Richard Wright, Native Son

Wright, Richard. Native Son. Harper & Brothers, 1940.

Summary of Work
Bigger Thomas wakes up in the one bedroom, small kitchenette flat that he and his family of four share. There is a rat, and his mother has him and his brother attempt to kill it. In killing the rat with a cast iron pan, Bigger breaks a box. He then scares his sister Vera to fainting as he approaches her with the dead rat. His mother gets after him, and continues to tell him that he is good for nothing and ask him why he won’t work rather than cause trouble. She reiterates that she has him a job opportunity from the relief center, and that they are living on the grace of others and God because they have so little money. He sits and eats as she says this, and then asks for money. She gives him twenty five cents, and he heads out.

He knows his interview isn’t until the evening, and he has time. He wants to do something, but doesn’t have the money. So he goes to the pool house and waits for his crew to arrive: GH, Jack, and Gus. They start planning to rob a white man’s deli down the street at 3 PM because the cops aren’t around and no one will yet be shopping. Bigger says that with a couple of guns they could do it in three minutes flat. They, after some argument from Gus, decide to go through with the plan. In the meantime, they go to the movies and masturbate while watching a group of young heiresses frolick on the beach in Florida. He sees Mary Dalton on the screen, and tells the other men that it is the Dalton family who might give him the job this evening.

Bigger is getting more and more nervous about robbing the white man’s store. What if they get caught? He also has a chance for a job, and what would the robbery do to those chances? He decides he has to go through with it because the other boys are going to. He goes and gets his gun and goes back to the pool hall. Gus is later than everyone else, and Bigger uses that as an excuse to start a fight. He has a knife at Gus’s throat and makes him do humiliating things. When the pool house owner, Doc, tells him that’s enough and to stop, he damages the pool tables with his knife, and Doc pulls his gun out and tells Bigger to leave and never come back.

He leaves, goes home, and then nearly immediately has to leave for the interview and doesn’t have time to eat. His mother gives him a little money to buy dinner on the way. He goes directly to the Dalton home and rings the bell on the front door because he cannot find a way to the back entrance. He is let in and led into Mr. Dalton’s study. After an interview where Bigger feels very uncomfortable, he is hired to be the Dalton family chauffer. Mary Dalton walks in just after that and starts asking him questions like if he is part of a Union, and it makes Bigger dislike her immediately because he doesn’t know how to answer the questions and doesn’t want to because he is afraid of associating with white women for fear of being lynched or murdered or put in jail for it.

Mr. Dalton tells Bigger to go out to Peggy, who will show him where he will be sleeping. He is told that he will have $25 a week, five of which will be for spending money for him each week. He is also told that he needs to drive Miss Dalton to the college that evening. He sees his room, gets food in the kitchen, and Peggy also tells him that he is to tend to the furnace while he works there. Then goes back home quickly to collect his things. When he returns, he overhears discussion when he sits in his closet. He pretends to be putting away his clothing when he is doing this so if he is caught it won’t look unnatural for him to be in the closet.

He then goes down for a drink of water and Mrs. Dalton, who is blind, is in the kitchen. She talks to him about their previous chauffer and how he got an education and now has a good government job. She asks him if he would like an education and he says no, that he doesn’t have time or opportunity. She says if they were to afford him the opportunity, would he go, and he replies no. She tells him they will talk about it later, and that it is time to get Mary to college. He goes and gets the car out, a Buick, and she comes out the front. About halfway to the college she tells him to go someplace else, and they go to the Communist headquarters and she brings out a man, Jan Erlohn. He forces Bigger to shake hands with him, and then Mary says that they are all going to get in the front seat, Jan is to drive, and that they’d like to eat where black people eat.

Bigger tells them about a fried chicken place on the South side, and when they get there, he is astounded that they won’t eat there without him despite his saying that he is not hungry and would rather wait with the car. Feeling forced, he gets out, and his step away from Mary makes her cry, and Jan comforts her. They eat, and everyone is staring at Bigger. His girlfriend Bessie comes over and he won’t speak with her for fear of the white people being with him. She is offended and leaves. Jan orders beer and then a bottle of rum, and they take the bottle with them when they leave. Jan and Mary get in the back seat of the car and tell him to go drive around the park. They get drunk in the back seat, occasionally letting Bigger have a swig of liquor. He drives for two hours while they are kissing and spooning in the back seat, and they drop Jan off just about 2 AM. Jan lets Mary take one more very large drink, enough to make her very drunk.

When Bigger drives her back, she is again in the front seat, she cannot walk on her own and keeps falling unconscious. He takes her around the back, her purse left in the car, the door ajar. He carries her up the stairs, hoping that no one will notice. When he puts her in her room, he looks at her, and kisses her and grabs her breasts. But as he is doing this as she is in bed, Mrs. Dalton walks in the room. He freezes. She is calling out to her daughter, and in fear of her saying anything to indicate that he is in the room, he puts his hand over her mouth. When she keeps calling and Mary keeps trying to answer and take his hand off of her mouth, he puts the pillow over her and keeps an iron hand down on it. She struggles, and then the struggle stops so he lets go and backs away as Mrs. Dalton gets close to the bed. Mrs. Dalton just expects that her daughter has passed out from the drink, so she leaves the room.

