Opposing Views For Social Change: Essay, Research Paper
Native Son and Go Tell It on the Mountain are clearly social critiques of the black experience in conflicts with white dominated society. They are powerful works of literature; media formulated to spark social awareness and illuminate the racial disparity in American society. Both pieces present the necessity for change not only in the African-American community but also in all of society in hopes to end racial prejudice and inequality. Although Baldwin and Wright’s messages of reform are similar, each presents differing avenues for achieving that change. They deliver significantly opposing messages of dealing with the rage that oppression and hate generates. James Baldwin said, “There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood – one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it.” Go Tell It on the Mountain is a novel that presents the option of “living with it consciously.” Native Son explores the darker possibilities when one chooses the later.
The works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin represent the voices of two very basic outlooks on social reform. Wright’s views, expressed in Native Son, are of justifiable violent behavior with almost no option for choice. It is a view shared by hundreds of thousands who support proactive movements like the Black Panthers, Stokely Carmichal, or Malcolm X. Although the reader yearns for Bigger to find another way, the key meaning of Native Son is the final understanding that there were no other choices. In Wright’s world and the world of Bigger Thomas, brutality was an inevitable course of action to racial injustice. Gruesome violence sadly fulfilled Bigger need for self-identification and empowerment.
The antithesis is Go Tell It on the Mountain’s optimistic “Martin Luther King”-like message. It is a message about changing the individual’s heart before attempting to change others. Baldwin saw that it was impossible to the overcome hate with more hate. It was his own belief that his “…real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred that [he] carried in [his] own heart.” The choices are simple: either attempt to change the world or change the individual.
In Native Son, Bigger is so lost in his own rage that it allows him to commit horrible crimes without remorse. It is not Richard Wright’s intention to create a hero in Bigger Thomas but a sympathetic character trapped by white society into committing his acts of violence. Wright wants the reader to understand that in a world of injustice it may take that same injustice to open people’s narrow minds. Bigger and the society that he lives in, allots him few options for progress. Like many in the “real” world, Bigger chooses to break through “white” structured choices with violence. He finds an empowerment like never experienced. Similar to the work of Flannery O’Connor, Bigger’s violence is used to shock the characters of the story, the heart of the reader, and ultimately society.
To understand Wright’s message of proactive change in the African-American community, we can look at the creation of Bigger Thomas’ psyche. He is a black male with limited education partly by choice and partly by situation. But it is an irrefutable fact that Bigger would never be able to receive the same educational opportunities afforded to white society. In a conversation with his friend Gus, he says, “If you wasn’t black and if you had some money and if they’d let you go to that aviation school, you could fly a plane.” So Wright is clear in his statement that it was not lack of ambition that hold Bigger and more importantly black society behind. Bigger was being oppressed into living in project housing ironically by men like Mr. Dalton, oppressed into always being subservient by occupation, and oppressed by general distrust. In an initial conversation with Mr. Dalton, we see a portrayal of the prevalent white attitude. “They said I was stealing! he blurted defensively. But I wasn’t.” Mr. Dalton is quick to reply, “Are you sure?” He assumed Bigger was lying without any real knowledge of his character because he fit the stereotypical image. Wright continues to batter the reader with events, images, and descriptions of the subjugation that ensues on black America. It is simple cause and effect. “These were the rhythms of his life: indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and moments of anger-like water ebbing and flowing…”
Through Native Son, we are enlightened by the stark realization of oppression and the limited options of those who live under it. His mother had her religion to hide behind and Bessie had her liquor. Bigger refused to hide and suppress his rage after the accidental death of Mary. He had opportunities to make his own choices. Understandably, Bigger choose crime and violence as his outlet. Wright uses a very Marxist model of change. Marxist belief is based upon violent revolution and upheaval to incite social change, destroy boundaries, and arrive at a “new paradigm.”
Baldwin’s novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, supports the idea of oppression as a real and controlling threat. Gabriel’s view reminds the reader of its still powerful existence.
“He said that white people were never to be trusted, and that they told nothing but lies, and that not one of them had ever loved a nigger. He, John, was a nigger, and he would find out, as soon as he got a little older, how evil white people could be. John had read about things white people did to colored people; how, in the South, where his parents came from, white people cheated them of their wages, and burned them, and shot them – and did worse things.”
However, what Baldwin presents that Wright does not, is that racial prejudice is wrong either way. Gabriel spouts stereotypes and generalizations about ALL white people. Baldwin is quick to refute this with his basic message delivered in the quiet honesty of John. “In John’s mind then, the people and the avenue underwent a change, and he feared them and knew that one day he could hate them if God did not change his heart.” Baldwin’s vision of change starts in the heart of the individual. Black people could not change the minds of others but only their own.
John was trapped as Bigger was by his rage, hate, and fear. John hated Gabriel and his oppression: Bigger hated, on a much larger scale, white society. John chooses to find inner peace and empowerment from within. Baldwin’s message utilizes the saving grace of God as an agent of change. “Then he stood before his father. In the moment that he forced himself to raise his eyes and look into his father’s face, he felt in himself a stiffening, and a panic, and a blind rebellion, and a hope for peace. The tears still on his face, and smiling still, he said: Praise the Lord.”
More importantly was the view of internal transformation for humanity whether they chose secular and religious means of enlightenment. Hate is not a positive and lasting means of change as evident in the tragedy of Native Son. For stable and enduring social reformation, “Martin Luther King”-like movements are most promising. Baldwin and Wright understood the necessity for the black America to find ways to deal with rage. Nevertheless, it has been the efforts of both movements that led to the improvement race relations. Together powerful protest, fighting against injustice and the changing of people hearts has brought America one-step closer on the long road towards equality.