Racism and Oppression in African American Literature a Study of Richard Wright’s The Native Son and Black Boy

Racism and Oppression in African American Literature a Study of Richard Wright's The Native Son and Black Boy
Racism and Oppression in African American Literature a Study of Richard Wright's The Native Son and Black Boy

Racism and Oppression in African American Literature a Study of Richard Wright’s The Native Son and Black Boy

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1.1 Background to the Study

From the vernacular tradition, racism and oppression have been pervasive themes in American literature, particularly in the works of African American authors. According to James Balogun (25), the history of slavery, segregation, and systemic discrimination has had a profound impact on the lives of African Americans, and this history is reflected in the literature they have produced. The early works of African American authors often dealt with the harsh realities of slavery and its aftermath. These works were often written in the context of the abolitionist movement, and were intended to expose the brutal realities of slavery and to advocate for its abolition. One notable example of this type of literature is the narrative of Frederick Douglass, who wrote about his own experiences as a slave in his autobiography.

Soanes and Stevenson define racism in two ways. First, “It is the belief that each race or ethnic group possesses specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities that distinguish it as inferior or superior to another such group.” (34). Second: “It is the discrimination against or toward other races or ethnic groups based on such a belief” (34). Racism general is to distinguish between two groups according to their differences. These groups are the upper class (capitalist society or the oppressors) and the lower class (the proletariat or the oppressed).

According to Glasberg, “oppression” is malicious or unjust treatment of, or exercise of power over, a group of individuals, often in the form of governmental authority or cultural opprobrium. It is related to regimentation, class, society, and punishment. Oppression may be overt or covert, depending on how it is practiced. Oppression refers to discrimination when the injustice does not target and may not directly afflict everyone in society but instead targets or disproportionately impacts specific groups of people. Oppression is a form of injustice that occurs when one social group is subordinated while another is privileged, and oppression is maintained by a variety of different mechanisms including social norms, stereotypes and institutional rules (Young, 39). To fight racism and oppression, the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s was established to combat every forms of racism and oppression done on the blacks by their white counterparts.

According to Muhammad, (4-5) the Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual and cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theater, politics and scholarship centered in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, spanning the 1920s and 1930s. At the time, it was known as the “New Negro Movement”, named after The New Negro, a 1925 anthology by Alain Locke. The movement also included the new African American cultural expressions across the urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest United States affected by a renewed militancy in the general struggle for civil rights, combined with the Great Migration of African American workers fleeing the racist conditions of the Jim Crow Deep South, as Harlem was the final destination of the largest number of those who migrated north.

Equally, JanMohamed, (103) opine that the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s saw a flowering of African American literature, with authors such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen, producing works that explored the experiences of African Americans in the urban North. These authors often wrote about the tensions between the old world of the South and the new world of the North, and the challenges faced by African Americans in the urban environment.

Wilson, (207) is of the opinion that the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s also had an impact on African American literature, as authors such as Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez began to explore the themes of Black Nationalism and self-determination. These authors often wrote about the need for African Americans to assert their own cultural identity and to reject the dominant white culture.

Racism in literary studies as defined by Wikipedia is the belief of genetic factors which constitute race and are the primary determinants of human traits and capacities which racial differences produces an inherent superiority of a particular race. Racism effects are called racial discrimination. Although the term racism usually denotes race based on prejudice, violence, dislike, discrimination or oppression. Racism is also defined simply as a reflection of the economic system and its cultural, ethnic and political ways. The concept of racism is derived from the word race and it is believed that one racial or ethnic group is inferior to another and the unequal treatment is therefore justified. Charles Hamilton and Kwame True defined racism as “A prediction of decision and policies on consideration of race for the purpose of subordinating a racial group and maintaining control over that group”. (45)

Racism and Oppression in African American Literature a Study of Richard Wright’s The Native Son and Black Boy

On the other hand, oppression is defined by the Literary Encyclopedia as torture or degrading treatment and the use of threat or violence. It is also the exercise of power/authority in a cruel or unjust manner. Oppression is also defined by Wikipedia as an act or instance or a state of being heavily burdened; mentally or physically by troubles adverse conditions and anxiety.

Wright’s literary endeavors unfolded against the backdrop of a turbulent period in American history characterized by racial segregation, economic disparity, and the struggle for civil rights. Born in the racially segregated South in 1908 and later migrating to the urban North, Wright bore witness to the pervasive effects of racism and oppression on the lives of African Americans. His personal experiences served as a profound catalyst for his exploration of the African American experience in his literary works (Gates and McKay 215).

