“I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” — Richard Wright, How “Bigger” Was Born”
Native Son is not only well-written and compelling, but I’d say that it’s one of the most important books ever written. By writing this book, Richard Wright confronted the America he lived in with the reality of a racism so deep that even the kindness of a white woman could drive a black man to think he had to kill or be killed. Reading this book will wound you (if you have a soul to wound), and the wound will be so deep that you’ll find yourself dry-eyed and struggling to reconcile it with what you thought about the world you live in.
On the surface, it’s a story we all read about in our high school history classes: Lincoln frees slaves. Slaves not really free. Freedmen struggle to make living in world that still thinks of them as second-class citizens. Freedmen commit crimes of desperation, are caught and condemned to greater punishment than the crime merits. We, safely on this side of history, exclaim over the horrors of such stories and aver that we shall never let such injustice occur again, all the while secretly priding ourselves in thinking that we are not so narrow-minded as the bigots of 1930s Chicago.
Heck, I’m not even white, and this applies to me.
The story of Bigger Thomas goes much deeper than the surface telling of a tale of injustice. Bigger, a poor black man, is offered a plum position chauffeuring a wealthy white family around. The Daltons are nice people, and they long to help the uneducated and oppressed blacks by offering them the opportunity to work and make a nice living. Bigger understands that this is a rare opportunity; rarer than once-in-a-lifetime. He’ll have a room to himself and more money than he’s ever made at any other job, all just to drive people around town in a car that he’d never even have the chance to see the inside of if not for this job. But their politeness makes him uneasy; he doesn’t know how to respond to them, and he responds to their kindness with suspicion and fear. Instead of helping him to let his guard down, it puts him even more on edge.
Then, the Daltons’ daughter enters the picture. A young university student, Mary has fallen in with the local communists. She and her boyfriend, Jan, insist on treating Bigger like their equal, insist that he call them by their first names, insist that he take them to a local diner that he and his friends frequent, and insist that he sit with them as they dine. He resists every single one of these advances, but ultimately feels powerless to disobey them. They think they’re treating him with the respect he deserves. He thinks they’re putting a target on his back. Even with the best of intentions, they’re displaying their ignorance of Bigger’s situation in life. Mary and Jan, for their part, are puzzled when he balks at being treated with the courtesy to which they themselves are so accustomed.
It’s the tension between all of these factors — the Daltons’ kindness, Bigger’s background and life experience, Mary and Jan’s desire to help Bigger to take what they think is his — that ultimately leads Bigger to commit a reprehensible crime. Wright doesn’t sugar-coat Bigger’s actions: it’s clear through the course of the narrative that Bigger’s first priority is self-preservation, and he does terrible things in order to ensure it. He’s not some hero forced to make a terrible decision by impossible circumstances. Yes, his options were less than limited. Yes, the situation was unfair and exacerbated by the strange coexistence of kindness and racism in the white folks around him. But Wright doesn’t make those excuses for Bigger, and he shows you the cruelty of Bigger’s actions in a harsh and unblinking light.
The book does a fantastic job of raising some important questions: Did Bigger really have any choice at all? What else could he possibly have done? How could the Daltons have treated him differently? It also raises questions that hit closer to home: Has the world really changed? Is it still like this for some people? Am I more like Bigger or more like the Daltons or more like Mary and Jan? Reading this book made me feel a gamut of conflicting emotions. I was embarrassed by the Daltons’ unwitting condescension. I was enraged by Mary and Jan’s insistence that Bigger do as they say, even though they were only insisting that he let them treat him as an equal. I was horrified by Bigger’s actions. I felt sympathy for Bigger. I felt sympathy for Mary and the Daltons. And, overall, I felt helpless to do anything to change situations like these that might be occurring in real life, right here in my own hometown.
This is where the importance of the book really lies. It shows you that it’s not enough just for you treat others with kindness and as equals. The Daltons showed Bigger kindness, and Mary and Jan treated him as an equal, and that’s what precipitated the events of the book. No, in order for that kindness and equality to make a difference, the entire society has to change. Bigger has to change, too. Bigger has to believe that the kindness is genuine; Bigger has to believe that equality is his right and is the norm. And the world we all live in has to believe that it’s a good and right thing for Bigger to be equal to rich, white folks.
It’s not often these days that you read a book that has to do with issues this deep. These days, what passes for literature is usually self-centered and individualistic; it’s all about how you, one person, has the power to rise above your circumstances. But Native Son shows the unavoidable reality that it takes more than just one man to change the world. It takes all of us.