spiracy against shame and their eyes strayed apprehensively over the floor. Her two sons, barefoot, stood tense and motionless, their eyes searching anxiously under the bed and chairs.
The girl ran into a corner, half- stooped and gathered the hem of her slip into both of her hands and held it tightly over her knees. Her eyes were round with fascinated horror. With their arms entwined about each other, the black mother and the brown daughter gazed open- mouthed at the trunk in the comer.
Bigger looked round the room wnldly, then darted to a curtain and swept it aside and grabbed two heavy iron skil- lets from a wall above a gas stove. He whirled and called softly to his brother, his eyes glued to the trunk. Save for the quick, deep breathing of the four people, the room was quiet. Bigger crept on tiptoe toward the trunk with the skillet clutched stiffly in his hand, his eyes dancing and watching every inch of the wooden floor in front of him. He paused and, without moving an eye or muscle, called: Bigger eased to the trunk and peered behind it cautiously.
He saw nothing. Care- fully, he stuck out his bare foot and pushed the trunk a few inches. The force of his movement shook the rat loose and it sailed through the air and struck a wall. Instantly, it rolled over and leaped again.
Bigger dodged and the rat landed against a table leg With clenched teeth, Bigger held the skillet; he was afraid to hurl it, fearing that he might miss.
The rat squeaked and turned and ran in a narrow circle, looking for a place to hide; it leaped again past Bigger and scurried on dry rasping feet to one side of the box and then to the other, searching for the hole. Then it turned and reared upon its hind legs. Bigger sprang to one side. The rat stopped under a chair and let out a furious screak. Bigger moved slowly backward toward the door.
Buddy extended his hand. Bigger caught the skillet and lifted it high in the air. The rat scuttled across the floor and stopped again at the box and searched quickly for the hole; then it reared once more and bared long yellow fangs, piping shrilly, belly quivering.
Bigger aimed and let the skillet fly with a heavy grunt. There was a shattering of wood as the box caved in, The woman screamed and hid her face in her hands. Bigger tip- toed forward and peered.
The woman on the bed continued to sob. He paused and turned round. He turned away and finished dressing. He wrapped the rat in a newspaper and went out of the door and down the stairs and put it into a garbage can at the comer of an alley.
When he returned to the room his mother was still bent over Vera, placing a wet towel upon her head. She straightened and faced him, her cheeks and eyes wet with tears and her lips tight with anger. Bigger went to the window and stood looking out abstractedly into the street. His mother glared at his back. Maybe you ought to left me where I was.
Bigger scared me. She left Vera on the bed and turned a pair of cold eyes upon Bigger. What would you think then? Noth- ing like that ever bothers you' All you care about is your own pleasure! Bigger, honest, you the most no-countest man I ever seen in all my life!
Some of these days you going to wish you had made something out of your- self, instead of just a tramp. We can get along without you. And the gallows is at the end of the road you traveling, boy. Just remember that. Buddy took the box out.
The mother went behind the curtain to the gas stove. Vera sat up in bed and swung her feet to the floor. I got to go to my sewing class. He shut their voices out of his mind. He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness 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. So he denied himself and acted tough. He got up and crushed his cicarette upon the window sill. Vera came into the room and placed knives and forks upon the table. He sat at the table The odor of frying bacon and boiling coffee drifted to him from behind the curtain. The song irked him and he was glad when she stopped and came into the room with a pot of coffee and a plate of crinkled bacon.
Vera brought the bread in and they sat down. Bigger, to hold a job. He laid down his fork and stared at her. How many times you want to ask me? You could be comfortable and not have to live like pigs.
His mother talked on as though she had not beard him and he stopped listening. He kept staring at his sister till her eyes fell. As he ate he felt that they were thinking of the job he was to get that evening and it made him angry; he felt that they had tricked him into a cheap surrender.