When Bigger takes the pillow off of her face and looks at her, he realizes he has killed her. He is panicked and doesn’t know what to do. It was an accident, but he knows no one will believe it and that people will say he raped her. He also knows that Mary is supposed to go to Detroit in the morning, so he decides to try and stuff her in her trunk. She fits, and he carries her down the stairs in it to the basement. And when he passes the furnace he has the thought that he can dispose of her body in the furnace. So he takes her out of the trunk and pushes her in, but her head won’t fit in. He spreads newspapers under her body and cuts her head with his knife. But the knife won’t cut the bone, so he takes a hatchet and cuts off her head with that, blood falling all over the newspapers. He then puts her head and all the newspapers into the furnace and covers the body with coal, hoping it will burn. He closes the trunk and leaves, deciding to take Mary’s purse with him as he does so and leave the car out.

As he goes home, he decides that he will frame Jan for the murder when it comes to light, but hopes that it will not come to light for some time because she is supposed to be traveling. He looks through her purse and finds a roll of bills, which he takes, and he disposes of the purse. He also disposes of his knife. When he wakes up at his home in the morning, his mother asks him why he got in at nearly 3 AM. He claims that he got in around 2 so insistently that she gives up. His little brother also insists that he got in late. He eats breakfast with them quickly but says he has to go back to his job. As he runs out of the house, his brother follows him, holding the rolled bills in his hand and asking if he is in any trouble. He tells his brother no and hands him a bill as payment for his silence about having the money.

Then he goes to a local eatery and buys himself a pack of cigarettes with the money, and as his friends Jack, GH, and Gus come in, he buys each of them a pack of cigarettes as well. For the first time ever, Bigger is feeling powerful and free because he knows things others do not and he is making his own course. He goes back to the Daltons’ home and takes the trunk to the station. As he gets back and sits and waits for the never coming Miss Dalton, Peggy asks if she is out to be taken yet, and when he says no, she gets worried because Miss Dalton is also not in the home. Peggy has known Miss Dalton since Miss Dalton was two years old, and has nothing but love for the family who gave her, an Irish immigrant, a good job to last her life.

When Bigger goes back in the home, he goes to his room after eating and then listens in as Mrs. Dalton and Peggy talk about Mary being gone. They think it is one of her tricks. But more and more, especially when the trunk comes back, they genuinely worry about her being missing. Mr. Dalton calls a private investigator, Briton, and he questions Bigger about the missing girl. He talks about the evening previous, and says that Jan came home with them that evening and went upstairs with Mary. He says Jan told him to take the trunk down and he left her with him, and that Jan also told him to leave the car out and that he’d take care of it, which is why it had sat outside all night in the snow. After, he goes to his girlfriend’s house, and after he sleeps with her, he gets an idea that he can, like a previous case, make a kidnapping note and get a ransom and then leave town. He brings Bessie in on the plan, telling her she will be the one to pick up the money.

In the meantime, the police question Jan, who is incredulous and thinks that because he is a communist and loves his daughter, Mr. Dalton is out to get him. He confronts Bigger about it, thinking that they have paid him and forced him to lie, and Bigger pulls a gun on him and tells him to stay way. He then gets paper and pen and writes a ransom note and signs it Red, knowing they will think communism and more suspicion will be on Jan. He slips the note in the front door as he is walking toward the back door of the house. All the while, Bigger is worried about the furnace. Peggy has told him that it needs cleaning, and he know that there is a good chance the bones have not burned in it. By evening, the press has got wind of the story, and everyone is soon there asking questions about the missing girl and about how Mr. Dalton feels about the communist boy he’s had locked up.

Mr. Dalton has by this time received the ransom letter, and decides to make a statement to the press that he intends to pay the ransom and that he would like them to publish that the police are not to interfere because he wants his daughter back. Bigger is somewhat excited, but also worried because he is thinking about the bones in the furnace. The furnace isn’t working properly, so he has to do something. He pours more coal on, but it creates a plume of smoke, and before he can properly get the ashes out of the furnace, a newspaper man takes the shovel from him and does it. Everything seems fine, but the newspaper man, when the dust clears, keeps staring at the ashes. He slowly pulls out bones. All the men gather round, and as Bigger looks over them, he sees the bones, panics, and runs.

He runs to Bessie and forces her to go with him with some bedding to an abandoned building. There, he rapes her, and then when she is asleep, he realizes that he must kill her. He finds a brick, bashes her head in, and drops her down an air shaft. But she had the roll of bills in her pocket, and he forgot to take it out, and so now he is penniless as well. He hides in different buildings, stealing newspapers to see the headlines. He is all over in the headlines, and there is a manhunt on for him. He buys bread with the little money he has left and searches for places to hide. The manhunt for him has damaged the lives of people across the black community in the South side of Chicago. Men have been let go from their work and every black home is being raided in search of him. He cannot escape, so he hides in a kitchenette building. When they go to search that, he hides on the roof. He is almost clear when a man comes on the roof, and he decides to hit the man on the head and knock him out with the gun. He does so, but the man’s partner sees his body and sounds the alarm. Bigger climbs atop a water tower and has his gun at the ready, shooting at anyone who tries to get near him. In response, they bring a fire hose up and douse him with water, getting him to drop the gun and fall. They drag him down the stairs, and he wakes in jail.

He will not eat or speak, and when his accusers are brought before him after Bigger has fainted at the arraignment hearing, he is sickened and wants them to go way. When his family preacher comes, he feels the same, and he wishes his family and friends would not be there either. Jan also comes in, and Jan talks to him, telling him that he doesn’t understand, but he forgives him for trying to frame him and that he wants to help him by getting him a lawyer to work with. Max, the lawyer, tells him to not sign a confession or speak to the DA. But when Buckley, the DA, comes in and talks to him, he speaks and tells him what happened, and it is written down and he signs the confession. At the arraignment, he listens to them discuss his crimes and sees the evidence: bones, metal, his knife, and Bessie’s mangled body. Going out of the arraignment, he is forced in a car, and as he is getting in, he sees a burning cross on a building. He recognizes it after some time as the KKK’s burning cross, and in his fear and anger he rips the cross the preacher gave him off of his chest and refuses to put it back on or take it, associating it with the burning cross above him.

