Racial/Body Politics and Concessional Hegemony in Richard Wright’s Native Son and Maya Angelou’s I know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Okwudiri Anasiudu


Racial politics as a concept is woven around the ideological state apparatus of any society in which it is practised. It shares similarity with systemic racism which finds its voice in the economy, judiciary, religion, and it is articulated through the resources of language and daily social relations (Racist America, xiv). It has a process which manifests from the top strata of the society to the lower echelon. Its basic pattern is between oppressors and the oppressed. The oppressed and the oppressors are both victims and they are in a dialectical relationship in the Marxian sense. And it is noteworthy that the oppressors work hard to maintain the system, while the oppressed struggles to overthrow it. This conflict sets off, a contradiction necessary for change. But the kind of change this essay prescribes is unlike that of Karl Marx, the change prescribed in this essay is a change influenced by a testament to love. Where both the oppressors and the oppressors make necessary adjustments, tolerance, and empathy. It is also worthy of note that the resentment generated and necessary to sustain acts of racism is more of an emotional one than logic, ultra-nationalists, instead of a global vision for humanity.

Some of the ways racism and body politics find expressions  are evident in incidents of hate-speech and harm to the body in terms of lynching or mob action between racial groups. These are some of the challenges bedevilling multicultural societies like the United States of America today. Recent events as at 2016 are pointers to the above submission, like the shooting of Mr. Alton Sterling, a thirty-seven year old African American on a Tuesday of July 5th, 2016, by Howie Lake and Blane Salamoni (white policemen) of Baton Rouge Police Department in Louisiana, and Mr. Philando Castile on Wednesday July 6th, 2016, (the next day) by a St. Antony, Minnesota police officer (a white police officer). Among African Americans, the shootings were interpreted as acts of racism and body politics. This was given impetus by Anthonio Dimaggio, a professor of Political Science who reacting after the incident in an online article Counterpunch, reiterated the same view. The incidences generated social tremors which gave an impulse to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter activist group in the United States of America in 2016.

But there are some unanswered questions. Why did the policemen shoot these African Americans in the first place? What was or were their motivation(s) for the shooting? Do their (the policemen) motivations have anything to do with the colour of their (those who were shot) skin? Were the shootings coincidental, or a pattern, a signature of an inner resentment, or a display of the lack of tolerance for differences which exists among humans? Answering these questions requires one to look beyond what has happened.

Michelle Alexander proposed a hypothesis that the colour of the skin is a factor to how the “right of citizens” of the United States of America are protected (The New Jim Crow, 98). The term, “right of citizenship”, as used in the aforementioned means a special privilege a person enjoys because that person is a citizen of a country (Social Stratification, 96).  Alexander further explains that a case in point is a situation where “whites” commit more drug-related crimes, but a good percentage of those imprisoned for drug offences have been African Americans and Latinos (133). For Joe Feagin, a sociologist, such treatment on the African American is informed by racism, and it is structured into the rhythms of everyday life” (Racist America, x).

Even Ben Carson, the renowned African American neurosurgeon notes that he was once ill-treated at some point because of the colour of his skin (One Nation, 16). According to Feagin President Barack Obama was not spared either.  He notes that:

During both the 2008 and the 2012 presidential campaigns, many racist attacks, verbal and otherwise, were made [about] Obama and his candidacy by those participating in various capacities in the Republican political campaign. Some attacks were similar to the hate crimes perpetrated by the white supremacists just discussed, while others were not hate crimes but reflected an aggressive white-racist framing that overlapped in some ways with the framing common in white extremist groups. In 2008 numerous white supporters of Senator John McCain used racist epithets at presidential campaign events. At a Des Moines rally[,] one woman yelled "He's a nigger!" at the mention of Obama. (Racist America, 166)

Hacker, Andrew in the text Two Nations further highlights that race induced discrimination is a harsh reality to the new generation of African Americans, for they did not experience the historical currents which shaped and informed it.

The Aetiology of the Disease: Why Racism?

