"Native Son" - Prevalence of a Color Caste Hierarchy

Essay by DufresneHigh School, 10th grade August 2009

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In Chicago during the 1930s, stereotypes were placed on African-Americans and Communists that resulted in harsh treatment against these groups of people. The brutal forces of racism and discrimination made it extremely difficult for an ethnic or political minority to function freely in society. This social stratification based on color, a color caste hierarchy, describes how white is viewed as superior to red – representing the Communists – and black. In Native Son, Richard Wright argues that this color caste hierarchy is the basis for the ostracization of Bigger Thomas, the hatred of Communism, and the general fear of minorities in society.

To start, Bigger feels ostracized from the world because of the color caste hierarchy. Bigger alludes to this himself when he says that white men live “right down here in my stomach” (Wright 21). This statement expresses Bigger’s internal fear of whites. Later, when Bigger is caught having murdered Mary, the daughter of the family he was working for, he flees the scene by jumping out a second-story window into the snow.

Wright uses a repetitive syntax along with imagery to use Bigger’s leap as a metaphor for his apprehension of white society. He writes, “Snow was in [Bigger’s] mouth, eyes, ears; snow was seeping down his back” (Wright 220). The white snow surrounding Bigger overwhelms him, much like the white people, serving as a great force pressing down upon him. Additionally, the Black Belt, the only area of housing in Chicago’s South Side that sells real estate to blacks, is enclosed on all sides by white residential areas. Bigger thinks that the whites keep him “bottled up here like wild animals” (Wright 249), further conducing his mental banishment. The glorification of white over black creates a color caste hierarchy that contributes to Bigger’s feeling of ostracization.

In addition to the loathing of blacks, the color caste hierarchy fosters a hatred for Communism. Even before Bigger knew what Communism was, he was aware that he was supposed to abhor its advocates and associate their color, red, with despicable values and traits. Bigger uses this stereotype to his advantage, addressing a ransom note from a “Red” to dispel suspicion. Without the color caste hierarchy, Bigger would not have been able to allay the blame on himself. Later, when Bigger’s lawyer, Mr. Max, is arguing for Bigger’s life, he says, “The newspapers had convinced him that Communists were criminals” (Wright 390). Through Mr. Max, Wright makes the case that the color caste hierarchy, partly created by the media, is responsible for the contempt of Communism.

The malevolence towards both blacks and reds ultimately signifies the general fear prevalent in society. As previously mentioned, the media aids in solidifying the color caste hierarchy. Mr. Max said, “They hate because they fear, and they fear because they feel the deepest feelings of their lives are being assaulted and outraged” (Wright 390). Wright contends that the mass media spreads false information and stereotypes about blacks and Communists out of trepidation for them. This consternation causes whites to oppress other groups, creating the color caste hierarchy present at the time. At one point, a girl said, “[Bigger] looks exactly like an ape” during an interview with the Chicago Tribune (Wright 279). The girl is petrified simply because of how black Bigger is, with this fright being aroused by the color caste hierarchy. Thus, the color caste hierarchy spawned the fear of minorities in society.

Above all, the color caste hierarchy leads to a misunderstanding of other cultures. When Mary Dalton and her boyfriend, Jan Erlone, attempt to investigate Bigger’s African-American culture, they make Bigger feel awkward and out of place because he does not understand their culture, either. To Bigger, whites and blacks have completely discrete roles in every facet of the world, and the intrusion of Mary and Jan into his world feels like a personal attack to him. The misunderstanding of other cultures creates fear, in turn bringing about the color caste hierarchy. Only because false impressions exist does the color caste hierarchy contribute so gravely to the ostracization of Bigger Thomas, the hatred of Communism, and the prevalent fear of minorities in society.

Works CitedWright, Richard A. Native Son. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008. Print.