Rereading Native Son

I’ve begun re-reading a book (with the students in my philosophical issues in literature class this semester) which, as I noted here a while ago, made a dramatic impact on me on my first reading of it: Richard Wright‘s Native Son. Thus far, I’ve read and discussed Book One with my students (on Wednesday last week); we will resume discussions on April 8th once spring break is over. But even on this brief revisitation I’m struck by how my reading has changed. I’m now twenty-six years older than I was on my first reading. Then, I was thinking about returning to graduate school; now, I’m a tenured professor assigning the same text to my undergraduates. Then, I read Native Son in the anticipation of discussing it with my girlfriend, who had gifted it to me; I think I subconsciously hoped to impress an older and wiser woman with my sensitive and nuanced take on Bigger Thomas’ fate. Now, I read Book One (Fear) of Native Son in anticipation of discussing it with my students, many of whom have already shown themselves capable of sensitive and nuanced readings of the novels I have assigned them thus far; I therefore look forward to their understanding of this classic novel, daring to hope that they will bring a new interpretation and understanding of this material to my attention.  For my part, I’m far more attentive to many plot details and devices on this reading; I’ve become, I think, a more careful and sensitive reader over the years, looking for more, and often finding it, in the texts I read.

Before we began class discussions I subjected my students to a little autobiographical detail: I informed them of my prior reading, of the book’s influence on me, of the passage of time since then, how I would be re-reading the text with them, and so on. I did not detail the full extent of Native Son‘s impact on me; that discussion will have to wait till Bigger’s trial and his defense by Max. But I cannot wait to do so; I wonder if I will be able to capture the sense I had twenty-six years ago of suddenly seeing the world in a whole new light. One part of that anticipation also fills me with dread; what if my students simply do not ‘get’ from it what I was able to? What if, indeed, as I read on, I find myself disappointed by Native Son?

But if the first class discussion last week was any indicator, I needn’t entertain such fears. My students ‘came through’: they had read the first book closely; they had responded to Wright’s dramatic evocation of a fearful, angry, and violent Bigger, living in a ‘black world’ disjoint from a ‘white world,’ destined to run afoul of those forces that had conspired to make him who he was, to drive him to kill, negligently and willfully alike, onwards to his fatal rendezvous with America, his home and his graveyard. Bigger’s story endures; it does so because much else–like the forces that harried him–has too.

Men Writing As Women, And Vice-Versa

A few days ago, I excerpted a passage from James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk (Bantam, New York, 1974)  in which the central character, a young woman named Tish, describes her–and her boyfriend, Fonny’s–perceptions of Bell, the policeman who has sent Fonny to jail.

Tish:

But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of [Bell’s] eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death.

Fonny:

When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said.

My annotation concluded:

Only Baldwin, I think, could have captured–in quite this way–the aura the black man feels radiating out at him from a policeman: the resentment, the sense of being marked as a target, the implicit and explicit violence, the desire to destroy whatever it is that makes him into a man who can hold his head high. The policed see and experience the police very differently; they know they are looked at through a different lens.

Except that in the passage I noted, Fonny’s perceptions–that of a black man–of Bell are actually those of Tish–a black woman–for she is the narrator of the story. Baldwin, a male writer, has written a novel in first-person where the gender of the narrator is not his. This, as might be imagined, is not a task that novelists often attempt. Our own interiority is hard enough to ‘capture’; the description of another kind of subjectivity is particularly intractable task. Third-person descriptions of another gender are a little easier than first-person perspectives, even if only marginally. (As Meg Toth noted in the discussion I make note of below, “Inhabiting a different perspective is not the same as writing well about it in the third person….So many authors write sensitively and insightfully about main characters of the opposite sex, but using first person to do so is rare.” Baldwin even provides us an explicit description of Fonny and Tish’s love-making; it is a remarkable scene, powerful and sensitive.)

What makes Baldwin’s novel particularly interesting is that our pre-encounter-with-the-text expectation is that we will read Baldwin as one of the most vivid male articulators of a distinctive ‘literary black rage.’ (Richard Wright would be yet another.) But instead, Baldwin turns his attention elsewhere. In the case of my reading of If Beale Street Could Talk, considerable anonymity preceded it: I had never heard of it, a sad commentary on my knowledge of Baldwin’s work; I found it a battered paperback copy on a stoop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and intrigued, brought it back home with me; when I opened it to read, I had not even read the jacket description; this made the little shock I experienced on finding out that Tish was the narrator especially distinctive and pleasurable. There is something to be said for skipping reviews.

Note: After reading Beale Street, I made the following query on Facebook:

Favorite novel written in first-person where the author’s gender is not the same as the central character’s?

The response to this quest was gratifying; I will post the list that emerged–including novels that are actually written in third-person–anon. It is very rich; I’m looking forward to the reading that lies in store.

