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Slouching toward Beastliness: Richard Wright's Anatomy of Thomas Dixon.

Like Nemesis of Greek tragedy," writes W. E. B. Du Bois L in Black Reconstruction, "the central problem of America after the Civil War, as before, was the black man" (237). U.S. literature has both tried to resolve this problem and contributed to it. Two of the most influential fictional portrayals of African-American men, Uncle Tom and Bigger Thomas, illustrate polarized responses. These protagonists, one notoriously passive and the other violently aggressive, are linked in more than name. Indeed, James Baldwin's complaints in "Everybody's Protest Novel" have made the most important precursor of Richard Wright's character appear to be Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom. [1] But I would like to direct attention to an equally important depiction of the "problem" of African-American masculinity against which Wright defined the protagonist of Native Son: the black male "beast" of Thomas Dixon's novels.

The North Carolinian novelist did not, to be sure, invent this degrading representation of black men. While historians debate how far back the stereotype goes, the "beast" exploded in notoriety in the 1890s, a time of massive black disenfranchisement and the rise of legalized Jim Crow. Whites touted this construct as proof of the supposed "degeneration" of blacks and used it to justify their own increasing acts of brutality during this period (Fredrickson 258, 282, 98). [2] Critical race studies boasts an extensive bibliography on the D. W. Griffith blockbuster The Birth of a Nation (1915), but notes few treatments of the Dixon novels that inspired the racial stereotypes so widely disseminated in that film. [3] As consolidated in these novels, especially The Leopard's Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905), the "beast" stereotype delineates a particular linking of eros and thanatos: the rape of a white woman as prelude to her death and/or to the lynching of her accused rapist. I do not propose a study of Dixon' s direct influence on Wright here but rather an examination of Native Son's complex relation to a pervasive myth, a myth that finds its most complete articulation in Dixon's novels. Convinced that radical Reconstruction--which marked the first attempt in the U.S. to incorporate blacks into the body politic--had unleashed the "beast," Dixon crystallized the anxieties of many whites of his time. [4] Wright interrogates the white fantasy about black "beasts" through a plot centering on a legal lynching in response to a presumed rape that in fact never occurred. Wright so closely examines Dixon's assumptions about black masculinity that Native Son needs to be seen as parodying the white supremacist vision. In anatomizing the "beast," Wright both follows and makes strategic revisions in the stereotype. Much as Dixon sought, by his own admission, to correct Stowe's influential representaton of African Americans, providing what he described as the "true story" of the South (qtd. in Cook, Thomas Dixon 51), so did Wri ght seek to amend the consequential image of the black male "beast" and, with that, the portrait of the nation. [5]

In preparation for writing his socalled Reconstruction Trilogy, Dixon organized over 1000 pages of historical notes (Cook, Thomas Dixon 65), and his perspective can quickly be captured by reviewing his historical assumptions. According to Dioxonian history, after the Civil War white Southerners were perfectly happy to accept their defeat and rejoin the Union. But unscrupulous whites such as Simon Legree (Stowe's villain reappears in The Leopard's Spots as "master artificer of Reconstruction policy" [103], Wall Street millionaire, and evil industrialist) engineered policies that created interracial strife. For instance, The Leopard's Spots depicts the short-lived Freedman's Bureau--created in 1865 to oversee education and free labor while providing provisions and shelter to the destitute--as forcing whites to pay blacks for work they hadn't done, thus precipitating innocent and hard-working whites into bankruptcy. Most omninously, freedom has unleashed the Negro male's lust for the white woman, and the white m an's response is lynching. As Dixon sums up his view, "since the Negroes under Legree's head had drawn the color line in politics, the races had been drifting steadily apart" (197), and lynching--a practice he claims to regret--emerged in response. Dixon glorifies the original Ku Klux Klan as a heroic response to the unleashing of the black "beast" by Reconstruction policies. [6]

Dixon claims never to have forgotten his childhood Reconstruction experiences. In what obviously served as a primal scene that would determine much of his subsequent character, Dixon describes his first contact with the Klan, while his family lived in Shelby, North Carolina. The widow of a Confederate soldier arrived at the Dixon home in tears, claiming that an escaped black convict had raped her daughter. That night, the young Dixon awoke to the sound of horses galloping. Creeping to the doorway, he looked out to see the Klan hanging a black man and riddling the body with bullets (Cook, Thomas Dixon 23). This defining moment in Dixon's childhood fuses sex, race, and violence in a way that he would never forget, and it is not difficult to see in it the germ of the future novelist. "My object," Dixon once explained, "is to teach the north... the awful suffering of white men during the dreadful reconstruction period" (qtd. in Cook, Fire 140). [7]

Wright, growing up in the Jim Crow South two generations after Dixon and on the other side of the color line, had a childhood memory that provided an alternative primal scene. The components are the same--race, sex, and violence--though rather than Dixon's fusion into a scene of traumatic heroism, Wright depicts a youthful revelation that others view his essential nature as depraved and criminal. At age fifteen, Wright took a job doing chores for a white family, the Walls, which provided him with money to pay for books and incidentals. One day he entered Mrs. Wall's bedroom without knocking, his arms filled with wood. She was in the process of dressing, and his generally liberal employers reprimanded him. As Michel Fabre describes the significance of the event, Wright "had...inadvertently broken the barrier protecting white women from black men.... The sin of being a potential... ravisher only reinforced the guilt" that the youth had already accumulated concerning sexuality (47). Wright's and Dixon's traumati c primal scenes helped to shape their decisions to write such differently positioned protest novels.

Given the role that The Birth of a Nation played in disseminating Dixon's ideas, it is appropriate that the first sure sign of Bigger Thomas's "beastliness" occurs in a movie house. The passage as originally published in 1940 juxtaposes a newsreel featuring glorified images of rich white women with Trader Horn, a film depicting "naked black men and women whirling in wild dances and...drums beating" in Africa. The juxtaposition illustrates the interlocking assumptions determining the white fantasy of the "beast": the desirability of white women and the essentially "primitive" nature of people of African descent. The scene as it appears in the restored Library of America text makes the anatomy of the "beast" yet clearer, superimposing on the celluloid images of desirable white femininity and uncivilized Africans the sight of Bigger and company engaging in what Jonathan Elmer calls competitive masturbation (Native 36; Elmer 779). Lying at the center of the "beast" stereotype is the assumption of the black male's uncontrollable sexual appetite, believed to crystallize in the lust for white women. Thus the disturbing juxtapositions in the scene as restored illustrate the process of young black males' watching widely disseminated images of blackness and whiteness while confirming stereotypes about black masculinity.

