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Kadeshia L. Matthews

MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 60, Number 2, Summer 2014,


pp. 276-297 (Article)
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DOI: 10.1353/mfs.2014.0016

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http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mfs/summary/v060/60.2.matthews.html

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276

Violence and the Flight from Blackness in Wright's Native Son

black boy no more?


violence and the flight
from blackness in
richard wright's native son

Kadeshia L. Matthews
Richard Wright, Arnold Rampersad tells us, was "perhaps the
most significant and influential" African American author of the
twentieth century (11). The "perhaps" with which Rampersad qualifies his claim is probably unnecessary, as even critics who doubt the
artistry or literary merit of Wright's work do not deny that as the first
African American novelist of international stature he opened doors
previously closed to black writers. James Baldwin, Wright's most
insistent contemporary critic, admits that he viewed Wright as his
"spiritual father" and Wright's work as "a road-block in my road, the
sphinx, really, whose riddles I had to answer before I could become
myself" ("Alas" 259, 256). To the extent that this latter requirement
was true, in varying degrees, for a number of later twentieth-century
black writers, Wright's status as preeminent black novelist is secure.
Nonetheless, I want to question the "blackness" of Wright's
most famous novel, Native Son. Immediately, I should clarify that
I am not questioning Wright's blackness or his commitment to the
antiracist and anticolonial struggles of blacks and other peoples of
color worldwide. My concern here is with Wright's fiction, which we
read and teach in African American literature courses, presumably
because Wright himself was black, as are most of his protagonists.
MFS Modern Fiction Studies,Volume 60, number 2, Summer 2014. Copyright for the Purdue Research
Foundation by the Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights to reproduction in any form reserved.

Matthews

277

Yet it seems to me that, beginning with Native Son, Wright's novels,


unlike most other African American fiction, are unconcerned with the
question of black subjectivity. Indeed, to the extent that Wright's
work equates blackness with limitation, terror, and submission, black
subjectivity tends to become a contradiction in terms, particularly
for his black male characters. Thus I claim that Wright's project is
constructing not racialized subjects, but gendered ones. That is, the
question that animates Wright's texts is not how one becomes a black
man, but how (or if) a Negro becomes a man.
Of course, even as the election of Barack Obama has led some
Americans to anticipate (and even proclaim) the advent of a postracial
society, many scholars continue to express deep suspicion at the idea
that one could assume a gender identity that was not also always
already raced. I share this suspicion; in so far as manhood in the
United States has typically been defined by who does and does not
have access to certain rights or privileges and possession or control of
certain things (property, the ballot, one's own body, women's bodies
and sexuality, and so on), "man" has typically been, if not synonymous
with "white," then very closely aligned with it. Nevertheless, Wright
seems to hold out some hope for a manhood unmarked by race. Native Son's hero Bigger Thomas is one of millions "whose existence
ignored racial and national lines" (Wright, "How Bigger" 446) but not
gender ones. He attempts to determine "how much human life and
suffering it [will] cost [him] to live as a man" (444).
Bigger Thomas's answer to the question of how a Negro becomes
a man is violence. Bigger claims that murder is an act of self-creation.
Here too Wright appears to innovate, though it is not the claim that
violence is necessary for manhood that makes Bigger so new. This
idea is deeply embedded in Western civilization, and we find it expressed in one of the founding texts of African American literature.
In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,
Frederick rises from brute to man at the moment that he fights off
and bests the slave breaker Covey. Ten years later, in My Bondage
and My Freedom, Douglass makes even more explicit the moral and
significance of this moment: "I was nothing before: I was a man
now . . . A man, without force, is without the essential dignity of
humanity" (24647). It is not violence itself, then, or even the willingness to use violence that distinguishes Native Son's protagonist.
Rather, it is the way in which Bigger deploys violence that sets him
apart from previous representations of black anger and violence.1
In Conjugal Union: The Body, the House and the Black American,
Robert Reid-Pharr argues that antebellum black literature was most
concerned with turning the enslaved and/or mulatto body into an
intelligible, stable black self. Such work was necessary both because

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Violence and the Flight from Blackness in Wright's Native Son


slave law in classifying slaves as chattel denied that the slave possessed any self, any subjectivity of his or her own, and because "The
black of antebellum print culture was hardly a static phenomenon.
It was male and female, coal black and perfectly white, bond and
free, rich and poor. . . . As a function of both social necessity and
philosophical clarity, the black body had to be normalized, turned
black" (5). The household, Reid-Pharr contends, was the primary site
of this transformation: "It is literally the case that individuals enter
black households as white and leave as black. . . . [the household]
marshals all manner of technologies: cleaning, violence, marriage,
all to the project of producing black bodies" (6). Conjugal Union
addresses the cultural productions of black writers and intellectuals
before the Civil War, but I would argue, as Reid-Pharr briefly does
in his epilogue, that much the same model is at work in postbellum
African American literature. As slave codes gave way to Jim Crow
and as blacks moving city-ward encountered new forms of racism,
exploitation, and intra-racial difference, black writers continued to
revisit and contest the meanings and limits of black identity. And in
their works, we often see characters turning to the domestic space,
to the household and its various technologies, in their efforts to construct a stable, identifiably black subject. Bigger is not, of course,
the mulatto protagonist typical of earlier African American fiction, so
Native Son does not need to work to establish Bigger's blackness.
Rather, the problem Bigger encounters is escaping the "No Man's
Land" that blackness represents ("How Bigger" 451). And in contrast
to his literary predecessors, Bigger marshals only violence, repeatedly rejecting both the black domestic space and black people in his
project of self-creation.

