For 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, life in Chicago in early 1939 is one of fear and anger.
On this day, he has just beaten up his friend Gus for no apparent reason — except that it meant that he and Gus and two of their friends would have to drop their plan to rob a white storeowner. This is early in Richard Wright’s Native Son, and Wright notes:
His confused emotions had made him feel instinctively that it would be better to fight Gus and spoil the plan of the robbery than to confront a white man with a gun.
But he kept this knowledge of his fear thrust firmly down in him; his courage to live depended upon how successfully his fear was hidden from his consciousness…
This was the way he lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify impulses in a world he feared.
“A world he feared”
Bigger Thomas lives in Chicago’s South Side Black Belt, the largest of two African-American ghettos in the city. (A much smaller one is on the Near West Side.)
He fears his world because, everywhere he turns, he is told in the words and actions of American society that he and other blacks like him aren’t accepted. That he and they aren’t good enough. That there are strict limits to what he can hope to do in his life — strict limits to what he can hope for.
And that there will be hell to pay if he ignores these realities — such as if he and his friends are foolhardy enough to rob a white man.
In a conversation with one of his friends, Bigger complains that he would like to be an aviator, but there’s no way he would be permitted in flight school. He looks up at a plane overhead in the sky and yearns for the freedom that the pilot, a white man, has.
In Bigger’s life, there is one hard and fast fact: He and other blacks are here, and whites are there, and the lines of separation of all sorts keeping the races apart are solid, clear and distinct.
And then Mary Dalton acts the way she does.
“Like a doll in a show window”
With the robbery of the white storeowner scrapped, Bigger is able to go ahead to a job interview with the Daltons, a rich white family in the all-white North Kenwood neighborhood.
The Daltons live at 4605 S. Drexel Blvd. That’s just under two miles south of the one-room apartment at 3721 S. Indiana Ave. in the all-black Douglas community where Bigger lives with his mother and two younger siblings. (Wright and his family once lived at 3743 S. Indiana Ave.)
Bigger walks there; meets Henry Dalton, the millionaire real estate man with extensive Black Belt holdings and a penchant for bankrolling efforts to help the city’s Negroes; is given the job of chauffer and a room in the back; and immediately goes to work, driving the 23-year-old Mary to a meeting at the nearby University of Chicago.
He watched her through the rear mirror as he drove; she was kind of pretty, but very little. She looked like a doll in a show window, black eyes, white face, red lips.
Bigger hasn’t had many dealings with whites, certainly hasn’t been alone with a white woman. But he knows what to say — “Yessum” and “Yessuh” — and knows his place.
But Mary tells him to pull the car over, and, scooting herself up close to him, “her face some six inches from his,” she asks him to drive her to the Loop instead of to the university. “Yessum,” he says. And she responds, “After all, I’m on your side.”
“As if he were human”
He wonders what that means: “She was on his side. What side was he on? Did she mean she liked colored people?” She tells him she’s going to meet a friend “who’s also a friend of yours.” Bigger is further bewildered.
They drive to Lake Street, just off of State Street. Mary goes in.
She was an odd girl, all right. He felt something in her over and above the fear she inspired in him. She responded to him as if he were human, as if he lived in the same world as she. And he never felt that before in a white person. But why? Was this some kind of game?
The guarded feeling of freedom he had while listening to her was tangled with the hard fact that she was white and rich, a part of the world of people who told him what he could and could not do.
Soon, Mary comes out with her boyfriend Jan, a good looking young man who’s also a member of the Communist Party. In a jovial way, he forces Bigger to shake hands. Then the three get in the car.
“Two vast white looming walls”
Jan gets in to drive, and Bigger slides over. But Mary comes in on the right. So Bigger finds himself on the front seat in between a white man and a white woman.
There were white people to either side of him; he was sitting between two vast white looming walls. Never in his life had he been so close to a white woman. He smelt the odor of her hair and felt the soft pressure of her thigh against his own.
Bigger is profoundly uncomfortable, unable to take up the space he would have taken if he had been between two black people:
His arms and legs were aching from being cramped into so small a space, but he dared not more. He knew that they would not have cared if he had made himself more comfortable, but his moving would have called attention to himself and his black body. And he did not want that.
These people made him feel things he did not want to feel.
“Treating him this way?”
The night gets worse for Bigger.
Jan and Mary want to eat in the Black Belt. They ask him to name a place. He comes up with Ernie’s Kitchen Shack at 47th Street and Indiana Avenue. They drive there, and then the two white people insist that Bigger come inside with them and eat with them.