While commentators have noted Bigger's resemblance to the black "beast," little attention has been paid to the location of the alleged rape: the Daltons' home. As becomes clear in Dixon's novels, multiple meanings of the home structure and indeed rationalize the white fantasy of black "beasts." The Clansman addresses the problem of a nation fragmented, as Dixon sees it, by Reconstruction policies, and he figures the political issues as domestic problems. [8] Dixon's concern with the political implications of domestic arrangements becomes especially clear in his depiction of the radical Republican Congressional leader Austin Stoneman (Dixon's fictionalized version of Thaddeus Stevens), whose real deformity is not the clubfoot the narrator obsessively mentions, but rather his position at the head of a miscegenous household. Or, more precisely, Stoneman's housekeeper Lydia Brown, described as "a mulatto, a woman of extraordinary animal beauty and the fiery temper of a leopardess," presides over his home (57). What scandalizes Dixon is that Lydia exercises unnatural power over Stoneman, who in turn exercises ungodly power over the nation, and thus "the seat of Empire had moved from the White House to a little dark house on the Capital hill. where dwelt an old clubfooted man, alone, attended by a strange brown woman of sinister animal beauty" (79). The torn nation resembles nothing so much as a miscegenous household, and the "first lady of the land" has become "the strange brown woman," Lydia (91).

Dixon is a terrible writer, but he knows enough to pose the solution in the same terms he employs to define the problem: through images of purified homes and consecrated marriages. Although later novels such as The Sins of the Father (1912) show him to be surprisingly critical of slavery, in the Reconstruction Trilogy Dixon posits the peculiar institution as a happy family of whites and blacks destroyed by the Civil War. The horror of Reconstruction lies in its having exchanged slavery, which Dixon paternalistically casts as "the old familiar trust of domestic life," for the "complete alienation of the white and black races" (Leopard 103). As Dixon presents President Lincoln's position early in The Clansman," 'There is no room for two distinct races of white men in America, much less for two distinct races of whites and blacks.... We must assimilate or expel....I can conceive of no greater calamity than the assimilation of the Negro into our social and political life as our equal' "(46). What is interesting i s the positing of two white "races," though Dixon clearly finds the separation of Northern from Southern white man horrific. His narrative means of rectifying this problem is through two unlikely marriages: Stoneman's son Phil and daughter Elsie marry the daughter and son of an ex-Confederate. When Phil Stoneman declares his love to the Southern belle Margaret Cameron, significantly telling her how" 'homelike' "he finds her accent, she asks if he "'won't be disappointed in my simple ideal that finds it's all within a home?' (282). Of course he won't, for "home" is everything in The Clansman. Sex among siblings within the home sounds suspiciously like incest, but the unseemly connotation Dixon's narrative generates by spotlighting marriages of sisters and brothers-in fact, two such marriages-fails to trouble him. Indeed, something very close to incest among whites seems to be Dixon's solution to the threat of miscegenation. [9] That is because consolidating white energies by interbreeding would address the sec ond problem Dixon has Lincoln identify: the impossible coexistence of blacks and whites. The President explains that" 'God never meant that the Negro should leave his habitat or the white man invade his home.... And the tragedy will not be closed until the black man is restored to his home'" (47). Here "home" patently means country and becomes part of the argument for colonization of blacks to Africa. To sum up Dixon's argument, white "races" must intermarry, just as much as blacks and whites must not.

In Native Son, the second dictum voiced by Dixon's Lincoln--that blacks and whites should maintain separate homes--has been accomplished, not by colonization but by Chicago's segregated neighborhoods. Blacks cross the color line only when whites invite them to do so (as servants or other menial workers), or as presumed criminals. No wonder that Bigger, whose crossing of the color line illustrates both propositions, finds his choices so limited. Native Son demonstrates the problem of the nation to be precisely the demarcation of separate "homes" that Dixon hoped to achieve. Wright's hypocritical white capitalist Mr. Dalton owns the South Side Real Estate Company, an institution outrageous enough to force African Americans to pay to maintain the color line. Thus Dixon's solution becomes the problem Wright exposes: Black and white "homes" are fully segregated. Bigger's defense attorney articulates the problem: "'Taken collectively, [Negroes] are not simply twelve million people; in reality they constitute a separate nation, stunted, stripped, and held captive within this nation'" (463). Through segregation and black ghettos, America has achieved the colonization of blacks that Dixon desired, only colonizing them within the nation.

Lying behind the white construct of the black "beast" is the fear that political rights would lead to social contact. This fear motivated the U.S. Supreme Court's regressive interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, intended to secure black citizenship, in Plessy v. Fergusson (1896). Guaranteeing black citizenship could not, the court majority worried, possibly have meant "abolish[ing] distinctions based upon color, or... enforc[ing] social, as distinguished from political equality" (qtd. in Lee Baker 23-24). Dixon captures the white concern that Reconstruction era gains in civil rights for blacks had abolished race distinctions and threatened to result in egalitarian interracial relations. Dixon is so trapped in the logic of dominance and submission that he can only read "the equal rights of man, [to] mea[n], of course, the right of the Negro race to rule the white man of the South, the former slave to rule his master" (Traitor 453).

The Clansman, again, is particularly explicit in illustrating white anxieties concerning the link between political rights for and personal contact with blacks. In this novel Dixon depicts Washington, prior to the Civil War, as ruled "by an aristocracy founded on brains, culture, and blood," but after Reconstruction, ... a Negro electorate" reigned. Drunken, armed, and disrespectful, this newly empowered black citizenry, with its "onion-laden breath, mixed with perspiring African odour, became the symbol of American Democracy" (155). Dixon's revulsion at black male bodies grows hysterical when he imagines them touching the deformed white body of Stoneman, as "two gigantic negroes" carry in the congressman, "his big club foot hanging pathetically from those black arms" (170). In one of the most reprehensible passages of The Clansman, Dixon belabors this point, describing "kinky heads, black skin, thick lips, white teeth, and flat noses ma[king] for the moment a curious symbolic frame for the chalk-white passio n of the old Commoner's [i.e., Stoneman's] face." He continues,

No sculptor ever dreamed a more sinister emblem of the corruption of a race of empire-builders than this group. Its black figures. wrapped in the night of four thousand years of barbarism, squatted there the "equal" of their master, grinning at his forms of Justice, the evolution of forty centuries of Aryan genius. (171)

A later scene depicts the Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina, overtaken by blacks (101 blacks and 23 whites in congress) in similar terms (264-65).

This image of a partly white, partly black body entering the Senate Chamber--the occasion, appropriately, the impeachment of Dixon's fellow Southerner, Andrew Johnson-reveals Dixon's real terror at the prospect of what we might call a mulatto nation. A character in Leopard's Spots voices this fear:" 'Shall the future American be an Anglo-Saxon or a mulatto?'"(82). To Dixon the mulatto nation signifies "barbarism strangling civilisation by brute force" (Clansman 267). Not only does he see "Democracy" (touted by Stoneman) as in conflict with "Civilisation" (the ideal of the Southerner, Cameron), but Dixon finds it easy to choose between them. A democratic mulatto nation is anathema, for as Dixon says through his Southern character, the very idea of "'assimilat[ing]' "blacks is "'pollution'" (Clansman 291). In a 1964 article, Maxwell Bloomfield rightly observes that Dixon was the first novelist to dramatize the Negro "problem" as a matter of national, not merely sectional, concern (400). As Walter Benn Michaels succinctly puts it, for Dixon, "the legitimacy of the state...was guaranteed by its whiteness" (18). It was, after all, Dixon who came up with The Birth of a Nation as the title for Griffith's blockbuster.

