Study Guide

Native Son Quotes

  • Fate and Free Will

    "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 realizes that his fate is tied intimately to the color of his skin; his choices are limited by the white citizens surrounding the South Side, even though he has almost no interaction with them. Though Gus tells him to stop thinking about it, Bigger’s onto something: he realizes that he’s trapped in a world where white people dictate what he can and can’t do, where he can and can’t go. He doesn’t even have enough money to get drunk about it because, once again, white people have denied him a decent paying wage for living.

    "I’d just as soon go to jail as take that relief job." (1.470)

    Bigger’s choices are extraordinarily limited. He can either live a life of crime, which will probably lead to jail, or take the one job that’s offered to him.

    He felt that he had his destiny in his grasp. He was more alive than he could ever remember having been; his mind and attention were pointed, focused toward a goal. For the first time in his life he moved consciously between two sharply defined poles: he was moving away from the threatening penalty of death, from the deathlike times that brought him that tightness and hotness in his chest; and he was moving toward that sense of fullness he had so often but inadequately felt in magazines and movies.

    The shame and fear and hate which Mary and Jan and Mr. Dalton and that huge rich house had made rise so hard and hot in him had now cooled and softened. Had he not done what they thought he never could? His being black and at the bottom of the world was something which he could take with a new-born strength. What his knife and gun had once meant to him, his knowledge of having secretly murdered Mary now meant. No matter how they laughed at him for his being black and clownlike he could look them in the eyes and not feel angry. The feeling of being always enclosed in the stifling embrace of an invisible force had gone from him. (2.843-844)

    Inadvertently killing Mary allows Bigger to feel as if he has a choice for the first time in his life. Was killing Mary really an act of free will, or was it fated because of the situation Bigger found himself in?

    Because he could go now, run off if he wanted to and leave it all behind, he felt a certain sense of power, a power born of a latent capacity to live. 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 their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had been somehow cheated, but had now evened the score. (2.1107)

    Because Bigger has done something that nobody knows or suspects, he feels freedom, like he has his destiny in his own hands.

    Bigger tiptoed up the steps, one at a time, hoping that the roar of the furnace and the men’s voices and the scraping of the shovel would drown out the creaking sounds his feet made. He reached the top of the steps and breathed deeply, his lungs aching from holding themselves full of air so long. He stole to the door of his room and opened it and went in and pulled on the light. He turned to the window and put his hands under the upper ledge and lifted; he felt a cold rush of air laden with snow. He heard muffled shouts downstairs and the inside of his stomach glowed white-hot. He ran to the door and locked it and then turned out the light. He groped to the window and climbed into it, feeling again the chilling blast of snowy wind. With his feet upon the bottom ledge, his legs bent under him, his sweaty body shaken by wind, he looked into the snow and tried to see the ground below; but he could not. Then he leaped, headlong, sensing his body twisting in the icy air as he hurtled. His eyes were shut and his hands were clenched as his body turned, sailing through the snow. He was in the air a moment; then he hit. It seemed at first that he hit softly, but the shock of it went through him, up his back to his head and he lay buried in a cold pile of snow, dazed. Snow was in his mouth, eyes, ears; snow was seeping down his back. His hands were wet and cold. Then he felt all of the muscles of his body contract violently, caught in a spasm of reflex action, and at the same time he felt his groin laved with warm water. It was his urine. He had not been able to control the muscles of his hot body against the chilled assault of the wet snow over all his skin. He lifted his head, blinking his eyes, and looked above him. He sneezed. He was himself now; he struggled against the snow, pushing it away from him. He got to his feet, one at a time, and pulled himself out. He walked, then tried to run; but he felt too weak. He went down Drexel Boulevard, not knowing just where he was heading, but knowing that he had to get out of this white neighborhood. He avoided the car line, turned down dark streets, walking more rapidly now, his eyes before him, but turning now and then to look behind.

    Yes, he would have to tell Bessie not to go to that house. It was all over. He had to save himself. But it was familiar, this running away. All his life he had been knowing that sooner or later something like this would come to him. And now, here it was. He had always felt outside of this white world, and now it was true. It made things simple. He felt in his shirt. Yes; the gun was still there. He might have to use it. He would shoot before he would let them take him; it meant death either way, and he would die shooting every slug he had. (2.1962-1963)

    Bigger’s guilt is established and it feels to him as though his guilt has nothing to do with what he actually did—but was established the moment he was born with black skin. His skin color is his fate and his fate is guilt.

    He closed his eyes, longing for a sleep that would not come. During the last two days and nights he had lived so fast and hard that it was an effort to keep it all real in his mind. So close had danger and death come that he could not feel that it was he who had undergone it all. And, yet, out of it all, over and above all that had happened, impalpable but real, there remained to him a queer sense of power. He had done this. He had brought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes. Never had he the chance to live out the consequences of his actions; never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight.

    He had killed twice, but in a true sense it was not the first time he had ever killed. He had killed many times before, but only during the last two days had this impulse assumed the form of actual killing. Blind anger had come often and he had either gone behind his curtain or wall, or had quarreled and fought. And yet, whether in running away or in fighting, he had felt the need of the clean satisfaction of facing this thing in all its fullness, of fighting it out in the wind and sunlight, in front of those whose hate for him was so unfathomably deep that, after they had shunted him off into a corner of the city to rot and die, they could turn to him, as Mary had that night in the car, and say: "I’d like to know you’re your people live." (2.2123-2124)

    Bigger thinks about what he has done – killed two women—and his violence gives him a sense of freedom. He’s actually done something with the rage that has been building up inside him all of his life. He has actually done something to the people who created the anger inside of him.

    There was no day for him now, and there was no night; there was but a long stretch of time, a long stretch of time that was very short; and then—the end. Toward no one in the world did he feel any fear now, for he knew that fear was useless; and toward no one in the world did he feel any hate now, for he knew that hate would not help him.

    Having been thrown by an accidental murder into a position where he had sensed a possible order and meaning in his relations with the people about him; having accepted the moral guilt and responsibility for that murder because it had made him feel free for the first time in his life; having felt in his heart some obscure need to be at home with people and having demanded ransom money to enable him to do it—having done all this and failed, he chose not to struggle any more. With a supreme act of will springing from the essence of his being, he turned away from his life and the long train of disastrous consequences that had flowed from it and looked wistfully upon the dark face of ancient waters upon which some spirit had breathed and created him, the dark face of the waters from which he had been first made in the image of a man with a man’s obscure need and urge; feeling that he wanted to sink back into those waters and rest eternally. (3.1, 3.4)

    Once Bigger’s fate is determined, fear is useless—as is hope, hate, or any emotion at all.

    "Mr. Max, a guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything. . . . You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing. You just keep moving all the time, doing what other folks say. You ain’t a man no more. You just work say in and day out so the world can roll on and other people can live. You know, Mr. Max, I always think of white folks. . . ."

    He paused. Max leaned forward and touched him.

    "Go on, Bigger."

    "Well, they own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They like God. . . ." he swallowed, closed his eyes and sighed. "They don’t even let you feel what you want to feel. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die." (3.1084-1087)

    Bigger feels that he is not in control of his own future, he has a fate which is determined by white people.

    "I don’t know. Maybe this sounds crazy. Maybe they going to burn me in the electric chair for feeling this way. But I ain’t worried none about them women I killed For a little while I was free. I was doing something. It was wrong, but I was feeling all right. Maybe God’ll get me for it. If He do, all right. But I ain’t worried. I killed ‘em ‘cause I was scared and mad. But I been scared and mad all my life and after I killed that first woman, I wasn’t scared no more for a little while." (3.1109)

    Killing Mary made Bigger feel that he had some free will in life, that he wasn’t just doing what white people wanted him to do and acting the way they wanted him to act.

  • Fear

    "There he is!" the mother screamed again.

    A huge black rat squealed and leaped at Bigger’s trouser-leg and snagged it in his teeth, hanging on.

    "Goddamn!" Bigger whispered fiercely, whirling and kicking out his leg with all the strength of his body. The force of his movement shook the rat loose and it sailed through the air and struck a wall. Instantly, it rolled over and leaped again. Bigger dodged and the rat landed against a table leg. With clenched teeth, Bigger held the skillet; he was afraid to hurl it, fearing that he might miss. The rat squeaked and turned and ran in a narrow circle, looking for a place to hid; it leaped again past Bigger and scurried on dry rasping feet to one side of the box and then to the other, searching for the hole. Then it turned and reared upon its hind legs.

