The Cycle of Fear
Native Son by Richard Wright is a piece of literature that is meant to demonstrate how fear in the white community drives society to label blacks as dangerous, immoral, and subhuman. The main character, Bigger Thomas, embodies all of the preconceptions and secret fears that people associate with black Americans. He lies, he steals, he is violent, and by the end of the story he is a rapist and a murderer. The first time he is given an opportunity to improve his family’s life, he tries to adapt, but because of a turn of fate he has to throw his chances away. Bigger wants to evade all of the stereotypes of “people like him.” Eventually he realizes that he has become what everybody fears most: a nigger. His horrific crimes awaken the fears that the majority has against blacks, and they unleash a new wave of intolerance and oppression, which in turn creates more men just like Bigger.
The story is set in post-WWII Chicago. Racism and segregation is a part of everyday life for Bigger. It is unspoken but everyone knows that blacks are only allowed to do certain things, while the whites keep their distance. A life of poverty and indifference has caused Bigger and his friends to become crooks, just as most people expect young black men to be. In order to enjoy simple entertainments like cigarettes and the cinema, Bigger’s crew has robbed from black-owned businesses many times. However, when a plan is made to steal from Blum’s Deli, which is run by a white man, Bigger instinctively evades the situation because he knows that being caught would destroy his future, especially because he is black. Instead he takes a job working for a wealthy white family, the Daltons. Mr. Dalton trusts Bigger and tries to be sympathetic toward him, which actually makes Bigger uncomfortable and volatile. His first night on the job, he has to escort the daughter Mary Dalton to her bedroom because she is too inebriated to go herself. When her blind mother hears them in her room, Bigger smothers Mary so he won’t be discovered. He does this because he knows if he is found in her room, the white people’s prejudices, stereotypes and fears would condemn him. Instead, his own fear of their fears turns him into the thing they fear most: a Negro who murders a young white woman.
When Bigger becomes the prime suspect for Mary’s murder, the entire city is in chaos. The prejudices and fears that the whites usually keep repressed are heightened because every black man they see could be the violent criminal Bigger Thomas. Every black woman could be Bigger’s mother or sister or lover. One black man even says, “‘Every nigger looks guilty t’ white folks when somebody’s done a crime.'” (235) The blacks in the community are treated even more poorly by the white people because Bigger is one of them. The sensationalist stories about him in the newspapers convince people to fire their black workers, to turn blacks away from their stores and services, and to harass them on the streets. The white people no longer see blacks as individuals or even as people. They have no respect for them.
At Bigger’s trial, the prosecution’s lawyer, Buckley, uses language to dehumanize Bigger and make it clear that he deserved no sympathy that would be afforded to so-called civilized people. He calls him a “savage”, a “black lizard”, a “sub-human killer”, a “rapacious beast”, and countless other names. Although these comments are directed towards Bigger, it is not a stretch of imagination to believe that Buckley also relates these terms to all the other members of his race. It is easier to fear all of the blacks then to figure out which ones are to be feared or to create a plan for change, and this dehumanization is effective in creating a mob mentality that rallies against African Americans.