Naming, Being, and Black Experience

Yale’s first Black professor on the presence or absence of names, their status and their scope.

Michael G. Cooke
An abstract print by Jacob van Heemskerck.
Jacob van Heemskerck. Compositie XX, 1918. Courtesy Rijksmuseum.

Someone has observed that between the prison cell and the commercial sell you can sum up all there is to say about modern Western life. This seems jaundiced, and unjust, but it somehow lingers in the imagination. Could the statement, meant merely to chaff our modern world, contain a certain grain of usefulness, or even truth? What connection could one make out, beyond the flimsy echo in the sound, between the “cell” of penology and the “sell” of capitalism? If we dare to follow Arthur Miller and see in the salesman a focal type of the empty bravery (or brave emptiness) of our modern experience, a connection does arise in the mind. The characteristic act of selling, laying something up for ourselves, laying something on the other party, comes to seem an act of escape from the prison of inadequacy. This is in fact not just a recent phenomenon. Some form of barter is basic to human existence—even Christ’s language abounds in the imagery of the marketplace, and so alerts us to the symbolic, the parabolic dimension of selling; one escapes the prison of not having enough to make do, initially, but ultimately one escapes the prison of not having enough to let be. A sales pitch is nothing without the intangibles of personality and philosophy. We do not buy a washing-machine; we buy our freedom. We do not sell a washing-machine; we sell visions and values.

This may seem clearer in relation to the space programs of the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, with their tremendous costs. Here was a whole society buying and selling nothing more than speculation, the knowledge of the possibility of knowledge. And yet at a deeper level one can almost visualize something like a supersuited and ultra-contraptioned astrophysicist knocking on the doors of space and asking the classic question, anybody home? Or perhaps even looking in the door and beginning to wonder, is anything in? Something more than Gothic humor suggests that the appropriate answer could take just one form; a hollow voice, a rumor on the cosmic wind intoning: who is it that asks? Someone is asking, out of a prison of ignorance , but who ?

Whether we feel ourselves committed to a hard cell of iron or a hard sell of words, the question of “who ” strikes me as the radical question of our time. The forms of language: he, she, they, we, you, I, disguise but do not dispel the quandary, as more and more people experience a baffling knowledge of nonidentity. All may have injured the giant Polyphemus in some driven effort to escape, and all become susceptible of being called Nemo, nobody. The fearful giants cannot come after us, of course, but then, who is it they cannot catch?

To shed the sense of a name is to shed the most creative and the most distinctive of our gifts, language, for all language amounts to an act of naming.

We can get by for a time without even raising the question, but this period of grace lasts only in proportion as we can assume certain grounds of identification. Consider for example the story of the youngster who was seen in a busy city slumped against a wall, with tears dropping from his cheeks. A man approaches with a mixture of briskness and solicitude: “What’s the matter, sonny?” he inquires. And the youngster gives way to a great outburst of bawling. “I lo-oost, sir! ”

“Lost? You can’t be lost! What’s your name, anyway?

“Boy, sir! ”

“Boy?” The adult echoes with dissatisfaction. “What’s your father’s name?” “Papa, sir!” said the boy, looking up somewhat eagerly.

“What’s your mother’s name, then?”

“Mama, sir!”

“Well, then, whereabouts do you live?”

“At home, sir!”

“Boy,” says the adult, decisively, “you’re lost. You’re lost, bad!”

A simple point can be made: the youngster is present, but he might as well not be . He is metaphysically, and not just physically, lost. He has no grounds of identification, no name to recognize , no relations to pursue, no data to interpret. He becomes incommunicado, incognito, without the usual playful conspiracy that those terms imply, and so he becomes virtually unknowable, a baffling object, of human shape without human effects. Let us, to eschew the maudlin or melodramatic turn, call his condition temporary; his parents are obviously in the vicinity, looking for him. But his condition remains significant in general terms.

For one thing, being able to use the term “I” does no good in this case . The boy says “I,” and the man says, “Who?” One might take a certain naughty pleasure in imagining Descartes professing “I think, therefore I am,” and being at once confronted by the question, “Who thinks?” Paradox though it may seem, the capacities of the “I” are latent or even putative; the old formality of the mandatory introduction went beyond social straitlacing, and honored the need for grounds of identification and terms of anticipation in human contact. It is well to remember that “I” is only apparently an individualistic term; at bottom, in its own unaided right, it becomes the universal term, belonging equally and simultaneously to all who speak or may speak. To say “I am” is to see that semantically, if not grammatically, “I” is you.

