Discuss the role power plays in Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son.
In Native Son, we see a society divided on the lines of those who have power and those who are denied power.
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In this post, I will be looking at the theme of power under three main headings.
- Four levels of power and their impact on the lives of blacks and whites alike
- The role of power in the development of the plot.
Levels of power in Native Son
Here are some of the various levels of power which play out in the world of Native Son.
- The colour of one’s skin ultimately decides one’s economic status in this racially segregated American society of the late 1930s.
- We see whites wield substantial economic power. They can practically do and have whatever they want. Thus, white capitalists like Mr. Henry Dalton and J.P Morgan (as depicted in the play-acting between Bigger and Gus) appear to have it all. Unlike the blacks, the privileged white class can do as they please.
- Blacks, on the other hand, lack this kind of power. They are denied access to economic resources. They are poorly educated (if at all). The doors to the well-paid job market is closed to blacks. Thus, they are unable to provide themselves with the basic necessities of life. They are left in abject poverty, retired to menial jobs, picking from the ground the tiny crumbs left there by the benevolence of the privileged white class.
2. Political power
- It is whites who wield enormous political power in Richard Wright’s Native Son. Whites are shown to have near-absolute control over the state and its institutions.
- Whites control and dictate what happens in the judicial system. Racist private investigators like Britten are heavily prejudiced against black suspects in any criminal investigation involving a black person. Nothing will convince Britten that Bigger is not a “communist spy”. To Britten, blacks and their communist collaborators deserve no rights. In his eyes, any member of that segment of society is guilty once they are suspected of having committed a crime whose victim happens to be white.
- The white racist is more often than not a capitalist. He is so scared of the communist ideology that he ensures that communists like Jan and Max continue to stay far away from the corridors of power.
- The full power of the state is deployed, as in Bigger’s case, to hunt down and apprehend any black suspected of a crime against a white person. Five thousand (5000) policemen are set loose, in a brutal show of force, to hunt down a single 20-year-old black youth, Bigger Thomas.Not only that. When, not if, caught, such blacks must of necessity be convicted and punished severely, no matter what.
- Interestingly, that same unsightly display of state power is not visible when the crime is a black-on-black one. We see this in the case of Bessie’s murder. The law enforcement agencies are too busy hunting for Bigger to care about the murder of a black girl – whom, unlike Mary Dalton, has, in fact, been deliberately murdered.
- The white dominated media is another political tool in the hands of the powerful white community. The sheer size of political power that whites wield is played out in the media reportage of Mary Dalton’s case. This contrasts sharply with their almost complete silence over the case involving Bessie, not to talk of their lack of interest in the everyday challenges that blacks face.
- As we have seen in the playing-white episode between Bigger and Gus, the president is predictably white. And the only people he relates to on a personal level are whites. Blacks are like outcasts in the political life of their native land.
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3. Male power
- Richard Wright projects a society where members of the male gender seem to hold more power in all facets of life than their female counterparts. For once, this situation appears to be colour-blind.
- The protagonist, Bigger, for example is held in awe by everybody in his family, his mother included. His constant fits of anger do not help matters much.
- Bigger held the same control over Bessie when she was alive. He ends her life the moment he no longer sees any use for it, now seeing Bessie as more of a liability than an asset.
- Similarly, white males appear to wield more economic power than the females. The subservient role the blind Mrs Dalton plays in her home is in sharp contrast to the enormous economic and moral power her husband, Mr Dalton, holds. Richard Wright appears to be sounding a note here: gender inequality is equally an issue just as race is.
4. Personal power
Power at the individual level is what makes it possible for people of all races to have a certain measure of control over their destiny. Adequate and easily accessible educational, economic and social opportunities are what empower individuals and families to improve their lot.
Since blacks in general lack these opportunities in this racially segregated society, it becomes virtually impossible for them to exercise any personal control over their choices.
It is this denial of personal power over their destiny that drives many blacks into desperation. As they gradually lose all confidence in themselves, they feel increasingly desperate. This explains why many black youth in particular are always scared and angry at the same time.
In response to this feeling of helplessness they resort to various ways to cope with the hostile environment – mostly by carrying guns, indulging in petty crime, drinking heavily or simply ignoring their earthly pains to immerse themselves in religion, taking comfort in its promise of heavenly bliss in the hereafter.
Though Bigger claims to have felt some measure of personal power after committing his crimes, the sad reality, as we have observed, remains that these responses tend to be ineffectual. If anything at all, these coping mechanisms turn out to be counter-productive.
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Mrs Thomas, for instance, is unable to use her religious ideas to save Bigger from the electric chair. Her admonitions rather drive Bigger crazier, pushing him further toward his sad end. Alcoholism and an emotional dependency on a more powerful male black fails to save Bessie from a violent death. In like manner, Bigger’s actions, apart from creating more trouble for his fellow blacks, only bring him closer and closer to the electric chair. And that’s exactly where he ends.
Maybe blacks could have found better ways of responding to their predicament.
The role of power in the development of the plot
It is clear that the racial tensions in the novel are a direct consequence of a struggle over the various forms of power we have identified so far.
These tensions are the driving force behind much of the action and its progress toward the end of the narrative.
American whites on their part do everything to hold on to their power and to increase it, if possible. They are also eager to ensure that blacks do not have any control over any one of the sources of power.
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Blacks, on the other hand, feel extremely bitter about white monopoly over economic social and political power. For blacks, they are left with only one choice – hate their white oppressors as much as they could, and inflict pain on them whenever the opportunity comes.
Thus the aborted plan to rob Blum’s only foreshadows a more horrific act of defiance by Bigger. His killing of the over-pampered daughter of a powerful white family is what marks the turning point in this story.
From then on, we are made to behold a full display of the might and power of the white-controlled judicial system, the media and white public opinion.
As Bigger is finally caught after a running gun battle with his pursuers, he needs no one to tell him where power in America actually lies. It is the powerful white class who win at the end. Bigger is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He realizes that neither he nor his communist lawyer, Boris A. Max, has the power to alter his fate.
The unspoken question at the end of it all is this: for how long will the balance of power continue to favour one race to the detriment of the other in this society? The horrifying events involving the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, and the resulting increase in tension in race relations could only be a time bomb waiting to explode, sooner than later.
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