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Native Son (1940)
by Richard Wright
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17. Native Son by Richard Wright
Introduction : Caryl Phillips (2000)
format: 464-page paperback
acquired: February 2022 read: Feb 20 – Mar 11 time reading: 15:17, 2.0 mpp
genre/style: classic novel theme: Richard Wright
locations: 1930’s Chicago
about the author: American author born on a Mississippi plantation, 1908-1960
A dark classic look at American racism in fiction. Richard Wright wrote for purpose. He was determined force the reader's eye coldly on the hard fact of racism. No cushion of sympathy, or pity, he draws the reader in so we can't look away, holds us by force of the novel, looking wide-eyed and horrified.
The first 200 pages of this novel were as intense as anything I have ever read. But it wasn't fun, it was awful, painful, yet still compelling. This is his masterpiece. Bigger Thomas, like the strongest of Shakespeare's villains, is all calculation and doomed for lack of consequential foresight. We're in a tragedy, but our villain is not part of noble house maneuvering for power, he is confined in all space, physical and mental, by white American racism. He acts within and against these confines, and when he crosses a line, he thinks only how to clean it up and get away. And it's here, Fargo-like, or Parasite-like, to name a couple movies, Wright leaves us. Shocked, stunned, trapped strangely in slow motion, horrified.
Mixing a few books at a time, I put the book down there (exhausted). When I picked it back up, the worst of the intense horror was past, but the book still had another 200 awkward pages of consequences, and contemplation, mentally search for ways to come to terms, and, even more awkwardly, toying with communist concepts. Bigger enters the legal system defended, without cost, by a Jewish American communist.
There is a nothing perfect in this book. It goes from evocative to uncomfortably horrific to oddly awkward. It doesn't fail. I was able to coast through these last 200 pages, and think about all that had happened, but it's a strange way to wrap this up.
Wright wanted to create a look at the human cost of racism without pity - and it certainly has done something of that sort. Five yucky stars for those first uncomfortable 200 pages, but less for the work overall.
Good novel of the black experience and injustice.
“…she was dead; she was white; she was a woman; he had killed her; he was black; he might get caught; he did not want to be caught; if he were they would kill him.”
Bigger Thomas - a black man trapped in a white man's world. Angry, for so many reasons, and scared, for many of those same reasons. When those emotions collide, and he acts out, his world collapses. And it's not just Bigger who suffers. The wide social implications of his actions, steeped in racism, effect other Black members of his community and, of course, his family. This book delves deeply into the reasons why Bigger does what he does, and why the world in which he lives in is partly, if not mostly, responsible. It is as important a book to read now as it was when it was first written. If not more so...
“How on earth are you going to change men’s hearts when the newspapers are fanning hate into them every day?” Jan asked. A question that still remains unanswered today.
Published in 1940, this book provides social commentary on race relations in the US. Protagonist Bigger Thomas commits a crime, though he never intended for it to happen. The story relates what happens in the aftermath. I am not a lawyer, but I am pretty sure what is spoken at the trial would not be allowed in present day (though I have no idea what would have been permitted in 1940). Nevertheless, the author is trying to make a point, and he makes it well. Many of these racial issues are (sadly) still relevant. I listened to the audio book. Peter Francis James does an amazing job with the voice acting – the distinct voices, inflection, and clarity are simply outstanding! I can see why this book is considered a classic.
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Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Richard Wright's novel is just as powerful today as when it was written -- in its reflection of poverty and hopelessness, and what it means to be black in America.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)813.52Literature English (North America) American fiction 20th Century 1900-1944
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An edition of this book was published by Recorded Books.
How does a reader handle Wright's apparent message that racism could drive an African American man to feel murder of a white woman as a self-actualizing accomplishment? What do we do with a novel that brilliantly announces the psychological experience of racism, but then goes so far in its picture of racism's impact that it seems like a drastic indictment of its victims as teetering on the edge of psychopathy? If racism did that to a person, then what was Wright saying about African Americans? Hence reactions like this one from writer David Bradley. First his early take on the book: "Suddenly I realized that many readers of 'Native Son' had seen Bigger Thomas as a symbol; in 1940, when 'Native Son' hit the shelves, they ... had probably never come into enough contact with blacks to know better. God, I thought, they think we're all Biggers." Then his evolved take: even if the novel should not be taken as a sociological report, "[i]t reminds us of a time in this land of freedom when a man could have this bleak and frightening vision of his people, and when we had so little contact with one another that that vision could be accepted as fact." He could not accept Bigger's character or its genesis as a realistic picture of the African American experience, and thereby drew this response from Wright's daughter excoriating him as a denialist: "We all have a Bigger Thomas crouching within us, although there are those, like Mr. Bradley, who need to kill Bigger on paper rather than recognize him as part of their own darkness. Mr. Bradley segregates Bigger in the farthest corner of his mind, denies him, projects him outward and lynches him. But haven't we discovered that the outward projection of shadows within is the very foundation of segregationist thought?"
It is hard to go all the way with Wright. Bigger's advocate tells the court at his trial: "Every hope is a plan for insurrection. Every glance of the eye is a threat. His very existence is a crime against the state." Here we are in the realm of social protest. But the defense, such as it is, goes on: "He was impelled toward murder as much through the thirst for excitement, exultation, and elation as he was through fear! It was his way of living!" and "Is love possible to the life of a man I've described to this Court? . . . The circumstances of his life and [Bessie's] would not allow it." This is beyond protest; it is exposing how inhumanity has made the victim inhumane. Are we to accept Wright's picture of a man's mind under racism so far as to believe that its victims are so warped by it as to exult in murder and be incapable of love? If so, this novel may constitute the deepest of all protests against racism. ( )