Justice May Be Blind Crime Punishment In Richard Wrights Native Son

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Richard Wright’s groundbreaking novel Native Son reflects a bleak image of American Judiciary. The trial of Bigger Thomas, the black protagonist, demonstrates how the racialized judiciary works as part of the Repressive State Apparatus to erase the possibility of black revival – shown in Bigger’s murder of Mary Dalton, daughter of a millionaire white family – and to keep intact the white superiority. In this novel, Wright takes the liberty of speaking through the character of Max, a communist and an emblem for Wright’s own political belief, to defend Bigger, his hero. It is through Max in the third book, titled Fate, that Wright exposes the crude facts of total racial segregation that lead young black boys towards rule-breaking and crime; for they know there is no room for a black person to rise above peripheries set for them by the white system. Bigger’s crime stands as his way of defining his stature on his own choice, uninfluenced by any white. Simultaneously, the third book shows the failure of the law in comprehending, only the question of guilty or not guilty, overlooking the background motive of the crime. Bigger Thomas was tried and sentenced to death only for his murder of Mary; his intentional murder of Bessie mattered nothing, because Bessie was a black. It is the way blacks are segregated from the American dream – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – and mechanism of panopticon that destines crime as the black way of life.So, whatever the black people do would be considered as a crime. At the end of his defense speech, Max argues that, if this cycle of judicial crime is not broken, it would increase into worse racial conflicts, a suggestion that is believed to be a prophecy about the bloody riots of the 1960s.

The American judiciary and the public prosecution department is clearly understated in the novel as playing the part of the Repressive State Aparatus. This term was coined by the Italian marxist Antonio Gramsci to symbolise the various institutions and organisations controlled by the state and higher social classes to undermine the potential of marginalised social groups. Such repressive institutes range from state-controlled law-enforcement agencies, to administrative department of the government.

Native Son (1940) is widely recognized as a seminal work and one of the most influential texts in modern African-American literature. Margaret Walker Alexander suggests that Wright’s influence on black writers parallels that of Gogol on nineteenth-century Russian writers: “Like the Russians, who say they have all come out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat,’ most of our writers have come out of Wright’s cloak” (66).

“Gawd, Ah wish all them white folks was dead.”

The day Native Son appeared, it made impossible a repetition of the old lies. In all its crudeness, melodrama, and claustrophobia of vision, Richard Wright’s novel brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear, and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy America’s culture. A blow at the white man, the novel forced him to recognize himself as an oppressor. A blow at the black man, the novel forced him to recognize the cost of his submission. Native Son assaulted the most cherished of American vanities: the hope that the accumulated injustice of the past would bring with it no lasting penalties, the fantasy that in his humiliation the Negro somehow retained a sexual potency–or was it a childlike good nature?–that made it necessary to envy and still more to suppress him. Speaking from the black wrath of retribution, Wright insisted that history can be a punishment. He told us the one thing even the most liberal whites preferred not to hear: that Negroes were far from patient or forgiving, that they were scarred by fear, that they hated every moment of their suppression even when seeming most acquiescent, and that often enough they hated us, the decent and cultivated white men who from complicity or neglect shared in the responsibility for their plight.

What was is like growing up in 1930’s Chicago? The answer really depends on whom you ask. Asking a white person would result in a nice, clean answer, but a black person would give you the grittier, darker truth. Take, for example, Richard Wright’s main character, Bigger Thomas, from his book Native Son.

Bigger’s story is a dark one, that ties in many social issues of the day, to show just how misguided America “black” and “white” really was. Oppression, racism, justice, pop culture, and communism are used and discussed throughout Native Son to show how black America was treated in the 1930’s. These important social aspects of Bigger’s story were the reality of many African Americans, which is why Native Son opened the eyes of many Americans.

What was the condition of blacks in the 1930’s? How did they view themselves and what kind of consequences came with that portrayal? Bigger Thomas could answer those questions, since he was a symbol for how most blacks lived. Wright describes Bigger’s home as a “tiny one room apartment” with “thinly plastered walls.” The apartment was prone to rat infestations. In this same apartment lived Bigger, his mother, younger brother Buddy, and little sister Vera. They were poor and depended on Bigger for financial means, even though he was only 19 years old.

This description of the poverty-stricken black America was not a figment of Wright’s imagination. The racism that these black people endured was not made up either. There was a negative perception of African Americans in those days. Popular culture displayed this negativity through magazines, propaganda, and motion pictures. Racism was always at the root of the negativity. Blacks were constantly viewing themselves as lower and lesser beings than whites, which were shown educated, elegant, rich, and powerful. Positive black role models were non-existent within pop culture.

These images were the kind Bigger grew up with, which contributed to his psychological shortcomings. He hated whites because of the power they had over him, but was fearful of them for the same reason. As SparksNotes.com puts it, “Just as whites fail to conceive of Bigger as an individual, he does not really distinguish between individual whites. To him, they are all the same, frightening and untrustworthy.”