Native Son, published in 1940, stands as a seminal work in African American literature, offering a searing critique of the dehumanizing effects of racism through the lens of its protagonist, Bigger Thomas. Wright’s portrayal of Bigger’s struggles against the suffocating constraints of poverty and racial prejudice illuminates the complex interplay between individual agency and systemic oppression. Through Bigger’s narrative, Wright exposes the pervasive nature of racism and its impact on the psyche of Black individuals living in a racially stratified society (Reilly 42).

Black Boy, published in 1945, further delves into the themes of racism and oppression through an autobiographical lens, chronicling Wright’s own journey from childhood in the Jim Crow South to adulthood in the urban North. Wright’s candid portrayal of his experiences navigating a society fraught with racial hostility and economic hardship offers poignant insights into the complexities of race, identity, and self-discovery (Rampersad 88).

Both Native Son and Black Boy continue to resonate with readers today, serving as enduring testimonies to the enduring legacy of racism and oppression in American society. Wright’s masterful storytelling and incisive social commentary offer profound insights into the complexities of the African American experience, challenging readers to confront the uncomfortable truths of systemic injustice and inequality. By analyzing these works within their historical and literary contexts, scholars and readers alike can gain a deeper understanding of the enduring impact of racism on individual lives and collective struggles for justice and equality.

According to Mary Washington (102) Black Boy is a classic of American autobiography, a subtly crafted narrative of Richard Wright’s journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow south. An enduring story of one young man’s coming of age during a particular time and place, Black Boy remains a seminal text in our history about what it means to be a man, black, and southern in American (5). Racism as a problem among individuals is a familiar topic in literature. Black Boy, however, explores racism not only as an odious belief held by odious people but also as an insidious problem knit into the very fabric of society as a whole. Wright portrays characters such as Olin and Pease as evil people, but also and more chillingly as bit players in a vast drama of hatred, fear, and oppression. For Richard, the true problem of racism is not simply that it exists, but that its roots in American culture are so deep that it is doubtful whether these roots can be destroyed without destroying the culture itself.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s had a profound impact on African American literature, as authors began to address the issues of racism and oppression in a more overt and politically charged manner. Authors such as James Baldwin and Toni Morrison wrote about the struggles of African Americans for equality and justice, and the need for African Americans to assert their own voices and perspectives. It was on this backdrop that this research seeks to examine racism and oppression in African American literature using Richard Wright’s The Native Son and Black Boy to portray the level of inhumane treatment, oppression, social stratifications done on the black just because of their skin colour and the belief that there are descendant from Africa. The experiences of the blacks recounted by Richard Wright in Native Son and Black Boy will therefore be analysed to expose the themes of racism and oppression as aspect of the American society.

1.2 Statement of the Problem

For decades, racism and oppression have been enduring themes in African American literature, reflecting the harsh realities of systemic discrimination and societal biases. This research centers on the seminal works of Richard Wright, specifically The Native Son and Black Boy as illuminating lenses through which we can explore the complex interplay of race, identity, and societal constraints in mid-20th century America. Wright’s narratives serve as powerful vehicles for unraveling the multifaceted layers of oppression faced by African Americans during a tumultuous period, offering profound insights into the psychological, social, and political dimensions of their experiences.

By situating Wright’s works within their historical context, this research aims to provide a deeper understanding of the socio-political landscape that shape the narratives. Through a comparative approach, the study will explore the resonance of these themes in the broader discourse on the African American experience during the mid-20th century. However, the problem created by racism and oppression could be traced to be the major factor behind most Black literature through the ages. In America, this gave rise to a new form of literary expression known as African American literature, ( Encyclopedia Britannica). The main concern of this sub-genre of literature is to redeem the face of the black man and his culture from the negative to a more positive direction. Therefore, this study seeks to reveal the bad treatments blacks Americans receive from the hands of the whites.