"It Don Mean Nothin": Blackness as Negation


The majority of blacks lived in the South well into the twentieth
century, despite the disfranchisement, peonage, and racial terrorism of the post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. Richard Wright
addresses these oppressive conditions and blacks' struggles against
them in Uncle Tom's Children; in doing so, he follows the tradition
of past black American writers when treating the topic of interracial
(white-on-black) violence. Though it was inevitable that black authors
would address such violence given its pervasiveness, how to address
black response to these acts was much less certain. "In the most morally simplified cases, white violence against blacks produces a victim,
black violence against whites a hero. . . . The figure of the hero who
kills whites in retaliation assumes the validity of his counter-violence"
(Bryant 23). But of course, things are rarely so clear-cut, particu-

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larly in the case of the black hero who commits violence. First, black
writers and their protagonists recognize the likelihood that retaliation
will provoke reprisals and further oppression from whites. Second,
the violent hero, insofar as his violence can be turned inward against
his own group, also engenders suspicion, even fear, within the black
community he is ostensibly defending (Bryant 3).
In those cases where the protagonist does retaliate violently, we
are made to understand both that the original offense is too flagrant
to be overlooked and that he is merely acting in accord with the ideals
of the white world. He may die as a result, but he would not be a man
if he were to let the violation of his home and family go unpunished.
In such cases, the major concern is not simply the manhood of the
hero (though this obviously is a concern), but also that the integrity
of the black family and the black home be maintained. Indeed, the
two are interconnected. In Wright's "Long Black Song," for example,
Silas describes his efforts to secure his home and thereby his manhood. He has "slave[d] lika dog t get [his] farm free" and to keep his
wife Sarah out of the fields (Uncle Tom's Children 143), and has done
well enough that he is considering buying more land (on credit) and
hiring an employee. His aspirations to bourgeois manhood cannot
be realized, however, if white men can come into his home and have
sex with his wife at will. Thus his violence is intended to "keep them
white trash bastards [and his assumed-to-be-unfaithful wife] out"
(143). Silas dies in this attempt, but neither his body nor his home
is further defiled by white men's abuse or intrusion. In fact, the two
cease to exist at the same moment; Silas chooses to die silently in
his burning home rather than let white men drag him out to be turned
into a spectaclethe mutilated and burned object of the lynching that
marks the refusal of manhood to black males in the Jim Crow South.
It is tempting to read this stance in line with Jerry Bryant's
analysis; Silas's "counter-violence" is heroic because he chooses the
terms of his death and takes some white men with him. He makes,
in Abdul JanMohamed's words, "an entirely negative assertion of his
humanity" (263).2 We must also consider, however, that Silas does not
want to die, and his statements suggest the ultimate meaninglessness of his actions: "Ef Ah run erway, Ah ain got nothin. Ef Ah stay
n fight, Ah ain got nothin. It don make no difference which way Ah
go. . . . But, Lawd, Ah don wanna be this way! It don mean nothin!
Yuh die ef yuh fight! Yuh die ef yuh don fight! Either way yuh die n
it don mean nothin . . . " (15253). Nothing. Lack. Negation. These
words seem most accurately to reflect Wright's view of black life in
the South. In Black Boy, Richard famously ponders "the essential
bleakness . . . the cultural barrenness of black life": "I used to mull
over the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes, how unstable

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Violence and the Flight from Blackness in Wright's Native Son

was our tenderness, how lacking in genuine passion we were, how


void of great hope, how timid our joy, how bare our traditions,
how hollow our memories, how lacking we were in those intangible
sentiments that bind man to man, and how shallow was even our
despair" (37). Again, the string of negatives suggests that black life
is emptiness, void, not life at all. Certainly Wright makes clear in
presenting Richard's behavior that this barrenness is a result of and
response to the pervasive cruelty, terror, and dehumanization in Jim
Crow society. And several critics have suggested that this aside (the
entire two-paragraph statement is in parentheses at the beginning of
chapter 2) be read as a sort of literary device, one that makes more
powerful the story of Richard's ascent, rather than as an accurate
statement of Wright's beliefs.
Still, the absoluteness of this view contrasts sharply with the
more balanced view presented by other black authors. While not
ignoring or glossing over the violence, exploitation, and stifling inhibitions of life in the South, they also invoke the South "as a place that
housed the values and memories that sustained black people. The
South emerges as the home of the ancestor, the place where community and history are valued" (Griffin 9). But Richard finds the various
Mississippi and Tennessee communities he lives in neither nourishing nor sustaining, as indicated by Wright's original manuscript title,
American Hunger. Physical, emotional, and intellectual deprivation
define his nineteen years in the South, and he flees this world without regret at his first opportunity. Similarly, after famously deploring
the sentimental reactions to Uncle Tom's Children, Wright, in Native
Son, rejects the South and the communal, historically and culturally
rooted model of black identity associated with it. It is not just that
all of Wright's novels except the last feature male protagonists in the
urban North, but also that characters like Bigger, who are Southern,
reject the South, its folkways, and those identified with them.
In titling his first published novel Native Son, Wright made clear
his belief that urban black men are, first and foremost, American.
Despite his confinement to Chicago's Black Belt, Bigger has dreams
and desires similar to those of any white youth: to fly a plane, to get
a good job, and to have an attractive woman to call his own. Indeed,
Bigger may want these things more precisely because of his confinement, and it is only through the denial of the opportunity to pursue
these goals that he becomes fearful, alienated and, ultimately, violent.
As his lawyer Boris Max reminds the court, "Your honor, remember
that men can starve from a lack of self-realization . . . And they can
murder for it, too! Did we not build a nation, did we not wage war
and conquer in the name of a dream to realize our personalities and
to make those realized personalities secure!" (399). What Bigger has

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281

done, Max claims, is "an act of creation" (400): his violence creates
him as an American man just as revolution created the Founding
Fathers. That is, at the moment they create themselves through
violence, as men, Wright's heroes simultaneously reject blackness,
as represented by the black family/community and black cultural
practices, in favor of a presumably more encompassing identity: first,
American and, ultimately, man.

