Beware, here be spoilers…
The plot of Native Son by Richard Wrightis pretty straight forward, so I don’t feel too guilty for the spoilers here. Native Son is the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man living in poverty in 1930s Chicago. Bigger is offered a job by an ostensibly well-meaning liberal capitalist and it goes very, very badly. Bigger accidentally kills a white woman. From there, it goes pretty much exactly as one would expect. Racist cops, angry lynch mobs, a legal system rigged against him. Not much has changed from 1930.
Now, let me begin by saying that I am a white, middle class, well-meaning liberal woman. Part of the reason I was a bit reluctant about reading this book was me thinking “Poverty is terrible. Racism is terrible. Systemic racism is a real thing. Do I need to read 500 pages about how bad it all is? I can just read the news.” Now, apart from the fact that this sort of thinking is arrogant and ignorant and lazy and intellectually suspect and oh my god why am I admitting to this on the internet I am so ashamed…Oops. Sorry. Back to the review.
The problem was that I thought this was going to be a book I feel like I’ve read a thousand times. A book about a guy who is just trying to get ahead in the world. He’s doing all he can to improve his lot in life, and this terrible system just keeps holding him back and breaking him down. It would play on my empathy with a likable underdog to convince me that yeah… Racism IS bad!
Man. I was so wrong.
Bigger Thomas is not likable. He is not special. He is violent, impulsive, apathetic, and mean. He is a misogynist, a bully, and a criminal. Wright doesn’t want the reader to empathize with Bigger. He isn’t asking us to be outraged at how this system destroys this good man. He’s asking us to understand how this system made this bad man. He sets himself a daunting task: introduce an unsympathetic, deeply unlikable character, show him do terrible things with little thought or reflection, and then ask us not to feel bad for him but to see him.
I do not have the words or the intellectual nuance to say any of this the right way, and I wish I did. Wright does an impressive job of describing the systems of oppression at play to create Bigger, but what most affected (and challenged) me was the way he portrays the psychological effects of these systems. He asks his reader to understand what living under these systems might do to a man. What it’s like to live in a world designed to deny you everything. That tells you “these are the things to which you must aspire” and then systematically sets about making it impossible to achieve them. That says “this is OUR world and we have designed it to exclude you.”
Ugh. This has been the most frustrating review I’ve ever written. Clearly this book challenged me and has made me think in ways I’m just not used to. I’m thankful for that, but it’s darned hard to write about.
I think I’ll just finish up with a few quotes from Wright that say what I’m trying to get across so much better than I ever could.
“He comes of a people who have lived under queer conditions of life, conditions thrust outside the normal circle of our civilization. But even in living outside of our lives, he has not had a full life of his own. We have seen to that. It was convenient to keep him close to us; it was nice and cheap. We told him what to do; where to live; how much schooling he could get; where he could eat; where and what kind of work he could do. We marked up the earth and said ‘Stay there!'”
“Men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread.”
“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.”
Title: Native Son
Author: Richard Wright
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication Year: 1940 originally
Genre: Classics, Literature
Rating: 4/5 stars