Study Guide

Native Son Power

By Richard Wright

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.

"N*****, 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 n*****s 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 n*****s, 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 N**** education, he would rent houses to N****es 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.