Race related discrimination is a major concern in Black discourse. Appiah Kwame Anthony sees it, not as a surprise, considering the fact that we are in a world where racism influences the manner of our politics (282). This racial politics is real and it creates a master/slave binary consciousness. According to Richard C. Monk in Taking Sides it is the motivation behind the merciless assault, and genocide against the indigenous people of America by Christopher Columbus in 1491 (238), which Bartholomew de Las Casa, an eye-witness whose account was published in 1552 in a text the Devastation of The Indies describes thus: “no amount of time and paper can describe the horrors” or annihilation of the aboriginal Americans.

While the term “racism” may cause discontent, ambiguity and much difficulty in defining because of the more than one ways it can be used, it first appeared in 1930, and there has never been a consensus among scholars on the definition of the term. Instead it is used as a descriptive sense for those opinions, thoughts and practices which categorise others on the grounds of presumed or acknowledged dissimilarities of racial affiliation (Haralambos and Holborn, 169).

Yet, Maulana Karenga, one of the foremost scholars of Black Studies defines racism as “a system of denial and deformation of a people’s history, humanity and right to freedom based exclusively or primarily on the specious concept of race” (Introduction to Black Studies, 305-306).  Chima Amadi on the other hand, quoting Reece McGee argues that racism exists at the individual and institutional level (12). Haralambos and Holborn agree with Reece, and add that individual racism is overt while institutional racism is covert and hidden while noting that a kind of racism called cultural racism also exists, and it is the mistaken belief, ideas, and arguments about the attributes and capabilities of racial groups  (169).

In Western literary imagination, racism is justified in the writings of George Hegel whom Nkem Okoh in his Preface to Oral Literature chides for describing Africa as “undeveloped and not a historical part of the world” (14). Okoh also notes the racist remark of the Scottish philosopher of “towering status”: David Hume, where he justifies white’s superiority over Black. In the words of Hume, as quoted by Okoh, Hume opines that “I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the white (17).

Racism is not peculiar to Africans alone. The anti-Semitic views of Joseph Bannister in his description of the Jews as “Yiddish Pigs” and even the Nazi’s ill treatment of the Jews which led to the death of about 6 million Jews are testaments to it. The Irish also, have had their fair share of racist remark from Frederick Engels who describes the Irish man as crude and a human slightly above the unrestrained barbarian (Sociology Themes and Perspectives, 143).

Racism denatures the being of its victim (both as perpetrators and sufferers).  The being in this context is in the Heideggerean sense of Dasein (being-there); what William F. Lawhead describes as an existence that is in constant interaction and engagement in the world and not alienated (536). It informs how the individual experiences the world and makes choices that become the individual’s consciousness. And the victims of racism cut across race, but the focus of this essay is on how it affects the Blacks. Richard A. Long expands the semantic possibilities of the term Black, saying that it includes Americans of African descent both of dark skin and mullato, (136). This essay is part of the corpus on the ongoing discourse on racism.

The ill-treatment against Blacks is not a recent development. Amadi, from a historical purview, observes that between “1885-1915, nearly 3000 Blacks were lynched” (20) in the United States of America. This was given impetus by the Jim Crow Law which introduced a concept of separate but equal public facilities all over the country for her citizens (Racism in African American…, 22). And this same ill-treatment to African Americans was the catalyst to the Civil Right Movement of 1950 (The Burden of Freedom, xvii).

Matthew Ashimolowo, a clergy, worried over the image of the Black man in modern times throws up a question in the title of his book What is Wrong With Being Black? He notes that Blacks’ (the mullato inclusive) socio-economic, physiological or cognitive existence belong at the base of the social strata (7). To give further clarity to Ashimolow’s observation, one needs to consciously note that the ill-treatment against the Blacks in the United State of America follows a process of cognitive reprogramming such that “unequalness” among races is tolerated in order to legitimise the notion that whites are superior. This manifests as actions and idea which are grafted into the consciousness of the people in order to make racism appear normal, or acceptable.

