Study Guide

Native Son Religion

By Richard Wright

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.