How Richard Wright Grappled with Behaviorism, Racism, and Trauma in Native Son

George Makari on the Phobic World of Wright’s First Novel

John Watson, one of pioneering psychologists behind behaviorism, confused the limits of what was observable with the limits of what was real, but in all the excitement, few noticed.

In the 1920s and 1930s, while its impact in Europe was small, American behaviorism spread into psychology, medicine, pedagogy, literature, and business. Its impact was perhaps greatest on education. Traditional Judeo-​Christian ethics had created maladies, Watson believed. These destructive teachings needed to yield to sound behaviorist approaches. Numerous progressive educators agreed. The Child Hygiene and Mental Hygiene movements tried to apply his lab work in the classroom, where teachers might strengthen good impulses and weaken bad ones. A 1924 compendium, The Child: His Nature and His Needs, noted that while G. Stanley Hall had discovered “numberless” things that children were afraid of, Watson had proved that these fears were all due to conditioned reflexes.

Behaviorism offered a model by which fear was conditioned and could be easily linked to false, unreal, or mistaken sources. Economic collapses or sudden cultural alterations now could be seen as buzzers that shocked individuals into misdirecting their anxiety toward strangers. For behaviorists, those children in Hall’s survey who feared “blacks,” the poor, the disabled, and “Chinamen” had been conditioned to do so. These were America’s white rats, waved in the faces of the jolted masses. Behavioral psychologists linked up with reformers, who joined in this new faith: change the stimuli, disrupt the conditioned reflexes, and make social ills like xenophobia into ancient history.

If behaviorism gave liberals and social reformers great hope that they could recondition intolerant bigots and dissolve intergroup conflict, there was an equal possibility that the bigots might reeducate them. Behaviorism’s emergence in America coincided with the rise of totalitarian states in Europe, especially Pavlov’s own Soviet Union. The same psychology that might be used as a cure could provide a how-​to guide for creating xenophobia. In his 1932 Brave New World, Aldous Huxley grasped the risk of such a dystopian world, in which—​as he explained to his father—​Pavlovian conditioning of children would be undertaken by a dictatorship. Flowers would be associated with shocks and deemed by all to be terrifying. Books would be accompanied by ear-​splitting noise and equally dreaded. The state could flip anything it desired from safe to frightening, from loved to hated.

An American native grew up in an environment where he was treated as a despised and dangerous alien.

This was not just a fantasy. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon described the way the Soviets broke down dissidents. The possibility of what a former American OSS member, Edward Hunter, nicknamed “brain-​washing” in totalitarian states would lurk over the next decades. Pavlov, Hunter claimed, personally gave Lenin the keys to the kingdom of human behavior. A psychiatrist warned that Stalin had developed a special “Pavlovian Front” to indoctrinate the unwitting. For Americans, however, there was no need to travel to Moscow or to a dreamed-​up dystopia to witness the effects of such negative conditioning. In 1940, a stunning novel explored the way this process unwittingly operated at home. Entitled Native Son, the ironic title announced its central theme. An American native grew up in an environment where he was treated as a despised and dangerous alien.

The author was Richard Wright. This grandson of slaves was born in 1908 on the Ruckers’ plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, where his father was a sharecropper. Wright’s childhood was filled with loss. His father abandoned the family, and his mother was so poor that she had to place her boy in an orphanage. He had little schooling until the age of twelve, but once enrolled, he excelled. Surrounded by racial insults and the specter of white violence in the Deep South, the nineteen-​year-​old followed the Great Migration to Chicago. There he fell in with a group of local Marxists, and the scales fell from his eyes. Dehumanizing economic forces had destroyed the inner lives of his fellow Americans, Black and white. Wright began to crank out short pieces for leftist periodicals like New Masses and soaked up all he could.

Wright had a big idea, which he spelled out in his successful application for a 1939 Guggenheim Fellowship. He wanted to write a novel that told the story of “Negro juvenile delinquency on Chicago’s Southside,” as created by the “strange and warped conditions” of segregation and racism. Published a year later, Native Son was greeted by rave reviews. It sold over 200,000 copies in the first three weeks; Look magazine and many others featured Wright. John Houseman and Orson Welles quickly sought the rights for a stage adaptation. However, some were not pleased. James Baldwin, one of Wright’s protégés, condemned his mentor for letting sociological aims overwhelm his artistic obligations. This was a “protest” novel, Baldwin complained, in which the reader never came to understand the main character’s inner life. His crimes were depicted as mere compulsions. This was true, but it missed the larger point. Bigger Thomas was a man whose inner world had been so mutilated that he had little capacity to experience it or share it with others, including the reader. He had been reduced to fear and conditioned responses; those were the elements of his psyche. He did not possess his experiences, they possessed him.

Written in a taut, riveting style, Native Son immediately placed readers inside that wide-​eyed, phobic world. The first section, entitled “Fear,” commenced with a Pavlovian shock. “Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinng! ” An alarm bell startles Bigger into consciousness. He wakes alongside a brother, sister, and mother, all crammed into a tiny bedroom in the Black Belt of Chicago. A huge rat appears and runs crazily about, desperately biting and attacking them, and as his sister passes out, Bigger kills it.

