Native Son

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Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
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Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Theme Icon

Native Son is a meditation on racial relations in 1930s Chicago, told from the perspective of Bigger Thomas, a young African-American man who, enraged at society, accidentally kills Mary Dalton, whose body he later burns in a furnace; and Bessie, his “girl.” The novel’s author, Richard Wright, drawing in part on his own experiences as an African-American male growing up in the South and moving to Chicago, describes the sensation of “blackness” from Bigger’s perspective. Bigger’s blackness, and the “whiteness” he encounters in large swaths of society, are not merely skin colors or racial barriers: they become, to Bigger and many others, symbolic distinctions between the morally fallen (blackness) and the morally pure (whiteness).

From the beginning of the novel, when hanging out with “the gang” (including Jack and G.H.), Bigger announces that he cannot pursue his dream of becoming an aircraft pilot, because African Americans in Chicago are not permitted or encouraged to gain even a basic education. Bigger is ashamed and angry when he first meets Mary, Jan, and the Dalton family—even Peggy, the Daltons’ head housemaid—because he senses that his blackness has led him into a position of servility to a white family. This, despite the fact that the Daltons wish to help Bigger (although to a limited extent, based on their own paternalistic understanding of African-American culture).

Mary and Jan truly wish to help Bigger—it is a component of their Communist ideology—but Bigger’s response, when asked to sit with, shake hands with, and eat with Jan and Mary, is to shrink back from them, out of a mixture of resentment, anger, and fear. The first part of the novel, then—leading up to Bigger’s murder of Mary—shows that Bigger’s understanding of his own blackness, and black culture, is determined primarily in relation to the city’s dominant white culture. Bigger views his own ethnic background with a kind of internalized racial lens—he has difficulty recognizing his own potential as a human being, and he takes an immediate dislike to those members of white society who attempt to help him.

The second part of the novel, Bigger’s trial, draws out more clearly these racial divides. Bigger and his trial have become the talk of the city, and a symbol of its racial troubles. The trial divides society starkly between those white citizens who wish to help Bigger—namely Max and Jan—and those who wish to do him harm, to punish him for his crime—namely, Buckley. Max and Jan wish to help Bigger, to treat him as a human being, and to explain, if not justify, his crime based on the harsh realities of life in the Black Belt. Bigger, at first, resents this help, but later learns to respect Max a great deal, and in the poignant final scene of the novel, after Bigger has been sentenced to die, Bigger thanks Max for recognizing his (Bigger’s) humanity—for helping him to feel that his own life is worth fighting for.

Buckley, on the other hand, refers to Bigger as an “ape,” and seems to relish the punishment meted out to Bigger. Thus Buckley, like many white members of the media establishment in the city, wants only an excuse to punish members of the African-American community—a community that Buckley views as “unproductive” and, at worst, capable of terrible crimes. The novel’s resolution provides little consolation for this unfairness. But there is a notable change that occurs: Bigger becomes aware, after his crime and through communication with Max over the course of the trial, that his internalized notions of the bleakness and powerlessness of black culture have been implanted in his psyche by a dominant white culture, one that does not recognize the humanity of the city’s black population. Although Bigger must die for his crimes—and he never repents for them—he has gained a degree of self-knowledge through which the reader, too, might come to terms with the US’s racial divide.

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Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism appears in each chapter of Native Son. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Quotes in Native Son

Below you will find the important quotes in Native Son related to the theme of Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism.
Book 1 Quotes

If you get that job . . . I can fix up a nice place for you children. You could be comfortable and not have to live like pigs.

Related Characters: Ma Thomas (speaker), Bigger Thomas
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Bigger is still a young man, he is the oldest man in the house, and as such, his mother wants him to work, rather than wasting his energy hanging around a pool hall with this friends, as Bigger often does. The job that Bigger can get is that of a driver for a wealthy white family on the South Side of Chicago, in a neighborhood vastly different from the collection of tenements in which Bigger currently lives.