He put the quarter in his pocket and drained his cup of coffee in one long swallow. He got his coat and cap and went to the door. We won't have any food. He went down the steps into the vestibule and stood look- ing out into the street through the plate glass of the front door. Now and then a street car rattled past over steel tracks He was sick of his life at home. Day in and day out there was nothing but shouts and bickering. But what could he do?
Each time he asked himself that question his mind hit a blank wall and he stopped thinking. Across the street di- rectly in front of him, he saw a truck pull to a stop at the curb and two white men in overalls got out with pails and brushes. It maddened him to think that he did not have a wider choice of action. Well, he could not stand here all day like this. What was he to do with himself? He tried to decide if he wanted to buy a ten-cent magazine, or go to a movie, or go to the poolroom and talk with the gang, or just loaf around With his hands deep m his pockets, another cigarette slanting across his chin, he brooded and watched the men at work across the street.
They were pasting a huge colored poster to a sign- board. The poster showed a white face. He looked at the round florid face and wagged his head. He looked at the poster: The poster showed one of those faces that looked straight at you when you looked at it and all the while you were walking and turning your head to look at it it kept looking unblinkingly back at you until you got so far from it you had to take your eyes away, and then it stopped, like a movie blackout.
Above the top of the poster were tall red letters: He snuffed his cigarette and laughed silently. He went along the sidewalk with his head down, fingering the quarter in his pocket. He stopped and searched all of his pockets; in his vest pocket he found a lone copper cent. That made a total of twenty-six cents, fourteen cents of which would have to be saved for carfare to Mr. He stood on the comer in the sunshine, watching cars and people pass. He needed more money; if he did not get more than he had now he would not know what to do with him- self for the rest of the day.
He wanted to see a movie, his senses hungered for it. In a movie he could dream without effort; all he had to do was lean back in a seat and keep his eyes open. He thought of Gus and G. Should he go to the poolroom and talk with them? But there was no use m his going unless they were ready to do what they had been long planning to do.
If they could, it would mean some sure and quick money. One of them could hold a gun on Blum and keep him from yelling; one could watch the front door; one could watch the back; and one could get the money from the box under the counter. Holding up Blum ought not take more than two minutes, at the most.
And it would be their last job. But it would be the toughest one that they had ever pulled All the other times they had raided newsstands, fruit stands, and apartments. And, too, they had never held up a white man before.
They had always robbed Negroes. In comparison, all of their other jobs had been play. She paused at the comer and came back to him.
He knew that his mother had been talking to Vera and Buddy about him, telU ing them that if he got into any more trouble he would be sent to prison and not just to the reform school, where they sent him last time.
He did not mind what his mother said to Buddy about him. Buddy was all right. Tough, plenty. But Vera was a sappy girl; she did not have any more sense than to believe everything she was told. He walked toward the poolroom.
He stopped and waited. Seen G. They leaned their backs against the red-brick wall of a building, smoking, their ogarettes slanting white across their black chuis To the east Bigger saw the sun burning a. In the sky FEAR 19 above him a few big white clouds drifted. He puffed silently, relaxed, his mind pleasantly vacant of purpose. Every slight movement in the street evoked a casual curiosity in him.
Auto- matically, his eyes followed each car as it whirred over the smooth black asphalt. A woman came by and he watched the gentle sway of her body until she disappeared into a door- way. He stretched his arms above his head and yawned; his eyes moistened. The sharp precision of the world of steel and stone dissolved into blurred waves. He blinked and the world grew hard again, mechanical, distinct. A weaving mo- tion in the sky made him turn his eyes upward; he saw a slen- der streak of billowing white blooming against the deep blue.
A plane was writing high up in the air. The plane was so far away that at times the strong glare of the sun blanked it from sight. The plane wrote another word: Maybe a hundred miles; maybe a thousand.
Gus pulled down the corners of his lips, stepped out from the wall, squared his shoulders, doffed his cap, bowed low and spoke with mock deference: Then both boys broke into hard laughter, looking at each other through squinted eyes.