1.3 Objectives of the Study

The aim of this study is to examine and analyze the themes of racism and oppression in African American literature, with a specific focus on Richard Wright’s two novels, The Native Son and Black Boy. By exploring the representation of racial discrimination and the experiences of African Americans in these works, the study seeks to shed light on the impact of these themes on the development of African American literature and the broader American society. However, the specific objectives of this study are:

  1. to examine various cases of racism and oppression of the African Americans in Richard Wright’s The Native Son and Black Boy.
  2. to analyze the narrative techniques employed by Richard Wright in The Native Son and Black Boy to depict the pervasive nature of racism and oppression in African American society.
  3. to explore the role of societal structures and institutions in perpetuating racial injustice as portrayed in the selected works.
  4. to examine the ways in which the protagonists in The Native Son and Black Boy navigate and respond to systemic racism, providing insights into their psychological and emotional struggles.
  5. to situate Wright’s works within the historical context of mid-20th century America, drawing comparisons to the broader socio-political landscape and contributing to a comprehensive understanding of the African American experience.

1.4 Significance of the Study

This research is significant in its potential to enrich our understanding of the profound impact of racism on individual lives and the broader African American community. By honing in on the works of Richard Wright, this study aims to contribute valuable insights to the fields of literature, history, and sociology, offering a nuanced exploration of the complexities of racial injustice. The findings of this research are anticipated to provide a foundation for future studies on African American literature and its role in shaping our understanding of societal challenges and the quest for justice.

1.5 Scope and Delimitation

The scope of this research is within the confinement of the primary selected texts (Richard Wright’s The Native Son and Black Boy) and is delimited to the topic under research.

1.6 Research Methodology

This research is a qualitative research, and relies on textual analysis of the selected texts: Richard Wright’s The Native Son and Black Boy, which are the primary sources of data collection for the study while other relevant materials are gotten from internet, journals both online/offline and library materials which form the secondary sources for data. The texts are purposively selected based on their relevant contents.

1.7 Theoretical Framework: New Historicism

The theoretical model that is adopted as the theoretical framework for this study is Stephen Greenblatt’s New Historicism. According to John Brannigan,(102) the main premise of New Historicists is to highlight the subversive forces of marginalized community of the society like female, bourgeoisie and ethnic communities of non-European origin. It may be assumed that New Historicism shares the tenet of Marxism as it tries to find out the conflict between the suppressed and the dominant like that of Capitalist and Proletariat. However, Louis Montrose (15) the whole social structure revolves round the problem of production and its circulation, but Cultural Materialists extend it towards the larger web of culture. New Historicists’ main motive is to find out the subversive voices in literary text so that society may be awakened regarding the exploitation of marginalized community: New Historicist look for a more dynamic relationship between texts and their societies.

If a society could be shown to form a text, then one could also show that texts in turn reshaped from which they came. For New Historicist understood Marshall M.C Luhan’s sound bite, the medium is the message as a fundamental truism they wished to write about the form of power, they sought to show the power of literary forms to reshape the world, to assert than to prove beguiling rather a demonstrable fact for a lyric poem which can be shown, turned out to be hard to find. (Murray 806-809).

In the like manner, Ralph Cohen, (203) New Historicism is a literary movement that reflects the legacy of Marxism and stemmed as a response to formalism. New historicism is interested in reading a piece of text in light of its political and social context. Unlike historicist before them, they don’t see history as just background information for the text, rather they see it as the key piece of information that the literature is conveying.  As such, they do not believe that literature should be discussed or understood in term of universal themes. New Historicism is concerned with power structure, circulation, political function, author’s background, and what really happened. They reject the close reading of formalist.

The main features of new historicism is that they critic into account the entire historical situation surrounding the time the work was published. This includes the predominant social and political situation. There are multiple notable proponents of new historicism. Some of them are: Stephen Greenblatt; Stephen Greenblatt is credited with pioneering new historicism. His book –The Power of Form in the English Renaissance is where he first used the term, “new historicism”. He claimed that literary criticism is always historical. Another person is Fredric Jameson: Jameson advised literary critics to always pay attention to historical context in which a work was produced. He is known by the dictate to “Always historicise”. Alan Liu is another notable proponent. He claimed that new historicist uses the entire world as a text. Michael Foucault in his own part claimed that knowledge is determined by system that are defined not just by cohesiveness but by ruptures.

New Historicism have gained momentum in its popularity as a new approach, but it is being criticized because it has certain limitations like the lack of intellectual coherence and a systematic way to pave the way of a reader and critic to study a text at hand. However, to criticize New Historicism on this ground seems whimsical. In fact, this critical approach encompasses within its methodological folds such critical tenets as adopted by Marxism, Historical and Psychological approaches, hence it came as a corrective and a pluralistic method of study.