They drive him to Mr. Dalton’s house and put him in Mary’s room, which hasn’t been touched since the night of the murder. They corner him and tell him that he should show them how he killed her and what he did, how he raped her. And Bigger, furious, refuses their insistent demands. The DA decides that he doesn’t need him to do that and doesn’t want to fight with Bigger to get him to do that. Then he is put back in jail. And Max comes to him and discusses the arraignment and what will happen at the indictment and the trial.

Max, a Jew, gets Bigger to talk to him, and Bigger doesn’t understand why this man is helping him when it will make all these white men hate him too. But he decides, against his mind, to trust Max to a point, and discusses his life and how he wanted to be an aviator but couldn’t get the training and that the Navy and Army only wanted blacks for menial work so he really had no chance at life to be happy or work in a way he wanted to. He discusses the murders and says that he hated Mary for her whiteness and her behavior toward him, and that he killed Bessie out of need for survival, and he never really loved Bessie even though she was his girlfriend. After discussing things with Max, Max leaves and tells him that they will plead not guilty at the indictment and then change the plea during the trial, and he will then plead the case for mitigation of sentence so that Bigger can spend life in prison rather than die in the electric chair. Bigger doesn’t have any real hope that this is the case, but there is a small spark of hope in him because Max believes.

In the meantime, he reads the newspapers and sees that the white community has accused him of many more murders and rapes and essentially has made him out to be a beast. He knows that he will be put on trial for rape and murder even though it was not rape, just murder, of Mary Dalton. He also knows that Bessie’s body is simply evidence, and that he isn’t being tried for her murder, just the white woman’s. At the trial, the DA is upset thinking that Max is trying to make an insanity plea, and in the prosecution, he brings forth sixty witnesses to testify to both Bigger’s crimes and his sanity. The next day, Max gives an account of more than just Bigger’s life: he gives an account of the conditions that white people have created for black people that disallow them to live in quality conditions or to grow, and that it is what causes these crimes; fear of whites causes these crimes; and whites’ fear of blacks causes these crimes because they accuse blacks of these crimes before they even commit them. The prosecution rebuts the argument, saying that Bigger never really wanted a chance even when he got one and that he never wanted to work, and that the defense is just communist jargon.

An hour later, they reach a sentencing verdict. The judge sentences Bigger to die for his crimes. Max says that it is not over yet, and he will appeal to the governor. But Bigger has resigned himself. He purges himself of emotion and eats simply to stave off hunger. He doesn’t have it in him to get a gun from an officer and kill himself. His family comes to visit him once, but he doesn’t want to see them, and tells them not to come again. He doesn’t write to anyone despite having the opportunity to. On the day of his execution, Max comes to tell him he is sorry, that the plea to the governor failed. Bigger tells him he is alright, and it is fine, and that he is glad to have got to know Max. He also tries to tell Max how he felt, and Max tells him that he needs to believe in himself and the chance for freedom and equality, even though it is too late for Bigger now because of the decisions he made. And Bigger says that he does believe in himself, and that is why he did what he did: he finally found something worth believing in enough to kill for, to die for. Max, crying, says his goodbyes. Bigger tells him to tell his mother and family he is alright, and to tell Jan hello. Then the door closes behind Max, and the story ends.

Brief Note on Themes
Black-white relations is on overarching, major theme for this novel. How have racist superstructures, long in place, molded and changed black and white minds so that they deal with each other in very specific ways? What happens when those social mores are broken or trespassed? The criminal justice system is another central part of this story. Max points out that similar murders do not cause such a riot, and yet the murders committed by black men are treated that way because of race. The system itself already labeled him a criminal, and might have taken Bigger in anyway for some perceived crime. If blacks people are already labeled as criminal, is there anything we can say but that white minds created them to be criminal (kind of like the line from Thomas More’s Utopia about thieves)?

Wright also takes a lot of time to vividly describe living conditions for black people in the South side of Chicago, discussing in detail the kitchenettes, the unsanitary living conditions and exorbitant rent they pay for them, the tough time for black business owners and black men, and the life struggles of black women. He does this in great detail in his work 12 Million Black Voices, but this work, combined with the fictional narrative of Bigger Thomas, shows just how much of an effect those living conditions have on the entire community. This is a social element to the fiction. Another social element is the discussion of communist party designs on black people and their votes and influence. The characters in the communist party come off as very well meaning in the story, and yet given the literature that Jan gives to Bigger to read, people are left wondering what uses this has for the largely white-run party. It feels very similar to how the Brotherhood functions in Invisible Man.

Economic relations are another large part of this book. Mr. Dalton is the landlord for the building where the Thomas family lives. The poverty of the Thomas family is stark against the wealth of the Dalton family. The Daltons are large donators to black education and other social programs for black people, but they do so on their own terms and at a distance, where they never have to see that they are part of the cause of black suffering with their indifference and price gouging. This is the fact that the communist lawyer tries to exploit in the trial, but fails. The story reveals how the superstructures of racist power are largely upheld by economic and political means rather than simply social custom. The power behind the racial prejudice in the form of the justice system and the capitalist system keep white supremacy as the governing system.

