I read Native Son in college and remember being blown away by Wright's work. Some years later, my son read it and was somewhat less impressed than I had been (as a literary scholar, he tends to approach literature from a different perspective than I). I recently reread the book and find myself landing somewhere between my earlier enthusiasm and my son's critical perspective.
For those who have not read Native Son (or have forgotten the details), it is the story of Bigger Thomas, a 19-year-old African American living on Chicago's South Side in the 1930s. He, his mother, sister, and brother live in one rat-infested room. He spends his days hanging out with friends, drinking, masturbating in movie theaters, fighting, and plotting petty crimes. But a relief agency has arranged a job for him working for the wealthy white Dalton family that fancies itself a benefactor to black people.
He reluctantly goes to the job interview and is hired as a chauffeur. His very first night on the job, he is to drive Mary, the daughter of the family, to a lecture; instead, they pick up her Communist boyfriend Jan, who pressures Bigger to take them to a diner in his neighborhood and to eat at the table with him. Later, they share a bottle of rum with him and all three get somewhat drunk. Bigger finds their friendliness both frightening and infuriating. Upon returning to the family home, he has to help Mary to her room, where he sneaks a kiss from the essentially unconscious Mary. Then her mother (who is blind) enters her room, and Bigger panics, afraid Mary will say something to tell Mrs. Dalton that he is in the room. He puts a pillow over Mary's face to keep her quiet and the inevitable happens.
He disposes of Mary's body and tries to cast suspicion on Jan. Then he gets the idea to ask for ransom and involves his girlfriend in a ransom scheme. He makes a series of ridiculously bad decisions, and his crime is eventually uncovered. He is arrested and held for trial.
The last section of the book covers his time in jail and his trial; through conversations between Bigger and his Communist attorney Max (arranged by Jan) and through Jan's arguments, Wright presents his analysis of the problems of race and class in the United States, describing Bigger's crimes as his desperate attempt to have a meaningful life, a life denied him by the racism, hatred, and discrimination leveled against the working class generally and black Americans in particular. Max provides a stinging critique of white liberals and of America's tolerance for mob violence.
A young James Baldwin wrote disparagingly about Native Son, describing it as reinforcing stereotypes of African Americans, peopled with caricatures rather than characters, and a protest pamphlet masquerading as a novel. To some extent, I agree with these critiques upon my second reading of the novel. The characters are two-dimensional at best, Bigger is a character that few would want to represent their race (or species for that matter), and the last section of the book is essentially a polemic. And yet, I am reminded of my 20-year-old self, who found the book so insightful (okay, I was a bit of a naif, given that it was around 1970 when I read it) and can't help but hope that Native Son might continue to wake up young people to the injustice in our class system and race relations.
The white folks like for us to be religious, then they can do what they want to with us.
I beg you to recognize human life draped in a form and guise alien to ours, but springing from a soil plowed and sown by our own hands. I ask you to recognize laws and processes flowing from such a condition, understand them, seek to change them.