Textual Analysis

There are ideological instruments through which the politics of race is perpetuated, as evident in Native Son and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The word ideology has different layers of meaning. Within the Marxian sense, it implies false consciousness. Within the formalist tradition of Mikhail Bakhtin and Hallidayan sense, ideology implies the worldview of a people, their cognition. It also implies the prevailing views of the elite class. These prevailing views are infused into the society through instruments or channels known as social institutions. What individuals who make up a society do not know is that what is transmitted via social institutions like a religious organisation, schools, the judiciary and even the media are opinions of the elite class, the hegemonic class. Thus, what is known as opinion, even at the domain of the public is not “innocent”. This means that prevailing views, social policies, in any given society are not without sentiments. Ideologies are woven into the social institution, in order to make them appear legitimate. But most times, they are for the interest of a class, a group, or even a particular race.

The system in any given society gives the prevailing ideology its strength. A better understanding of the term system could be drawn from biology in the organisation of life. Where the cells, tissue, organ fuse into a system, in real terms, this crystalizes in the education system, the media, the economic system, constitution and language. These institutions form the system and give presence to racial and body politics. The role of language within the system is to articulate the views of the system and make them appear legitimate. This notion of the system explained above finds expressions in Native Son and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Some of the semantic componential features of the system include + organisation, + combination, + synchronicity, + harmony and + covalent bond of related parts into a whole. These parts: the education, economy, judiciary and media are fused in a whole to achieve the overall goal of systemic racism, which is human control or oppression.

The education system in which Thomas and Angelou (the main protagonists in our texts understudy) were exposed to, does not give these characters the chance to arrive at the actuality of their talents, instead, it strangulates their talent and leaves them at the valley level of potentiality or “differed dreams”. This reminds one of the poems Harlem, especially the opening line which states thus: “What happens to a dream differed?”  For the likes of Thomas and Angelou, their academic dreams are stunted because of the restrictions placed upon them by the system.  Even though the system offers them education, the system deprives them of the right kind of education they need to survive in America. For they are not educated enough to be useful to themselves. Thomas’ school teacher is aware of these restrictions as evident in this excerpt from the text, the “school teacher knows every form of restrictions which have been placed upon Negro education. The authority is aware of this too and they have made plans to keep Thomas and his kind (Angelou by implication) within the rigid limit, in ghetto areas of the cities” (Native Son, 422).

Another instance is evident in the character Edward Robertson, the editor of the Jackson Daily Star in Native Sons. As an agent of the system, within the media, he stresses that Blacks should not be offered full or thorough education and that separate schools should be encouraged because it makes it easier to regulate Black schools (Native Son, 311). The expression, “to regulate Black school” suggests a form of control of Black education and by extended metaphor, it means to set a limit, a boundary to Black lives and their socio-economic progress.  This kind of education offered to the Blacks is analogous to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” (Literary Theory and Criticism, 73).  Plato’s allegory of the cavemen is a metaphor of Thomas and Angelou, locked up in the cave (the American Society), where they are denied access to true enlightenment (education), instead, they are controlled by shadows and reflections from the true reality of life by a weak education system.  An application of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave within the America context implies that America represents the cave which also symbolises limitations and setbacks.

To sight another example, a careful read of Angelou’s autobiographical narratives I know Why the Caged Bird Sings exposes this cave like nature in the system of education offered to the Blacks and people of colour. Her first school in Stamp Arkansas lacks basic facilities for learning; like science and sports equipment. White authorities like Mr Donleavy is aware of it, but he is a white politician and the best he could do was only make promises to the school. Donleavy is running for election and wants to use the promises to the Black parents that if he wins the election, he will construct the only cement playing field for coloured people in that part of Arkansas as a bait. Not only that, he promises that he will get new equipment for cooking, sewing, for the students and organise woodworking classes. (I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 62). All these can only come to materiality if the African American community cast their votes for him and if he wins. The irony and also pain in the situation is that considering the necessity of education, it is not a thing to play politics with, more so as part of the fundamental human rights of the citizens. But because it is a Black community Mr Donleavy takes advantage of them, to his selfish end. It also suggests that the ill-equipped state of the Black schools was a deliberate ploy by white politicians like Donleavy to keep the blacks intellectually disabled.

