#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.

[Read more…]

Advertisements