Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'”

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of

Darkness.” Massachusetts Review, 1977,

polonistyka.amu.edu.pl/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/259954/Chinua-Achebe,-

An-Image-of-Africa.-Racism-in-Conrads-Heart-of-Darkness.pdf.

Summary of Work
In this article, Achebe discusses the racism that the West holds, particularly in its views of Africa. He builds his argument around Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness, the story of a narrator’s journey through the Congo to find one Mr. Kurtz. He states that the images, particularly in Conrad’s obsession with blackness and the darkness of not just the Natives’ skin color, but the land itself, shows Africa as the antithesis to England and the rest of the civilized world: Conrad is obsessed with the primitive nature of Africa and its people in an attempt to show that Europe was able to conquer that darkness, but that there is danger in interacting with people and places who have not yet conquered that savagery, because the savagery could engulf the civilized and lead them back to primitivism.

Conrad is unkind to the native peoples in his novel, showing them always in a frenzy, or dying, or otherwise running around. They are not given language, but grunts and sounds and physical actions. The only two times when they are given language are when they are cannibals asking for people to eat or the slave man telling the narrator that Mr. Kurtz is dead: those examples, Achebe states, are purposeful in that they are made to show how horrific these people are and how awful the state they are in as black people. Given these images, it is clear that Conrad is racist, and it is surprising to Achebe that in all the years of scholarship, no one seems to even want to admit that or deal with it. It is a blind spot in the Western world because people in the West have so long used Africa as a foil of themselves, insisting that Africa is as backward as Europe is enlightened. So when people say that they are not aware that Africa has art or history, it is part of that tradition of racism and colonialism. In order for any good or real communication between Africa and Europe and North America to happen, the West must first relinquish its long-held beliefs about the primitiveness of the African continent and the African people.

Discussion of Work
This piece discusses racism in a way that I think is very telling: it shows that what has happened is that the West has fallen prey to a single story about Africa. A single story is powerful, in that it can give people motivations or reasons to conquer or oppress people in the name of “saving” them or bringing them enlightenment of some sort. But as powerful as those stories are, they are also wrong and dangerous because they allow for people to do terrible things by dehumanizing others. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses a very similar thing in a TED Talk that she gives called “The Danger of the Single Story,” where she states that her teachers once told her that her novel was not “authentically African” because people were not poor, starving, or otherwise destitute or unenlightened: her characters looked too much like the average Western person.

The image of Africa and its people as backwards and primitive exists in many forms today, including that we group the whole African continent together as a group and remain largely ignorant to the fact that Africa is composed of many countries, just like the Americas Europe, and Asia. The issues set forth by Achebe in his essay are still very prominent today in that by and large, no one seems to question the idea of the single story of Africa as exactly what Conrad set forth, despite the fact that it was never that way, that there were diverse people, languages, art, and nations. And today, while there certainly are areas of Africa that have poor and starving people who cannot read and live what the West would consider primitive lives, there are far more people who are living in sophisticated cities with functioning governments and thriving businesses; there are people who create wonderful art and products and enjoy many different activities that Western people also enjoy.

The power dynamics inherent in the way we discuss Africa and its people says much about the Western world’s continued need for dominance: a way to prove that they are still more enlightened than the people who live on and descend from ancestors on the African continent. I agree with Achebe’s statement that we cannot just hand the West a happy pass on this issue or offer them a positive note to end the discussion on. Such a positivity cannot come until the West chooses to change its views and discussions on Africa, because the way it is currently being discussed is wrong, and there should be no cookies given out for fixing something that should never have been considered acceptable in the first place.

bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End P, 1992.

Summary of Work
In her work, bell hooks discusses how image plays a large role in determining how a group of people are represented, and that because of that fact, images and representations are inherently ideological. She discusses how loving blackness is an important and underrepresented part of bringing about social equality, and how loving blackness becomes a dangerous position when put in opposition with white supremacist social structures. She also posits that reverse racism doesn’t exist because while racial prejudice certainly does exist, minorities are not in positions of power to use that prejudice to oppress other ethnic groups. She discusses how this rears its head when white people decide to become friends with black people, and yet they still refuse to let go of their learned racist habits. She also analyzes Nella Larsen’s novel “Passing” in this context, suggesting that it is because Clare Kendry decided to love blackness that she was murdered: both her white husband and her black friend could not accept the fact that it was possible to love blackness, that there wasn’t something inherently wrong with a darker skin color.