As Cameron's talk of assimilation suggests, while the white reaction against black equality is often expressed in horror at the prospect of interracial contact between men, it is centered on fears of miscegenation. One of Dixon's most devious Negroes, the disturbingly named Silas Lynch, demands" 'the privilege of going to see [any white man] in his house or his hotel, eating with him and sleeping with him, and when I see fit, to take his daughter in marriage!"' (Clansman 275). Here lies the emotional center of Dixon: As a white character succinctly puts it in The Leopard's Spots, "'If a man really believes in equality, let him prove it by giving his daughter to a Negro in marriage. That is the test'" (237). The bizarre slippery-slope reasoning, by which political and social equality translates necessarily and inevitably into sexual contact of black men with white women, takes us to the core of the white fantasy of the black beast. In Leopard's Spots Dixon depicts the fancyman mulatto Tim Shelby (Stowe's Kentu cky Shelbys' free slave resurrected as a Negro organizer) as eager for a "'fair white bride'" (75). Shelby seems likely to get what he wants, for the Supreme Court passes a law that not only allows intermarriage but actually" 'command[s] its enforcement on every military post'" (74). The children resulting from this "amalgamation" of races, according to Dixon, "simply meant Africanization. The big nostrils, flat nose, massive jaw, protruding lip and kinky hair will register their animal marks over the proudest intellect and the rarest beauty of any other race. The rule that had no exception was that one drop of Negro blood makes a Negro" (197). In other words, one drop turns a white man into a "beast." Simply put, according to the Dixonian slippery slope, political and social equality leads inexorably to miscegenation, which leads to the "Africanization" (197) of white Americans, extending the reign of the beast. Martha Hodes explains the reaction: "White Southern politicians beg[a]n during the Civil War to c onflate the possibility of freedom...for black men with a fear of widespread sex." After the war, "because it was the men of the free black population who now gained formal political power and began to achieve economic independence, it was they who had enormous power to deny the South's racial caste system." Hodes sums up: "Political power, economic success, and sex with a white woman--all such actions on the part of the black man confounded the lines of racial categories...and therefore became unforgivable transgressions" (145, 147, 157).

Dixon's novels demonstrate that what John Hope Franklin calls "the mythical threat of 'Negro rule' as excuse for [white] lawlessness" (vii)--what I am terming the threat of the mulatto nation--expresses itself fundamentally in terms of sexual anxieties. But like other white supremacists of his time, Dixon painstakingly maintains a double standard. Shockingly, rather than condemn or even ignore the extensive history of couplings of white men and black women--extending back through slavery and the much more common sort of miscegenous relationship in American history--Dixon rationalizes it. When in The Leopard's Spots a deacon from Boston inquires about the offspring of white men and black women, he is informed that" 'this mixture...has no social significance.... It is all the result of the surviving polygamous and lawless instincts of the white male.'" Somehow a matter of instinct but not of race, "racial integrity remains intact" as long as no black man can choose a white woman for a mate (172).[10]

The "mixture" that alarms Dixon, like other white supremacists, is the sexual contact of black men and white women. He can not imagine such liaisons as consensual, and so rape scenes, and scenes of sexual violation narrowly averted, lie at the heart of his novels. Dixon presents rape, in fact, as the inevitable consequence of allowing black men to share power with whites. In The Leopard's Spots, for instance, the poor white family of Tom Camp is twice violated. In the first instance, the "winsome" and "plump" sixteen-year-old daughter Annie is engaged to be married to Hose Norman, until a "black shadow" is cast over the Camp home the day of the wedding (62-63). A "big Negro" accompanied by six of his "scoundrel" friends break into the Camp home, carrying the white virgin off to the woods (63). The enraged father manages to knock down one of the Negroes, using his own wooden leg as a weapon. (One of the few rewards of Dixon's style is such moments of unintentional comedy.) When the bridegroom quails at the fat her's cry to fire, worrying they might inadvertently injure Annie, Camp commands, "'Shoot, men!...there are things worse than death.' "When they bring the mortally wounded (but still virginal) woman back to the house, the father tells the grieving mother not to weep, for they should be" 'thank[ing] God she was saved from them brutes"' (64). Saved, that is, from rape.

The actual rape in Leopard's Spots occurs years later, when Tom Camp's younger daughter, Flora, refuses to display the aversion toward and fear of blacks that Dixon considers normal and self-protective in white women (188-89). When this virgin turns out to be missing, the preacher's prophecy comes true: The white "race" unifies against the threat, "fus[ing] into a homogeneous mass of love, sympathy, hate, and revenge. The rich and the poor, the learned and the ignorant, the banker and the blacksmith, the great and the small, they were all one now" (190). When the now-unified whites discover the girl, she lies on the brink of death:

Flora lay on the ground with her clothes torn to shreds and stained with blood. Her beautiful yellow curls were matted across her forehead in a dark red lump beside a wound where her skull had been crushed. The stone lay at her side, the crimson mark of her life showing on its jagged edges.

With that stone the brute had tried to strike the death blow. She was lying on the edge of the hill with her head up the incline. It was too plain, the terrible crime that had been committed. (191-92)

While Dixon is lavish with violent details, most of them point to murder, few to rape. The only indicator of rape here is Flora's torn clothes. Nevertheless, "the terrible crime"--by which Dixon means rape, not murder--is clearly legible to the entire party. The girl's imminent death comes as something of an anticlimax after the rape.

The Clansman's rape scene is infamous, its shelf life extended by The Birth of a Nation. In this novel, white women uniformly show the fear and aversion toward black males that Dixon finds natural, healthy, and self-protective, and those who don't suffer for their folly. Marion Lenoir, a sixteen-year-old specimen of "the full tropic splendour of Southern girlhood" (284), is torn from her home by "four black brutes" (303). Having experimented with several rape scenes already, in this one Dixon can now evoke the "beast" with more precision:

"We ain't atter money!" [cries one of the black intruders.]

The girl uttered a cry, long, tremulous, heart-rending, piteous. A single tiger-spring, and the black claws of the beast sank into the soft white throat and she was still. (304)

Ben Cameron's prediction--" 'The next step [following Reconstruction] will be a black hand on a white woman's throat'" (262)--has proven true. The rape of Marion provides Dixon's most ideologically loaded account of the activity of the "beast," particularly because she survives it only to commit suicide in horror at her violation.

Wright anatomizes all Dixon's premises when Bigger crosses the color line and enters the Daltons' white house. Mary Dalton and Jan Erlone's fumbling attempts to treat Bigger as equal, not chauffeur, in the car and at Ernie's Kitchen Shack do lead inexorably to the black man's entering the white woman's bedroom, to his becoming a criminal, and to her death. But particularly in his treatment of what Dixon considers decisive proof of black male bestiality--insatiable lust for white women--Wright carefully examines every proposition while providing alternative explanations.

Prior to meeting Mary, Bigger had found all white women "cold and reserve[d]; they stood their distance and spoke to him from afar. But this girl waded right in and hit him between the eyes" (67). Physical proximity soon follows. Once her boyfriend insists on driving the Dalton car himself, Bigger finds himself wedged in tightly between two white people and realizes that "never... 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" (77). The restored passages in Native Son make clear that Mary is not Dixon's chaste pillar of virtue but a sexually active woman. While getting drunk and making out with Jan in the back seat, she inadvertently flashes Bigger "a faint sweep of white thigh," causing him to fight off an erection (89). After Jan leaves, Mary slumps down, "her legs sprawled wide apart." She starts telling Bigger how much she likes him (91). Back at the house, she tells Bigger several times to help her out of the car (93). When Bi gger has to help Mary upstairs because she is too drunk to walk on her own, appropriately "he felt if he were acting upon a stage in front of a crowd of people" (95). He might as well be on stage, for this scene was scripted decades earlier. However much Wright changes the characterization of the main players, Bigger has entered a white-authored script here, the ending of which is overdetermined.

