Richard Wright: Native Son
While this was very far from being the first African-American novel it was certainly one of the precursors that influenced a later generation, particularly Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, though the latter criticised it. It introduced for the first time a black hero who was explained and understood yet was, at the same time, clearly a bad man. Bigger Thomas was, Wright makes very clear, a victim of his environment, a black man in what was very much a white man’s world. We first meet him, twenty years of age, living in a one-room apartment, living with his mother, his sister, Vera, and his brother Buddy. We learn that they have come up from Mississippi and been living in Chicago for two years. Bigger’s father was killed in some sort of riot, presumably race-related. Bigger does not have a job but has managed to survive by petty crime. This involves robbery with three of his friends. Their victims have all been fellow blacks, on the assumption that the police will not bother with crimes involving black victims.
Two things are about to occur at the beginning of the book. The first is that Bigger has proposed to his friends that they rob the local grocery store, owned by Blum, a white man. All realise the risk that this involves but they feel that it is relatively risk-free, as they will do it between three and four in the afternoon, when there are no police about. There is some hesitation, particularly on the part of Gus, but Bigger, a man with a very short fuse, threatens and bullies him and he reluctantly agrees. The second key event is that, through the relief organisation, Bigger has been offered a job. His mother and siblings insist that he has to go for the interview as, if he does not go for the job, they will no longer get relief. Bigger goes for the job interview, where he learns that he is to be the chauffeur of a very rich white family. Mr. Dalton, it seems, is the owner of the real estate company that owns the building where Bigger lives. His wife is blind but she is nevertheless very concerned with the plight of the blacks in Chicago and does what she can to help. Bigger’s predecessor went to night school at the Daltons’ expense and now has a good job. They are, they tell him, keen supporters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, though Bigger has never heard of the organisation. Wright skilfully shows the genuine concern of the Daltons while mildly, but only very mildly, mocking their liberal conscience.
Bigger’s first driving job is to take the Daltons’ daughter, Mary, to her university class. However, when they get there, she instructs him to go elsewhere and they pick up her friend, Jan, a communist. They drive around, with Jan driving, and then get Bigger to take them to a restaurant on the South Side, frequented by blacks. Bigger is hugely embarrassed, particularly when he meets his girlfriend, Bessie, there. All three drink a fair amount and it is clear that, when they leave, Mary is drunk. Jan goes off on his own and Bigger has to drive Mary home. However, by the time they get back to the Dalton house, Mary has passed out and Bigger has to carry her to her room. As he is putting her on the bed, Mrs. Dalton arrives. Bigger remains as quiet as he can but, to stop Mary making strange noises in her sleep, he puts the blanket over Mary’s face. Mrs. Dalton can smell the alcohol. Only when Mrs. Dalton has gone, does he realise that he has inadvertently killed Mary.
The rest of the book gives the consequences of his actions. He does not behave very sensibly and, indeed, makes things much worse for himself. However, the hunt for Bigger by armed whites is very well told. It is, of course, the other blacks who suffer, as many are attacked by whites, black properties are smashed and, in many cases, blacks get fired just for being black. Wright brilliantly shows the prejudices against both blacks and communists, without being shrill about it. That Bigger is a bad man is clear. That his situation and the reaction to what happened is made much worse because he is black is also clear. Obviously, for the whites, he raped Mary (which he did not), it is obviously a communist plot (which it is not) and obviously Bigger has a long history of assault on white women (which he has not). Wright occasionally gets carried away, for example when the communist defence lawyer makes his speech on Bigger’s behalf, as this speech belongs more in a political journal than a novel, interesting and well-written though it is. However, his great skill is making Bigger not a loveable downtrodden victim but an essentially bad man, albeit a victim, to a great extent, of his colour and his environment. Apart from the communists, even the well-meaning whites come out badly with Mr. Dalton justifying his overcharging of rents to blacks by saying that it would not be right to undercut his competitors! This is an essential book not only in the African-American canon but also in the US canon and still has a powerful message for us today.
First published 1940 Harper