    "Hit ‘im, Bigger!" Buddy shouted.

    "Kill ‘im!" the woman screamed.

    The rat’s belly pulsed with fear. Bigger advanced a step and the rat emitted a long thin song of defiance, its black beady eyes glittering, its tiny forefeet pawing the air restlessly. Bigger swung the skillet; it skidded over the floor, missing the rat, and clattered to a stop against a wall.

    "Goddamn!"

    The rat leaped. Bigger sprang to one side. The rat stopped under a chair and let out a furious screak. Bigger moved slowly backward toward the door.

    "Gimme that skillet, Buddy," he asked quietly, not taking his eyes from the rat.

    Buddy extended his hand. Bigger caught the skillet and lifted it high in the air. The rat scuttled across the floor and stopped again at the box and searched quickly for the hole; then it reared once more and bared long yellow fangs, piping shrilly, belly quivering.

    Bigger aimed and let the skillet fly with a heavy grunt. There was a shattering of wood as the box caved in. The woman screamed and hid her face in her hands. Bigger tiptoed forward and peered.

    "I got ‘im," he muttered, his clenched teeth bared in a smile. "By God, I got ‘im."

    He kicked the splintered box out of the way and the flat black body of the rat lay exposed, its two long yellow tusks showing distinctly. Bigger took a shoe and pounded the rat’s head, crushing it, cursing hysterically:

    "You sonofabitch!"

    The woman on the bed sank to her knees and buried her face in the quilts and sobbed:

    "Lord, Lord, have mercy. . . ."

    "Aw, Mama," Vera whimpered, bending to her. "Don’t cry. It’s dead now."

    The two brothers stood over the dead rat and spoke in tones of awed admiration.

    "Gee, but he’s a big bastard."

    "That sonofabitch could cut your throat."

    "He’s over a foot long."

    "How in hell do they get so big?"

    "Eating garbage and anything else they can get."

    "Look, Bigger, there’s a three-inch rip in your pantleg."

    "Yeah; he was after me, all right."

    "Please, Bigger, take ‘im out," Vera begged.

    "Aw, don’t be so scary," Buddy said.

    The woman on the bed continued to sob. Bigger took a piece of newspaper and gingerly lifted the rat by its tail and held it out at arm’s length. (1.39-1.66 )

    The book opens with a scene of fear: man against the huge, slobbering, aggressive rat. Though the rat is just a rat, and Bigger manages to kill it, we instantly recognize how the fight with the rat symbolizes the family’s daily struggle to survive, despite overwhelming poverty and their lack of options/freedom. It is a potent demonstration of the fear that pervades their lives.

    Save for the sound of Doc’s whistling up front, there was silence. Bigger watched Jack closely; he knew that the situation was one in which Jack’s word would be decisive. Bigger was afraid of Gus, because he knew that Gus would not hold out if Jack said yes. Gus stood at the table, toying with a cue stick, his eyes straying lazily over the billiard balls scattered about the table in the array of an unfinished game. Bigger rose and sent the balls whirling with a sweep of his hand, then looked straight at Gus as the gleaming balls kissed and rebounded from the rubber cushions, zig-zagging across the table’s green cloth. Even though Bigger had asked Gus to be with him in the robbery, the fear that Gus would really go made the muscles of Bigger’s stomach tighten; he was hot all over. He felt as if he wanted to sneeze and could not; only it was more nervous than wanting to sneeze. He grew hotter, tighter; his nerves were taut and his teeth were on edge. He felt that something would soon snap within him.

    "Goddammit! Say something, somebody!"

    "I’m in," Jack said again.

    "I’ll go if the rest goes," G.H. said.

    Gus stood without speaking and Bigger felt a curious sensation—half-sensual, half-thoughtful. He was divided and pulled against himself. He had handled things just right so far; all but Gus had consented. The way things stood now there were three against Gus, and that was just as he had wanted it to be. Bigger was afraid of robbing a white man and he knew that Gus was afraid, too. Blum’s store was small and Blum was alone, but Bigger could not think of robbing him without being flanked by his three pals. But even with his pals he was afraid. He had argued all of his pals but one into consenting to the robbery, and toward the lone man who held out he felt a hot hate and fear; he had transferred his fear of the whites to Gus. He hated Gus because he knew that Gus was afraid, as even he was; and he feared Gus because he felt that Gus would consent and then he would be compelled to go through with the robbery. Like a man about to shoot himself and dreading to shoot and yet knowing that he has to shoot and feeling it all at once and powerfully, he watched Gus and waited for him to say yes. But Gus did not speak. Bigger’s teeth clamped so tight that his jaws ached. He edged toward Gus, not looking at Gus, but feeling the presence of Gus over all his body, through him, in and out of him, and hating himself and Gus because he felt it. Then he could not stand it any longer. The hysterical tensity of his nerves urged him to speak, to free himself. He faced Gus, his eyes red with anger and fear, his fists clenched and held stiffly to his sides.

    "You black sonofabitch," he said in a voice that did not vary in tone. "You scared ‘cause he’s a white man." (1.380-385)

    Bigger acts out his fear by bullying others; when it doesn’t work, he grows angry, but the anger is just a way to get rid of his fear.

    He listened awhile to her rubbing clothes on the metal washboard, then he gazed abstractedly into the street, thinking of how he had felt when he fought Gus in Doc’s poolroom. He was relieved and glad that in an hour he was going to see about that job at the Dalton place. He was disgusted with the gang; he knew that what had happened today put an end to his being with them in any more jobs. Like a man staring regretfully but hopelessly at the stump of a cut-off arm or leg, he knew that the fear of robbing a white man had had hold of him when he started that fight with Gus; but he knew it in a way that kept it from coming to his mind in the form of a hard and sharp idea. His confused emotions had made him feel instinctively that it would be better to fight Gus and spoil the plan of the robbery than to confront a white man with a gun. But he kept this knowledge of his fear thrust firmly down in him; his courage to live depended upon how successfully his fear was hidden from his consciousness. He had fought Gus because Gus was late; that was the reason his emotions accepted and he did not try to justify himself in his own eyes, or in the eyes of the gang. He did not think enough of them to feel that he had to; he did not consider himself as being responsible to them for what he did, even though they had been involved as deeply as he in the planned robbery. He felt that same way toward everyone. As long as he could remember, he had never been responsible to anyone. The moment a situation became so that it exacted something of him, he rebelled. That was they way he lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify powerful impulses in a world he feared. (1.632)

    The only way Bigger is able to make it through the day is by pretending not to be so scared.

    Vera brought her plate and sat opposite him. Bigger felt that even though her face was smaller and smoother than his mother’s, the beginning of the same tiredness was already there. How different Vera was from Mary! He could see it in the very was Vera moved her hand when she carried the fork to her mouth; she seemed to be shrinking from life in every gesture she made. The very manner in which she sat showed a fear so deep as to be an organic part of her; she carried the food to her mouth in tiny bits, as if dreading its choking her, or fearing that it would give out too quickly. (2.154)

    Bigger realizes that his sister Vera lives with the same fear he does—and he realizes that Mary lived without fear. This has everything to do with race and class.

    No; he did not think they would suspect him of anything. He was black. Again he felt the roll of crisp bills in his pocket; if things went wrong he could always run away. He wondered how much money was in the roll; he had not even counted it. He would see when he got to Bessie’s. No; he need not be afraid. He felt the gun nestling close to his skin. That gun could always make folks stand away and think twice before bothering him. (2.436)

    Because the gun gives Bigger a certain amount of power, it also lessens his fear. This makes it seem like Bigger’s fear isn’t simply about white people, but being powerless in the hands of those who hold the power.

    "Bigger, honey. I—I don’t know," she said plaintively.

    "You wanted me to tell you."

    "I’m scared."

    "Don’t you trust me?"

    "But we ain’t never done nothing like this before. They’ll look everywhere for us for something like this. It ain’t like coming to where I work at night when the white folks is gone out of town stealing something. It ain’t. . . ."

    "It’s up to you."

    "I’m scared, Bigger."

    "Who on earth’ll think we did it?"

    "I don’t know. You really think they don’t know where the girl is?"

    "I know they don’t."

    "You know?"

    "Naw."

    "She’ll turn up."

