Baldwin argues that black people have been unable to tell their story to “the white majority,” who have been unwilling and unable to listen. Yet in reality, the story of African Americans is the story of America itself. White people have developed particular ways of thinking about black people, through statistics, categories, and simplistic moral positions such as righteousness or outrage. These ways of thinking have very little to do with the reality of black life, yet when black people contradict white peoples’ ideas they risk “immediate retaliation.” Prevailing ideas about black people have changed over time, but these ideas have always been a product of guilt rather than a reflection of reality. Today, false science and negative stereotypes about black people have been disproven, yet society is still strictly segregated along racial lines.
In this passage Baldwin argues that it is not only hateful and hostile thinking that inhibits racial progress; it is also seemingly neutral or positive ways of thinking, such as scientific analysis or indignation at racial inequality. The problem with these forms of thought is not that they intend to oppress black people, but that they are dishonest. Baldwin argues that every false idea about black people is harmful, and that almost all ideas about black people circulated within white society are false.
The racist stereotypes of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom may have disappeared, yet we must understand them in order to understand what it means to be black in America. While both are theoretically positive figures beloved by white people, negative ideas about black people are in fact threaded into their supposedly positive attributes. Moreover, the intimacy of the master-slave (or master-servant) relationship creates a well-founded suspicion that black people understand white people better than white people understand themselves. This causes tension between the races that persists in the present. Baldwin concludes that “it is a sentimental error… to believe that the past is dead.”
The end of this passage contains a subtle but crucially important point. Baldwin suggests that white people hate and fear black people precisely because of the intimacy between them. The two races have coexisted in America for centuries, and the social structure of servitude has meant that black people have developed an extensive knowledge of whites. This puts the races on an uneven playing field, as white people do not understand black people to nearly the same extent.
Baldwin argues that people become American when they cut off ties to other cultures, histories, and identities, and that this happened to African Americans by force. Black people were given no choice but to accept the image of themselves invented by white society. Richard Wright’s Native Son is “the most powerful and celebrated statement we have yet had of what it means to be a Negro in America,” and people tend to believe that its publication alone is proof of racial progress. The novel falls into an American tradition of depicting a young person struggling against his circumstances. While it may at first seem surprising that the novel was so popular and successful, in fact it is not surprising at all. The book is a product of the 1930s, a time of righteous anger at social inequality and injustice. Wright became the “spokesman” of “the New Negro” and was doomed by this task, as it is not possible for one person to represent 13 million others. This burden prevented Wright from accurately depicting his own experience. Instead, he replicated the false vision of black people held by most Americans.
At first glance, Baldwin’s critique of “Native Son” closely resembles his critique of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” However, there is a crucial difference between the two novels; whereas “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published in 1852 and was written by a white woman, “Native Son” was published in 1940 and was written by a black man. We might therefore expect there to be a vast difference between the two authors’ approach to racial equality. However, Baldwin contends that this is not in fact the case. Although Wright is black, he has internalized the same racist ideology that prevents “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” from being a truly progressive novel. Wright’s experience as a black man, while significant, does not overcome the prevailing power of racist ideas.
Baldwin feels that Wright’s aim was to depict a “monster” created by America, and that this would have been an interesting goal if Wright had not attempted to redeem this monster “in social terms.” The reader learns very little about Bigger over the course of the novel; although the other black characters are more three-dimensional, Wright gives no sense of Bigger’s relationship to them. This creates the impression that black people are isolated from one another and that they have no traditions, customs, or social intercourse of their own. Within the American psyche, the reality of black life is obscured and incomprehensible. When white people interact with the polite and good-natured black people around them, they are haunted by the figure of the “nigger,” who represents all the negativity associated with blackness. Baldwin proposes that every black person has, at some point or other, felt a desire to seek violent vengeance against whites and in doing so live up to the image of the “nigger,” which they have been taught to believe represents themselves.
As Baldwin explains, racist oppression creates “monstrosity” in two ways. The first of these is material; due to centuries of impoverishment, injustice, and persecution, black people at times find themselves in desperate situations that can lead them to acts of violence. The other form of oppression that leads to monstrosity is psychological. Black people are bombarded with negative stereotypes about their race, symbolized by the figure of the “nigger.” Baldwin argues that black people internalize this figure and measure their actions against it, even sometimes wishing to succumb to it as if it were true. Of course, in reality this figure is nothing more than a racist myth; yet when given enough power, myths can have a strong impact on reality.
In killing the white character Mary, Bigger “force[s] his oppressors to see the fruit of that oppression.” Yet Wright does not explore Bigger’s subjectivity to a sufficient degree, and when Bigger dies he is not shown to be a martyr-like symbol for his community, but rather as an isolated individual who acted out of “his hatred and his self-hatred.” Baldwin argues that Native Son is doomed by its replication of the (false) American understanding of black life. In the end, Bigger is redeemed by progressive white people, who end up confirming that black life is just as “debased and impoverished” as racist ideology teaches people to believe. White readers are easily convinced that such conditions could produce the “monstrosity” of Bigger’s life. Furthermore, Bigger becomes a warning sign of the possibility of black people seeking vengeance for the injustices they have suffered. Baldwin argues that such a warning misses the point that such vengeance is unlikely, in part because white and black Americans exist in a “blood relation.”
Baldwin does not condemn Wright for making Bigger a “monstrous” figure, but rather for making him a monstrous figure who was then redeemed. This distinction is important because if Bigger was allowed to exist as an unredeemed “monster,” the blame for his act of murder would have to be placed on white society for creating conditions that drove him to do it. Instead, Bigger’s act becomes about Bigger himself—an individual misdeed rather than a symptom of societal injustice. White readers of the book may feel comfortably distanced from Bigger, and yet—as the end of this passage indicates—they are in fact far more deeply implicated in Bigger’s wrongdoing than they would like to believe.
Baldwin states that “Negroes are Americans and their destiny is the country’s destiny.” He argues that every black person has his own version of Bigger Thomas living inside his mind, and that black people will only be set free by acknowledging that “this dark and dangerous and unloved stranger” is an inevitable part of them. As a symbol of warning, Bigger does nothing more than reflect the fear and guilt white Americans feel about black people and confirm the association between blackness and evil. Because of this, Bigger can only be redeemed through death. Native Son ultimately confirms the liberal “dream” of a future in which race no longer exists. While this dream may not be problematic on its surface, it secretly requires that black people assimilate into whiteness into order to become “truly human and acceptable.”
In this passage, Baldwin critiques another progressive myth: the idea that it is both possible and desirable for society to move forward into a state in which race no longer exists. Hypothetically, such a society may be a good place; in reality, however, the dream of a race-less world often equates to a world in which blackness has been eradicated and only whiteness is left. Ironically, this is the exact same dream harbored by white nationalists and other racist extremists. Baldwin thus suggests that liberals and racists might have more in common than is often presumed.