During the modern era, there was an overwhelming sense of optimism due to the nation’s booming economy. There was a generalization that any citizen could work hard and become successful. However, this was not always the case in American society. Not everyone was given equal opportunity to thrive and succeed. This struggle was expressed in various literary works. In is novel Native Son, Richard Wright uses symbolism and irony to attack race issues and oppression in order to suggest that African Americans should have equal opportunity as whites.
Throughout the novel, the protagonist, Bigger Thomas faces persecution and mistreatment simply because of the color of his skin. This racism appears early in the novel when a rat is encountered in his apartment. Bigger’s mother is disgusted by the gross creature she finds wandering in the family’s apartment. She proclaims her disgust and fear of the rat by saying, “Lord, Lord, have mercy… that sonofabitch could cut your throat” (10). Through this duologue, the readers realize the harsh treatment and attitude the rat is receiving from Bigger’s family. They are scared and afraid of the rat, even though it means no harm and is merely trying to surviving with the living conditions it has been given.
This demonstrates the overall racism towards blacks throughout the book as they are treated poorly and set up to fail. Like the rat, they are considered the lowest of the low who scavenge off others to survive. They are treated as a threat that only causes harm and need to be rid of. Also, Bigger faces racism head on at home. When playing with his friends, they “play white”. This game attempts to imitate the way whites act in society. During this game, Bigger and his friends unknowingly play out the white people has having superior power over the whites. This demonstrates that the racism is engraved into their heads, even at a young age. This sets them up to fail from a young age by starting them off as knowing that they are considered inferior to the white people.
As the book continues, Bigger’s story becomes a point of attention in the south side of Chicago. The newspaper reporters are gathered around preparing to write an article on Bigger’s recent crime. They are collaborating with each other in order to create the best story possible. One of the reporters says, “I’m slanting to the primitive negro who doesn’t want to be disturbed by white civilization.” The conversation continues with another reporter saying, “mention his foreign sounding name” (201). The reporters are bouncing ideas off each other in order to write the best story for the readers. They mention how they are going to purposely define Bigger as a member of the African American community. This simple dialogue represents a much larger meaning within the novel. The reporters immediately turn to race in order to demonize Bigger. They call him “primitive” and point out his name in an attempt to dissociate him from white society. This display of racism conveys the treatment of African Americans as outcasts of mainstream society.
In addition to this, the media is only aiding in the continued validity of this stereotype. The more the media portrays blacks as animals and creatures, the more they are attacked by mainstream white society. As a result of this, the blacks are suppressed more and more, causing them to become more and more desperate. This vicious cycle of racism and oppression is ongoing as society feeds off the harsh portrayal of African Americans by the news outlets. Wright brings attention to the overwhelming effect that oppression can have on an individual or group. Bigger is continuously oppressed throughout his life. After attempting to escape from the police, Bigger is captured and brought down to the street from a rooftop. He was dragged down the stairs with his head banging on every step. He found himself lying on his back in the snow, pinned down by his wrists and surrounded by a circle of this faces. The angry crowd shouts at Bigger. Roars from the crowd include, “Kill ‘im… Lynch ‘im… Kill that ape!” (253). The crowd is angry at the black man who has caused so much trouble to the white folk. When they finally capture him, they all seem to unite as one when shouting insults as if they have has a triumph by holding down this young black man. This unity represented the overpowering superiority of white society over that of the blacks.
Although each individual is their own person and saying their own comments, all Bigger sees and hears is an overbearing common force. To Bigger, he does not see the individuality in each white person; he sees them as all members of the same group all with a common goal of suppressing his dreams. In addition to seeing all whites as a blanket of oppression, he is almost shameful of himself when around them. While sitting in an interview, he sits in Mr. Dalton’s office with him. Bigger enters the room and does not make eye contact. He stands in a corner with his head down, being careful not to make eye contact with Mr. Dalton. Bigger knows the role that he has in society as well as the room. He is careful to not do anything to upset the white man for fear of potential punishment. This shame is built off the fact that he has been repetitively told and taught that he is inferior. This repeated oppression leads Bigger to act differently around white people, further placing him into the mold of a non-productive member of society.
Bigger feels as if he has been able to make very few decisions for himself his entire life. This suppression was put on him right from the start. Once he realizes his fate and is sitting on his cot, he thinks back on his life. He had always lived with the premonition that he would be sentenced to the electric chair. Once this becomes a reality, Bigger feels a sense of freedom that he has never felt before. He wonders to himself why he “put himself into the shadow of the electric chair only to find out this? Had he been blind all along? But there was no way to tell now. It was too late…” (335). He realizes that he lived his entire life under the shadow of fear of the electric chair. Once he realizes that he is actually doomed for the chair, he assumes that he should live his live with complete freedom with the remaining days he has left.
He concludes, however, that it is too late to live with freedom since he wasted all of his previous days under the shadow. This shadow of oppression holds him back from living freely because he knows that his skin color limits his chances to succeed in life. Furthermore, Bigger can make choices that will only dig him deeper into a hole he cannot escape from. After lashing out and committing a murder, Bigger expresses his feelings that he has a sense of power for the first time in his life. By committing this murder, he has broken away from the limitations being placed on him. Although it was negative, he could not be stopped because he was not assumed to be capable of such a crime. This demonstrates that the oppressed are subject to hostility and more likely to lash out due to the poor treatment and lack of individual freedoms.
By using irony and symbolism, Richard Wright brings light to the issue of race and oppression in America. He attempts to convey that blacks and white should be given equal opportunity to succeed. Wright believes that African Americans are placed into a mold of failure, one that they cannot escape. The title “Native Son” suggests something about the treatment of the generation of young men we are raising in our country. All of our “Native Sons”, no matter what race, should be treated equally and be given ample opportunity to succeed.