    "She won’t. And, anyhow, she’s a crazy girl. They might even think she’s in it herself, just to get money from her family. They might think the Reds is doing it. They won’t think we did. They don’t think we got enough guts to do it. They think niggers is too scared. . ." (2.784-797)

    Bigger tries to coax Bessie to join him in sending a ransom note to the Daltons, in order to get money, but fear prevents her. This is Bigger’s exact reasoning why they’ll never be suspected—because everybody would think black people are too scared to do something like this.

    The compact array of white faces and the constant flashing of bulbs for pictures made him stare in mounting amazement. His defense of indifference could protect him no longer. At first thought that it was the trial that had begun, and he was prepared to sink back into his dream of nothingness. But it was not a court room. It was too informal for that. He felt crossing his feelings a sensation akin to the same one he had had when the reporters had first come into Mr. Dalton’s basement with their hats on, smoking cigars and cigarettes, asking questions; only now it was much stronger. There was in the air a silent mockery that challenged him. It was not their hate he felt; it was something deeper than that. He sensed that in their attitude toward him they had gone beyond hate. He heard in the sound of their voices a patient certainty; he saw their eyes gazing at him with calm conviction. Though he could not have put it into words, he felt that not only had they resolved to put him to death, but that they were determined to make his death mean more than a mere punishment; that they regarded him as a figment of that black world which they feared and were anxious to keep under control. The atmosphere of the crowd told him that they were going to use his death as a bloody symbol of fear to wave before the eyes of that black world. And as he felt it, rebellion rose in him. He had sunk to the lowest point this side of death, but when he felt his life again threatened in a way that meant that he was to go down the dark road a helpless spectacle of sport for others, he sprang back into action, alive, contending. (3.8)

    Bigger realizes that he’s just a symbol for the white men who plan to try him for this accidental murder—he’s a symbol of blackness, which they fear.

    Listlessly, he talked. He traced his every action. He paused at each question Buckley asked and wondered how he could link up his bare actions with what he had felt; but his words came out flat and dull. White men were looking at him, waiting for his words, and all the feelings of his body vanished, just as they had when he was in the car between Jan and Mary. When he was through, he felt more lost and undone than when he was captured. Buckley stood up; the other white man rose and held out the papers for him to sign. He took the pen in hand. Well, why shouldn’t he sign? He was guilty. He was lost. They were going to kill him. Nobody could help him. They were standing in front of him, bending over him, looking at him, waiting. His hand shook. He signed.

    Buckley slowly folded the papers and put them into his pocket. Bigger looked up at the two men, helplessly, wonderingly. Buckley looked at the other white man and smiled.

    "That was not as hard as I thought it would be," Buckley said.

    "He came through like a clock," the other man said.

    Buckley looked down at Bigger and said.

    "Just a scared colored boy from Mississippi." (3.400-405)

    Bigger confesses his crime and feels even more powerless as he does so – a fact observed by the prison guards who claim he’s just a "scared colored boy." His fear lies in his powerlessness, which is a result of the color of his skin.

  • Race

    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 black people. 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 crimes against black people. In other words, holding up a white man will bring the full weight of the law down upon them.

    "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: white people have power and black people have none. Each white person they choose to play has power and uses his power unsparingly against those without power.

    "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 white people dictate what he can and can’t do, where he can and can’t go.

    "Did you bring the paper?"

    "Suh?"

    "Didn’t the relief give you a note to me?"

    "Oh, yessuh!"

    He had completely forgotten about the paper. He stood to reach into his vest pocket and, in doing so, dropped his cap. For a moment his impulses were deadlocked; he did not know if he should pick up his cap and then find the paper, or find the paper and then pick up his cap. He decided to pick up his cap.

    "Put your cap here," said Mr. Dalton, indicating a place on his desk.

    "Yessuh."

    Then he was stone-still; the white cat bounded past him and leaped upon the desk; it sat looking at him with large placid eyes and mewed plaintively.

    "What’s the matter, Kate?" Mr. Dalton asked, stroking the cat’s fur and smiling. Mr. Dalton turned back to Bigger. "Did you find it?"

    "Nawsuh. But I got it here, somewhere."

    He hated himself at that moment. Why was he acting and feeling this way? He wanted to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel this. If not that, he wanted to blot himself out. He had not raised his eyes to the level of Mr. Dalton’s face once since he had been in the house. He stood with his knees slightly bent, his lips partly open, his shoulders stooped; and his eyes held a look that went only to the surface of things. There was an organic conviction in him that this was the way white folks wanted him to be when in their presence; none had ever told him that in so many words, but their manner had made him feel that they did. He laid the cap down, noticing that Mr. Dalton was watching him closely. Maybe he was not acting right? Goddamn! Clumsily, he searched for the paper. He could not find it at first and he felt called upon to say something for taking so long. (1.694-704)

    Even an ordinary interaction with a white man changes Bigger’s demeanor. He believes they want him to behave in a certain way – like life was too hard for him to bear, like they could be the great white knight who made his burden easier to bear. Does Bigger really have to act the way he does?

    "Mr. Dalton’s a fine man," Peggy said.

    "Oh, yessum. He is."

    "You know, he does a lot for your people."

    "My people?" asked Bigger, puzzled.

    "Yes, the colored people. He gave over five million dollars to colored schools."

    "Oh!"

    "But Mrs. Dalton’s the one who’s really nice. If it wasn’t for her, he would not be doing what he does. She made him rich. She had millions when he married her. Of course, he made a lot of money himself afterwards out of real estate. But most of the money’s hers. She’s blind, poor thing. She lost her sight ten years ago. Did you see her yet?"

    "Yessum."

    "Was she alone?"

    "Yessum."

    "Poor thing! Mrs. Patterson, who takes care of her, is away for the week-end and she’s all alone. Isn’t it too bad, about her?"

    "Oh, yessum," he said, trying to get into his voice some of the pity for Mrs. Dalton that he thought Peggy expected him to feel.

    "It’s really more than a job you’ve got here," Peggy went on. "It’s just like home. I’m always telling Mrs. Dalton that this is the only home I’ll ever know. I wasn’t in this country but two years before I started working here. . . ."

    "Oh," said Bigger, looking at her.

    "I’m Irish, you know," she said. "My folks in the old country feel about England like the colored folks feel about this country. So I know something about colored people. Oh, these are fine people, fine as silk. Even the girl. Did you meet her yet?" (1.874-888)

    Peggy explains her belief that the Daltons do a lot for "your people," meaning black people. She subconsciously separates herself from Bigger, including herself with the Daltons, indicating that color of skin separates people more than social class does.

    Bigger extended a limp palm, his mouth open in astonishment. He felt Jan’s fingers tighten about his own. He tried to pull his hand away, ever so gently, but Jan held on, firmly, smiling.

    "We may as well get to know each other," Jan said. "I’m a friend of Mary’s."

    "Yessuh," he mumbled.

    "First of all," Jan continued, putting his foot upon the running-board, "don’t say sir to me. I’ll call you Bigger and you’ll call me Jan. That’s the way it’ll be between us. How’s that?"

    Bigger did not answer. Mary was smiling. Jan still gripped his hand and Bigger held his head at an oblique angle, so that he could, by merely shifting his eyes, look at Jan and then out into the street whenever he did not wish to meet Jan’s gaze. He heard Mary laughing softly.

    "It’s all right, Bigger" she said. "Jan means it."

    He flushed warm with anger. Goddamn her soul to hell! Was she laughing at him? Were they making fun of him? What was it that they wanted? Why didn’t they leave him alone? He was not bothering them. Yes, anything could happen with people like these. His entire mind and body were painfully concentrated into a single sharp point of attention. He was trying desperately to understand. He felt foolish sitting behind the steering wheel like this and letting a white man hold his hand. What would people passing along the street think? He was very conscious of his black skin and there was in him a prodding conviction that Jan and men like him had made it so that he would be conscious of that black skin. Did not white people despise a black skin? Then why was Jan doing this? Why was Mary standing there so eagerly, with shining eyes? What could they get out of this? Maybe they did not despise him? But they made him feel his black skin by just standing there looking at him, one holding his hand and the other smiling. He felt he had no physical existence at all right then; he was something he hated, the badge of shame which he knew was attached to a black skin. It was a shadowy region, a No Man’s Land, the ground that separated the white world from the black that he stood upon. He felt naked, transparent; he felt that this white man, having helped to put him down, having helped to deform him, held him up now to look at him and be amused. At that moment he felt toward Mary and Jan a dumb, cold, and inarticulate hate.

