Exchanging Ghosts: Haunting, History, and Communism in Native Son

By Grinnell, George C. | English Studies in Canada, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Exchanging Ghosts: Haunting, History, and Communism in Native Son


Grinnell, George C., English Studies in Canada


Richard wright might never have said that a spectre is haunting Communism in the United States. Yet his novel Native Son (1940) is strangely like a ghost, fictionally visiting and revisiting a particular history of the Party's attempts to understand race in terms functionally equivalent to those of class. Wright's novel is shaped in part by his own experiences with the Communist Party of the United States, first in Chicago and then in Harlem. But the commitment to Communism Wright may have felt early in the 1930s is tempered at the end of the decade by his portrayal of the nightmare of Bigger Thomas's life. For in writing Native Son Wright imagines a Communism in the United States that quite capably reproduces processes of social dehumanization that exile Bigger into the shadowy role of what Wright once ironically referred to as "the Negro's uncertain position in America" ("Bigger" xxviii). Occupying a position that is scarcely uncertain in 1930s Chicago, Bigger is tried for the rape and murder of Mary Dalton, the white daughter of his employer. While Bigger's conviction was perhaps already assured by the combined historical weight of such charges and contemporary practices of legal-lynching, Wright assigns a significant degree of importance to his trial. In this remarkable episode of Bigger's narrative, Wright's Communist defence lawyer Boris Max offers an impassioned and complexly rendered portrayal of racial discrimination in the United States. Max examines the ways in which charges of rape policed and sanctioned violence against African Americans. The "hunt for Bigger Thomas," he notes, "served as an excuse to terrorize the entire Negro population, to arrest hundreds of Communists, to raid labour union headquarters and workers' organizations" (356). These remarks very rapidly specify particular example of this impossibly overdetermined charge against a black male and the tendency of the United States legal system to ratify what Max calls the "hate and impatience" of "the mob congregated upon the streets beyond that window" (357). Wright refers here to another trial in which the Communist Party of the United States defended several black men who barely survived the "lynch barbarism" of a "mob who surrounded the Scottsboro jail with rope and kerosene" after their initial convictions (Maxwell 132). While Wright himself acknowledges the Robert Nixon case in Chicago (1938-39) as an influence on his representation of Bigger's crime, the legal defence of Bigger, on the other hand, recalls the political prominence of the trial of nine young black men accused of rape in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931 and the Communist theories of race publicized by the Party during this first significant attempt legally to represent African Americans. Restaging and interrogating the terms of this trial, Wright develops a rhetoric of haunting that conjures up ghosts of a complex history of lynching suppressed by the substantial and compelling Communist hermeneutic of race put forward at Scottsboro. The histories of lynching that Native Son finds palpably absent in an understanding of race put forward by American Communists in the 1930s, moreover, is powerfully marked by the gendered violence perpetrated against the bodies and spirits of black women during slavery and Reconstruction. In revisiting Scottsboro in Native Son Wright summons a form of white violence that is hauntingly absent from the text's narrative of lynching and Bigger's defence. This counter-intuitive possibility that the gendered violence of Native Son may actually constitute a critique of Communism arises in part as a function of a rhetoric concerned with seeing what may not be there.

Wright's discussion of these two trials is marked by a language of ghosts, in the summation to his defence of Bigger, Max attempts to understand those "disembodied spirits" like Bigger Thomas and Bessie Mears (368) by employing a rhetoric of ghosts that also marks Wright's earlier narration of Bigger's interactions with the young Communist Jan Erlone. …

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