Title: Native Son

Published: 1940

Author: Richard Wright

Challenge status:  #27 on  Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century and frequent target of banning attempts according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #11 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why:

  • Challenged in Goffstown, NH (1978); Elmwood Park, NJ (1978), North Adams, MA (1981), — and high schools in Berrian Springs, MI (1988), High Point, NC (1996), and Fort Wayne, IN (1998) generally due to the book’s graphic violence, sex, and use of profanity
  • Removed/Banned from Irvington High School in Fremont, CA (1998) after a few parents complained the book was unnecessarily violent and sexually explicit.

First line: “Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinng!”.

Synopsis: Native Son is the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man living in Chicago’s South Side (the “Black Belt” in the 30’s, and the events that led to his execution. Wright is unflinching in his portrayal of Bigger’s life and character. We understand him but aren’t exactly rooting for him – his family is hungry but he doesn’t care enough to pick up a job, he toys with the idea of knocking over a local store, he bullies his friends in mean displays of temper – over-compensating for his own fears and lack of self-esteem. And yet, of course we hate to see Bigger stuck in the awkward social situation turned-tragedy, an accident that leads to the death of his new employer’s daughter. And we realize, as Bigger does, that the accident is really the end of Bigger, he is a dead man walking – anything he does afterward is not going to change the outcome of the situation. But it is still horrifying to see what Bigger does, as he transforms from – a young man who’s never bothered to think much about consequences (typical of all young men, whatever their educational, economic, or ethnic background) into a monster who desperately lashes out both at strangers and people who love him in his panic and desperation. Into the very monster that society-at-large expects him to be? Into a cipher, an animal, a generic representation of a feared outsider.

Part one of the book is all Bigger. Is all action and no self-reflection, taking ownership of his actions as he lives moment to moment, but not of his choices: “”He paused, hysterical. He wanted to run from the basement and go as far as possible from the sight of this bloody throat. But he could not. He must not. He had to burn this girl.”, and then later “He was sorry, but he had to. He. He could not help it.” But yet still Bigger does not feel powerless in the face of unyielding fate, in fact, “out of it all, over and above all that had happened, impalpable but real, there remained to him a queer sense of power. He had done this. He had brought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him”.

Part two of the book takes place after Bigger has been captured. It is in the section, as he waits for the inevitable to occur, that both external impacts and internal causes are taken into consideration. Defending Bigger is Max, a Jewish Communist who sympathizes with Bigger’s plight and tries to save his life. It is through Max’s closing statement that Bigger’s actions are provided a larger context, that the author is able to give voice to truths and observations that weren’t accessible within Bigger’s mind. In another version of reality, a character like Max could have been a mentor to Bigger. Too late, wrong universe.

The book was difficult to get through. Perhaps it’s because of the themes of bigotry and poverty are so uncomfortably true, and timeless. Maybe it’s because the scenes featuring violence were too personal, not abstract enough. Or maybe it’s because, from the very beginning we see where Richard Wright is going to lead us, where Bigger Thomas is headed…and I just didn’t want to go. Like a horror movie where you’re shrieking at the screen to the babysitter, as the power stutters in and out on the rainy night – don’t go into the basement!

I like this snippet from Max’s speech, it feels timely: “Your Honor, this Court and those troops are not the real agencies that keep the public peace. Their mere presence is proof that we are letting peace slip through our fingers. Public peace is the act of public trust; it is the faith that we are all secure and will remain secure”.