University Laboratory High School
Fall 2018

Monday, September 17, 2018

“A Piece of Early Americana”

Chapter 15 of Invisible Man opens with the narrator being rudely awakened by the clanging of pipes in Mary’s apartment. In a rage to try to get the “ignorant fool” doing the banging to knock it off, the narrator looks around for something to bang back with. He spots something on the floor that, incredibly, he’s never noticed before: “the cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro, whose white eyes stared up at me from the floor, his face an enormous grin, his single large black hand held palm up before his chest. It was a bank, a piece of early Americana, the kind of bank which, if a coin is placed in the hand and a lever pressed upon the back, will raise its arm and flip the coin into a grinning mouth” (319). The narrator has never seen this particular bank in this particular spot before (in the room he’s occupied for months now!), but he’s clearly familiar with the genre. He casually identifies it, with a trace of irony or bitterness, as a “piece of early Americana” and implores his reader, too, to recognize this “kind of bank.” It’s a type, and he assumes his reader has seen them before.

The narrator is shocked and confused that Mary Rambo would keep such a “self-mocking image” (319) in her home (even if it’s somehow been invisible to him up to now), but such items were a fairly commonplace category of knick-knack or bric-a-brac decorating respectable, middle-class (mainly white) homes throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To our eyes, they are a jarring reminder of how commonplace and generally unquestioned such poisonous racial stereotypes used to be (although we can see a direct descendant in the grinning caricature of a Native American, “Chief Wahoo,” on the Cleveland Indians’ hats and uniforms). It’s a powerful symbol for Ellison to deploy at this point in the novel, where the narrator feels like he’s about to become visible as a spokesman for Brother Jack’s organization. The bank doesn’t represent what the narrator is—it’s a stark, visible embodiment of a racist caricature being imposed on him and anyone who looks like him. Can we doubt that having such items on mantles and shelves in white homes contributed in no small way to the perpetuation of racism?

There’s still a market for these things, apparently—a subcategory of the antique market. Type “Black Americana Bank” or “Jolly N Bank” into eBay and see what you can turn up. I found the following image among a dozen or so “Jolly Nigger Banks” (yes, this was their common commercial name, although euphemisms and abbreviation abound on eBay, as they probably have a policy about racist language) recently available for auction:

According to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, the more extremely racist the caricature, the higher price such “Americana” will fetch. I’ll point you to the Jim Crow Museum’s website as a valuable resource on this shameful corner of early American popular culture—see especially the section on “Caricatures and Stereotypes,” for a detailed taxonomy of the range of recurring images and stock characters. The museum’s motto is “Using Objects of Intolerance to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice,” and while the images contained on the site inspire unease (as does the casual preponderance of the N-word as part of daily commercial discourse), this is a crucial part of American cultural history that must be preserved in order to understand why racism has endured so strongly in this country. The dehumanization, infantilization, demonization, and marginalization of black people was taking place in the realm of everyday objects—children’s toys, games, piggy banks, and food products. When the narrator of Invisible Man talks about how people never actually see him because of the accumulation of crap in their own minds, these sorts of things, by virtue of their commonplace everydayness, have played a big role in distorting their vision.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Am I Reading Too Much into This?

Invisible Man is a novel that rewards rereading. This is true of pretty much any good novel—I’ll say it about everything I teach, as these are all books I’ve read multiple times myself—but Ellison’s magnum opus seems especially built for the second, and third, and fourth readings. The narrative works on so many levels, it’s hard to process them all the first time around. This semester marks at least the dozenth time I’ve taken this crazy trip, and every time—without exception—I notice something new. Some of these developments are more gradual (it took like five or six readings for me to pick up on how wickedly funny Trueblood’s narrative voice is; I was too distracted by the squalid horror of the subject matter of his story to notice), while others occur in sudden flashes, often in the midst of class discussion. Ellison threads so many recurrent motifs—such as black and white imagery, or sight and blindness, or the various manifestations of the grandfather’s “curse”—throughout the novel, interspersed with objects invested with symbolic import (keep your eye on that briefcase!), all alongside the story of his protagonist’s fitful, stop-and-start development as an individual, it’s probably impossible to read on all these levels at once.

