Critiques of American Racism in the Novels of Wright, Ellison and Baldwin

 

Left to right: Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin

Left to right: Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin

Native Son, Go Tell it on the Mountain, and The Invisible Man, are recognized as three of the most acclaimed novels in both black and American literature.[1] This article argues that while all three novels feature variations in literary form, tone, and central theme, they also share similarities, most notably, compelling critiques of American racism and its effects on urban black people during the pre and post World War II years.

native son

Native Son, written by Richard Wright in 1940, tells the story of protagonist Bigger Thomas, a 20 year-old black man living in a Chicago slum. In an effort to shock white America out of its pleasant illusions concerning race relations and the legacy of blacks’ oppression in America, Wright employs the literary form of naturalism in Native Son, vividly confronting readers with disturbing images that describe the despair, frustration, and poverty blacks experience in America. For example, Bigger shares a one-room apartment with his mother and siblings. Almost immediately we observe that Bigger’s mother and sister have to change clothes in the boys’ presence due to the cramped nature of their residence. In another overt reference to their poverty, the family discovers a large black rat in their room which Bigger eventually kills.

A composite of reckless, irreverent, and seemingly incorrigible boys from Wright’s youth (Wright, 434-437), Bigger is a heavily conflicted and bitter protagonist with few redeemable qualities. Resenting his poverty and powerlessness and plagued by deep-seated feelings of anxiety and inadequacy, the protagonist is liable to self destruct at any time: “He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else.” (Wright, 10)

Bigger’s morbid thought foreshadows events to come. He accidentally kills his employer’s daughter Mary, and eventually kills his girlfriend Bessie. Bigger’s unwarranted belligerence is made more horrific because he feels no remorse and he seems to draw a sense of identity and power from his actions. Moreover, his violence is not directed against any real political or mortal enemy; Mary Dalton, along with her boyfriend Jan were accommodating to Bigger, and treated him as an equal. Bigger is eventually apprehended, and made to stand trial. Max, a communist attorney defends Bigger with great passion. In Max’ defense we begin to hear the message and intentions of Wright:

Every time he comes in contact with us, he kills! It is a physiological and psychological reaction, embedded in his being. Every thought he thinks is potential murder. Excluded from, and unassimilated in our society, yet longing to gratify impulses akin to our own but denied the objects and channels evolved through long centuries for their socialized expression, every sunrise and sunset makes him guilty of subversive actions. Every movement of his body is an unconscious protest. Every desire, every dream, no matter how intimate or personal, is a plot or a conspiracy. Every hope is a plan for insurrection. Every glance of the eye is a threat. His very existence is a crime against’ the state! (Wright, 400)

Interestingly, Native Son is considered to be a “protest” novel, yet there is no evidence that Wright advocates a black political agenda or strategy, and it is questionable if black people constitute Native Son’s primary audience. However as suggested by the selection above, we might think of Native Son as a cautionary tale for white America.  Bigger Thomas symbolizes the collective black community, seething with rage against a system of governance that impoverishes them,  restricts their freedom, denies their humanity, and brutalizes them with impunity. Wright warns white readers that if such behavior continues, they will have to face the retributive violence and destruction initiated by millions of alienated and oppressed “Biggers” throughout the nation. Of course, Bigger reflects qualities of American society as well. His paranoia, feelings of inadequacy, and misdirected rage are American societal traits which Wright indicts through his tragic depiction of Bigger.

invisible man

Whereas Wright presents a naturalist cautionary tale to whites, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a highly metaphorical and existentialist work targeting a black audience. Written in 1952, Invisible Man would be the only novel Ellison published. The issues of visibility and identity are recurring themes in black literature. In 1896 Paul Lawrence Dunbar wrote of blacks’ tendency to conceal their true emotions from whites in his famous poem “We Wear the Mask.” DuBois in his classic “Souls of Black Folk,” refers to “the veil” that racism creates, distorting whites’ and blacks’ ability to see themselves or each other clearly.

Ellison builds brilliantly upon this theme of invisibility, even leaving his protagonist in addition to the college he attended and the founder of that college unnamed throughout the entire book.[2] The narrator notes the significance of his condition in the prologue, famously noting that “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me” (Ellison, 3).  By introducing the concept of invisibility, Ellison obviously raises the existential questions of identity: “Who am I,” “What is my relationship to society,” and “what does my existence mean?” On another level, Invisible Man is the story of the protagonists’ multiple sojourns: his geographic journey from the south to Harlem, his psychological journey from adolescence to adulthood, and his journey in socio-political consciousness.

A key theme of the novel is illusion. Ellison seems to be providing commentary about America itself. Each encounter the narrator has involves themes of deception, illusion and betrayal. He believes he will deliver his graduation speech to leading white citizens of his town, but he is actually tricked. Instead, he participates in a brutal “Battle Royal” where blacks boys are positioned to hurt each other for whites’ enjoyment. The “gold” coins they scramble after are actually brass, and each time they reach to pick up a coin, they are electrocuted.  A scantily clad white woman enters the scene, dancing suggestively before the boys and older men in the room. A close reading of the passage informs us that this woman is dressed in disguise; her face and even her hair are not what they appear to be. Moreover, a picture of the United States is tattooed across her belly. In this one scene, Ellison reveals the vices and illusions of America, relating to sex, money and violence.