In the situation of the lost child, then, we may observe that the principal parties have no proper names , but only functions (Mama, Papa) and age-and-sex indicators (Boy). None of this converts from a controlled local situation (the home) to a variable, complex outer world. The youngster in a sense carries no identity that can sustain itself in altering contexts, and effectively exists nowhere but at home. The man, we may conclude, is very uncomfortable about the whole thing, and tries to go along with the home-side arrangements in the alien scene, calling the boy, “Boy.”

But this is hard to defend, if we are to arrive at identification. “Boy” does not name, it describes, and very generally, as well as “temporarily. ” It serves as a name for someone who is not in a position to be treated as someone, as a name that defeats the purpose of naming, namely, to recognize in a gesture of mutual existence the singular character and presence of some being. Without denying its measure of validity to Descartes’s proposition, “I think, therefore I am,” one feels obliged to name Descartes, to wed his boast to Berkeley’s formulation: “Esse est percipi” (to be is to be perceived). In a sense, being may be taken as a negotiation, as it were organic, between the plant of individuality and the field and environment of identification. We exist as we are perceived. The one perceiving and the one perceived influence each other, and so as we grow subtler all judgments come to seem conditional and to be called into question. And so do all judges. When nothing seems certain, who is anyone, who is who?

One wonders if it is not symptomatic of a major change in the status of identity that the dignity of names is eroding so rapidly among us. A name is a form of shorthand, a concentration point, a synecdoche for an intricate pattern of values and expectations and obligations. The origin of names may lie in functions or localities or physical characteristics—cooper suggests one who makes barrels, townsend one who lives at the border of a municipality, strong one who works like an ox. But once we capitalize these terms, we signalize the person, recognize his definition and virtue, and afford him a center or point of origin from which to develop in various free directions. A Strong can be bright, a Sylvester can be courtly. The inherent pride of names manifests itself even if we look at supposedly unflattering ones, at commoner or coward. Adopting a name like Commoner, as opposed to knight or prince, implicitly goes against the typical reverence for high station and insists on the honor of plainness. Perhaps one does not adopt “coward” as a name, but accepts it. But the very criticism it conveys leads back to the notion of the person’s dignity, here under violation, and raises the same possibility as commoner, that an individual may live down an odium and convert a label into a name.

One must not be taken in by the glibness of Shakespeare’s rhetoric: “What’s in a name ?” Much resides in a name, even today when it seems that the dissolution of the family and a spirit of adventurism and the tyranny of computer numerology are undermining our sense of names. Neither integrity nor aspiration seems widespread any longer in our treatment of names. James Baldwin saves himself from insult and possible destruction by claiming Nobody Knows My Name. At one level our young refuse to own their names, shedding their surnames more casually and yet more vitally than snakeskin. What was cruelly done to slaves they cheerfully do to themselves. At another level they refuse to participate in their names, either by honoring them, as commoner , or redeeming them, as coward, or embodying them, as knight or prince. To have a name is to have a means of locating, extending, and preserving oneself in the human community , so as to be able to answer the question “who?”with reference to ancestry, current status, and particular bearing, with reference to the full panoply of time. It is sad to contemplate how meaningless names have grown when, for a young woman in California to say “I am a Hearst, therefore I am,” would have only cynical or ludicrous resonances.

To shed the sense of a name is to shed the most creative and the most distinctive of our gifts, language, for all language amounts to an act of naming. But how can this hold good when we seem to come across so many new words for new data in so many fields every day? In one sense, we have more words but less language, less of an implicit grasp and love of relationships among words and of the relationship between words and ourselves; hence the clamor for renewed literacy, which means a renewed life, in language. In a deeper sense, to paraphrase the Scripture, we are in that profitless situation where we name the whole world but suffer the loss of our sole immortality, our own name. This may sound extreme, but if we take literature as man’s struggle with and for a just image of himself, it is striking to find twentieth-century literature, and in particular black literature, trying to recreate the possibilities of being out of a confusing, crushed mass of facts that in themselves, as Coleridge once observed, are “essentially fixed and dead.” More than coincidentally the texts often resolve around the presence or absence of names, their status and their scope.