There’s almost a surfeit of significance at times. The reader inevitably must wonder: is every mention of black and white significant? When the narrator is driving Norton, and trying his best to follow the white line dividing the black highway, it may indeed be worthwhile to consider how this neat visual image reflects his larger dilemma in this episode—trying to walk a fine line, balancing Norton’s perceptions between the constructed version of “black campus life” that’s part of the official tour, and the unauthorized “other side” reflected in Trueblood and the Golden Day. This is the kind of thing a student could write a good, substantial essay on (and many have done so). But do I need to underline the fact that the Vet grabs a “big white pitcher” (85) to threaten Norton? Is Ellison signifying something crucial about the dynamic between them by making the pitcher white? Hasn’t race already been in the foreground of their conversation this whole time? Does the color of the pitcher really add anything new? Is every single instance of color imagery equally significant? Or is it maybe just possible that . . . Ellison is messing with us?

This is the kind of thing that people who hate English classes like to grouse about: English teachers allegedly pick apart every little detail about a work of literature, wringing it dry in search of “deeper meaning,” compelling the class to “overanalyze” it until the students’ basic enjoyment of the book is destroyed. Students have been known to BS their way through tedious, obligatory essays on the “symbolism” of this or that, when it would be painfully clear to any attentive reader that the writer doesn’t really buy his or her own argument—no one really reads this way; the author couldn’t possibly have meant any such thing; this line of thought doesn’t enhance the work’s effects in any significant way. The kinds of essays unscrupulous students purchase online excel in  blowing smoke of this variety.

Ellison, at times, almost seems to be baiting such a reader. The narrator’s sly irony—in evidence in the Prologue, and increasingly as the narrative unfolds—is maybe reflective of the author himself, hovering somewhere above his creation, winking at us and laughing uproariously as we struggle to unpack some germ of potentially illuminating “symbolism” he’s planted in the narrative. Ellison plays the Trickster at times—sometimes his narrator is the butt of the joke, and maybe sometimes we are, too. I love the Kafkaesque “Liberty Paints” chapter—and its Clockwork Orange-style sequel in the factory hospital. There is undeniably something interesting going on here in the way of an allegorical and metaphorical reflection on the narrator’s misadventures so far. The factory is clearly set out as a microcosm of race-obsessed American culture (the name “Liberty Paints” and its motto “Keep America Pure”; its signature hue, “Optic White,” sold in huge quantities to “the government” to whitewash national monuments)—the interpretive essay almost writes itself. And yet, there’s so much going on at the allegorical level here, I wonder if it all adds up. The excess weight of potential signification almost collapses on itself (or, more aptly, explodes under pressure and nearly drowns the narrator in a sea of white paint). Is Ellison maybe sending us on wild-goose chase, just as the narrator is sent running from department to department, and supervisor to supervisor? Is the author laughing at us?

I don’t know, but I do think it’s a mistake to take every little detail in this novel too seriously, at the level of “deeper meaning.” And yet, it is a profoundly deep novel, in its exploration of the construction of a self in a world that insists upon defining that self in countless—often absurd—ways. As we’ve pointed out in class, laughter is often a big part of that profundity; the narrator’s inability to see himself as the butt of a joke, or to see the world as flexible enough to include the kind of ironic humor we see deployed by the Vet, is one of his most significant failings early on. To get the humor is a huge part of “getting” the novel, and there’s an ever-present possibility that potential symbolism is undercut by irony (even as it also signifies on a more straightforward level—paradox is Ellison’s primary mode).

Okay. So. This time around, I noticed something for the first time: a snake. In chapter 7, right as the Vet is about to leave him alone on the bus, the narrator spots “a moccasin wiggl[ing] swiftly along the gray concrete, vanishing into a length of iron pipe that lay beside the road” (156). A seemingly arbitrary detail, and there’s so much to attend to here in the rich conversation between the enigmatic, prophetic mental patient and the recently expelled young student, it’s easy to miss. But . . . why does Ellison even mention the snake at all? In a novel that never wastes a word, why even point this out? Let’s flesh out the context a bit further. The narrator has just taken “a last longing look” at the campus—“its low-set buildings and ordered grounds”—fading from view (155-56). “Then it was gone. In less than five minutes the spot of earth which I identified with the best of all possible worlds was gone, lost within the wild uncultivated countryside” (156). Then he notices the snake. And then he remarks that he’s “feeling that I was moving into the unknown” (156).

Now does the picture ring any bells? The snake slithering from view? The formerly innocent young man being driven from a paradisiacal garden (“the best of all possible worlds,” in contrast to the “wild uncultivated countryside” he’s being exiled into), in shame at having committed an unpardonable sin? Am I just imagining this stuff? We clearly have an instance of Innocence Lost here—the narrator has been living in a state of naivete, and here he’s just been roughly disabused of his illusions (even if that disillusionment doesn’t quite stick).

