I’ve been reading a lot of protest and enlightenment literature for my class on African-American writing. We started the semester with Ta-Nehisi Coates and continued through Johnson, Hurston, and Du Bois. I’ll admit that some of the earlier traditions of the canon didn’t really catch my attention that strongly, but that all changed with Wright’s Native Son.
It’s amazing how some stories can resonate so strongly through time, but it’s also sad that many of these important issues have continued through today. With a few minor updates, Native Son reads like a book that could take place today just as easily as it did back in 1940. It’s not hard to imagine Bigger Thomas taking the place of any number of black boys thrown up on the news. It’s not impossible to replace Max with someone like Bernie Sanders. It’s not much of a stretch to replace the angry mobs and policemen with modern ones. This is a contemporary story, a continuing problem, and a novel that should be read and understood by every American.
Native Son is about a black boy named Bigger Thomas who manages to get a job working for Mr. Dalton, a real estate mogul in Chicago. The issue is that Mr. Dalton’s daughter, Mary, is in cahoots with the socialists and refuses to obey the unwritten racial divide between blacks and whites. Instead, she’s kind to Bigger, treats him as an equal, and attempts to get him to join the fight for equality. Unfortunately, this doesn’t end well for anyone involved and what follows is a narrative that questions segregation, race relations, and capitalism itself.
This novel will leave readers with more questions than answers. Does the environment that a person grows up in excuse their personal actions? Do charity and good intentions excuse privilege and oppression? Why are some deaths valued more than others? What is the difference between white femininity and black femininity? How does the media, government, and popular opinion work against the greater good?
This is a discourse book, a thinking man’s novel, and it’s meant to provoke the best and worst in each reader. Everyone will come at this book from different lives and knowledge, and I’m sure that everyone will get something different from it. That’s what makes this book special; it will never be the same to any one person and it will be different each time it’s read. Whether he’s an antagonist, an anti-hero, or a misunderstood protagonist, Bigger Thomas is one of literature’s greatest conundrums.
The novel focuses closely to Bigger’s voice and perspective, but there is an almost forty page monologue from Max about capitalism, the system of oppression, and privilege. The monologue probably only really needs to be read once, but it’s a stirring addition that will give readers hope that things will turn out okay. This is a novel that shows the black everyman in Chicago during the 1930s, a person who is caged in by blind people and forced to accept things the way they are without complaint until one day he snaps.
Native Son would be best appreciated by members of the Black Lives Matter movement and students of feminism, politics, and 20th century literature. It would be great if people who weren’t familiar with the oppression of black people outside of slavery, people who assumed racism was over with the election of President Obama, and people who claim that All Lives Matter would also read this book. While it might not change a person’s worldview, it will open up a new perspective that some might not be aware of. It’s an important piece of literature in the American canon, so pick up a copy and blot out your blindness.