Study Guide

Native Son Shame

By Richard Wright

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"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.

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