I’m late, I know. BUT as my way for commemorating Black History Month on my blog, I decided to read Native Son by Richard Wright and boy was I blown away by it! I mean Wright got down in that book and analyzed the shit out of the social structure and race relations of the 1940s. Native Son is a powerful book and even today I’m sure it can rile some people. (I got pretty pissed while reading it.)
Native Son tells the story of Black people oppressed in America through the life of Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old Black man. Life is hard for Bigger and his people. They live in deficient houses and receive meager pay. They are unable to move beyond the Black Belt, an area in Chicago where Blacks are designated to live. Segregation is so tight that it’s hard for Bigger to envision a promising future for himself. He tries to avoid thinking of this because it makes him feel helpless and powerless. To cope, he becomes angry and puts up a wall behind which he hides, peeking out occasionally at the reality of his life. His family and friends cope in other ways: his mother puts her trust in religion and his girlfriend Bessie numbs herself with alcohol. It’s not until he kills Mary Dalton that Bigger begins to feel as if he can direct his life and that for once he is in charge of what he does and what happens to him.
Forced by his mother to get a job and curious about the lifestyle of the Whites, Bigger accepts a position as Mr. Dalton’s chauffeur. Mr. Dalton is a millionaire who makes his money in real estate—he is actually Bigger’s landlord. Bigger’s first assignment is to drive Mr. Dalton’s daughter Mary to her night class. Instead, Mary instructs Bigger to pick up her boyfriend Jan, who is a Communist. Wanting to show that they sympathize with Black people, Jan and Mary break all social mores in their attempts at treating Bigger as an equal. However, due to his experience and knowledge of how Whites treat Blacks, Bigger distrusts them and shies away from their efforts.
They all get pretty drunk as the night wears on. Mary becomes so inebriated that she is unable to walk herself to her room upon getting home so Bigger carries her there. While in Mary’s room, Mrs. Dalton, who is blind (and wears a lot of white), walks in to check on her daughter. Bigger panics and places a pillow over Mary’s head to quiet her murmurs so that she would not give away his presence. Being a Black man, if he was caught in Mary’s room, he would be convicted of raping her, he thought (wisely). However, his brash act causes Mary to suffocate thus killing her accidentally.
Upon realizing that Mary is dead, Bigger crafts a quick plan. He places Mary’s body in the furnace (hacking off her head to do so) and decides to blame the whole thing on Jan if it should be found out. His plan works at first especially since Jan is a Communist and, at the time, people thought the worst of Communists. But when Mary’s bones are found, Bigger becomes a suspect. He flees the scene when this occurs, dragging his girl Bessie with him whom he later kills. After some time, he is caught, tried, and is found guilty for his crimes (mainly for killing Mary and “raping” her).
Though Native Son was written some years ago and the Civil Rights Movement has brought about some positive changes for Black people, I still found that the book speaks on events of today. In some places, there is still racism, segregation, and oppression, though sometimes not overtly so. Some people are trapped in their mind, like Bigger, and act according to how they believe their oppressor would like them to act. The fact that this story was written so long ago and can still be applied to events today is what makes it a classic novel. The fact that it details the history of a people through the use of one character’s experience and analyzes human nature along the way also makes it a classic. It is a book that can bring about a change because it has the potential to really piss some people off.
Wright did a great job writing this story though sometimes it got a bit longwinded, especially towards the end during Bigger’s trial. Bigger’s lawyer Boris Max gives a long speech in which Wright warns his readers of the consequences that will result if the oppression of Black people is continued. Wright warns that a time will come when the people will revolt and take action, fighting for a sense of themselves.
Throughout the novel, Bigger struggles with himself. He wants to take hold of his life and have the freedom to do or attempt anything he wants. But the constraints of racism and segregation prevent him from doing so or to even consider that he deserves the opportunity to do so. My favorite part of the story was at its very end when Bigger tells Max, “Tell…Tell Mister…Tell Jan hello…” At this point, Bigger finally sees himself as an equal to Whites and was not afraid to call Jan by his first name instead of referring to him as Mister Erlone. Bigger begins to realize he does matter and is worth something.
Black people have come a long way and I am grateful for the accomplishments that my race has obtained thus far. Those accomplishments have given me opportunities that were not available for my ancestors. They have given me the opportunity to dream big, to believe that my dreams can come through, and to work to make them a reality.
Quotes from the book:
“…his courage to live depended upon how successfully his fear was hidden from his consciousness.”
“Exalted by the will to rule, they could not have built nations on so vast a scale had they not shut their eyes to the humanity of other men, men whose lives were necessary for their building.”
“Of all things, men do not like to feel that they are guilty of wrong, and if you make them feel guilt, they will try desperately to justify it on any grounds; but, failing that, and seeing no immediate solution that will set things right without too much cost to their lives and property, they will kill that which evoked in them the condemning sense of guilt.”
“The job in getting people to fight and have faith is in making them believe in what life has made them feel, making them feel that their feelings are as good as those of others.”
- 5 Books They Dont Want You Reading: Black History Month Edition (ncacblog.wordpress.com)
- William Waid, Native son (scdlteens.wordpress.com)
- Critiques of American Racism as Explored in the Novels of Wright, Ellison and Baldwin (mytruesense.wordpress.com)