Graphic examples readily come to mind: the problem of namelessness in the hero of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; the radical problems involved in the naming of John Grimes in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain or Joe Christmas in William Faulkner’s Light in August; the disintegration of the name of Jesse Robinson in Chester Himes’s The Primitive; the corrupting and incomprehension of Yanko Goorall’s name in Joseph Conrad’s fine story, “Amy Foster”; the unresolved and uncertain quality surrounding the name of Ralph Kabnis in the main story of Jean Toomer’s Cane. There are enough cases here, and others could be added, to suggest something like a litany of subdenomination in the twentieth century. In every case, it may be observed, the problem with naming symbolizes a basic problem of being. Each of these works is answering or attempting to answer the question, “who?” The situation goes beyond the difference between a dogmatic and an evolutionary mode of rendering character in fiction; here is a fiction of preexistence, articulating a kind of intrauterine condition of the soul and pursuing the question whether it can have a viable individual life.

Though for obvious reasons this question will seem more imminent for the black community than for most others, it would be a careless error to confine it to the black community, to ghettoize it. The question belongs to our time, and only achieves superficial prominence where black persons are concerned. Faulkner intuitively singles out a black man, or rather a man who might be black, to embody the issue in Light in August, but even there the quandary of being penetrates into the supposedly secure precincts of white society. Can Gail Hightower exist in himself if he is possessed, obsessed by the ancestral acts and idioms of the South? Who is who when Byron Bunch takes on the role designated for Lucas Burch? In one case the family name is too rigid, in the other a personal name too shifty, but in either case we have something more ghostly than real. Language of course shapes the world for us , but it must continue to be new, to modify its shape, as the world continues to unfold. Without shape, there is no world but that of Proteus, as Burch slides into Bunch. With unyielding shape there is no world but that of a compulsive Mnemosyne, as Hightower rivets himself to memory.

For Joe Christmas, of course, the situation is a compound of the worst of both worlds, with the added difficulty that unlike Hightower and Byron Bunch he has no semblance of choice. He illustrates the difference between name-giving and name-calling. The same power of words resides in both, but name-giving affords the individual the benefits of that power, whereas name-calling subjects him to its rigors. Put another way, name-calling does not admit of the title “mister.” As soon as one hears “Mister Coward” one acknowledges being given and not called a name . Joe Christmas is never addressed as Mister Nigger, then; the language habits of his environment, reinforcing and reinforced by social and legal and religious patterns, block the very avenues of thought that might lead to an awareness of himself and the world free of disgust, defiance, cruelty, hatred, and violent death. Joe Christmas ultimately exists in the imagination as more than a bewildered and amorphous zero, but he achieves this position by paradox—in his destruction is his substantiation, in his loss of testicles (testis = witness) is the demonstration of his manhood. A metamorphosis takes place, but it is part of a perverse mythology that somehow manages to be as rigid as the system it appears to supplant. The obsession with his possible blackness becomes an obsession with the shock of his victimization. He still is afforded no integral and, for all that independent character, no creative status in the minds of the community. The point of calling him “nigger” is to block off avenues of thought not only in his mind, but in theirs. Language can fertilize, and it can also abort the possibilities of being, and Joe Christmas finds it enforcing a hierarchy far more rigid and cruel than even the Hindu caste system; for the caste system allows some degree of migration as a reward for successful imitation of the ways and values of a superior caste. But the only imitation open to Joe Christmas involves him in a vicious catch—the worse he is, the better he is playing the dismal role he is assigned.

It is important to clarify the ambiguous link between language and imitation. Language of course facilitates imitation, by analysis and elaboration of the action in question, and also by motivation. But by these very means it frees us from the mechanical boundary of the imitated act itself. We have the concept of speed-skating, the concept of planting bulbs, as well as the athlete and the gardener.

