The Moral Landscape of Pre Civil Rights America
The United States has always suffered from a fundamental identity
crisis. Ideologically committed to the extension of an admirable set of
values, most centrally those of liberty, justice and human equality, its
growth to a nation of incomparable prosperity was in many ways facilitated
by its combined plenteousness of natural resources and a system of
unfettered free labor known as the slave trade. As the Founding Fathers
and framers of the U.S. Constitution would begin the charge toward the war
for independence from England, this contradiction would become an issue of
increasing importance, particularly due to the seeming moral implications
of the fledgling democracy’s new doctrine granting legal protection to the
great values above mentioned. However, a set of cultural, economic and
ideological divisions, especially as delineated by the regional gaps that
would spark the Civil War, prevented the Constitution from having this
immediate impact. The Civil Rights movement a century thereafter would
demonstrate that for the bulk of its history, the United States has claimed
a deeply moral code of laws and ideals but has more frequently engaged in a
deeply immoral perpetuation of a racially oppressive and unequal system.
This is a condition which defined the racial experience of blacks in the
United States for much of the early and middle 20th century where, in the
adaptation of a first generation of free-born black Americans, white
America’s virulent exclusions would have a decidedly negative effect. As
described in works by novelists Richard Wright and, thereafter, by James
Baldwin, the immoral racialist fabric of American culture would manifest
devastatingly in the lives of ordinary black citizens struggling to adjust
to a nation of new laws but many of the same lingering prejudices.
The authors do go about this task differently, even though research
denotes them to have been close friends and colleagues.
To Wright, there is a fundamental sadism to the experience of
American racism that manifests as a breakdown of morality for the black man
himself. As Wright conjectures, America’s historical perpetuation of an
institutionalized and virulent racism has shaped the identity of the
African American population in many ways. Among these, one of the most
fundamental causes for said population’s greater vulnerability to poverty,
crime and violence is a sustained disenfranchisement that has deprived
America’s blacks of a national identity. This is the complex socio-
cultural disposition that drives Wright’s Native Son. Understanding the
content of the novel and analyzing the suggestion of its title, one is apt
to believe that lead protagonist/antagonist Bigger Thomas is a native to
his home, the United States. However, in this paradox, the reader is likely
to note that Bigger Thomas is denied throughout the story and alienated
from his homeland due to an immoral racial bigotry which places Bigger in
an isolated, lonely, discriminatory society. This has the impact of
shaping Bigger into an inhumane and violent creature whose absence of
identity enables him to commit monstrous acts with relative indifference.
Ultimately, the course of events around which Richard Wright’s
important 1940 novel on political and racial issues of the time centers is
Bigger’s lifelong disengagement from the society that has given him so
little. Wright does not take long to introduce, simultaneously, the
miserable conditions of Bigger’s life and the formative responses which
have manifested within him. In the opening sequence of the novel, Bigger
and his brother are forced to hunt and kill an enormous rat while his
mother and sister stand on the bed and watch in terror. After succeeding
in bludgeoning the rat to death, Bigger proceeds to dangle the vermin’s
body in front of his child sister, Vera. When Vera faints from terror,
Bigger shows no sympathy or even cognizance of his actions. His mother’s
anger is palpable as she articulates Bigger’s vices, charging at him,
“Suppose those rats cut our veins at night when we sleep? Naw! Nothing
like that every bothers you! All you care about is your own pleasure!
Even when the relief offers you a job you won’t take it till they threaten
to cut off your food and starve you!”(Wright, 12)
The job to which she refers here, the position of chauffeur for a
millionaire philanthropist, is one which would ultimately be the forum for
the true repercussions of Bigger’s nature. Following a violent altercation
with a member of his gang, and his subsequent expulsion from the gang’s
hang-out, Bigger finds himself forced to interview for this job. During
the interview, the overwhelming fear he suffers from his first exposure to
the enormity and excessiveness of white wealth begins to offer insight into
the cause of Bigger’s internal turmoil. The contrast between this
lifestyle and that of his family brings to bear a concrete sense of the
immoral social landscape that has shaped his world.