James Baldwin On A White Policeman’s Eyes

In James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk (Bantam, New York, 1974) Fonny, a young black man, is in jail for rape–his supposed victim’s eyewitness identification is probably mistaken; ‘outside,’ his pregnant girlfriend, Tish, wonders about the policeman, Bell, who arrested Fonny. Bell had wanted to arrest Fonny for assault ever since he had violently defended Tish from a young Italian man’s unwelcome advances, and had only been thwarted by a white bystander, an Italian woman who owned the store Tish was shopping in.

Now, as the Tish’s family fights to prove Fonny’s innocence, Tish is haunted by Bell; she knows his name; she ‘sees’ him everywhere; she has memorized his badge number. Since that day Tish first met Bell, he has come to reside in her self as an abiding memory, an unforgettable and disturbing impression:

I had certainly seen him before that particular afternoon, but he had been just another cop. After that afternoon, he had read hair and blue eyes. He walked the way John Wayne walks, striding out to clean up the universe, and he believed all that shit: a wicked, stupid, infantile motherfucker. Like his heroes, he was kind of pigheaded, heavy gutted, big assed, and his eyes were as blank as George Washington’s eyes. But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of those eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death. If you look steadily into that unblinking blue, into that pinpoint at the center of the eye, you discover a bottomless cruelty, a viciousness cold and icy. In that eye, you do not exist: if you are lucky. If that eye, from its height, has been forced to notice you, if you do exist in the unbelievably frozen winter which lives behind that eye, you are marked, marked, marked, like a man in a black overcoat, crawling, fleeing, across the snow. The eye resents your presence in the landscape, cluttering up the view. Presently, the black overcoat will be still, turning red with blood, and the snow will be red, and the eye resents this, too, blinks once, and causes more snow to fall, covering it all. Sometimes I was with Fonny when I crossed Bell’s path, sometimes I was alone. When I was with Fonny, the eyes looked straight ahead, into a freezing sun. When I was alone, the eyes clawed me like a cat’s claws, raked me like a rake. These eyes look only into the eyes of the conquered victim. They cannot look into any other eyes. When Fonny was alone, the same thing happened. Bell’s eyes swept over Fonny’s black body with the unanswerable cruelty of lust, as though he had lit the blowtorch and had it aimed at Fonny’s sex. When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said. [pp. 185-186.]

Only Baldwin, I think, could have captured–in quite this way–the aura the black man feels radiating out at him from a policeman: the resentment, the sense of being marked as a target, the implicit and explicit violence, the desire to destroy whatever it is that makes him into a man who can hold his head high. The policed see and experience the police very differently; they know they are looked at through a different lens.

Reading Native Son

Partha Chatterjee describes his experience of first reading Edward Said‘s Orientalism:

I will long remember the day I read Orientalism. It must have been in November or December of 1980. In India, this season is classically called Hemanta and assigned a slot between autumn and winter. In Calcutta, where nothing classical remains untarnished, all that this means is a few weeks of uncertain temperatures when the rains have gone, the fans have been switched off, and people wait expectantly to take out their sweaters and shawls. I remember the day because the house was being repainted and everything was topsy-turvy. I sat on the floor of the room in which I usually work, now emptied of its furniture, reading Edward Said whom I had never read before. I read right through the day and, after the workmen had left in the evening, well into the night. Now whenever I think of Orientalism, the image comes back to me of an empty room with a red floor and bare white walls, a familiar room suddenly made unfamiliar. [As cited in S.N. Balagangadhara, Reconceptualizing Indian Studies, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 35]

In 1991, I was gifted Richard Wright‘s Native Son by a girlfriend of mine. I had not heard of Wright; I certainly had not read Native Son. I was–as might be surmised–callow and ill-read.

A few days after receiving this generous gift, I began reading it; I will long remember the day I did. It was summer time in New Jersey; the nights came late, providing some relief from the muggy heat of the day. I had driven back from work, eaten an early dinner, and then retired to my tiny bedroom to read; my two roommates were still occupied elsewhere, one at graduate school, the other at work; I had solitude and quiet and time, near perfect conditions for reading. I propped my pillow up against the wall, rested my head against it, stretched out on the modest futon mattress that served as ‘bed’ and read Native Son.

I read Book One: Fear and Book Two: Flight. Then, as I read Book Three: Fate, and as Bigger Thomas approached his final, irresistible fate, I felt as if the world, and the place I had previously inhabited in it, was fast becoming unrecognizable. And yet, simultaneously, I was becoming more comprehensible to myself; suddenly I understood . As I lay there, slumped, stunned, struggling to take in the dramatically new portrait that Wright was painting for me of race, class, subjugation, and resistance, I felt as if the walls of the room I was in were moving back, somehow expanding to accommodate a growth I felt within me of something I had never experienced before.  I couldn’t stop; I continued to read, sickened and fascinated in equal measure by the tragedy whose contours had been traced out for me in such eloquent fashion by Wright. I knew I would never see my past life in the same way again; I didn’t think I would ever feel as I had before I read Native Son ever again. Now, whenever I think of Native Son, I think of that evening, that room, and its walls, seemingly being pushed back by the expanding consciousness they enclosed.