Blotting Out Blackness: Bigger as Native Son


The opening scene of Native Son immediately impresses us with
the cramped, improper domesticity of the Thomas family. Even were
Bigger inclined to use this space as in antebellum literature, it is not
one likely to be productive of any stable or complete identity. Mother,
sons, and daughter all sleep, dress, cook, and eat in the same tiny
room. The intrusion of the rat points to the apartment's disrepair, as
well as its unsanitary, dangerous condition. The narrowness of the
Thomases' room reflects the narrowness of their lives. Wright portrays
the Thomas women as defeated, wanting nothing more from life than
what whites are willing to offer. Mrs. Thomas, with her constant talk
of death, seems old before her time. Her religion pacifies rather than
inspires her; it teaches her to endure injustice rather than challenge
it and to wait for a better world after death. Bigger perceives his
sister, Vera, as a younger, less religious version of their mother, and
whereas he has dreamed of flying planes, her highest ambition seems
to be work as a seamstress. Even Buddy, who is feminized in relation
to Bigger, strikes his older brother as "soft and vague . . . aimless,
lost . . . like a chubby puppy" (108). The vagueness Bigger identifies
in his family suggests their lack of will or purpose, of identity even.
They are part of the nameless black masses whose inaction angers
and shames Bigger.
It is not just the lack of space, privacy, and safety that makes the
Thomases' domesticity improper. The relations between and among
the family members are flawed as well. We clearly see Bigger's flaws
in this regard. He resents his mother, bullies his sister, and considers
murdering his brother. He wishes "to wave his hand and blot them
out" (99). But if Bigger is a bad son and brother, Mrs. Thomas is
equally problematic as a mother. Trudier Harris observes that on the
one hand Mrs. Thomas is the stereotypical black matriarch, using her
speech to denigrate and emasculate her sons (67); on the other, "she
is more the child than the mother, more the helpless lover than the
protecting parent" (69). Her weepy near-collapse when Bigger kills
the rat seems out of character for a woman who berates her sons as
fools and "no-countest" (9). While her desire that Bigger help sup-

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Violence and the Flight from Blackness in Wright's Native Son


port the family is entirely reasonable, the blame that she heaps on
him for the family's poverty is unfair and counterproductive. Readers
cannot, of course, blame her for Bigger's failures, but we likely find
her nagging and piety as exasperating as Bigger does.
It is no surprise then, that Bigger is "sick of his life at home"
(12), and after spending a few hours in the Dalton home and, not
coincidentally, killing Mary, returns to judge his home and the people
in it harshly:
This was much different from Dalton's home. Here all slept
in one room; there he would have a room for himself alone.
He smelt food cooking and remembered that one could not
smell food cooking in Dalton's home; pots could not be
heard rattling all over the house. Each person lived in one
room and had a little world of his own. He hated this room
and all the people in it, including himself. (105)
As Bigger sees it, the jumble of things, smells, and people in his family's apartment prevents him from having "a little world of his own,"
from thinking about and becoming himself. His desire to blot out his
family, both at this moment and later on in his jail cell, clearly signals
his rejection of this stifling domesticity.
Immediately before this judgment, Bigger rejects the possibility
of domesticity with Bessie as well. When Buddy tells him that Bessie
has been by talking of marriage now that Bigger has a job, Bigger's
verbal response is noncommittal, but he silently agrees with his
brother's claim that he now "can get a better gal than Bessie" (104).
Ironically, Bigger experiences his only moment of positive, affirming
domesticity when he first visits Bessie after killing Mary. They have sex
and Bigger feels himself "being willingly dragged into a warm night sea
to rise renewed . . . clinging close to a fountain whose warm waters
washed and cleaned his senses, cooled them, made them strong and
keen again. . . . Some hand had reached inside of him and had laid
a quiet finger of peace upon the restless tossing of his spirit and had
made him feel that he did not need to long for a home now" (135).
Presumably, he need not long for a home anymore because he has
found one with Bessie. Unfortunately, Bigger values Bessie only as a
body, not a person or personality. His feelings of peace and renewal
are contingent on Bessie's silence and sexual acquiescence. When
she questions his actions and motives, he wishes he could "swing his
arm and blot out, kill, sweep away the Bessie on Bessie's face, and
leave [her body] helpless and yielding before him" (140). In killing
her, he fulfills his wish, taking her body against her protests and then
bashing her head with a brick.

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Bigger rationalizes this second murder as necessary: "It was


his life against hers" (236), but as Robert James Butler points out,
the murder actually slows him down and helps assure his capture.
He could just as easily have retrieved the stolen money from Bessie and fled, without telling her the details of Mary's murder or
his destination ("Function of Violence" 16). Thus it is not Bessie's
knowledge that compels him to kill her. She becomes the victim of
his murderous rage because Bigger recognizes the pathetic compass
of her life, which entails "long hours, hot and hard hours" in "the
kitchen of the white folks" (139) with brief respites of drunkenness
and sex with Bigger. He cannot recognize Bessie's meager existence,
however, without also recognizing that his own life is similarly narrow and circumscribed. Such knowledge conflicts with his repeated
claim that now he is free, now he is "living, truly and deeply" (239).
Bigger has already rejected his family and the gang, so Bessie is his
final connection to the blackness he despises as weak, shameful, and
passive. In murdering her, he breaks this connection.3
According to James Baldwin, one of the primary shortcomings
of Native Son is Wright's failure to depict "any sense of Negro life as
a continuing and complex group reality" ("Many" 30). The elision of
this "necessary dimension," Baldwin argues, produces the idea "that
in Negro life there exists no tradition, no field of manners, no possibility of ritual or intercourse" to account for blacks' survival despite
the very real costs of oppression (27). Baldwin's string of noes here
recalls Wright's aside in Black Boy, a coincidence that would seem to
validate Baldwin's judgment. We do, however, get glimpses, though
admittedly very brief ones, of black folk practices. So it is not that
Wright fails to depict them, but rather that his protagonist rejects
them, just as he rejects his stifling home life and the possibility of a
more fulfilling domesticity with Bessie.
Bigger's irritation with his mother singing spirituals provides an
early instance of this attitude, but another moment portrays more
clearly the extent of Bigger's alienation from black religious and spiritual traditions. When he is a fugitive, hiding in empty apartments,
Bigger is awakened from an exhausted sleep by singing in a nearby
church. "The singing filled his ears; it was complete, self-contained,
and it mocked his fear and loneliness, his deep yearning for a sense
of wholeness. Its fulness contrasted so sharply with his hunger, its
richness with his emptiness, that he recoiled from it while answering
it. Would it not have been better for him had he lived in that world the
music sang of?" (254). The song initially calls to Bigger, as it seems
to offer the promise of fulfillment, "a center, a core, an axis, a heart
which he needed" (254), but Bigger ultimately misreads its message:
"the music sang of surrender, resignation. Steal away, Steal away,

