The Importance of Silence as Vocal Expression in Native Son and The Third Life of Grange Copeland

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

Both in literature and in everyday life, vocal expression is essential to the understanding of people and how people choose to communicate their emotions or lack thereof. Vocal expression is the way in which people express their thoughts and feelings through both speech and action. There are many dynamics to vocal expression as well. For example, pitch, tone, speed and articulation. Meaning, with the help of a compilation of voice enhancements, it is easier to decipher what the characters are saying in various works of literature. With that being suggested, the conclusion can be drawn that in literary texts, vocal expression is key to understand. Based off of that understanding, without taking vocal expression under any consideration, it would almost be impossible to understand the complexities of each work of literature and how essential each character is in each within the texts. It is important to understand that vocal expression is not only the acoustic properties associated with emotion that Jo-Anne Bachorowski delves into alone and with Michael Owen.

Focusing on the literature of vocal expression, or rather the lack of vocal expression in the form of silence, one can analyze Richard Wright’s novel Native Son and Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland. Before delving into the in depth modes of expression throughout both novels, the overall shared expression must be identified. Oppression is the main factor that silences the characters in both novels. Racial oppression, although in different locations and forms, silenced Bigger Thomas in Native Son and Grange Copeland in The Third Life of Grange Copeland. While Walker’s novel “recounts…racial oppression in the South” (Cochran 79), Wright’s novel focuses on the “cultural, economic, and ideological practices” (Hoose 46).

Bigger Thomas is a product of his environment. There is an emphasis on the “external environment’s role in shaping Bigger as an individual” (Hoose 46). Segregation and racial and economic oppression is the setting in which Bigger lives, in Chicago. As a result, being a black male in a racist society causes him to lack a voice and therefor express himself in other manners. Bigger’s societal oppression is most clear in his confusion with the way that Mary treats him, “She responded to him as if he were human, as if he lived in the same world as she. And he had never felt that before in a white person” (Wright 65). Whites were still prejudice towards blacks that even though the era of slavery was over, they still treated blacks as though they were not human. Being used to this type of injustice, Bigger did not know how to respond to such “awkward” kindness. This here is the racial oppression that silences Bigger from voicing his truest thoughts and feelings. The racial oppression is also clear in Walker’s comparison to share cropping and slavery.

In the opening chapter of Walker’s novel, a small cabin home is described similar to the way in which many slave cabins and the homes of share croppers:

It was a cabin of two rooms with a brick chimney. The roof was of rotting gray shingles; the sides of the house were gray vertical slabs; the whole aspect of the house was gray. It was lower in the middle than at its ends, and resembled a sway-backed animal put out to pasture (Walker 14-15).

According to Theodore Mason, “Walker uses the sharecropper’s cabin as a charged metaphorical structure indicating the fundamental and irresistible entrapment of its occupants” (297). The term entrapment alludes to the oppression of people. In this case, Grange Copeland is oppressed by the racist society that he lives in, and as a result flees to try to escape such oppression. The racial and economic oppression against Grange is clear during his travels North when he “had worked, begged, stolen his way North, to New York” (Walker 191) and when he “had been begging in Central Park, barely escaping arrest from mounted police” (Walker 192). The police signify society in this case, and Grange being a poor, black man is being oppressed in every sense.

Between Bigger and Grange, the role society plays in their lives, impacts the way each character interacts with others. Ironically both are associated with violent antics as a way to express what they feel as a result of lacking the ability to speak. For Bigger, society has molded him into a seemingly inarticulate individual. However, “Bigger Thomas is far from the inarticulate character many critics claim him to be. Bigger is sullen, brooding, brusque, and sometimes violent in his attitude towards his family and immediate community, but he is definitely not inarticulate” (Miller 502). This notion is true when reviewing his earlier scenes when he and Gus are finished pretending to “be white”:

“You know where the white folks live?”

“Yeah,” Gus said, pointing eastward. “Over across the ‘line’; over there on Cottage Grove Avenue.”

“Naw; they don’t,” Bigger said.

“What you mean?” Gus asked, puzzled. “Then, where do they live?”

Bigger doubled his fist and struck his solar plexus.

“Right down here in my stomach,” he said.

Gus looked at Bigger searchingly, then away, as though ashamed.

“Yeah; I know what you mean,” he whispered.

“Every time I think of ‘em, I feel ‘em,” Bigger said.

“Yeah; and in your chest and throat, too,” Gus said.

“It’s like fire.”

“And sometimes you can’t hardly breathe….”

Bigger’s eyes were wide and placid, gazing into space.

