Native Son

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“Black Ape” Symbol Analysis

“Black Ape” Symbol Icon
Various members of the crowds that gather outside the courtroom, after Bigger’s capture, describe Bigger as a “black ape,” and even newspaper articles circulating in Chicago do the same. This derogatory term has several meanings. First, it exemplifies the racist discourse common to the United States at that time: a belief that African Americans were somehow biologically inferior to white Americans, and that, as such, black attitudes toward violence, toward women, and toward other parts of society were considered “closer” to those of animals than to those of human beings. This form of racism, so profound in its reduction of African Americans to the image of animals, promotes the kind of vicious anger that leads to Bigger’s “conviction” in the “mob,” and to his later conviction in the trial, whose prosecution is led by Buckley, the State’s Attorney. Max, on Bigger’s behalf, attempts to fight the idea that Bigger is inferior to white Americans. However, though Max’s argument is impassioned and righteous, it does little to sway the jury and the judge, who sentence Bigger to death. Nevertheless, the novel includes Max’s well-meaning dissent as a means of arguing that Bigger is not an “animal,” nor is he possessed of animal desires. Instead, it is a majority-white society that has condemned Bigger to inferior status throughout his life.
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“Black Ape” Symbol Timeline in Native Son

The timeline below shows where the symbol “Black Ape” appears in Native Son. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Book 2
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...at him, calling for his death by lynching, and referring to Bigger as a “black ape.” The second book ends. (full context)
Book 3
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...Bigger also reads a physical description of himself, his skin color, and his “animal-like” or “ape-like” features, and a description of his family in Mississippi as being “shiftless and immoral.” The... (full context)
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon
Capitalism and Communism Theme Icon
Crime and Justice Theme Icon
Anger and Charity Theme Icon
Death, Life’s Purpose, and the Will to Live Theme Icon
...in the building and outside, leveled against him; someone once again calls him a “black ape.” Bigger is then taken quickly by the authorities back to the Dalton house, where the... (full context)