Study Guide

Native Son Criminality

By Richard Wright

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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 sonofab**** 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 N****es. 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 N****es who committed crimes against other N****es. 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 N**** 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.

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