Thus Bigger's mother wants her son to succeed, in part for his own development, and in part so that Bigger's wages can help the family, can raise his sister Vera and his brother Buddy somewhat out of poverty. Bigger's mother does not attempt to hide her aspirations for her son - indeed, she pressures him to achieve (monetarily) outside the home, so that all in the family might benefit. This desire for achievement kickstarts the sequence of dramatic events in the novel. 


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God, I’d like to fly up there in that sky.
God’ll let you fly when He gives you your wings up in heaven.

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas (speaker), Gus (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

Bigger is attracted to the sky, and to the planes in the sky, because he sees them as symbols of freedom and escape. The plan can seemingly soar above whatever petty problems are taking place on the earth. And planes, of course, are filled with people who can fly, who have the professional opportunity to take to the air. Bigger wants the skills of a pilot, and he wants to leave the neighborhood in which he was raised. And yet this is impossible for him to achieve, because as a black man he would never be allowed the education and opportunity to become a pilot. Thus for Bigger, flying a plane is even less likely to happen than flying around as an angel in heaven (as Gus says here).

Because of this, the plane as symbol is not an unknown thing to Bigger. He is aware that, in looking at the sky, he is looking at an object of special fascination for himself. The question of what Bigger knows, and does not know, about himself is an interesting and important one. No reader could argue that Bigger is unaware of his anger, nor of his own ambition. The question is what Bigger does to help, or to hurt, himself as the novel progresses - to alter his life for the better or the worse. 

You’re scared ‘cause he’s a white man?
Naw. But Blum keeps a gun. Suppose he beats us to it?
Aw, you scared; that’s all. He’s a white man and you scared.

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas (speaker), Gus (speaker), Blum
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

Bigger takes Gus to task in this scene. He does so because, as the acknowledged leader of the group, Bigger believes it is his responsibility to make sure everyone is in line with, and on board with, a potential robbery of the pool hall. Because Bigger notes that Gus is reluctant to go ahead with the idea, he angrily calls out Gus's masculinity, and argues that Gus is only willing to harm those whom he believes to be socially equal to himself - in other words, other people of color.

Thus the fact that the pool hall owner is a white man causes Bigger to argue that Gus is afraid of committing a crime against exactly that population that Bigger believes is most deserving of young criminality - the white population, that group of people who own many of the businesses in the region, and whose economic power often disenfranchises people of color. 

At least the fight made him feel the equal of them. And he felt the equal of Doc, too; had he not slashed his table and dared him to use his gun?

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas, Doc
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the novel, Bigger believes that violence is a way of "evening the score" with those around him, of showing that he is up to any challenge and can make a mark upon life, that he can prove himself when confronted. Bigger does not believe that there are other meaningful ways of interacting with the world. He is, as the narrator describes him, a young man who moves on impulse, who wants to see what he can ask the world for, what he can take from it.

This scene in the pool hall, then, shows how quickly and easily Bigger can come to violence - and how his friends in the small group, who typically do not shy away from acts of petty criminality, are nonetheless afraid of Bigger, worried what he might do. Bigger has no motivation for his outbursts other than the vague feeling that the world isn't fair, and that he must do something serious and abrupt to change or stop that unfair world. 

He hated himself at that moment. Why was he acting and feeling this way? He wanted to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel this.

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas, Mr. Dalton
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

During his meeting with Henry Dalton, Bigger is terrified he will say the wrong thing - that he won't know how to behave around a man with so much money and power. Indeed, Dalton owns the very apartment building in which the Thomas family lives. But Bigger is struck by another impulse - that he is angry at Mr. Dalton for causing him to feel the way he does, for forcing Bigger, through no overt exertion of power, to be silent, to stumble for his words.

Thus Bigger realizes, in his interactions in the Dalton house, just how power can operate outside the "Black Belt" community in which he was born and raised. There, violence is a major way of effecting power, of getting people to do what you want. But in this part of the South Side, where the Daltons live, power is exercised in an entirely different way - with persuasion, with money, with the idea that certain activities are reserved for certain higher levels of society. 

First of all . . . don’t say sir to me. I’ll call you Bigger and you’ll call me Jan. That’s the way it’ll be between us.

