Like Nemesis of Greek tragedy," writes W. E. B. Du Bois L in Black Reconstruction, "the central problem of America after the Civil War, as before, was the black man" (237). U.S. literature has both tried to resolve this problem and contributed to it. Two of the most influential fictional portrayals of African-American men, Uncle Tom and Bigger Thomas, illustrate polarized responses. These protagonists, one notoriously passive and the other violently aggressive, are linked in more than name. Indeed, James Baldwin's complaints in "Everybody's Protest Novel" have made the most important precursor of Richard Wright's character appear to be Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom.  But I would like to direct attention to an equally important depiction of the "problem" of African-American masculinity against which Wright defined the protagonist of Native Son: the black male "beast" of Thomas Dixon's novels.
The North Carolinian novelist did not, to be sure, invent this degrading representation of black men. While historians debate how far back the stereotype goes, the "beast" exploded in notoriety in the 1890s, a time of massive black disenfranchisement and the rise of legalized Jim Crow. Whites touted this construct as proof of the supposed "degeneration" of blacks and used it to justify their own increasing acts of brutality during this period (Fredrickson 258, 282, 98).  Critical race studies boasts an extensive bibliography on the D. W. Griffith blockbuster The Birth of a Nation (1915), but notes few treatments of the Dixon novels that inspired the racial stereotypes so widely disseminated in that film.  As consolidated in these novels, especially The Leopard's Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905), the "beast" stereotype delineates a particular linking of eros and thanatos: the rape of a white woman as prelude to her death and/or to the lynching of her accused rapist. I do not propose a study of Dixon' s direct influence on Wright here but rather an examination of Native Son's complex relation to a pervasive myth, a myth that finds its most complete articulation in Dixon's novels. Convinced that radical Reconstruction--which marked the first attempt in the U.S. to incorporate blacks into the body politic--had unleashed the "beast," Dixon crystallized the anxieties of many whites of his time.  Wright interrogates the white fantasy about black "beasts" through a plot centering on a legal lynching in response to a presumed rape that in fact never occurred. Wright so closely examines Dixon's assumptions about black masculinity that Native Son needs to be seen as parodying the white supremacist vision. In anatomizing the "beast," Wright both follows and makes strategic revisions in the stereotype. Much as Dixon sought, by his own admission, to correct Stowe's influential representaton of African Americans, providing what he described as the "true story" of the South (qtd. in Cook, Thomas Dixon 51), so did Wri ght seek to amend the consequential image of the black male "beast" and, with that, the portrait of the nation. 
In preparation for writing his socalled Reconstruction Trilogy, Dixon organized over 1000 pages of historical notes (Cook, Thomas Dixon 65), and his perspective can quickly be captured by reviewing his historical assumptions. According to Dioxonian history, after the Civil War white Southerners were perfectly happy to accept their defeat and rejoin the Union. But unscrupulous whites such as Simon Legree (Stowe's villain reappears in The Leopard's Spots as "master artificer of Reconstruction policy" , Wall Street millionaire, and evil industrialist) engineered policies that created interracial strife. For instance, The Leopard's Spots depicts the short-lived Freedman's Bureau--created in 1865 to oversee education and free labor while providing provisions and shelter to the destitute--as forcing whites to pay blacks for work they hadn't done, thus precipitating innocent and hard-working whites into bankruptcy. Most omninously, freedom has unleashed the Negro male's lust for the white woman, and the white m an's response is lynching. As Dixon sums up his view, "since the Negroes under Legree's head had drawn the color line in politics, the races had been drifting steadily apart" (197), and lynching--a practice he claims to regret--emerged in response. Dixon glorifies the original Ku Klux Klan as a heroic response to the unleashing of the black "beast" by Reconstruction policies. 
Dixon claims never to have forgotten his childhood Reconstruction experiences. In what obviously served as a primal scene that would determine much of his subsequent character, Dixon describes his first contact with the Klan, while his family lived in Shelby, North Carolina. The widow of a Confederate soldier arrived at the Dixon home in tears, claiming that an escaped black convict had raped her daughter. That night, the young Dixon awoke to the sound of horses galloping. Creeping to the doorway, he looked out to see the Klan hanging a black man and riddling the body with bullets (Cook, Thomas Dixon 23). This defining moment in Dixon's childhood fuses sex, race, and violence in a way that he would never forget, and it is not difficult to see in it the germ of the future novelist. "My object," Dixon once explained, "is to teach the north... the awful suffering of white men during the dreadful reconstruction period" (qtd. in Cook, Fire 140). 