Bigger’s brief tenure of employment for a wealthy, white family
invokes a change in him. The anger and inhumanity that had always guided
his actions, is now inflamed by a target for his resentment resentment. As
Bigger drives his employer’s daughter Mary and her communist boyfriend
through the black neighborhood, her disposition leaves him silently
incensed. She speaks of the neighborhood with distant empathy, addressing
the residents therein collectively to Bigger as ‘you people.’ Though he
has no external response, it sparks his rage. Wright tells that “there was
silence. The car sped through the Black Belt, past tall buildings holding
black life. Bigger knew that they were thinking of his life and the life
his people. Suddenly he wanted to seize some heavy object in his hand and
grip it with all the strength of his body and stand in the naked space
above the speeding car and with one final blow blot it out-with himself and
them in it.” (Wright, 70)
The decidedly low value that he appears to place on human life
extends from the low value which had been applied to his life, suggesting
one of the major psychological themes of slavery and the subsequent
segregation of the mid 20th century. Particularly, the notion that moral
applications were not meant with regard to the treatment of black Americans
precipitated the conception in Wright’s works that in turn, the black
American has been denied the opportunity to develop a sense of moral
justice. Thus, to Bigger, his anger becomes the channel through which
justice is to be served rather than through morality. He resents his
family’s dependency upon him and his mother’s constant disparagement.
Likewise, he has no opportunities to speak of and his education and talents
are modest to poor. A peephole into white lives, which appeared to be
filled with a comfort and ease that juxtaposed grotesquely with the squalor
and peril of black lives, forced to the surface in Bigger a perhaps
unwitting awareness that the affluence of one race precipitated the misery
of the other and vice versa.
But Bigger’s disposition speaks to a widespread condition amongst
blacks in the years to follow abolition. Unbeknownst to Bigger, he is a
product of an economy and a political system which are both dramatically
unequal. Indeed, the focus which Wright pays to the trials of this single
malevolent figure reveals an unpleasant archetype in Bigger for the type of
man created by the immoral disenfranchisement endemic to slavery and
segregation thereafter. Indeed, American politics have actually been
shaped so largely by the racism that it is almost difficult to detect today
this institutionalized force without the impingement of a major incident.
In understanding the moral posturing of our political system in Wright’s
time, it is important to remember that the nation’s growth was founded upon
its perpetuation of the African slave trade. Transporting en masse the
poorest members of African society to toil on its plantations and
agricultural estates, the U.S. achieved its fast economic growth, its role
in global resource trade and many conceits of its identity from the
permeation of free labor, which enabled the fortification of white power
until abolition in the mid-19th century. With this precedent informing
succeeding generations on racial perspective, the regions where racism had
experienced its strongest and most adversely combated support would
continue to reflect this disposition in stark economic contrasts like the
one described in Bigger’s drive through the black neighborhood. Unspoken
but understood in the aspect of the text is that such residential
segregation precipitated an inherently negative experience for black
The South, specifically, followed its defeat in the Civil War with an
institution of Jim Crow laws which, in addition to replacing slavery with
segregation, would continue to channel explicit modes of racial hatred
directly through public officials and legislative applications. Though the
Civil Rights movement would bring greater clarity to the reality of Jim
Crow, which promoted the exclusion of blacks from social, economic or
political participation in the white system, it would likewise serve to
intensify the feelings of racial friction in its region. Wright’s 1940
novel seems to prefigure this in much the same way that James Baldwin’s
work thereafter would come to resonate in harmony with the increasing
activism of the Civil Rights movement.
On the threshold of the Civil Rights movement, Baldwin would publish
Notes of a Native Son. Though 1953’s Go Tell It On The Mountain would be
perhaps Baldwin’s best known work, it is this explicitly referential
dialogic follow-up to Wright’s
Native Son that would invoke some of the most compelling insights which
Baldwin would have to offer on the subject of American racism. This is,
indeed, a most effectively lucid examination from the perspective of a
deeply self-conscious writer enduring the twin marks in a nation of
virulent prejudice of being both African American and homosexual. The
result of this vantage is a set of essays that reaches accord with Wright’s
conception of the socially devastating impact of segregation on the psyche,
conscience and real opportunity but also one that takes issue with the
brutality of Bigger, a decidedly negative image to be invoked of the black
man in America.