A snake in a novel maybe doesn’t always represent an allusion to Milton, or the Garden of Eden and Original Sin. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a snake is just a snake. But does it help us contemplate the significance of this stage of the narrative to explore Miltonic parallels? Does taking the bait represented by this slithering moccasin get us anywhere? Well, Norton is presented as a God-like figure, in the narrator’s view (he even averts his eyes from him at a few points). Norton speaks of his “first-hand organizing of human life” (42), the narrator and his ilk as “cogs” in his machine (45), which is pretty God-like. He descends from the distant North to observe his creation, his “fate.” The Vet tells Norton, with characteristic perceptiveness, that Norton is, “for all [his] power, . . . not a man to [the narrator] but a a God, a force” (95).

So is Bledsoe then a Satanic figure? His crafty deceptiveness—the “mask”—certainly puts him in this category, as does his relentless ambition and unapologetic, self-serving ethos. He tries to lure the narrator away from his blind, faithful servitude, imploring him to “lie” to get what he wants from powerful whites like Norton. He boasts that trustees like Norton think they’re the ones in power, but he’s really the one “at the controls” (142)—the echoes to Milton’s Satan talking trash about God to Eve are striking.

I’d be wary of pushing any of this too far, but the analogy is illuminating as far as it goes. Ellison drops the snake in here to encourage the perceptive reader (on his or her twelfth pass through the novel, maybe) to consider the ways in which the narrator’s idealization of the “dream” represented by the college casts it as a false Eden, one really run by Satan/Bledsoe and founded on a deception. Original Sin is ambivalent in Milton: Paradise is characterized by a dull, unimaginative obedience, and we barely recognize Adam as human. The Fall means gaining knowledge, and while the transition is painful, and life outside the illusion is fraught with anxiety and uncertainty, the bubble of unknowing isn’t clearly preferable. The narrator here is slowly being stripped of his illusions (Emerson will finish the job, pointing him toward self-reliance), and he’s learning to see this “best of possible worlds” as a dream, a falsehood, a joke. This loss of innocence is a necessary part of his development—the all-too-innocent narrator in chapter 1 is a sucker in every way, his identity entirely shaped by the projections of others, and himself oblivious to the ways he’s being degraded and manipulated. Satan tempts Eve with the prospect of freedom from tyranny, but first he must convince her that the pleasure-dome she inhabits is tyranny. The narrator isn’t quite to freedom yet (not liberty but Liberty Paints, we might say), but as the bus pulls away from the campus, he’s headed in the right direction.

Or, maybe the snake is just a snake.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

“A Revelation or a More Efficient Blinding?”

The anonymous narrator of Invisible Man never specifies the state he grows up in—all we know is that it’s deep in the Jim Crow South—and he never names “the state college for Negroes” to which he wins a scholarship. Ellison himself grew up in racially segregated Oklahoma City and attended Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, a historically black college that was founded by the famous educator and former slave Booker T. Washington. As we noted in class, the young narrator models his graduation speech closely on Washington’s ideas of pragmatism and accommodationism. The narrator tells us that he “visualized [himself] as a potential Booker T. Washington” in those “pre-invisible days” (18), and he quotes “the great leader and educator” at the start of his speech: “‘To those of my race who depend upon bettering their condition in a foreign land, or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the southern white man, who is his next-door neighbor, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are”—cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded’” (30).

Ellison undermines Washington’s message of “humility as the essence of progress” considerably, by having the narrator endure humilation and degradation in the battle royal leading up to his speech, and even during the speech itself. His “fervor” as he quotes Washington prevents him from noticing “that the men were still talking and laughing until my dry mouth, filling up with blood from the cut, almost strangled me” (30). Washington’s faith in the essential goodness and generosity of southern whites is treated with irony throughout this chapter, as the narrator’s humility spills over into humiliation.

