For today, I read Native Son by Richard Wright. I think this is one that is part of some high school curriculums and possibly college, but I never ran into it as more than just knowing it was a book, that it was about a black man in the 1930s and that it was by Richard Wright. So, when I saw a deal for it for Kindle (1.99) I knew it would be my next book for the blog (contingent upon Dave not insisting he wanted to read it and us having to come to blows over the whole thing.)
Bebe Moore Campbell (which I’ve never noticed before has the same names as me, just reversed. No, I didn’t hyphenate, Campbell is now a middle name with the SSA office. Everyone asks) listed this in her top ten. Ken Kalfus did as well.
So, the main character of Native Son is Bigger Thomas. He’s a 20 year old man who is always seething in some way. He says at the beginning of the book that he feels something horrible is just waiting to happen to him. He runs around drinking, sleeping with a woman named Bessie and participating in petty thievery with her and a few of his friends. He lives in a tiny one room apartment with his brother, sister and mother. And for some reason, wordpress is putting a red underline now under everything I am typing as if I have done something wrong. It’s driving me nuts. Just a FYI.
His family has been receiving the “dole” (welfare in common terms) and have been told that Bigger must take a job that they find for him or they will remove the family from receiving it. Bigger doesn’t want a job. He doesn’t really know what he wants, he wants freedom, he wants a chance to explore the world, be a part of it. Not just be a part of a system designed to keep him down. But his mother convinces him to take a job offered to him.
A philanthropist millionaire needs a driver. His previous one has retired after ten years with the family. They paid for him to go to night school and encouraged him to get an education. Now, he wants to give another black kid the chance to do the same.
Bigger is intimidated by the way the family, which includes the millionaire, his wife and their 21 year old daughter treat him. The first time Mary, the daughter, meets him she gets in his face and wants to know if he’s in a labor union. That night, he is required as chauffeur to drive her to an event she is attending. However, the event doesn’t exist or if it did, Mary had no intention on going. She met up with Jan, a Communist and her boyfriend. She tells Bigger she wants to know what a Negro experiences, she wants to find out all about them, to see into their homes. Jan and Mary make Bigger take them to an all black restaurant on his side of town. They sit in the front with him, they make him eat at the same table as him. He is intensely uncomfortable with this. He resents them for it.
Later that night, while helping Mary into her room and into bed, he finds himself groping her. He later explains that he felt like white people expect all black men to want white women desperately. Then, her mother, who is blind comes into the room. In a panic, Bigger attempts to keep Mary quiet from her drunken mutterings, terrified her mother will find him. He kills her by accident.
The rest of the story is about what happens next.
I thought Native Son was compelling and beautiful in many places. I couldn’t tell how I felt about Bigger half the time. Some of the thoughts he has and some of his lack of feelings of guilt and remorse, and his feeling of freedom from having murdered makes me not like him. At other times though, my empathy for the struggle he was going through prior to the murder and then in the what happens next, made me like him a bit.
In a way, I don’t feel qualified to be writing an in depth analysis of Native Son. I feel like that’s akin to Mary sticking her face in Bigger’s and wanting to know all about the “Negro experience”.
I do think that the whites of this country delude ourselves into thinking racism doesn’t exist. I think it’s ridiculous how we do it. Yes, we no longer think black men can’t keep their hands off white women, we no longer lynch black men, we no longer refer to black people as “apes”, we no longer make them stop schooling at young ages. But, through my 30s I saw more and more evidence that racism is still alive and thriving in the United States. It’s in our general attitudes about welfare recipients, even in the face of statistics that show that just as many white people use benefits. Yet, politicians and people continue to bring up “welfare queens”. Which Reagan coined. Reagan also referred to “young bucks using welfare to buy themselves steaks”. On slave auction posters, young men were referred to as “young bucks”.Current politicians like to harp on single black mothers raising kids, and how they should really be coming from two parent households. It’s in white women drawing their purses closer to their bodies upon seeing a black man (this actually happened to fellow students of mine in Seward, NE). It’s in so many people refusing to believe that a black man could be President, he just has to be illegally so (no one said anything about Ted Cruz until Donald Trump challenged him, and he was not born in the United States, as Obama was. Bernie Sanders came from Polish immigrants to this country and no one has questioned his citizenship). It’s in the media calling a demonstration that is mostly peaceful, with just a few unruly members in Baltimore a riot. It’s in white people whining about reverse racism. A character in the book who is of the Communist party pegs it as fear. Which is true. I can speak to that as a white person and my observations, deep down whites exist in a state of guilt, shame and fear about what happens in this country. They react with anger. And I know some people will tell me “Nuh uh! I don’t. I just think Obama is a shit President, I believe that police have been in the right in every shooting they do. I think that as a white person I am always discriminated against.” You can feel that if you want, I won’t try to argue you out of it (so please, no need to comment on it, all inflammatory comments about the subject will be deleted and/or ignored). I can only speak from my own experiences and my own observations.
Richard Wright did a beautiful job drawing a reader into Bigger’s mind, into his soul. It brought me a little closer to understanding some things. But again, I feel in a way like Mary demanding to know more.
My one problem with the book is it is stated more than once in the book that Bigger had to stop school at the eighth grade. There’s no indication that he is an avid reader (though at the beginning of the book he is hungering to buy a magazine). Yet, he reads newspaper accounts of the murder and subsequent events with no problem at all. While it’s not completely out of the ordinary that he could read that well after 8th grade, it is a little odd for the most part.
Read this book. Stuff said in it still resonates and rings true today. And, it’s also important I think to really get a sense of what it was like in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s our history as a nation. Wright does an amazing job of bringing it to life.
Have a great weekend!