Religion as a blinding force and power is briefly discussed in the narrative. Rather than be an aid and comfort to Bigger, Christianity is a thorn in his side, because he recognizes that the religious system just plays into racist power: if poor black people can be focused on a better life in the afterlife, they will not focus as much on their miserable living conditions on Earth. The system asks for meekness and nonviolence and for trust in God and Jesus to answer prayers and set them free, meaning that it can be a system of control; no violence to the white supremacist system can ever occur if the people actively believe that change can come from prayer and fasting and church attendance. The narrative Wright wrote shows how intertwined and complex racist superstructures are and how hard they are to dismantle, even impossible to dismantle. It showed black rage and fear to a reading public in a way that is shocking even today.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf P, 2014.

Summary of Work
Citizen is a work of poetry about what it means to be black in America. Claudia Rankine starts her work by remembering experiences in her past—from the white girl in Catholic school who cheated off of her and thanked her by saying that she wasn’t very dark or didn’t look very black for a black girl to having her partner complain about having to hire a person of color as the fiction writer at the university—and how white people have made her invisible through their words and actions. When she went to walk into a board room for a meeting and overheard white people saying that when black people spoke to each other it was like listening to a different language, she thought about waiting a good while to go in the room. When a white friend used the term “hoe” to refer to her when she was late, she called her friend out on it by asking, “What did you say?” and her friend was too ashamed or embarrassed to repeat it. When she has called others out for using the N word to describe black teenagers or people, white people have been angry at her for calling them out or for taking offense at their use of language.

She actively discusses how language has power precisely because it makes racism hyper visible: the features that others despise about black people are brought to center stage. She discusses this at length by bringing up the competition history of Serena Williams. She talks about the outright racism that Serena has faced in her career, a black tennis player in an almost all-white sport. The racism got so bad that new tech was invented to prevent it, and commentators even outright had to admit the bias. And she discusses how well Serena has dealt with most of the hatred she’s received on and off the court. Yet when she has outbursts because of the built up resentment over racist actions that have damaged her career and person, the media sees her as insane.

Rankine also discusses how there is a man on youtube who has stated that in order for black artists to be successful they have to commercialize and channel their rage and anger. It cannot be real anger, but must be a kind that white people can consume in entertainment and feel like they can understand. And yet, Rankine knows there are other types of anger, and she states that every black person has had moments where they would like to beat down every white person they see because of that rage. And yet they cannot, because their bodies are rendered dangerous if they don’t present as white people want.

She presents a series of scripts about a variety of injustices black people have faced: murders by the hands of the police, lynching and beating and murder at the hands of white people, and police profiling as they strip search black people who do not even meet the description of the perpetrator they are looking for. She has a list of names that read “In Memory of . . .” that list all the black people who have died at the hands of the police at the time of the book’s publication. The “In Memory of” fades from the page as it continues, emphasizing that the names will continue to be added and cannot be numbered.

Using the FIFA World Cup event where the Algerian team member head butted another player in rage, she discusses how people of color are always expected to be better than everyone else in their behavior and are held to a higher standard than those perpetrating racism and hatred. As the Algerian is labeled a terrible person, terrorist, and a “typical Muslim” for his action, everything that led up to the moment is lost. She also discusses how the race riot in London over a black man’s death was dealt with so much differently than the Rodney King riots, and people in London focused on the looting and rioting so much that it seemed the cause of the rioting was nearly forgotten. When she asks her journalist friend if he will write about the issue, he tells her no, and she realizes that these are issues that white people can just set aside, while black people must live with the reality every day.

The book is filled with illustrations and photographs: from the video clip reels showing the Algerian head butting the other player to a white opposing player of Serena’s stuffing towels in her shirt chest and pants butt to imitate Serena Williams, ultimately performing the blackness that white people want from her. There are also paintings and archival photos that go along with the various topics that Rankine explores in her poetry.

Brief Note on Poetic Structure
The poem itself feels like a very free form verse. It reads more like prose than like poetry, with the poem itself being broken into paragraphs and seven sections. There are points throughout the work with a lot of white space, sometimes pages of it. The images are often placed under paragraphs or given their own page entirely, sometimes spanning two pages.

Brief Note on Themes
The whole of this work looks at what it is like to be black in America. Largely, it explores how racism takes many forms and has many affects on black people, both visible and invisible. Rankine tries to tell people what it is like to be embodied as a black person, and that their blackness is most often felt when in a room or space full of white people, where white people become aware of their racist language as they are using it in front of people of color. The power of language to determine embodiment is a large theme throughout the book; what are we saying that determines how we see people or expect them to behave? Language as an apparatus of power to uphold white superstructures of racism plays a large part, but so do the images. How do the images of blackness, some of which are provided in the book itself, shape what it means to be a black person in America? And how do those race relations and images extend out from America to other countries? Racism has perhaps one of the largest effects in the justice system, where countless innocent black people are stopped, frisked, arrested, and murdered by white police officers because of fear and images of racism that govern their understanding of black people.

Racism as it pertains to interracial relationships also plays a part in this work. From the times that Rankine forgives or stays quiet about racist trespasses her partner or friends make regularly against her to the casual encounters in a bar or on the street, Rankine reveals that people of color are genuinely working harder than white people to mold to the systems that exist and to not make white people feel too uncomfortable when there is a person of color in their presence. This was highlighted perfectly in the scene where she is listening to someone discuss how comedy comes from context, and how things are funny until a black person can hear what you’re saying about them.

The weight of the work that is being asked of black people, socially, personally, publicly, privately, is so much that it is crushing them to some extent, and yet they have no way out of the situation. They must still be careful to not end up dead like those in the news, and to not lose their jobs or offend their majority-white coworkers, and to maintain proper decorum no matter how terrible the words white people sling at them in racist hatred. Rankine shares her memories of what it means to be a black person in the US as a lesson for all who read about what people of color in the US and elsewhere face, and how it is handled, and she leaves us with that knowledge, almost as a call that we do something with it.

Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire

Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. 1947. New Directions, 2004.

Summary of Work
The play opens with a woman, Blanche DuBois, finding her way to her sister Stella’s home. Her sister is married to a Polish man and they live in a low income area of New Orleans. Blanche is somewhat disgusted but enters the apartment space upon being let in by a neighbor. When Stella comes home they start talking, and Blanche tells Stella that she was put on leave from teaching for the summer and that’s why she’s here to stay sooner than expected. She also tells Stella that they lost their home, Belle Reve, to mortgage because she had to keep taking money out against it to pay for funerals for all the family members after Stella left. Blanche is her usual self, very self-centered and obsessed with looking and acting younger than she is and always dressing fancy and acting fancy.

Her husband Stanley is very upset upon hearing about Blanche’s dealings with the real estate and says that Blanche has swindled them and used the money to buy fancy clothing, throwing out all of Blanche’s clothing from her trunk to prove it. Stella tries to talk Stanley out of talking to Blanche, who is bathing, but he insists. When she comes out of the bathroom, he confronts her, and she is forthright with him about what happened. Stella goes to get Blanche a lemon coke in the meantime. Stanley also lets slip that Stella is pregnant and that is one of the reasons he’s concerned about her land.

After a few days having Blanche around, Stanley is having friends over one evening for a poker night, and Stella takes Blanche out so as to not worry her or bother the men. They get in at 2:30 AM, but the men are still playing poker. They are very drunk, and due to Blanche’s insistence on music and his friend Mitch’s insistence on talking to Blanche, when Stella tells Stanley to end the poker night, he beats her and the men have to get him away from her. Blanche takes Stella out and they go upstairs to their neighbor’s. That evening, Stanley yells up to her that he’s sorry and to come back, and she sneaks out and spends the night with him. Blanche is beside herself over this, and the next afternoon when she thinks Stanley won’t be coming home she tells her sister that she thinks he is common and a brute and that she doesn’t understand why Stella stays with him. Stanley walks in during the middle of the speech, and he pretends he didn’t hear her.

In the meantime, Mitch starts dating Blanche. His mother is sick and dying, and she wants him to settle down before she dies. He thinks that Blanche might be a good choice. He learns of Blanche’s first marriage when she was young: she married a good looking young man who wrote beautiful poetry, and one night she caught him with another man. When they were at a dance together, she told him she knew that he was degenerate and how much she hated him for it, and he ran outside during a polka song and shot himself. Meanwhile, Stanley, wondering about why Blanche is really sticking around for so long and worried about his friend’s interests in Blanche, decides to investigate about her.

On Blanche’s birthday, when Stella is getting things ready for a party, Stanley tells her that Blanche has done some terrible things; when she lost Belle Reve she moved into a cheap hotel called the Flamingo and had a string of lovers so large that the hotel kicked her out; and while she was teaching she became involved with one of her high school students, and she was forced out of town. Stella doesn’t want to believe it, and she’s upset that Stanley has not only verified it through three different people but has told Mitch. Mitch doesn’t come to the birthday party even though Blanche is waiting for him. During the party, after dinner, when Stella tells Stanley to bring the dishes to the sink, he slams them to the ground and then confronts Blanche about her previous behavior. She admits to it, and yet sees no problem with her behavior. And when Blanche leaves the room, Stella goes into labor and Stanley has to take her to the hospital.

While they are at the hospital, Mitch stops by in his work clothes and talks to Blanche. Blanche finds out what he’s been told, and that Mitch no longer intends to marry her because of what kind of woman she is. He finds out that she is older than he thought, but is fine with that. And he attempts to have sex with her, but she screams fire out the window and he gets scared and leaves. But then Stanley comes home, drunk. Blanche is also drunk, having been drinking heavily the whole summer and emptying out Stanley’s liquor. Stanley says that the baby hasn’t come yet and they told him to go home and they’d let him know when his child was born. He says he’ll put on his pajamas that he wore the first night of his marriage and rip them off to celebrate when he gets the phone call. Blanche, worried, tries to get the operator to put her on the phone with a rich man she knew in Dallas, an oil man. But she is not successful, and when she backs herself into the bedroom and tells Stanley to stay away, he comes on to her and rapes her.

Weeks later, everyone is still catering to Blanche, but Stella has decided that she needs to put Blanche in a psychiatric ward. And they have told her that Shep, the man from Dallas, is coming to get her. Stella worries that it is the wrong decision, but she cannot believe what Blanche told her about what Stanley did that night, and so she has to do something to get Blanche out. The men are again at their home playing poker, and Stella’s neighbor is out with her to give her support when the doctor comes. When he does come, Blanche at first resists until she is forced down by the matron. Stella can’t stand to watch, and she has second thoughts, but her neighbor tells her it is the only way. Blanche talks to the doctor and calmly goes with him, telling him that she’s always relied on the kindness of strangers. As she leaves, she doesn’t say goodbye to anyone, and both Stella and Mitch are terribly upset. As the play closes, the men are still playing poker.

Brief Note on Themes
This play has a number of running themes or conflicts worth discussing: race relations, since one of the issues that Blanche has with Stanley is that he’s Polish, and this really bothers Stanley; economic and class struggles, as Blanche is further frustrated with her sister’s choice in husband because he is poor and from a lower social class than they were, having come from a plantation home of old money in Mississippi. The play explores the decline of individuals or families who have seemingly met with success in reaching the American Dream and their inability to fully let go of the lifestyle and attitudes that came with such wealth and privilege.

