Native Son by Richard Wright ★★★★
Edition: Perennial Classics (1998). Edition: First Edition, Paperback, 528 pages.
The restored text established by The Library of America.
Original publication date: 1940
““There he is!” the mother screamed again.
A huge black rat squealed and leaped at Bigger’s trouser-leg and snagged it in his teeth, hanging on.
“Goddamn!” Bigger whispered fiercely, whirling and kicking out his leg with all the strength of his body. The force of his movement shook the rat loose and it sailed through the air and struck a wall. Instantly, it rolled over and leaped again. Bigger dodged and the rat landed against a table leg. With clenched teeth, Bigger held the skillet; he was afraid to hurl it, fearing that he might miss. The rat squeaked and turned and ran in a narrow circle, looking for a place to hide; it leaped again past Bigger and scurried on dry rasping feet to one side of the box and then to the other, searching for the hole. Then it turned and reared upon its hind legs.”
Chicago’s South Side, sometime in the 1930s. This is our introduction to Bigger Thomas and his family. They live in a rat-infested room in a tenement building, Mrs. Thomas, Bigger, and his younger brother Buddy and little sister Vera. They’ve just been woken up by a loud alarm-clock in the dark hours before dawn, and the long-tailed terror has made its appearance, scaring the women who screech and stand up on the bed, while the brothers, equally terrified, must deal with the foot-long vermin. Eventually Bigger gets the better of the beast and squashes it dead with the heavy skillet. Then he grabs it by the tail and dangles it in front of his terrified sister’s face, just for the fun of it, and she faints. We are made to understand that this is normal behaviour for Bigger, who is normally sullen and temperamental and given to ignoring his family and seeking ways to amuse himself with regular trips to the cinema and occasional gigs robbing black neighbours with his little gang of friends. But on this morning, Mrs. Thomas is pressuring Bigger to go to a job interview. They need the money badly, and if he doesn’t take the job, the family will be cut off from government relief payments which they rely on to put food on the table. But Bigger wants to do things his own way, and he’s got a big plan to rob a local Jewish grocery shop owner for a really big payoff. He’s scared though, as are his three partners in crime; this would be their first time targeting a white man, and they know the consequences if they get caught will be dire. But Bigger, conscious of his own fear, decides he won’t be seen as a coward, and his solution for avoiding the whole plan that day is to violently assault one of his friends on the merest provocation.
We’ve just begun the story, and already Wright has made us hate this 20-year-old boy. The reader is made uncomfortable. Here is a book denouncing racism, but our protagonist is violent, cruel to his own family and friends, and prideful to the point of murderous impulses to protect his sense of self. He seemingly has no redeeming features; is he a psychopath? Perhaps. At this point, I go back and read the introduction by Arnold Rampersad I had avoided initially, fearing the all too frequent spoilers usually found there. I find my feelings towards Bigger are vindicated. There are Biggers of every colour, everywhere in the world, he says. That’s the part that sticks to my mind anyway, and now I feel freed from any obligation to sympathise with him.
Bigger goes to the job interview. He meets Mr. Dalton in one of the nicest neighbourhoods in the city. An impressive house. They are very wealthy. Mr. Dalton is one of the most respected citizens of Chicago, a multi-millionaire who owns real-estate and thus incidentally and indirectly, the tenement building Bigger and his family live in. Mr. Dalton and his blind wife have a social conscience though, and they’ve given millions of dollars in aid to the city’s black citizens. Bigger is to be their chauffeur, to replace the last black chauffeur, who was encouraged by Mrs. Dalton to attend night school in order to get a better job. Bigger is suspicious. He is suspicious of all white people, who have always held him back, crushed him down, prevented him from attaining his dreams. But the Daltons are different, and this troubles him deeply. Their daughter Mary barges into his interview with his future employer and starts demanding whether he is with a union; calls her father a capitalist. Bigger decides he hates the young woman. She is pretty, very pretty, but she is already making trouble for him. He’s not quite sure what capitalism or communism is, but he’s pretty sure she is one of them and he fears Mr. Dalton won’t give him the job if he thinks Bigger is one of them too. But he does get the job, and his first task is to drive Mary to university that evening. But Mary doesn’t want to go to university. Instead, she wants Bigger to drive her to her boyfriend’s, who as it turns out, is a notorious Communist agitator. The couple wants to befriend Bigger, encourage him to call them by their first names, they are curious about his life, they want to better the condition of blacks in America. That evening, they force him to sit down and eat a meal at a local black hangout and get drunk with them. Things turn out badly. By two in the morning, Mary is dead, and Bigger is responsible. To cover up his tracks, he makes the situation much worse. Now he’s on the run for murder. Being responsible for the death of a white woman means capital punishment for him, so he must stay in hiding, and by the evening after Mary’s death, he’s murdered another woman to prevent her from denouncing him. This is all terribly dark and his acts are abominably violent. But Wright has formed a taut, stark tableau that reads like the best kind of suspense thriller. You can’t keep racing along to find out what will happen next.
Bigger is caught, of course. You figure this out before you’ve even begun to read the book. Book 1 is called Fear. Book 2: Flight. Book 3: Fate. Nothing so far has given any indication that Bigger is on the right track or likely to see the light. This part of the book was the most problematic for me. The physical violence in Book 2 was revolting, sickening. But now in Book 3, Wright shows us racism in full force, and Bigger finally starts to become human. His defences are broken down, and he isn’t a mere brute anymore, he questions himself, he seeks to be understood by someone. But the problematic part here is that this is also were Wright gets preachy in his attempt to drive home his point about the kind of world the blacks have been living in till now and what few choices and hope they’ve been given since their arrival in America, and now, in a Jim Crow nation. We are given to understand that Bigger is the symptom of a sick society. Of course, an enlighten reader can only agree with this. But there is too much rhetoric here. There is a long speech, many pages long, and if we already know that Wright was an active member of the Communist party, we can’t help but feel that he is advancing Communist theories. I have nothing against Socialism, or even Communism where these ideologies meet with humanitarian concerns, in that sense I feel they are a powerful and necessary forces in the world, but for the problem that these ideologies go so deeply into the fabric of life and reframe everything in the light of Us vs. Them. Bigger doesn’t understand a word of this speech, but he understand it’s intent. I understood a little bit more than he did, but mostly I felt like I’d been hit over the head with a lot of theoretical jargon that only distanced me from what until then had been a visceral experience. No matter. This is an essential novel. It was relevant and necessary and groundbreaking when it was first published, and though many black writers have expressed their individual voices since then, it remains an essential novel today. This is the kind of book that marks you for life. I can’t say I’ll necessarily want to read it again, and for that reason it probably won’t make the list of my favourite books this year, but it was an important read and a challenging one, and frankly, pretty gripping too, and one I feel has made me grow as a person and as a reader.