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Violence and the Flight from Blackness in Wright's Native Son

Steal away to Jesus . . . " (253). The next line is "I ain't got long to
stay here," and of course, this spiritual is one slaves used not only to
voice their hopes for freedom in the afterlife, but also to signal their
plans to seize freedom in the here and now. The song points, therefore, to a tradition of defiance, resistance, and cooperation (intra- and
interracial). Bigger is apparently unaware of this tradition, and so
he hears only a call to "[lay] his head upon a pillow of humility and
g[ive] up his hope of living in the world" (254). Bigger desires happiness and his fair chance "in this world, not out of it"; he therefore
rejects going to church and being religious as poor consolations suitable only "for whipped folks" (356). Bigger's description of religious
folks as "whipped" evokes the shadow of slavery and the refusal of
personhood, at least in theory, that characterized chattel slavery in
the US. But the slavery Bigger imagines is not one in which blacks,
"whipped" in a variety of ways, resisted attempts to dehumanize them
when and however they could. As Bigger uses the term, "whipped"
signals passivity, total defeat, and acceptance of one's loss. Thus he
reads turning to religion not as fighting for one's manhood in another
arena, but as ceding it altogether.
Finally, it is important to note that Bigger rejects not just
black religious or spiritual practices, but in the person of Reverend
Hammond, the South as well. During their halting conversation in
Ernie's Chicken Shack, Bigger tells Jan and Mary that he grew up in
the South and has only been in Chicago about five years (74). Yet
only the Reverend's speech is rendered in the kind of broad dialect
that clearly marks him as Southern: "Lawd Jesus, . . . Yuh said
mercy wuz awways Yo's 'n' ef we ast fer it on bended knee Yuh'd
po' it out inter our hearts 'n' make our cups run over!" (28283).
Reverend Hammond's words momentarily awaken a sense of hope
and wonder within Bigger, and he wordlessly accepts the cross the
Reverend fastens around his neck. But Bigger later feels "trapped"
and "betrayed" (338) and comes to associate the Reverend's gift with
white hatred when he sees a burning cross near the Dalton home.
Back in his cell, Bigger tears the cross from his neck and violently
rejects further counseling from the Reverend: "'I told you I don't want
you! If you come in here, I'll kill you! Leave me alone!' . . . Bigger
. . . caught the steel bars in his hands and swept the door forward,
slamming it shut. It smashed the old black preacher squarely in the
face, sending him reeling backwards upon the concrete" (339).4 This
action is yet another manifestation of Bigger's desire to "wave his
hand and blot out" those who, in his view, reflect the powerlessness,
the nothingness of blackness. Stirring as the Reverend's words are,
the Reverend himself cannot do anything to protect Bigger from the
mob's hatred. Indeed, he advises Bigger to reject the Communists'

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offer of help and put everything in God's hands. Much as he judges


the friendship of Jan and Max "puny . . . in the face of a million men
like Buckley" (292), Bigger rejects the Reverend's religion and the
Southern blackness the Reverend represents as ineffective.
Bigger's rejections of the cramped domesticity of his family's
tenement apartment, the softness and passivity of his family and
Bessie, and the uselessness of Reverend Hammond and his selfsacrificing religion do not, by themselves, mean that he has rejected
blackness. We must also examine his relationships with Jack, Gus,
and G. H., for through them he may be connected to the street culture of urban black males (Griffin 12526). But even here Bigger is
alienated and separate. Farah Jasmine Griffin claims that "signifying
and street culture provide a space where [Bigger] can claim verbal
and physical authority denied him in the white world" (125). When
Bigger and Gus "play white," they do indeed voice their desire for
power and authority, yet as Griffin notes, "inherent in the game is a
critique of white people" and white power (125). This is particularly
the case when Bigger, playing the president, suggests that Gus, the
secretary of state, should drop everything, even diplomacy with
the Germans, because "niggers is raising sand all over the country"
and something must be done (19). Their exchange expresses their
sense that, for white Americans, keeping blacks subjugated is more
important than any other concern, even world peace. Similarly, just
before he encounters Gus, Bigger signifies on the campaign poster of
State's Attorney Buckley, rereading the poster's slogan (YOU CAN'T
WIN!) to comment on the inequities in the legal process and to suggest that Buckley is the real criminal: "He snuffed his cigarette and
laughed silently. 'You crook,' he mumbled, shaking his head. 'You let
whoever pays you off win!'" (13).
In addition to the critiques of white power being voiced at these
moments, we should notice that they occur when Bigger is either
alone or with one other person. When he is with the group, Bigger
seems to lose the verbal dexterity and cleverness that, according to
Houston Baker, distinguish black men and black culture and are the
criteria for status among "street-corner males" (Long Black Song
11215) like Bigger. When he is the target of wordplay or insult,
rather than keeping his cool and responding in kindas playing the
dozens requiresBigger tends to denigrate the talk itself ("You laugh
like monkeys and you ain't got nerve enough to do nothing but talk"
[24]), or more often, to lash out physically:

"But I'll be Goddamn if I'm taking orders from you,
Bigger! You just a scared coward! You calling me scared so
nobody'll see how scared you is!"

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Violence and the Flight from Blackness in Wright's Native Son



Bigger leaped at him, but Jack ran between them. . . .