Male-female relationships, both romantic and familial, are explored through Stella’s relationship, somewhat abusive, and Blanche’s relationship with Stanley; female friendship and companionship heavily features in this play; the nature of story and actions is also a running discussion, as Blanche’s whole life is a series of lies or glossed-over truths which later make it hard or impossible for people to believe she was raped. The dual nature of male/female moral expectations also features, as Stanley has been very promiscuous and demanding of women and does not receive anywhere near the same treatment that Blanche receives for her promiscuity. This seems to play in Blanche’s favor, however, in the fact that she is simply sent away instead of put on criminal trial for sex with a minor (perhaps this wasn’t a legal issue in the early 1900s?). Questions about morals and forgiveness or belief in a person’s statements given their previous actions feature heavily in this play.

Music features throughout the play, with blues playing in the background. The lifestyle that these men live is a rough one of work, but they regularly enjoy poker and games such as bowling. The music itself, and the streetcars that run throughout the area and make such loud noise as they pass, show the co-mingling of progress and innovation and poverty and decline within the same space of a city.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. Vintage Books, 1995.

Summary of Work
The unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s story begins his narrative in a basement space full of lights listening to Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue.” He tells of his invisibility and how he is just now learning about how to deal with invisibility in his life, and goes on to tell his story from his college days to the present. At the end of high school, he writes a prize-winning essay, and is rewarded with a scholarship if he reads the paper to the powerful businessmen in town. However, instead of getting to read his paper, he is directed with other black boys to the front of a stage in front of a naked dancing woman, and after being humiliated in that manner, forced to strip down and fight blindfolded in a boxing ring at the front of the room. He ends up fighting one on one with one of the boys, and he loses. Afterward, in order to get paid, they have to pick up money, which turns out to not even be real money, off of an electric rug. After all of that, the narrator gets to give his speech, and with one minor slipup in wording about equality (at this time he is so bloodied up that it is hard for him to speak), he is given a briefcase and a scholarship.

While at an unnamed college that heavily resembles Tuskegee Institute, he aspires to be a great figure in the black academic community. He is assigned to drive Mr. Norton, one of the major donors to the college, to the college for meetings, but when he is talking to Mr. Norton, they drive past a poor black family. Upon hearing a little bit about them, Mr. Norton asks for him to stop so he can talk to the man. He leaves upset and ghostly pale and sickly, asking for a drink to help him. In a panic, the narrator takes him the only place he knows that he can get liquor: the Golden Day. It is in a poor side of town, and all the patients from the mental hospital are there. The bartender won’t let him take liquor out to Mr. Norton, so he has to bring him in. This makes the situation worse, and a patient who claims to be a doctor ends up helping Mr. Norton recover enough to get to the college. The incident infuriates the head of the college, Dr. Bledsoe, and after the evening meeting where a blind man gives a rousing speech about the Founder of the college (who is much like Booker T. Washington), the narrator has to go to Bledsoe’s office, and Bledsoe expels him but tells him he will give him letters of recommendation so he may get a job in the North and potentially be able to come back to the college the next year.

He heads to the New York City and tries to get a job using the letters, but is thwarted because the letters contain slander about him that disables him from betting a job. One of the powerful businessmen’s sons informs the narrator about it and offers him advice on employment, which the narrator initially rejects but then checks out. He attempts to work at a paint company, where he first mixes paint and screws up the job, and then gets sent down to the piping system to help there. The job seems to be going well but then goes South when his boss mistakenly thinks he has gone to a union meeting and they get in a fight, causing them to forget about the pipe pressure, which causes an explosion. The narrator is placed in a hospital, where the doctors perform electrical medical experiments on him and he forgets his name and who he is. When he gets out, he wanders the streets of Harlem until a woman named Mary takes him in. He struggles to find a job, but she doesn’t kick him out for not paying rent.

One day when he is walking the streets, he comes across an eviction and becomes involved in stopping the eviction as he stands up on the stairs of the apartment complex and gives a speech to the people outside watching. They overpower the policemen and the evictors and put all the things back into the house, but more policemen come and someone directs him to the rooftop to get away safely. Very soon after, he is approached by Brother Jack to join the Brotherhood and make speeches to get the masses to move against the unjust working and housing conditions in the city. At first skeptical, he is moved to accept the job when he sees Mary and realizes just how poor she is in her situation and how much she has done for him. He is initiated into the Brotherhood and given a new name and home, and he doesn’t have the gumption to say goodbye to Mary, so he simply leaves her money. At this time he also accidentally breaks a money bank (black man eating coins), and he takes it with him as to hide that from Mary as well.

The work with the Brotherhood initially goes well, but he works his way up in the system and the community so fast that Brother Jack and the white members of the group are upset and worried. The Brotherhood brings up false charges against him when a magazine article comes out that turns out to be more about him than the Brotherhood, and then he is reassigned to “The Woman Question.” He is upset, but chooses to do this rather than lose his employment. A rich, married white woman approaches him and talks him into coming to her house to talk more about the Brotherhood, but she actually wants sex. He is nearly caught with her one night, but he realizes the husband doesn’t care what she is doing. Later on, he is assigned once again to Harlem because Ras the Destroyer, the local agitator in the area, is gaining a fast following while the Brotherhood is losing theirs, and Brother Clifton has gone missing.