The “progress” with which his humility is rewarded, at the conclusion of this harrowing, nightmarish episode, takes the form of a scholarship to a school that resembles Washington’s Tuskegee in a number of general—and specific—respects. The most specific, perhaps, comes in the form of a statue the narrator describes near the start of chapter 2: "[I]n my mind’s eye I see the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold Father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave” (36). Readers may note a conspicuous resemblance to a famous statue of Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee:

The sculptor’s intent is easy to read, and indeed the gesture is “breathtaking”: education is freedom, knowledge is power. The promise of Emancipation depends on the education and literacy of the newly freed population of the South. Washington is justly revered to this day as an eloquent spokesman for the liberational potential of education, and his own life story is a powerful testament to his ideas. The sculpture’s inscription captures these ideals beautifully (although what the narrator means by the “cold Father symbol” is evident, too):

But just as the narrator’s laughing grandfather undermines his pride in his “triumph” at the battle royal in his unnerving dream (thereby undermining the narrator’s na├»ve faith in the Washingtonian principles he so earnestly espouses before an audience that seems anything but “friendly”), here again Ellison’s underground narrator throws a wrench of irony into this apparently straightforwardly allegorical statue: “I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly into place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding. And as I gaze, there is a rustle of wings and I see a flock of starlings flighting before me and, when I look again, the bronze face, whose empty eyes look upon a world I have never seen, runs with liquid chalk” (36). I love how this simple insight complicates the straightforward interpretation of the statue’s meaning: indeed, we can see it either as a veil being raised or lowered. And look again: the eyes do appear empty, dead, smeared with weathering and (it’s easy to imagine) birdcrap. (Bronze is not the ideal medium for capturing the spark of life in a human eyeball.) 

And it’s not as if the narrator’s education will simply either enlighten him or leave him as he was (we can agree that he sure needs some veils raised at this point in his life). Ellison suggests, provocatively, that education can have a blinding effect. What do you see, in chapter 2, as the narrator-as-collegian serves as a chauffeur (just like Bigger Thomas!), driving a rich white philanthropist around and trying to show him only the face of the college and the “community” that the higher-ups have approved for public consumption? Does he seem enlightened, or blinded? Is the veil being lifted, or lowered into place?

Monday, August 27, 2018

Redlining and the Black Belt

“We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t.”
            Bigger Thomas (Native Son 20)

In 1941, a year after the publication of Native Son, the painter Jacob Lawrence—at the age of twenty-three—completed an epic series of paintings that tell the story of the Great Migration, the mass migration of African Americans from the rural South to northern cities like New York, St. Louis, and Chicago in the early half of the twentieth century. In 2015, the Museum of Modern Art in New York featured an exhibition of Lawrence’s Great Migration series, which included an interactive online component. The entire exhibit is worth spending some time with: the online version walks you through each panel in the series, offering detailed historical and cultural context, and some really interesting artifacts, photographs, poems, blues recordings, and documents. But panel 48 is of particular interest to readers of Native Son, as it reflects the issues of housing discrimination that shaped the racial geography of 1940s Chicago (which persists to this day).

Bigger’s own family is a part of this broader story of the Great Migration, as his mother moved the family to Chicago after his father was killed in a “race riot” in Mississippi (a term which, at the time, signified racist whites encroaching into black neighborhoods and wreaking violence and havoc). They live in this ostensibly integrated northern city, which, the novel makes clear, is in fact starkly segregated. The Thomases live in a one-room apartment in a crowded building within the “Black Belt,” the circumscribed neighborhoods in which African Americans were permitted to live. Lawrence’s semi-abstract image of overlapping bedposts in one room might call to mind the opening scene of the novel, and our initial image of Bigger as “a black boy standing in a narrow space between two iron beds” (4). The MoMA online commentary refers to Lawrences use of bars as a visual motif . . . to convey a sense of containment and constraint, which certainly resonates with Biggers own estimation that its just like living in jail (20). The supplementary material for panel 48 provides some good, specific details about the practice of “redlining”—the combination of legal restrictions and racist discrimination that created this “Black Belt.” Bigger Thomas is a character who doesn’t reflect a great deal of political awareness, but he knows a lot, from experience, about the inequities of housing in the city: “They keep us bottled up here like wild animals, he thought. He knew that black people could not go outside of the Black Belt to rent a flat; they had to live on their side of the ‘line.’ No white real estate man would rent a flat to a black man other than in the sections where it had been decided that black people might live” (249). He also is aware that his family pays higher rent than would be charged for a comparable apartment in another neighborhood. As he flees from the police in Book Two, we are afforded a brief tour of the Black Belt, as Bigger climbs through abandoned apartment buildings and constantly stumbles upon families crowded together in small apartments, overhearing residents discussing him and his case, and even spying an adult couple attempting to be intimate early in the morning, while their children look on (an intensification of the “conspiracy against shame” we see in the Thomas family in the opening scene).

