Study Guide

Native Son Race

By Richard Wright

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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 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.

"N*****, you nuts!" Gus laughed.

"General!" Bigger tried again, determinedly.

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


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


"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," 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.


"What’s the matter?"

"They don’t let us do nothing."


"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.


"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, n*****, 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.

"N*****, 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?"


"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.


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."


"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?"


"Was she alone?"


"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.


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 N****es. 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 N****es? 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?"


"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 n*****s 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 N**** 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?"


"Oh!" Britten exclaimed.


"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?"


"And the girl, too?"


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


"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.


"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?"


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


"Did you ever eat with white people before?"


"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 N****es 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 N**** 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 N**** as an accomplice; they feel that the plan of the murder and kidnapping was too elaborate to be the work of a N**** 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 N**** 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 N**** 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 N**** 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 N****es has shown that only the death penalty, inflicted in a public and dramatic manner, has any influence upon their peculiar mentality. Had that n***** 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 N****es 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 N****es 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 n*****.

"Crimes such as the Bigger Thomas murders could be lessened by segregating all N****es 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 N****es to get more education that they are organically capable of absorbing, with the result that northern N****es are generally more unhappy and restless than those of the South. If separate schools were maintained, it would be fairly easy to limit the N****es’ education by regulating the appropriation of moneys through city, county, and state legislative bodies.

"Still another psychological deterrent can be attained by conditioning N****es 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 N****. 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 N****es who killed other N****es. He had even heard it said that white people felt it was good when on e N**** killed another; it meant that they had one N**** less to contend with. Crime for a N**** 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 N****es 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.

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