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Native Son: Essay Q&A

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1. Agree, or disagree with Max Boris' defense of Bigger Thomas. Is Boris a deluded idealist like Jan Erlone or is he a brilliant lawyer?

Wright's character Max Boris has been viewed by scholars in both glowing and harsh lights. Some maintain he did an admirable job in defending Bigger in his quest to evade death by electric chair. They praise him for shedding light on social issues and for acting as a therapist, of sorts, in aiding Bigger in his search for human contact. But other critics denigrate him for acting as an unprofessional lawyer, far more concerned with communist propaganda than his client's defense.
There cannot be any doubt that Max helps Bigger. From the beginning, he talks soothingly to him; he touches him gently and assures him he will be with him every step of the way. He makes sure he is well provided for in prison and enables him to see his family and his friends. He goes to great lengths to get to know his young client, getting as deeply as possible into his psyche in an effort to find a way to help him survive.
However, Max decides to forgo a jury trial in his defense of Bigger. He says simply that a jury would be incapable of understanding Bigger and his life: "I could not have done that and have been honest with myself and with this boy." He simply tells Bigger that "a lot depends on what Judge we have" (368). His sole defense is a ten-thousand-word passionate soliloquy. Yet, if Max hopes to provide a speech powerful enough to convince a judge of society's shortcomings in the life of Bigger Thomas, couldn't the lawyer also have utilized his powerful rhetoric in the same direction with a jury? At the end of his impassioned speech, Max states: "I did the very best I could" (371), but when we consider the dreadful outcome, the reader is left wondering.
2. It isn't until Book III, "Fate," that Bigger Thomas winds up behind bars. However, it could be argued that his whole life has been spent in prison. Agree, or disagree.
Prisoners live without any choice of where they can live, what they can eat, and what job they can undertake. From the beginning of the novel, it is clear that Bigger Thomas is imprisoned. The one-room apartment that Bigger is forced to share with Ma and his siblings is like a cell. He must awake every morning surrounded by imprisoned others, never to know the peacefulness of solitude. The white property owners make sure that Chicago's black population can rent overpriced apartments only in the city's South Side region called the Black Belt, which evokes a chilling marginalizing image of the city's African-Americans being held tightly in place, in "their place," so to speak. And even if the families had more money, they would be forced to remain imprisoned within this small geographic area. Similarly, their choice of food is curtailed and the prices are higher than comparable food in white neighborhoods. In addition, like the rest of the African-American population at this time, Bigger feels the pressure of having to perform work he simply does not want to do, driving a white man's car. And, even if he were to take advantage of educational opportunities, he could only go so far. For instance, Mr. Dalton's South Side Real Estate Agency has never hired an educated African-American. In Book I, Bigger looks up to the sky and recalls that once he wanted to be an aviator, a pilot. Yet, his heart's desire is denied him because the color of his skin ensure that he will not be admitted to the all-white aviation school. So, Bigger is forced to take work he doesn't want or to turn to crime. He has been imprisoned from birth.
3. In his 1944 novel, Black Boy, Wright criticizes the Communist Party, of which he was a member for years, as being out of touch with people's real lives. Agree or disagree that is also true in Native Son.
Wright presents various forms of racism in Native Son. White characters, like Mr. Britten the private investigator, present openly racist attitudes but other characters exhibit more subtle forms of racism. For instance, the Daltons give millions to charities that help African-Americans, yet they hypocritically make a fortune from keeping that same demographic imprisoned in decrepit, rat-infested housing. And, while the young communist Jan Erlone attempts to treat Bigger as an equal, he is out of touch with real world Chicago and the plight of African-Americans.
To Bigger's horror, at their first meeting, Jan attempts to treat Bigger as an equal by shaking his hand: "Jan smiled broadly, then extended his an open palm toward him (66)." Jan then insists on driving the car after making the young chauffeur sit in the front. However, in following the communist precept, that rich and poor are created equal, Jan fails to realize that Bigger is responsible for the car, and that he could suffer dire consequences should anything go wrong. Indeed, Jan is clueless about Bigger's background and his way of life. Then Jan and Mary, who also has communist leanings, insist Bigger take them somewhere African-Americans eat to demonstrate that they are like him. This embarrasses Bigger no end and forces him to ignore his girlfriend. Furthermore, they drink to excess and treat the event like a show, or a circus outing, for that matter. Later, Jan leaves the drunken Mary alone in the front seat with Bigger without considering the implications: Bigger could not only be harshly criticized, he could lose his job. Jan's inappropriateness frightens and angers Bigger. He simply doesn't realize how the flaunting of societal codes can adversely cause Bigger serious problems with his friends, his employer and even with the police.
In Jan's favor, however, the young communist comes to recognize his mistakes in his treatment of Bigger. Indeed, instead of displaying anger toward Bigger for setting him up for Mary's murder, Jan apologizes after Bigger is taken into custody. He realizes, he insists, that his actions caused Bigger distress and pain. This suggests that the author, Wright, might be making the case that the Communist Party is out of touch with the plight of African-Americans, but that the possibility of change exists.
4. In Book I, "Flight," Bigger goes to the movies to pass the time before the Blum robbery. How does this element of popular culture function in Native Son?
