Native Son Questions and Answers
by Richard Wright

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Bring four examples of ‘anonymous collectivity’ in Native Son by Richard Wright, and explain how ordinary white people would have reacted to ‘anonymous collectivity’ if they were concerned with the concept of truth.

In Native Son, we see anonymous collectivity when Mr. Dalton gives money to Black charities instead of caring for the individual Black people in his building. We see it in how Jan blithely tells Bigger about how good it'll be when there's "no white and no black." We see it when Mary says she wants to see how Bigger's people live. Lastly, we see it with how Bigger is called a "black ape."

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Before we talk about four examples of anonymous collectivity in Native Son, we should probably define anonymous collectivity. It's not exactly a common phrase. Many people could go days, weeks, or even their whole lives without reading or hearing about anonymous collectivity.

As we understand it, anonymous collectivity comes from the French intellectual Albert Memmi. According to Memmi, "The colonized is never characterized in an individual manner; he is entitled only to drown in an anonymous collectivity."

Memmi uses the example of a colonized servant, He says that if a colonized servant doesn't appear one morning, the colonizer won't think about the specific reasons why the individual servant isn't here when she's supposed to be. Instead, he'll say something like, "You can't count on them."

The colonizer -- the oppressor -- treats the colonized as if they're all like. If they're all alike, they have no separate identity, so they might as well be anonymous.

We see anonymous collectivity in Native Son with how Mr. Dalton treats Black people as a big collective. He donates money to charities that help Black people in general yet he doesn’t seem too concerned with the welfare of the specific Black people living in his building. He seems to prefer to think of them as a vague, undifferentiated bunch. As Mr. Dalton tells Max, "I think Negroes are happier when they're together."

We also see anonymous collectivity with how Jan speaks to Bigger. Think about how Jan tells Bigger about the hypothetical "revolution." What does he say? He says, "When that day comes, things'll be different. They'll be no white and no black."

You could say Jan's speech is ironic. While he seems to the think the erasure of White and Black is akin to progress, we could argue that it reinforces anonymous collectivity. It upholds the lack of difference that White people already see in Black people.

Mary, too, reinforces anonymous collectivity when she tells Bigger her wish to enter predominantly Black housing to "see how your people live." It's not how Bigger lives. It's not how a specific Black person, Black couple, Black group of friends, or Black family lives. It's how all Black people live. Black people are simplified to one big mass.

For a fourth example of anonymous collectivity, you might discuss how Bigger is often demeaned as "black ape." You could talk about how this specific racial epithet links to the general bigoted thinking that deprives Black people of identity and humanity.

As for how "ordinary white people would have reacted to anonymous collectivity if they were concerned with the concept of truth," you could argue that if the Daltons -- or any White person-- was truly concerned about Black people, they would treat Black people as people. They’d speak and interact with them as distinct, dynamic individuals instead of as symbols of a demographic.

As Michelle Alexander says in The New Jim Crow, "Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem."