Monday, May 3, 2010

Richard Wright's "Native Son"

“Mr. Max, how can I die”? Those words from the ending of Richard Wright’s powerful novel Native Son leaped out of the pages at me. To learn to live, we must learn how to die. The realization finally comes to our protagonist Bigger. All through the story, we see the process of societal conditioning expressed in the form of race shaping the actions of a confused young man. He is full of fear, hate, shame and guilt. He knows that he hates the whites because they own everything and they tell him what he can and can not do. He hates his fellow blacks because he sees in them the same faults that he sees in himself. In fact, these faults become the only thing he CAN see. He knows he is black, and black is not “good”. He hasn’t found his identity.

Throughout life, one of our strongest searches is that of identity. The search for identity is so powerful because it’s about purpose. Identity is the search for ultimate meaning, for love, and because of that people are afraid. They are afraid because they attach their identity to the external. The African-Americans surrounding Bigger in his home and community wanted what they didn’t have. They wanted something to call their own in a world dominated by whites. For centuries, the process of conditioning had been passed down from white to white and black to black. The hate, xenophobia and fear were prevalent on both sides.

However, to find identity we need to turn to the INTERNAL. This is not to discard external oppression but to explain it. There are multiple layers to the idea of the internal in Bigger. First, Bigger doesn’t know why what he has inside of him is there. All he knows is that it’s the way things are, and he hates. He is bearing the results of the conditioning of a race. We communicate in more ways than just the verbal, and he has always known oppression even though he couldn’t put a finger on it. It is in the very fiber, the DNA of the city around him. He recognizes it to a degree outside of himself. The segregation, ruling class and unfair economics are in his face and obvious. But he can’t see inside. He can’t get down to the root of his humanity.

Bigger’s very name carries so much power and meaning. Wright, (even if didn’t understand his entire novel, as he claims), is inviting us into more than just one man’s world. Bigger represents the ugliness that we all have to face inside of ourselves. It is said that Bigger committed many more murders than just the external two we see in the book. He killed in his mind whenever he looked at someone with hate. He hates because it brings fear. He fears because he doesn’t understand. He is the consummation of a part of our being.

The more we love, the more we erase fear. However, love takes understanding. This is how Bigger represents the internal workings of groups as well as individuals. From nations to ethnicities, we fear what we don’t understand. We perceive things to be a threat to us when they are different from us. We feel something rise within us. What if their way is better? What if they don’t like us? What if they choose to take over our world and run things the way they want them to run? It becomes dualistic. We immediately react instead of searching for the humanity in the other. This happens because we haven’t been able to recognize the humanity in ourselves. Therefore, we cling to the familiar on the outside. We attach ourselves to ideologies, groups, our own race, our nation, our work. We let all of this take the place of the much more difficult process of trying to recognize our own humanity.

So racism and hatred become imbedded in society. People separate from the unfamiliar, and the ruling class/race pushes the other into a “safe” zone. Laws are set up, business arrangements are understood, politicians make deals and everyone is kept in their “appropriate” place according to conditioning. Children are raised in an “us” and “them” environment. We quickly become accustomed to that environment and learn unconsciously from others that it is safer than the risk of the unknown. The more we continue on this path, the more separation that occurs, the harder it becomes to recognize the shred of common identity that we all share. The process of understanding becomes more difficult because we have no idea of how to relate. Things just are the way they are and most people simply acquiesce.

Bigger didn’t know how to relate to the world of white around him. That world also didn’t know how to relate back. Bigger saw and judged through his lens of inferiority just as the white world represented by the Daltons judged through their lens of superiority. This situation can take on broader tones than that of race. It is oppressor vs. oppressed. It is more than injustice as Max says. When one or two people are harmed indiscriminately, that is injustice. When entire ways of life or people are pushed away from the rest of the world, then it becomes oppression.

The oppressed eventually get backed into a corner and strike out. Bigger’s hate was so strong that he started swinging and anyone in his way was caught. Mary tried to reach down from her table of privilege to lend a hand to Bigger, but she was at the wrong level both externally and internally to do so. Bigger recognized nothing but her whiteness and position in society, and he hated. He didn’t “really” intend to kill HER per se, but he wanted to blot out what she represented because it made him what he was. Oh yes, he hated her because she belonged to THAT world. But there were many Marys that he hated.

The white world, in turn, hated back because of its own interpretation of why the blacks act the way they do. Once again, we come to a lack of understanding in the vicious cycle of oppression and violence. The oppressors don’t understand that the violence of the oppressed is a direct result of the condition that has been forced upon them. So, they oppress some more by trying to cure the symptom rather than the disease. They attempt to distract through community centers and philanthropy rather than leveling out the playing field and acknowledging the humanity of the oppressed. The best gift of philanthropy is the acknowledgement of the humanity of the other. At this point, the patronizing term philanthropy becomes inappropriate. When you recognize humanity in others, philanthropy turns to love.

Max and Jan were examples of honest whites who were trying to understand. They genuinely desired to have better relations between the races, and had devoted their lives to that effort. However, the dynamic between them and Bigger is strained. This is a very important point in Wright’s examination of race. No matter how much they wanted to help Bigger, they needed to realize that in order to achieve equality, they had to EMBRACE the UNIQUENESS of Bigger. Instead of attempting complete integration and looking outside the color lines, they needed to let Bigger be WHO HE WAS just as they needed to embrace themselves for who they were. They could never be Bigger, but they could love him for his own unique expression of humanity. Bigger had never had his uniqueness embraced.

Humanity denied is racism defined. We see Bigger at the end of the book begging for a map to the internal. He gets a taste of it from Max and allows his thoughts to open up and guide him. He feels that there is a common connection in the world, but he can’t push himself above the surface to discover what it is. He senses that we all share something. He begins to realize that in the end everyone FEELS. They may not know why they feel, but they feel. The fear, they hate, they love. They are all on the search just as he is. He knows that he has something powerful inside of him; something worth fighting and even killing for.

It is perhaps absurd to think of a murder giving someone freedom. However, isn’t that how we think in war? Max asks that question to illustrate the insanity of clinging to the external for identity. Killing is part of the absurd human condition. Bigger kills, and for a moment he feels that he has exercised a CHOICE for the first time in his life. He doesn’t realize that that choice was just as conditioned and programmed as all the other choices he KNOWS that he is forced to make as a result of his race and status. In a very real way, he was guided to the murder by a sick society. This is a powerful reminder of how our actions both as a group and individuals carry profound significance in the lives of others.

We can not choose who we are when we are born. However, we can choose to DISCOVER our humanity. Bigger did discover his humanity. We may not have liked what he discovered at the end, and Max was indeed scared of what he saw in Bigger. But Bigger realized WHO HE WAS for the first time in his life. However flawed his external may have been, Bigger was able to embrace himself. His uniqueness, his humanity, his individuality, his internal could never be taken away from him. He had discovered life and how to have life. Because he had managed to drill down into his interior and take a look around with knowledge and recognition, he could now die. He knew that even in death he would still have something that no one else had. He would have his identity.

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