Fearful of the upcoming Blum robbery, Bigger goes to the movies with his friend Jack to relieve his anxiety. Before the movies start, Bigger tells Jack: "I'd soon as go to jail than take that damn relief job (32)." He does not want to spend his life driving rich white people. However, by the movie's end, Bigger has changed his mind entirely. The movies provide a glorified vision of the rich white world. They excite Bigger sexually and tempt him with an easy way to make money and thus influence his decision to take the Dalton job.
Bigger and Jack go to the movies in an era when there was a main film, in this case, Trader Horn, and a minor film, The Gay Woman, which they view first. In this film, Bigger is exposed to a rich young blonde woman who excites him sexually. This woman is gay, not in the sense we us that word today-she is very happy and very wealthy. Although she is married, the gorgeous woman drinks and dances at parties until all hours in multi-million-dollar settings. The movie prompts Bigger to envision such a world. He imagines that the Daltons might have such a wild daughter who might pay him to keep her secrets. He tells Jack he's heard tales of young black men meeting and marrying white rich girls and making lots of money.
The main movie, Trader Horn, begins with images of naked black men and women dancing wildly. The images then metamorphose into depictions of rich white men and women. Bigger remembers his mother's prompting: it's the poor whites, not the rich whites, who hate the blacks. Now, he realizes that he would be a fool to rob Blum. Thus, the movies prompt Bigger to take the Dalton job so he can have the opportunity to enter that movie world wherein he can experience sexual adventures and make money.
5. For years, the author Richard Wright belonged to the Communist Party, which views religion in a negative light. How does Wright view Christianity in Native Son?
Economist and communist political philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) referred to religion as "the opiate of the masses," and Wright seems to embrace this precept by showing it in the form of his characters, Ma and her minister, Reverend Hammond.
Ma sings hymns while she cleans and waits for a better life in heaven. No doubt she has had a tough life, but the first time we meet her, Ma berates her son and wishes that Bigger had never been born. Then, she demands he take a job he doesn't want, and threatens that the family's welfare benefits will be discontinued. Next, she prophesizes his death if doesn't change his ways. While Ma indeed has had a difficult life, she doesn't offer love, understanding or indeed an iota of Christian kindness to her son. We never see her embrace or kiss him.
Christianity keeps Ma in a passive frame of mind. In Book III, all she does to help her son is to plead with him to pray, and abjectly beg on her knees, as she would in front of God, for her son's life from Mr. and Mrs. Dalton.
In Book III, Reverend Hammond visits Bigger in jail and urges him to embrace Christianity. He places a wooden cross around Bigger's neck. Bigger promises to try and continues to wear the cross. That is, until on his way back to jail, Bigger sees a group of people surrounding a burning cross. For a moment, he thinks it's a sympathetic Christian gathering until he more realizes it is the cross of the white racist organization, the Ku Klux Klan. Here, Wright vividly points out the hypocrisy of Christianity. In great anger, Bigger flings Reverend Hammond's wooden cross through his cell door.
Furthermore, in an effort to reach him, Max asks Bigger if he has considered religion as a means of comfort. Bigger mirrors Marx's tenet: "only poor people get happy in church," and when Max insists that Bigger is himself poor, the youngster replies, "I ain't that poor" (356).
6. At times Wright's use of the colors black and white makes Native Son seem like a monochromatic novel. Discuss this idea.
Wright uses black and white throughout Native Son to deftly illustrate the novel's primary conflict: the war between black and white America. While a good deal of importance is placed on the color black, white remains the predominant color throughout, lending great significance to characterization and setting. And while Wright also utilizes "communist" red, it only tends to emphasize the novel's overwhelming black and white color scheme.
From the beginning Bigger is associated with the color black, not only in skin tone, but as the black rat that Bigger stalks, violently kills and disposes of in chapter I. Most of the action of the plot is confined to the Black Belt of South Chicago and great emphasis is placed on Bigger's body as black. However, white remains the most emphatic color throughout.
The Daltons, in particular, are described not simply as white people but depicted throughout in white imagery. In the basement, Mr. Dalton's face "was dead-white" after he received the ransom note (189); "Bigger saw Mr. Dalton's white hair glisten like molten silver (189)." It is Dalton's real estate company, which solely employs white workers, that charges inflated rents and keeps African-Americans confined within the Black Belt. Similarly, Mrs. Dalton appears as a "white presence. Her white eyes held wide and stony, her hands lifted sensitively upward . . . the fingers long and white" (189). It is Mrs. Dalton's money that finances the family's business ventures. She wears only white and floats around the mansion like a white ghost. Max also is described in terms of whiteness when Bigger first sees him: "he saw a man's head strange and white, with silver hair and a lean white face" (269).
In addition, the setting remains predominantly white throughout. At the beginning of Book II, the snow that falls lightly and eventually turns into a raging blizzard, no doubt represents the "white world" that surrounds, controls and ultimately engulfs Bigger and causes his demise. While he is on the run from the police, a starving Bigger goes to a drug store to buy a newspaper, the "white world" engulfs him and he falls flat into the snow which seems to eat him. This represents the metaphorical whiteness that has controlled him from the day he was born. Similarly, Bigger's cell is described as white: "Mrs. Dalton, white as the wall behind her, listened open-mouthed" (276). And while Bigger drinks rum in chapter I, he is more closely associated with milk which Bessie and the prison guard both bring him to drink. He has only white bread to eat. Simply, Bigger cannot escape the white world.


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