Nothing that the narrator does to regain Brotherhood support is working, and the black members of the Brotherhood are largely MIA. He spots Clifton on the streets one day selling Sambo dolls, and as he tries to chase him down, he watches as Clifton gets in a fight with police and gets shot. Devastated, he takes Clifton’s body and hosts a funeral for Clifton that everyone can go to, and he makes a moving speech. The Brotherhood are furious, as the speech and memorial are contrary to their plans for the area. It becomes apparent to the narrator that the Brotherhood are not actually out to help black people and black neighborhoods, but to exploit them and their voices when it is useful, but he decides to try “yessing them to death” and trying to be perfect and say whatever it is that the Brotherhood wants to hear to protect his job. He goes to Brother Hambro for training. However, on his way to Hambro, Ras the Destroyer sees him and is after him, and so he must disguise himself in a zoot suit to hide. Everyone mistakes him for Rinehart, the local preacher, rounder, and illegal businessman, and he realizes further his own invisibility and the dual nature of people in his community.

After he gives reports to the Brotherhood that are complete lies but what they want to hear, he decides to go use the wife of one of the Brotherhood members to get ahead. But it turns out that when he gets there, she actually wants him to do a sexual role play where he rapes her. He gets her drunk enough that she passes out and can’t remember that it never happened, and then he tells her he did as she asked even though he didn’t. When he leaves, she follows him out, and she follows him to Harlem, which is in the middle of an all-out race riot. He gets caught in the fray and helps to burn down an apartment building, and afterward thinks of Mary and tries to find her. In his rush he falls down into a manhole, and he gets blocked in as some men cover it. He burns all of his documents so that he can find a way down the tunnel, and ends up in the coal cellar that he stays in, and where he is telling his story from.

Brief Note on Themes
Invisibility as a black person and what that means is the overarching theme of the narrative. Invisibility means being treated poorly, being denied opportunity, being outright discriminated against, and finding that no matter how hard a person works, they will never be able to rise above their circumstances. The theme of invisibility, therefore, intertwines with institutionalized racism and economic issues as well as issues of justice and segregation. If it’s a black political issue, it’s probably in Invisible Man. Music and sound are other themes, and ones that relate to my dissertation. Blues and jazz music are found in both the language and the plot, as are black vernacular dances: eagle rock, slow drag, dances done with knocking bones—those are the ones I can find so far. The music and dances are also often utilized in ways that either act as a freeing agent or a stereotyping agent. Since the book deals with the issues of stereotyping and limited ideological viewpoints and beliefs quite heavily, looking at those topics through music and sound can be a good entry point to discuss ways to comment on ideology and stereotypes.

Questions

  1. The narrator in Invisible Man states that he “discovered a new analytical way of listening to music. The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well” (9). How do we derive meaning from things that aren’t uttered? How do we derive those meanings out of textual sounds?
  2. How are the sounds of cultural history made pejorative through racism in this work? And can that cultural history of music and dance be reappropriated? If so, how? Do we see that happening anywhere within Invisible Man?
  3. How do we describe the sounds of protest, and are those sounds racialized? Does white protest in America take on a different set of sounds than black protest in America, or only different results and consequences?

Natasha Tretheway, Thrall

Tretheway, Natasha. Thrall. Mariner Books, 2015.

Summary of Work
Natasha Tretheway’s Thrall is a collection of poems that explores what it means to be mixed race, both through her own personal experience of growing up as a half-black woman and the documented experiences of others through various mediums. She largely looks at paintings: the pictorial representations of the Miracle of the Black Leg, the myth that white men could be saved from their amputated limbs or illness by taking the left leg of an Ethiopian or black man and grafting it onto the white man’s body; the paintings representing the Book of Castas, the documentation of the different blood permutations of blackness in Spaniard blood in Mexico: mulatto, mestizo, casto, etc, believing that once the blood had mixed, there was no way to stop what they saw as a regression to black primitive natures; the paintings of great artists like Velasquez, who kept a mixed blood slave and finally manumitted him in 1650, training him to be a painter, the man who gave us the Calling of St. Matthew, Pareja. All of the examples she brings forward cause us to question why not only the painters painted people of mixed race that way, but how they could participate in the creation of life and yet be so disdainful of it or clinical in the way they looked at it.

She describes the clinical surgical experimentation on black women as the white doctors determined what the female body’s ideal was and what its makeup was. She describes the way, in an anonymous painter’s work, the painter within the portrait is horribly mischaracterizing the black woman who seems to be his wife. She describes the children of those mixed race unions, having her readers question what those children’s lives would have been, how the white men represented in the paintings can be so possessive and yet so dismissive of the things they love. Similarly, she goes through these same questions and experiences in her own life, as she tells us of her mother’s struggles of having people give her money in grocery stores when they found out a child, who they originally thought she was maid to, was actually her half-white daughter. She tells us of her struggles to love her father, who left and marginalized her mother until her death, who would always insist that Jefferson could not have fathered children by a slave woman, because he was so against slavery. The collected work takes plenty of time to describe the conflict and turmoil within mixed-race individuals who have to deal with not only the derision and questioning from the outside world, but with the conflict within their own families as they learn what it means to be mixed race, and to have a mixed-race family member.

 

Brief Note on Themes
The main theme within the work is what it means to be from two different races. There are also themes, however, of objectification, slavery, and possession along with white colonialism and how words on a page, documenting the official narrative, also obscure the narrative, and those obscured stories are told in the white space of the pages. The book also calls for people to recognize that the past is inextricably tied to the present for those people who are mixed race and are dealing with both the history and the racism in the present day, even from their own parents.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. 1953. Del Rey, 1991.

Summary of Work
Fahrenheit 451 starts with Guy Montag coming home from work and meeting a girl, Clarisse, who is odd. She looks at people, she asks questions about the people she meets, and makes actual conversation about her surroundings and others’ lives as well as her own. It is so strange to Montag, but as he gets used to it, he looks forward to the conversation. When he comes to his house and in his bedroom, however, he finds his wife overdosed on sleeping pills, which means he has to call the emergency services to have her stomach pumped and blood cleaned. She doesn’t remember it the next morning, or at least pretends not to remember.