    "Let me drive awhile," Jan said, letting go of his hand and opening the door.

    Bigger looked at Mary. She came forward and touched his arm.

    "It’s all right, Bigger," she said.

    He turned in the seat to get out, but Jan stopped him.

    "No; stay in and move over."

    He slid over and Jan took his place at the wheel. He was still feeling his hand strangely; it seemed that the pressure of Jan’s fingers had left an indelible imprint. Mary was getting into the front seat, too.

    "Move over, Bigger," she said.

    He moved closer to Jan. Mary pushed herself in, wedging tightly between him and the outer door of the car. There were white people to either side of him; he was sitting between two vast white looming walls. Never in his life had he been so close to a white woman. He smelt the odor of her hair and felt the soft pressure of her thigh against his own. (1.1025-1039)

    Though Jan and Mary are trying to treat Bigger as an equal, he believes they’re making fun of him. This scene, like the one previous to it, demonstrates how different black and white cultures are, and how little Mary, Jan, and Bigger comprehend those differences.

    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 of his people. Suddenly he wanted to seize some heavy object in his hand and grip it with all the strength of his body and in some strange way rise up and stand in naked space above the speeding car and with one final blow blot it out—with himself and then in it. His heart was beating fast and he struggled to control his breath. This thing was getting the better of him; he felt that he should not give way to his feelings like this. But he could not help it. Why didn’t they leave him alone? What had he done to them? What good could they get out of sitting here making him feel so miserable?

    "Tell me where it is, Bigger," Jan said.

    "Yessuh."

    Bigger looked out and saw that they were at Forty-sixth Street.

    "It’s at the end of the next block, suh."

    "Can I park along here somewhere?"

    "Oh; yessuh."

    "Bigger, please ! Don’t say sir to me. . . .I don’t like it. You’re a man just like I am; I’m no better than you. Maybe other white men like it. But I don’t. Look, Bigger. . . ."

    "Yes. . . ." Bigger paused, swallowed, and looked down at his black hands. "O.K.," he mumbled, hoping that they did not hear the choke in his voice.

    "You see, Bigger. . . ." Jan began.

    Mary reached her hand round back of Bigger and touched Jan’s shoulder.

    "Let’s get out," she said hurriedly.

    Jan pulled the car to the curb and opened the door and stepped out. Bigger slipped behind the steering wheel again, glad to have room at last for his arms and legs. Mary got out of the other door. Now, he could get some rest. So intensely taken up was he with his own immediate sensations, that he did not look up until he felt something strange in the long silence. When he did look he saw, in a split second of time, Mary turn her eyes away from his face. She was looking at Jan and Jan was looking at her. There was no mistaking the meaning of the look in their eyes. To Bigger it was plainly a bewildered and questioning look, a look that asked: What on earth is wrong with him? Bigger’s teeth clamped tight and he stared straight before him.

    "Aren’t you coming with us, Bigger?" Mary asked in a sweet tone that made him want to leap at her.

    The people in Ernie’s Kitchen Shack knew him and he did not want them to see him with these white people. He knew that if he went in they would ask one another: Who’re them white folks Bigger’s hanging around with?

    "I—I. . . . I don’t want to go in. . . ."he whispered breathlessly.

    "Aren’t you hungry?" Jan asked.

    "Naw; I ain’t hungry."

    Jan and Mary came close to the car.

    "Come and sit with us anyhow," Jan said.

    "I. . . .I. . . ." Bigger stammered.

    "It’ll be all right," Mary said.

    "I can stay here. Somebody has to watch the car," he said.

    "Oh, to hell with the car!" Mary said. "Come on in."

    "I don’t want to eat," Bigger said stubbornly.

    "Well," Jan sighed. "If that’s the way you feel about it, we won’t go in."

    Bigger felt trapped. Oh, Goddamn! He saw in a flash that he could have made all of this very easy if he had simply acted from the beginning as if they were doing nothing unusual. But he did not understand them; he distrusted them, really hated them. He was puzzled as to why they were treating him this way. But, after all, this was his job and it was just as painful to sit here and let them stare at him as it was to go in.

    "O.K.," he mumbled angrily.

    He got out and slammed the door. Mary came close to him and caught his arm. He stared at her in a long silence; it was the first time he had ever looked directly at her, and he was able to do so only because he was angry.

    "Bigger," she said, "you don’t have to come in unless you really want to. Please, don’t think. . . .Oh, Bigger. . . .We’re not trying to make you feel badly. . . ."

    Her voice stopped. In the dim light of the street lamp Bigger saw her eyes cloud and her lips tremble. She swayed against the car. He stepped backward, as though she were contaminated with an invisible contagion. Jan slipped his arm about her waist, supporting her. Bigger heard her sob softly. Good God! He had a wild impulse to turn around and walk away. He felt ensnared in a tangle of deep shadows, shadows as black as the night that stretched above his head. The way he had acted had made her cry, and yet the way she had acted had made him feel that he had to act as he had toward her. In his relations with her he felt that he was riding a seesaw, never were they on a common level; either he or she was up in the air. Mary dried her eyes and Jan whispered something to her. Bigger wondered what he could say to his mother, or the relief, or Mr. Dalton, if he left them. They would be sure to ask why he had walked off his job, and he would not be able to tell. (1. 1066-1097)

    Jan and Mary admit how little they know about the way black people live, but at the same time, you can tell they really have no idea how little they know, after all. And they have no idea what kind of position they’re putting Bigger in, even though they think they’re being progressive.

    "No, I want to work among Negroes. That’s where people are needed. It seems as though they’ve been pushed out of everything."

    "That’s true."

    "When I see what they’ve done to those people, it makes me so mad. . . ."

    "Yes; it’s awful."

    "And I feel so helpless and useless. I want to do something."

    "I knew all along you’d come through."

    "Say, Jan, do you know many Negroes? I want to meet some."

    "I don’t know any very well. But you’ll meet them when you’re in the Party."

    "They have so much emotion! What a people! If we could ever get them going. . . ."

    "We can’t have a revolution without ‘em," Jan said. "They’ve got to be organized. They’ve got spirit. They’ll give the Party something it needs."

    "And their songs—the spirituals! Aren’t they marvelous?" Bigger saw her turn to him. "Say, Bigger, can you sing?" (1.1201-1211)

    Jan and Mary discuss the terrible things that have been done to black people while Bigger listens in. Although they mean well, it’s insulting at the same time; they’re discussing Bigger’s situation in front of him without including him.

    Vera brought her plate and sat opposite him. Bigger felt that even though her face was smaller and smoother than his mother’s, the beginning of the same tiredness was already there. How different Vera was from Mary! He could see it in the very was Vera moved her hand when she carried the fork to her mouth; she seemed to be shrinking from life in every gesture she made. The very manner in which she sat showed a fear so deep as to be an organic part of her; she carried the food to her mouth in tiny bits, as if dreading its choking her, or fearing that it would give out too quickly. (2.154)

    Bigger realizes that his sister Vera lives with the same fear he does—and he realizes that Mary lived without fear. This has everything to do with race and class.

    "Bigger, honey. I—I don’t know," she said plaintively.

    "You wanted me to tell you."

    "I’m scared."

    "Don’t you trust me?"

    "But we ain’t never done nothing like this before. They’ll look everywhere for us for something like this. It ain’t like coming to where I work at night when the white folks is gone out of town stealing something. It ain’t. . . ."

    "It’s up to you."

    "I’m scared, Bigger."

    "Who on earth’ll think we did it?"

    "I don’t know. You really think they don’t know where the girl is?"

    "I know they don’t."

    "You know?"

    "Naw."

    "She’ll turn up."

    "She won’t. And, anyhow, she’s a crazy girl. They might even think she’s in it herself, just to get money from her family. They might think the Reds is doing it. They won’t think we did. They don’t think we got enough guts to do it. They think niggers is too scared..." (2.784-797)

    Bigger tries to coax Bessie to join him in sending a kidnap note to the Daltons, in order to get money, but fear prevents her. This is Bigger’s exact reasoning why they’ll never be suspected—because everybody would think black people are too scared and oppressed to perform such a blatant criminal action.

    Again the men turned to Bigger. He felt this time he had to say something more to them. Jan was saying that he was lying and he had to wipe out doubt in their minds. They would think that he knew more than he was telling if he did not talk. After all, their attitude toward him so far made him feel that they did not consider him as being mixed up in the kidnapping. He was just another black ignorant Negro to them. The main thing was to keep their minds turned in another direction, Jan’s direction, or that of Jan’s friends.