Bigger's stomach burned and a hazy black cloud
hovered a moment before his eyes, and left. Mixed images
of violence ran like sand through his mind, dry and fast,
vanishing. He could stab Gus with his knife; he could slap
him; he could kick him; he could trip him up and send him
sprawling on his face. (27)
Bigger is not the "man-of-words" that Baker hails (Long Black Song
112). Instead, he finds confidence in "action so violent that it would
make him forget" his fear and humiliation (Native Son 2829). As
we see later, when Bigger does attack and humiliate Gus in order
to sabotage the gang's planned robbery of a white grocer, Bigger's
status in the gang rests on his capacity for violence, not his facility
with language. Jack, Gus, and G. H. do not seem particularly to like
or respect Bigger; rather, they fear and resent him, and he "[does]
not think enough of them to feel . . . responsible to them" (42). After
he kills Mary, this sense of distance becomes even more pronounced;
he feels "cut off from them forever" (111).
Only in isolated, one-on-one conversationfor example, when
he explains to Gus that the white folks live inside himdoes Bigger
experience camaraderie with another black man. This moment is
not to be dismissed certainly, but its singularity points to Bigger's
general inability to establish human connection through verbal communication. And while physical strength and fighting skill are valued
qualities in urban black male culture, it is supposed to be the practice
and appreciation of verbal dexterity in a group setting that sets this
culture apart from other, more general cultures or codes of masculinity. Thus, Bigger's reliance on his fists and his knife, rather than
on words, when among his peers suggests if not a rejection of black
male culture, then certainly a distance from it, a sense that it is like
the other forms of black culture he clearly does reject: it does not do
anything noteworthy or worthwhile. And if Bigger feels this way about
blackness and black culture, we must wonder how he can serve as a
model for black manhood, let alone black revolution.
It seems clear that Wright did not intend Bigger to serve such
a purpose. The novel's title suggests Bigger's representativeness; as
Wright explains in "How 'Bigger' Was Born," he intended the character to "loom as a symbolic figure of American life" (447). Yet that
representativeness is meant as a warning of dire consequences to
come should the US continue to insist on the political, economic, and
social marginalization and exclusion of black Americans: "I am not
saying that I heard any talk of revolution in the South when I was
a kid there. But I did hear the lispings, the whispers, the mutters
which some day, under one stimulus or another, will surely grow into

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open revolt unless the conditions which produce Bigger Thomases are
changed" (444). Such revolt began in earnest with the boycotts and
sit-ins that launched the civil rights movement in the South in the
1950s. It took, however, the emergence of more radical analyses of
America's political, economic, and social structures and more militant
calls to overturn these structurescalls emerging, not coincidentally,
primarily in response to conditions in the urban Northbefore some
scholars and activists began reading Bigger (or the novel itself) as
model rather than harbinger.

"The Child of Violence": Bigger as Proto-revolutionary


"How 'Bigger' Was Born" details Wright's gradual realization that
Bigger was not an exclusively black American personality type but
that he existed in white America, in Nazi Germany, and in Communist
Russia as well. Just over twenty years later, other African American
intellectuals would similarly internationalize their analyses, though
they turned more toward the Third World for their inspiration and
analytical frameworks. As blacks began identifying with decolonization
movements in Africa and Asia, the conception of black Americans as
a colonized group within the US reemerged. Harold Cruse used the
phrase "domestic colonialism" to describe the American racial structure as early as 1962 (Blauner 394), but the analogy seems not to
have really caught on until the emergence of more militant activism
several years later. "Black Power," according to Stokely Carmichael
and Charles Hamilton, "means that black people see our struggle as
closely related to liberation struggles around the world" (xi). The first
chapter of Carmichael and Hamilton's Black Power traces the ways
in which blacks in the US, like their counterparts in the Third World,
have been subject to political, economic, and social colonialism (6).
The "Child of Violence" subtitle above is taken from Jean-Paul
Sartre's preface to Frantz Fanon's analysis of colonialism and the process of decolonization in The Wretched of the Earth. Sartre, stressing
the necessity of such a work, writes that the means of establishing
subjectivity practiced by colonizers are unavailable to the colonized:
"We find our humanity on this side of death and despair; he finds it
beyond torture and death. . . . The child of violence, at every moment
he draws from it his humanity. We were men at his expense, he makes
himself a man at ours: a different man; of higher quality" (24). The
"native," Fanon argues, is a product of the colonial encounter, and
he can only recreate himself as a man through decolonization, the
putting into practice of the biblical prescription "But many that are
first shall be last; and the last shall be first" (King James Version,
Matt. 19.30). Such a radical reorganization of society, however, can

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Violence and the Flight from Blackness in Wright's Native Son

occur only "after a murderous and decisive struggle between the two
protagonists" (37). Fanon's analysis, translated into English in 1963,
was a crucial text for American intellectuals and activists seeking new
ways to interpret racism in the US. Fanon apparently viewed the US
as a colonizing force, particularly in the Western hemisphere; in a
footnote he remarks on "Yankee" efforts "to strangle the Cuban people
mercilessly" following the Cuban Revolution (97). Yet Fanon does not
regard blacks in the US as a colonized group. To be sure, American
blacks were victims of white supremacy, but that blacks across the
globe "were all defined in relation to the whites" did not mean that
all blacks had been subjected to the specific forms of political and
economic control that colonialism entails (216). Cruse, Carmichael,
Hamilton, and others who employed the colonial analogy generally
did concede this pointblack Americans were not "pure" colonials.
Still, Fanon's description of the Manichean, compartmentalized world
of the colony so closely mirrored the American racial situation that
it could not be disregarded. Moreover, Fanon was an enthusiastic
reader of Wright, whose hero Bigger Thomas some of these same
activists celebrated as "a prototype of the revolutionary black hero"
(Butler, Native Son 16).
Eldridge Cleaver praises Bigger as "the black rebel of the ghetto
and a man" (106). Cleaver does concede that Bigger's rebellion is
"inept" (106), but apparently his ineptitude is less important than
the fact of having acted violently and of being heterosexual. Houston
Baker, surprisingly even more enthusiastic than Cleaver, claims that
Bigger "repudiates white American culture, affirms the black survival
values of timely trickery and militant resistance, and serves as a
model hero" (Long Black Song 127). Neither Cleaver nor Baker has
much to say about Bessie's rape and murder.5 Addison Gayle states
unequivocally that "Bigger fails as both rebel and revolutionary"
(171) but still posits Native Son as "the model for the novelist of the
nineteen seventies" (173) and attempts to recuperate Bigger as a
sort of proto-revolutionary. To get to the "real," revolutionary Bigger, readers should, Gayle tells us, "Strip the nihilism and self-hate
from his personality makeup" (179) and ignore the Bigger after the
murder of Bessie as the perverted "brainchild of Communists and
liberals" (171). We can, however, make a plausible case for Bigger as
a proto-revolutionary without bowdlerizing the novel as Gayle suggests. Bigger experiences many of the same material conditions as
Fanon's native and, as a result, at times he gives voice, twenty years
before Fanon, to the consciousness that, according to Fanon, leads
to revolution. Yet Bigger's statements ultimately lead only back to
himself, to his own alienation and rage. He seems unable, until it is