hooks also examines how blackness has been commodified, making it a selling point of pop culture: white men want to sleep with as many darker skinned women as they can; movies and stories offer blackness as a primitivism that can appease disgruntled whites in a post-imperialist society; cultural appropriation makes up for a perceived or real lack in white dominate culture. Fashion magazines and other advertising industries utilize blackness as a backdrop to sell their products. She discusses this commoditization within the context of a couple of films including Heart Condition, a film about a black man and a white man in love with the same woman; the black man wins the love of the white woman, but he is dying, and when he donates his heart to the dying white man, the white man is then able to win the love of the white woman. Thus, there is a physical transfer or appropriation that labels blackness as erotic, able to provide sexual pleasure and presence that whiteness cannot. The taking is problematic for not only the images it creates, but for the lack of credit it gives to people of color when the things taken are art forms or non-stereotypical representations.

Using Audre Lorde’s article about black womanhood as a structure, hooks talks about how black women are set in a stereotype of violence—on themselves and their children—that they play out. She believes that the narrative can be changed, but that it is hard and it first requires black women to accept that they can buck the trend. She discusses the ways that black women can change their narrative by discussing black literature and showing that simply journeying to find oneself or to escape one type of violence does not guarantee that they actually become self-agents and break the trend. She says that this is the case for characters like Celie in “The Color Purple,” where she gets away from an abusive situation but goes right back to being a dependent housewife by the end of the novel. Other women in books, like Sula, become pariahs because of their radical behaviors, and hooks does not see that as the ideal option either. What these fiction writers are doing, however, regardless of the end result of their characters, is breaking “new ground in that it clearly names the ways structures of domination, racism, sexism, and class exploitation, oppress and make it practically impossible for black women to survive if they do not engage in meaningful resistance on some level” (50). She identifies Angela Davis as a real world example of a black woman who resisted through political action and education to become a full agent and to resist the violent cycle; she also identifies Shirley Chisholm as an example of breaking the trend and resisting the cycle. However, many women are afraid to have their daughters and themselves follow in Davis’ example because of her prison sentence for political resistance, making her lack a community that is necessary to pass her knowledge and experience on to break the trend of violence. People of color, especially women of color, need to engage in feminism and in the “decolonizing of our minds” in order to center “social change that will address the diversity of our experiences and our needs” (60).

She continues the discussion of black womanhood by stating that black women in film and other mediums are objectified and seen only as objects, not as people, causing problems in white-black relations, but particularly causes problems in the way black women view themselves: they either vehemently oppose the pop culture representations or quietly absorb the stereotypes and objectification. Citing Tina Turner as an example, she states that objectification creates easy avenues for abuse and violence against black women, who must be seen as lust-driven and sexually free-spirited in order to be successful in entertainment. The conversation about black womanhood is continued as hooks discusses the racist and sexist actions of Madonna, a woman who belittles her coworkers and employees, especially if they are people of color, by saying she is a “mother figure” to them, much as white colonialists looked at themselves as saviors and parents to supposedly lesser races. In hooks’ eyes, Madonna is not only racist, but one of the worst appropriators of black culture. She also discusses this objectification and the problems it causes by focusing on the Clarence Thomas case, when a Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment. Her passive manner in which she engaged the committee, and the images of black womanhood dominating the white committee’s minds, served as a reminder that the images of black womanhood strongly influence people’s decisions about how they look at and handle harassment and assault of black women.

hooks builds a discussion of black masculinity within this discussion about gender, stating that black men are supposed to, under cultural understanding and stereotypes, be unemotional and strong and financially successful, whereas women are taught to be quiet and obey but are allowed to have a full range of emotions. She points out that much of the discourse around black male sexuality is the discussion of how black men really want to be white men, and their inability to be so makes the violent. To hold such misogynistic and phallocentric views of black masculinity is to deny men the full range of emotional and physical development that would allow them to become good fathers, loving husbands, and successful men.