    "Say," one of the men asked, coming close to him and placing a foot upon the edge of the trunk. "Did this Erlone fellow talk to you about Communism?"

    "Yessuh."

    "Oh!" Britten exclaimed.

    "What?"

    "I forgot! Let me show you fellows the stuff he gave the boy to read."

    Britten stood up, his face flushed with eagerness. He ran his hand into his pocket and pulled forth the batch of pamphlets that Jan had given Bigger and held them up for all to see. The men again go their bulbs and flashed their lightning to take pictures of the pamphlets. Bigger could hear their hard breathing; he knew that they were excited. When they finished, they turned to him again.

    "Say, boy, was this guy drunk?"

    "Yessuh."

    "And the girl, too?"

    "Yessuh."

    "He took the girl upstairs when they got here?"

    "Yessuh."

    "Say, boy, what do you think of public ownership? Do you think the government ought to build houses for people to live in?"

    Bigger blinked.

    "Suh?"

    "Well, what do you think of private property?"

    "I don’t own any property. Nawsuh," Bigger said.

    "Aw, he’s a dumb cluck. He doesn’t know anything," one of the men whispered in a voice loud enough for Bigger to hear.

    There was a silence. Bigger leaned against the wall, hoping that this would satisfy them for a time, at least. The draft could not be heard in the furnace now at all. The door opened again and Peggy came into view carrying a pot of coffee in one hand and a folding card table in the other. One of the men went up the steps and met her, took the table, opened it, and placed it for her. She set the pot upon it. Bigger saw a thin spout of steam jutting from the pot and smelt the good scent of coffee. He wanted some, but he knew that he should not ask with the white men waiting to drink.

    "Thank you, sirs," Peggy mumbled, looking humbly round at the strange faces of the men. "I’ll get the sugar and cream and some cups."

    "Say, boy," Britten said. "Tell the men how Jan made you eat with ‘im."

    "Yeah; tell us about it."

    "Is it true?"

    "Yessuh."

    "You didn’t want to eat with ‘im, did you?

    "Nawsuh."

    "Did you ever eat with white people before?"

    "Nawsuh."

    "Did this guy Erlone say anything to you about white women?"

    "Oh, nawsuh."

    "How did you feel, eating with him and Miss Dalton?"

    "I don’t know, suh. It was my job."

    "You didn’t feel just right, did you?"

    "Well, suh. They told me to eat and I ate. It was my job."

    "In other words, you felt you had to eat or lose your job?"

    "Yessuh," said Bigger, feeling that this ought to place him in the light of a helpless, bewildered man.

    "Good God!" said one of them men. "What a story! Don’t you see it? These Negroes want to be left alone and these Reds are forcing ‘em to live with ‘em, see? Every wire in the country’ll carry it!"

    "This is better than Loeb and Leopold," said one.

    "Say, I’m slanting this to the primitive Negro who doesn’t want to be disturbed by white civilization." (2.1850-1889)

    Bigger’s strategy is to allow Britten and the journalists’ ingrained belief that black men are dumb to work in his favor and keep them suspecting Jan instead of him. Even though Bigger doesn’t like the results of racism, he’s not above using prejudice as a tool.

    Police are not yet satisfied with the account Erlone has given of himself and are of the conviction that he may be linked to the Negro as an accomplice; they feel that the plan of the murder and kidnapping was too elaborate to be the work of a Negro mind. (2.2150)

    Though the people believe Bigger is guilty and want to punish him, they do not think he’s smart enough to have killed Mary on his own. This is, to some degree, the exact mindset Bigger counted on to protect him from suspicion – the idea that nobody would believe that he, a black man, had done this terrible thing and killed a white woman.

    Emerging from a stupor for the first time since his capture last Monday night, the black killer sat cowed and fearful as hundreds sought to get a glimpse of him.

    "He looks exactly like an ape!" exclaimed a terrified young white girl who watched the black slayer being loaded onto a stretcher after he had fainted.

    Though the Negro killer’s body does not seem compactly built, he gives the impression of possessing abnormal physical strength. He is about five feet, nine inches tall and his skin is exceedingly black. His lower jaw protrudes obnoxiously, reminding one of a jungle beast.

    His arms are long, hanging in a dangling fashion to his knees. It is easy to imagine how this man, in the grip of a brain-numbing sex passion, overpowered little Mary Dalton, raped her, murdered her, beheaded her, then stuffed her body into a roaring furnace to destroy the evidence of his crime.

    His shoulders are huge, muscular, and he keeps them hunched, as if about to spring upon you at any moment. He looks at the world with a strange, sullen, fixed-from-under stare, as though defying all efforts of compassion.

    All in all, he seems a beast utterly untouched by the softening influences of modern civilization. In speech and manner he lacks the charm of the average, harmless, genial, grinning southern darky so beloved by the American people.

    The moment the killer made his appearance at the inquest, there were shouts of "Lynch ‘im! Kill ‘im!"

    But the brutish Negro seemed indifferent to his fate, as though inquests, trials, and even the looming certainty of the electric chair held no terror for him. He acted like an earlier missing link in the human species. He seemed out of place in a white man’s civilization.

    An Irish police captain remarked with deep conviction: "I’m convinced that death is the only cure for the likes of him."

    For three days the Negro has refused all nourishment. Police believe that he is either trying to starve himself to death and cheat the chair, or that he is trying to excite sympathy for himself.

    From Jackson, Mississippi, came a report yesterday from Edward Robertson, editor of the Jackson Daily Star , regarding Bigger Thomas’ boyhood there. The editor wired:

    "Thomas comes of a poor darky family of a shiftless and immoral variety. He was raised here and is known to local residents as an irreformable sneak thief and liar. We were unable to send him to the chain gang because of his extreme youth.

    "Our experience here in Dixie with such depraved types of Negroes has shown that only the death penalty, inflicted in a public and dramatic manner, has any influence upon their peculiar mentality. Had that nigger Thomas lived in Mississippi and committed such a crime, no power under Heaven could have saved him from death at the hands of indignant citizens.

    "I think it but proper to inform you that in many quarters it is believed that Thomas, despite his dead-black complexion, may have a minor portion of white blood in his veins, a mixture which generally makes for a criminal and intractable nature.

    "Down here in Dixie we keep Negroes firmly in their places and we make them know that if they so much as touch a white woman, good or bad, they cannot live.

    "When Negroes become resentful over imagined wrongs, nothing brings them to their senses so quickly as when citizens take the law into their hands and make an example out of a trouble-making nigger.

    "Crimes such as the Bigger Thomas murders could be lessened by segregating all Negroes in parks, playgrounds, cafes, theatres, and street cars. Residential segregation is imperative. Such measures tend to keep them as much as possible out of direct contact with white women and lessen their attacks against them.

    "We of the South believe that the North encourages Negroes to get more education that they are organically capable of absorbing, with the result that northern Negroes are generally more unhappy and restless than those of the South. If separate schools were maintained, it would be fairly easy to limit the Negroes’ education by regulating the appropriation of moneys through city, county, and state legislative bodies.

    "Still another psychological deterrent can be attained by conditioning Negroes so that they have to pay deference to the white person with whom they come in contact. This is done by regulating their speech and actions. We have found that the injection of an element of constant fear has aided us greatly in handling the problem." (3.40-58)

    A newspaper article that discusses Bigger’s crime and trial portrays black people as savage and less evolutionarily advanced.

    Bigger understood that Jan was not holding him guilty for what he had done. Was this a trap? He looked at Jan and saw a white face, but an honest face. This white man believed in him, and the moment he felt that belief he felt guilty again; but in a different sense now. Suddenly, this white man had come up to him, flung aside the curtain and walked into the room of his life. Jan had spoken a declaration of friendship that would make other white men hate him: a particle of white hate had rolled down the slope, stopping still at his feet. The word had become flesh. For the first time in his life a white man became a human being to him; and the reality of Jan’s humanity came in a stab of remorse: he had killed what this man loved and had hurt him. He saw Jan as though someone had performed an operation upon his eyes, or as though someone had snatched a deforming mask from Jan’s face. (3.99)

    Jan’s actions speak louder than the preacher’s words and Bigger begins (barely) to see that white men are also humans, like him, and not gods. The statement "the word became flesh" is a biblical reference that refers to God (the Word that created the universe in Genesis) becoming flesh (Jesus).