Related Characters: Jan (speaker), Bigger Thomas
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

Jan is an avowed communist, who works for the betterment of all people - so he says. He is involved with Mary Dalton, who, despite her family's enormous wealth and privilege (based on capitalistic success), has committed herself also to certain communist ideals - or at least to learning more about those ideals. Jan's and Mary's communist ideology, at this point in the novel, makes very little sense to Bigger.

This is, in a way, because Bigger lives the life that Jan and Mary study from the outside. Jan and Mary do not understand what it's like to grow up in a shabby tenement, without any privacy. They are educated, and they are afforded other privileges (beyond those of money) by being white, by moving in a society that is entirely removed from that of Bigger. For all this, however, their desire to get to know Bigger is genuine - even if, at base, they cannot really know him, and can only spend time with him and condescendingly project onto him what they think he is, and what his life is like. 

The reality of the room fell from him; the vast city of white people that sprawled outside took its place. She was dead and he had killed her. He was a murderer, a Negro murderer, a black murderer. He had killed a white woman. He had to get away from here.

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas, Mary Dalton
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

Bigger does not mean to kill Mary Dalton - indeed, he has nothing against her. He and Jan and Mary have had a strange though not a bad time on the evening of the murder. Jan and Mary have gotten to know Bigger, and Bigger has observed them as people who are sympathetic to his life but fundamentally different from it - as do-gooders who wish to know more about the world beyond the white communities of the South Side.

Bigger kills Mary, ironically enough, because he is afraid of what Mrs. Dalton and others might think of him in her bedroom at night. He kills, then, because he already expects a white family to think he is doing something wrong, or criminal, with Mary - that he has gotten her drunk and tried to take advantage of her, or has persuaded her into the vice of drinking itself. Bigger therefore kills because he feels he has no way out - only to realize that, in killing, he has sealed his fate, forcing himself to live permanently on the run from an entire "city of white people."

Book 2 Quotes

Ultimately, though, his hate and hope turned outward from himself and Gus: his hope toward a vague benevolent something that would help and lead him, and his hate toward the whites; for he felt that they ruled him, even when they were far away and not thinking of him . . . .

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas, Gus
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

Bigger is a changed man when he sees his friends the day after the murder. Naturally, he is changed because of the crime he has committed - but his friends believe he is changed because he is now working for the powerful Dalton family. The narrator plays on this irony - that Bigger's friends do not know what he's done, and are in awe of him - and Bigger himself feels that, perhaps, as he stands with his friends, he might imagine some future that is beyond his immediate circumstances, beyond the crime and the difficulty of living in Chicago's Black Belt.

But this dream only lasts so long. Although Bigger enjoys feeling that his friends are in awe of his new-found money (in relative terms), he knows he must go back to the Daltons, and at this point, things will become much more difficult. He will have to pretend he knows nothing about Mary's disappearance - and because Bigger is so easily flustered around the Daltons, it is precisely this kind of pretending that will be difficult for him to manage. 

You are a Communist, you goddamn black sonofabitch! And you’re going to tell me about Miss Dalton and that Jan bastard!

Related Characters: Britten (speaker), Bigger Thomas, Mary Dalton , Jan
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

Britten is the first person in the Dalton household, after the investigation formally begins, to sense that Bigger might somehow be involved in Mary's disappearance. Of course, everyone knows that Bigger was the hired chauffeur, driving the car that carried Mary and Jan. Suspicions fell initially on Jan, whose communist sympathies were enough to raise a red flag to the authorities. But now Britten notes that Bigger seems nervous, that he has trouble stating exactly what he was doing the two nights previous and explaining what he knows about Mary's disappearance. 

Britten, interestingly enough, however, pegs some of Bigger's guilt on the idea that he is a communist (and the rest on the fact that he is black). Of course, Bigger only knows a very small amount of what communism is, and this he knows from a brief conversation with Jan and Mary. He did not kill because he sought, according to communist ideals, to break down a system that was economically unfair. He killed simply because he wanted to avoid trouble - because he was afraid. But naturally Bigger does not confess any of these feelings to Britten. 

Yeah; I killed the girl . . . Now, you know. You’ve got to help me. You in it as deep as me! You done spent some of the money . . . .

