Native Son was first published in 1940
Richard Wright had every good reason to be angry. He grew up in the US Deep South in the 1920s and 1930s, when segregation and systematic violence towards African-Americans were at their height. In his autobiography, Black Boy, he remembers seeing the dismembered body parts of a lynched relative displayed in the windows of local white businesses as a marketing strategy.
His anger initially took the form of explosive violence towards those nearest to him and self-hatred – he claimed that he was an alcoholic by the time he was 12 – but two events began to change that. First of all, he encountered the writing of H L Mencken which taught him that words could be weapons. Secondly, he moved to Chicago and his understanding of racism and the class system was focused by his joining the Communist Party.
Native Son carries the marks of all these experiences. The opening section of the book begins with a confrontation with a rat in a rotting and overcrowded apartment. The screaming of the cornered rat and its beating to death echo through the rest of the book. The rest of this first section takes Bigger, the central character, on a whirlwind tour of the ghetto and its internal tensions, and then on to an encounter with a white “philanthropist” and two naive Communist Party members. The shortcomings of the liberalism and condescension of these people lead to a nightmarish conclusion.
The middle section of the book is the story of a manhunt that spills over into violence in all directions. Bigger feels trapped and surrounded as the white authorities convict the whole black Southside for what has happened.
The final part of the book consists of Bigger’s trial. It is here that the tensions that sat behind the writing of the book become most apparent, for while Richard Wright was a Communist Party member he became increasingly disillusioned by their politics towards the end of the 1930s.
He was confused and angry when the Stalin-Hitler pact became public and was disgusted by the US Communist Party’s abandonment of domestic anti-racism in pursuit of the war effort. His move towards a radical existentialism began here. The way these events mark the writing is complex and makes this a book which contains much with which to agree and much with which to argue.
I’ve tried to avoid giving away too much of the plot of this book because one of its features is the way in which it grabbed me by the throat the first time I read it – and I hope it will grab you also and that at 2am when you reach the end of the first part you will fall asleep exhausted alongside Bigger.
Even the huge speech delivered by the lawyer in the final part is gripping for its analysis of racism and the ways in which it poisons and infects the whole of a society. One of the really striking elements of this book is the way in which extraordinary images and symbols are built into the narrative, so that the individual events resonate with the class and racial hatreds of the world of Bigger and of Trayvon Martin. Not much has changed and the anger that drove Richard Wright to write this book 75 years ago still gleams bright.
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