“That’s when I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me . . .” Bigger paused, narrowed his eyes. “Naw; it ain’t like something going to happen to me. It’s…It’s like I was going to do something I can’t help….”

“Yeah!” Gus said with uneasy eagerness. His eyes were full of a look compounded of fear and admiration for Bigger. “Yeah; I know what you mean. It’s like you going to fall and don’t know where you going to land . . . .” (Wright 21-22)

This exemplifies Bigger’s ability to articulate his understanding of white culture and the dominant role it has on his black, urban male upbringing. In this dialogue, Bigger has more understanding than perhaps Gus does of the fear associated with white hegemony. In this sense, Bigger has power over his friends for he has more knowledge about the society in which they are living. Yet, at the same time, Bigger entraps his understanding and intelligence about the world he lives in when faced with those outside of his comfort zone. He is quiet and keeps to himself, especially when he is in the company of white people. In his view of society he is not an equal to white people, and as a result he is “locked in the narrow world of self that society has shaped for him” (Larsen 107). Bigger’s inarticulateness is ever so high when confronted with Jan and Mary who refuse to allow him to call them “Yessuh” and “Yessum” and even allow Bigger to sit up front with them while Jan drives. This confusion inhibits Bigger to speak and instead continues to keep him ever more silenced, enabling him to bottle up his feelings of alienation and stifled hatred toward Jan Mary. As a result, Bigger accidentally murders Mary, to some extent in response to his built up animosity towards her, but in actuality, he was only trying to keep her silent so her blind mother, Mrs. Dalton wouldn’t suspect anything.  In contrary, Grange commits his murder as a result of the ignorance of society and is more or less a bystander in the death of a pregnant woman.

While in the park, Grange spots a pregnant woman sitting on the bench. At first she is alone, and then she greeted by a man. It appears as though they get into an argument and he storms off. Out of kindness, Grange goes over to the envelope of money that was left behind and, although he keeps some of it, he tries to return the rest to the woman who has begun walking away. Despite her own situation and his kindness, the woman reveals no empathy for Grange and instead insults him calling him “Nigger” continuously. When she leaps at Grange she misses and falls into the pond. She is drowning, but still bigger attempts to help: “[Grange] stretched out his arm and nearly touched her. She reached up and out with a small white hand that grabbed his hand but let go when she felt his hand” (Walker 201). Grange, having had enough with the woman disrespecting him, left the woman there to die. Although Grange did not quite murder the woman, he believed he did. He “murdered” the woman after he “exacts stillness, and compliance, from his wife” (Hellenbrand 114) when he was living with them in the South, prior to his move North. Bigger, on the other hand, murdered Mary and then as result of how society would perceive him, tried to hide the murder, but then turned on his lover, suppressing her into compliance and silence.

As Hellenbrand mentioned, Grange oppresses his family. This oppression could stem from his suppressed expressions as a result of sharecropping and the thick smog of racism. Due to his lack of voice because of its forced oppression, Grange expresses himself the only other way he knows how, through violence and dominating his power and control over others. With his wife, Grange instills a sense of fear and submission: “[Brownfield’s] mother agreed with his father whenever possible…[Brownfield] thought his mother was like their dog in some ways. She didn’t have a thing to say that did not in some way show her submission to [Grange]” (Walker 5). Margaret, in this sense, is another a key signifier in The Third Life of Grange Copeland for lacking vocal expression through her submission to Grange. Conversely, Margaret is not alone in her alienation. In Native Son, Bessie is forced into submission by Bigger. As Miller hinted towards, Bigger is unable to transpire his good morality to those whom he cares most about. In direct reference to his lack of empathy for his sister, Vera, Bigger decides to taunt her with his cruel humor: “Bigger laughed and approached the bed with the dangling rat, swinging it to and fro like a pendulum, enjoying his sister’s fear” (Wright 7). He feels some sort of entitlement because he is a man: black male privilege over black female submission. During this time, women still had no true voice and Bigger being a black male still had some power over his black female counterparts. With Bessie, Bigger forces her into a suppressed state when he involves her in his plans, making her an accomplice: “‘You already in it,’ he said. ‘You got part of the money’” (Wright 184). Bigger continues to want to include her in his plans, for fear that she may sell him out to the police and his desire to not be alone, wanting to “let her know it in a way that would bind her to him, at least a little longer. He did not want to be alone now” (Wright 225). Bessie is just an innocent victim being victimized by manipulation and coercion. As a result of her submission, she is officially silenced by Bigger who fears to bring to her and to leave her:

He could not leave here and he could not take her with him. If he took her along she would be crying all the time; she would be blaming him for all that had happened; she would be wanting whiskey to help her forget and there would be times when he could not get it for her” (Wright 235).

