In this post, I present to you a step by step discussion of the theme of racial inequality in Native Son, a novel by the African-American writer, Richard Wright.
For the sake of simplicity, the discussion is divided into sections under the following sub-headings.
One piece of advice …
You will do well when answering any question about race relations in Native Son if you follow the same order as presented here.
Mind you, I said, the same order, not every detail.
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So here is my recommended order for discussing the theme of racism or racial inequality in the novel Native Son.
- A brief introduction
- Instances of, and incidents portraying racial discrimination in the novel
- Effects of racism on blacks and their response
- Effects of racism on whites
In his novel, Native Son, Richard Wright portrays a society troubled by the horrifying effects of racial discrimination.
It is an American society of the 1930s in which blacks, having won their freedom from slavery a little more than half a century before, are still considered by their former white masters as inferior to them and, therefore, not deserving the same rights and privileges that they enjoy.
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Instances of racism in the novel
- There is racial segregation. In Chicago, blacks are cornered into one area of the city, the “southside”. This is a poor rat-infested neighbourhood lacking very basic facilities and riddled with crime and violence. Bigger and his mother and siblings live in a ghetto here.
- The system denies blacks economic, social and political opportunities that will have enabled them to move upward socially. So Bigger can only dream of becoming an aviator. The closest blacks can get to their cherished dreams is to imitate successful whites in games like “playing white”.
- Poor housing: The four-member Thomas family live in a small one-room apartment in a ghetto in the south side of Chicago. If Bigger Thomas refuses their white landlord, Mr Henry Dalton’s job offer, it could result in their losing this room.
- An unfair judicial system is prejudiced against those with black skin. That is why Bigger Thomas, though having got a defence lawyer, a Jewish American called Boris Max, gets a guilty verdict and sentenced to death by the white-American court of public opinion long before the actual trial begins.
Effects of racial inequality on blacks and their response
Following are ways in which racism negatively affects the daily lives of blacks. You will also find the manner they react to their predicament.
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- Mrs Thomas and her children live on welfare. They will find it difficult to pay rent or buy food if Bigger fails to take Mr Dalton’s job. This job too is an act of “benevolence” from the white-established welfare service. Bigger’s dastardly acts in the narrative give ample evidence to one sad fact – these acts of benevolence from the privileged white world are too half-hearted to have any positive effect on the lives of the disadvantaged black population.
- Young blacks are constantly broke. That is why Bigger responds “I can’t. I’m broke.” when Gus advises him to drink and forget about his worries.
2. Resort to crime and violence
- Black-on-black crime as a means for survival is widespread. The reason for this is that the oppressed blacks are aware that the justice system has no interest in prosecuting such cases. On the other hand, blacks hardly attempt robbing whites for the fear of the brutal use of the law against them.
“White policemen never really searched diligently for Negroes who committed crimes against other Negroes.”
“For months, they had talked of robbing Blum’s but had not been able to bring themselves to do it. They had the feeling that the robbing of Blum’s would be a violation of an ultimate taboo. It would be trespassing into territory where the full wrath of an alien white world would be turned loose against them.”
3. Blacks live in a perpetual state of panic and fear.
- Bigger Thomas tells his friend, Gus he has the foreboding feeling that “something awful” is about to happen to him.
- Mrs Thomas fears the prospect of losing her home.
- Out of fear mixed with a feeling of suspicion of whites in general, Bigger Thomas has to carry a gun to his job interview with Mr Dalton.
- Bigger’s nervousness when Mary appears and tries to relate to him on an equal level is borne out of fear. He fears he may lose his job because of Mary Dalton’s behaviour which is considered a taboo. He gets nervous also because he considers Mary’s show of friendliness to him, a black, to be too strange or even a ploy to get at him.
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- The sorry state of their situation makes blacks find ways to escape from that reality, at least psychologically:
- Ma (Mrs. Thomas/Bigger’s mother) and other black mothers like her turn to religion to find some comfort in the promise of a future life of peace and joy in heaven.
- Bigger and other black youth resort to crime and violence as a way of escaping the harsh realities they face, at least psychologically.
- Young black women like Bessie Mears and Vera who, unlike Mrs Thomas, see no use in hoping for an afterlife of peace and joy promised by the Christian faith, resort to heavy drinking to numb the pain inflicted on them by systematic acts of racial injustice. The resort to drinking to escape reality appears to be common among black men too. This is why Gus tells Bigger to “get drunk and sleep it off” when Bigger speaks of his premonition that “something awful” is about to happen to him.
- Young blacks mimic the mannerisms of powerful white politicians (like the president) and wealthy white capitalists (like J.P. Morgan) in a game of play-acting to help them laugh at their own insecurity and deprivation. So, when Bigger tells his friend, Gus, “Let’s play ‘white’”, he is only trying to make him join him to find an easy way of forgetting about their plight, at least for a moment.
To the novelist, therefore, systemic racism only ends up producing the Bigger Thomases in the American society of his time. Under these conditions, therefore, there is very little chance for the oppressed to escape their fears, their crimes and their fates.
The problem with this escapist attitude is that it hardly serves its purpose. Attempts by blacks to mentally ignore their suffering rather put them in more precarious situations.
Ma’s devotion to religion, for example, does not help to save her children from the effects of racism. Likewise, young black women who turn to alcohol (like Bessie Mears) hardly end up well.
Effects of racism on the white community.
We must never lose sight of the fact that whites who desperately try to cocoon themselves in heavily guarded neighbourhoods are, nonetheless, unable to completely escape the consequences of racial inequality.
Not even their half-hearted acts of benevolence toward the poor black community is able to save them.
Four instances of the negative effects of racial inequality on the white population are:
- They live in perpetual fear of the reaction of the angry blacks.
- They are often murdered.
- Very desperate blacks, who are daring enough, rob them at gunpoint.
- Their consciences are hardly at peace with the knowledge that they are responsible for the injustices their fellow native sons suffer.
Richard Wright portrays a society that is not at peace with itself due to the ravages of racial discrimination it has to contend with.
Blacks are the main victims. This makes them harbour a feeling of bitterness which often expresses itself in unspeakable ways.
The racist whites are not spared the harrowing consequences of the unequal system they actively build and defend. They too live in mortal fear of blacks. They are often robbed or even killed by frustrated, angry, black youth.
The simple lesson is that racism creates more harm than good for both the victims and the racists alike. The ideal situation will be a system which allows all races to have equal access to opportunities for self and community improvement.
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This is one good way of achieving racial harmony.
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