In his own personage and in that which he discusses, Baldwin proves a
counterpoint to the figure in Bigger. A sensitive and saddened respondent
to his circumstances, the ‘native son’ of this text is compelled by deep
sense of purpose to resist the implications that would instead cut the
character of Bigger Thomas down to something fairly inhuman. To this
point, we are given something of his psyche when he notes that “any writer
. . . feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a
conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent-which attitude certainly
has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the
world looks on his talent with such frightening indifference that the
artist is compelled to make his talent important.” Baldwin, 4) Though in
an of itself this sentiment seems not to directly concern the speaker’s
race, it does come to implicate the America in Baldwin’s experience as a
cold and indifferent place. Where this turns a character such as Bigger
into a yet colder and more inherently cruel figure, it denotes a greater
need for self-assertion and sensitivity in Baldwin.
Quite to this idea we might concede to think of Baldwin as a moral
conscience and an ideological leader for the thinking, sensitive and
reasoning black American, whose existence was generally obscured. But for
Baldwin, this also would present a distinct challenge to his life and
ambitions, for as he sought to express himself against the odds generally
facing a writer, he did so also under the thumb of an America that hardly
sought the types of insights he wished to provide. As Baldwin would
report, “one writes out of one thing only-one’s own experience. Everything
depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop,
sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of
the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is
art. The difficulty then, for me, of being a Negro writer was the fact
that I was, in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too
closely by the tremendous demands the very real dangers of my social
situation.” (Baldwin, 7) As to these dangers, they were certainly not
His history demonstrates Baldwin to have been actively involved in
the Civil Rights movement and to have cultivated friendships with Martin
Luther King, Malcolm X and Medger Evers alike. (Wikipedia, 1) To witness
each of these bold men assassinated for little more than the aggressive
moral imperative with which he pursued that which was right in the equality
of all races was to reinforce Baldwin’s prescient belief in the danger of
his own declarations. And yet, he would posit the ambitions of an
intellectual ‘native son,’ somewhat directly drawing an ironic connotation
upon Wright’s text. Perhaps this would denote something in the progress of
the Civil Rights movement-as opposed to America’s own moral posturing-which
would become increasingly hostile when threaten with the deconstruction of
its immoral system. With the ideological thrust of thinkers like Baldwin
and his activist contemporaries though, the push for change would also
Thus, in 1957, the integration of public school in Little Rock,
Arkansas touched off a battle which would be waged between blacks and Civil
Rights advocates on one side, and the political establishment and its rabid
base of public support on the other side. The confrontation in which the
state’s governor called in the National Guard to prevent the desegregation
of his school speaks directly to the methods which, only 50 years ago, were
at the disposal of racist policy-makers.
Indeed, at that time, “the legislative, executive, and judicial
department of the state government opposed the desegregation of Little Rock
schools by enacting laws, calling out troops, making statements vilifying
federal law and federal courts, and failing to utilize state law
enforcement agencies and judicial processes to maintain public peace.”
(Gilliam, 62) A range of responses that suggest a high level of
institutional certainty in the moral rightness of maintaining such a
system, these were the manifestations of a broad base of public girding for
the standards of separation which had in many ways preserved the
expectations of white racial superiority in the south.
This speaks to the ways in which the moral situation had both been
altered by time and had in other regards remained unfortunately intact.
Indeed, for African Americans in the coming decades to follow, the Civil
Rights movement would be motivated the conditions and inequalities that had
created a figure like Wright’s Bigger Thomas. The character’s anger and
maladjustment would point to an untenable set of separate and unequal
living conditions that promoted massive disadvantage and a pointed
vulnerability to the conditions of violence, despair, resentment and moral
disregard that are demonstrated in the above-noted character.
Again, in returning to the narrative of Bigger’s life, we are given a
startling demonstration of how extensively this condition has served to
remove the man from a sense of his own humanity. This circumstances of
Bigger’s crimes, even if indirectly and through accidental misfortune,
resulted in the series of gruesome acts which ended with Bigger accused
guilty of rape and a pair of murders; of Mary and his alcoholic girlfriend
Bessie. Though Mary’s death was not intentional, its circumstances would
prove unforgivable. If Bigger’s malicious thoughts prior to the
manslaughter were not sufficient to illustrate the resentment derived of
his racial status, certainly the vindication he expresses thereafter
suggests his view of the act as being morally justified by sociological
conditions. Again, here is reinforced the point that in a morally bankrupt
social landscape, such behaviors become considerably more likely to occur.
