I first read Native Son in college. (That’s my copy in the photo.) And while I know I read it – there are highlights, notes and scribbles clearly in my handwriting – I remember very little of that reading. And maybe that’s a good thing. Reading Native Son today brings a whole new level of context. But let’s wait on that for now.
In short, Native Son is about a young black man, raised in the slums of Chicago, who goes to work for a “progressive” white family and accidentally kills their daughter. He is ultimately apprehended and the book closes with his trial, where he is defended by Boris Max, a Jewish lawyer associated with the Communist party.
Published in 1940, Wright’s debut novel was the first book by an African-American author to be selected as a Book of the Month Club book (with some editing – the scenes in the theater were removed, as were other references to this activity). And, it earned him enough money to finance future writing. On publication, Irving Howe (an important literary critic of the day) said, “The day ‘Native Son’ appeared, American culture was changed forever.”
I can’t help but feel that if Howe and Wright were able to look ahead 80 years, how utterly disappointed they would be.
But first, let’s address the novel’s literary merits. I love a good psychological novel; it is why I love Ian McEwen. Wright’s ability to articulate the thoughts of Bigger Thomas – with all its intricacies – was amazing. I could feel his panic at understanding he had accidentally killed Mary. I felt his entrapment, his hopelessness, his confusion. In addition, symbolism is everywhere. The rat Bigger kills in his one-room slum apartment. His emersion in the white snow. Mrs. Dalton’s blindness. And the novel is rich to discuss characters – both stereotypes and otherwise. In other words, without race, the novel has merit.
But you can’t ignore race. Wright wouldn’t want us to. In his essay, “How Bigger was Born,” Wright catalogs the “Biggers” from his life – living with undeniable racism that produces such characters. And, as mentioned, Howe notes its importance in American culture – one that is steeped in racism.
On the surface – and the reason for much criticism applied to Native Son – Wright plays into what whites expect from blacks. A menacing black brute kills a delicate white female. But it doesn’t stop there. The sin begins a series of egregious acts – one more heinous than the next – until he’s apprehended and duly punished.
But looking deeper, the crescendo of Bigger’s acts are melodramatic. While the reader is gripped with angst as Bigger makes one bad decision after another, it begins to feel like surely he can’t be this depraved. And indeed, I’d contend he is not. I think Wright is doing something here. And this is where I pick up with current day.
Many of the stories we are confronted with in today’s age dealing with systemic racism begin with innocence – innocent men who are falsely accused and are forced to surrender their life (or part of their life) unjustly. Anyone would agree these are tragedies.
Perhaps the brilliance of Richard Wright is that he begins with guilt. He begins with a life that takes another life. It isn’t just murder. It is then the gruesome disposal of the body. It is a far-fetched and not very well planned out coverup plot faking a kidnapping ransom. It is the rape and intentional death of another innocent female. It is all this that creates a completely unsympathetic anti-hero.
But then he artistically and brilliantly and truthfully shows us that in the end, we still have tragedy and injustice. And by the time Bigger is receiving his due, the heart aches for grace and mercy.
It aches for a world where Bigger would have known that a he could have pled his case in an accidental death and been heard. It aches for a world where Bigger wouldn’t have even been working for the Daltons because he’d have been pursing is dream of higher education and a pilot’s license.
And because, sadly, this is still not always the case, Native Son is a novel for our time, 80 years later.
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