The harrowing scene that follows-with Bigger fondling Mary while her face comes up to kiss him and, when he responds with a kiss, swaying and grinding her pelvis against him--unmasks the Dixonian norm of white female purity as yet another white male fantasy. In attributing fear to certain characters and not to others, Wright further shifts the scene away from the "beast" script. Rather than assigning terror to the white woman, Wright makes Mary too drunk to fear anything. Instead he locates terror in the black man, which intensifies to a fevered pitch once a second white woman enters the room. In Wright's version of the "beast" plot, the black male kills neither because lust has led him to rape nor in retaliation for the terror he inspires in his victim, but because of his own fear. Wright also revises the reaction of white women to the crime. In the climactic rape in The Clansman, Mrs. Lenoir witnesses her daughter's violation and the women decide to "'hide quickly every trace of crime'" (305)--which necessi tates a joint suicide. In Native Son, the daughter is not violated, nor does the mother witness the murder (even though she is present when it occurs) because she is blind. In a brilliantly compressed passage immediately after his accidental killing of Mary, Bigger rehearses the essential plot components and how they will be interpreted: "She was dead; she was white; she was a woman; he had killed her; he was black; he might be caught; he did not want to be caught; if he were they would kill him" (103).

In a nightmare version of Dixon's worst fears, Bigger Thomas experiences a revelation of his power as a direct consequence of passing through the threshold of Mary's bedroom. He comes to feel, after killing Mary, both "power" and "security" as a direct result of his crime. This response bears comparison with that of the stereotypical "beast": "The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they [white people] loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them" (188). Yet for a black man to defy the color line will be read not merely as an individual action but rather, in racially representative terms, as a "symbolic challenge" to white supremacy, and be dealt with accordingly [14].

Beyond the trepidation felt by blacks toward the prospect of committing crimes against whites lies Wright's more fundamental revision of the "beast" stereotype. He depicts the fear blacks have of whites--the inverse of the white fear of blacks that Dixon considers natural and healthy--as sexualized. Early in Book Two, as Bigger recalls carrying Mary to her bedroom, he realizes that "each time he had come in contact with her... [fear and shame] had arisen hot and hard." This passage comes right before the memorable description that "to Bigger and his kind white people...were a sort of great natural force" (129). Thus Wright does depict the interaction of black men and white women as strongly charged erotically, but the erotic component comes from the fear and shame instilled in blacks by whites. Like the erection he has fought off when Jan and Mary were making out in the back seat, Bigger's fear is a response to whites' actions. [11]

Wright's revision of the "beast" plot so as to show how whites fuse sex with fear in the consciousness of black males helps account for the logic of one of the most disturbing passages in Native Son. When Bessie, who comprehends what whites think about black "beasts," warns Bigger that "'... they'll say you raped her [Mary]'" (262), Wright follows with a disturbing redefinition. Confronting for the first time the inevitability of the accusation to follow, Bigger asks himself,

Had he raped her? Yes, he had raped her. Every time he felt as he had felt that night, he raped. But rape was not what one did to women. Rape was what one felt when one's back was against a wall and one had to strike out, whether one wanted to or not, to keep the pack from killing one. He committed rape every time he looked into a white face. He was a long, taut piece of rubber which a thousand white hands had stretched to the snapping point, and when he snapped it was rape. But it was rape when he cried out in hate deep in his heart as he felt the strain of living day by day. That, too, was rape. (262-63)

By this account, rape is not an act of aggression but of retaliation, with Bigger its initial victim. The black man in America, far from being a "beast"/rapist, is raped by white society--gang raped, actually. "To keep the pack from killing one" clearly alludes to lynching. Wright's redefinition of rape makes perfect sense given the white stereotype of the "beast," according to which black men are ex post facto rapists of white women. As Wright puts it in "How 'Bigger' Was Born," "the reason for the lynching is usually called 'rape'" (Native Son 512).

But what remains profoundly disturbing in Wright's redefinition of rape is his erasure of violence against women--especially the long history of sexual violence against black women. No matter how often Bigger may figuratively be raped by white society, he does of course rape a woman in this novel, though his victim is his black girlfriend, not the white socialite. Hazel Carby explains that "the institutionalized rape of black women has never been [seen] as [so] powerful a symbol of black oppression as [has] the spectacle of lynching" (39), and Wright's blind spot, unfortunately, confirms this generalization. [12] Yet Wright deserves some credit for restoring in Native Son the real historical victim of rape--the black, not the white, woman. With chilling accuracy, Wright has Bessie function after her death merely as evidence on the slab to convict Bigger of the miscegenous rape he never committed.

Simultaneously extending and revising Dixon's assumptions, Native Son demonstrates the legal, and supposedly civilized, methods that have taken lynch law out of the closet. Three centers of white power articulate Bigger's status as "beast" and contribute to his lynching: the press, the legal system, and the mob.

Black Boy discloses the formative role of the press in disseminating racist stereotypes. Wright describes one of his earliest exposures to racism coming through newspapers that he, ironically, delivered as a youth living in Jackson, Mississippi. He was horrified to find in these papers such statements as "'The only dream of a nigger is to be president and to sleep with a white woman'" (153). This shocking sentence illustrates again the pathological linking of white anxieties about black bestiality with fears of a mulatto nation. Native Son elaborates on how newspapers disseminate these fears under the guise of objective reportage. One of the reporters in the novel quickly stakes out the tack all the papers will take in reporting the killing of Mary Dalton: "'Say, I'm slanting this to the primitive Negro who doesn't want to be disturbed by white civilization'" (247). Initially casting Bigger as "Negro rapist and murderer" (282), the fuller account from the Chicago Tribune as given in Book Three rehashes all th e usual assumptions. Referring directly or by innuendo to Bigger's race about thirty times in fewer than three pages, the report features him as an apelike "jungle beast" and "sex-slayer." The reporter sees only two options for black masculinity, and since Bigger is no Uncle Tom--"lack[ing] the charm of the average, harmless, genial, grinning southern darky so beloved by the American people"--he must be part of the problem, a "missing link...out of place in a white man's civilization" (323). An interview with a newspaper editor in Jackson, Mississippi, instructs the Northerners in how to proceed: "'Our experience here in Dixie with such depraved types of Negroes has shown that only the death penalty, inflicted in a public and dramatic manner, has any influence'" (323). Simply put, the Mississippian recommends a lynching.