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too late, to reach out to others in a way that could lead to collective,
revolutionary action.
To return for a moment to the household, we find in the tiny
one-room apartment Bigger shares with his mother, brother, and
sister the "world without spaciousness" in which, according to Fanon,
colonized people are compartmentalized (39). Even when he moves
outside his family's tenement apartment, Bigger's world is severely
circumscribed because, like the native restricted to the medina, he is
generally confined to Chicago's Black Belt. As a result of this cramping, claims Fanon, "the dreams of the native are always of muscular
prowess; his dreams are of action and aggression. . . . The native
is an oppressed person whose permanent dream is to become the
persecutor" (5253). Fittingly, Bigger, watching a pigeon fly away,
sighs, "Now, if I could only do that" (21), and he and Gus "play
'white'" (17) moments after commenting on the "funny" (17) way
whites treat them.
When he explains to a horrified Boris Max, "I hurt folks 'cause I
felt I had to; that's all. They was crowding me too close; they wouldn't
give me no room" (355), Bigger anticipates Fanon's native, who knows
"from birth . . . that this narrow world, strewn with prohibitions, can
only be called in question by absolute violence" (Fanon 37). Bigger
experiences a similar sense of clairvoyance; he confesses to Gus that
when he thinks of white people and the limitations of his life, he feels
"like something awful's going to happen to me . . . Naw; it ain't like
something going to happen to me. It's . . . It's like I was going to
do something I can't help . . . " (22). Undoubtedly, Bigger is a "child
of violence"; his father was killed in a riot before the family moved
to Chicago, and the novel's opening scene, in which he crushes to
death a rat very obviously meant to symbolize himself, reinforces the
fact that the violence in Bigger is a product of the violence around
him. Bigger "first manifest[s] this aggressiveness which has been
deposited in his bones against his own people" (Fanon 52). Indeed,
Bigger is much more willing to victimize his own peopleVera, Gus,
the neighbors from whom he and his friends stealthan to rob the
white storekeeper Mr. Blum and thereby "trespass into territory where
the full wrath of an alien white world would be turned loose upon
[him]" (Native Son 14). Whites, Bigger knows, are less concerned (if
they are concerned at all) about crimes in which the victim is black,
and so he recognizes the safety of staying "in his place."
The psychology that Fanon describes is not a simple matter of
self-hatred, however. Bigger does not want to be white so much as
he envies the power and privileges that come with whiteness and
wants to escape "the badge of shame which he knew was attached
to a black skin" (Native Son 67). In fact, inseparable from his envy

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Violence and the Flight from Blackness in Wright's Native Son


of what whiteness can do and be is an intense hatred of actual white
people. Thus, Mary and Jan's nave and clumsy attempts to treat
him as an equal backfire, making Bigger even more uncomfortable
and angry:
He was very conscious of his black skin and there was in
him a prodding conviction that Jan and men like him had
made it so that he would be conscious of that black skin
. . . Maybe they did not despise him? But they made him
feel his black skin by just standing there looking at him,
one holding his hand and the other smiling . . . At that
moment he felt toward Mary and Jan a dumb, cold, and
inarticulate hate. (67)
Even as he watches Mary admiringly, Bigger cannot separate his envious "dreams of possession" (Fanon 39) from this hatred: "But she
was beautiful, slender, with an air that made him feel that she did
not hate him with the hate of other white people. But, for all of that,
she was white and he hated her . . . And, too, in spite of his hate for
her, he was excited . . . " (82). In killing, he acts out both of these
impulses. He is on the point of raping the drunk and semi-conscious
Mary when Mrs. Dalton enters, and the scene continues, describing
his smothering of her with language equally suggestive of intercourse:
Mrs. Dalton was moving slowly toward him and he grew
tight and full, as though about to explode. Mary's fingernails
tore at his hands . . . Mary's body surged upward and he
pushed downward . . . Again Mary's body heaved . . . For
a long time he felt the sharp pain of her fingernails biting
into his wrists . . . His muscles flexed taut as steel . . .
Then suddenly her fingernails did not bite into his wrists.
Mary's fingers loosened . . . He relaxed and sank to the
floor, his breath going in a long gasp. He was weak and
wet with sweat. (8586)
Bigger has "surge[d] into the forbidden quarters" (Fanon 40), an act
that "shakes the world in a very necessary manner" (45) and transforms "a black timid Negro boy" (Native Son 107). Wright's use of
both "black" and "Negro" emphasizes Bigger's dark skin, which Bigger
is exceedingly conscious of when in the presence of white people, but
the phrase, running together the four words without a comma, also
suggests the words are all of a piece. To be Negro is to be black (no
matter the actual color of one's skin), is to be timid, to be a boy, not
a man. After killing Mary and disposing of her body, Bigger loses his
earlier timidity, gaining enough confidence to return to the Dalton
household, face Detective Britten, frame Jan, and compose a ransom

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note that implicates the Communist Party in Mary's disappearance.


