Native Son opens with the ringing bell of an alarm clock—a wake-up call not only for Bigger and his family but also a warning to America as a whole about the dangerous state of race relations in the country in the 1930s. Wright sees a black population that, though freed from outright slavery, still lives under terrible conditions, is unable to vote, and is terrorized by groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The North is somewhat more integrated, but many blacks there still live in desperate poverty. Wright believes these conditions have created individuals who are isolated not only from the white world but also from their own religion and culture—people whose only release is through violence. Bigger is the epitome of such an individual: he is alienated from his family and friends, annoyed by his mother’s religious songs, and kept poor and impotent through the oppressiveness of white society.
On Bigger’s first visit to the Daltons’, we see the extreme discomfort he experiences when he is surrounded by white society. Bigger sees white people not as individuals, but rather as an undifferentiated “whiteness,” a powerful, threatening, and hateful authority that denies him control over his own life and identity. The structure of American society and Bigger’s own limited, restricted experiences prevent him from relating to white people in any other way. Though Bigger feels that wrong is being done to him, he has so deeply internalized the rules of race relations that he finds himself acting out the role he has always seen blacks assume around rich, powerful whites.
The Daltons demonstrate similarly conflicting racial attitudes. As a real estate baron, Mr. Dalton is a major player in the production of the “whiteness” that terrifies, oppresses, and enrages Bigger. Despite Bigger’s criminal record, Mr. Dalton gives him a job because he thinks that blacks deserve a chance. Nonetheless, there is condescension in Mr. Dalton’s manner and charity. He simultaneously profits from keeping blacks like Bigger’s family in terrible housing and expresses alleged benevolence by giving Bigger a menial job. We sense similar condescension in Mrs. Dalton’s charity as well. Her charity is not unconditional, as she wants Bigger to do what she thinks he should want to do. The Daltons may give money to black schools, but they do not acknowledge that Bigger ultimately should have the freedom and opportunity to determine the course of his own life, without their interference.
Mrs. Dalton’s blindness is important symbolically. Like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Native Son includes many metaphors for race relations that relate to the concepts of vision and sight. Mrs. Dalton is literally blind, but also metaphorically blind: she and her husband are blind to Bigger’s social reality. Bigger himself is similarly blinded by his hatred and fear. This blindness erects a dense wall of racial stereotypes between Bigger and the Daltons that prevents them from seeing each other as individual human beings. In Bigger’s eyes, the Daltons represent “whiteness”—the overwhelming, hostile, and controlling force that imprisons him in a world of few choices, none of which appeals to him. To the Daltons, Bigger represents the mass of needy black Americans who can be exploited but can also be used as convenient targets of charitable giving. Though Mr. Dalton effectively robs Bigger and his family through artificially high rents, he alleviates any conscious or unconscious guilt about a such robbery by making charitable donations toward black causes.
Indeed, the social divisions in Native Son are more clearly delineated along such lines of race than along lines of class. Though Peggy is a servant—and thus ostensibly Bigger’s equal in terms of social class—she is just as patronizing to him as the Daltons are. Peggy’s remark about “your people” demonstrates her belief that black Americans are foreigners or outsiders of some sort. Conversely, when Peggy refers to the Dalton household, she says “us.” Though she is of a lower class than the Daltons, she clearly includes herself as one of “us,” whereas she does not include Bigger and the previous black chauffeur. Although Peggy seems kind, she still considers herself superior to Bigger because she is white.
Bigger feels extremely uncomfortable when racial boundaries are crossed, as such situations represent the unfamiliar territory. He reacts to Mary with hostility because she crosses the tense social boundary between white women and black men. In Bigger’s limited experience, white women speak to him only from afar, with coldness and reserve. Mary, however, speaks to Bigger directly, which greatly confuses him. He thinks perhaps Mary might be trying to keep him from getting the job with the Daltons, as he is unable to comprehend the possibility that she might genuinely be interested in what he has to say. Complicating the situation is the fact that white women are utterly forbidden from black men. Though Mary is reaching out to Bigger, and not vice versa, Bigger knows that he would be the one to bear the blame should something go wrong. Mary thus terrifies and shames Bigger on many levels. He does not know how to behave in her presence because she breaks the only social rules he knows.