And in the brutality with which they occur here, there is little denying
their connection to a sense of black Americans having been more generally
brutalized by an unequal social condition. Thus, after the gruesome
depiction of his decapitating Mary and concealing her body in the furnace,
Bigger contemplates his situation. Here, Wright tells that “he was
conscious of this quiet, warm, clean, rich house, this room with this bed
so soft, the wealthy white people moving in luxury to all sides of him,
whites, living in a smugness, a security, a certainty that he had never
known. The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and
regarded as this symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a
man who had been somehow cheated, but had now evened the score.” (Wright,
The idea expressed here once again enforces this concept that some
equality of moral action has been perpetrated, not simply justifying
Bigger’s behavior, but even justifying the type of man that he has become.
His moral distortion was reflective of a morally distorted universe. This
sense of moral equalization would not last long as Bigger concocts a
loosely constructed plan to forge a kidnapping and levy ransom money from
the family. It does not take long, however, for Bigger’s poorly conceived
attempts to cover his tracks to unravel, particularly when Mary’s remains
surface. Bigger’s flight and subsequent brutalization of his girlfriend
culminates in a violent gunfire exchange with police officers on the roof
of an abandoned building in Chicago’s Black Belt.
His incarceration, trial and execution provide him with an
opportunity, however, to finally come to an understanding about his actions
in relation to the set of racial circumstances that had delivered him to
the world. Herein, he comes to understand that his divided identity had
moved him through life engaged in a constant struggle for moral resolution.
Rectification of the rift between the American in him and the black man in
him was perpetually evasive. Though there is redemption in the notion that
Bigger is forced face to face with the causes and the effects of his
actions, Wright does not flinch from doling out a harsh resolution. As
Bigger drifts helplessly from capture to execution, he laments over the
identity that had eluded him in this life and hoped that in the new one, it
would be his from the onset. “A new pride and a new humility would have to
be born in him, a humility springing from a new identification with some
part of the world in which he lived, and this identification forming the
basis for a new hope that would function in him as pride and dignity.”
(Wright, 275). In his last thoughts, the reader finally glimpses a
humanity in Bigger that is greater than fear or rage. There is a
sympathetic emptiness penetrating him, the dark outcome of the wholeness
which he was denied by the combination of his race and his homeland.
Indeed, Bigger was human after all, but fully denied the opportunity to
develop a moral sense of himself.
In a manner, this period of reflection allows us to consider Bigger
with respect to the Civil Rights Movement, which would be divided along
lines similar to those distinguishing Bigger from, for instance, James
Baldwin. Namely, the non-violent premises of King would contrast directly
with Bigger’s actions, if indeed we may regard these as some manner of
resistance. Truly, if not a conscious or well-articulated resistance,
Bigger’s behavior is derived from a common origin to the militant preaching
of Malcolm X and the tactics of the Black Panthers. Indeed, Bigger’s
abhorable condition and the resultant behavior underscores the frustration
which would afflict many African Americans prior to and during the Civil
Rights Era. Though our research characterizes non-violent direct action as
being “basically a successful political tact,” it also highlights the
factors which caused a disciplinary divergence from its tenets. (Gilliam,
118) The text observes of the non-violence movement that “it was
logistically difficult to maintain-it required the mobilization and
organization of thousands of volunteers [and] it demanded a tremendous
amount of emotional commitment-activists were asked to make great
sacrifices in the face of economic psychological, and physical
intimidation.” (118) With great certainty, these are pressures which
fomented a split amongst black activists during the Civil Rights Era.
The 1965 assassination of Malcolm X brought to greater certainty to
the belief amongst many activists that the non-violent means of protest
which had been their lynchpin could no longer be considered revolutionary,
so much as reformist. “The presence of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam,
the increasing radicalization of SNCC, and the seeds of the Black Panthers
presented serious challenges to the intellectual and organizational
hegemony of the traditional civil rights organizations.” (Gilliam, 118)
The founding of the Black Panthers, a year subsequent to Malcolm X’s
murder, would initiate a split in the Civil Rights movement that would
reverberate through the inception of new legislation and cultural policy.