Even Angelou in I Knows Why the Caged Bird Sings, was not aware of the deficiency in the kind of education she receives in Arkansas, until her journey to California, which exposed her to newer realities, in a new environment, and in a new school. She admits that George Washington’s High School (in California) is the first real school she attended (I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 72) unlike her school in Stamp.

The importance of education cannot be overstressed. Walter Rodney points out that education is crucial in any type of society (290). For Gramsci, education develops in each individual, the cognitive manpower, intellection and the capacity to navigate one‘s way in life (Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 26). But the experiences of Angelou and Thomas is a contradiction to Rodney or Gramsci’s views. This is because, the education system they are exposed to, does not empower them to take charge of their lives.  Thomas desires to do what white boys did in school, go to college or join the army but he is not given the chance (Native Son, 384). And because of poverty, Thomas would rather work (to survive first), than go to school. While Angelou admits that her school is deficient in teaching her an aspect of reality, for she realises that the things she still had to learn wouldn’t be taught to her at George Washington High School.”( I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 93)

The education system also creates a cognitive gap for Black.  Bigger Thomas describes it as me being “here” and them being “there” (Native Son, 50).  A close attention to the deictic function of the expressions, “here” and “there” as used by Thomas indicate a space-time difference, and a class difference too, in terms of achievement. Angelou‘s introduction in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings describes this difference in terms of a binary contrast where:

Powerless                                                  the Powerful,

The poor                                                    The rich,

 The Blacks    are                 the worker                    the Whites are       the employer                    (v)

Poorly dressed                                            well dressed

The education system also construes the life of Blacks as subjunctives, stunted and full of “ifs”. Bigger Thomas wishes to fly a plane but the aviation school will never allow him because of the colour of his skin. This is succinctly captured in the conversation between bigger Thomas and Gus.

“If I could fly a plane (Thomas)

If I had a chance (Thomas)

If you wasn’t black (Gus)

If you had some money (Gus)

If they would let you go to that aviation school, you could fly a plane (Gus)

For a moment, Thomas contemplated all the ‘ifs’ Gus had mentioned.” (47)

The conversation between Gus and Thomas is very crucial as it exposes their latent desires, aspiration and dreams. It also exposes the lacuna they face. Grammatically, the lexical item “if” marks out the expressions as adverbials and conditional statements. These conditions within the context of the sentence are goals, life expectations, visions, Thomas cannot fulfil because he cannot change the colour of his skin.

The consequence of the kind of education the system offers the Blacks creates an unbalanced racial relationship between the Blacks and the white such that the power relation is unequal. The whites are confident, outspoken, and knowledgeable because of the options education provides for them, unlike Thomas and Angelou.  Marx and Britten are two symbolic characters whose roles in Native Son reveal the power of education. It empowers them to speak for themselves and also as a representation for others.

To represent entails speaking for, to stand for someone. It is not as if the Black man cannot speak for himself or stand for himself. But in the physical sense, for one to stand, one requires a support. A support is like the two legs of the human body, they carry the weight of the body. This support, which is necessary for Thomas to speak for himself in any “arena of discourse” is what he lacks, and the right education could have facilitated the Blacks with it. But it is sad that no Black man has the educational or professional qualification to represent Thomas in the law court except Marx a white man. It is an indication, though not explicit that Blacks are stratified to the lower echelon in the cognitive ladder. It will be almost impossible for the Blacks to become lawyers in this kind of system Thomas finds himself. For Angelou, her desire to “become”, pushes her to streetcar driving. While for Thomas his “un-actualised” desires lead him to violence. First, against himself, then against the Dalton family, then against his girlfriend, finally against the society at large.

