He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fulness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair. So he held toward them an attitude of iron reserve; he lived with them, but behind a wall, a curtain. And toward himself he was even more exacting. He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else. So he denied himself and acted tough.Book 1: Fear
Richard Wright’s Native Son is not a seasonal read. It is brutal, in violence and emotion. It is the story of–part of the story of–Bigger Thomas, a young Black man in 1930s Chicago: fearful, angry, and without hope. The relief agency finds him a job as a chauffer for a rich white family, the Daltons, whose wealth comes from real estate, including controlling shares in the company that owns the rat-infested apartment building in which the Thomas family lives. Throw the Daltons’ daughter, Mary, a beautiful, rebellious wild-child flirting with Communism (or more than flirting) into the mix and there is a recipe for disaster. The disaster comes quickly, with an act of (accidental, though predictable) violence at the end of the first part of the novel, followed by ever-more panicked and foolish decisions on the part of Bigger and the inevitable consequences.
The novel, in three parts–Fear, Flight, Fate–is seen entirely through Bigger’s eyes. Although narrated in the third person, we are privy to Bigger’s thoughts, his feelings, his fears, his angers. And it is not a pleasant place to dwell. Bigger is angry. He is afraid. He hates all white people, doesn’t understand them. He sees no real hope, has no happiness, embraces violence. He never seems to empathize, rarely seems to care about anything beyond himself. And yet, it is a tribute to Wright’s bravery and ability as a writer, that this distasteful character is given a measure of humanity–by exposing all of Bigger’s thoughts and feelings to the reader–such that I found myself actually concerned with his fate (though to be honest, I would likely be less emphatic with a real-life Bigger).
Wright does this in part by making Bigger’s motivations and feelings understandable. Not only has Bigger lacked for opportunity in life–in the last section of the novel we learn that he had dreams as a kid, which he knew were impossible merely because of the color of his skin–but he has also had very little interaction with white people, and none of it positive. He can see the white world only as oppressive. It is no wonder he reacts with confusion to the attempts of kindness on the parts of Mr. and Mrs. Dalton and by Mary. But this kindness is also a problem. It’s not just that it’s new to Bigger, it comes across to me as, if not condescending, at least misguided. The elder Daltons’ seek to help “the Negros” philanthropically, but without an understanding of what is really needed and without an acknowledgement of their complicity in the system (specifically in this novel, of redlining and segregation) that makes this very philanthropy necessary. Mary’s motivations may be more genuine–she speaks of equal humanity of the races–, but she often uses phrasing such as “those people,” which feels separating. Mary expresses concerns for the lives of Black people, but there’s still a slight edge of exoticism or condescension to her words, even while you see her trying to learn, saying “[w]e know so little about each other.” Bigger may not be able to put into words precisely his discomfort, but Mary has identified a root of the problem.
A running theme throughout the novel is blindness. It is explicit in the person of Mrs. Dalton, who is physically blind. Bigger uses the term after his crime, thinking that his eyes have been opened (by his actions and how he feels about them after) and that those around him–his family, his friends, his girlfriend Bessie–remain blind. Jan, Mary’s communist boyfriend, doesn’t use the actual word, but he tells Bigger late in the novel that now he “sees.” Wright is not subtle here; this is his purpose for his novel. He is attempting to open his readers’ eyes, to remove their blindness to the ways of the world, to open their understanding.
In some ways I’m surprised that Native Son was selected by the Book of the Month Club in 1940. He did have to edit out a more sexually explicit passage, but even at that, it is still a dark, violent book, and one with positive portrayals of communists and their messaging. It must have been a shock for many of its readers! It is sad that in some ways it remains relevant today–we still are too often blind to the true natures and needs of those unlike us, too many young people still live in fear and anger. I am reminded of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me; he describes the young men of his childhood neighborhood as living in fear and putting on a swaggering persona to mask this fear. It is somewhat concerning to me that it seems possible Bigger may serve to act as a reinforcement of a negative stereotype about young Black men, but Wright’s decision to center such an unappealing character in a novel about revealing the inequities and evils of racism and some of the inevitable consequences makes the book all the more powerful. Native Son is not uplifting, not comforting, not reassuring, but an important read in the pantheon of American 20th century literature.