Compare and contrast the ways that American writers Toni Morrison and Richard Wright have conceived the relationship between racial oppression and the institution of the family in their respective works Beloved and Native Son.
Both Morrison’s Beloved and Richard Wright’s Native Son depict and analyse the brutalities, violence and dehumanizing effects of racism in American society, but they presentation o the relationship between racism and the institution of the family differs and has a different emphasis in each novel. These differences can be linked to the vastly different contexts of production of each author and, as a consequence, their own very different ideological view of the solution to the dysfuncionality of the institution of the black family and black life in general. However, both Wright and Morrison would surely agree that the dysfuncionality of black families is the result of the history and facts of slavery in the USA and the continued racist attitudes of that country. There are also differences because of the gender of the chief protagonist: Morrison’s Sethe is a mother and Morrison explores the dynamics of being a mother under the system of slavery, while Wright explores a type of black masculinity during a decade of economic recession.
Racism in Beloved is presented as a dehumanizing force, destructive of human dignity but especially destructive of the family. As Beaulieu comments ‘the contradictions and horrors of slavery are most clearly visible in Beloved.’ (Beaulieu (2003) p 308). Baby Suggs has has eight children by six different fathers. She says “I had eight. Everyone of them gone from me.” (Morrison (1987) p5).
Two of her daughters vanish so quickly that Suggs cannot even say goodbye to them; one son is is traded for wood (Morrison op cit p23). Slave owners possessed slaves and viewed them as objects and could dispose of them at will, so mothers and the children were simply separated when they were sold. Baby Suggs reflects on this deliberate destruction of family ties and bonds under the system of slavery:
…in all of Baby’s life, as well as Sethe’s own, men and women were mover around like checkers. Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized. What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children. (Morrison op cit p23).
Beloved often stress that life at Sweet Home was unusual: Baby Suggs knows the whereabouts of her final son, Halle, and she is never sexually abused once she is there. The Garners, racist and paternalistic as they are, treat their slaves with a modicum of decency _ we learn that Mr Garner never lets his black slaves out to stud. Even Sethe’s experience is abnormal: at Sweet Home she has had four children by the same man.
Sethe had the amazing luck of six whole years of marriage to that ‘somebody’ son who had fathered every one of her children (Morrison op cit p23).
Her own experience as a child is more telling, however; she was brought up and fed by a wet-nurse, Nan, and only saw her real mother on a few rare occasions before her mother was hanged (we never find out why). And Sethe is special to her mother too. Nan tells her
…that her mother and Nan were from the sea. Both were taken many times by the crew. “She threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more whites she also threw away. Without names she threw them. You she gave the name of the black man. She put her arms around him. The others she did not put her arms around. Never. Never. Never. (Morrison op cit p62)
So Sethe’s unknown mother is prepared to kill the children forced upon her by rape; what Sethe does to Beloved, in a sense, has been foreshadowed by her own mother’s actions and it is an act of rebellion against the horror of slavery and its deliberate destruction of black family life. Ella puts the whole matter even more succinctly: ‘If anybody was to ask me I’d say, “Don’t love nothing.” (Morrison op cit p92) Because under slavery that love will never be able to be expressed properly because of the disintegration of the family unit.
Paul D, reflecting on mother love, echoes Ella’s view:
Risky, thought Paul D, very risky. For a used to be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one. (Morrison op cit p45)
That the events are the result of racism is clear. Baby Suggs says
Those white things have taken all I had or dreamed… and broke my heartstrings too. There is no bad luck in the world but white folks. (Morrison op cit p89)
The attitude of slave owners is succinctly summed by schoolteacher as he rides towards 124, Bluestone Road intent on re-capturing Sethe and her children and returning them to Sweet Home:
Unlike a snake or a bear, a dead nigger could not be skinned for profit and was not worth his dead weight in gold. (Morrison op cit p148)
Under slavery, Sethe’s sense of motherhood is denied and distorted, as she tells Paul D
I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between. Looked like I loved them more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn’t love them proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love. (Morrison op cit p162)
Sethe’s murder of Beloved is not without criticism in the novel. Paul D famously tells Sethe – “what you did was wrong, Sethe…. you got two feet, seethe, not four.” (Morrison op cit p164) In other words you are human (two feet) but you have acted like an animal with four feet. But, as a whole, the novel shows why Sethe has become so brutalized by racism that the murder of Beloved was an act of setting her toddler daughter free. Denver, Sethe’s youngest child, sees this clearly towards the end of the novel and understands her mother’s actions:
…anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty yourself so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t think who you were and couldn’t think it up…. The best thing she was, was her children. (Morrison op cit p251)
And so the murder of Beloved is a reaction to racism and the system of slavery; it is the only way that Sethe has to ensure Beloved’s freedom. Slavery destroys every family that Sethe has: at Sweet Home she is violated by schoolteacher’s sons – “And they took my milk! And they took my milk!” (Morrison op cit p17), milk which should have nourished Beloved; and schoolteacher’s attempt to bring the family back causes the murder of Beloved. As Beaulieu puts it:
In ‘Beloved’, Morrison presents the argument that the greatest horror and tragedy of slavery is the way it separates and destroys families. (Beaulieu op cit p117)
In Richard Wright’s Native Son, by contrast, Bigger’s family is presented by Wright as rather peripheral. But it is implied throughout the text that the family’s is dysfunctional. Bigger admits (of his father) that ‘He got killed in a riot when I was a kid – in the South.’ (Wright (1940) p106) – which might hint that he was lynched. Bigger is now at the age of twenty his family’s only potential breadwinner and in the opening chapter it is his mother’s fear that they will be taken off relief and therefore have nothing to eat that forces Bigger to take the job at the Daltons – but he does so angrily and bitterly, because in a racist society he has no choice. In literary terms (and conveniently ignoring the dates of publication!), Bigger is the descendant of Sixo in Beloved, finding through violence and hatred of whites his only redemption, or like Howard and Buglar, Sethe’s sons, who just leave home because the burden of the past and the sense of responsibility is so great. This idea is not as fanciful as it seems: in Wright’s essay ‘How Bigger Was Born’ (which is now usually used as an introduction to editions of the novel) Wright is at pains to point out that Bigger Thomas is a type of negro whose only response to white racism is violence and who usually ends up dead or in jail. This resorting to violence, however, is wholly due to the inequalities of racism, the denial of economic freedom to black men and the barbarity of both the Jim Crow laws of the south and the economic segregation and exploitation in the northern states of the USA. Even before Bigger’s re-education by his lawyer Max in Book Three, Bigger is aware of the constraints imposed on him by capitalism – which have replaced the physical shackles of slavery. Early in the novel when he sees a poster which proclaims ‘IF YOU BREAK THE LAW, YOU CAN’T WIN’, he he mumbles to himself, “You crook…. You let whoever pays you off win!’ (Wright op cit p43) And in a conversation with Gus, Bigger reveals his understanding of his own oppression:
“They don’t let us do nothing.’