Some modern thinkers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Jacques Derrida have held that effectively nothing can be known to exist without language. Reality is then made and kept available by language alone. This seems both plausible and incomplete. Mysticism and immediate experience alike suggest a degree of incongruence between language and reality. From one perspective language is but a figure in the sum of reality. What exists without language is effectively nothing more than empty fact and the overflowing simplicity of appetite or fear. Fact we could illustrate by the way a wasp, say the Sphecius speciosus, will fly around a man on the way to his intended victim—the man exists for the Sphex, but indifferently, like a boulder or a barn; he is a mere object, without character or value. Perhaps the Sphex could also stand to illustrate appetite and fear—the Sphex going in search of a cricket or a cicada goes after what it goes after, by the tautology of instinct, and would seem as unconscious as a newborn baboon suckling, though it carries out so complex a maneuver; the cricket or the cicada experiences the corresponding fear. The Sphex wasp surviving undergoes appetite, the cicada succumbing undergoes fear. It seems improbable that the Sphex wasp desires the cicada as such, or that the cicada fears the Sphex wasp as such. It is more than a matter of fact, but remains only an issue of survival, of momentary uncalculated appetite and fear. In terms of language, it remains inarticulate.

Because man is the animal that perpetually learns, our humanity probably depends on the concept, the living pragmatic concept, more than on the material act. The trouble Joe Christmas has stems from the effective absence of a concept he can live. “Nigger” is not a concept, it is a nightmarish illusion that instructs a person to become something undesirable, to eschew anything creditable, to imitate negation.

This is a desperate condition, and no less desperate when it takes a less blunt form. In the story of Yanko Goorall, pathos rather than violence predominates, and the fact that there is no racial element suggests that we are dealing with the problem of difference, with a subtle and uncomfortable collision between the set ways of a system and the present path of an individual who comes to challenge the system by revealing its way as custom, rather than nature. Yanko is the sole survivor of a shipwreck off the coast of England, a voyager from Eastern Europe to America in search of prosperity and freedom. We do not actually know his name, which Conrad gives us in the garbled rendition of his English auditors. They at first did not even recognize him as human because they could not understand either his need or his fear or his tongue. The name Yanko Goorall (sounding a bit like gorilla) is already a distortion and a diminution of his being, and he is not accorded the privilege of compensating for this by correcting the people’s version of him or by learning and sharing their ways. Inspired by Amy Foster’s example, they let him out of the barn in which he is at first cornered, caged, but they keep him in the cage of dumb estrangement.

Even Amy Foster (and her last name is well worth pondering) succumbs to the gravitational field of her language, her world. She goes so far as to marry Yanko, but she cannot consent to their two natures being wedded in their son. She cannot really conceive of it. And the issue pivots around language. She is afraid of having the baby taught Yanko’s lullabies, Yanko’s tongue. This may seem a rather sophisticated fear, but it is really primitive and invincible. What language can attack the fear of language, what change of mind can overcome the fear of the change of mind involved in the form of a new language? Finally Yanko falls ill and in delirium cries out to Amy for water, using his native tongue, but she takes alarm and flees with her baby from a felt and nameless danger. She is fleeing in effect from the unmanageable, dread presence of a nameless man, who symbolizes the dread presence of the world before language. And Yanko, exiled from his country by space and from his humanity by dumbness, dwindles into death. He has no means of asserting his identity, no ground to act on and no society to confirm and amplify his voice. In a sense he has had no being, just a set of thwarted encounters with beings whom we can blame for their narrowness and rigidity, but whom we recognize also as natural and effective in their sphere.

When we turn to the problem of language and being in black literature, the situation seems both more severe and less absolute than Yanko Goorall’s. It is more severe because it is not incidental to one transitory person, but general to a population whose mass has proven itself critical to the whole. It is less absolute because it does not have to be mutely, ignorantly suffered, but can be recognized, explored, even perhaps counteracted. The very mass of victims forms a saving community , and it is theoretically possible, where language is turned against a group, for that group to see language as an instrument and acquire some useful skills with it in their turn. This is certainly what Jean-Paul Sartre recognized when he complained that the négritude poets were using French in unprecedented ways that could well subvert the standing relations of French colonial society. It is, even more baldly , what The Nashville Banner recognized in 1903 when it said of The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. DuBois: “This book is dangerous for the Negro to read, for it will only excite discontent and fill his imagination with things that do not exist, or things that should not bear upon his mind. “