But does he truly begin the process of decolonization, of breaking
down the equivalence between black and boy?
Though Bigger willingly takes responsibility for the murders,
refusing to call Mary's an accident, there is little sense that he has
acted for anyone but himself or that he is leaving behind anyone to
continue his fight. In fact, Bigger feels toward his family much as he
does toward white people: "Goddamn! He wanted to wave his hand
and blot them out. They were always too close to him, so close that
he could never have any way of his own" (99). Bigger is completely
isolated in his hatred and alienation, and though he later acknowledges that "His family was a part of him, not only in blood, but in
spirit" (298), his recognition does not lessen the shame and hate his
family and their blackness engender in him.
As Addison Gayle's suggestion that we ignore the Bigger who
murders a black woman indicates, the biggest strike against Bigger as
a revolutionary is his rape and murder of Bessie. Unlike the previous
murder, which was an accident, Bigger consciously decides to take
Bessie with him as he is fleeing and kill her later. Moreover, even as
he is planning her death, he disregards her protests and her attempts
to resist and rapes her. Bigger's thoughts after the rape make clear
that he thinks of Bessie merely as a body, a thing to be disposed of:
"Yes, that was what he could do with it, throw it out of the window,
down the narrow air-shaft where nobody would find it until, perhaps,
it had begun to smell" (235; emphasis added). If his killing Mary
were a truly revolutionary act, then it would be a step backward for
Bigger to continue taking out his aggressions on his own people. Bigger, however, is only concerned about himself; Bessie, like his family,
Mary, and the rest of the white world, is something hemming him
in, an annoyance to be blotted out. Because other people exist for
Bigger only as obstacles, he can describe rape as "not what one did
to women" (227) but rather as the "hate deep in his heart as he felt
the strain of living day by day" (228). The individualism that should
be the first of the colonizers' values to disappear in a revolutionary
movement (Fanon 47) never leaves Bigger; "I" is the most prominent
word in his final statements, and he will die alone, mourned only by
his family, understood by no one. Bigger cannot be a revolutionary
la Fanon because there is no such thing as a revolution of one.

What He Killed for, He Can't Be: Bigger's (Social)


Death
Bigger himself does not use the word "revolutionary" to describe
his deeds, but he does recognize that in killing Mary Dalton, he has

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Violence and the Flight from Blackness in Wright's Native Son


shattered society's expectations. "They might think he would steal a
dime, rape a woman, get drunk, or cut somebody; but to kill a millionaire's daughter and burn her body?" (113). This realization makes
him feel free: "he felt a lessening of tension in his muscles; he had
shed an invisible burden he had long carried" (114). The burden is
Bigger's sense that black people live the way they do, are treated as
they are because they have never "done anything, right or wrong, that
mattered much" (105). By contrast, he has committed "a supreme
and meaningful act" (116), and in doing so has "created a new world
for himself" (241, 285), a world in which he can presumably achieve
the manhood denied him in the white city of Chicago.
This, at least, is the story Bigger tells himself. His dilemma is
that he can tell no one else. He several times expresses a desire to
stand up and announce to white and black passersby what he has
done but of course must forego this release. Denied the release of
speech, he writes instead. As Barbara Johnson notes in "The Re(a)
d and the Black," the ransom note Bigger composes and delivers to
the Daltons bears the mark of black agency: "Do what this letter say"
(Native Son 177). This Black English construction should give away
the black person behind the text, but as Bigger has sensed from
the beginning, the Daltons and other whites are blind to his presence (Johnson 11819). Indeed, even after he is revealed to be the
murderer, his text is not read properly. Despite the evidence there
in the note, the authorities are unable or unwilling to acknowledge
Bigger's agency by crediting him, rather than the Communists, with
the ransom plan.
Bigger initially assumes that this blindness will be to his advantage. He will be able to do as he pleases, so long as he acts as
others expect him to. It is Bessie who reminds him that his inability
to have his story read or heard will have negative consequences:6

"Honey, don't you see?"

"What?"

"They'll say . . . "

Bessie cried again. He caught her face in his hands.
He was concerned; he wanted to see this thing through
her eyes at that moment.

"What?"

"They'll . . . . They'll say you raped her."

Bigger stared. (227)
This is exactly the story the newspapers and State's Attorney Buckley tell. Bigger as rapist, as sex fiend, fits neatly into their already
constructed narratives, and so Bigger's story is pushed aside in favor
of one about "a bestial monstrosity" (408), "this black lizard," "this

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black mad dog" (409), "this hardened black thing," "this rapacious
beast" (410), "this ghoul," "this worthless ape," "a cunning beast"
(413), "this demented savage" (414). I reproduce many, but not all,
of Buckley's epithets for Bigger in order to illustrate the absolute insistence that Bigger is less than human. That Bigger himself comes
to rely on the newspapers as he is fleeing and when he is jailed suggests the ease with which his own story is displaced by stories that
deny his humanity.
Nor is it only pandering racists like Buckley who misread or
refuse to recognize Bigger. Again, Barbara Johnson points out that
there is something "about Bigger that cannot be re(a)d within the
perspective of [Boris] Ma(r)x" (116). For all of his claims of color
blindness, Bigger's lawyer apparently cannot help but other Bigger
with language that echoes Buckley's. In his summation, Max evokes
the bestial to describe Bigger and his circumstances: "It has made
itself a home in the wild forest of our great cities, amid the rank and
choking vegetation of slums! . . . By night it creeps from its lair and
steals toward the settlements of civilization! And at the sight of a
kind face . . . it leaps to kill" (392). His intention is to provide context, to prod the judge to acknowledge the reasons for Bigger's rage
and violence, but these statements paint Bigger as a savage invader
and reinforce, rather than challenge, the white public's perception of
Bigger's (non) identity. Further, Max's communism leads him to deny
the importance of race. All working men may be oppressed, as he
claims, but it is Bigger's blackness, not his class status, that makes
him panic when he thinks Mary will awaken and give away his presence in her bedroom. His blackness allows Buckley and the press to
paint him as a subhuman rapist, just as it produces the mob howling
for lynch law outside the courthouse. Race is integral to how Bigger
has arrived at his particular position, and if Max "look[s] at the world
in a way that shows no whites and no blacks" (424), he necessarily
cannot fully see Bigger.7
Indeed, looking in this way means that Max cannot see his own
and other whites' racial identity and positioning, though whiteness
plays an even more crucial role in understanding Bigger's circumstances.8 In addressing the court, Max appropriately points to the
way that the violence of the American Revolution created (American)
men; he neglects, however, to acknowledge its role in the simultaneous process of creating (American) whiteness. The practice before,
during, and after the Revolution of subjugating and/or eliminating
nonwhite peoples who perhaps were also attempting "to realize their
personalities" reveals whiteness as integral to the American manhood
the Founding Fathers were imagining and creating. It is whiteness,
not his profits as Max would have it, that Mr. Dalton imagines him-