With the non-violent protest movement’s goals of integration came a degree
of pandering concession which the Panther movement had come to see as
untenable. A separate and revolutionary black nationalism could be the
only form, this group believed, of liberation. In a manner, this is the
same divide that research indicates to us would, to an extent, cause a rift
in the personal friendship between Wright and Baldwin. As we will examine
hereafter, Baldwin would be critical of Wright for his projection of an
antagonist such as Bigger Thomas, who offered a distinctly negative
impression of the African American attempting to respond to white
Indeed, Baldwin was extremely harsh in the way he received the
characterizations of his people in Native Son, balking at the idea that the
social landscape could be sufficient to make Bigger Thomas a sympathetic or
effective character. He denotes that “Bigger, who cannot function
therefore as a reflection of the social illness, having, as it were, no
society to reflect, likewise refuses to function on the loftier level of
the Christ-symbol. His kinsmen are quite right to weep and be frightened,
even to be appalled: for it is not his love for them or for himself which
causes him to die, but his hatred and his self-hatred.” (Baldwin, 40) In
no uncertain terms, Baldwin condemns the character and, essentially, the
effectiveness of Wright’s text as a doctrine to the Civil Rights movement.
Quite certainly, as the discussion on the splintering of the Civil
Rights movement demonstrates, there was vast disagreement on the premise
expressed here, with many acting out of a sense of righteous indignation
fully justified by their treatment. Ironically, Baldwin was a friend to
Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Richard Wright alike. But here, he does
distinctly place himself in a camp where activism would be concerned.
While this is not to suggest that Wright intends to explicitly project
Bigger as a civil rights hero but more that he views Bigger’s lost morality
as a martyr, with Bigger perhaps being entitled to some sympathy for the
conditions that had created him.
But Baldwin would argue this to be a dangerous concession to
morality, reflecting rather than resisting the madness of a time. His
greatest support comes in the innate social maladjustment of Bigger Thomas
from Wright’s own writing. Herein, Bigger’s mother accuses him early in
the novel of constructing a wall around himself. Initially a gut reaction
to the severe circumstances of his life, this wall eventually becomes the
force which divides Bigger within himself. In the void of identity, Bigger
is never capable of finding peace, nor does he ever appear to aspire toward
that kind of resolution. Rather, the darkness that pervades his civil
life, inclined both by the scourge of racism and his own, self-imposed
isolation, becomes a darkness within him that shrouds him from achieving
emotional fulfillment either through personal relationships or through
So is this demonstrated in his final days, when his family comes to
visit him in jail. Vera, to whose suffering Bigger had once been
oblivious, sobbed uncontrollably as she saw her brother on the threshold of
execution. Its effect on Bigger is considerable, driving him at first to
think of himself and of the guilt which her crying inspired in him. But
then his thoughts turned to the foundation for her pain, and for that of
his mother over her fallen child. It is only at this juncture that Bigger
realized that “he had lived and acted on the assumption that he was alone,
and now he saw that he had not been. What he had done made others suffer.”
(Wright, 298) This sense of personal conviction is new in Bigger and
indicative that the walls that corralled his life toward a straight and
narrow path of destruction were diminished. Unquestionably though, it was
too late to spare him or the victims of his actions any suffering. But
this true-to-life conclusion speaks to Wright’s purpose in exploring the
psychological ramifications of racism. The recurrent theme of walls is one
that eventually precipitates a traumatic collision between those built
within and without the lead character.
There seems here a recognition of the grievance that Baldwin cites
with Bigger who, “does not redeem the pain of a despised people, but
reveals, on the contrary, nothing more than his own fierce bitterness at
having been born one of them. In this also he is the ‘native son,’ his
progress indeterminable by the speed with which the distance increases
between himself and the auction-block and all that the auction-block
implies.” (Baldwin, 40), In this condemnation, Baldwin concedes that
racial conditions have interceded to impact a man like Bigger, but that
more importantly, Bigger has done nothing to better himself by the
opportunity of freedom. The idea that he is enveloped by self-made walls
is reinforced here.