Dubois, in fact, may be signalized as the first person to identify the issue for blacks in the United States, really in the West, as a matter of being. He gave voice to “the striving in the souls of black folks ,” and he gave a good account of its goals: “to escape both death and isolation.” With due homage to DuBois, one may yet observe a negative bearing in his position—the unspecified striving leads to avoidance of a harm rather than achievement of a good. By contrast, recent writing seems full of rampant professions of black being. Take Michael Harper for instance:

Black man:
I’m a black man;
I’m black; I am—
A black man; black—
I’m a black man;
I’m a black man;
I’m a man; black—
I am—

    (“Brother John”)

Or again Lebert Bethune:

Black is the color of reality
Black is my color.

    (“The Nature of … “)

Or Ted Hunt:


    (“I Am a Man!”)

Have the seven decades between The Souls of Black Folk and Kabnis, who has somehow emptied his name by suppressing his past, does not offer enough for positive identification. The very words of his name yield ambiguity and dissatisfaction. Ralph means house-wolf, an unusual and even threatening combination; and Kabnis seems to be both a play on the sound, sin-back, and a mutation of the word cabins, which can be seen to function in the story as places of abiding and mysterious human grace. The name Ralph Kabnis suggests displacement, perhaps even denaturalization, so that his very presence in a cabin changes its valence. He sits reading as the story begins, and “the cabin room is spaced fantastically about ” him.

There is a suggestion in the phrase, “spaced fantastically,” of being disconnected from the very earth, and from reality. Kabnis’s moments of paranoid confusion—the enemy he imagines and flees can be a calf or, less comically, his friend Halsey—support the idea of unreality. His killing of the hen that merely stirs, when his nerves are raw, and even more his cry to God not to torture him with the beauty of the world attest to his alienation from the earth. His is an unbearable condition, riddled with paradox: he suppresses his family history, but returns to his ancestral place; he feels the power of the Georgia landscape, of peasant songs, and of Lewis’s sophisticated compassion, feels these things to the quick, and yet quickly wards them off. He becomes an example of perverse identity, bur king the possibilities of being he has gone to considerable trouble and risk to rediscover.

There is no telling whether the cause is chiefly autobiographical or cultural, but Toomer does not resolve Kabnis’s dilemma. Wishing to be taken for a gentleman, a descendant of Southern bluebloods, Kabnis if anything aggravates the metaphysical torment of being defined as a “nigger.” In rejecting part of his history, he necessarily rejects part of himself, and that is the part through which the available language of his society insists that he function. The situation is at an impasse. The story offers no practical way out, though in the persons of Halsey and Lewis, respectively in tune with the past and with the present, it suggests a livable standoff. Still, much may be made of a symbolic resurrection formulated in the closing scene in the Hole under Halsey’s shop. The symbol is not a pure one; it combines apocalypse and cynicism, solemnity and zaniness. But at its core there is something unassailable, in the wonderful sympathy and communication between Father John, the blind and ancient man, and Carrie Kate, the dutiful and nubile girl. Here the past which Kabnis fears and repudiates (he is very rough on Father John) is sustained and made articulate by the youth, the future that Kabnis seems incapable of recognizing.

The words Father John utters for Carrie Kate are a form of denunciation, rather than annunciation. He intones: “Th sin whats fixed … upon th white folks … f tellin Jesus—lies. Oth sin th white folks ‘mitted when they made th Bible lie.” This utterance takes on importance in that it exists at all. The creature summed up and confined in the term “nigger” is no longer dumb, no longer the mere victim of material privation and linguistic blankness. He knows and judges his state, knows and judges its source. Here is a symbolic freedom in language that is presently carried to a more explicit and luminous form of freedom with the coming of dawn.

Light [the text reads] streaks through the iron-barred cellar window. Within its soft circle, the figures of Carrie and Father John.

Significantly, no one else is there; no one sees them in their halo. Kabnis has been the last to leave the cellar, and we cannot be sure that he sees from Halsey’s work-shop what Carrie Kate sees as his story ends:

The sun arises. Gold-glowing child, it steps into the sky and sends a birth-song slanting down gray dust streets and sleepy windows of the southern town.

