The Difficult Lessons of Richard Wright’s Native Son

Lately I’ve been thinking about Richard Wright’s famous protest novel, Native Son (1940). The book is a page-turner like no other, and there is much to learn from it during this long season of exhibitionistic murders.

Wright’s Chicago-born African American protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is the native son in question. From the very first pages, he is a criminal in the making: young, brooding, physically powerful, horrifyingly poor, inclined to rob rather than earn, and marginalized in all ways due to his race. Though he is ignorant and unenlightened, a furtive intelligence peeks out from behind his inarticulate rage and despair. He is capable of having ideas, very bad ones.

He can’t catch a break, and it’s obvious he never will.  When he’s offered a job as chauffeur for the wealthy white Dalton family, there appears to be a glimmer of respectability in the offing, but you know Bigger will mess things up somehow.

For those who haven’t read the book, I’ll tread lightly over the particulars. Suffice it to say that Bigger accidentally commits a terrible deed. He compounds it in his macabre attempt at a coverup, and then deliberately commits further heinous crimes. Once the manhunt is on, the press inflames the whole city with racist falsehoods. Bigger is finally caught in a cinematic showdown with the cops, his black body flung against the Chicago snow.

For all of the book’s riveting dramatic action, it is the understated final conversation between Bigger and his lawyer, a Jewish Communist named Boris Max, that I keep thinking about. They are coming at this meeting from very different points of view. Max is tense and sad; Bigger is eerily equanimous. Max has come to comfort Bigger and say goodbye; Bigger has figured things out on his own and needs to talk, perhaps even comfort Max.

It turns out he listened very carefully to Max’s lengthy and high-minded courtroom presentation, a spirited defense that had everything to do with abstract sociology and little to do with the individual defendant. He has concluded that Max was correct: he is the inevitable and unfortunate product of a racist city and racist society and therefore, by Bigger’s own reckoning, not to blame for anything whatsoever.

Going still further, he has decided his actions–the killings–were good. They were the right thing to do. He’s figured out a way to justify himself and become his own hero.

“What I killed for must’ve been good!” Bigger’s voice was full of frenzied anguish. “It must have been good! When a man kills, it’s for something. … I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em.”

Isn’t this wild? Isn’t this familiar?

The killer in Orlando and the killer in Dallas are our very own Bigger Thomases: angry, hopeless, desperate young men who found a sick justification for their actions. They are entirely to blame for what they did: like Bigger’s, their actions are indefensible. Yet we need to look at our society–our nation bulging with firearms and boiling with racial, ethnic, and religious tensions–when we contemplate how these modern-day Biggers came into being. With Native Son as a point of reference, they can be seen in the context of conditions that make them not just possible but terrifyingly likely.

Native Son is not a didactic screed but rather a classic example of literary realism with naturalist flourishes. It invites us to look, see, and think. We don’t need to read far into it to notice that Bigger is hardly the only native son gone berserk. In memorably lurid detail, the novel illustrates exactly how racism dehumanizes oppressors and victims alike. The virulently racist white policemen, the rabid white prosecutor, and the race-baiting press all behave in unconscionable ways. Their actions cause us to feel, at times, a modicum of sympathy for Bigger and prevent us from dismissing him as a mere sociopath.

Think, now, of the murderous white overseers of enslaved Americans, the KKK members who lynched black men and women for decades after the Civil War, and last year’s white murderer of black churchgoers in Charleston–native sons, one and all. They are on the opposite side from Bigger, but no less demented in their perverted self-justification of their deeds. This is racism in America: everybody suffers, everybody loses.

Native Son is not light summer reading, but this has not been a light summer. We need to read and reread this book. Its truths are entirely relevant to our time.

Native Son cover

The Trouble in Baltimore, the Literature of Ann Petry

If you want to understand the mayhem in Baltimore that occurred after Freddie Gray’s entirely preventable death, get a copy of Miss Muriel and Other Stories (1971) by Ann Petry and read “In Darkness and Confusion,” a novella based on the Harlem race riot of 1943.

First published in 1947, the wartime story is told from the perspective of William Jones, a Harlem resident very worried about his son, Sam, a soldier stationed in Georgia. Sam’s letters home have stopped and Jones, unable to stand the silence, laboriously writes a note that barely scrapes the surface of his love and concern: “Is you all right? Your Pa.”

The inquiry goes unanswered. Jones eventually learns that his son, refusing to sit in the “nigger end” of a bus, traded gunshots with a white MP and ended up court-martialed and sentenced to twenty years of hard labor.

A day after learning this terrible news, which he withholds from his wife, Jones witnesses an altercation between a white policeman and a black soldier. The officer shoots the soldier; an ambulance takes the man to a Harlem hospital; a mob fills the streets and officers on horseback quickly arrive.

Jones sees his private agony writ large in the public spectacle. He has spent his life following the white man’s rules even though those rules degrade him and his family at every turn. His powerlessness has made it nearly impossible for him to express himself, and his brief exchanges with his wife and his wayward niece, Annie May, reveal nothing of the deep love and compassion he actually feels for them. Despite these bleak circumstances, Jones had hoped and believed his son could have a better life than his own.

As the mob’s angry energy propels him forward, he feels like part of something larger than himself for the first time. The problem is, that something is  volatile, malevolent, and on the verge of exploding.

When he comes face to face with his wife, Pink, she says, “What you doing out here in this mob? A Sunday evening and you drinking beer.” The dramatic circumstances provoke Jones to speak directly, if haltingly, to his wife:

For a moment he couldn’t answer her. All he could think of was Sam. He almost said, “I saw Sam shot this afternoon,” and he swallowed hard.

“This afternoon I saw a white cop kill a black soldier,” he said. “In the bar where I was drinking beer. I saw it. That’s why I’m here. The glass of beer I was drinking went on my clothes. The cop shot him in the back. That’s why I’m here.”

He paused for a moment, took a deep breath. This was how it ought to be, he decided. She had to know sometime and this was the right place to tell her. In this semidarkness, in this confusion of noises, with the low, harsh rhythm of the footsteps sounding against the noise of the horses’ hoofs.

A short, obese woman in fragile health, Pink erupts in anguish when she learns her son’s fate. After emitting a wail that “echoed and reechoed the length of the street,” she leads the crowd in vandalizing stores and looting merchandise. Jones joins in. His pride in his wife’s defiant aggression gives way to a sick feeling of defeat. The riot seems like a nightmare, but he knows “this was no dream but a reality from which he couldn’t escape.”

As if in a trance, Pink continues on her rampage. As Jones looks on, she takes hold of the iron gate separating the mob from a liquor store:

The gate began to bend and sway under her assault. Then it was down. She stood there for a moment, staring at her hands–big drops of blood oozed slowly over the palms. Then she turned to the crowd that had stopped to watch.

“Come on, you niggers,” she said. Her eyes were little and evil and triumphant. “Come on and drink up the white man’s liquor.”

The riot empowers Pink in the worst possible way: it gives her license to debase herself and her community.

The parallels between the events in Petry’s novella and the trouble in Baltimore are obvious. But because it is fiction rather than a fast-changing news story, we can deal with “In Darkness and Confusion” calmly and reasonably. The horrifying denouement, which I won’t spoil here, invites empathy and compassion rather than finger-pointing or a helpless wringing of hands.

Literature–if it really is literature–always challenges us to go beyond florid sentiment and grow as thinkers, as human beings. In this particular instance, Petry’s novella of the 1940s offers us an excellent way into that meaningful conversation about race that our national leaders keep saying we ought to have.

Ann Petry (1908-1997)
Ann Petry (1908-1997)