Slouching toward Beastliness: Richard Wright's Anatomy of Thomas Dixon

Article excerpt

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. [1] 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). [2] 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. [3] 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. [4] 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. [5]

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" [103], 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. …