Moreover, this approach is again criticized for not being impartial in its methodology because New Historicists “ignored writings by minorities . . . . To some critics New Historicists were not . . . political enough” (Murry, 806-809). It seems to be wrong judgment on the part of critics because they do not pay attention to their merging with the Feministic and Postcolonial approaches to literature. New Historicists are of the opinion that literature should give voice to subaltern group of society. “The strategy of ‘Thick description’ and the local reading of power relationship could be seen subaltern studies and post-colonial approaches.

Another important figure for New Historicism is Harold Aram Veeser. In his book about New Historicism, Veeser maintains that scholars “can engage themselves in various disciplines like history, literature, politics, economics, art, and anthropology thanks to New Historicism (9)”. In addition, New Historicism paved the way for humanists to go into the matters of politics and power. It can be argued that New Historicism is totally aware that any subject may have an impact on people’s way of life. Veeser claims that New Historicism holds together literature, art, history, ethnography, anthropology, and other disciplines showing that all these various fields are inter-related to each other.

New Historicism, a literary theory emphasizing the interplay between literature and historical context, proves valuable in analyzing “Racism and Oppression in African American Literature: A Study of Richard Wright’s ‘The Native Son’ and ‘Black Boy.'” This approach prompts examination of the historical backdrop, delving into the Great Migration, Jim Crow laws, and prevalent racial tensions of the early to mid-20th century America. New Historicism’s focus on power relations aids in dissecting how racism and oppression are portrayed in Wright’s works, exploring the dynamics between racial and social groups and their impact on characters.

Moreover, the theory’s emphasis on cultural discourses prompts analysis of how the novels contribute to or challenge prevailing narratives about race, identity, and social order. Richard Wright’s personal experiences and engagement with his era’s socio-political climate, emphasizing authorial agency, play a role in shaping the portrayal of racism and oppression. The concept of intertextuality encourages exploration of how The Native Son and Black Boy engage with other texts and historical events related to racism and oppression. By applying New Historicism, a nuanced understanding emerges, revealing the intricate connections between these literary works and the historical period they navigate. It was on this premise that the theory became necessary to portray the nature of stigmatization, oppression due to skin colour done on the blacks Americans in the selected work of Richard Wright (The Native Son and Black Boy).

1.9 Bio-Data of the Author

Richard Nathaniel Wright, born on September 4, 1908, in Mississippi, was a prominent American author renowned for his impactful contributions to literature. His extensive body of work, spanning novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction, consistently addressed racial themes, particularly the struggles faced by African Americans in the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, characterized by discrimination and violence. Wright’s upbringing at Rucker’s Plantation, marked by poverty and familial instability after his father’s departure, profoundly influenced his perspective on racial injustice.

Raised by his mother and grandparents, who had experienced slavery, Wright encountered adversity from an early age. Despite a disrupted education, he exhibited literary talent and published his first story, “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre,” at just 15. Throughout his life, Wright grappled with the oppressive influence of religion, a theme that permeated his writings and reflected his own struggles against familial attempts at control.

Wright’s literary prowess earned him recognition and accolades. Notably, he received the Spingarn Medal in 1941 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939. In 2009, he was commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp, solidifying his enduring impact on American literature. Posthumously, Wright was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in 2010, underscoring his lasting legacy.

Among his most celebrated works are Native Son, Black Boy, Uncle Tom’s Children, and “The Outsider.” Additionally, Wright explored non-fiction themes in works like Black Power and 12 Million Black Voices. His influence extended beyond traditional genres to include essays and poetry, showcasing the breadth of his literary talent. Despite an untimely death in 1960, Richard Wright’s contributions continue to shape discussions on race, earning him a lasting place in American literary history.

1.10 Definition of Terms

Racial Discrimination: Racial discrimination is any discrimination against any individual on the basis of their race, ancestry, ethnicity, and/or skin color. Individuals can discriminate by refusing to do business with, socialize with, or share resources with people of a certain group.

Racism: Racism is discrimination and prejudice against people based on their race or ethnicity. Racism can be present in social actions, practices, or political systems (e.g. apartheid) that support the expression of prejudice or aversion in discriminatory practices.

Oppression: Oppression is malicious or unjust treatment of, or exercise of power over, a group of individuals, often in the form of governmental authority or cultural opprobrium. It is related to regimentation, class, society, and punishment.