Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the Reading List. As mentioned previously, over the past years I have made it a goal to include more BIPOC authors on the list. To that end I decided to read Richard Wright’s landmark 1940 work, Native Son.
This novel was an incredible read for a few reasons, and made all the more incredible knowing that it was Wright’s follow up to his collection of novellas Uncle Tom’s Children. The book centers around a black character named Bigger Thomas who lives in a cramped one-room apartment on the south side of Chicago with his mother, brother and sister. He has plans to become a pilot someday but is not allowed to take classes because of the color of his skin. Bigger has issues gaining employment and is often hanging out at pool hall where he roughs up one of his friends in a misunderstanding about their plans to rob a hardware store. Later in the day Bigger goes to the rich and white Mr. Dalton’s home to inquire about a job he gains through the relief service. Here he learns he is to become Mr. Dalton’s driver and also be the driver for his daughter Mary. That evening he is instructed to take Mary out to her university classes but Mary tells Bigger she instead wants to go out and meet up with her boyfriend, the Communist Jan. They also want to go to a place to eat that is in Bigger’s neighborhood, as in their clueless way they want to understand how black people live. All three of them proceed to get drunk and then they drop Jan off. Bigger has issues getting Mary into her house because she’s so drunk and it is at this point in the story he commits an accidental crime that I won’t mention for those who want to read this exceptional book. From here on out his job with the Dalton’s is in serious jeopardy and Bigger is eventually found out for what he has done; he then flees for his life. He is eventually caught and put on trial for his crimes, a trial in which the prosecutor running for office describes what his punishment should be and the Communist lawyer set to defend Bigger delivers a lengthy speech contextualizing his client’s actions in a racist America. Finally we see Bigger meeting with his lawyer again at the end in his jail cell before the end.
This book was a very powerful meditation on black life in the 1930’s even in a supposedly less segregated city like Chicago, and despite the plain language and slow pace of the novel Wright has much to say about the relations between the races and why Bigger did what he did. I hesitate to call Bigger that more modern term “antihero” because what he does is grotesque, but as Wright says in later letters along with my copy of the novel his goal was to “objectively” show this character for what he does and thinks. I will also mention a trigger or content warning here regarding some events that take place within the novel, including sexual assault (which the main character is charged with but doesn’t commit against Mary, but does to his girlfriend Bessie). Despite that I would still recommend this novel as an unflinching look at black life during this time and how black people were treated vastly differently than white people leading up to the civil rights era. There was a helpful essay included in my copy of the book entitled “How ‘Bigger’ was Born” in which Wright elucidates a bit more about how the character came to be in his mind and how he worked on the novel. I also broke my regular rule about not watching film adaptations and viewed HBO/A24’s fairly decent modernized take on the story, although I did not like how it changed the ending. Thanks as always for joining me on this reading adventure.
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.