What a brilliant and harrowing work of literature! I devoured it. Although it is half the length of Ulysses it took me about 1/8th as long to read. I found the storytelling to be masterful. I hardly know where to start.
I suppose I should start with personal experience. I am a white male, raised on the cusp of upper middle class who, through life choices and economic forces, grew into a man on the cusp of lower middle class. My “poverty” is, “I might lose my three-bedroom, two-bath house” or “I can’t take more than four days worth of vacation at a time.” Which is to say that my poverty is not very, and I’m well aware of it, like a tactful thin woman when she gains five pounds.
I have been, since my youth, a literature person, and I managed to get through public school and private university without ever even hearing that Harlem had a Renaissance. One of the richest periods of American literature was not even mentioned! Why? And yet the morally reprehensible Beat Generation were, in the 1990s, front page news in literature curriculum. Here we have a symptom of the systemic disease addressed by this book.
Bigger Thomas, the novel’s protagonist, is a young black man in 1930′s Chicago. The book is in three sections and I don’t suppose it would be a spoiler to cover the inciting incident in the first section, especially as the back cover blurb on my copy reveals it. Bigger has all of the self-actualizing handicaps that one would anticipate a young black man in abject poverty in 1930s Chicago would have. He is given the opportunity to have a job as a chauffeur to a wealthy white real estate baron who fancies himself magnanimous to Negros by virtue of his charitable donations to specific causes. His daughter, much to her father’s chagrin, has taken to associating with Communists. The Communists fancy themselves magnanimous to Negros by virtue of their treating them as equals and encouraging them towards revolutionary aspirations.
Bigger is trying to keep his job to keep his family from starving. He has never shaken hands with a white man before and, out driving the Communist and the daughter, is called upon to do so. He has never eaten with white people before, but these two young people fancy themselves so revolutionary and hip that they want Bigger to take them to a Negro restaurant and eat with them! And drink with them. Heavily.
All of which is terrifying to Bigger, unbeknownst to the young white people. He is horrified that, at every turn on that first night, this young couple seem as if they are about to get him into trouble by no fault of his own. And I see that the story, again, is so excellently crafted that I am inclined to retell the whole thing here in my blog post. I did that the other night to Laurie in great excitement over this book I was reading. She made me stop when I got to the moment where Bigger is trapped in the room, having carried the drunken daughter to her bed, when the blind mother enters the room and, in panic that it will somehow be revealed through sound that he, a black man, is in the bedroom of a white woman, he tries to keep the young woman from making any noise, first by pushing her to lay down, then, in desperation, by putting a pillow over her face.
And it all spirals downward from there.
One of the questions I came away with was: Did Bigger have to kill? And commit the series of crimes that follow? The answer is far more complex than it appears on the surface. At one point, I think during the trial, it is mentioned that he could have simply gone to the parents and said, “Hey, your daughter is too drunk to walk up to her room.” It was a physical possibility for him to do that, but as a young black man in abject poverty given a chance at a decent job and on his first night…
Which brought to mind the theological concept of Total Depravity and individual responsibility. Can one not sin? Well, yes and no really. It would appear that it is a physical possibility, but all of human existence is inclined in sin’s direction. Is Bigger responsible for committing the crimes? Yes, of course. Is the entire structure of our culture, where a black man in the presence of a lone white woman, where people of a certain skin color are not allowed to live outside of a certain neighborhood, have a certain level of income, is that structure responsible? I think if we’re answering honestly, the social structure begins to look an awful lot, extending our comparison, like the Principalities of Darkness.
One of the only critiques I found myself having towards the book’s perspective was the dim view it took of religion. It seems to have the Marxian “crutch” view of Christianity, the “There’ll be pie in the sky when you die” view. I feel like sin nature is an explanation to so many of these problems in the world, but I also feel that many people mistake this interpretation as a defeatist view, almost a resignation towards the inevitability of man’s inhumanity to man.
Slavery does come up, naturally. When our forefathers brought forth this nation, they were faced with the choice of true freedom and democracy or to preserve the institution of slave labor. They went with money. One version of the story is that, about a hundred years in, a great President triumphed in abolishing this blot on the history of our nation. Another version of the story is that the Industrial Revolution had grown to the point of pushing slave labor closer and closer to obsolesce anyway.
Another serious question/problem posed by the story is what is one to do? One white character who is sympathetic gets murdered, another is revealed to be profiting off the backs of the very people he claims to be sympathizing with, another is accused of the crime, another is demonized by his peers. Not to add spoiler upon spoiler, but I don’t think it’s a surprise ending to find that those who seek to overthrow this institutionalized racism are not successful. I have a couple of Hispanic friends, who are as American citizen as I, who visited the Grand Canyon last week. They came back with a disturbing story of an encounter with some of the Arizona police as they were simply visiting the national monument. This encounter would not have happened to me if I were in the same circumstance.
This is hard to write about because it is so huge. I see that things have changed a bit since the time of the novel, even since the time of Richard Wright’s highly suspicious death (hounded by the CIA and then happens to have a stomach ailment/heart attack sort of thing and subsequent quick cremation, which should send a shudder of recognition through any reader of this book). I also see that things have not changed, but seem to be given lip service of having changed. I see these things and I see my own displeasure at these things and I think, “so what, should someone pin a medal on me?” This seems to be one of the key problems to the sympathetic white characters in the story. 1) The order does not change because .5% of white people feel sympathy, and 2) so you’ve come to realize what any base-level decent human being should realize. There is a well known event in the life of Malcolm X when a blonde white college girl came up to him and asked what she could do to help, he replied tersely “Nothing.” He later came to regret that moment, but I think there’s a truth to it too. It’s really that bad.
I am faced with another alarming question: am I part of the problem? I certainly want all humans to be equal. I agree that our economic and political structure as it stands excludes some and inclines towards inequality. Which is evil. And certain uncomfortable questions arise like, I am not a real estate baron, but from whence came the clothes I’m wearing, the coffee in the mug next to me, the gasoline in the car my wife drives (I bike, so there’s one good thing at least)? Or from whence came the opportunities that I have had? To the exclusion of whom?
And the final question, the important question, the question that I’m still chewing on, the question, I assume, that had the CIA up in arms: What can I do? I have some good ideas as to what I shouldn’t do, which is to contribute in any way to the culture of occlusion. Indeed, this is a bit of a proof text to incite one towards ways of thinking, demanding ways of living, for any moral person revolutionary to the current order.
In the end, there are no easy answers. I leave this reading experience deeply bothered. And I feel like I ought to be. I feel like we all ought to be. I am bothered in my cozy, warm little house with my tea and Mahler symphonies playing. How does that compare with how Bigger Thomas was bothered? How does that compare with how Richard Wright was bothered?