This opening scene—​with all its references to Watson and Pavlov—​lays out in miniature what is to come: Bigger is like a child in an evil psychologist’s lab. The entire Thomas family subsists in a world where constant threats from white predators and poverty keep them on edge. They have only two alternatives: fight or flight. The path taken by Bigger’s religious mother and his fainting sister symbolize two of those paths—​capitulation and a retreat into phobia. Bigger takes the other path: he will fight. And, like that rat, his mad, violent dash will be doomed, a protracted act of suicide.

Thanks to a childhood of chronic fear, Bigger’s capacity for inner freedom, empathy, and ethical choice have been strangled. Wright exposes the way Bigger seeks to compensate for his sense of helplessness by adopting the pose of a bully. When he gets a break, he is too broken to use it. Hired by a liberal white family to be their driver, Bigger finds himself in the bedroom of their well-​meaning daughter, the drunk, blacked-​out Mary Dalton. Panicked that he will be falsely accused of rape when her blind mother enters the room, Bigger smothers Mary to death. This murder is reflexive: “It was not Mary he was reacting to when he felt that fear and shame. Mary had served to set off emotions, emotions conditioned by many Marys. And now that he had killed Mary he felt a lessening of the tension in his muscles.”

When his crime becomes known, Bigger “stared without a thought or an image in his mind. There was just the old feeling, the feeling that he had had all his life; he was black and done wrong; white men were looking at something with which they would soon accuse him. It was the old feeling, hard and constant now, of wanting to grab something and clutch it in his hands and swing it into someone’s face.” Then, however, making the narrative even more disturbing, Bigger rapes and murders his Black girlfriend, just to cover his trail. He has become what white society always said he was, what it conditioned him to be: a violent monster.

He has become what white society always said he was, what it conditioned him to be: a violent monster.

After Bigger’s capture, a lynching mob howls outside the courtroom, and he is asked to explain his actions. He can’t. But, in conversation with his communist lawyer, Bigger confesses that his life as a Black man in America has meant one thing: constant, unyielding fear. A Mississippi newspaper covering Bigger’s trial chimes in with the Southern solution of “conditioning Negroes so that they pay deference to the white person. . . .” “We have found,” the editorialist writes, “that the injection of an element of constant fear has aided us greatly in handling the problem.” That of course was not fiction. That was life for African Americans, especially in the Jim Crow South.

Reviewers picked up on the behaviorist underpinnings of Wright’s masterfully paced tragedy. In the New York Times, one critic noted of Bigger that “it is Mr. Wright’s purpose to show it as a typical kind of social and racial conditioning.” The protagonist does not fully consider his choices; he reacts. In the New York Herald Tribune, the reviewer noted that each of Bigger’s actions is traced back to “a significant reflex, and all of these, finally, to the social set-​up that conditioned it.”

For those who might have missed Wright’s behaviorism, a heavy-​handed introduction, written by the influential editor of the Book-​of-​the-​Month Club Dorothy Canfield Fisher, pulled back the curtain:

How to produce neuroses in sheep and psychopathic upsets in rats has been known to research psychologists so long that accounts of these experiments have filtered out to us, the general public, through books and periodicals. The process seems to be a simple one: the animal is trained to react in certain ways to certain stimuli and then placed in a situation in which these reactions are impossible.

Fisher went on to explain that some rats give up and others madly bash themselves to death. Without missing a beat, she then turned to the American Youth Commission’s work on Negro youth. This stolid and patronizing exercise was mercifully cut after the first edition, for Fisher seriously understated Richard Wright’s artistry, wrongly reducing his masterpiece to a psychosocial experiment. In fact, Wright’s extraordinary skill, another critic correctly noted, was what took a cardboard notion—​Black America as tormented Little Alberts—​and made it pulse and pant.

In 1941, Wright himself weighed in on the controversy in “How Bigger Was Born.” He described growing up in Mississippi alongside many pseudo-​tough boys who, having been shocked too often, grasped a moment of freedom in violence, before being duly lynched, maimed, imprisoned, or murdered. Bigger’s “behavioristic patterns,” Wright warned, were not limited to American Blacks. They were the same for many of the poor and maligned around the world.

Native Son remains a deeply unsettling work. It asks the reader to identify either with a brutal killer or with an evil social order. In so doing, it prevents any easy way out. Wright felt his first book, Uncle Tom’s Children, allowed for sentimental reactions in which readers could take the side of victimized Black heroes without grasping the depth of American racism. Native Son allowed for no such easy identifications. The book also understandably made many African Americans deeply uncomfortable, for it suggested that white American terror had made their own people not just fearful but also violent. Worse, it played directly into the myth of the Black rapist.