Another platform where systemic racism manifests in the texts is in the economy. Karl Marx’s view on the materiality of the economy cannot be disputed because it conditions life and determines its cause.   This life conditioning nature of the economy takes form as Angelou decides to work as a “street car driver”, but she is segregated against because of the colour of her skin (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 90). Though she is energetic and smart, the system does not take that into cognizance, because it has been programmed to prevent her from becoming whom she wants to become. Even her mother forewarns her of the hurdles she will encounter as evident in the excerpt, “When Mother asked what I planned to do, I replied that I would get a job on the streetcars.” Her mother rejects the idea with, “They don’t accept coloured people on the streetcars” (I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 90). Thus, in spite of Angelou’s doggedness, she gets frustrated because the receptionist refuses her from seeing the manager and she exclaims thus: “I accepted the receptionist as another victim of the rules of society” (91).

The economic institution is controlled by whites such that it is difficult for the Blacks to extricate themselves from the vicious circle of poverty. The system is based on the American capitalist ideal, which is not bad in principle, but vicious because of its parasitic and predatory approach against a segment of the American society, as it fails to consider the weak and underprivileged, the historically and institutionally “disabled”, particularly the Blacks. The utilitarian value of the African American to the society is to supply cheap labour for white factories. Their economic engagement is predicated upon what the white man wants for and from them. And to ensure slavish obedience, a form of concessional hegemony which intends to make the African American subservient is encouraged. This act of concessional hegemony manifests in the actions of Mr Dalton, at first, an uncritical read of this “interesting character” may suggest that he has empathy for the Blacks, but, the reverse is the case. The discussion between Peggy and Thomas captures it.

‘Mr. Dalton’s a fine man,’ Peggy said.

‘Oh. Yessum. He is’

‘You know, he does a lot for your people.’

‘My people?’ asked Bigger puzzled.

‘Yes, the coloured people.

He gave over five million dollars to coloured schools.’(Native Son, 87)

From the conversion above, Peggy’s notion of what makes a fine man is a donation of five million dollars to coloured schools. The issue is not the act, the question is the motive behind the act. This is why CRT is crucial as it filters through actions between racial groups.  Peggy is ignorant of the political dimension of her boss’ charity. The underlying motive behind Mr Dalton’s supposedly philanthropy is clear. First, this essay draws our attention to the relationship between the Thomas Family and the Dalton family. It is an unequal power relation. It is a relationship fraught with inequality, between serfs to a landlord, a customer to a merchant, an employee and an employer of labour, and while the Thomas’ family gets poor Dalton’s family gets rich (421).

As an entrepreneur, Dalton would not like any form of Black uprising and consciousness raising because it spells doom for his capitalist enterprise especially his real estate in the Black belt and his ping-pong tables. And the only way to safeguard his capitalist elitism is to concede to small acts of kindness. These are decoys to ensure that the Blacks see him as a “fine man” in the words of Peggy, but as long as they remain in the segregated schools and quarters, as long as they do not get or interfere with his business, the status quo should remain.

Why should the Blacks stay in a separate school and it is funded by the likes of Mr Dalton in the first place? According to Wilfred, F, Feuser, Mr Dalton ploughs back some of the profit accruing to him from the Black ghettoes in the guise of ping-pong tables for the Black boys’ clubs (A Celebration of Black and African Writings, 90).

Thus, small acts of kindness, becomes decoy to perpetuate Black slavery and cognitive docility. The economic gap between the Blacks and white which manifests in terms of apartness and segregation in residential quarters becomes so real that the existence of white was almost a fiction to the Blacks. Angelou also notes such experience:

In Stamps, the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really; absolutely know what whites looked like. We knew only that they were different, to be feared, and in that fear was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the employer; and the poorly dressed against the well-dressed. (v)

The economic system programmes the education, social expectations, geographical location, actions and behaviour of Thomas and Angelou, and no matter how they struggled with life, it seems to elude them. Stamp, the town where Angelou lived as a teenager is like the Black belt zone where Thomas and his mother reside. Angelou notes that “entering Stamps, I had the feeling that I was stepping over the border lines of the map and would fall, without fear, right off the end of the world. Nothing more could happen because in Stamps nothing happened (39). Events within the country at large do not improve the quality of life in Stamp and also Angelou’s journey outside her place of birth illuminated her mind as she compares St. Louis to Stamp.