    Bigger was crushed, helpless. His lips dropped wide apart. He felt frozen, numb. He had completely forgotten Bessie during the inquest of Mary. He understood what was being done. To offer the dead body of Bessie as evidence and proof that he had murdered Mary would make him appear as a monster; it would stir up more hate against him. Bessie’s death had not been mentioned during the inquest and all of the white faces in the room were utterly surprised. It was not because he had thought any the less of Bessie that he had forgotten her, but Mary’s death had caused him the most fear; not her death in itself, but what it meant to him as a Negro. They were bringing Bessie’s body in now to make the white men and women feel that nothing short of a quick blotting out of his life would make the city safe again. They were using his having killed Bessie to kill him for his having killed Mary, to cast him in a light that would sanction any action taken to destroy him. Though he had killed a black girl and a white girl, he knew that it would be for the death of the white girl that he would be punished. The black girl was merely "evidence." And under it all he knew that the white people did not really care about Bessie’s being killed. White people never searched for Negroes who killed other Negroes. He had even heard it said that white people felt it was good when on e Negro killed another; it meant that they had one Negro less to contend with. Crime for a Negro was only when he harmed whites, took white lives, or injured white property. As time passed he could not help looking and listening to what was going on in the room. His eyes rested wistfully on the still oblong white draped form under the sheet on the table and he felt a deeper sympathy for Bessie than at any time when she was alive. He knew that Bessie, too, though dead, though killed by him, would resent her dead body being used in this way. Anger quickened in him: an old feeling that Bessie had often described to him when she had come home from long hours of hot toil in the white folks’ kitchens, a feeling of being forever commanded by others so much that thinking and feeling for one’s self was impossible. Not only had he lived where they told him to live, not only had he done what they told him to do, not only had he done these things until he had killed to be quit of them; but even after obeying, after killing, they still ruled him. He was their property, heart and soul, body and blood; what they did claimed every atom of him, sleeping and waking; it colored life and dictated the terms of death. (3.821)

    Bigger realizes that Bessie’s death will be subsumed and ignored, used only as evidence, under the attempt to punish the killer of a white girl. For the court, Bessie’s death doesn’t matter at all simply because of her race.

    "I don’t know. She didn’t do nothing to me." He paused and ran his hand nervously across his forehead. "She... It was... Hell, I don’t know. She asked me a lot of questions. She acted and talked in a way that made me hate her. She made me feel like a dog. I was so mad I wanted to cry... " His voice trailed off in a plaintive whimper. He licked his lips. He was caught in a net of vague, associative memory: he saw an image of his little sister, Vera, sitting on the edge of a chair crying because he had shamed her by "looking" at her; he saw her rise and fling her shoe at him. He shook his head, confused. "Aw, Mr. Max, she wanted me to tell her how Negroes live. She got into the front seat of the car where I was..."

    "But Bigger, you don’t hate people for that. She was being kind to you..."

    "Kind, hell! She wasn’t kind to me!"

    "What do you mean? She accepted you as another human being."

    "Mr. Max, we’re all split up. What you say is kind ain’t kind at all. I didn’t know nothing about that woman. All I knew was that they kill us for women like her. We live apart. And then she comes and acts like that to me."

    "Bigger, you should have tried to understand. She was acting toward you only as she knew how."

    Bigger glared about the small room, searching for an answer. He knew that his actions did not seem logical and he gave up trying to explain them logically. He reverted to his feelings as a guide in answering max.

    "Well, I acted toward her only as I know how. She was rich. She and her kind own the earth. She and her kind say black folks are dogs. They don’t let you do nothing but what they want. . . ."

    "But Bigger, this woman was trying to help you!"

    "She didn’t act like it."

    "How should she have acted?"

    "Aw. I don’t know, Mr. Max. White folks and black folks is strangers. We don’t know what each other is thinking. Maybe she was trying to be kind; but she didn’t act like it. To me she looked and acted like all other white folks. . . ."

    "But she’s not to be blamed for that, Bigger."

    "She’s the same color as the rest of ‘em," he said defensively.

    "I don’t understand, Bigger. You say you hated her and yet you say you felt like having her when you were in the room and she was drunk and you were drunk. . . ."

    "Yeah," Bigger said, wagging his head and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Yeah; I reckon it was because I knew I oughtn’t’ve wanted to. I reckon it was because they say we black men do that anyhow. Mr. Max, you know what some white men say we black men do? They say we rape white women when we got the clap and they say we do that because we believe that if we rape white women they we’ll get rid of the clap. That’s what some white men say. They believe that. Jesus, Mr. Max, when folks say things like that about you, you whipped before you born. What’s the use? Yeah; I reckon I was feeling that way when I was in the room with her. They say we do things like that and they say it to kill us. They 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. They feel they ought to kill you then. Everybody wants to kill you then. Yeah; I reckon I was feeling that way and maybe the reason was because they say it. Maybe that was the reason." (3.1045-1060)

    Bigger explains how Mary made him feel, even if she was trying to be progressive and kind. Max tries to get Bigger to see Mary as an individual. In turn, Bigger tries to get Max to see why it’s impossible for him to do that.

  • Power

    The woman on the bed continued to sob. Bigger took a piece of newspaper and gingerly lifted the rat by its tail and held it out at arm’s length.

    "Bigger, take ‘im out," Vera begged again.

    Bigger laughed and approached the bed with the dangling rat, swinging it to and fro like a pendulum, enjoying his sister’s fear.

    "Bigger!" Vera gasped convulsively; she screamed and swayed and closed her eyes and fell headlong across her mother and rolled limply from the bed to the floor.

    "Bigger, for God’s sake!" the mother sobbed, rising and bending over Vera. "Don’t do that! Throw that rat out!" (1.66-70)

    Bigger taunts his sister with the rat’s dead body, demonstrating his power over her. This is one of the few times that Bigger has any power, and he uses it to intimidate others, something that many of the white characters do with their power.

    "Well, if you feel like it, set the table," the mother said, going behind the curtain again. "Lord, I get so tired of this I don’t know what to do," her voice floated plaintively from behind the curtain. "All I ever do is try to make a home for you children and you don’t care."

    "Aw, ma," Vera protested. "Don’t say that."

    "Vera, sometimes I just want to lay down and quit."

    "Ma, please don’t say that."

    "I can’t last many more years, living like this."

    "I’ll be old enough to work soon, Ma."

    "I reckon I’ll be dead then. I reckon God’ll call me home."

    Vera went behind the curtain and Bigger heard her trying to comfort his mother. He shut their voices out of his mind. He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair. So he held toward them an attitude of iron reserve; he lived with them, but behind a wall, a curtain. And toward himself he was even more exacting. He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else. So he denied himself and acted tough. (1.122-129)

    Though Bigger is powerless to change the way his family lives, his entire identity is shaped by it. He feels guilt, remorse, fear, and shame altogether when he thinks about it—but he refuses to dwell on it because that would make life unbearable. It is his very powerlessness that makes him feel guilt and shame.

    "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: white people have power and black people have none. Each white person they choose to play has power, which he uses unsparingly against those who are helpless.

    He looked round the street and saw a sign on a building: THIS PROPERTY IS MANAGED BY THE SOUTH SIDE REAL ESTATE COMPANY. He had heard that Mr. Dalton owned the South Side Real Estate Company, and the South Side Real Estate Company owned the house in which he lived. He paid eight dollars a week for one rat-infested room. He had never seen Mr. Dalton until he had come to work for him; his mother always took the rent to the real estate office. Mr. Dalton was somewhere far away, high up, distant, like a god. He owned property all over the Black Belt, and he owned property where white folks lived, too. But Bigger could not live in a building across the "line." Even though Mr. Dalton gave millions of dollars for Negro education, he would rent houses to Negroes only in this prescribed area, this corner of the city tumbling down from rot. In a sullen way Bigger was conscious of this. Yes; he would send the kidnap note. He would jar them out of their senses. (2.1235)

    As Bigger realizes the way Mr. Dalton controls the way his family lives, and how he keeps them in poverty, Bigger decides to go ahead and wield the power he has over Mr. Dalton and send the ransom note. To Bigger, it seems like a fitting revenge.

    "Mr. Max, a guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything... You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing. You just keep moving all the time, doing what other folks say. You ain’t a man no more. You just work say in and day out so the world can roll on and other people can live. You know, Mr. Max, I always think of white folks. . ."