The confluence of these walls, the self-imposed and the racially-
imposed, speaks to Wright’s primary intent. Though there is a great deal
of warranted anger in “Native Son,” its critical focus is actually spread
amongst culprits. Unquestionably, the virulent racism of America,
represented equally by the Ku Klux Klan and the destitute poverty of black
life, is deserving of blame. But likewise, Wright points to the self-
righteous hypocrisy of the so-called liberal agenda, herein identified with
the communist party. Though its intentions are superficially positive,
Wright does not spare social progressives, depicting many of them as often
being senseless ideologues and career opportunists rather than true
humanitarians. Also of important note is that Wright does not spare black
Americans of responsibility either. Using Bigger as a vessel for the
plight of African Americans, Wright admonishes that violent behavior and
withdrawal from social responsibility are not acceptable responses to their
conditions. The bold aim which Wright takes at all parties in the racial
circumstances of his time ultimately has the impact of sharpening the
points of detraction levied at each of them, revealing a crucial reality
that the resolution of America’s inequalities is a responsibility to be
shared by all people in a morally bankrupt social circumstance.
This points to another interesting theme in the work of Baldwin, who
directed critical attention to the blind racism which black Americans also
expressed. In Go Tell It On the Mountain, his characterization of Gabriel,
the abusive preacher, would suggest a rejection of the outright hostility
toward whites that would become an aspect of the Black Panther agenda.
Gabriel’s racism would be characterized as a negative counterpoint to the
more ethically seated perspective the novel’s more moderate characters.
Baldwin would offer the impression that he rejected this hostility as
counter-productive to the Civil Rights movement. Therefore, where he
viewed that a character such as Bigger Thomas seethed with hatred, he
viewed no opportunity for peace through such a vessel or anything thereby
represented. In a sense, this helps to suggest Baldwin’s moral grounding
in the pacifist civil rights agenda.
The character of Gabriel from Baldwin’s earlier novel would also
reveal a moral issue relevant to the experience of blacks in America in the
period following abolition and leading into the Civil Rights movement.
Namely, as a preacher who commanded a fear and obedience in Jesus Christ,
he nonetheless behaved immorally. Gabriel drank, was violent and was prone
to treat his stepson with derisive invective. This suggests a disconnect
between devout Christian faith and true observance of its moral
imperatives. Such a disconnect points to the manner in which religion had
long been foisted upon blacks in America, first as slaves and thereafter as
a matter of habit. The morally bankrupt nature of the religion foisted
upon them is revealed by Baldwin’s distaste for organized religion in
Baldwin relates at one point in Notes his awareness of the hypocrisy
which roots the religion given to the African Americans by tracing it to
the moral implications of the Christian missions to Africa which would
ultimately coalesce into the slave trade. He tells that “there is a custom
in the village–I am told it is repeated in many villages-of ‘buying’
African natives for the purpose of converting them to Christianity. There
stands in the church all year round a small box with a slot for money,
decorated with a black figurine, and into this box the villagers drop their
francs. During the carnavale which precedes Lent, two village children
have their faces blackened and fantastic horsehair wigs are placed on their
blond heads; thus disguised, they solicit among the villages for money for
the missionaries in Africa.” (Baldwin, 163) There is a clear economic
motive in the displacement of Africans and the manipulation of their
investment in Christian faith and values.
Indeed, this helps to define a distinction between Christianity, a
force prompted by the teachings of Jesus Christ to endow man with charity,
fellowship and ethicality, and the exploitation of Christianity, which
would render it a malleable social structure with the misappropriated power
to shape collective ideology. The evangelical underpinnings of the
lifestyle and culture persisting in the American southland before the Civil
War served to empower the slave-master, arming him with the support of a
deeply ideological, politically central and socially influential core of
white loyalists. Such is to explain the sanctimony of slaveholding’s
inherent abuses of moral correctness according to the evolving contextual
relevance of the gospels and teachings of Jesus. Its omnipresence and even
its defining impact on the region would be fundamental in maintaining a
base under an institution that in most parts of the world had been
articulated as philosophical repugnant and promulgated as illegal.
But there is an even more persuasive and dangerous degree to the
effect which Christianity’s false meritocracy bore on the continuation of
slavery. Great abolitionists and autobiographer Frederick Douglass points
to religious imperatives as foundational tools in suppressing the human
instincts toward individual freedom which, he asserts, would surely have
provoked insurrection if not properly manipulated and obscured.
Christianity’s pervasive appendages would prove instrumental channels for
this type of manipulation, orienting the slaves themselves toward the
faith’s presumptions and erasing what might otherwise be seen as an
inherent doubt as to the moral rightness of the system.