However, Wright’s confidant, Ralph Ellison, noted that Native Son served an important purpose. “In the novel,” he wrote to Wright, “you sliced deep and opened up the psychic wound,” bringing forth raw emotions that “tear” at our insides but “we Negroes refuse to talk of. . . .” Native Son shattered the myth of the pastoral, cheery, easygoing African American, those beings often portrayed in Harlem Renaissance works, who emerged from the inferno unscathed. In another impassioned letter, Ellison revealed that Bigger awoke memories of his own lacerating youth, and the way he too tried not to remember and feel. “We are not the numbed,” Ellison defiantly declared, “but the seething.” In the end, being able to remember the source of that rage and pain led the younger writer to note a kind of “pride which springs from the realization that after all the brutalization, starvation, and suffering, we have begun to embrace the experience and master it.” “It makes you want to write and write and write, or murder,” confessed the future author of Invisible Man.

Nevertheless, the immense success of Native Son must have given its author pause. To not tell this story, Wright insisted, would be to allow racism to silence him. But his astronomical sales meant his white countrymen were lapping up this tale of an African American racist. For make no mistake, Bigger is a racist. That was the daring gambit that Richard Wright took up. Deformed and traumatized by a white racist society, Bigger is forced to take his place in their bifurcated symbolic order of white hosts and Black strangers, good whites and bad Negroes, as if all the shades and colors of the universe had shrunk into two. To survive, he has been forced to construct an identity that fits in that world and to constantly discriminate based on race. To do anything else under Jim Crow would be madness. When Bigger and his friends “play” white, they talk with stiff demeanors about golf and J.P. Morgan. And despite the fact that Mary Dalton treated Bigger with humanity and kindness, “she looked and acted like all other white folks,” Bigger believes. When asked to explain his murder, Bigger says, “White folks and black folks are strangers. We don’t know what each other is thinking.”

It is only in jail, when Jan, Mary’s boyfriend, and Mr. Max, Bigger’s Marxist lawyer, treat the prisoner with respect, that his own racism melts. “For the first time in his life,” Wright wrote, “a white man became a human being to him; and the reality of Jan’s humanity came in a stab of remorse: he had killed what this man loved and had hurt him.” Through exposure and habituation, behaviorists would have put it, Bigger’s conditioned reflexes gave way.

Bigger Thomas’s epiphany was also, as James Baldwin did not fail to note, a literary disaster. This beautifully paced novel features a climax that includes a tedious, preachy summation by Mr. Max, who goes on and on in Bigger’s defense. It is a telling misstep. How else could Wright trust that his audience would reach these conclusions themselves? “Today, Bigger Thomas and that mob are strangers, yet they hate,” Mr. Max explained. “They hate because they fear, and they fear because they feel the deepest feelings in their lives are being assaulted and outraged. And they do not know why; they are powerless pawns in the blind play of social forces.”

Ellison, then a fellow traveler writing for the Daily Worker, could not help but note the strain at the novel’s end. In Mr. Max’s speech, Ellison wrote to Wright, “you were struggling to create a new terminology, i.e. you were trying to state in terms of human values certain ideas, concepts, implicit in Marxist philosophy.” Eight days later, Ellison reported that, despite this heavy-​handedness, many in their circle still missed the point, which was that Bigger was “more human than those who sent him to his death, for it was they, not he, who fostered the dehumanizing conditions that shaped his personality.”

For those who wondered, Richard Wright had not neglected to also describe the toll on the white perpetrators in a racist society. In his 1938 collection of stories, Uncle Tom’s Children, Wright portrayed how this symbolic order turned them into Pavlovian killers. “Big Boy Leaves Home” would seem to advertise a coming-​of-​age story. Big Boy, along with three of his buddies, Bobo, Lester, and Buck, go skinny-​dipping in a pond. Joshing and roughhousing, the boys tease each other and mess around.

However, when they are spied by a white woman, the story plunges into horror. White Southerners also operated out of deeply conditioned fear. Black males, they have been taught, cannot stop themselves from raping white women. In reality, from the time of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival on, white masters far more frequently raped enslaved women; somehow, this historical reality had been magically turned into its opposite. Stimulus: naked, Black adolescents splashing in a pond. Conditioned reaction: the white woman shrieks. Danger closes in. The boys scramble out of the water. The woman’s husband, Jim Harvey, grabs a gun to “defend” his wife. He blows away Lester and Buck. Big Boy struggles for his life, and in the process Jim Harvey is shot. Later, from a hiding spot, Big Boy witnesses the tar and feathering, the burning, and then the lynching of Bobo. Our hero leaves home and three dead playmates, all washed away in a torrent of conditioned racist fear and hatred.

Jim Harvey and his wife cannot see impish children splashing and joking. They cannot feel anything other than fear and rage. Bigger Thomas cannot recognize how Mary Dalton, in her youthful, awkward ways, strove to treat him as a human being. He too feels conditioned fear and rage. The cymbals crash, the buzzers sound, and three centuries of racist hatred make them all react in a scripted manner. Racial fear and hatred have soaked so deeply into America’s social fabric, it seemed, not even children would be spared.

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Excerpted from Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia by George Makari. Copyright (c) 2021 by George Makari. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

George Makari
George Makari
George Makari is a historian, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst. He serves as Director of the Institute for the History of Psychiatry and their Oskar Diethelm Library at Weill Cornell Medical College. His first book was Revolution In Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis.





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