    He paused. Max leaned forward and touched him. "Go on, Bigger."

    "Well, they own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They like God..." he swallowed, closed his eyes and sighed. "They don’t even let you feel what you want to feel. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die." (3.1084-1087)

    Bigger explains that white people have so much power, they’re like God; they keep black people from doing anything they need or want to do.

  • Shame

    "Is you Mrs. Dalton?" she asked.

    Mrs. Dalton moved nervously, lifted her thin, white hands and tilted her head. Her mouth came open and Mr. Dalton placed an arm about her.

    "Yes," Mrs. Dalton whispered.

    "Oh, Mrs. Dalton, come right this way," Buckley said hurriedly.

    "No; please," Mrs. Dalton said. "What is it, Mrs. Thomas?"

    Bigger’s mother ran and knelt on the floor at Mrs. Dalton’s feet.

    "Please, mam!" she wailed. "Please, don’t let ‘em kill my boy! You know how a mother feels! Please, mam. . . .We live in your house. . . .They done asked us to move. . . .We ain’t got nothing. . . ."

    Bigger was paralyzed with shame; he felt violated. (3.254-261)

    Bigger’s mother reveals her powerlessness. Her revelation makes Bigger feel the same shame he always feels when he realizes that he has no power.

    Bigger sat down on the edge of the chair and did not answer. The room was small. A single yellow electric globe dropped from the ceiling. There was one barred window. All about them was profound silence. Max sat opposite Bigger and Bigger’s eyes met his and fell. Bigger felt that he was sitting and holding his life helplessly in his hands, waiting for Max to tell him what to do with it; and it made him hate himself. An organic wish to cease to be, to stop living, seized him. Either he was too weak, or the world was too strong; he did not know which. Over and over he had tried to create a world to live in, and over and over he had failed. Now, once again, he was waiting for someone to tell him something; once more he was poised on the verge of action and commitment. Was he letting himself in for more hate and fear? What could Max do for him now? Even if Max tried hard and honestly, were there not thousands of white hands to stop Max? Why not tell him to go home? His lips trembled to speak, to tell Max to leave; but no words came. He felt that even in speaking in that way he would be indicating how hopeless he felt, thereby disrobing his soul to more shame. (3.956)

    Bigger realizes that if he shows how hopeless he feels, it will betray how desperate his situation as a black man is to a white man. Again, Bigger’s lack of power makes him feel shame.

    He wondered if it were possible that after all everybody in the world felt alike? Did those who hated him have in them the same thing Max had seen in him, the thing that had made Max ask him those questions? And what motive could Max have in helping? Why would Max risk that white tide of hate to help him? For the first time in his life he had gained a pinnacle of feeling upon which he could stand and see vague relations that he had never dreamed of. If that white looming mountain of hate were not a mountain at all, but people, people like himself, and like Jan—then he was faced with a high hope the like of which he had never thought could be, and a despair the full depths of which he knew he could not stand to feel. A strong counter-emotion waxed in him, urging him, warning him to leave this newly-seen and newly-felt thing alone, that it would lead him to but another blind alley, to deeper hate and shame. (3.1205)

    Bigger begins to realize that, white or black, people are all the same. Yet, paradoxically, he’s overwhelmed with the realization that going down that path would lead to fear and shame if he turns out to be wrong.

  • Criminality

    You’ll regret how you living some day," she went on. "If you don’t stop running with that gang of yours and do right you’ll end up where you never thought you would. You think I don’t know what you boys is doing, but I do. And the gallows is at the end of the road you traveling, boy, Just remember that." She turned and looked at Buddy. "Throw that box outside, Buddy." (1.117)

    Bigger’s mother chides him for his no-good way of life, our first hint that Bigger may not be altogether "good."

    With his hands deep in his pockets, another cigarette slanting across his chin, he brooded and watched the men at work across the street. They were pasting a huge colored poster to a signboard. The poster showed a white face.

    "That’s Buckley!" He spoke softly to himself. "He’s running for State’s Attorney again." The men were slapping the poster with wet brushes. He looked at the round florid face and wagged his head. "I bet that sonofabitch rakes off a million bucks in graft a year. Boy, if I was in his shoes for just one day I’d never have to worry again."

    When the men were through they gathered up their pails and brushes and got into the truck and drove off. He looked at the poster: the white face was fleshy but stern; one hand was uplifted and its index finger pointed straight out into the street at each passer-by. The poster showed one of those faces that looked straight at you when you looked at it and all the while you were walking and turning your head to look at it it kept looking unblinkingly back at you until you got so far from it you had to take your eyes away, and then it stopped, like a movie blackout. Above the top of the poster were tall red letters: YOU CAN’T WIN!

    He snuffed his cigarette and laughed silently. "You crook," he mumbled, shaking his head. "You let whoever pays you off win!" (1.171-174)

    Bigger conceives of Buckley’s power as illicitly gained or bought. He recognizes that power is not necessarily righteous, that being on the right side of the law the way Buckley is doesn’t necessarily mean that Buckley’s hands are clean.

    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 of 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.

    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 is considered a real crime will bring the full weight of the law down upon them.

    He spoke without looking. His entire body hungered for keen sensation, something exciting and violent to relieve the tautness. It was now ten minutes to three and Gus had not come. If Gus stayed away much longer, it would be too late. And Gus knew that. If they were going to do anything, it certainly ought to be done before folks started coming into the streets to buy their food for supper, and while the cop was down at the other end of the block.

    "That bastard!" Bigger said. "I knew it!"

    "Oh, he’ll be along," Jack said.

    "Sometimes I’d like to cut his yellow heart out," Bigger said, fingering the knife in his pocket.

    "Maybe he’s hanging around some meat," G.H. said.

    "He’s just scared," Bigger said. "Scared to rob a white man."



    "There you go again, Bigger," G.H. said. "Gus was just talking about how you act this morning. You get too nervous when something’s coming off…"

    "Don’t tell me I’m nervous," Bigger said. (1.530-539)

    Bigger doesn’t really want to be a criminal, as evidenced by his deep desire for Gus to stay away so they don’t have to rob Blum’s store. The problem is he feels he has few other choices. So when Gus shows up after all, Bigger’s reaction is senseless violence. Subconsciously, however, he is trying to prevent them all from going to rob Blum’s store.

    He stood and listened. Mrs. Dalton might be out there in the hallway. How could he get out of the room? He all but shuddered with the intensity of his loathing for this house and all it had made him feel since he had first come into it. He reached his hand behind him and touched the wall; he was glad to have something solid at his back. He looked at the shadowy bed and remembered Mary as some person he had not seen in a long time. She was still there. Had he hurt her? He went to the bed and stood over her; her face lay sideways on the pillow. His hand moved over her, but stopped in mid-air. He blinked his eyes and stared at Mary’s face; it was darker than when he had first bent over her. Her mouth was open and her eyes bulged glassily. Her bosom, her bosom, her – her bosom was not moving! He could not hear her breath coming and going now as he had when he first brought her into the room! He bent and moved her head with his hand and found that she was relaxed and limp. He snatched his hand away. Thought and feeling were balked in him; there was something he was trying to tell himself, desperately, but could not. Then, convulsively, he sucked his breath in and huge words formed slowly, ringing in his ears: She’s dead…

    The reality of the room fell from him; the vast city of white people that sprawled outside took its place. She was dead and he had killed her. He was a murderer, a Negro murderer, a black murderer. He had killed a white woman. He had to get away from here. (1.1353-1354)

    Bigger realizes he’s inadvertently killed Mary. As a black man who has killed a white girl, it doesn’t matter that it was an accident because the white courts will see him as a criminal.

    "I know," Max said. "But those things don’t touch the fundamental problem involved here. This boy comes from an oppressed people. Even if he’s done wrong, we must take that into consideration." (3.190)

    Boris Max suggests that Bigger’s crime was, in part, a product of the racist environment in which he grew up. In other words, though it might not have been Bigger’s fate to murder Mary, it was inevitable when he was put in that situation due to factors outside of his control.

  • Religion

    He walked home with a mounting feeling of fear. When he reached his doorway, he hesitated about going up. He didn’t want to rob Blum’s; he was scared. But he had to go through with it now. Noiselessly, he went up the steps and inserted his keys in the lock; the door swung in silently and he heard his mother singing behind the curtain.