The grave that threatened Kabnis might seem to have been realized in the Hole, where Father John, superannuated, soundless, and motionless, seems as good as dead. But out of this grave a resurrection, a new birth occurs; poignantly it is realized in the language of the text and is only potential, symbolic, in the experience of the characters.

This concept of being born again persists in modern black literature. It is the key element in Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice; it is central to Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain; it is the major focus of Ellison’s Invisible Man. All of these works, like Cane, employ the image of coming out of a dark enclosure into openness and light, the classic image of resurrection. But Richard Wright’s Native Son, one of the seminal works that deal with black life and the possibilities of being, foregoes even this convention and advantage. Native Son begins with the episode of Bigger Thomas’s family trapped in a ghetto house trying to destroy a “huge black rat” trapped in a corner. It ends with Bigger Thomas in prison, awaiting execution for murder, hearing “the ring of steel against steel as a far door clanged shut.” And there is no point in between where he is not confined, constrained in some way. He uses the flight of an airplane as a vision of freedom, but the only flight he knows is from pursuit after the death of Mary Dalton, with a cordon continually closing in on him. The light that shines into the cellar with a promise of new grace in “Kabnis” shines into Bigger’s cell in Native Son “with as much weight as a beam forged of lead,” making his position within four walls “crushingly real.”

And yet Native Son, the story of Bigger Thomas, deserves consideration as the consummate story of the possibilities of being in the annihilating adverse world of the twentieth century. It is not just a story of being reborn. It deals with coming into being from a state of nonbeing, in which there is movement but no act, speech but little engagement of meaning. Bigger confesses to rape because he is a nigger and that is what a nigger does. He smothers a white girl to death because he must not be caught in her room and her blind mother must therefore not hear her breathing. Who, then, is Bigger Thomas? Is there anyone there?

It is useful to regard the story as a harsh naturalistic allegory of the systematic stifling of a soul, and its accidentally being touched by a random spirit of integrity and against all odds coming to a realization of being. Bigger’s lawyer, Max, with his Communist sympathies, sees him in quite another light than the prosecuting attorney or the Chicago newspapers, but he too sees Bigger in terms of rigid, Procrustean categories. To Max, Bigger is the classic victim of oppression, acting predictably in response to given negative stimuli. When he cannot get Bigger (I think his name compresses “big nigger,” but it also means what it says, greater in substance than the norm) to fit with his definition, he withdraws in disappointment and incomprehension, and we have the odd spectacle of the convict comforting the lawyer.

Difficult though it is to take in from a social-legal point of view, when Bigger accidentally kills Mary and even when he deliberately kills his girlfriend Bessie, he is the equivalent of the Sphex, moving according to complex and invisible programming, ignorantly enacting the code of nigger and the code of survival. He spreads death because death is all he has in his image of himself, and constitutes the only way he knows of coping with what is difficult or dangerous. In a sense he kills the world-in the form of a rat or a girl he cannot see as helpless—to kill its unbearable effect upon him, like Kabnis praying for God to spare him beauty, like Kabnis killing the hen. This is explicit from the start. “He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else. So he denied himself.”

The murders then can be seen as the tearing of the curtain, or in the root sense an apocalypse, between his denying himself and his coming into being, as tragic as the circumstances must seem. There are anticipations of the apocalypse, when Bigger conceives a “cold, driving will” to make Jan, Mary Dalton’s fiance, “cower” with “awe and fear of him and his black skin and his humble manners!” But this falls still within the domain of reaction and dependence on the dominant code. The specific point of his coming into being occurs after he is caught, when it is all over for him in conventional terms. It is in the final, long third section of the novel, entitled “Fate,” and we may note that it involves his whole being, with instinct and feeling and reason still indiscriminate. The text says that “the feelings of his body reasoned,” and again that “feeling sprang up of itself, organically, automatically; like the rotted hull of a seed forming the soil in which it should grow again.” Here is Wright’s use of the imagery of rebirth, but significantly Bigger is born from the destruction of himself as previously known. He thinks that

Maybe he was just unlucky, a man born for dark doom, an obscene joke happening amid a colossal din of siren screams and white faces and circling lances of light under a cold and silken sky. But he could not feel that for long .. . . He had sunk to the lowest point this side of death; but when he felt his life again threatened in a way that meant that he was to go down the dark road a helpless spectacle of sport for others, he sprang back into action, alive, contending.