With his mind basically already made up, he smashes a brick into her; “How many times he had lifted the brick and brought it down he did not know. All he knew was that the room was quiet and cold and that the job was done” (Wright 237). Although Margaret was not murdered by her oppressor as Bessie was, in some ways, her son, Brownfield, died because of the repression he received from his father.

Grange also lacked emotional value toward his son, Brownfield: “To Grange his son was as dead as his son’s murdered wife” (Walker185). Growing up, Brownfield was neglected by his father. As a young boy, a typical desire he would seek would be acceptance and approval from his father. Unfortunately for Brownfield, he never receives that. Instead, his “father almost never spoke to him unless they had company. Even then [Grange] acted as if talking to [Brownfield] was a strain, a burdensome requirement” (Walker 5). Experiencing such abandonment from his father, Brownfield’s childhood innocent and understanding of morality died. He promoted himself from being a victim of his father’s oppression to being just what his father was to him and what society was to his father – a persecutor. Unlike Grange, though, Brownfield engages in physical violence against his family, to self-express himself. This violence is included in anger towards his children, and he is usually more violent based on his job. Nonetheless, Brownfield disregarded his children just as his father had done to him: “To his three daughters Brownfield gave the dregs of his attention only when he was half drunk. To him they were not really human children” (Walker 96). His vision of his own children not being really human, enables him to act out his violence towards them as a way to communicate: “[Daphne] had bad sickness once a month ad would cry and cry, and one time, when she was holding her stomach and crying, with sweat popping out like grease bubbles on her face, Brownfield had kicked her” (Walker 157). However, even worse, is Brownfield’s resentment towards his wife, Mem, which is seen in his dialogue with her telling her to call him “Mister”:

He reached out an arm and grabbed her quickly around one wrist.

“Ow, Brownfield,” she said, dropping her shoes.

“I ought to make you call me Mister,” he said, slowly twisting the wrist he held and bringing her to her knees beside his feet. “A woman as black and as ugly as you ought to call a man Mister.”

“I didn’t find no house today,” she whimpered dryly, because she was so tired and her feet hurt. “And I didn’t see nobody but people that was renting.”

He shoved her and she knocked over her flower boxes spilling flowers and dirt. She scrambled to her knees, then to her blistered and callused feet, sniffling and putting a wrinkled hand to her head. Her daughters stood at the battered screen watching, their baby sister in their arms (Walker 101-102).

For Brownfield his oppressed childhood inhibited his ability to love and thus be loved. He didn’t care to show his violence to his children or in front of them. Inevitably, Mem becomes Bessie. She is continuously victimized by her husband until one day he’s just had enough of her. Mem is not always silent, and as an advocator for herself and her children, her mouth, like the pregnant woman, gets her into trouble. Brownfield kills her with no hesitation: “Brownfield began to curse and came and stood on the steps until Mem got within the circle of light. Then he aimed the gun with drunken accuracy right into her face and fired” (Walker 161). Remembering the setting in which the Copeland family lives and the setting in which Bigger Thomas lives, a revisit to the society that dictates their lives must be reviewed.

Returning to Bigger Thomas, there is a voice within Native Son that is worth mentioning for the context of voice and silence and the art of vocal expression. The narrator acts as a “mouth piece” for Bigger. In other words, the narrator “becomes a sort of translator, or refiner” (Larsen 106) for Bigger’s unspeakable thoughts and actions. This is especially true during Bigger’s self-examination, typically before and after his murders, when he contemplating his next moves. These inner thoughts that Bigger does not vocalize, for there is “very little that Bigger actually verbalizes” (Larsen 107), are almost like a second voice to show other ways in which Bigger chooses to express himself. Scholar Laura Tanner points out the same element about the role of the narrator. Tanner more closely links the narrator to Bigger’s violent act, noting that

Throughout the novel, the narrative voice makes de- liberate links between Bigger’s acts of violence and his desire to communicate…If we accept the narrator as Bigger’s spokesperson, we come to see Mary’s murder as an assault against an enslaving system of value rather than a fearful reflex response to a potentially dangerous situation (413).