Wright wrote about the economic oppression of blacks. It was harder for them to find quality jobs. They did not have the same opportunities for education as whites did. One could not be hired for a decent job if one was not educated. Not only was the lack of education an issue, but so was the media’s portrayal of blacks. They were shown to be filthy, dumb, untrustworthy, and equal only to animals. With those perceptions on the minds of white people, it was unlikely that a black person would be hired for a well-paying job. These kinds of conditions would confuse the minds and alter one’s right from wrong, just as it did to Bigger. Native Son explains how whites put the negativity of being black into the African American’s minds, only for these blacks to commit some crime, which proved to the whites the stereotypes they believed of blacks. Wright tries to offer this message, as Sparksnotes.com writes, “Only when sympathetic understanding exists between blacks and whites will they be able to perceive each other as individuals, not merely as members of a stereotyped group.”

Justice, the kind that existed in Wright’s day, was also an essential social element of Native Son. Racism was everywhere, even in the so-called fairness of the American justice system. Wright did not even have to make up the hypocrisy of American justice; he just used actual court cases, like the 1938-39 case of Robert Nixon. Nixon was charged for killing a white girl during a robbery, which did not stray too far from Bigger Thomas’ story. Wright illustrates the media’s position in the criminal system, as well as those of politicians and ambitious lawyers. The media advertises it’s version of a criminal story, which will include the role the politicians and lawyers play.

If a politician wants to be re-elected, he had better do what the public (meaning the voting white public) wants him to do. The same goes for the prosecutor. It is important for him to prove the animalistic behavior of the black man, so that the black man will be found guilty. A prosecutor who wins a case like Bigger Thomas’ will be guaranteed work and a large income. The hypocrisy of the justice system, though, is that the prosecutor does not have to work hard to prove Bigger is guilty, because racism has already decided he is guilty. Bigger killed Mary Dalton, a white woman, and is now going to trial for it.

However, this trial is not made up of his peers, but rather a jury of 12 white men who ‘know’ how evil the blacks are and have already sealed Bigger’s fate “before his case has even been presented. Bigger does not get the fair trial he is entitled to or the chance to defend himself. Wright depicts the justice system motto, ‘equal justice under law,’ as being neither equal nor just, but so corrupted by prejudice that the motto has no meaning at all.”

Boris A. Max, the communist lawyer who defended Bigger as his attorney, sums up all the ideas of Native Son in his defense speech. He articulates much of what Bigger has already seen and felt throughout the novel. He reiterates the Dalton’s blindness and Bigger’s blindness towards Mary and Jan, telling the court how the murders gave Bigger the identity he lacked and how the hate and fear that Bigger’s living conditions bred into him made the murders almost inevitable. Max’s speech also clarifies the warning Wright implies with the ringing of the alarm clock at the novel’s opening. Max worries that the same doom Bigger dreads in Book-1 is the fate of the entire country. Max appeals to the court – as Wright appeals to his readers in 1930s America – to recognize Bigger Thomas, to understand the conditions that have created him, and to comprehend the disastrous consequences of allowing these conditions to continue.

Many critics have argued that Wright uses Max’s speech merely to expose his own communist propaganda. Others, however, have pointed out that Max, though a lawyer of the Communist Party is never identified as a member of the party himself. Max’s argument does not appear to be a call for a revolution. Instead, Max makes an appeal to the rich and powerful simply to understand that they are sowing the seeds for a new civil war in continuing their oppression of blacks. As a communist, he cannot save Bigger in the end.

In a novel filled with characters that are blind both literally and metaphorically, Max’s speech stands as the singled out evidence of ideological sight and understanding. Wright, through Max, articulates much of Bigger’s life after only one long conversation with him. The speech also explains how Mary’s murder gave Bigger the chance to control his own life for the first time.

Critics such as James Baldwin in Everybody’s Protest Novel have argued that Bigger goes to his death fearful and desperate, just like the rat in the first pages of the novel. Others contend that Bigger finally gives himself over to hatred. But all are aware that Bigger does acquire a sense of self respect, not to let himself get carried away by thoughts of mercy petition, to take full responsibilities of his doings. “I didn’t want to kill,” Bigger shouted. “But what I killed for, I am! It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder…. What I killed for must’ve been good!” Bigger’s voice was full of frenzied anguish. “It must have been good! When a man kills, it’s for something… I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em. It’s the truth…”. Wright’s genius was that, in preventing us from feeling pity for Bigger, he forced us to confront the hopelessness, misery, and injustice of the society that gave birth to him.

So far as Bigger’s trial dates back, and as our research shows, it is the American judiciary and the public prosecution department, devoid of the essential moral fiber that they need to function in a properly just way, which lead Bigger Thomas to walk the gallows. That is to say, Bigger’s conviction symbolically convicts the judicial system – an institution blind to the state of the society which it judges.

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