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"White People to Either Side": Native Son and the Poetics of Space (Critical Essay)

The Black Scholar 2009, Spring-Summer, 39, 1-2

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THE QUOTE from the original 1940 edition of Richard Wright's Native Son--"white people to either side" (107)--that inspires the title to this essay is both descriptive and prophetic, anchored in the narrative present as well as in the narrative's future. It is an accurate verbal representation of Bigger Thomas's physical situation at the given moment (he is sitting in the front seat of a car flanked by two white people). The words re-appear virtually unaltered in the third and final section, appropriately entitled "Fate," in reference to the "white [...] policemen sitting to either side of him" (703). Just as the initial appearance of the phrase "white people to either side" is echoed in the novel's closing stages, the narrative follows the same pattern. The following analysis considers the use of the spatial in determining the aesthetic and philosophical concerns of Native Son. In full, the first sequence reveals an interracial dynamic mediated through a vocabulary of physical constraint, expressive of Bigger's sense of bodily entrapment, if not actual (desire for) obliteration: IN THE LATER SEQUENCE, soon after Bigger's arrest, the complete quote reads, "He tried to move his hands and found that they were shackled by strong bands of cold steel to white wrists of policemen sitting to either side of him" (703). The realization of the former sequence in the latter in contrast to the frustrated interracial homoeroticism--speaks to the novel's naturalist aesthetics and what Valerie Smith calls its "relentless plottedness" (l) in the first place and, secondly, to its engaging of space and spatial categories in order to underscore that social determinism. Indeed, space defines Bigger's existence from the start: the famously harsh alarm clock "clang" with which the novel opens--"BRRRRRRRIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINNG!" (447)--is transformed nine lines on into a spotlight, freezing the protagonist in a confined place: "Light flooded the room and revealed a black boy standing in a narrow space between two iron beds" (Ibid.). The premonitory imprisonment of Bigger, trapped between iron in a cramped kitchenette, imagistically survives to re-appear at the very end, with Bigger now facing death and literally contained by iron bars in a prison cell.

"White People to Either Side": Native Son and the Poetics of Space (Critical Essay)
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  • Category: Social Science
  • Published: 22 March 2009
  • Publisher: The Black Scholar
  • Print Length: 11 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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