Tanner’s reference to Mary’s murder thus segues to Bigger’s trial and the societal view that he is up against. For Bigger, news acts as the “‘official’ voice of society” (Larsen 107). The majority opinion is the “attitude that Bigger is up against now and has always been against” (Larsen 107). While scanning through the paper, Tribune, Bigger sees an article about himself entitled, “NEGRO RAPIST FAINTS AT INQUEST” (Wright 279). Taking a closer look into the article, it becomes clear that Bigger, whether innocent or not, stood no chance:

Overwhelmed by the sight of his accuser, Bigger Thomas, Negro sex-slayer, fainted dramatically this morning at the inquest of Mary Dalton, millionaire Chicago heiress.

Emerging from a stupor for the first time since his capture last Monday night, the black killer sat cowed and fearful as hundreds sought to get a glimpse of him.

“He looks exactly like an ape!” exclaimed a terrified young white girl who watched the black slayer being loaded onto a stretcher after he had fainted.

Though the Negro killer’s body does not seem compactly built, he gives the impression of possessing abnormal physical strength. He is about five feet, nine inches tall and his skin is exceedingly black. His lower jaw protrudes obnoxiously, reminding one of a jungle beast.

His arms are long, hanging in a dangling fashion to his knees. It is easy to imagine how this man, in the grip of a brain-numbing sex passion, overpowered little Mary Dalton, raped her, murdered her, beheaded her, then stuffed her body into a roaring furnace to destroy the evidence of his crime.

His shoulders are huge, muscular, and he keeps them hunched, as if about to spring upon you at any moment. He looks at the world with a strange, sullen, fixed-from-under stare, as though defying all efforts of compassion.

All in all, he seems a beast utterly untouched by the softening influences of modern civilization. In speech and manner he lacks the charm of the average, harmless, genial, grinning southern darky so beloved by the American people (Wright 279-280).

Bigger is described in ways that portray him as animalistic and less than human. In this light, Bigger instantly appears guilty. Just because he is a black man, Bigger is automatically the “black devil.” The voice of the news, in Bigger’s case, circles back to the racial oppression Bigger is silenced with by his society. In truth, Bigger is then found guilty, and therefore assumed that he will die later on as a punishment for his crime.

Where the narrator does not act a particular voice for any of the characters, Ruth, the granddaughter of Grange, is the product of her environment. She is the pawn used to pin Grange up, officially, against society. Ruth, although a baby when her mother died, is a product of her father’s, Brownfield, abuse. She is aware of Brownfield’s neglect and cruelty towards his family. She admits this knowledge to him when he approaches her along her walk home:

“You never cared for us,” said Ruth. “You never cared for mama or Daphne or Ornette, or for me.” I don’t want any of your damn changes now, she thought, and hated and liked herself for this lack of charity. She glimpsed for the first time what Grange had known, the nature of unforgiveness and the finality of a misdeed done. She saw herself as one both with her father and with Grange, with Josie thrown in to boot (Walker 276).

For Ruth, she is tired of the abuse she remembers from her father and to some extent, fears him. She is comfortable with the lifestyle she lives, with her grandfather. He has provided her with education and love, which she cherishes and is not willing to lose this “good life.” Unfortunately, Brownfield is not satisfied and feels as though he has to have what’s his or else he is not a man. Yet again, Brownfield is returning to this method of oppressing others. He putting a property claim on his daughter, alluding to the notion that he owns her regardless if he truly cares or even loves her. Just Bigger is brought to court, Grange is summoned to court. Ruth is now entrapped in a custody battle.

Silenced yet again by society, Grange is at a stalemate. Brownfield’s cowardly notion in going to Judge Harry to seek assistance in acquiring full custody of Ruth, can be viewed as “white hegemony” and how it “corners blacks into internecine conflict” (Hellenbrand 125). Brownfield’s tension with his father hinders his ability to see what is truly best for Ruth. Instead Ruth is like the prize to be won. Grange, on the other hand, is embracing the compassion within him. He wants what’s best for Ruth, but appears as though he cannot escape the past he tried so hard to leave behind. While preparing for the inevitable appearance in court, Grange and Ruth “Both found it difficult to speak” (Walker 305). This lack of communication shows the full power behind white hegemony with its immobilizing control over the black body. Unlike the negative portrayals that Bigger faced, Grange was up against the unjust legal system brought about by his own son, Brownfield. The betrayal of white society and the disloyalty of family, is evident inside the court and forces Grange to be vulnerable in the way he expresses himself:

Grange started to speak of his son’s criminal record, of his neglect of his children, of his threats.

“This man killed his wife, your Honor!” said Grange, out of order.

“Now, I didn’t ask you nothing yet,” the judge said pleasantly, hurt. “You don’t have no right to go making unsolicited speeches in my chambers.” He looked at Brownfield and winked. Ruth knew it was over for her and Grange; she held tightly to her grandfather’s hand. She could not look up into his face for she could feel the tremors running through his body and knew he was crying.

