From the movie theater through Bigger’s fight with Gus
Was what he had heard about rich white people really true? Was he going to work for people like you saw in the movies . . . ?
Bigger decides to spend twenty cents on a movie to help dispel his growing fear of robbing Blum. He and Jack go to a movie theater, and they masturbate while watching it and thinking about their girlfriends. Afterward, they discuss Bigger’s upcoming job interview with Mr. Dalton. Bigger says that he would rather go to jail than take a job through the relief agency. A newsreel begins, showing the young daughters of wealthy families playing on the beach in Florida. The camera focuses on Mary Dalton as she kisses a handsome man, identified only as a “well-known radical.” A commentator reports that Mary has shocked her family by becoming romantically linked to this man and that her parents have tried to put an end to the relationship. Bigger realizes that the scandalous young woman is the daughter of his prospective employer, Mr. Dalton.
The movie Trader Horn begins. Watching scenes of black men and women dancing wildly to the beat of drums, Bigger imagines a party at a rich, white home. For the first time, he contemplates the job with the Daltons with great interest. Mary Dalton, he thinks, might be a “hot kind of girl” who would like to come see his side of town, and who might bribe him to keep her secrets from her parents. Bigger also remembers his mother’s constant advice that wealthy white people treat black people better than they treat poor whites. Bigger thinks that perhaps the Dalton family would be easy to get along with because they are so wealthy. His thoughts return to the robbery of Mr. Blum. Now that he is more interested in a real job, he berates himself for taking a “fool’s chance” with the law.
When Jack and Bigger return to Doc’s at three o’clock, Bigger is secretly glad that Gus is not there yet, as they cannot carry out the robbery without him. As the group anxiously awaits Gus, nervous tension gathers in the pit of Bigger’s stomach, as he has convinced himself that he no longer wants to follow through with the robbery. When Gus finally shows up, the anxious Bigger attacks and beats him violently without provocation or warning. He then pulls a knife on Gus and forces him to lick the blade. Bigger accuses Gus of ruining the plan by being late, although Jack insists there is still enough time. Gus flees the premises, and G. H. hints that Bigger had wanted to spoil the plan all along. Bigger threatens G. H. and Doc draws a gun. Bigger slashes the cloth on the pool table before slipping out the door and heading home. Though he does not know it consciously, he feels “instinctively” that it was his fear of robbing a white man that drove him to attack Gus. Bigger’s survival depends on how well he can bury this knowledge deep inside himself.
In this section, we see that popular culture serves as a release for Bigger—a way to help him forget his misery—but that it also serves as a form of indoctrination. As Bigger has limited contact with white people, his understanding of the white world comes primarily through the popular culture of movies, magazines, and hearsay. The movies focus on the gleaming, opulent world of fabulously wealthy white Americans like the Daltons. Blacks, if they appear in the movies at all, are consistently depicted as one of two stereotypes: either the dangerous, radically foreign, and inferior savage; or the clownish, humble, and ignorant black servant. The white society that produces this popular culture, then, has control over the social dialogue that determines the meaning of the color of Bigger’s skin and hence his identity.
Ultimately, white America controls Bigger’s relationship with his own community. He is too afraid to challenge white authority, so his own community becomes the target and outlet for his relentless terror and frustration. He has an intense desire to test the boundaries of the subservience white America has assigned him, but he is ultimately too afraid to carry out the robbery of a white merchant. Instead, he transfers his hatred and fear of whites onto his friend Gus. Gus is a safer target, just as the black merchants are safer targets for the gang’s robberies. This violence against members of their own community, however, ruins blacks’ chances of becoming a real community and keeps them alienated and weak.
The wall of isolation behind which Bigger hides alienates him not only from his friends, family, and community, but also from himself. His fear, rage, and conflicting and unexamined desires torture him. He instinctively understands that it is better to fight Gus than to rob a white man, but he must keep this understanding buried beneath his consciousness. There exists, then, a gulf between what Bigger feels and what he knows. Unable to face the reality of his life as a black man, Bigger is forced to keep his thoughts and his feelings separate. His consciousness is divided, just as the members of his own community are divided and unable to come together into a cohesive and productive whole.