Making the Tribune's account even more destructive is a crucial (and unverified) assumption the paper disseminates concerning Bigger's racial ancestry. Through this assumption Wright shows how the North follows rather than revises Southern stereotypes about black men. Again quoting the Mississippi editor, the Tribune reports that, although the fugitive is "'dead-black,... [he] may have a minor portion of white blood in his veins, a mixture which generally makes for a criminal and intractable nature'" (324). The fear of miscegenation--evoking the threat of the mulatto nation--is embedded in this account of Bigger's ancestry. Once again recycling the basic problem as the solution, the Southern editor recommends extending Jim Crow: "'Crimes such as the Bigger Thomas murders could be lessened by segregating all Negroes in parks, playgrounds, cafes, theatres, and street cars. Residential segregation is imperative'" (324). Given his sources and his assumptions, no wonder the. Tribune writer finds it "easy to imagin e how this man [Bigger], in the grip of a brain-numbing sex passion, overpowered little Mary Dalton, raped her, murdered her, beheaded her," for "all in all, he seems a beast... [a] brutish Negro" (322-23). Easy to imagine, indeed: This is all the product of a diseased white imagination. [13]

Wright's depiction of the press not only reflects the assumptions current in his time but also alludes to the newspaper's historical treatment of lynching, in which the white press in general and the Tribune in particular played significant roles. As anti-lynching activists such as Ida Wells-Barnett make clear, newspapers contributed to the lynching furor by biased reporting, by inaccurate accounts, even by suggestive omissions. As Wells-Barnett points out, "Those who commit the murders write the reports," but when the Negro seeks to publish an alternative account, the bias of the white-dominated press stops him: "The columns of the powerful dailies, religious periodicals and thoughtful magazines have printed these charges wholesale until the civilized world has accepted them, but," she reports, "few wish to consider the refutation of them or give space for the possible other side" ("Lynch Law in America" 239; "Lynch Law in All its Phases" 180). In several pamphlets, she reprints lynching statistics published by the Chicago Tribune--the same paper that recommends lynching Bigger Thomas--which demonstrate that a scant one-third of people lynched had even been charged with rape (and that there was rarely any factual foundation for those so charged). White apologists did not let the absence of facts stop them. For instance, Thomas Nelson Page set forth in a 1904 article that, notwithstanding the Tribune's statistics, the cause for lynching was the unprintable activities of black beasts: "The death of the victim of the ravisher was generally the least of the attendant horrors. In Texas, in Mississippi, in Georgia, in Kentucky, in Colorado, as later in Delaware, the facts in the case were so unspeakable that they have never been put in print. It is these unnamable horrors which have outraged the minds" of lynchers (38). Page's comment inadvertently provides a revealing glimpse into the role of the white imagination in manufacturing "unspeakable" horrors. As Jacquelyn Dowd Hall eloquently puts it, "The fear of rape, li ke the practice of lynching, was embedded far beyond the reach of factual refutation--in the heart not only of American racism, but of American attitudes toward women as well" (149).

The District Attorney's performance in Native Son continues this process of manufacturing unspeakable horrors. To District Attorney Buckley. Bigger is simply "human fiend,'" and he whips the audience into a frenzy with the image of "'some half[-] human black ape ... climbing through the windows of our homes to rape, murder, and burn our daughters'" (475-76). Convinced that Bigger has committed a "'bestial monstrosity,'" Buckley intones, "'Your Honor, the central crime here is rape!'" (476,481). The D.A. then whips himself into a frenzy, painting a picture that could come straight out of Thomas Dixon:

"My God, what bloody scenes must have taken place! How swift and unexpected must have been that lustful and murderous attack! How that poor child must have struggled to escape that maddened ape! How she must have pled on bended knee, with tears in her eyes, to be spared the vile touch of his horrible person! Your Honor, must not this infernal monster have burned her body to destroy evidence of offenses worse than rape? That treacherous beast must have known that if the marks of his teeth were ever seen on the innocent white flesh of her breasts (480)

In Native Son, the legal system and its representatives remain unable to imagine alternative narratives featuring a black male and a dead white woman.

What is perhaps most depressing (and accurate) of all is that, as Wright paints the legal lynching system, not even reasoned eloquence such as defense attorney Boris Max's will have any effect. Declaring the entire legal system negated when a person can be tried by a jury that has prejudged him guilty, Max says," 'An outright lynching would be more honest than a "mock trial"'" (446). Showing no tolerance for a critical view of America, Buckley revealingly paints Max's competing explanation as "'cynically assail[ing] our sacred customs.'" As if an appeal to capitalist patriotism and racist fear were not enough, Buckley's coup de grace is an appeal to white male solidarity: "'Every decent white man in America ought to swoon with joy for the opportunity to crush with his heel the woolly head of this black lizard"' (476). Countering Dixon's fantasy about politics and the legal system as controlled by blacks, Wright demonstrates the reverse to be true.

Wright appropriately uses Max as the defense lawyer, for in 1930s America, communism provided the most convenient target for anxieties about the mulatto nation aided and abetted by whites who betrayed their "race." Even before Bigger becomes a suspect, Dalton's private detective, Britten, asks twice if Jan had lured him to the left by enticing him with white women (226,246). Later, during his cross-examination, the coroner inquires if the communist pamphlets Jan gave Bigger included" 'a plea for "unity of whites and blacks."'" The predictable follow-up question is whether Jan told the chauffeur "'it was all right for him to have sexual relations with white women'" (370). Thus the conflation of political equality with miscegenation--Dixon's slippery slope--remains alive and well, with communism assuming the role of white race betrayers previously occupied by radical Republicans during Reconstruction. Otherwise the assumptions remain identical, as Bigger's response manifests: "'I didn't know nothing about that woman,'" he tells Max. "'All I knew was that they kill us for women like her'" (405). The accused "beast" is correct that it doesn't matter if he raped her, since it will be assumed he did (406); charges of rapes of women he never even encountered accumulate at Bigger's feet (352).

While it may be difficult to believe the crudeness of these insinuations about luring black men into the Communist Party with promises of white women, Wright is not exaggerating or veering from the documentary record. In his last published novel, The Flaming Sword, which appeared one year before Native Son, Thomas Dixon confirms the merger in the white supremacist mind of fears about communism and anxieties about black male-white female couplings. After disposing of the requisite murder and rape by the inevitably burly black male in Part 1 of this lengthy novel, Dixon turns to what he considers an even more insidious form of miscegenation. When his heroine, Angela (daughter of The Clansman's Ben Cameron and Elsie Stoneman), moves to Manhattan, she discovers consensual relationships across the color line. As another character soon points out, this "'catering to the black man's lust for white women'" probably has an underlying "'political significance'" (397). Part 3 discloses this political import, examining a "'subtle scheme'" by which white women volunteer themselves as sexual partners for black men so as to recruit them to the Communist Party (404). Thus for Thomas Dixon, 1930s radicalism illustrates the follies of the Reconstruction period all over again.

