Native Son As Richard Wright’s Novel of Outrage: Analytical Essay

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The creation of Big Boy is only to show how much he hated to live a life like that. A life where the blacks are lynched for small offences and their body parts taken as souvenirs by the whites and kept in their houses or shops only to show that they are the superior people. So Big Boy who is a revolutionary had to leave and the story Big Boy Leaves Home had to be written.

Native Son is Richard Wright’s novel of outrage. It is his bitter condemnation of the American mores and laws that have ravished the Blacks spirits since slavery. It is also Wright’s tribute to the Biggers he knew who refused to knuckle under, who declared their frustration with the world by engaging in crime and murder. With his anger never far beneath the surface, Wright warns the world to expect universal rebellion and violence from all its Biggers-its downtrodden masses. Here is a man writing out of a personal passion for justice, a man who knew victimization intimately-as a child of Mississippi and as a young man in Chicago during the Depression. Although Wright would later receive international acclaim and prestige, he never forgot his people. His work is evidence of this: “Native Son is the emotional autobiography of a man who refused to be either a thing or a criminal. Bigger Thomas forced recognition by an act of murder, Wright by an act of murder, Wright by an act of art” (Algren85).

Besides being based on autobiographical material, Native Son, like much of Wright’s other work, contains a mixture of two seemingly opposed philosophies, Proletarianism and class consciousness, and is permeated with a third, Marxism. The book stands as an anguished cry of pain, a work of art as expressive of its time as Picasso’s Guernica. Although no hint of the impending war appears in the novel, the darker philosophical questions of what it means to be human, of the origin of man’s terrible loneliness, and his willingness to inflict suffering on others are exposed in Native Son. Man’s eternal search for a way out of his human dilemma appears here also in the guise of the Communist Party. The only solution, however, as Bigger discovers in the tormented hours before his execution, is for each man to accept himself for what he is, transcending the world’s horrors and contradictions. Camus says in The Myth of Sisyphus that “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn” and that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (Camus, trans. 90).

Native Son is the quest of Bigger Thomas for this transcendence, for this state of being able to assert life in the face of an irrational world that seeks his soul; it is his journey into selfhood. As he goes to his execution, one must imagine bigger Thomas happy. Native Son, “first praised and then attacked for the politics of its own realist commitments is not only a realist text, but, further, an argument for realism as a discursive mode” (DeCoste127).

Ironically, Wright’s most successful and famous proletarian work was not acceptable to the Communist Party. Although Native Son fits the definition of a proletarian novel as posited by Walter B. Rideout in his study The Radical Novel in the United States that is to say, a novel written from the Marxist viewpoint, it is nevertheless criticized by the communists for not following the party line on the Black question. With its publication, then, Wright’s love affair with communism began to pale. Nonetheless, the book stands today as one of the better proletarian novels to come out of the thirties. Its strength evolves form the sheer horror it can evoke in the reader’s imagination. After Little Rock, Detroit, and Watts, it can still kindle a flame of outrage. And much of its effect is directly attributable to the narrative techniques that Wright learned from other proletarian writers, such as his use of realism, ironical juxtaposition, means and a proletarian point of view- that is, the novel is told from the perspective of a member of the masses.

The theme of Native Son is the quest for identity, the self- realization of a personality, the growth from neurosis to joyful self- actualization. With skill, Wright moves his character out of a deterministic situation into an existential one, simultaneously protesting against a society that forces men to crime in order to express themselves.

After Native Son in 1940, another work of non-fiction titled 12 Million Voices: a Folk History of the Negro in the United States was published in 1941. It is a sociological study of the Blacks whose rural life in the South and their migration to the urban life of North are illustrated by a series of photographs, with the text written by Richard Wright.

It traces, the continuing bondage of black men from slavery and plantation life to sharecropping on exhausted soils and later, to the sweat shops of northern cities with poetic eloquence, as well as insight. It is from then onwards that Wright chooses the word “Black”, for titles of his future books also in the place of “Negro”, because he feels that “Negro” is synonymous with slavery, coined by white men. By the word ‘Negro’ the Blackman’s life becomes limited in scope and is separated from the lives of other Americans.

Black Boy is generally acclaimed not only as the finest autobiography written by a black author but as one of the greatest autobiographies ever written in America. This uniqueness of Wright’s autobiography can be explained in another way. Since he is a spokesman for the voiceless black youths of the South, he had known in his life, he must be objective and scientific in his observations. Thus Black Boy, though not intended as such, is a convincing sociological study. Like sociology, it not only analyzes a social problem but offers a solution to the problem it treats. Wright’s purpose is to study the way in which black life in the south was determined by its environment.

