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

Poetry Readings: A Love Story

As an audience member, I approach poetry readings with mingled feelings of hope and dread. These occasions can be truly marvelous or unspeakably awful.

If a poetry reading has any hope of success, certain rules must be observed. The introduction must be brief and free of blather. The poet must be sober and mindful of the clock. The audience, too, must do its part: it should be unplugged, properly fed and caffeinated, and savvy enough not to clap after every darned poem.

If a reading is awful, it is, of course, the poet’s fault. The poet has talked too long between poems, used the ridiculous, sing-song “poet voice,” or announced at the beginning, “You can hear me without the microphone, right?” The people in the back want to scream: Use it! Use it! Use it! It’s not there just to look pretty! But there’s always some knucklehead in the second row who nods obligingly, and the dumb-show begins.

A good reading remains a tantalizing possibility. It’s sort of like birdwatching: when you see and hear an actual fire-veined poet in the flesh, your heart does backflips. You thank the stars you showed up. You are not blinking, and when you get home, you pace around for a while before you can settle down.

Of the countless readings I’ve attended over the years, these three poets stand out as the real deal:

  • Lucille Clifton, reading in her adopted hometown of Columbia, Md., in the early 2000s. Clifton, who died in 2010, was the rare poet who left audiences wanting more. On this occasion, she was on stage for no longer than 30 minutes, her half of a two-poet reading. Her poem based on the molestation she experienced as a young girl elicited gasps from the audience. It was not a slam poet’s self-indulgent shock poem; it was “moonchild,” a heartrending study in restraint, published in Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000. When she closed with “won’t you celebrate with me,” she changed the pronouns so her signature poem about an individual woman’s survival against the odds became a communal celebration of endurance. I was not the only one who wept. Clifton had that much grace, that much power.
Lucille Clifton
  • Louise Glück, reading at the University of Virginia in 1980 or 1981. The packed auditorium fell into rapt silence as soon as Glück opened her mouth. Slim and elegant in a black dress, she read her poems, many from The House on Marshland, without a word of commentary. You didn’t have to be Helen Vendler to know this was a poet headed toward greatness. Glück, whose very cool umlauted name means “luck” in German, is a brilliant presence on stage.
Louise Glück
  • Gwendolyn Brooks, reading at the Cambridge (Mass.) Public Library, in the late 1990s. The reading took place in a cramped space with not enough folding chairs for all the people who wanted to hear the eighty-year-old poet and leading voice in the Black Arts Movement. Tall and commanding and wearing a colorful turban, Brooks read beneath the glaring light of a local community-access TV station. She read old poems and newer ones, some in sonnet form and some in free verse. With perspiration trickling down her face, she was as fully alive and present in the moment as anyone I’ve ever seen. She died in 2000. When I close my eyes, I can still hear the applause rocking the Cambridge library as she took her final bow.
Gwendolyn Brooks

Lucille Clifton and the African American Poetic Tradition

I had the pleasure of interviewing Lucille Clifton a long time ago when I was writing a book about her poetry. Near the end of the interview, she said something that I’ve been thinking about lately.

We had been talking about Langston Hughes’s 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” in which Hughes mentions a friend who said he wanted to be a poet, not a Negro poet. In response, Hughes writes, “This is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.”

I said it seemed to me that she had climbed the racial mountain and that her blackness was very much part of who she was in her poetry.

Clifton agreed and then remarked,

What the young man [in the essay] was probably talking about was not what he was, but what people saw him as. And I’m seen as that quite often. There’s the poets and there’s the subgenre and Lucille is in there. Because people see it that way, that does not make it so.… I’m not either American or black.

She is right, of course. But if we take her comments to their extreme, does this mean we abandon the study of African American poetry and teach poets like Clifton and Hughes only in broad surveys?

I would say no. The African American poetic tradition offers us too much to learn, too much to love, to set it aside. Without an understanding and appreciation of that tradition, it’s hard to make sense of eighteenth-century enslaved poet Jupitor Hammon’s long poem written to and for his contemporary, Phillis Wheatley.

Hammon wrote his poem to her in solidarity: they were both Christians, both enslaved, both accomplished poets. We need to see and understand them as part of a community and continuum of black poets.

Without some sense of the African American poetic tradition, furthermore, it would be hard to articulate why Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s wonderfully musical “When Malindy Sings” had to be written in the black vernacular to make its point about Malindy’s natural-born talent. And without that tradition, the vision of Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass” would not be as deep or moving; the pain and rage of Lucille Clifton’s “to ms. ann” would be more opaque; the riddle of Audre Lorde’s “But What Can You Teach My Daughter” would make less sense.

But as we read these poets in the context of their times and their relation to African American culture, to this country and to one another, it’s worth keeping in mind, as Clifton said, that they don’t belong in a corner: they are not to be turned to only during Black History Month. As a scholar of African American poetry, I have put them at the center of my study of American poetry. Doing so has forever altered my perceptions of poets such as Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg and Mary Oliver. For me, the “white tradition” is not the universal one; it is not the fallback standard of what American poetry is.

African American poets have always known this. Lucille Clifton spelled it out for me at the end of our interview:

I aspire to be the poet that Marianne Moore was, that Langston [Hughes] was, that Richard Wilbur is. I aspire to be as much poet as Auden—whom I like, by the way—[Robert] Lowell, whom I like. I aspire to be all that. But that’s what American poetry is. Now, whether or not critics think so—they’re wrong, that’s all. I don’t mind. I don’t have a problem with that.

I am not an American poet who happens to be black. I did not happen to be black. My mother was black, my father was black. And so there I was. I was gonna be black! It didn’t just zap me. And that’s okay, that’s all right, that is not a subgenre of anything. I am an American poet; this is what American poetry is.

Earlier in the interview, Clifton mentioned Asian-American and Native American poets she counted among her peers. Her point was that American poetry is so much bigger than any one race or ethnicity.

Ever mindful of inclusion, she wrote poems in the voices of many different women and men. She also wrote with empathy about animals and trees and in one poem, a playful homage to her birth sign, even took on the persona of a poet crab.

Clifton died at age 73 on February 13, 2010. She was a great poet and a beautiful person, and I miss her.

Lucille Clifton
Lucille Clifton

Here’s my complete interview with Lucille Clifton: “She Could Tell You Stories.”