Anti-Communist sentiment dooms Bigger's defense attorney in the courtroom; Max can no more defend the accused against the mob than against insinuations of political defection. While the legal system joins forces with the press to condemn Bigger, the mob prepares a quicker conviction of the "beast." Book Two ends with cries of "'Lynch 'im'" and "'Kill that black ape!'" as Bigger is captured (314). When the "beast" is brought back to the scene of his alleged crime, the white man's house, and asked to reconstruct the murder/rape, a burning cross awaits him. Bigger responds by tearing off the cross suspended from his neck (390). The notorious symbology of burning crosses was not in fact practiced by the original Klan; the ritual apparently originated in Dixon's novels (Trelease 626). In The Traitor, which sharply distinguishes between the original Klan (heroic in Dixon's eyes) and the second-generation Klan that he thought had deteriorated into "an engine of personal vengeance and criminal folly," Dixon explains that "the reign of terror inaugurated by the Black Union League had made necessary the Ku Klux Klan" (457). Although the "new Klan had inaugurated a reign of folly and terror," Dixon maintains the purity of the original organization, "the sole guardians of white civilization...[and] the last resort of desperation" (51). Thus "the masses of the people knew the necessity which had called this dreaded order [the original Klan] into existence--the black threat of Negro dominion" (473).

Wright shows the endurance of this mob mentality when Bigger is brought into the Cook County Morgue and finds himself surrounded by a "compact array of white faces." He senses something ominous,

a silent mockery that challenged him. It was not their hate he felt; it was something deeper than that. He sensed that in their attitude toward him they had gone beyond hate.... he felt that not only had they resolved to put him to death, but that they were determined to make his death mean more than a mere punishment; that they regarded him as a figment of that black world which they feared and were anxious to keep under control. The atmosphere of the crowd told him that they were going to use his death as a bloody symbol of fear to wave before the eyes of that black world. (318-19)

In this extraordinary passage, Wright anatomizes the lynch mentality: collective hysteria as a matter of symbolic racial representation. Too cool in their attitude for so muddy an emotion as hatred, the white mob does not content itself with putting Bigger to death. Projecting onto Bigger, the "beast" in their midst, all their fears about blacks, the mob achieves a ritual self-purification. In the process they also transform the public identity of Bigger, previously a symbol that all whites could read (the black "beast") into

a "bloody symbol" of the lynch victim all too legible for blacks. Trudier Harris's explanation of the psychology of the lynch mob describes this section of the novel well: "Symbolic punishment becomes communal because the entire society has been threatened; thus the entire society must act to put down the victor" (12). Joel Williamson also explains the lynch mentality: "Symbolically, the lynching was often seen as an act against the whole black community and not merely the execution of one or more criminals" (Crucible 187). [14]

As Boris Max will soon put it, "'Every Negro in America's on trial out there'" (426). Disclosing Bigger's true "crime," as Wright so memorably puts it, to be simply "the crime of being black" (342), he depicts the "beast" as the ultimate form of racial profiling. Although to Bigger "his crime seemed natural," it is in fact totally constructed out of white supremacist anxieties (119). Extending Dixon's proposition that the Klan emerged in response to the unleashing of the black "beast" by misguided Reconstruction policies, Wright shows how white men keep recreating the beast.

For the underlying reasons that this version of the "problem," the black male "beast," had to be constructed as a psychosexual criminal, we need to take up not only sexual anxieties but also economic realities. Native Son reveals that Wright understood what has become a central premise of the recent wave of "whiteness studies": that perceptions of race in the U.S. are intertwined with perceptions of social class. As Eric Lott puts it, "It was through 'blackness' that class was staged" (64). [15] Lynchings, so often overtly sexual in their sadism, also betray profound economic anxieties. As Walter White noted in his 1929 study Rope and Faggot, "The deeper one inquires into the subject, the more one must regard lynching as being of only minor importance in itself; it is as a symptom of a malodorous economic and social condition that it is chiefly significant" (qtd. in Park 319). [16] In Bigger's case, as in the majority of historical lynchings, the actual crime whites sought to punish was not usually rape, even though rape retained its status as the assumed reason because of its effectiveness in mobilizing angry whites. In a penetrating study of the South after Reconstruction, Edward L. Ayers analyzes the pattern of lynchings during their peak, the 1880s and 1890s, and finds the highest concentration in two regions that shared low rural population density, a fairly high proportion of blacks, and considerable migrancy among black and white populations. In such areas, whites could imagine themselves surrounded by what they considered "'strange niggers,'" mobile and frequently unattached African Americans who had neither local blacks nor whites to vouch for them (154-57). [17] Ayers's study provides an example of how much modern research has confirmed what Ida Wells-Barnett and other activists insisted: Lynchings, while cast as responses to black male bestiality, typically covered for white anxiety about black mobility (hence the "strange nigger" syndrome) and black successes (however modest). However important the se xual anxieties, white men feared economic rivalry from black men at least as much as they did sexual competition. It is far easier brutally to destroy a new and unwelcome economic competitor when you can cast him as a sexually pathological monster. [18] Lynching, therefore, while rationalized by charges of rape, in fact reaffirms the social and economic place of all actors--male and female, black and white--in the hierarchy as dictated by white men. [19]

In Native Son this racial hierarchy, enforced and protected by the color line, is so tangible as to achieve spatial form. As Bigger accurately remarks from prison, "'They draw a line and say for you to stay on your side of the line.... And then they say things like that about you [that black men want to rape white women] and when you try to come from behind your line they kill you'" (407). Whites create the fantasy of the black beast so they can read any attempt of an African American to cross the color line symbolically as miscegenation. That is the reason that, immediately after killing Mary, Bigger feels "the reality of the room fell from him; the vast city of white people that sprawled outside took its place" (100). As Mary's death makes clear, the supposition of black male bestiality does nothing to protect white women. What it protects is property--white male control of economic resources.

In Native Son, the color line is manifested in racial geography, and whites are the exclusive cartographers. Wright strategically makes Bigger become conscious of this fact at the very moment he resolves to defy, rather than simply react to, the white power structure:

He looked round the street [where he lived] and saw a sign on a building: THIS PROPERTY IS MANAGED BY THE SOUTH SIDE REAL ESTATE COMPANY.... He paid eight dollars a week for one rat-infested room.. Mr. Dalton...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 Negro education, he would rent houses to Negroes 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. (199)

The color line actually helps identify Bigger as a criminal while assisting in his capture. Once he tries to flee his pursuers, the fugitive realizes how trapped he is: "How easy it would be for him to hide if he had the whole city in which to move about! They keep us bottled up here like wild animals" (288). Racialized geography renders the "beast" easy to track.

Wright clarifies what the accounts of Dixon and other white supremacists hide: Behind the white anxiety about miscegenation lies the desire to continue economic exploitation. In Native Son, Chicago blacks not only pay inflated rents for ghetto dwellings; they also spend twenty-five per cent more for bread than do whites on the other side of the "line" (289). Perhaps most importantly, the intangible yet almighty color line allows whites to obscure their own guilt from themselves. This psychological benefit for whites becomes clearest during the brief but powerful section in Book Three featuring the communist cross-examination of capitalism. As Max questions Dalton, all his capitalist rationalizations are exposed as silly, self-serving fairy tales. When questioned why he charges blacks more than whites for the same kind of housing, Dalton says he doesn't determine rent scales; when asked who does, he hides behind "'the law of supply and demand' " (377). When asked why he doesn't rent properties in more desirabl e sections of Chicago to blacks, Dalton resorts to a series of familiar rationalizations: Blacks would not like any other section; their confinement is a matter of custom; and, finally, Negroes are happiest when together (378). As Max presses further, asking why Dalton doesn't invest some of his philanthropic money to lower rents in the Black Belt, the capitalist finally states that doing so would be" 'unethical...underselling my competitors'" (379). Dalton's sense of "ethics" begins and ends with his veneration of business enterprise. He seeks to protect not only his personal property but the very idea of property rights.