Baldwin looks at this as something distinct in American culture and
used to justify the practices which seems most to benefit it. As he
contends, “Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to
alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to
transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such
contradictions, into a proud decoration such as we are given for heroism on
the field of battle.” (Baldwin, 31) To Baldwin’s conception, the Christian
tradition, the Constitution and the white citizens of America had conspired
to overlook the very obvious moral truth of the nation’s racial sins.
Of course, Wright’s character seems to make the argument that these
sins have come to roost for white America in figures like Bigger Thomas.
Perhaps many of the militant activists who affiliated with such groups as
the Black Panthers would have agreed with this premise. However, it is in
response to this very idea that Baldwin offers the above sentiment. It is
his intent to prevent the lionization of a man such as Bigger just as soon
as he would intervene in the same glorification of the Christian value
system where the treatment of the black community would be concerned. On
the subject of Bigger, he would continue on to reject the simplicity of
belief which would allow black Americans to project this character as
heroic for the sheer boldness of the novel. Here, Baldwin argues that
“such a book, we felt with pride, could never have been written before-
which was true. Nor could it be written today. It bears already the
aspect of a landmark; for Bigger and his brothers have undergone yet
another metamorphosis; they have been accepted in baseball leagues, and
colleges hitherto exclusive; and they have made a most favorable appearance
on the national screen. We have yet to encounter, nevertheless, a report
so indisputably authentic, or one that can begin to challenge this most
significant novel.” (Baldwin, 31)
To Baldwin, there is a danger in justifying, let alone glorifying,
the violence and antisocial responses to a morally flawed social landscape.
Bigger becomes a false archetype for black Americans, confuting the
presence of far more laudable figures such as those that would begin to
emerge in the public eye in the years following Wright’s work. To this
extent, Baldwin seems to argue that the moral perspective in Native Son is
flawed in its failure to prefigure social integration of African Americans
that would begin very slowly. By the time of Baldwin’s writing, the
extremity of Wright’s characterization certainly still remained a formative
factor in the Civil Rights movement’s outlook. And to an extent that is
unfortunately made undeniable by the demographic patterns of crime in the
United States today, it may be argued that individuals like Bigger remain a
common byproduct of a condition of inequality. Therefore, allegations made
by Baldwin as to the lack of authenticity in the characterizations found in
Wright’s novel may proceed from too optimistic a perspective. The
suggestion that Bigger should be seen as an anomaly due to his own internal
maladjustment may itself be unrealistic, given the degree to which
conditions of poverty, community violence, gang activity, decayed family
structure and exposure to addiction tend to plague many predominantly
African American neighborhoods. This suggests that many of the moral
themes discussed here throughout, associating the moral distortion of a
society with the moral trespasses of afflicted individuals, may still be at
And in many ways, this justifies Baldwin’s distaste for such a
character, which seems almost to validate this general response to the
conditions of racial inequality. The dispensation with moral prerogatives
contrasts sharply Baldwin’s belief in the eventual achieving of racial
harmony. He expresses this point within the framework of a Civil Right
movement increasingly serving to change the nature of the African American
in social settings. Here, he would denote that “I don’t like people who
like me because I’m a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same
accident grounds for contempt. I love America more than any other country
in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to
criticize her perpetually.” (Baldwin, 9)
This is an important sentiment upon which to resolve the discussion
here, as it suggests not as much a rejection of the moral landscape of the
United States but a belief in its capability to be changed for the better.
To Baldwin, the nation would be in an apparent state of evolution and at a
point of increasing readiness to accept the changes that were imminent.
For Wright, composing his statement more than a decade prior, the
perspective would be dramatically different. In Bigger Thomas, he would
seem to lash out against the white establishment and charge it with the
creation of this monstrous creature. Baldwin, by contrast, would hold a
mirror up to black America and demand it to respect that which it saw in
This pride and intelligence would help his work to transcend
Wright’s, certainly important in its own time. Baldwin’s would be the
altogether more moral statement and one that would promote the type of
harmony needed to place America on the moral footing proclaimed by its own
lofty Constitutional claims.
Baldwin, J. (1955). Notes of a Native Son. Beacon Press.
Gilliam, F.D. (2002). Farther to Go. University of California at Los
Wikipedia. (2009). James Baldwin. Wikimedia, Ltd. Inc.
Wright, R. (1940). Native Son. Chicago: First Perennial Classics, edition
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