In a sense everything that follows this moment is an articulation and confirmation of Bigger’s new sense of being. He has no language but what he can create; he tried “to remember where he had heard words that would help him. He could recall none. He had lived outside of the lives of men. Their modes of communication, their symbols and images, had been denied him.” The words he creates ring through the final pages of the novel, and they are: “I am.” This is not the “I am” of Descartes or that of Michael Harper, but one that includes his deeds or rather misdeeds as well as his pride, one based on the primary self we must accept and work from or be, as Toomer says, an artificial person.

It is striking at the end to see Max, who is ostensibly free, behind the “wall of isolation” and Bigger trying to help him through, “resolved to force upon Max the reality of his living.” Bigger not only develops in himself, but achieves the beginnings of a human catholicity, in his effort to understand the minds and the needs of those who “hate” and condemn him. He enunciates a paradox, a conflict of truths when he says that he had not wished to hurt anyone, didn’t “want to kill,” but “when I think of why all the killing was, I begin to feel what I wanted, what I am.” The last sentence can and should be taken to say that he wanted what he was, wanted to come into being. The story becomes tragic in the only sense still plausible in modern times, in the waste of human powers and human quality. This waste is measured not by Bigger’s fate alone, but by the loss to others like Max and especially Jan, with whom Bigger comes to a new, raised relationship of mutual forgiveness and respect. Bigger ‘s being no sooner begins than it proves capable of radiating, however briefly, with a healing light.

As late as the Victorian period it was possible for Gerard Manley Hopkins to write as follows:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

From our vantage point, it almost seems naive to take so flat and favorable a stand on individuality in the century that saw industrialism and imperialism mass and deface whole classes and nations of people. Something clearly has changed in the relation between institutions and individuals since Victorian times. Newman’s ability to find and express himself through institutions seems archaic, if not amiss. For us the individual is more likely to feel, in Jean Toomer’s phrase, like “an atom of dust in agony on a hillside.” One emerges into distinction at his peril, as John Williams tries to show in the fate of the black hero, systematically destroyed, in The Man Who Cried I Am. Or one maintains oneself in secret, as unknown and so in effect absent, the condition treated in James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name and dramatized in the character of Ellison’s invisible man. Systems seem to have it all over individuals. Even the lifeaffirming, mankind-praising sociologist, Terrence des Pres, calls man “the culmination of a tendency toward social organization which appears everywhere in the biosphere.” But individuals somehow continue to withstand reduction to the status of helpless cells in a body politic, or social or religious or economic. Something unique can be documented in each of us, a voice, a fingerprint, and something unique can be felt impelling each of us, gravitating toward meaning and value that is made as well as obeyed. Hopkins affirms “What I do is me,” and all seems positive, orthodox; but even in a wrenched, problematical situation, a Bigger Thomas will sound like Hopkins and say: “What I killed for, I am.”

There is no denying the necessity or the beauty of systems. To cry out against them is to become Kabnis praying to God against the world. But it remains true that something in man, even where he is happily a part of a system, remains apart from it, in his very concept of the system. When he is a frustrated or despairing part of a system, this intellectual and spiritual impulse to be something in himself grows painfully stronger. If it did not, he would resemble a Yahoo, a pathological mechanism for impersonating a human being. Swift’s Houhynhnmland errs in two directions, exceeding at once the limits of collective and systematic perfection and the limits of rank and solitary degradation that encompass man. The extreme image spares us the pain of ambiguity, by disregarding what DuBois calls “the possibilities of human souls.” A few black writers like Michael Harper in Nightmare Begins Responsibility and Alice Walker in Meridian are developing a more plausible image that combines achieved identity, belonging in the self and in a variously defined group, and simultaneously insurmountable uncertainty. As though the nearer one got to perfection the nearer one would find oneself to beginning again. As though one’s name might be Sisyphus.

Michael G. Cooke was the a professor of English Literature at Yale University.
Originally published:
December 1, 1977


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