From time to time, a voice from the desert would call and awaken us and Native Son was and still is such a voice.
Bigger Thomas in a panic suffocated Mary Dalton and then burned her body to hide the crime and to avoid capture he smashed Bessie Mears with a brick and let her freeze to death. There is no question of the brutality of the crimes. An even Bigger, when in jail, believes he deserves to die for them.
But through the story of Bigger Thomas, Richard Wright depicts a people confined to the edge of existence. Their physical segregation, having to live in certain neighborhoods in the city, symbolizes their existential segregation. Mr. Dalton, the building’s owner and Bigger’s employer, donates to help the Black community, but still allows his landlords to only rent units in certain neighborhood to Blacks. Perhaps the social force overwhelms this man’s will to kindness.
To Bigger, white people aren’t flesh and blood but an impersonal force overwhelming him. “To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people; they were a sort of natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one’s feet in the dark. As long as he and his black folks did not go beyond certain limits, there was no need to fear that white force. But whether they fear it or not, each and every day of their lives they lived with it.”
So when Mary and Jan try to befriend Bigger and treat him better than other whites had, Bigger feels that force upon him. They, perhaps unknowingly, exert their power on him and Bigger resents that, even if the power comes from their kindness and goodness. He doesn’t want to be told what to do; he wants to live. And so he hates Mary and Jan for forcing him to do something he doesn’t want to. He tells his attorney Max, “Mr. Max, a guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything… You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing. You just keep moving all the time, doing what other folks say. You ain’t a man no more.”
“‘I always wanted to do something,’ he mumbled.” Bigger wants to fly a plane but he is Black and he is poor, so he can’t attend aviation school. And he expresses this confinement to his friend Gus as “They don’t let us do nothing.”
While he’s on the run, Bigger realizes that killing the two girls was his only true acts of living in his entire life. He has done something to assert his existence rather than follow the dictates of other. “In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes. Never had he had the chance to live out the consequences of his actions; never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight.” It is Bigger’s tragedy that only through killing the girls could he assert his existence, could he live.
I recommend Native Son for its depiction of a people living in the fringes, the despair and the sense of confinement, the longing to live fully. We need not agree with all of Richard Wright’s arguments to sense that despair and struggle, to appreciate the progress since the book’s publishing, to assess the road ahead. And realize our common humanity.