Wright, growing up in the Jim Crow South two generations after Dixon and on the other side of the color line, had a childhood memory that provided an alternative primal scene. The components are the same--race, sex, and violence--though rather than Dixon's fusion into a scene of traumatic heroism, Wright depicts a youthful revelation that others view his essential nature as depraved and criminal. At age fifteen, Wright took a job doing chores for a white family, the Walls, which provided him with money to pay for books and incidentals. One day he entered Mrs. Wall's bedroom without knocking, his arms filled with wood. She was in the process of dressing, and his generally liberal employers reprimanded him. As Michel Fabre describes the significance of the event, Wright "had...inadvertently broken the barrier protecting white women from black men.... The sin of being a potential... ravisher only reinforced the guilt" that the youth had already accumulated concerning sexuality (47). Wright's and Dixon's traumati c primal scenes helped to shape their decisions to write such differently positioned protest novels.
Given the role that The Birth of a Nation played in disseminating Dixon's ideas, it is appropriate that the first sure sign of Bigger Thomas's "beastliness" occurs in a movie house. The passage as originally published in 1940 juxtaposes a newsreel featuring glorified images of rich white women with Trader Horn, a film depicting "naked black men and women whirling in wild dances and...drums beating" in Africa. The juxtaposition illustrates the interlocking assumptions determining the white fantasy of the "beast": the desirability of white women and the essentially "primitive" nature of people of African descent. The scene as it appears in the restored Library of America text makes the anatomy of the "beast" yet clearer, superimposing on the celluloid images of desirable white femininity and uncivilized Africans the sight of Bigger and company engaging in what Jonathan Elmer calls competitive masturbation (Native 36; Elmer 779). Lying at the center of the "beast" stereotype is the assumption of the black male's uncontrollable sexual appetite, believed to crystallize in the lust for white women. Thus the disturbing juxtapositions in the scene as restored illustrate the process of young black males' watching widely disseminated images of blackness and whiteness while confirming stereotypes about black masculinity.
While commentators have noted Bigger's resemblance to the black "beast," little attention has been paid to the location of the alleged rape: the Daltons' home. As becomes clear in Dixon's novels, multiple meanings of the home structure and indeed rationalize the white fantasy of black "beasts." The Clansman addresses the problem of a nation fragmented, as Dixon sees it, by Reconstruction policies, and he figures the political issues as domestic problems.  Dixon's concern with the political implications of domestic arrangements becomes especially clear in his depiction of the radical Republican Congressional leader Austin Stoneman (Dixon's fictionalized version of Thaddeus Stevens), whose real deformity is not the clubfoot the narrator obsessively mentions, but rather his position at the head of a miscegenous household. Or, more precisely, Stoneman's housekeeper Lydia Brown, described as "a mulatto, a woman of extraordinary animal beauty and the fiery temper of a leopardess," presides over his home (57). What scandalizes Dixon is that Lydia exercises unnatural power over Stoneman, who in turn exercises ungodly power over the nation, and thus "the seat of Empire had moved from the White House to a little dark house on the Capital hill. where dwelt an old clubfooted man, alone, attended by a strange brown woman of sinister animal beauty" (79). The torn nation resembles nothing so much as a miscegenous household, and the "first lady of the land" has become "the strange brown woman," Lydia (91).
Dixon is a terrible writer, but he knows enough to pose the solution in the same terms he employs to define the problem: through images of purified homes and consecrated marriages. Although later novels such as The Sins of the Father (1912) show him to be surprisingly critical of slavery, in the Reconstruction Trilogy Dixon posits the peculiar institution as a happy family of whites and blacks destroyed by the Civil War. The horror of Reconstruction lies in its having exchanged slavery, which Dixon paternalistically casts as "the old familiar trust of domestic life," for the "complete alienation of the white and black races" (Leopard 103). As Dixon presents President Lincoln's position early in The Clansman," 'There is no room for two distinct races of white men in America, much less for two distinct races of whites and blacks.... We must assimilate or expel....I can conceive of no greater calamity than the assimilation of the Negro into our social and political life as our equal' "(46). What is interesting i s the positing of two white "races," though Dixon clearly finds the separation of Northern from Southern white man horrific. His narrative means of rectifying this problem is through two unlikely marriages: Stoneman's son Phil and daughter Elsie marry the daughter and son of an ex-Confederate. When Phil Stoneman declares his love to the Southern belle Margaret Cameron, significantly telling her how" 'homelike' "he finds her accent, she asks if he "'won't be disappointed in my simple ideal that finds it's all within a home?' (282). Of course he won't, for "home" is everything in The Clansman. Sex among siblings within the home sounds suspiciously like incest, but the unseemly connotation Dixon's narrative generates by spotlighting marriages of sisters and brothers-in fact, two such marriages-fails to trouble him. Indeed, something very close to incest among whites seems to be Dixon's solution to the threat of miscegenation.  That is because consolidating white energies by interbreeding would address the sec ond problem Dixon has Lincoln identify: the impossible coexistence of blacks and whites. The President explains that" 'God never meant that the Negro should leave his habitat or the white man invade his home.... And the tragedy will not be closed until the black man is restored to his home'" (47). Here "home" patently means country and becomes part of the argument for colonization of blacks to Africa. To sum up Dixon's argument, white "races" …