#20: Native Son (1940), by Richard Wright

Anger quickened in him: an old feeling that Bessie had often described to him when she had come from long hours of hot toil in the white folks’ kitchens, a feeling of being forever commanded by others so much that thinking and feeling for one’s self was impossible. Not only had he lived where they told him to live, not only had he done what they told him to do, not only had he done these things until he had killed to be quit of them; but even after obeying, after killing, they still ruled him. He was their property, heart and soul, body and blood; what they did claimed every atom of him, sleeping and waking; it colored life and dictated the terms of death.

native son

I had committed to Richard Wright’s Native Son being the 20th selection from this list more than a year ago, long before the summer of Michael Brown and Eric Garner descended upon us. Had I arrived at this point more expediently, say in April or May as I’d preferred, this entry likely would have followed the m.o. of the first 19: some fairly innocuous observations on the book and a little context for how the author came to write it, with some personal color thrown in.

But Native Son isn’t a book you can read quickly and throw back on the shelf. Specially designed to provoke reaction, it’s a piece of advocacy fiction squarely in that Grapes of Wrath tradition of foregoing subtlety to impart its social message. It opens with one sound effect (a ringing alarm clock), ends with another (the clanging of a jail cell), and in between tells a powerfully brutal story that moves with the propulsiveness of a thriller and the self-righteous fury of a sermon.

As Time list co-creator Richard Lacayo points out, Wright could have written a novel about an unjustly accused black man and rested on the laurels of having brought important issues of racial inequality to mainstream consciousness, but he chose the harder route: a book about a guilty man, thoroughly loathsome and without remorse, who would still command your understanding and, to some extent, your sympathy.

Besides, Wright had no desire to rest on laurels: he intended Native Son to provoke and enrage, a letter bomb that would transcend the “technically brilliant” but “[humble] performances”* that characterized previous efforts from African-American writers, and it detonated far and wide; upon its publication in March 1940, it sold more than 200,000 copies in three weeks.

“I realized that I had made an awfully naive mistake [with Uncle Tom’s Children, Wright’s first book],” he wrote in “How Bigger Was Born,” published shortly after Native Son. “I found that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.”

Mission accomplished.

If you haven’t read it, or need a refresher, here’s the quick summary: 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, living in a rat-infested Chicago apartment with his mother and siblings, gets a job chauffeuring the daughter of the rich Dalton family to university each morning. After eating lunch with Mary and her Communist boyfriend Jan, Bigger finds himself in a compromising position in Mary’s room as her blind mother approaches the room.

Knowing what will become of him if he is caught out in a white girl’s bedroom, he places a pillow over Mary’s mouth to quiet her breathing and inadvertently kills her. Bigger disposes of the body in the Dalton furnace, and after this ruse is discovered, he lams it with his girlfriend Bessie. In order to ensure Bessie’s silence, he savagely crushes her with a brick while she sleeps and throws her down an air shaft.

These scenes are horrific and Wright doesn’t pretend otherwise, presenting them in excruciating detail using Bigger’s frenzied mind-language.

Soon after, Bigger is captured and put on trial (though pointedly not for Bessie’s death, which will be referred to but not punished), forming the basis of the third section, in which Bigger’s lawyer Boris Max speechifies in court for dozens of pages (years before John Galt) about the social conditioning that led to Bigger’s inevitable crimes.

Many people disregard this part for its preachiness, and they’re not wrong: it is preachy, and the Communist business is an instant turn-off. It also takes Bigger’s story out of the deeply personal and turns him into a cause: perhaps the most famous critique of this novel came from James Baldwin, who thought by using Bigger as a tool to advance sociological arguments, Wright stripped him of any humanity we could empathize with.

“Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life,” Baldwin writes in “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” “But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life.”

If the courtroom scene ends up feeling much too labored, I believe an even more evocative and gracefully-deployed scene is found in the first part of the book, appropriately titled “Fear.” Mary has convinced Bigger not to take the route to school, and to allow Jan to drive them to the South Side so they can eat at one of Bigger’s favorite hangouts (“a real place…one of those places where colored people eat, not one of those show places”).

Mary and Jan espouse all the dogmatic cliches of equality in support of “the cause” while remaining gravely unaware of the severe psychic bind they have put Bigger in. In a few short pages, Wright conveys the tortured calculus going through Bigger’s mind, ricocheting from fear to servility to rage almost at once:

The car sped through the Black Belt, past tall buildings holding black life. Bigger knew that they were thinking of his life and the life of his people. Suddenly he wanted to seize some heavy object in his hand and grip it with all the strength of his body and in some strange way rise up and stand in naked space above the speeding car and with one final blow blot it out — with himself and them in it. His heart was beating fast and he struggled to control his breath … Why didn’t they leave him alone? What had he done to them? What good could they get out of sitting here making him feel so miserable?

Finally they enter Ernie’s Kitchen Shack, where many of Bigger’s people would see him and wonder, with great suspicion, why he was eating with these white people. Again, Wright captures Bigger’s feelings:

He felt ensnared in a tangle of deep shadows, shadows as black as the night that stretched above his head. The way he had acted had made her cry, and yet the way she had acted had made him feel that he had to act as he had toward her. In his relations with her he felt that he was riding a seesaw; never were they on a common level; either he or she was up in the air.

More than any part of Boris Max’s long speech, this agonizing sequence gets at the essential horror of institutionalized racism, the kind that is so ingrained that it can’t even be properly communicated. I don’t believe Wright ever asks us to forgive Bigger for his crimes, which speak for themselves in their cold brutality. But he does ask us — force us, really — to reckon with a centuries-long cycle of injustice that would inevitably produce someone like Bigger.

One thing seems clear: there are 80 titles remaining on the list to cover on this blog, and though there will certainly be more artful, lyrical novels, I will likely not find one so effective in snapping the reader to attention. Bigger Thomas is as memorable a character as this list will produce, with an unforgettable story, and on that basis, Native Son remains a bracing and necessary book nearly a century later.

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Worth your time: Studio 360’s hour-long podcast about Native Son, particularly for the dissenting voices that enter the discussion about halfway in.

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*This quote comes from Wright’s “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” published three years before Native Son and a clear mission statement for what he looked to achieve in that novel.

 

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