Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Critique of Manhood: Reading Native Son in an Alabama Medium Security Prison
By Briana Whiteside
I taught African American literature to 20 black men in an Alabama correctional facility whose ages ranged from 23 to 60 years of age. My classroom served as a space where tough conversations were held about black people, manhood, women, and prison culture. The students were eager to speak out on the politics of being black and male, in the vein of thinking about historical slavery, American slavery, Jim Crow, legacies of servitude and denied upward mobility. They also commented on the structure of prison systems that not only denied them human status but also highlighted neglected spaces that could prompt introspection.
We read Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) over a 5-week span where discussions surrounding Bigger and his plight were intensely explored. Students initially pushed back against what Bigger represented and critiqued his existence as well as Wright’s decision to create his character. They questioned why a character, who they felt, “should be taken off the face of the earth” needed to be in a book about African American life. Slowly, I understood that they were resistant to the novel because Bigger represented for them what it meant to be a black man imprisoned in America. Though the students were physically imprisoned, they did not realize how symbolic imprisonment functions “in the free world.”
One student commented, and it was unanimously agreed, that Mr. Dalton was “giving Bigger a chance at life, and like all black men he messed it up.” It was then that I noticed that students were conditioned to believe the thread-bare lie that black men would always fail miserably to play by the rules the rest of society follows quite naturally. The issue rests in the assumption of judgment equality of the “set” rules that are created for law abiding citizens.
Ultimately, students had become blind, not so much to race, but to the existence of racial caste in America. In essence, my students are victims of spiritual and intellectual blindness. They know and still not-know the impact of systematic structures that are used to reinforce cycles of oppression on people of color. While they are aware of the visible discriminatory actions done to African Americans, they are not aware of legacies of institutionalized racism that are covert.
Over the course of the 5 weeks, they grappled with the daunting task of creating a politics that encompassed black manhood. Struggling more than not, they were frustrated with being unable to compose a stable definition of manhood, and also distressed because they were under the gaze of a woman. Bigger Thomas, a fictional character, allowed students to confront issues that they had once buried. In turn, they were allowed to come to terms with their existence as black men moving through the prison system in America.
Briana Whiteside is a graduate student at the University of Alabama and a contributing writer for the Cultural Front.
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When I taught Native Son to prisoners in Alabama in 1988, I had a quite different experience. Perhaps the men related a bit more easily to a black male. They were exceptionally well-informed about law and gave me some profound comments about Wright's treatment of Bigger Thomas and the law in the novel. Some of them had critical skills that exceeded mine. They seemed quite at ease with their manhood, and what they wanted from me was advice about how to make better use of their intelligence when and if they were released from prison.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
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