Pop Culture And The Death Penalty Project: Richard Wright’s ‘Native Son’

Welcome to the first installment of the Pop Culture and the Death Penalty Project. Up next week, the 1999 movie adaptation of Stephen King’s The Green Mile.

One of the things that struck me most about the structure of Native Son is how perfectly circular it is. In the introduction to the novel in the edition I read, the prefacer described Bigger’s attempt to clean the rat out of his family’s apartment as a humiliation that sets the stage for his murder of Mary Dalton. But it also previews Bigger’s ultimate fate. The rat’s dash from the Thomas family skillets is the same briefly successful evasion that Bigger will experience from the police. Its death in a box is similar to Bigger’s own decline in a cell, though of course Bigger has an emotional revelation the rat is incapable of. And it inspires Bigger’s mother to speak almost prophetically of his own negation and ultimate fate. “Bigger, sometimes I wonder why I birthed you,” she muses after he finally vanquishes the rat. “Maybe you oughtn’t’ve. Maybe you ought to left me where I was…You’ll regret how you living some day. If you don’t stop running with that gang of yours and do right you’ll end up where you never thought you would. You think I don’t know what you boys is doing, but I do. And the gallows is at the end of the road you traveling, boy. Just remember that.” And he does. “Bigger, did you think you’d ever come to this?” Mr. Max asks Bigger during the trial process. “Well, to tell the truth, Mr. Max, it seems sort of natural-like, me being here facing that death chair,” Bigger tells him. “Now I come to think of it, it seems like something like this just had to be.”

But the inevitability of someone committing a crime is one discussion, and the question of whether that punishment is just or effective is entirely another. The main argument made by the prosecution in Bigger’s murder trial seems to be that it is an effective deterrent. “Our experience here in Dixie with such depraved types of Negroes has shown that only the death penalty, inflicted in a public and dramatic manner, has any influence upon their peculiar mentality,” a source tells a Chicago newspaper for a story about Bigger’s trial. “Had that nigger Thomas lived in Mississippi and committed such a crime, no power under Heaven could have saved him from death at the hands of indignant citizens.” The prosecutor takes for granted that the death penalty will be a deterrent, telling the judge during sentencing that “Your Honor, millions are waiting for your word! They are waiting for you to tell them that jungle law does not prevail in this city! They want you to tell them that they need not sharpen their knives and load their guns to protect themselves. They are waiting, Your Honor, beyond that window! Give them your word so that they can, with calm hearts, plan for the future! Slay the dragon of doubt that causes a million hearts to pause tonight, a million hands to tremble as they lock their doors!”

There’s no question that, at various points in the novel, Bigger is afraid of death, and afraid, specifically, of the death penalty. That fear slackens somewhat when he believes he has his family and the Daltons fooled: “But at home at the breakfast table with his mother and sister and brother, seeing how blind they were; and overhearing Peggy and Mrs. Dalton talking in the kitchen, a new feeling had been born in him, a feeling that all but blotted out the fear of death.” When he’s going through his trial, he feels viscerally the horror of his death being made a symbol, though he has that realization only after her’s committed his crimes. Bigger reflects:

He felt that not only had they resolved to put him to death, but that they were determined to make his death mean more than a mere punishment; that they regarded him as a figment of that black world which they feared and were anxious to keep under control. The atmosphere of the crowd told him that they were going to use his death as a bloody symbol of fear to wave before the eyes of that black world…It was not to save his life that he had come out; he did not care what they did to him. They could place him in the electric chair right now, for all he cared. It was to save his pride that he had come. He did not want them to make sport of him. If they had killed him that night when they were dragging him down the steps, that would have been a deed born of their strength over him. But he felt they had no right to sit and watch him, to use him for whatever they wanted.

Plainly, the death penalty is not a deterrent. That’s an argument Mr. Max makes at trial, saying “Do you think that you can kill one of them—even if you killed one every day in the year—and make the others so full of fear that they would not kill? No! Such a foolish policy has never worked and never will. The more you kill, the more you deny and separate, the more will they seek another form and way of life, however blindly and unconsciously.” And it’s one that even the wildly racist coverage of Bigger’s trial acknowledges when it describes his demeanor in court as “indifferent to his fate, as though inquests, trials, and even the looming certainty of the electric chair held no terror for him.” The papers are wrong about what Bigger’s thinking and feeling, but not about the idea that the death penalty won’t keep people from committing crimes. When you feel all sorts of fears, the electric chair won’t always be chief among them.

But Mr. Max isn’t just aimed at getting to neutral on the death penalty’s efficacy. He argues not that it’s immoral, but that the death penalty causes a greater harm than any benefit it could possibly provide: it furthers the division of the country against itself:

The surest way to make certain that there will be more such murders is to kill this boy. In your rage and guilt, make thousands of other black men and women feel that the barriers are tighter and higher! Kill him and swell the tide of pent-up lava that will some day break loose, not in a single, blundering, accidental, individual crime, but in a wild cataract of emotion that will brook no control. The all-important thing for this Court to remember in deciding this boy’s fate is that, though his crime was accidental, the emotions that broke loose were already there; the thing to remember is that this boy’s way of life was a way of guilt; that his crime existed long before the murder of Mary Dalton; that the accidental nature of his crime took the guise of a sudden and violent rent in the veil behind which he lived, a rent which allowed his feelings of resentment and estrangement to leap forth and find objective and concrete form…The corpse is not dead! It still lives! It has made itself a home in the wild forest of our great cities, amid the rank and choking vegetation of slums! It has forgotten our language! In order to live it has sharpened its claws! It has grown hard and calloused! It has developed a capacity for hate and fury which we cannot understand! Its movements are unpredictable! By night it creeps from its lair and steals toward the settlements of civilization! And at the sight of a kind face it does not lie down upon its back and kick up its heels playfully to be tickled and stroked. No; it leaps to kill!

I think there’s some danger in making this utilitarian argument, because it leaves open the possibility that if we were to achieve racial equality and harmony, if our justice system worked perfectly, the death penalty might, perhaps, in the sweet by and by be permissible, a canker in the rose. It’s the same problem with basing the argument against the death penalty on the idea that we might execute an innocent person — it leaves a space, however small and unlikely, for the death penalty to be permissible. That slim possibility may make those arguments appeal to a broader constituency. But I wonder, if we are to be total abolitionists, if those arguments need to be a starting point rather than a final word. We need, I think, to try to move public opinion towards a moral and total opposition, rather than a pragmatic (however moral) and almost-but-not-quite-total rejection.