Only two pages into Native Son, I knew that I would love this book. The lush prose and dynamic dialogue sucked me in.
Published in 1940, Native Son by Richard Wright follows Bigger Thomas from the poverty-stricken Black Belt of Chicago’s South Side to the Cook County courthouse where he awaits his sentence for the killing of a white woman named Mary Dalton. The Daltons are an upper middle class white family who hire Bigger as a chauffeur because of their pity for African Americans. Bigger has a history of delinquency. At the start of the novel, he organizes a bank robbery with his friends. But despite his background, or maybe because of it, Mr. Dalton hires Bigger to drive Mary to the university. Unfortunately, Mary is not interested in school. Instead, she introduces Bigger to her Communist boyfriend Jan. Mary and Jan even invite Bigger to eat with them at a restaurant in the Black Belt. But as Bigger drives Mary home alone, he begins to feel uncomfortable in her presence. That very night, Bigger commits the fateful crime at the center of Native Son.
The death of Mary Dalton is only the first of many crimes Bigger commits during his escape. Bigger Thomas is a true-to-life criminal. Most novels I’ve read that address racial injustice center on an unjustly-accused, innocent black character. But Bigger is highly unlikeable. Even when it is clear that race played a central role in shaping Bigger’s character, Wright does not attempt to exonerate Bigger from guilt. Instead, he interrogates the nature of this guilt, exposing the myriad ways in which White America contributed to the creation of Bigger Thomas.
Native Son is a classic of African American fiction. Its analysis of racism in the criminal justice system is as relevant as ever. The last fourth of the book is, admittedly, a bit preachy, but Wright’s novel doubles as a manifesto. I expected the preachiness. My only criticism has to do with the novel’s treatment of women – particularly black women. There is a black woman in the novel who does not receive the attention she deserves. While I understand that the story is told from Bigger’s perspective, I cannot excuse the way Wright handled Bessie’s story. Her story was almost made out to be less important than Bigger’s. Considering the circumstances, I find that unacceptable. Consequently, I gave the book 4.5 instead of 5 stars.
If you’ve read Native Son, let me know what you thought.