Bigger is all stirred up by Mary and Jan — “He distrusted them, really hated them. He was puzzled as to why they were treating him this way.”
In the café, the two whites eat chicken, but Bigger has no appetite. The two whites drink rum and give it to Bigger. He drinks and feels a little better.
They leave the café. Mary and Jan have Bigger drive them around Washington Park while they kiss in the back seat and drink more rum. They push the fifth to Bigger, and he drinks more. Bigger sees that they’re both “plastered” and that he’s “almost drunk”.
“This little bitch!”
At 2 a.m., they head back to the Dalton home. They stop a block away, so Jan can catch the street car north, and Bigger drives Mary home.
She’s falling down drunk. In fact, she can’t even get out of the car:
She was resting on the small of her back, and her dress was pulled up so far that he could see where her stockings ended on her thighs.
She looks at him, laughs and tells him to help her up.
He helped her and his hands felt the softness of her body as she stepped to the ground. Her dark eyes looked at him feverishly from deep sockets. Her hair was in his face, filling him with its scent. He gritted his teeth, feeling a little dizzy.
He has to carry Mary inside and up the stairs to her room.
He felt her hair brush his lips. His skin glowed warm and his muscles flexed; he looked into her face in the dim light, his senses drunk with the odor of her hair and skin.
He half-walks her, half-carries her to the stairs, and, doing so, “he hated her.”
His fingers felt the soft curves of her body and he was still, looking at her, enveloped in a sense of physical elation. This little bitch! He thought. Her face was touching his.
Finally, Bigger gets Mary upstairs and into her room, with his senses reeling “from the scent of her hair and skin.”
Knowing that he needs to escape, Bigger is trying to get Mary to her bed — but, then:
Her face turned slowly and he held his face still, waiting for her face to come around, in front of his. Then her head leaned backward, slowly, gently; it was as though she had given up. Her lips, faintly moist in the hazy blue light, were parted and he saw the furtive glint of her white teeth. Her eyes were closed. He stared at her dim face, the forehead capped with curly black hair.
He eased his hand, the fingers spread wide, up the center of her back and her face came toward him and her lips touched his, like something he had imagined.
By this point, Bigger has finally gotten Mary to her bed. His fingers are on her breasts. He kisses her again, “feeling her move toward him.”
A white blur has entered the room. Mary’s blind mother in a white nightgown. Saying softly again, “Mary!”
At this moment, intoxicated and intoxicated with Mary’s body, Bigger realizes immediately that he, a black man, is about to be discovered with the drunk, nearly comatose Mary, a white woman.
He knows what happens to black men even suspected of taking liberties with a white woman. Mary’s mother can’t see him, but, in a moment, she will come to the side of the bed.
He puts a pillow over Mary’s face.
Over the course of the next few moments, as Mary’s mother stands confused and unsure of herself, and as Mary, suddenly completely awake, is trying to get the pillow off of her face, Bigger pushes down and holds the pillow down and holds it down and holds it down until Mary ceases to struggle.
And as Mary’s mother comes toward the bed, he is able to slide away from the bed, until the older woman is stopped in her tracks:
“You’re dead drunk! You stink with whiskey.”
The core of the book
That’s a long recapitulation of the last few hours of a single hellish day.
In Wright’s 359-page novel, the account of those five-and-a-half hours — from 8:30 p.m. when Mary gets into the back seat of the family’s auto until her death at 2 a.m. — covers 21 pages.
They are the core of the book.
Everything else in Native Son is context for those 21 pages.
The hellish five-and-a-half hours
Let’s be clear: Bigger kills Mary. He is the killer. She is the killed. He doesn’t deny this. He doesn’t pretend anything else.
Yet, everything that warped Bigger’s life comes into play during those five-and-a-half hours, everything that has trained him to fear and hate whites (and to see whites as desirable and better since that the message the white world beat into him).
Mary’s concern for Bigger and his “people” is well-intentioned but uninformed and more than a bit stupid. She thinks she can know the life of the African-American by having a conversation with Bigger and by visiting a black café and by getting a look inside black homes.
Mary treats Bigger “as if he were human, as if he lived in the same world as she.” She and Jan treat him as if he were a friend.
Yet, such gestures only go so far.
Bigger is still Mary’s chauffer. Her father’s employee. An exotic conversation piece for Jan and Mary. He can’t go to the university as she does. He can’t live in her family’s neighborhood, except as a servant.
Jan and Mary squeeze Bigger in between them in the front seat of the car, blissfully unaware of his discomfort. For a revolutionary, Jan is incredibly tone-deaf to the verbal and non-verbal messages Bigger is sending. For someone professing to be a friend to Negroes, Mary is completely unaware or unconcerned at how her actions are affecting Bigger.
