A few months ago I read Native Son by Richard Wright. Richard Wright was an American writer in the late 19th to mid 20th century whose work centered on racial discrimination and violence in the North and South.
His novel Native Son was one of the best books I have read in years, and I was hooked the moment I opened it up. The story details a chapter of Bigger Thomas’ life, an 18 year old from a poor black family in Chicago. Bigger is offered a job with a rich white family, the Daltons, who seem to be giving him the job as a charity.Though he feels uncomfortable taking the job in the white man’s world, Bigger takes the job and begins his new life as a chauffeur for the Daltons.
There is much symbolism in the book, with details being laid out in the colors of black or white, and people having wide open eyes that are blind, and shielded eyes that are seeing. The first section of the book is titled “Fear,” and exhibits the violence that fear breeds, in micro and macro levels.
“Violence is a personal necessity for the oppressed…It is not a strategy consciously devised. It is the deep, instinctive expression of a human being denied individuality,” a character toward the end of the novel states.
During Bigger’s first night on the job as a chauffeur, he is supposed to take the Daltons’ daughter, Mary, to college. Once on the road, Mary lets Bigger know that she is not going to college at all, and directs him to her friend Jan’s home.
Jan and Mary treat Bigger different than other white people he has met in his life, and he is uncomfortable as Jan sticks out his hand for a handshake. Jan and Mary then insist that Bigger take them to a “real restaurant,” where “his people eat.” At the restaurant they then practically command Bigger to eat with them, though they are doing it for the ideal of equality. Jan and Mary are well meaning in theory, as they want to jump straight to communistic equality, but they fail to take into account the risks that Bigger is taking by participating in this demo of utopia with them. It is much different for an oppressed person to pretend that the world is not racist compared to a privileged couple pretending it is no longer racist.
Later that night they all become intoxicated, and then by accident Bigger kills Mary in her bed after he drives her home. The next part of the novel chronicles Bigger’s “Flight.”
Bigger seems to be trying to convince himself that killing was his initial aim as he tells himself that he hadn’t really known life until he had killed. Throughout the book, Bigger makes the point that being a black person in America is like being in jail. He has to act a certain way for white people. He also speaks about how black people are physically and financially segregated, as he and his family have to live in the “Black Belt,” the only area in town where rent is offered to black people. He emphasizes that black people live a life of jail, while also awaiting or attempting to avoid the day that they themselves are put in actual jail. Bigger, never a religious character, believes that the white people like black people to be religious so that then “they can do whatever they want with us.”
The final section of the book is titled “Fate.” Defending Bigger in court, his lawyer Max argues that Bigger’s actions were a reaction to white supremacist culture he grew up in. Max points out that Mary’s father is a millionaire from real estate sales, and is complicit in only leasing to black people in the “brown belt,” for prices far higher than should be. In response to Mary’s father’s announcement that he never did any harm to black people, and “even sent some Ping-Pong tables to the South Side Boys’ Club” earlier in the day, Max asks whether Ping-Pong will prevent murder.
There was so many layers to Native Son that I didn’t know what to think while reading it, much less when I was finished reading it. The general theme that stood out to me was the idea that there are societal powers higher than the individual that help shape an individual. It is not necessarily a god in heaven shaping “good” and “evil” human life, but rather this credit is due to the men who shape society. Particularly the white man, in American society.
I just finished reading Black Boy by Wright, which is Wright’s autobiographical novel about his life growing up in Jackson Mississippi as a black man from a very religious family. After graduating 9th grade, he moves to the North to Memphis, Tennessee.
Wright wrote of his need as a black man in the South to be conscious of and say the “right things” for the white people around him. He notes that he was conscious of the “entirety of my relations with them, and they were conscious only of what was happening at a given moment.” He explains that a white person might not see their actions as racist, because it was a one time thing in the moment. A small push or shove or interruption or over looking or snap judgement. But a black person takes this one white person’s action into account of their whole lifetime of discrimination. And the white person has no right to try to explain the black person’s outrage away as an overreaction.
I saw themes from Native Son that were woven throughout Wright’s own life, as detailed in Black Boy. His first job was with a white family that treated him as less than human. In his next job his life was threatened by his white coworkers who wanted him out. Wright himself had a strong desire to escape and find freedom.
Where Bigger never found a place to express himself and covered this fact up with violence, Wright found writing and expresses himself for all to hear. And many people heard. Wright changed the course of American history, with most literary critics crediting him with helping to change race relations in the mid twentieth century.
“Men can starve from a lack of self realization just as much as they can from a lack of bread,” Wright states determinedly in Native Son.
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