“Hush,” she whispered under her breath, “hush, old baby.” Hus breath caught in a sob; she knew it was from helplessness. Ruth was so angry she couldn’t cry (Walker 308).

Grange, no matter how right he was and fit to be the guardian of Ruth, had no chance at winning. In this sense he is Bigger. No matter what, both were destined to lose as victims of their society. Just as Bigger was going to pay the price of his crimes through punishment of death, Grange Copeland was bound to die of his fate as well. In attempting to protect Ruth and reclaim his wrongful doings of his past, he stood no chance at life: “Grange leading the police away from her. Suddenly the air rang with the rush of bullets and a few minutes later, just as suddenly, everything was still” (Walker 310). The police that had followed Grange and Ruth from the courthouse were set to kill. Grange, defenseless, became an instant victim of his own oppression. In his final words, he speaks to Ruth:

“Oh, you poor thing, you poor thing,” he murmured finally, desolate, but also for the sound of a human voice, bending over to the ground and then rearing back, rocking himself in his own arms to a final sleep (Walker 311).

In a society where blacks stand no chance at justice, and black men are always in the wrong regardless of the offense, death seems to be the only fait for them.

The overarching theme of silence dictated throughout both Alice Walker’s novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, salutes to the vocal expression, or lack of vocal expression, demonstrated within works of literature. Walker and Wright both use the racial oppression of society to set forth the inevitable destinies of their black male characters and the enforcement that this racial oppression has on how they in turn choose to express their own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Bigger Thomas’s upbringing in Chicago causes him to experience the segregation and inhumane treatment toward black people, especially black men. As a result, he uses this forced silence to enable his violent and cruel antics to force those around him into submission. Grange Copeland’s sharecropping experience in Georgia and his desire to be free of his jailed society, enables his neglect and harsh treatment against his own family, perpetuating a cycle of inner-family submission.

While Bigger’s persecution is not passed on to others, his dominant attitude causes many deaths around him. When he murders Mary Dalton, although by accident in order to avoid a difficult situation, Bigger is expressing the fear he has for the white man. Whether caught trying to help Mary and even when he is caught for her murder, “They would say he raped her and there would be no way to prove that he had not” (Wright 227). To further save himself, he is willing to sacrifice his love, Bessie, and purposely murders her. Bigger was stuck in a bad situation because no matter what, he did what he felt he had to in order to survive. Survival of the fittest. A black male in America, during this time, was not a safe. Grange’s oppression causes this oppressive nature to be passed on to Brownfield. This inevitably causes a rift in the Copeland family dynamics. Brownfield expresses himself through the art of violence. He not only abuses his wife, but also neglects and abuses his children, eventually murdering his wife, Mem, in front of them.

Between Bigger, Grange, and Brownfield, their oppressive nature is a form of yet another form communication expressed by their oppressed victims. Bessie, Margaret, and Mem are the silenced victims and their silence is an expression all on its own. The silence represents the fear these women have towards their oppressors. For two of these women, their repressed vocal expression lands them in the hands of death. Meanwhile, Bigger and Grange are on the opposing fields of society in the sense that no matter where they turn society has them pinned up against the wall. With Bigger, his confusion with the way Mary and Jan treat him causes him to appear inarticulate to the white world. However, in conversation with his friends, it is clear that bigger is far from being inarticulate, and is more just bottling up the emotions he feels as though is not permitted to express. Grange is forced to slave himself in society in order to progress. This slaving, causes him the need to run and hide from the police and abandon a struggling, pregnant white woman who had no respect for his generosity. Grange’s animosity toward this pregnant woman, resembles that same animosity Bigger allows to build up against Mary.

In the end, the social system that each of these black men live in, proves to be unjust. For Bigger, his end is death. He is caught for his murders and framed as an animalistic rapist-killer. Despite his partial innocence, Bigger was doomed the moment he was caught. The oppressed voice he had, fearful of white supremacy, is reminded again in his final scenes at court and his last “goodbye.” Grange is doomed the moment he stepped foot in court. Ruth was going to be handed over to an ungrateful, Brownfield, and in his willingness to protect her, Grange is shot and killed. Brownfield cheats the system, but at the same time, that is doing him an injustice. The system is enabling Brownfield to continue committing violent acts only causing more harm. Although vocal expression is often identified with vocal sounds, sometimes silence, as exemplified through these works of literature, is a form of vocal expression, or repressed vocal expression, all on its own.

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