Wright is constantly trying to make his investigation systematic and unbiased. He is concerned with the specific social forces in the environment of a black boy; white racism, black society, and his own family. In Black Boy Wright is continually at pains to show that white people have a preconceived notion of a Black’s place in the South: he serves them, he is likely to steal, and he cannot read or write. In Black Boy, his chief aim is to show how this youth, whom the South called a “nigger”, surmounted his obstacles in the civilized culture. The most painful stance he took in this struggle was to be an intense individualist; he created selfhood and exerted his will at the risk of annihilation. In scene after scene both the black and the white community kept piling crushing circumstances upon him, but no matter how unbearably they were pressed down on him, he refused to give in. Only under such pressure can one discover one’s self.

While he was in Memphis, Wright used to borrow books from a library by forging the signature of an Irish Catholic Gentleman. He read H.L. Mencken’sA book of prefaces (1917) and Prejudices (1919-27) and was very much influenced by him and decided to write a book using words like weapons as Mencken did. But the efforts to write failed because of lack of feelings as right from his childhood he was conditioned to live without feelings. “I had no hope whatever of being a professional man. Not only had I been so conditioned that I did not desire it, but the fulfillment of such an ambition was beyond my capabilities” (BB 241).

He became cynical and did not know what to do but his destiny took him to Chicago to try a new way of life. With this the first part of the book, Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth published in 1945 ends and the second part American Hunger titled Part Two : The Horror and the Glory starts in which Wright tells that even in Chicago the life of a Black is not much better than that of a Southern Black .

He felt that the racial discrimination in America had sent the Blacks into a “No man’s land” with its corroding and devastating attack upon the personalities of men, which was worse than feudalism and even dictatorship because they controlled only one part of the life of their subjects. The Blacks were continuously at war with their unruly emotions, which they had not wished to have but could not help having. Wright felt that the Blacks was:

Held at bay by the hate of others, preoccupied with his own feelings, he was continuously at war with reality. He became inefficient, less able to see and judge the objective world. And when he reached that state the white people looked at him and laughed. (BB 254).

He sensed that Black life was a sprawling land of unconscious suffering and only a few Blacks knew the meaning of their lives, who could tell their story. The Blacks were leading a directionless life. If the Black tried to save himself, he would have to forget himself and try to save a confused, materialistic nation from its own drift towards self-destruction. In a relief camp he found a new consciousness developing among the masses under the influence of Communism. To permit the birth of this new consciousness in these people was proof enough that those who ruled did not quite know what they were doing, assuming that they were trying to save themselves and their class.

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Even in his mind, he too found a new awakening and felt that he found the direction of his life and knew what he had to do. His cynicism left him. He understood that those directionless, frustrated masses were the future potential revolutionaries. It would be dangerous for America, if America did not solve the problems of millions of Blacks for whom America had become their native land. Without the Blacks, America would be doomed.

After reading some issues of ‘The Masses’, he felt that the communists were sincerely trying to support the oppressed class and were also trying for unity among them, belonging not only to America but to all other countries. This effort impressed him, and he decided to give the necessary language to Communist ideals which he found lacking in them. “I would address my words to two groups, I would tell the Communists how common people felt, and I would tell the common people of the self-sacrifice of communists who strove for unity among them.” (BB 305)

But Wright’s use of the language, the style of his dress and manners and his bold and frank views were rewarded by branding him as ‘a petty bourgeois degenerate’ a ‘bastard intellectual’, an incipient Trotskyite and that he had, ‘anti leadership tendencies’ by the party leaders in Chicago who started troubling him. The communists who advocated free thought and expression, could not tolerate his free thought and expression and called it and antiparty, anti-leadership activity, and branded him as a dangerous traitor. Yet, he decided to follow the true ideals of communism, without being in the party because the ideals were very good but the party leaders were not so. He wanted to continue as a communist in his own way.

He resolved to continue his fight by hurling words at the Society that is, by his writing. Finding Chicago and New York in no way better than Mississippi, he decided to leave America and go to Europe and went to Paris in 1946 with his second wife, Ellen Poplar and daughter, Judia. He came for a few months to New York and finding the racial atmosphere intolerable, left for Paris again in 1947 where he lived till he died in 1960. While in Paris Wright felt that,

There is more freedom in one square block of Paris than in the whole United States, Richard Wright would say to many of his friends, like himself black Americans who chose to live in Paris after World War II. (Bakish 2)

Richard Wright remained forever grateful to communism till the end, though he left the party in 1944 on personal grounds, because he felt that having received no love and affection in his childhood and youth, he had found among the communists his first sustained human relationships. He believed that they had made, the first organized search for the truth about the oppressed, and he had never lost his respect for the communist knowledge-in-detail of the lives of the workers of the world nor ceased to appreciate the magnitude of the capacity with which communism would make “men feel the earth and the people in it.”

