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Native Son

Native Son

by Richard Wright

Race Quotes

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Quote #1

He thought of Gus and G.H. and Jack. Should he go to the poolroom and talk with them? But there was no use in his going unless they were ready to do what they had been long planning to do. If they could, it would mean some sure and quick money. From three o’clock to four o’clock in the afternoon there was no policeman on duty in the block where Blum’s Delicatessen was and it would be safe. One of them could hold a gun on Blum and keep him from yelling; one could watch the front door; one could watch the back; and one could get the money from the box under the counter. Then all four of them could lock Blum in the store and run out through the back and duck down the alley and meet an hour later, either at Doc’s poolroom or at the South Side Boys’ Club, and split the money.

Holding up Blum ought not take more than two minutes, at the most. And it would be their last job. But it would be the toughest one that they had ever pulled. All the other times they had raided newsstands, fruit stands, and apartments. And, too, they had never held up a white man before. They had always robbed Negroes. They felt that it was much easier and safer to rob their own people, for they knew that white policemen never really searched diligently for Negroes who committed crimes against other Negroes. For months they had talked or robbing Blum’s, but had not been able to bring themselves to do it. They had the feeling that the robbing of Blum’s would be a violation of ultimate taboo; it would be a trespassing into territory where the full wrath of an alien white world would be turned loose upon them; in short, it would be a symbolic challenge of the white world’s rule over them; a challenge which they yearned to make, but were afraid to. Yes; if they could rob Blum’s, it would be a real hold-up, in more senses than one. In comparison, all of their other jobs had been play. (1.176-177)

In need of money just to watch a movie, Bigger’s thoughts turn toward a "real" holdup job, not the kind they’ve always committed, always against other blacks. Though he knows it’s more lucrative, he also recognizes that holding up a white man is more dangerous because the rules that govern that kind of crime are different than the rules that govern black-against-black crime. In other words, holding up a white man will bring the full weight of the law down upon them.

Quote #2

"Let’s play ‘white,’" Bigger said, referring to a game of play-acting in which he and his friends imitated the ways and manners of white folks.

"I don’t feel like it," Gus said.

"General!" Bigger pronounced in a sonorous tone, looking at Gus expectantly.

"Aw, hell! I don’t want to play," Gus whined.

"You’ll be court-martialed," Bigger said, snapping out his words with military precision.

"Nigger, you nuts!" Gus laughed.

"General!" Bigger tried again, determinedly.

Gus looked wearily at Bigger, then straightened, saluted and answered:

"Yessuh."

"Send your men over the river at dawn and attack the enemy’s left flank," Bigger ordered.

"Yessuh."

"Send the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Regiments," Bigger said, frowning. "And attack with tanks, gas, planes, and infantry."

"Yessuh!" Gus said again, saluting and clicking his heels.

For a moment they were silent, facing each other, their shoulders thrown back, their lips compressed to hold down the mounting impulse to laugh. Then they guffawed, partly at themselves and partly at the vast white world that sprawled and towered in the sun before them.

"Say, what’s a ‘left flank’?" Gus asked.

"I don’t know," Bigger said. "I heard it in the movies."

They laughed again. After a bit they relaxed and leaned against the wall, smoking. Bigger saw Gus cup his left hand to his ear, as though holding a telephone receiver; and cup his right hand to his mouth, as though talking into a transmitter.

"Hello," Gus said.

"Hello," Bigger said. "Who’s this?"

"This is Mr. J. P. Morgan speaking," Gus said.

"Yessuh, Mr. Morgan," Bigger said; his eyes filled with mock adulation and respect.

"I want to sell twenty thousand shares of U.S. Steel in the market this morning," Gus said.

"At what price, suh?" Bigger asked.

"Aw, just dump ‘em at any price," Gus said with casual irritation. "We’re holding too much."

"Yessuh," Bigger said.

"And call me at my club at two this afternoon and tell me if the President telephoned," Gus said.

"Yessuh, Mr. Morgan," Bigger said.

