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.
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism ThemeTracker
Whiteness, Blackness, and Racism Quotes in Native Son
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 . . . .
You are a Communist, you goddamn black sonofabitch! And you’re going to tell me about Miss Dalton and that Jan bastard!
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 . . . .
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.
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 . . . .
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!
Isn’t it true that you refuse to rent houses to Negroes if those houses are in other sections of the city?
Well, it’s an old custom.
NEGRO KILLER SIGNS CONFESSIONS FOR TWO MURDERS. SHRINKS AT INQUEST WHEN CONFRONTED WITH BODY OF SLAIN GIRL. ARRAIGNED TOMORROW. REDS TAKE CHARGE OF KILLER’S DEFENSE. NOT GUILTY PLEAS LIKELY.
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!
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 . . . .