America as a country has never had the smoothest history. Below the well known traditions and ideals of American society lies many travesties that for the sake of image, are treated as footnotes in textbooks. One such example is racism, particularly that of the African American people. Even after being released from the shackles of slavery, African Americans had to deal with racism pitted against them for centuries, a challenge which persists even today in the 21st century.
In Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, Wright explores the racism of the early 20th century, which almost 100 years later, still resonates in the lives of African Americans all over the nation. The racism that held back American society early 20th century is still a force in American society today, though to a lesser extent. Native Son is about Bigger Thomas, a poor, uneducated, African American male living in Chicago during the 1930’s.
Bigger is burdened by the predestined notion that due to his environment and society, he is predestined to be nothing more then a menial low wage laborer, never having the chance to succeed in a world controlled by white men. This angers him, and makes grow bitter and distant from society, casting him as an antihero to the reader, rather then a pure-hearted protagonist. Left with no little option but to succumb to the pressure of his families’ needs and his society’s pressure, Bigger takes a job as a chauffeur for the Daltons, a rich white family.
The conflict of the story comes into play when he accidentally murders the family’s daughter, Mary, a crime which eventually leads to his arrest and trial, where he is sentenced to death. Bigger is considered not to be entirely responsible for his actions; the harsh racist world he lived him molded him into a villain. If given the chance to grow up in a world of equality, Bigger’s potential would’ve been limitless. Richard Wright used Bigger as a conduit for the reader to gain insight on what it was like for an African American at that time. The stark contrast of living between white and African American citizens is evident at all given imes. Bigger is resentful of this, which is a major point of the character. “God dammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like living in jail. Half the time I feel like I’m on the outside of the world peeping through a knothole in the fence…”. Bigger describes African American life as “living in a jail”, because his freedom is restricted by white people, who dictated the rights that African Americans had at the time. This showed how at the time, white people were in control of the lives of other black people.
And it can still be seen today. Though Bigger’s statement was a simile, it was almost prophetic in that it became a reality. “About 40% of American prison inmates are of partial or full African American descent, and about 1 in every 20 African American United States citizens are incarcerated, despite only composing less then 10% of the population”. If “40%”, nearly half of the incarcerated population, are African American, then how does that represent their treatment in the nation, especially given that they are only “less then 10% of the population”?
It shows that black people are still living in an environment that makes law breaking one of the few available options for survival, and they end up in prison more then other races because of it. And it just negatively fuels stereotypes, worsening their ability to rise beyond their upbringing. Later on in the novel, when Bigger is being tried for murder, his lawyer, Max, tried to convince Bigger to see Mary, the girl he killed, as a person, rather then a part of the white race.
Bigger is reluctant to accept that view, and explains to Max why. “They [white people] draw a line and say for you to stay on your side of the line. They don’t care if there’s no bread over on your side. They don’t care if you die. And then they say things like that about you and when you try to come from behind your line they kill you. Everybody wants to kill you then ” (Wright, 312). Bigger describes the separation of whites and blacks as a “line” because it is a stark limit to how they can interact with one another.
It promotes hared and and hostility amongst one another, which combined with the situation African Americans grow up with, cause even more barriers that they must as a people overcome. Things such as this can still be seen today, such as when in Springfield, IL, a local basketball court ended up becoming separated at half court as the white side, and the black, by pure social stigma, not law of any sort. Naturally this segregation by a simple line bred animosity amongst the two factions that eventually erupted in physical confrontation. The situation was a chilling reminder of the folly of the Jim Crow laws; separation does not breed equality; it festers hatred. ”. To say that “separation” causes hatred to “fester” falls neatly in line with Wright’s words through Bigger that the line that separates white and black people can bring about no good. When this separation is torn down, all people within the situation benefit. For example, the United States Marine Corps was at an one point an entirely segregated service.
When the Corps was subjected to the politically charged desegregation legislature of Congress, African Americans who wanted to become Marines did so, and the nation was better off as a result. “These generations of African American marines served in 3 different wars…. their efforts is what helped the United States and the USMC win these wars. ” The fact that these African American marines helped “win these wars” shows that their skill and contributions were equal to that of white service members; their combined efforts helped win wars, something that benefited all citizens of the United States.
When the challenges of racism and segregation are overcome and diversity is embraced, great feats can be accomplished, feats that were impossible up until that point. To reiterate, the race issues American society has as presented in Native Son still exist today, however improved they may be. It is pessimistic to believe that racism will always exist in the world, but by no means an impossibility. America, serving as an example for history, must wrestle with racism and emerge victorious, and hope that the rest of the world will follow. If so, it is one more topic in American history that can end on a positive note.