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Violence and the Flight from Blackness in Wright's Native Son

self to be protecting when he refuses to rent to blacks outside of the


Black Belt, and whiteness is what is at stake in the courtroom. Bigger
has fully confessed to his crimes, so much of Buckley's summation
is legally unnecessary; everyone knows that Max's efforts will not
save Bigger from death. Buckley speaks, then, not to ensure a death
sentence, but rather to paint Bigger (and all black men, potentially)
as blackness itself, that is, as the negation of all that whiteness is
supposed to represent: truth, law and order, decency, humanity
itself. And while homicide undoubtedly presents a threat, it can be
accidental. So Buckley must insist that "the central crime here is
[Mary's] rape" (413) because only that crime suggests deliberate
and "repellent contagion" (409), the contamination of whiteness by
blackness. In effect, Buckley argues a version of Bigger's idea that
rape is "not what one d[oes] to women"; it is instead what blackness
does to whiteness unless death (or its threat) deters it.
These courtroom speeches make clear a tragic irony. In attempting to escape the supposed No-Man's Land of blackness, Bigger has seized on a version of manhood premised on whiteness and
therefore on the very othering and rejection that have been practiced
against him. Initially, Bigger's rejections have more obviously bloody
consequences than do those of Mr. Dalton and Buckleymuch like
the earliest versions of American manhood depended on physical
violence as much as rhetorical violence. By the end of the novel,
however, Bigger has become more like them insofar as he has moved
from relying on his fists, knife, and gun to using words to assert his
sense of self. Moreover, much like Buckley's insistence that Bigger is
subhuman and must die, Bigger's words at the end"What I killed
for I am! . . . What I killed for must've been good!" (429)signal his
continued refusal to recognize the humanity of Mary and Bessie. In
this sense, Baldwin is on the right track when he claims, "Bigger's
tragedy is . . . that he has accepted a theology that denies him life"
("Everybody's Protest" 18). But it is not just Bigger who is denied
life. In proffering the notion that blackness is a No-Man's Land, the
novel effectively forces Bigger to adopt a version of (white) manhood
that defines itself in part by denying life, figuratively and literally, to
those it deems other.
What further compounds this tragedy is the knowledge that had
Bigger engaged in clearly revolutionary or even defensive violence (as,
for example, Big Boy and Mann do in Uncle Tom's Children), he still
would not have attained the recognition he seeks. Bigger's dilemma
is that of the chattel slave; because "criminality is the only form of
slave agency recognized by law . . . fashioning of the subject must
necessarily take place in violation of the law, and consequently, will,
criminality and punishment are inextricably linked" (Hartman 41).

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Bigger, of course, is not technically a slave, but the inability of others


to see himthat is, to see beyond their racist and stereotyped views
of blacknesssuggests the extent to which he (and black people
more generally) continues to occupy the space of social death.9 Bigger attempts to create himself as a man through violence, but those
around him will only read that violence by inserting it into the already
existing narrative of the black rapist. Thus the violence that ostensibly
creates Bigger as a man simultaneously ensures his destruction. His
"faint, wry, bitter smile" (430) as Max hurries away suggests, among
other things, that Bigger has finally recognized, though too late, the
impossibility of his project. Bigger is indeed a native son, but as the
closeness of his first name to the epithet "Nigger" implies, his blackness renders the American manhood he has achieved unrecognizable
precisely because it is a manhood that depends on the maintenance
of racial difference.

Notes
1. My focus on Bigger's violence and his use of violence to reject blackness (at least so far as he understands it) sets my account apart from
more recent readings of Native Son. For example, in Constructing
the Black Masculine, Maurice Wallace uses Native Son (along with
the photographs of Albert Watson) to elaborate on his concept of
"spectragraphia" and the ways in which black men have been framed,
literally and figuratively, by the white gaze. While I find Wallace's
reading quite useful and convincing, I do not think we can or should
overlook Bigger's own gaze, which he turns against black women
especially, and the violence he employs when he sees what he does
not want or expect to see.
2. JanMohamed is actually commenting on Wright's meditation on his
life in the South as he is on the train heading to Chicago in Black
Boy. Nevertheless, what JanMohamed (and Wright) has to say at this
moment is applicable as well to Silas, Mann, and other characters in
Uncle Tom's Children: "the environment had allowed him to manifest
his humanity only in a negative form. . . . It had given him only the
choice of becoming either a slave or a rebel; he had chosen the latter" (263).
3. Butler's account does not explicitly address race; he reads the murders of Mary and Bessie as Bigger murdering his "romantic self" and
his "naturalistic self," respectively (17). See 1718. Griffin's account
is more satisfying because she addresses the significance of Bigger
deliberately murdering a black woman and provides readings of the
two murder scenes that highlight important differences between
them. See 128129.

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Violence and the Flight from Blackness in Wright's Native Son


4. At this point it is worth noting that others' faces are the most frequent
targets of Bigger's violence. Stephen George, reading Native Son
through Levinas, notes "the perversion of the face-to-face relationship" (499) that characterizes most of Bigger's interactions with other
people and makes it possible for him to smother Mary and bludgeon
Bessie.
5. Cleaver's elision of Bessie is striking only because he earlier claims
to have recanted his belief that rape was "an insurrectionary act"
that he could and did practice "on black girls in the ghetto" (14).
Later, when Baker does address Wright's depictions of black women,
including Bessie, in Native Son and 12 Million Black Voices, he no
longer reads Bigger as an African American culture hero. See "On
Knowing Our Place."
6. Johnson also notes that Bessie is the only one to read Bigger and his
note correctly. Not only does she deduce that he has in fact murdered
Mary, but she also concludes that he will kill her too. See Johnson
12021.
7. Fanon would have predicted Max's failure to understand since "the
Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we
have to do with the colonial problem" (40). That is, though Marxist
analysis denies its relevance, "the fact of belonging to or not belonging to a given race" is "what parcels out" the colonial world.
8. Of course, as a Jew and a Communist, Max does not possess whiteness as Buckley and the Daltons do. Yet Buckley does identify Max
as a white man, even as he castigates Max's supposed betrayal of
this identity.
9. Sharon Patricia Holland argues that the institutional practices of
slavery were "too entrenched" to cease simply because of legislative
action. Therefore, in the national imaginary, blacks have yet to accomplish the "imaginative shift from enslaved to freed subjectivity"
(15); instead they continue to occupy the space of social death.

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