    Lord, I want to be a Christian,
    In my heart, in my heart,
    Lord, I want to be a Christian,
    In my heart, in my heart…


    He tiptoed into the room and lifted the top mattress of his bed and pulled forth the gun and slipped it inside of his shirt. Just as he was about to open the door his mother paused in her singing. (1.521-523)

    As he reluctantly plans to rob Blum’s store, Bigger hears his mother singing a religious song. The irony is lost on him.

    He went to the window and looked out; in front of him, down a few feet, through a window, was a dim-lit church. In it a crowd of black men and women stood between long rows of wooden benches, singing, clapping hands, and rolling their heads. Aw, them folks go to church every day in the week, he thought. He licked his lips and got another drink of water. How near were the police? What times was it? He looked at his watch and found that it had stopped running; he had forgotten to wind it. The singing from the church vibrated through him, suffusing him with a mood of sensitive sorrow. He tried not to listen, but it seeped into his feelings, whispering of another way of life and death, coaxing him to lie down and sleep and let them come and get him, urging him to believe that all life was a sorrow that had to be accepted. He shook his head, trying to rid himself of the music. How long had he slept? What were the papers saying now? He had two cents left; that would buy a Times. He picked up what remained of the loaf of bread and the music sang of surrender, resignation. Steal away, Steal away, Steal away to Jesus…. He stuffed the bread into his pockets; he would eat it some time later. He made sure that his gun was still intact, hearing Steal away, Steal away home, I ain’t got long to stay here…. It was dangerous to stay here, but it was also dangerous to go out. The singing filled his ears; it was complete, self-contained, and it mocked his fear and loneliness, his deep yearning for a sense of wholeness. Its fullness contrasted so sharply with his hunger, its richness with his emptiness, that he recoiled from it while answering it. Would it not have been better for him had he lived in that world the music sang of? It would have been easy to have lived in it, for it was his mother’s world, humble, contrite, believing. It had a center, a core, an axis, a heart which he needed but could never have unless he laid his head upon a pillow of humility and gave up his hope of living in the world. And he would never do that. (2.2199)

    Bigger contrasts the warmth and love people feel within the church with the emptiness he feels as he flees society because of his crime.

    "I’m praying for you, son. That’s all I can do now," she said. "The Lord knows I did all I could for you and your sister and brother… and if I left anything undone, it’s just ‘cause I didn’t know... When I heard the news of what happened, I got on my knees and turned my eyes to God and asked Him if I had raised you wrong... Listen, son, your poor old ma wants you to promise her one thing... Honey, when ain’t nobody around you, when you alone, get on your knees and tell God everything. Ask Him to guide you. That’s all you can do now. Son, promise me you’ll go to Him. (3.227-240)

    Mrs. Thomas’s one hope is in the afterlife because life on earth is so miserable.

    It gripped him: that cross was not the cross of Christ, but the cross of the Ku Klux Klan. He had a cross of salvation round his throat and they were burning one to tell him that they hated him! No! He did not want that! Had the preacher trapped him? He felt betrayed. He wanted to tear the cross from his throat and throw it away. They lifted him into the waiting car and he sat between two policemen, still looking fearfully at the fiery cross. The sirens screamed and the cars rolled slowly through the crowded streets and he was feeling the cross that touched his chest, like a knife pointed at his heart. His fingers ached to rip it off; it was an evil and black charm which would surely bring him death now. The cars screamed up State Street, then westward on Twenty-sixth Street, one behind the other…

    With bated breath he tore his shirt open, not caring who saw him. He gripped the cross and snatched it from his throat. He threw it away, cursing a curse that was almost a scream.

    "I don’t want it!"

    The men gasped and looked at him, amazed.

    "Don’t throw that away, boy. That’s your cross!"

    "I can die without a cross!"

    "Only God can help you now, boy. You’d better get your soul right!"

    "I ain’t got no soul!" (8.878-895)

    The way some white people use religion to express their hatred of an entire race causes Bigger to reject religion altogether. He realizes that religion doesn’t offer salvation or hope here on earth. Instead, he suddenly realizes religion only offers hope of help after death, and that is not the help he needs or wants.

    "Did you ever go to church, Bigger?"

    "Yeah; when I was little. But that was a long time ago."

    "Your folks were religious?"

    "Yeah; they went to church all the time."

    "Why did you stop going?"

    "I didn’t like it. There was nothing in it. Aw, all they did was sing and shout and pray all the time. And it didn’t get ‘em nothing. All the colored folks do that, but it don’t get ‘em nothing. The white folks got everything."

    "Did you ever feel happy in church?"

    "Naw. I didn’t want to. Nobody but poor folks get happy in church."

    "But you are poor, Bigger."

    Again Bigger’s eyes lit with a bitter and feverish pride.

    "I ain’t that poor."

    "But Bigger, you said that if you were where people did not hate you and you did not hate them, you could be happy. Nobody hated you in church. Couldn’t you feel at home there?"

    "I wanted to be happy in this world, not out of it. I didn’t want that kind of happiness. The white folks like for us to be religious, then they can do what they want to us." (3.1135-1148)

    Bigger explains that church simply helps "poor folks" feel better about their lot in life. Religion is only for those folks who have nothing left in life. Bigger’s not yet ready to accept that his own life on earth is hopeless.

  • Family

    Buddy opened out a newspaper and covered the smear of blood on the floor where the rat had been crushed. Bigger went to the window and stood looking out abstractedly into the street. His mother glared at his back.

    "Bigger, sometimes I wonder why I birthed you," she said bitterly…

    …"Suppose you wake up some morning and find your sister dead? What would you think then?" she asked. "Suppose those rats cut our veins at night when we sleep? Naw! Nothing like that ever 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! Bigger, honest, you the most no-countest man I ever seen in my life!"

    "You done told me that a thousand times," he said not looking round. (1.87-1.111)

    We begin to see the family dynamics at the Thomas household and they’re hardly heartwarming. Though Ma tries to remind Bigger of his responsibilities, and the sentiment he should hold towards his sister, Bigger holds them at an emotional distance. He doesn’t have a place where he can feel comfortable; even at home, he’s constantly harangued by his mother. If comfort is home, there seems to be no place Bigger can call "home."

    "They’re Christian people and believe in everybody working hard. And living a clean life. Some people think we ought to have more servants than we do, but we get along. It’s just like one big family."

    "Yessum."

    "Mr. Dalton’s a fine man," Peggy said.

    "Oh, yessum. He is."

    "You know, he does a lot for your people."

    "My people?" asked Bigger, puzzled.

    "Yes, the colored people. He gave over five million dollars to colored schools."

    "Oh!"

    "But Mrs. Dalton’s the one who’s really nice. If it wasn’t for her, he would not be doing what he does. She made him rich. She had millions when he married her. Of course, he made a lot of money himself afterwards out of real estate. But most of the money’s hers. She’s blind, poor thing. She lost her sight ten years ago. Did you see her yet?"

    "Yessum." (1.872-180)

    As Peggy gossips with Bigger about the family he’s come to work for, she explains that they’re good people and that they treat their servants well—like family. Of course, this comment by a white servant is put into sharp relief when contrasted with Bigger’s treatment as a black man.

    Bigger sat at the table and waited for food. Maybe this would be the last time he would eat here. He felt it keenly and it helped him to have patience. Maybe some day he would be eating in jail. Here he was sitting with them and they did not know that he had murdered a white girl and cut her head off and burnt her body. The thought of what he had done, the awful horror of it, the daring associated with such actions, formed for him for the first time in his fear-ridden life a barrier of protection between himself and a world he feared. He had murdered and created a new life for himself. It was something that was all his own, and it was the first time in his life he had had anything that others could not take from him. Yes; he could sit here calmly and eat and not be concerned about what his family thought or did. He had a natural wall from behind which he could look at them… He was outside of his family now, over and beyond them…(2.131)

    Bigger’s crime makes him feel impenetrable, completely separated from his family.

    "How you l-l-like them sewing classes at the Y, Vera?" he asked.

    "Bigger," his mother sobbed, trying to talk through her tears. "Bigger, honey, she won’t go to school no more. She says the other girls look at her and make her ‘shamed…."

    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. No matter how much he would long for them to forget him, they would not be able to. His family was a part of him, not only in blood, but in spirit. He sat on the cot and his mother knelt at his feet. Her face was lifted to his; her eyes were empty, eyes that looked upward when the last hope of earth had failed. (3.223-226)

    Bigger realizes that his actions are not his alone—he was never actually separate from his family. What he has done affects them more than he had realized.