Both of them made gestures signifying that they were hanging up telephone receivers; then they bent double, laughing.

"I bet that’s just the way they talk," Gus said.

"I wouldn’t be surprised," Bigger said.

They were silent again. Presently, Bigger cupped his hand to his mouth and spoke through an imaginary telephone transmitter.

"Hello."

"Hello," Gus answered. "Who’s this?"

"This is the President of the United States speaking," Bigger said.

"Oh, yessuh, Mr. President," Gus said.

"I’m calling a cabinet meeting this afternoon at four o’clock and you, as Secretary of State, must be there."

"Well, now, Mr. President," Gus said, "I’m pretty busy. They raising sand over there in Germany and I got to send ‘em a note. . . ."

"But this is important," Bigger said.

"What you going to take up at this cabinet meeting?" Gus asked.

"Well, you see, the niggers is raising sand all over the country," Bigger said, struggling to keep back his laughter. "We’ve got to do something with these black folks. . . ."

"Oh, if it’s about the niggers, I’ll be right there, Mr. President," Gus said.

They hung up imaginary receivers and leaned against the wall and laughed. A street car rattled by. Bigger sighed and swore.

"Goddammit!"

"What’s the matter?"

"They don’t let us do nothing."

"Who?"

"The white folks."

"You talk like you just now finding that out," Gus said.

"Naw. But I just can’t get used to it," Bigger said. "I swear to God I can’t. I know I oughtn’t think about it, but I can’t help it. Every time I think about it I feel like somebody’s poking a red-hot iron down my throat. Goddammit, 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 in through a knothole in the fence. . . ."

"Aw, ain’t no use feeling that way about it. It don’t help none," Gus said. (1.229-278)

As Bigger and Gus "play white," we begin to realize their conception of the universe: whites have power and blacks have none. Each white person they choose to play has power and uses his power unsparingly against those without power.

Quote #3

"You know one thing?" Big said.

"What?"

"Sometimes I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me," Bigger spoke with a tinge of bitter pride in his voice.

"What you mean?" Gus asked, looking at him quickly. There was fear in Gus’s eyes.

"I don’t know. I just feel that way. Every time I get to thinking about me being black and they being white, me being here and they being there, I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me. . . ."

"Aw, for Chrissakes! There ain’t nothing you can do about it. How come you want to worry yourself? You black and they make the laws. . . ."

"Why they make us live in one corner of the city? Why don’t they let us fly planes and run ships. . . ."

Gus hunched Bigger with his elbow and mumbled good-naturedly, "Aw, nigger, quit thinking about it. You’ll go nuts."

The plane was gone from the sky and the white plumes of floating smoke were thinly spread, vanishing. Because he was restless and had time on his hands, Bigger yawned again and hoisted his arms high above his head.

"Nothing ever happens," he complained.

"What you want to happen?"

"Anything," Bigger said with a wide sweep of his dingy palm, a sweep that included all the possible activities of the world.

Then their eyes were riveted; a slate-colored pigeon swooped down to the middle of the steel car tracks and began strutting to and fro with ruffled feathers, its fat neck bobbing with regal pride. A street car rumbled forward and the pigeon rose swiftly through the air on wings stretched so taut and sheer that Bigger could see the gold of the sun through their translucent tips. He tilted his head and watched the slate-colored bird flap and wheel out of sight over the edge of a high roof.

"Now, if I could only do that," Bigger said.

Gus laughed.

"Nigger, you nuts."

"I reckon we the only things in this city that can’t go where we want to go and do what we want to do."

"Don’t think about it," Gus said.

"I can’t help it."

"That’s why you feeling like something awful’s going to happen to you," Gus said. "You think too much."

"What in hell can a man do?" Bigger asked, turning to Gus.

"Get drunk and sleep it off."

"I can’t. I’m broke." (1.279-301)

Bigger has a premonition that something bad is going to happen to him, merely because of the color of his skin. Though Gus tells him to stop thinking about it, Bigger’s onto something: he realizes that he’s trapped in a world where whites dictate what he can and can’t do, where he can and can’t go.

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