He retained always an intellectual’s regard for communist social science and remained grateful to the party for its tonic effect on some of his early writing. “No doubt” David Bakish wrote that: “Of all black American novelists, and indeed of all American novelists of any hue, Richard Wright reigns supreme for his profound political, economic and social reference” (98).

Richard Wright has been widely studied by the academics favorably. Some of the key research works on Richard Wright are listed below: In 1986 C. Srinivasan studied the struggle for survival in the selected works of Richard Wrght. The works selected for his study were Native Son and Black Boy (1-85).Dorothy Stringer examined race and affect in Richard Wright’s Savage Holiday. (1-27). She also studied psychology and black liberation in Richard Wright’s Black Power (105-122). In 2005 John Richard Kay highlighted the urban migration and the theme of defiance in the works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin. (1-75). Sarah D. Baily dwelt on names, violence, and the African vernacular in Richard Wright’s The Outsider (1-48). Umar Abdurrahman gave an existential approach to Richard Wright’s The Outsider (1-31). Alan W. France explained the misogyny appropriation in Wright’s Native Son. (413- 423) M. Shamuna Jerrin Araselvi dealt with the theme of alienation in Richard Wright’s Native Son (137-140). Ahad Mehrvand highlighted Thomas Bigger’s reaction to anonymous collectivity in Richard Wright’s Native Son (52-62).

Since the present research entitled “Shades of Self: The Black Psyche in the Select Works of Richard Wright” focuses on the unfocused aspects, shades of self, it is justified that the study can be taken for academic research. By the phrase “Shades of Self”, the researcher means the shadow lives lead by the blacks over the ages. Hence, the present study highlights the quest for identity and its root causes, as depicted in the selected novels.

This thesis makes a detailed study of the black people who remain excluded from the main stream of American life which put them in almost chronic neurosis resulting in disparate reaction to the white civilization with reference to Richard Wright’s novels Native Son, Black Boy, The Outsider and The Long Dream. A close reading of these four main works reveal the nature of the estrangement and the spirit of rebellion, which are experienced by the Black Americans in a hostile social environment. In addition, there is a profound impact of existentialism over Wright’s intellectual development. Racial identity plays an essential role in Wright’s writings, since it is the main cause of the dramatic existence of the Black Americans. This research attempts to probe the issues enlisted above.

This research has been conducted to make a probing study of the protagonists who struggle to establish their identity and obtain freedom. All the selected works dealt with various shades with unique qualities and tragic quest for an authentic existence in a racist environment. To study and interpret the same with the help of relevant research tools is the main research objective.

The study involves post-colonialism based reading of the selected works. As a true post-colonial reading, the study focuses on dehumanization of the Blacks, loss of identity and the inability to protect self. The Eighth edition of MLA Handbook for writers of Research papers has been followed for documentation purpose.

The researcher aims to get a comprehensive view of Black-American existence in the chosen works. The selected works have been considered as revolutionary works in American fiction. Hence, it is hoped that the present study will be a useful contribution to criticism on the works of Wright and to studies on post-colonial American fiction in general.

The Introductory chapter of the present research traces the image of Blacks and their painful experiences which include racism, alienation etc. This is followed by bio-critical information on the chosen author and his works.

The second chapter deals with Internalized Racism in the Native Son. The chapter analyzes the effects of racism and bigotry on the mind and the life of Bigger Thomas, a young Northern Black. The work is at once, with varying degrees of success, a thriller, a psychological novel, and a social and political indictment. The violence in Native Son is intense and explicit, and is presented as the inevitable outcome of the Black experience in America. Because of the work’s implication, that society has created and is responsible for the tragedy of Bigger Thomas, Native Son was read with great emotion and immediately became one of the most controversial works of its time.

Bigger Thomas, the Central character, is an alien to the White society. He works in Dalton’s house, a white family, unwillingly. For the first time in his life, he gets contact with a white girl and accidently kills her out of his fear. Richard Wright, in this novel portrays Bigger’s hatred for the whites, and his violent murder of a young girl only increases the tension between the Blacks and Whites, which ends in violence. Bigger’s acceptance of his crime is not his defeat, but it is a victory over his racist society. As he is a grotesque character, he takes violence blindly and protests against the social system, which is suppressing him. And he accepts his crime and the consequences of his actions, because he has no other alternative to develop himself into a cultured man.

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