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas (speaker), Mary Dalton , Bessie
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

Bessie might have spent some of the money that Bigger stole, and in this sense she is complicit with a very small part of Bigger's crime, but she was also forced to do these things - forced to help Bigger, with the implicit threat that, if she did not, he would harm her. Bessie has had little freedom to speak of throughout the novel, which is why she's gone along with Bigger in the first place - and now, Bigger uses this to ensnare her further. 

Bessie and Mary, in this sense, are both victims of Bigger's wrath, even before Bessie dies. Because of her race and class, Bigger knows that he can manipulate Bessie in ways he could not manipulate Mary - but Bigger asserted power over Mary anyway, through physical force at least. Even though Mary's death derived from a sense only of self-preservation, Bigger nevertheless sees himself, by this stage of the novel, as someone who is willing to kill again in order to save his own life. 

There was silence. Bigger stared without a thought or an image in his mind. There was just the old feeling, the feeling that he had had all his life: he was black and had done wrong; white men were looking at something with which they would soon accuse him.

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas
Related Symbols: The Furnace
Page Number: 219
Explanation and Analysis:

In the furnace room, surrounded by members of the new media, Bigger has a sense, even before Mary's bones are discovered not totally burnt in the furnace, that he is now no longer able to escape. He knows that, even if he were innocent, even if he had not killed Mary, even if he had managed to work peaceably in the Dalton house for many years, that there is something in his very blackness that would cause white people to suspect him of wrongdoing.

That Bigger himself has committed a heinous crime is, of course, true. But that Bigger has been a victim, throughout his life, of terrible acts of violence, large and small, implicit and explicit, is also true. Bigger has a sense, now, that the latter point can never justify the former - that no judge will look at his life and view his difficult circumstances as "making up" for murder. But Bigger also realizes how unfair the system is, how all its mechanisms, supposed to produce justice, would have been stacked against him even if he had done nothing out of the ordinary. 

Book 3 Quotes

Bigger, I’ve never done anything against you and your people in my life. But I’m a white man and it would be asking too much to ask you not to hate me, when every white man you see hates you . . . .

Related Characters: Jan (speaker), Bigger Thomas
Page Number: 287
Explanation and Analysis:

Jan, for his part, seems immensely understanding at this juncture in the novel, even though Bigger has essentially tried to tell the authorities that Jan murdered Mary, or was at least responsible for her disappearance. Jan understands that the circumstances of Bigger's life have been difficult, far more difficult than he could ever imagine. In contrast to his behavior the night that Bigger killed Mary, Jan now seems more willing to speak to Bigger directly, man to man. He no longer sees Bigger as an abstract representation of what it means to be "black" in Chicago, or of what it means to be a "worker" in a city where so much wealth is concentrated in so small a part of the population. In one of the novel's grander ironies, it is only after Mary's death that many of the characters are able to understand themselves and one another - and it is a bitter, bitter irony, too, for it has come at an immensely steep cost in innocent human lives. 

Now listen, Mr. Max. No question asked in this room will inflame the public mind any more than has the death of Mary Dalton, and you know it. You have the right to question any of these witnesses, but I will not tolerate any publicity-seeking by your kind here!

Related Characters: Deputy coroner (speaker), Mary Dalton , Max
Page Number: 319
Explanation and Analysis:

The deputy coroner, who is handling the prosecution in the case at this preliminary stage, does all that he can to stoke the flames of white anger in Chicago. A great many people are violently angry at Bigger for killing a white woman - and the racist elements in that city see this murder as an inevitable part of the racial violence they believe to exist in the Black Belt. In other words, the deputy coroner wants the jury, composed of white men, to see this as a crime of racial score-setting on Bigger's part - in the hopes that this race-baiting attitude will cause them to convict Bigger and sentence him to death.

Max, on his side, tries to show that Bigger is a human being who made a series of horrible mistakes and who committed terrible crimes - but that he is a human being all the same, and therefore deserving of human sympathy. But the deputy coroner disputes this in court as mere "publicity-seeking" - that is, the deputy coroner believes that any defense that Max offers is fundamentally out of line, since, to him, Bigger is indefensible. 