“The white folks!” (Wright op cit p49)
A few pages later Gus and Bigger agree of white people “They got everything. They own the world.” (Wright op cit p52)
And it is this sense of economic alienation that ultimately leads Bigger to commit murder.
His eventual execution is foretold in the novel. His mother says to him 1… the gallows is at the end of the road you travelling, boy,” (Wright op cit p39) and Bigger himself comes to feel that his violence towards Mary Dalton and towards Bessie are inevitable steps to the electric chair which the economic conditions of racist America have pre-ordained for him. Later in the novel he says to his lawyer Max
… what I got to care about? I knew that sometime or another they was going to get me for something. I’m black. I don’t have to do nothing for ’em to get me. The first white finger they point at me, I’m a goner, see?(Wright op cit p381)
Bigger and his relationship with his family is not examined in any great detail by Wright, although the opening scene when the rat is killed acts as metaphor for what will happen to Bigger and also reveals the squalid conditions that they are forced to live in at over-priced rents by white landlords – four people in a room, infested with rats and with no possibility of moving to a nicer neighbourhood. But Wright gives us psychological insight into Bigger which reveals that he has a sense of responsibility to family, but it has been warped to hatred because of the brutalities of living in a racist society:
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He hated his family because he knew they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair….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. So he denied himself and acted tough. (Wright op cit p40)
Not only is this another foretelling of Bigger’s inevitable fate, it also shows his awareness of the appalling life his family lead and his lack of power to do anything about it. Late in Book Three he tells his family to forget him when they visit him in jail and not to visit again.(Wright op cit p442)
How are we to account for the very different emphases put on the family by these two writers? One might argue that the contexts of production are crucial in this respect.
Wright’s Native Son was published in 1940 and, although his presentation of the effects of racism is just as brutalizing as Morrison’s, and family life has been disrupted Bigger Thomas’s actual family are peripheral to the action, as we have seen. It is important to consider contextual factors here. Wright was writing during a period of exodus of blacks from the southern states to the northern industrialized ones where they found better pay but a more subtle racism which still kept them firmly in their oppressed economic position. Furthermore, the Great Depression and even events in Europe (the rise of Hitler and his ideological opposite – the Communism of the Soviet Union) had seen the polarization of politics of the right and the left. This was a world-wide phenomenon and affected thinkers, writers and artists all over the world. At the time of publication, Wright was a member of the American Communist Party and, to a far greater extent than Beloved, Native Son is a polemical novel designed to reflect current Marxist ideology. This explains the positive presentation of characters such as Mary Dalton, Jan and Max, but it also has consequences for the presentation of family. In Marxist doctrine the family unit is irrelevant to the issue of social change which can only come about by the joint efforts of the proletariat – in an American context, both black and white members of the working class working together to over throw the capitalist system. Therefore, while Bigger Thomas’s family has suffered the effects of racism and the legacy of slavery, Wright places less emphasis on family, because it is not part of his solution. In Book Three Max acts as a mouthpiece for orthodox Communist thought and often tries to convince Bigger of the shared injustices of the working class, black or white:
Morrison, by contrast, is writing in the 1980s after the rise of feminism and the increasing empowerment of all women and especially the empowerment of black women, given the successes of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Thus her solution takes a different form from Wright’s.
However, what does unite both texts is their fictive rejection of the conventional nuclear family (destroyed as it has been by slavery, the legacy of slavery and racism) and their embracing of a wider, bigger sense of what we might call family: the white and black working class united as an oppressed proletariat in Wright’s vision; and the more inclusive community mothering shown in the penultimate chapter of Beloved – which re-defines family and kinship as essentially matriarchal and recognising the kinship of all blacks towards each other. For Wright and Morrison these alternatives are different ways forward, but they both present an essentially if only tentatively optimistic vision of a possible way forward for the black family, so alienated and traumatized by the slavery and racism of the USA.
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