Max's cross-examination, however incisive, is powerless to erode the complicity of the U.S. legal system in maintaining white property by protecting the color line. A recent Harvard Law Review article describes this complicity: "When the law recognizes...the settled expectations of whites built on the privileges and benefits produced by white supremacy, it acknowledges and reinforces a property interest in whiteness that reproduces Black subordination." Legal scholar Cheryl Harris traces this "racial line between white and Black" back to slavery and through Jim Crow, both of which affirmed "a line of protection and demarcation from the potential threat [for whites] of commodification, and it determined the allocation of the benefits and burdens of this form of property" (1731, 1720-21). While Dalton's rationalizations disclose his commitment to maintaining the color line to protect his property, Wright shows how the "American" dream of property acquisition as the basis of personal autonomy is sustained by a l egal system that debars blacks from equal opportunity. Although Wright grew up reading and delighting in Horatio Alger novels (Fabre 51). Native Son exposes the racial exclusiveness of the "American" dream.

Not only does the color line help to protect white property and obscure white guilt, it also restricts intimacy and privacy to one race. [20] When Bigger first crossed the color line, he did so at the bidding of the powerful white world. Summoned to interview at the Daltons' house, Bigger finds "a cold and distant world; a world of white secrets carefully guarded. He could feel a pride, a certainty, and a confidence in these streets and houses" (49). This privilege of whiteness is enshrined in domestic life, and again Chicago blacks, who have no privacy at all, are excluded from it. The opening scene of Native Son in fact establishes the lack of privacy as a defining feature of life in the Black Belt. The kitchenette is so tiny that Mrs. Thomas instructs her sons to turn their heads while she dresses, which they do "to keep them from feeling ashamed" by her nakedness (2). Bigger's sister Vera, however, later accuses him of trying to look under her skirt; he makes her feel like a dog, she says (116). Although the conditions in which the Thomases live are indeed brutalizing, their reactions confirm their humanity, not their beastliness. Animals feel no shame at their own or others' nakedness; only humans can be made to feel like dogs. [21]

Whites, particularly wealthy ones like the Daltons, develop an exaggerated sense of privacy, and, correspondingly, their sense of shame extends beyond nudity to encompass uninvited glimpses of intimate territories such as bedrooms. Bigger encounters this rarified white version of shame when Mrs. Dalton questions him the morning Mary is discovered missing. "'She took you to her room?'" the blind woman asks, the affirmative answer embarrassing her into silence (145).

He knew that she was really worried and wanted to ask him more questions. But he knew that she would not want to hear him tell of how drunk her daughter had been. After all, he was black and she was white. He was poor and she was rich. She would be ashamed to let him think that something was so wrong in her family that she had to ask him, a black servant, about it. (146)

And so the color line continues to operate, separating black from white, even in times of crisis. Later when Mr. Dalton interrogates Bigger further, the obvious shame of Mrs. Dalton again stops the flow of information (174). The white family is itself a private zone, and displaying it sparks feelings of exposure similar to what Vera experiences when she worries over her brother's peek under her dress.

In Native Son shame becomes, along with criminality, a defining feature of being black. In the much-discussed scene during Book Three in which whites and blacks crowd into his prison cell, Bigger internalizes the white view of blacks: "He felt that all of the white people... were measuring every inch of his weakness. He identified himself with his family and felt their naked shame under the eyes of white folks" (341). When Mrs. Thomas throws herself at Mrs. Dalton's feet, begging mercy for her son, Bigger feels doubly exposed, "paralyzed with shame... violated" (348). The language of "violation" again positions the black male as rape victim. As Max presses Bigger, trying to find out if he had intended to rape Mary, the accused man explains how much he had hated the white girl for her invasive questions. Suddenly he has what the narrator calls an "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 shook his head, confused. "Aw, Mr. Max, she [Mary] wanted me to tell her how Negroes live. She got into the front seat of the car where I was...." (405)

Mary's questions, however well-intentioned, combined with her physical proximity, made Bigger Thomas feel as exposed, as violated, as his little sister did when he peeped under her dress. Thus, in one of his most important revisions of the "beast" stereotype, Wright reveals that Bigger was emasculated by contact with Mary far more than he was aroused. While emphasizing the claustrophobia, lack of privacy, and enforced shame of Bigger and other blacks on one side of the color line, Wright anatomizes the sacrosanct white "home," which functions as a site of unparalleled value in Dixon's novels, on the other side of that line.

Writing five years before the publication of Native Son, W. E. B. Du Bois warns that received accounts of Reconstruction not only distort historical actors into stereotypical Southern martyrs and Northern emancipators, with blacks simply "the impossible joke in the whole development," but also that this contorted view of the past endangers the present. This myth, which also posits all whites as benevolent, "is not only part foundation of our present lawlessness and loss of democratic ideals; it has, more than that, led the world to embrace and worship the color bar as social salvation and it is helping to range mankind in ranks of mutual hatred and contempt, at the summons of a cheap and false myth" (723). Thomas Dixon's novels constitute practically a shrine for worship of the color bar while illustrating the rationalizations for white lawlessness. The novels also show--although Dixon would scarcely put it in these terms--that the unity, coherence, and solidarity of "whiteness" are produced and sustained by hateful assumptions about blacks.

As historical myths obscure the past, so stereotypes are believed to be opposed to "real" human beings. And so when James Baldwin, like many others, criticized Native Son, it was because he found Bigger too much a stereotype. That is the reason that Baldwin perceived Wright as too close to Harriet Beecher Stowe: "The contemporary Negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle," he charged (22). I would suggest that Native Son shows white America locked into a deadly battle, rather, with a stereotype it had created, and that Wright's triumph lies in his anatomy of the reasons for Bigger's truncated humanity. Whites, particularly white males, make the black beast, and that beast makes for white solidarity. "How could the black race build a nation within a nation and keep the peace?" asks Dixon in his last novel (Flaming 90). Native Son raises the same question--but with an entirely different intent.

Native Son, which so closely follows the Dixonian logic while turning it inside out--logic that remains, sadly, a prominent and enduring strand in American culture--anatomizes this interlocking of whites and their "beasts." [22] Bigger is made into a stereotype by economic exploitation and residential segregation practiced by the likes of Dalton well before that status is confirmed by the white media, legal system, and mob. Wright shows the real crime to be not any actions committed by the "beast" but the ideology that made the black man kill. Yes, Wright would agree with Dixon, the "position of the Negro in America" is an "impossible" one (Leopard 197). Showing Bigger Thomas made into the black beast, Wright depicts one of America's native products. As he once remarked, "'There isn't any Negro problem; there is only a white problem"' (qtd. in Kinnamon and Fabre 99).

An Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut, Clare Eby has published widely on American literature and culture, most recently Dreiser and Veblen, Saboteurs of the Status Quo. This essay is part of a book-in-progress on violence and the color line.


(1.) On Native Son and Uncle Tom's Cabin, see also Johnson (149) and McCall (13). Hakutani defines Wright's achievement as "destroy[ing] the white myth of the patient, humorous, subservient black man" (4).