The issue of housing segregation and inequality is a central aspect of the “environment” that Wright seeks to expose in this novel, which literally limits Bigger Thomas’s range of movement and figuratively inhibits his sense of agency and potential in life. Critics of protest fiction might deride this as an example of “sociology” taking precedence over “literature,” but, as the Lawrence exhibit illustrates, art can and often does reflect sociological and historical realities. To more fully comprehend Bigger Thomas’s situation, we need to understand something of the history of housing discrimination in Chicago (and many other northern cities). The most pernicious racism in the novel has nothing to do with the personal feelings of white people like Mr. Dalton; it has to do with these structural inequalities that maintain the status quo, regardless of the “philanthropic efforts” of those who profit from it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

“What His Life Meant”

The problem of meaning is at the core of Bigger Thomas’s story. In his account of the novel’s origins, Wright repeatedly invokes the idea that Bigger’s life means something much . . . well, bigger—it resonates or signifies beyond the small number of individual lives that are affected by his actions: “I had spent years learning about Bigger, what had made him, what he meant; so, when the time came for writing, what had made him and what he meant constituted my plot” (“How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” 454). Max’s entire “defense” of Bigger in the courtroom has almost nothing to do with questions of guilt or innocence. Instead, he concerns himself with trying to bring a fuller picture of Bigger’s existence into the official record. According to Max’s argument, “Multiply Bigger Thomas twelve million times . . . and you have the psychology of the Negro people” (397). The court would simply extinguish him as a one-dimensional “black rapist and monster,” but Max (Wright’s mouthpiece in Book 3) insists that America ignores this monster it has created at its peril. He is our “native son,” and we should attend to the warning he represents.

The idea that an individual life has meaning can be understood in a range of ways, from the metaphysical (the capital M-and-L Meaning of Life—some deeper, spiritual, cosmic significance) to the more mundane (one wants to play a meaningful role in one’s community or family, to do work that brings deeper satisfaction, and so on). Bigger suffers from an absence of meaning at all levels. He chafes against the realization that he does not have  a “wider choice of action” (12). He feels forced to accept the job as a chauffeur for the Daltons (“he felt they had tricked him into a cheap surrender” [12]) and complains that he “can’t get used to” the ways that poverty and racism make everyday life “like living in jail” (20). Wright makes clear that Bigger has to tightly regulate his own consciousness to keep the incipient sense of the meaninglessness of his life at bay: “He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fulness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair. . . . He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else” (10). It’s not quite right to say that he views his life as “meaningless”: he’s overwhelmed with a sense of futility, emasculation, and entrapment, but he senses, ironically, that in this very absence of meaning or purpose lies the “meaning” of his life. Meaninglessness is his meaning. He feels like the butt of some cosmic joke, and everywhere he looks, he is taunted by all the things white people can do that he can’t.

So when he kills Mary—even though the act is accidental—he redefines it as an intentional rebellion against all the forces the universe has stacked against him. It becomes, retrospectively, the kind of “symbolic challenge of the white world’s rule” (14) that the aborted robbery of Blum’s was supposed to be: “The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had been somehow cheated, but had now evened the score” (164); “In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes” (239). He invests an absurd and horrible accident with meaning.

But a crucial aspect of meaning is that it must be understood and acknowledged by others—the meaning Bigger privately constructs needs to gain some kind of traction in the outside world. And he quickly learns that the media, the police, and the court will ultimately be the ones who define his act of would-be symbolic rebellion: he will be seen and depicted as yet another “black beast rapist and murderer,” a statistic, a stereotype. Bigger experiences meaning as a private, internal sensation of freedom and control—“never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight” (239)—but the cold, naturalist gaze of the narrative allows us to see how fleeting and illusory, how undermined by irony, this sensation proves to be. Meaning is not a feeling; it is a transaction. Words have meaning because they are part of a living language, and my statements—even the most personal, intimate statements—only make sense to the extent that I can frame them in words that have a publicly shared meaning. For a life to be meaningful, it must be communicated.

Bigger Thomas is an enigma for everyone in the novel: his mother wonders aloud what makes him act like he does (7); his friends see him as a moody, mercurial guy who pulls a knife on you one day and buys you a drink the next; the Daltons and their housekeeper see him as “just a quiet colored boy,” shy and deferential; and Jan and Mary see him as an exotic ticket to South Side nightlife who, for some reason, won’t quite warm to their overtures of friendship. No one seems to understand him. He’s even an enigma to himself. In a very real sense, the reader “knows” him better than anyone else in his life; Wright makes sure that we understand the complex psychological dynamics whereby perpetual fear underlies his tough external persona. As his comments in “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” indicate, the author wants to ensure that the reader understands “what his life meant,” even if no one else does.