The reality in the United States of America is that the Blacks exist in two worlds, a rich and prosperous America which is a universal set, and an impoverished Black community as evident in their economic state. Their place of residence is totally different from the white residence, “…Black people could not go outside of the Black-belt region to rent a flat; they had to live on their side of the “line”. No white real estate man (including “Kind” Mr Dalton) would rent a flat to a Black man other than in the sections where it has been decided that Black people might live”(279). But Blacks can go and work as maids, and house-helps for the white at the white quarters. This economic reality pushes the Blacks to the fringes of existence and to survive, they have to reinvent themselves in order to fit into their present reality. This manifests as a form of mutual zombification. Mutual zombification is a concept introduced by Achille Mbembe which explains how the populace in a society manoeuvres to subvert the rules and power of the oppressors. While the oppressive white system creates policies to keep the Blacks in check, the Blacks device strategies to subvert them. Thus, the two groups engage in a ploy to deceive themselves. This is a coping strategy and for survival. This is what Fowler means by asserting that humans create their world twice (Linguistics Criticism, 17). But the whites do not take into consideration the consequence of their acts on the Blacks neither do the Blacks consider their actions on the white community.

A devastating consequence of systemic racism is the dislocation of the Black family. A Critical assessment of the two novels understudy highlights a salient fact that the families of the Black Americans are devoid of a male figure. This is also evident in Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eyes, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings etc.  The economic situation maims, kills, and destroys the psyche of the male. This essay argues that the economic system in a racist environment while adversely affecting the Black family, particularly has the male as a major victim, for it destroys their human essence. This is why most African American literature depicts families whose male figures or parent are almost useless, and irresponsible. This also takes a toll on the female who is devastated as she is left alone to cater for the well-being of the children. Thus, there is a correlation between economic realities and broken homes among African Americans.

The media is another part of the system through which systemic racism is perpetrated against Blacks. This is possible through the kind of image or representation it gives about the African American. The publication on Thomas in Native Sons after they found the bones of Mary explains it all:

The paper ought to be full of him now. It did not seem strange that they should be, for all his life he felt that things had been happening to him, that should have gone into them [the paper]. But only when he had acted upon feelings which he had had for years would the paper carry the story, his story. (Native Son, 252)

The print media bends the resource of language in the textualization of Blacks through the stories or events that are recounted in it and creates a negative “presence” or aura for anything associated with Black as evident in the journalistic writings.  The manner of language use by Jackson Daily Star is like what Kellner and Best who quote Neichez calls “metaphorical” because the meanings of their choice of words are not simply a fixed reality or a given, but are socially constructed (22).

The editor of Jackson Daily Star appropriates the resource of language for himself and the white communities and creates a one-dimensional story against Thomas. The media describes Thomas as thus: “Bigger Thomas, Negro sex slayer, does not seem compactly built, he gives the impression of possessing abnormal physical strength. He reminds one of a jungle beast. His arms are long, hanging in a dangling fashion to his knee” (Native Son, 309).

He goes as far as proclaiming the death penalty for Thomas before the trial begins (310), as he manipulates language as a semiotic sign in Daily Star to elicit certain phatic or perlocutionary roles in the mind of the people. This manifests as social hysteria and a mob action against Thomas. The Daily Star makes the death penalty for Thomas seem a justified act.

The Politics which Construes the Existence of the African American

Politics basically denotes interest. In this study, it is seen as the motivation behind the actions of the whites towards the Blacks. The titles of the two novels are insightful as they reveal the underlying power play against Blacks and persons of colour. Wright’s choice of Native Son as a title is a device to keep the reader of the text, conscious of the fact that “Thomas” is a citizen of The United States of America, a native, but in spite of being a native, he is discriminated and treated badly because of the colour of his skin. The dehumanisation of the Blacks implies the prosperity of the whites. This is the irony inherent in systemic racism because a group gets wealthy at the expense of another group. This situation is what Angelou calls a cage, in her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The “bird” in this case is a symbol of African Americans, who need to be free, liberated from the system. White elite understands this, hence they organise the system to make Black emancipation a near impossibility in order to further their interest.

