Bigger and his friends have a tentative plan to rob a delicatessen owned by a white man named Mr. Blum. The gang has committed other robberies, but never one against a white man, partly because Bigger knows that white policemen are largely unconcerned with black-against-black crimes. Robbing a white man would mean entering new territory, “a symbolic challenge” to white rule.
Bigger’s friend Gus meets him on the street and they watch an airplane write out an advertisement in white smoke. Bigger states that he could fly a plane if he were given the chance. Gus agrees that Bigger could, but only if he had some money and were not black. Bigger complains that whites will not let blacks do anything, and he feels as though he is living in prison.
Gus and Bigger playact at being white, alternately portraying a military general, the fantastically wealthy white businessman J. P. Morgan, and the president of the United States. Gus and Bigger act out a skit in which the president wants to keep the “niggers” under control. After the playacting, Bigger tells Gus he is certain that something bad is going to happen to him. Gus agrees when Bigger says that he can feel the presence of whites inside himself. Whenever he thinks of white people, he has the sensation that a fire is burning in his stomach and feels that he might do something uncontrollable and rash.
Gus and Bigger go to Doc’s pool hall to meet their friends Jack and G. H. Bigger asks them to join a game for which Gus is paying, and they all laugh. Bigger laughs along, but because he is broke he worries that the joke is on him. He brings up the plan to rob Mr. Blum and accuses his friends of being too fearful to carry out the plan. Jack and G. H. agree to do the job, but Gus keeps quiet. Bigger accuses Gus of being afraid to rob a white man and hates Gus for that fear. Inside, however, Bigger feels this fear himself. Gus remains silent until Bigger snaps, shouting and swearing at Gus. Gus blames Bigger’s bad temper for causing most of the gang’s troubles and accuses Bigger of being afraid himself. Bigger becomes furious and threatens to hit Gus. Finally, Gus agrees to the plan to rob Blum. While Bigger struggles to control his impulse to fight Gus, the four agree to meet at Doc’s at three o’clock to carry out the robbery. G. H. takes Gus away from the pool hall.
Native Son opens with the ringing bell of an alarm clock—a wake-up call not only for Bigger and his family, but also a warning to America as a whole about the dangerous state of race relations in the country in the 1930s. Wright sees a black population that, though freed from outright slavery, still lives under terrible conditions, is unable to vote, and is terrorized by groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The North is somewhat more integrated, but many blacks there still live in desperate poverty. Wright believes these conditions have created individuals who are isolated not only from the white world but also from their own religion and culture—people whose only release is through violence. Bigger is the epitome of such individual: he is alienated from his family and friends, annoyed by his mother’s religious songs, and kept poor and impotent through the oppressiveness of white society.
The title of Book One is “Fear,” and that fear appears in the first pages of this section with the appearance of a large black rat. The rat is just as afraid of Bigger as Bigger is of the rat, and their reactions to these fears are the same: defiance and violence. This first book might just as easily have been called “Shame,” as Bigger also feels that emotion acutely. The suffering his family endures while living in such terrible conditions constantly reminds Bigger how powerless he is to help them. The knowledge of his family’s situation is more than he can bear, so he attempts to keep a cold and reserved attitude toward his family and himself. Bigger’s need to hide behind such a wall of toughness is one of the many ways in which we see him trapped by his circumstances. He is caught in a tiny apartment with failure, inadequacy, shame, and fear pervading his life. He has access only to menial jobs and feels he lacks any control over his existence or direction. He also feels trapped inside himself, unable to acknowledge the misery he feels without risking his own destruction. Throughout the novel, we see that when Bigger is cornered, like the rat, he is overwhelmed by shame and fear and lashes out with violence, the only weapon at his disposal.