Playing with Bigger’s life
And, in her final moments, Mary is literally playing with his life.
Drunk as she is, she knows deep in her white consciousness the high danger that an African-American man faces if caught in a sexual situation with a white woman, particularly a rich white woman.
She doesn’t care. Or, at least, she gives it no thought.
Does Mary have her own game going on? Is she, subconsciously perhaps, flirting with the taboo of a black man? And, ultimately, not just flirting, does she act out her flirtation with the lifting of her lips to Bigger’s lips?
Wright leaves this ambiguous. Is Mary lifting her lips to Bigger or is Bigger lifting her body toward him or both? It could be argued either way. For the second kiss, Mary is “moving toward him” — what does this signify?
What is certain is that Mary let herself get drunk and had Bigger drive her home and had Bigger carry her upstairs to her room while leaning on him provocatively.
Whatever she did or didn’t do at that key moment of the two kisses, Mary had set the stage for it — and for what happened afterwards.
Hundreds of thousands of Bigger Thomases
In 1940, when Native Son was published, it was a revelation — an account of the interior life of a black man in a story that white audiences were willing to read and discuss and debate.
There was much in the novel to upset black readers and white readers. Why is the black “hero” of the book a murderer? Why is a black murderer being treated by Wright as something other than a craven killer? And the controversy has continued ever since.
What’s undeniable is that, in this work of high literature, Wright shows the American tragedy of racism, providing insights into the daily lives and experiences of African-Americans. He writes about substandard housing, substandard education, the sharp lines of segregation, the entitlement of whites contrasted with the requirements of blacks to know their place, and the cramped options and expectations of people considered second-class citizens.
This sociological aspect to Native Son was the most compelling aspect of the novel for me when I wrote about it in the Chicago Tribune 32 years ago. The occasion was the filming of a new movie based on the book. (The first one came out in 1951 and starred an amateurish Wright as Bigger.)
My article was filled with quotes from the filmmakers and social scientists about how, despite great changes in American society over the previous half century, the United States still had hundreds of thousands of Bigger Thomases — young black men who were squeezed by the chains of poverty and racism and who had little or no hope of jobs or a productive life.
All of that remains true today, three decades after my article and eight decades after the publican of Native Son.
Wright’s greatest achievement
Yet, reading the book now, I’m struck not so much by the millions of Bigger Thomases who were alive when the book was published and who have been born into dead-end lives since then, but by the single black man who is at the center of Native Son.
The sociological aspects of Wright’s novel were and remain terribly important, and were a great achievement for the writer.
His greatest achievement, however, was to create in Bigger Thomas a human being who, no matter what he does in the book — and there is much he does that’s horrifying — is someone to whom any reader can relate.
You don’t have to be black to feel the anger that Bigger carries around, waking up every morning with nothing useful to do. The impotence, the aimlessness, the meaninglessness. Every human being has, at times, such feelings. Every human being can extrapolate what it must be to experience those feelings every day.
You don’t have to be black to feel the vibrant physical ripeness of youth that Jan and Mary and Bigger feel, the vigor of sexual potency. These are feelings that every human being feels in young adulthood. These yearnings and urges would be strong in any three people in their 20s, all very natural. What isn’t natural is that, given society’s rules, one of the three young people can’t even think of pursuing sexual gratification in the situation without the expectation of lynching — even as the other two are kissing and cuddling in front of him. This is the dynamite that Jan and especially Mary are playing with in their efforts to become friends with Bigger.
You don’t have to be black to feel the fear that Bigger experiences when Mary’s mother comes into the room and he knows the price he will pay if found.
One human being
Again, let me make clear: Bigger kills Mary. He is the killer. She is the killed. He doesn’t deny this. He doesn’t pretend anything else.
It is a tragedy that she is killed. And it is a tragedy that Bigger has led a life so warped by the white world that he found himself in that spot at that moment.
Yes, Native Son is about the tragedy of racism as it was constraining, imprisoning and oppressing African-Americans of Wright’s time — and it remains powerful today since so much of what was true then remains true today.
At its heart, though, Wright’s novel is the story of one human being.
As human beings ourselves, we can read his story and see ourselves — as the oppressor and the oppressed. Whites can see how distorted life was and remains for African-Americans, and how, as whites, they have a hand in keeping it so.
Any reader, white or black, can see in themselves Bigger Thomas. He is there in our anger and fear and hatred.
Each of us, had we lived the same life as he had, could have found ourselves in that spot at that moment.
Each of us is Bigger Thomas.
Patrick T. Reardon