Communication is a problem for Bigger. He is not a man of words, and he often views the act of speaking, of trying to give shape to his private experience in language, to be inherently futile. But upon his arrest, when his doom is all but spelled out for him, he feels a powerful urge to account for himself, to speak—to confess, not as a matter of guilt and conscience, but as a matter of self-expression. The police already have amassed a staggering amount of evidence against him, and for the state’s attorney, the confession is a mere technicality—the final nail in a slam-dunk prosecution: “Confess it all and get it over with,” Buckley tells him (308). Bigger is no longer riding the wave of euphoric meaning surrounding his rebellious actions. He feels a strong desire toward a more commonplace—and real—form of meaning. He wants to explain himself, but he doubts whether it is possible to do so: “He knew . . . that he could never tell why he had killed. It was not that he did not really want to tell, but the telling of it would have involved an explanation of his entire life. . . . His crimes were known, but what he had felt before he committed them would never be known. He would have gladly admitted his guilt if he had thought that in doing so he could have also given in the same breath a sense of the deep, choking hate that had been his life. . . . The impulsion to try to tell was as deep as had been the urge to kill” (308). The reader has a pretty good sense of what Bigger is referring to: Wright narrates, in the grisly climax to Book 1, not only Bigger’s atrocious actions but, crucially, the feelings that accompany them. We are the only “witnesses” to his “crime”; we understand “what he had felt.” “Bigger wanted to tell how he felt when Jan had held his hand; how Mary had made him feel when she asked him about how Negroes lived. . . . But there were no words for him” (309). Buckley will never grasp the connection between Jan shaking his hand and Bigger smothering Mary, but we do. And now we witness the pain of Bigger not being able to express that connection—of the meaning of his crime being completely misconstrued by those in charge of determining his guilt or innocence.

Bigger does confess, despite the nagging sense of futility. “He traced his every action. He paused at each question Buckley asked and wondered how he could link up his bare actions with what he had felt; but his words came out flat and dull” (309). When his confession is finished, he feels “more lost and undone than when he was captured” (309). He has attempted to express himself, to make himself visible, to give his actions meaning (not to “justify” but to explain), and he has failed. Bigger sits in silence as Buckley and his assistant congratulate each other on a job well done: “That was not as hard as I thought it would be.” “He came through like a clock.” “Just a scared colored boy from Mississippi” (310). Maybe the saddest, most forlorn moment in the book, for me, is Bigger sitting there in silence, feeling “forgotten” by the officials who’ve gotten what they wanted from him: “Bigger felt so empty and beaten that he slid to the floor. . . . He was alone, profoundly, inescapably. He rolled on the floor and sobbed, wondering what it was that had hold of him, why he was here” (310). The solitude he feels here is existential—profound, inescapable solitude—and it comes from a failure to express himself, to communicate the meaning of his life. He confesses the actions, but not their meaning.

This is where Max comes in, and why his role in the novel is so crucial. He gets Bigger to talk, openly and honestly. “I want you to tell me all about yourself” (345), he says. Bigger hesitates, but then, “looking straight into Max’s eyes” (346), he slowly comes out of his shell. “His talking to Max had evoked again in him that urge to talk, to tell, to try to make his feelings known” (348). He details not only his damning actions but the full picture, his reflexive “hatred” for Mary and the way she was making him feel (“like a dog. I was so mad I wanted to cry” [350]). “He knew that his actions did not seem logical and he gave up trying to explain them logically. He reverted to his feelings as a guide in answering Max” (350). The prosecution will supply its own explanatory logic to account for Bigger’s crime—just plug it in to the ready-made stereotype about black men’s uncontrollable lust for white women; cast Bigger as a sexual predator. The script, as it were, precedes him. But Bigger’s emotional, subjective logic leads Max to understand, and indeed, Max’s “representation” of Bigger in court hews remarkably close to Wright’s narrative of the incident. (It almost seems like Max has read Book 1 of Native Son!)

Bigger speaks to Max “as he had never spoken to anyone in his life; not even to himself,” and the experience is an enormous relief to him (359). The “burden” Bigger feels lifted here, I think, is the burden of being misunderstood, invisible, forced to live out a stereotype. The question of justice at this point in the novel has nothing to do with Bigger’s culpability but with whether his life will have meaning. And this depends upon his ability to communicate—with a listener (or reader?) who can understand.