The motif of betrayal and deception comes up several other times in the book. His college scholarship letter is no scholarship at all, but a letter instructing the reader to “Keep this nigger-boy running” (Ellison, 26). The letters provided by his former college president Dr. Bledsoe are not letters of introduction, but letters revealing the narrator has been expelled from school for displaying questionable integrity.

Ellison provides a very important metaphor and critique of America in chapter 10 of Invisible Man. Having left his southern black college in disgrace, the narrator arrives in New York City. He gets a job at Liberty Paint Factory, a paint company whose “optic white” paint is the whitest and brightest in the industry. Interestingly, a black liquid is the secret ingredient that makes the paint so white, and a black man Lucius Brockway, is the person responsible for mixing it (Ellison, 166). Is Ellison cleverly suggesting that the secret to America’s greatness lies in the contributions of black people?

Another important commentary from Ellison involves the Brotherhood, an interracial Harlem organization (with communist leanings) led by “Brother Jack.” He explains the Brotherhood’s mission by saying, “We are working for a better world for all people. It’s that simple. Too many people have been dispossessed of their heritage, and we have banded together in brotherhood so as to do something about it” (Ellison, 231). Becoming a spokesman for the organization helps the narrator gain newfound confidence and recognition.

Yet we learn later that the Brotherhood suffers from rigid ideologies, competitive in-fighting, and false and often condescending attitudes about black people. Brother Jack, the organization’s visionary leader ironically has a glass eye, suggesting that he, like white America had difficulty “seeing” the narrator and the community he professes to serve. The protagonist is disappointed to find that the brotherhood, like his high school superintendent, his college president, and college philanthropist Mr. Norton are not who they appear to be.

By the novel’s conclusion, the narrator reflects on the previous 20 years of his life and takes stock of what he’s learned. The protagonist now has come to embrace the reality of his invisibility, and in fact, use it to his advantage. The narrator offers no specific remedy for the problems confronting America, and has not even returned above ground. Perhaps the narrator (and therefore Ralph Ellison) can recognize national problems, even critique them, but not propose concrete solutions. This does not stop the protagonist from sharing an important psychological tool for dispossessed black people:

I started out with my share of optimism. I believed in hard work and progress and action, but now, after first being ‘for’ society and then ‘against’ it, I assign myself no rank or any limit, and such an attitude is very much against the trend of the times. But my world has become one of infinite possibilities. (Ellison, 435)

Thus Ellison provides no collective plan or perspective; in existentialist fashion, the novel is the story of one man and his journey to discover himself and the meaning of the world he inhabits. Yet Invisible Man provides insightful commentary concerning white leftists, black nationalists, and black leadership along the lines of Booker T. Washington. His greatest commentary however, might be in his clever descriptions of America’s contradictions and hypocrisy.

tell it on mountain

James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, like Invisible Man, is a coming of age story. The novel traces the protagonist John, an adolescent living in Harlem, who struggles with issues of self-esteem, poverty, identity and religion. Unlike the other novels presented here, Baldwin’s work provides in-depth background for supporting characters. In another departure from the previous works, this book explores the contradictions and strengths of the black church.

What are Baldwin’s observations about the church? For one, this novel illustrates how the black church spiritually edifies and provides hope for its congregation. Moreover, these people exist throughout the work week in a world that limits their possibilities and denies their humanity. Yet as parishioners they hold leadership positions, exert authority, and provide a sense of justice to church members. This is one place according to Baldwin’s depiction, where black people are judged according to their actions rather than their racial category.

Yet, the church holds rigid expectations for its members, particularly around the issue of sex. The pastor of “The Church of the Fire Baptized” publicly reprimands Elisha and his female friend for spending private time together. Even the process by which members become “saved” is inflexible and highly subjective. To become “saints,” not baptism, but speaking in tongues or “getting the Holy Spirit” is required. Nevertheless, this same restrictive church and its teachings provide hope for John who is struggling to find his place in the world. In addition, the church provides refuge for people like Gabriel and Florence who are burdened with scandalous pasts.

As mentioned before, the novels discussed share similarities. All stories are centered in urban areas with large black working-class populations (Chicago and Harlem), feature black male protagonists (Bigger Thomas, the anonymous narrator, and John), cite references to blues, jazz, and gospel songs to communicate larger statements about the black experience, reveal the authors’ real-life experiences with political or religious activities, and they all describe a black youth’s journey to discover his meaning and purpose in life.  While each book uses particular forms, themes and motifs, they all provide critiques of racism. More importantly, they all  demonstrate how racism works to dispossess and cripple the black community, and the various means Black people employ to actively resist these attempts.

________________________ 

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Go Tell it on the Mountain. (New York: Dell, 1953)

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. (New York: Random House, 1952)

Wright, Richard. Native Son (New York: Harper, 1940)


[1] For example, the Modern Library created a list of “100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.” Native Son, Invisible Man, and Go Tell It on the Mountain are ranked numbers 20, 19, and 39 respectively.

[2] Ellison never names the protagonist in Invisible Man, which helps reinforce the idea that this character is struggling to discover or manage his identity.

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Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at truself143@gmail.com.

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One thought on “Critiques of American Racism in the Novels of Wright, Ellison and Baldwin

  1. Pingback: “Native Son” by Richard Wright | Zezee's Link

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