Isn’t it true that you refuse to rent houses to Negroes if those houses are in other sections of the city?
Why, yes.
Well, it’s an old custom.

Related Characters: Max (speaker), Mr. Dalton
Page Number: 327
Explanation and Analysis:

Max exposes what he believes to be Mr. Dalton's hypocrisy when it comes to the African American populations in Chicago. Mr. Dalton professes that he has done, and continues to do, all that he can to help those in the Chicago community - that his life, outside his business interests, is one of a philanthropist. But, as Max reveals, this life is far more complicated. Dalton charges African Americans very high rents, and tends not to rent to black families in his "white" buildings. He sees nothing wrong or contradictory in this, either.

In essence, Mr. Dalton's views on race are separatist, if not segregationist. He believes that white and black communities are fundamentally different - they may not always be opposed - but he does what he can to offer a "helping hand" to black families. Even this, again, he only does within limits - he does not believe in putting black families on any sort of equal footing with white families. But Dalton does believe that his efforts to help charitably in the city, both in white and black populations, have been sincere ones. 


Related Characters: Bigger Thomas, Mary Dalton , Bessie
Page Number: 341
Explanation and Analysis:

This is an example of the kinds of headlines that the narrator and novelist imagine for Bigger's trial. It is obvious that Bigger is not afforded any kind of fair trial in the press - after all, he is a "killer" and not an "alleged killer" right in the headline, and the reporting of his dismay at the sight of the girl's body seems to show that, though he was capable of doing what he did, he is no longer capable of facing up to it. This, the newspapermen believe, is a sign of Bigger's underlying cowardice.

For the media and many parts of the white Chicago community at large, Bigger's trial is a means of placing further blame on African American populations. Crime, according to these mainstream white viewpoints, is a black problem because African American families do not care to protect their neighborhoods, or because criminality is somehow "inherent" to them. The newspaper thus does all it can to fan the flames of racial hatred in the city. 

Speaking for the grief-stricken families of Mary Dalton and Bessie Mears, and for the People of the State of Illinois, thousands of whom are massed out beyond that window waiting for the law to take its course, I say that no such quibbling, no such trickery shall pervert this Court and cheat this law!

Related Characters: Buckley (speaker), Mary Dalton , Bessie
Page Number: 374
Explanation and Analysis:

Buckley, the prosecutor, does what he can to make it seem that he must prosecute aggressively, and ask for the death penalty against Bigger, because the "community" (meaning the white community in Chicago) will rest for nothing less. This, by implication, means that the white community might feel it necessary to take justice into its own hands if Bigger is not sentenced to death. This threat of extra-legal violence is a chilling one, and is a sign that the nature of violence in a racially-polarized society, like Chicago at this time, does not operate equally. Members of white society are more or less allowed to threaten certain members of black society with violence outside the legal system, and without consequences - assuming that the legal system does not step in first to put Bigger to death. Buckley's words are chilling ones, and they are calculated to make the jury feel obligated to vote for execution, so that Bigger gets what white Chicagoans (essentially, bowing to racist mob rule) feel to be his just punishment. 

What I killed for must’ve been good! It must have been good! When a man kills, it’s for something . . . . I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ‘em . . . .

Related Characters: Bigger Thomas (speaker)
Page Number: 429
Explanation and Analysis:

Bigger, during his time in jail, tries his best to understand what he has done and why he has done it, before he is put to death by the state of Illinois. To this speech Max, his lawyer, has nothing substantive to say - Max is scared at the thought that Bigger believes he has achieved some level of insight through murder. Max is fundamentally a pacifist, even as he recognizes the events that have caused Bigger to become so violent. And Max finds, ultimately, that there is little he can do or say to Bigger to make sense of the violent mistakes Bigger has made, and through which he has brought his own life to an end.

Bigger, for his part, believes that his passions were powerful ones - that his anger against the restrictive elements of white society were themselves persuasive, even though killing is inherently wrong. He felt, in killing, that he was powerful and consequential, even if he sees during the trial that the murders of Mary and Bessie have only created more harm, more suffering, more pain in the world. At this bleak and somewhat contradictory point (at least on a moral level), the novel draws to a close just before Bigger is put to death.