To be a slave is to exist under the threat of death, where the master determines when, if, and how one might die. In this situation, the desire to live sustains the bondage. The looming threat of actual death transforms the attachment to life–and most poignantly, love of others–into a mechanism of bondage: if one does not submit to the orders and fulfill the expectations, one dies or watches the death of loved ones. It is this experience and confrontation of “the death contract” (JanMohamed) that Richard Wright excavates in his writing: what are the possibilities of life in a situation where one’s desire to live and the bonds of love actually sustain bondage?
Here is a section from Native Son where this dilemma is articulated (brief background, Bigger Thomas, the protagonist, has murdered a white woman–and also a black woman, though neither Bigger nor the white authorities are concerned about this murder–and is now hiding to prevent capture. The conversation below is of two strangers whom Bigger overhears while hiding):
“Jack, you mean t’ stan’ there ‘n’ say yuh’d give tha’ nigger up t’ the white folks?”
“Damn right Ah would!”
“But, Jack, who’s stirring up trouble now? The papers say they [the white mob/authorities] beatin’ us up all over the city. They don’t care whut black man they git…Yuh gotta stan’ up ‘n’ fight these folks.”
“N’ git killed? Hell naw! Ah gotta family. Ah gotta wife ‘n’ baby. Ah aint startin’ no fool fight.”
“But Jack…yuh’s a good man, but tha’ ain’ goonna keep ’em from comin’ t’ yo’ home, is it? Hell naw! We’s all black ‘n’ we ju’ as waal ack black, don’ yuh see?”
“Aw, Jim, it’s awright t’ git mad, but yuh gotta look at things straight…Ef Ah knowed where the black sonofabitch wuz Ah’d call the cops ‘n’ let ’em come ‘n’ git ‘im!”
“Waal, Ah wouldn’t. Ah’d die fir’!”
“Man, yuh crazy! Don’ yuh wan’ a home ‘n’ wife ‘n’ chillun? Whut’s fightin’ gonna git yuh? There’s mo‘ of them than us. They could kill us all. Yuh gotta learn t’ live ‘n’ git erlong wid people.”
“When folks hate me, Ah don’ wanna git erlong.”
“But we gotta eat! We gotta live!”
“Ah don’ care! Ah’d die firs’!”
“Aw, hell! Yuh crazy!”
“Ah don’ care whut yuh say. Ah’d die ‘fo’ Ah’d let ’em scare me inter tellin’ on tha’ man. Ah tell yuh, Ah’d die firs’!”
The penultimate sentence is one that Richard Wright’s novel explores in great detail: the overcoming of the fear of death through taking one’s own life in one’s hand (whether through murder of others or suicide). By claiming the power to die (Ah’d die ‘fo’ Ah’d let ’em scare me), one undercuts the authority of those who rule through wielding the power to kill with impunity. The fear of death–a fear rooted in the love of life–no longer governs and one can claim a power that the masters cannot dominate: the power to choose one’s death on one’s own terms.
Within this “hardening” to life (a phrase Wright uses at multiple points), familial ties must be sundered: the desire to see one’s loved ones live places oneself and ones family back under the rule of death. This is a theme in many books written by authors of the Diaspora, both masculine and feminine; in Wright, it takes a misogynistic turn (whereby women are read as “soft” and unwilling or unable to see clearly that embracing death is the only way to create the possibilities of life).
As I will be exploring through Wright and Barth, Wright captures how religion functions within this “death contract.” I am interested in how Christian doctrine–especially the atonement–(re)produces and sustains the death contract. And also in how Christ’s work on the cross uncovers and overcomes this work of death so that love is a possibility of life and not overwhelmed by the powers of death.