(2.) See also Jordan (158, 150-51) and Williamson ("Wounds" 1236-37). Hodes makes clear that strong communal sanctions against black male-white female liaisons developed "only after the Civil War would [make] whites' ideas about the dangers of black male sexuality merge with their fear of political and economic independence for African-American men to produce a deadly combination" (20). For an important explanation of the white imputation of uncontrolled sexuality onto black males, see also Fanon (especially 165, 170, 177); enlightening, also, is Lott's analysis of the "relatively transparent white male attraction to and repulsion from the black penis" (57). And see Friedman, whose argument that "white savagery reigned supreme" culminates in an analysis of Birth of a Nation (172).

(3.) Besides the two books by Dixon's biographer Raymond Cook, others who have written about Dixon include Riggio, Kinney, Bloomfield, Williamson (Crucible), Gunning, Michaels, Oliver, and Magowan.

(4.) As Williamson puts it, Dixon "was so very effective because his work said in a total way what his audience had been thinking in fragments" (Crucible 141).

(5.) Of the commentators to discuss Native Son in light of the black "beast," Wiegman most explicitly calls Wright's novel "our literature's most compelling story of the black man caught in the mythology of the rapist" (100). Felgar's and Fleming's treatments concentrate largely on animal imagery. Trudier Harris reads the lynch plot as central to Richard Wright (and other black writers), but she focuses primarily on The Long Dream and some shorter works. Most recently, Elmer describes Wright "conjur[ing] up ... that staple of white supremacist fantasy, the black man as rapist of white women" (781, 780).

Central discussions of the rape plot more generally include Howe, Houston A. Baker, Jr. (ch. 8), Johnson, JanMohamed, and Guttman (the last kindly gave me a copy of her penetrating forthcoming essay). I am aware of only three comparisons of Native Son to Dixon's novels, all of them brief: McCall (10-11), Delbanco (142), and Sundquist (86-87). Kinnamon notes that one reviewer of Native Son mentioned Dixon ("How" 126).

For an analysis similar in spirit to mine, but one that argues for Wright's direct and conscious rewriting of a white-authored classic, see Schultz.

(6.) While I will make some references to the third volume of the Reconstruction Trilogy, The Traitor (1907) has little to do with the black "beast." The main point of this novel is to distinguish the original Klan, heroic in Dixon's eyes, from the second-generation Klan, which even Dixon saw as debased.

(7.) For an altemative site of possible childhood trauma, see Williamson's fascinating discussion of Dixon's relationship with his mother (Crucible 158-75).

(8.) Gunning notes that "the intraracial male struggle over the terrain of the public would always be figured finally in the terms of the domestic" (21). For a different reading of the domestic matrix, see Michaels, who argues that Dixon must work toward "destruction of [the] essentially multiracial family" (19-21).

(9.) The word miscegenation was first used in a hoax. An 1863 pamphlet written by Northern supporters of the Confederate cause was mailed to abolitionists to try to secure their support of intermarriage. This hoax was intended to secure public outrage against abolitionism and to prohibit Lincoln's re-election (Kaplan).

(10.) Dixon devotes an entire novel to rationalizing the problem of white male lust for black women, The Sins of the Father (1912). This reprehensible work aims at explaining why the best white men have fomicated with black women. Again Dixon uses the rhetoric of the "beast," assigning the degenerative attribute to white males--while making its appearance the fault of the "black" woman. Dixon's astounding attempt at rationalizing white male lust for black women reconnoiters the ideological boundaries of the "home" and the related demarcation of public and private "spheres" so important in his earlier novels.

(11.) Wright clarifies this point in a later novel, The Long Dream (1958), a sort of racial Bildungsroman following the development of Rex ("Fishbelly") Tucker from childhood to manhood. The novel demonstrates how America constructs black male adulthood as a forced intemalization of the taboo against sexual contact with white women and the attending revelation that lynching will be the result of any Infraction, sexual or otherwise. It also shows how white men create the lustful black "beast" by forbidding contact with white women. Wiegman reads "hot and hard" and similar passages in Native Son as Indicative of homoeroticism that white males play out through lynching blacks (100).

(12.) In its abstraction, though not in its political intent, Wright's reformulation of rape more closely resembles what Missy Dehn Kubitschek describes as the characteristically white rather than the typically black portrayal of rape: "In Euro-American literature the rape victim often represents Purity, Civilization, or some other abstract quality .... The Afro-American tradition includes a wider range of options, many of which grant the woman an identity beyond that of rape victim" (46). Yet it is important to realize that Wright's abstracted reformulation of rape turns on its head a revered white abstraction--the Southern construction of the Civil War as a "rape of the south," as described by Elizabeth Young (287-89). Wiegman, however, reads the exclusion of black women from plots centering on the "mythology of the black rapist" as confirming the real struggle to be between black and white men (102).

(13.) See Kinnamon for an illuminating study of Wright's sources, which included the coverage of the Robert Nixon and Earl Hicks murders by the "openly racist [Chicago] Tribune" ("How" 113). Another important examination of the role of the press can be found in Pudaloff.

(14.) As Hall puts it, lynching was "arbitrary and exemplary, aimed not at one individual but at blacks as a group" (141).

(15.) Groundbreaking work on this topic includes that of Roediger and Saxton.

(16.) As Wiegman put it more recently, "The loss of miscegenation's economic rationalization under slavery tums the question of interracial sexuality toward the more tension-wrought domain of sexual desire. The myth of the black male rapist serves to compensate for this economic loss, transferring the focus from the white man's quasi-sanctioned (because economically productive) sexual activities [with black women] to the bodies, quite literally, of black men" (84).

(17.) Frederickson also notes that the "beast" rhetoric was fed by economic insecurities (262). See also Trudier Harris (69) and Cash (116).

(18.) For explanation of why the process of attributing inhumanity to part of the human species is inevitably precarious, see Cassuto.

(19.) See, for instance, Hall's account of why lynching is as much about keeping women, both black and white, in their place as it is about suppressing black men. The canard about rape and the fact of lynching are "intimately connected, for ... [both] served to keep a subordinate group in a state of anxiety and fear" (153). Trudier Harris argues that one reason white men want to assign fixed places to both white women and black men is to keep their own path to black women clear (20). For a useful survey of explanations of lynching, see Brundage.

(20.) Wright develops his point concerning capitalist rationalizations for exploiting blacks--that white guilt is covered by the assumption of black criminality--in The Long Dream, which discloses that the crime of being black ends up as a cover for the crime of being white.

(21.) In an important analysis of the parallel structures of opposition to mixed-race relationships and to homosexuality, Harper shows how both reflect "the sanctity of the private realm as a means by which to control the flow of economic capital" (124).

(22.) The back cover of the Noontide Press Reconstruction Trilogy, printed in 1994, praises Dixon's "searing frankness" and advises that "today's readers will marvel at the parallels between the efforts of Northern capitalists and do-gooders to throttle white Southerners in the 1860's and '70's and today's riot- and 'affirmative-action'-powered civil rights movement." Butler argues that Native Son's "powerfully ironic inversions of conventional scenes from traditional literature ... tum their original meanings inside out" (128).

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Author:Eby, Clare
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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