When their laughter subsided, Bigger said in a voice that was half-question and half-statement: The plane sailed and dipped and spread another word against the sky: They laughed again, reclining against the wall. Smoking, the lids of their eyes drooped softly against the sun. Cars whizzed past on rubber tires. There was in his eyes a pensive, brooding amusement, as of a man who had been long con- fronted and tantalized by a riddle whose answer seemed al- ways just on the verge of escaping him, but prodding him ir- resistibly on to seek its solution.
The silence irked Bigger; he PEAR 21 was anxious to do something to evade looking so squarely at this problem. Gus looked wearily at Bigger, then straightened, saluted and answered: For a moment they were silent, facing each other, their shoulders thrown back, their lips compressed to hold down the mounting impulse to laugh. Then they guffawed, partly at themselves and partly at the vast white world that sprawled and towered in the sun before them. After a bit they relaxed and leaqpd against the wall, smoking.
Bigger saw Gus cup his left hand to his ear, as though holding a telephone receiver; and cup his right hand to his mouth, as though talking into a trans- mitter.
Both of them made gestures signifying that they were hang- ing up telephone receivers; then they bent double, laughing. They were silent again. Presently, Bigger cupped his hand to his mouth and spoke through an imaginary telephone transmitter. They hung up imaginary receivers and leaned against the wall and laughed. A street car rattled by. Bigger sighed and swore. Goddammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. How come you want to worry yourself?
You black and they make the laws. Because he was restless and had time on his hands, Bigger yawned again and hoisted his arms high above his head. Then their eyes were riveted; a slate-colored pigeon swooped down to the middle of the steel car tracks and began strutting to and fro with ruffled feathers, its fat neck bobbing with regal pnde. A street car rumbled forward and the pigeon rose swiftly through the air on wings stretched so taut and sheer NATIVE SON 24 that Bigger could see the gold of the sun through their trans- lucent tips.
He tilted his head and watched the slate-colored bird flap and wheel out of sight over the edge of a high roof. Gus laughed. They continued smoking. A huge truck swept past, lifting scraps of white paper into the sun- shine; the bits settled down slowly.
Gus looked at Bigger searchingly, then away, as though ashamed. His eyes were full of a look compounded of fear and admiration for Bigger. The sun slid behind a big white cloud and the street was plunged in cool shadow; quickly the sun edged forth again and it was bright and warm once more. A long sleek black car, its fenders glinting like glass in the sun, shot past them at high speed and turned a comer a few blocks away.
They went inside. The poolroom was empty, save for a fat, black man who held a half-smoked, unlit cigar in his mouth and leaned on the front counter. To the rear burned a single green-shaded bulb. Bigger turned on the light. They lagged for first shot.
How come you think of it all of a sudden? Gus straightened and stared at Bigger, then at Doc who was looking out of the front window. But Blum keeps a gun. Suppose he beats us to it? Bigger went to Gus and placed an arm about his shoulders. You just stand at the door and keep watch, see? Me and Jack and G. Jack and G. Wanna play? They all laughed and Bigger laughed with them but stopped quickly. He felt that the joke was on him and he took a seat alongside the wall and propped his feet upon the rungs of a chair, as though he had not heard.
Gus and G. Jack lit a cigarette. Gus looked away, avoiding the conversation. Bigger took a deep breath and looked from face to face. It seemed to him that he should not have to expla'm. The cop is way down at the other end of the block. He waited for more objections. When none were forth- coming, he talked again.
Bigger was afraid of Gus, because he knew that Gus would not hold out if Jack said yes. Gus stood at the table, toying with a cue stick, his eyes straying lazily over the billiard balls scattered about the table in the array of an unfinished game.
He felt as if he wanted to sneeze and could not; only it was more nervous than wanting to sneeze. He grew hotter, tighter; his nerves were taut and his teeth were on edge.
He felt that something would soon snap within him. Say something, somebody! Gus stood without speaking and Bigger felt a curious sensation — half-sensual, half-thoughtful.