This politics is hinged on the skin colour as it dictates every other action of the white. For example, it is worthy of mention that there were two murders: Mary Dalton a white woman and Bessie a Black woman. But the entire machinery of the state is organised to fight for justice for Mary, without any thought about Bessie, because Bessie is Black. (Native Son, 427). In another instance, politics is visible in the treatment meted to Angelo, as the colour of her skin becomes a stumbling block for her getting a job of her choice.

Thomas and Angelou are symbolic characters who represent the African-Americans and their challenges in such clime.  They represent the Black race on trial. It is not Thomas alone, that is on trial or Maya who is frustrated in her job, but every African-American, against the political might of the White, their machinery of subjugation and the systemic racism.

Even the character Max in Native Son notes that the hunt for Thomas serves as an excuse to terrorise the entire Negro population”(414) and the full political dimension of the travails of Thomas is revealed by Max, who notes that the mob, police, media, judiciary and other parts of the system were motivated by their political interest.  Max points out that the State Attorney knows that the mob serves the interest of the white (elite) because the protesters did not just appear but were incited by the media, which is owned by a priviledged class. In Native Son, the State Attorney promised the Loop bankers that if he is re-elected he will stop protest for relief among workers. The Governor of the state has also promised to stop every form of strike action (from Black workers). The mayor also has planned to cut down the budget for merchants and reduce tax for the whites (415). All these promises are for the interest of the white, to sustain every agency of white supremacy, without any plans for the Blacks. In I know Why the Caged Bird Sings Maya exclaims that it was awful to be Negro and have no control over her life. It was terrible to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my colour with no chance of defence (62). Even Baily, the elder brother to Maya in confusion, asks the puzzling question: “Uncle Willie what [has] coloured people… done to white people to make them hate us.”(64)


In this essay while we have shown how system racism and concessional hegemony play out, the role of language as an important tool defining the Blacks in white imagination cannot be overemphasised. It serves as a tool for categorising the African Americans. It also serves as a tool for the creation of a new identity for the Black. Alex Haley’s classic Root is a case in point where the protagonist Kinta Kunte is forced to bear a new name Tobi. The new name ushers in a new identity and every order consequences associated with it.

Roger Fowler has noted that “the naming capacity of language allows us [man] to impose order on the world” (15).This order implies a form of control necessary for stratification. For the White supremacists, language accords them a kind of regimentation of Black lives. Language becomes the ideological weapon to realise this. The negative framing of Thomas by the State Attorney highlights this. Some of the lexical items used to describe the Blacks by Britten include: half human, black ape, bestial monstrosity, black mad dog, sub-human killer, black lizard, sly thug, rapacious beast, piece of human scum, madden ape, infernal monster, treacherous beast ( Native Son, 432:436)

The political class needs a term for the naming category of the African Americans in other to justify the kind of treatment meted to them. Thus, if Thomas must be sent to the electric chair, they would want everyone to believe that he is a beast, an infernal monster and whatever the government says, becomes the truth. If Angelou must be denied a job as a streetcar driver, she must be called a “coloured.” Whatever they say against the Blacks becomes the ordained truth. Lee Baxandall & Stefan Morawski, who quote Karl Marx, draw attention to the use of language as ordained truth by members of the political class (59).  This is animated in I know Why the Caged Bird Sings where “momma” is treated with disdain by the white judge:

The judge asked that Mrs Henderson appears in court, and when Momma arrived and said she was Mrs Henderson, the judge and other whites in the audience laughed. The judge had really made a mistake calling a Negro woman “Mrs”. (I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 18)

The underlying meaning of the “laughter” by the bench of judges is a rejection of the notion that Blacks, especially Black women are deserving of any form of honour, more or less, the title of a Mrs.  The political climate in which racial politics exist creates an atmosphere of conflict such that its victims or perpetrators exhibit violence against themselves; a kind of violence Achille Mbembe calls mutual zombification because in the long run both sufferers and perpetrators are casualties of the system. However, there is a need for mutual effort or synergy between white and Black in order to battle the system. That is what Mary, Jan, and Marx represent as they seek to work with Thomas.


Works Cited

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