PLOT SPOILER WARNING!
Bigger Thomas – a fatherless young black man living in a tiny, one room, run-down apartment on Chicago’s South Side with his mother, younger brother and sister – is hired to work as chauffeur by the wealthy Dalton family. The last person who held the job went to night school; the reason he left the position was he advanced to a professional level, with the help of his employer. He took advantage of the opportunity to make something of himself. Once he’d left, the family contacted a referral service to find another young black man, giving him the same opportunity to pull himself out of the ghetto.
“He hated his family because he knew they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair… He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness , he would either kill himself or someone else…”
Bigger had a history. He’d gotten into fights, robbed stores and generally been in trouble most of his life. Knowing that, it would seem he’s a lucky young man finding a job working for a family willing to overlook his past. Unfortunately, Bigger was cursed with a hair-trigger temper, as well as a learned hatred and distrust of all white people. He felt white people had it all, that they were holding his people down. Yet, he was handed this chance for a better life, getting paid excellent money for what was not a lot of work, courtesy of a rich, white family.
And he was, to an extent, grateful. He could hardly believe his luck. He was getting room and board, $ 20/week for his family (their rent was $ 8/week) and an extra $ 5/week for himself. Good money for someone used to squalor. He battled within himself re: how he felt about being handed all this from a white family, wondering what the catch was.
As it turns out, Bigger commits murder his first day on the job. The catch wasn’t with the white family; it was with him.
His instruction was to drive the Dalton’s daughter and only child, Mary, to a university lecture. Instead, she asks he take her to a different address, to meet her boyfriend, a member of a communist faction. The two tell Bigger he deserves better, black people need to rise up and demand more. Regardless of the fact he’d thought the same himself, he’s confused and uncomfortable when the same idea originates with white people. The two try to treat him like an equal, yet he resists. They insist on taking him to dinner at a black-run restaurant (where his girlfriend works, as it turns out), sitting with him in a booth – something unheard of in 1940.
By the time he gets back to the Dalton home Mary’s drunk and passed out, requiring him to carry her up to her bedroom. Only, he’s a black man in a white woman’s room. Her mother, who’s completely blind, enters the room, trying to talk to Mary and make sure she got home safely. Bigger can’t have Mary telling her mother he’s in the room, so he holds a pillow over her face to keep her quiet. Without meaning to, he suffocates Mary.
I’m skipping a lot here but this is the crux of it. As an angry, black man he’s given the chance to make something of his life but it’s at the hands of a rich, white family. And he hates no one more than the rich whites. Out of fear he’ll be punished – because it’s so ingrained in his conscience that black men and white women don’t mix – he commits murder.
He has become the stereotype white people have/had about blacks and the family he hurts was the very antithesis of the greedy, evil stereotype he held about them. The irony is stunning.
Inadvertent as the murder is, Bigger soon decides he’s not sorry: Mary deserved what she got for embarrassing him. He weighs his chances of getting away with it, grows greedy and wants more. He plans a kidnap scheme, framing Mary’s communist boyfriend and bringing in his own girlfriend, Bessie, who wants nothing to do with any of it. Yes, he gets caught and yes, he’s sentenced to death. It’s not just for Mary’s death but also Bessie’s. Once he decided he couldn’t trust her, he killed her to shut her up, as well.
“Though he had killed by accident, not once did he feel the need to tell himself that it had been an accident. He was black and he had been alone in a room where a white girl had been killed; therefore he had killed her. That was what everybody would say anyhow, no matter what he said. And in a certain sense he knew the girl’s death had not been accidental… His crime seemed natural; he felt that all of his life had been leading to something like this… There was in him a kind of terrified pride in feeling and thinking that some day he would be able to say publicly that he had done it. It was as though he had an obscure but deep debt to fulfill to himself in accepting the deed.”
Wright’s power lies in not judging Bigger; he’s presenting us with the truth, letting us draw our own conclusions. The book’s remarkable that way. He accomplishes such amazing artistry with the simplest language: speaking in Bigger’s voice, using his vocabulary, which is almost childlike. But what he does with that tells such enlightening truths.
The book could be analyzed so much further than I have time – or inclination – to do. I’ve revealed the basic crimes but there is so much more to the story. Lots of important ideas about race, stereotypes and bigotry.
I hope I’ll have a chance to read more of Wright’s work and more criticism about Native Son. What I am able to read hopefully I’ll remember to post linking with these, very brief, thoughts.
Well-chosen, dear Guardian.
I said in an earlier post I want to learn more about Richard Wright, a major figure in American southern and black literature. That still holds true. I’m putting his autobiographical Black Boy on my nonfiction list. It’s Wright talking about Wright. Black Boy and Native Son are a natural pairing.
I’m not sure I can fully understand Wright until/unless I have the two of these under my belt. What I know of his background is fairly generic; it could be the bio of hundreds of thousands of black men. It’s what made Wright specifically I care about. And right now’s the best time, while Native Son is fresh in my mind.
So, okay, Black Boy will be my off-shoot read, directly related to but not on the list. I want to make it my pre-sleep read, which are always ebooks. Looks like it’s still in copyright, so crap is it expensive. Ten bucks. Ugh. That’s not a lot in itself but when you add in all my books?
Let’s just forget I mentioned it. We never spoke of this.
I have a free ebook copy via Amazon.
German Leopold von Ragastein meets his doppelganger, Englishman Everard Dominey, in Africa, and plans to murder him and steal his identity in order to spy on English high society just prior to WWI. However, doubts of the returned Dominey’s true identity begin to arise in this tale of romance, political intrigue, and a (literally) haunting past.