Native Son

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A calico tabby perches on a cat tree beside a book: Native Son by Richard Wright.

Mud with Some Ice

It’s been a year since myself and my lovely spouse started to seriously (or at least more seriously) hike, and I have loved the time listening to birds and just breathing some fresh air. I have also enjoyed the silence of the forest. The part I forgot that I hated? That month in spring when the trail is solid slippery ice and also, at the most inconvenient of times, ankle-deep mud.

No matter how much I consider my footwear, I am invariably wearing the wrong covering on my feet. I am also usually wearing a coat that is too cold or too warm. Thankfully, my lovely spouse makes up for my deficiencies by guiding me over ice and helping me out of the soil I sink in. As she does so, I remind myself that this is just a temporary frustration. It’s Canada, so there will be more snow or else early summer very soon and it won’t be quite as miserable either way.

A cat leans backwards over a cat tree. Beside her is a copy of Richard Wright's Native Son.

The Reach of Native Son

Richard Wright’s Native Son is a novel that you really should have heard about if you haven’t read it already. James Baldwin wrote a very powerful essay about it. There have been three film versions made of it — including one in 1951 staring Wright himself in the role of Bigger Thomas. (As an aside, this film is worth watching if only to see Wright attempt to play a man half of his age.) It is mentioned again and again amongst artists and intellectuals of the time as well as those in the present. It is a novel that definitely had a substantial impact on literature and on so many writers.

A calico tabby leans sideways to sniff the spine of a book that sits beside her on a cat tree.

Native Son’s plot revolves around Bigger Thomas — a young Black man struggling with poverty in Chicago. Thomas lives in a world defined by systemic poverty and violence, and eventually he commits a violent act himself. The real question the book poses is just what lead Thomas down this path and how much responsibility society must shoulder and how much Thomas must shoulder himself.

The book Native Son by Richard Wright sits on a brown cat tree beside a calico tabby.

Why You Should Read It

There are many reasons you should read this book, the primary one being that this novel became one of the first to successfully and comprehensively discuss systemic racism and how it affects Black youth and the Black population in general. Thomas grows up in a society where white society and the oppression of white society remains a pervasive and malevolent presence in Black lives — even when individual whites are attempting to help or assist Blacks. It explains how well-meaning actions can be rendered useless or even destructive by bigoted ignorance.

It is not a novel that pulls punches. It describes Thomas’ crimes brutally and takes an unflinching look at a racist society that feigns doing good while actually perpetuating the prejudice and injustices of the past. Native Son does not excuse Thomas, but it does make it clear that Thomas’ circumstances contributed to this crime and created a perfect storm when combined with Thomas’ character. That being said, there is violence, including sexual violence, in this book — so if you avoid that content, this is not the read for you.

Richard Wright's Native Son features a cover in black and white of a Black man staring blankly ahead. Only half of his face is shown.

Beyond The Surface

However, as much as this book is important and you should read it, you should be aware that there are some issues with it that are being discussed in modern scholarship. For example, it is a book with a mission and sometimes that mission makes it read more like a pamphlet than a work of literature. It is very heavy-handed. And it is clearly meant for an audience that did not have experience with the reality of systemic racism — specifically a white audience.

The book Native Son has a cover featuring a picture of half of a Black man's face. This edition also says 'Now an HBO Film' and 'The restored test established by the library of America'. It is published by Harper Perennial.

The Black female victim of Thomas is minimized, treated as not much more than a prop to further the plot. Black women in general have a poor role in the narrative. Thomas’ mother and Thomas’ girlfriend Bessie are nearly identical characters and are not developed very far. The white female victim, Mary Dalton, though she is the focus of the investigation, is also just a prop or a sexual object. Even her boyfriend seems to not very much care that she is murdered. She is a very flat character that is not very well-developed and it is painful. It creates a feeling that, as much as this novel is discussing very important issues, it excludes women and seems to imply that these issues do not apply to women. It becomes difficult to read — especially as the third part progresses and the court case continues.

A calico tabby slumps forward and puts a paw down, as if she is about to get up and leave.

Snow is Coming Again

It’s so warm outside that it’s hard to stop myself from calling this spring. It’s not spring. It’s that weird false spring that always happens before another dump of snow. I know this. And yet, here I am, wondering if really this is it. If there will be no huge March snowstorm making me wonder if the snow is here to stay until April.

Some year I will learn. Just not this one.

Richard Wright's Native Son sits on a cat tree. A calico tabby hunkers behind it.

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