Guy Montag is a fireman, a man who burns books when they are found in people’s homes. Reading books is forbidden, and the firemen are in place to make sure that the books are burned, and sometimes the people with them. This happens on a job, where the woman with the books actually sets herself, and her books, afire. Montag saves a book from the pyre and sneaks it home. He is sick with the image of the burning woman. He later learns that his friend Clarisse was hit by a car and killed. It further destroys him. He misses work the next day, and his boss shows up to talk to him. After his boss explains the history of the firemen and why books are banned (the minorities and other people didn’t like that it caused people to disagree and argue about things that were best left to other, governmental figures), he tells Montag he knows that he’s taken a book, which happens sometimes, but that the goal is to look through it and then burn it if Montag values his job and life. So Montag reveals to his wife, who is a TV obsessed woman interested in spending all her time staring at the three TV screen walls on the parlor room walls, that he’s been stealing books over the last year and has twenty of them. He forces her to read them with him, and then realizes that he knows someone, a professor he met in the park, who will know what to do with the Bible, the book he stole from the woman’s home collection. He goes to Professor Faber, and they talk about the downfall of intellectuals and how many of them are living in hiding on the railroad tracks in the country.

Montag comes up with a plan to bring the system down, but fails because he gets angry at his wife’s friends and reads them poetry aloud. His wife and the women call the firemen on him. Of course, he doesn’t realize this, and goes to work, where he is forced to go back to his house and burn it with all the books in it. Afterward, when Beatty tries to take him to jail, Montag burns Beatty alive and then fights off the mechanical hound that tries to subdue him with injected chemicals. He escapes to the country right before the war officially starts, and as he is spending time with intellectuals in the country and they tell him that they have memorized books, all of them, and so they can recite the great works from history to people when they’re ready for literature again, the city of Chicago is bombed to the ground, leaving no survivors. The intellectuals talk about how now may be the time to help, and they head toward spaces they think may contain survivors. The big idea they want to drive home in themselves, though, is that they are not more important than anyone else because they contain that knowledge. They are simply knowledge receptacles, and the knowledge is important so that it can be shared with others.

 

Brief Note on Themes
The big themes of this novel are about how we deal with knowledge, particularly written knowledge, and what it does for people. There is also a theme about how technology changes information and often destroys its beauty and meaning in an attempt to make it more bite-sized and digestible. The dangers of having knowledge is also a big theme in the novel: what happens when we don’t do anything with the knowledge we have, act in the wrong way, or consider ourselves better than others because we have the knowledge? The work makes us consider the power of the written word and helps us to understand the different ways technology changes the way we transmit knowledge and consume knowledge, and ultimately, how people are the ones who decide how that technology changes culture, not the technology itself.

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. 1955. Beacon P, 1957.

Summary of Work
Baldwin’s memoirs detail what it means to be black in America, and outside of it, and how black people form their identities, particularly how American black people form their identities in a space that has denied them access to their past. Further, he discusses how black-white relations work in America, and how they are based off of a mythos that is largely theological: blackness is associated with the devil or evil in Christianity, and the Christian image of goodness is all clothed in white; we know if a person is good and has made it to heaven if they are robed in white upon their appearance in our vision. In a theology of whiteness, black people are forced to either find a different identity, or far more likely and as we see has happened, forced to believe that they are sub-human or non-human because of their blackness, and they accept that role, even if unwillingly, in American white society. This identity and struggle to be recognized as a human being is documented in American protest literature such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Baldwin asserts is a terrible novel inasmuch as it should be a pamphlet for the type of material it uses, and that Gone With the Wind and other such novels capitalize on this idea of the beauties and tragedies of slave labor—all of which surround black bodies and their identities, which have mostly and largely been forced upon them as objects to be pitied, liberated by well-meaning white people. Of course, this liberation is good, but it still does not rid white people of their understanding that black people are somehow subhuman or lower than they are.

This mythology, woven throughout the American history books and fiction works, extends into film and other mediums of artistic representation, indicative of the underpinning moral beliefs of American society regarding race relations. We can see this in Richard Wright’s famous work Native Son, which gives people a picture of black rage because of this lack of identity, certainly, but also gives us the expected social redemption of Bigger Thomas, something that in Baldwin’s view, robs the novel of much of its power, regardless of its successes. And when all of this history and culture and moral belief is brought by black people over to France and other parts of Europe, they try to deny the identity, because it is just as uncomfortable in Europe as in America. But in Europe, they feel for a time they can escape it. The outright racism and hatred of black people is missing in Europe. However, they quickly come to understand that the derision they experience in America exists in Europe, just in different places, and that they cannot escape their identity as black Americans. The space itself requires them to recognize their unique situation: they are free from the outright racism of Jim Crow, but they cannot identify with the cultures of Europe, and Europeans simply have no understanding of what it means to be black in America or to have experienced that type of race relation. The uniqueness of American life is that black and white races are tied together to learn how to live with each other, and regardless of the white supremacy and the racism, that learning to live with each other, however rife with turmoil, is unique to the whole of the world. Other white countries colonized and left black people in their own country; America brought them in. Knowing that the identity of America, both black and white, rests on this identity and history, should be a step to recognizing a path forward, and to recognizing that the ideal of no racism is simply a dream, but not one that should be discarded.

Brief Note on Themes
The themes of racism, racial identity, and white-black relations run throughout this work. Understanding the mythologies and morals that created racial identity in America is also a huge theme, even when Baldwin is discussing his time in France and Switzerland. Coming to understand what it means to be black in America, and outside of it as a black American, is central to Baldwin’s memoir.