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Literary Analysis of Richard Wright’s Book, Native Son
“Those in authority rule by surveillance, by watching, by an evasive cultural observation that leads us to internalize the surveilling discipline and regulate, police, ourselves.”
Critic Michael Foucault sense of the panopticon as a system of surveillance can be extended to an analysis of how Jim Crow was employed as a form of surveillance to police the black population of 1930s Chicago. It is here that we commence to recognize not only does Jim Crow operates at a surveillance society but it also forces victims, like Larger Thomas, to police themselves by internalizing feelings of alienation, shame and inferiority, hence causing a victim to be forced into a unsafe state of mind.
The readers very first awareness of Jim Crow as a program of internalized surveillance happens by way of Biggers discussion of his recognition of how that quite method is employed to maintain his position of poverty and inferiority in society, as he metaphorically appears through the knot hole in the fence. In the starting of the novel when Bigger is talking to his friend Gus about how he is socially handicapped in society by his black skin. The oppression and awareness of his inferiority is shown when he says:
‘Every time I think about it I really feel like somebody’s poking a red-hot iron down my throat. Goddammit, look! We live right here and they reside there. We black and they white. They got issues and we ain’t. They do issues and we can’t, It is just like living in jail. Half of the time I really feel like I’m on the outside of the world peeping in by way of a knot hole in the fence.’ (20).
His use of the phrase “poking a red- hot iron [down his throat]” signals his internalization of the panopticon, resulting in his constant fear of getting watched by white society and forcing him to constantly worry violating the social crows of Jim Crow. As a result, Bigger’s feeling of alienation are only intensified when he says “whites reside in his stomach” revealing a deep sense of inferiority and feelings of fear that actually lives within him.
Interestingly Bigger and his buddies have internalized not only the worry of offending white society but also a worry of the consequences of a crime committed against a white individual such as Mr. Blum. Not only is Jim Crow, Larger recognizes, operating on the outside as a program but Wright reveals that it is some thing that has been internalized into African Americans such as Bigger and Gus which programs them to be afraid of robbing a person like Mr. Blum simply because of racial retribution. A prime instance of this information of the white society and the self-surveillance of Bigger’s personal action is when Bigger says:
‘They had usually robbed Negroes. They felt it was simpler and safer to rob their personal men and women, for they knew that white policemen by no means search diligently for blacks that commit crimes against other Negroes, [yet they terrorize and publicly shame blacks that commit crimes against whites] for months they had talked of robbing Blum’s, but had not been capable to bring themselves to do it. They had the feeling that the robbing of Blum’s would be a violation of ultimate taboo trespassing into a territory where a complete wrath of an alien white world’ (15).
Wright reveals the internalization of the panopticon in Bigger self- surveillance by means of his worry of Mr. Blum. Also, it is essential to demonstrate that the man, Blum, they are talking about robbing represents not one particular person but a white society that will want racial retribution for defying the panopticon or “white world” (14). The imbalance in energy amongst the white communities and African Americans reveals that such oppression is required to withhold opportunity of socio-financial freedom as well as to sustain energy over the black community.
One more instance is when Bigger enters the Dalton’s household and although he is sitting in this “white home” (45) Larger connects this globe with what he mentioned earlier about going by means of the “knot hole in the fence” into white society. When he is sitting in the Dalton’s Household, Bigger holds onto feelings of distrust which is exemplified when he says how the “strange objects challenged him” (46) inside this white property. Bigger then has a sense of realization that this “world would be so utterly distinct from his personal that it intimidates him” (45). Now Bigger is not looking via the knot hole in the fence, he is metaphorically in the white globe. Biggers fear of this planet is used against him when Mr. Dalton is mindreading Bigger and reading that worry as a sign of respect. Mr. Dalton is now surveilling, reading Bigger’s body language and thinks Larger is displaying the proper deference. Bigger then notices how his worry has overwhelmed him and says:
“Why was he acting and feeling this way? He wanted to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was creating him feel this. If not that he wanted to blot himself out. He had not raised his eyes to the level of Mr. Dalton’s face considering that he had been in his home. There was an organic conviction in him that this was the way white people wanted him to be when in their presence” (47-48)
Bigger’s internalized fear and conviction to submit to the presence of whites, reveals further that the surveilling of Bigger by Mr. Dalton and the self-surveillance of his own actions additional proves the method of the panopticon beneath Jim Crow.
Lastly, the burning of cross is a representation of the panopticon at the highest level. The Christian cross traditionally symbolizes compassion and sacrifice for a higher excellent, and certainly Reverend Hammond intends as considerably when he offers Bigger a cross even though he is in jail. Bigger even begins to believe of himself as Christ-like, imagining that he is sacrificing himself in order to wash away the shame of getting black, just as Christ died to wash away the world’s sins. Later, however, soon after Bigger sees the image of a burning cross, he can only associate crosses with the hatred and racism that has crippled him all through his life. He begins to feel betrayed which is shown when he says:
“He had felt betrayed. He wanted to tear the cross from his throat and throw it away. [….] he was feeling the cross that touched his chest, like a knife pointed at his heart. His fingers arched up to rip it off: it was an evil and black charm which would surely bring him death now.”(338)
This reveals that Bigger has come to a point that the white planet has crippled him with racism and oppression to a point that his distrusts the cross and believes it will not save him but kill him as an alternative. As such, the cross in Native Son comes to symbolize the opposite of what it usually signifies in a Christian context and rather symbolizes the ultimate Panopticon in the system of Jim Crow.
In conclusion, Jim Crow operates at a surveillance society but it also forces victims, like Bigger Thomas, to police themselves by internalizing feelings of alienation, shame and inferiority of the white planet. The socio-financial circumstances of Jim Crow also damped the opportunities of African Americans compared to white citizens which stands as a representation of how an environment of oppression and inferiority, controls and oppresses the violent desires of people like Bigger Thomas, with threats of violence. It is that very program is employed to sustain his position of poverty and inferiority in society, as he metaphorically appears via the knot hole in the fence. It is by way of the life of Bigger Thomas that a reader can analyze his representation to be a whole neighborhood of folks who are oppressed and forced into self-surveillance of themselves and to constantly struggle against the oppression of the white society.
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