Focusing on paths of resistance that black people can and have taken against racism, hooks talks about how the black gaze upon white people can be a powerful tool of survival and resistance. Black people were often looked at as objects owned or controlled by white people, and white people never took a second thought about the idea that black people could look at them and observe and resist; similarly, black women could look and gaze upon misogynist structures and recognize them, creating a form of resistance as they identify other parts of narratives that represented them in the public eye. The resistant gaze is a way for black people to “imagine new transgressive possibilities for the formulation of identity” (130).

hooks also believes that a discussion of black views on whiteness are important. Mentioning that black people have come a long way from viewing white people as a group of dangerous ghosts, many black people have integrated white beliefs about hating black people. They are also still terrified, even if they cannot explicitly say so, by the dangers of being labeled a “reverse racist” for discussing whiteness and their experiences with whiteness. But black people observing whiteness has also created stereotypes, and when they express those stereotypes to white people, many white people are outraged, upset that they are being stereotyped under the name of observation and data; yet white people see no correlation between what they do to black people and what is happening to them. Whiteness functions as a power source and a place of privilege, in hooks mind, only as long as white people are regularly able to insist that their race is mysterious and undefinable, that it is the neutral that everyone should accept as the base for cultural exchange.

hooks ends her work with a discussion of black-native relations, honing in on the need for interracial minority engagement to promote equality and reparations. She states that Native Americans are the only race of people that are forced to watch their genocide played out as entertainment to this very day through Westerns, games of cowboys and Indians, and other media formats. She points out the strong historical ties between black people and Native Americans, both through blood relation by intermarriage and cultural heritage: when Africans came to the New World before white people, the two cultures were able to harmoniously exist and exchange gifts and ideas. White people find that history dangerous, because their belief system functions on the idea that all people come to new worlds to conquer, and a symbiotic relationship between cultures destroys that image, and therefore white superiority and justification. Since the deterioration of black-native relations, Native Americans have had to resort to techniques of forgetting and forsaking their culture in order to live in a world that has swept their genocide under the rug other than to play it for entertainment: dealing with the history and having to try and convince both white and black people that it is unjust would destroy them. In order for all people of color to reach social equality, the two cultures need to work to “affirm the times of the past, the bonds of the present . . . relearn our history, nurture the shared sensibility that has been retained in the present” (194). Only then can domination be eradicated and society transformed.

Discussion of Work
While I agree with much of what bell hooks has to say, I wonder about the evolution of these arguments in this decade. While we still have a long way to go for proper representation of black people, and particularly black women, as agents and individuals outside of cinematic stereotypes, there are being strides made, as can be seen with films such as Hidden Figures and Black Panther. Films such as these focus on black achievement rather than black failures or trauma: women in Hidden Figures not only assert themselves as experts in rocket science in a white world, but they assert themselves as valuable members of their community who eschew violence and demand respect from their husbands; they also demand that their husbands take on multiple roles that require them to take on more feminine traits, making the men more whole and self-agents as well. Since Hidden Figures is based on a true story, it makes me wonder if there are actually many instances where this is the case, but they have simply been obscured from the mainstream discussions of history, making hooks’ arguments about image and womanhood and masculinity important, but part of a more complex historical and communal discussion. Black Panther, completely fictional, creates another space where nearly the entire cast is black, and the focus is black achievement and innovation rather than tragedy and violence. The people of Wakanda represent a society where blackness has evolved as a culture largely free (although not completely) of white supremacy and oppression. Their culture holds on to old African traditions, but also has evolved into an elite technological society. I do wonder if one concern might be that the technological ideal looks somewhat like white cultural ideals: however, the overly enthusiastic and warm reception of the film in black communities speaks to the fact that black people are actively looking for positive images and representations of them which are free from the stereotypical cliches that exist throughout our media. While there has been progress, there is still work to be done, and hooks’ work is still important in deciding upon ways to progress. However, based on film evidence (to follow hooks’ structuring of culture discussion) in Black Panther, it is fair to say that the idea of loving blackness is no longer a fringe idea, but very much centered in the public—black and white—imagination.

The discussion of Native American and black relations hit close to home, as hooks described something very painful regarding my own heritage. And yet, it opens up our eyes to a blind spot in our critical discussion: the struggle for social equality extends past racial boundaries, and must include all POC in order to make for a successful resistance and push for change. To ignore the representation of other minority groups in media is to neglect those groups of people and their needs.

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.

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?