Monday, 16 November 2009

Native Son: Richard Wright

Published in 1940, two decades before America finally began attempting to dismantle the inherent segregation within the mind's of many of its white citizens, this is a telling tale of a young black man who accidentally murders a wealthy young white woman. Bigger Thomas, twenty year old hoodlum, is offered a job with a rich family who are sympathetic to the problems of black people living in Chicago at that time. Within hours of stepping over their threshold he has faltered into a path that, in restrospect, he comes to feel is the only one his life was likely to have taken anyway. Mary Dalton's death truly is an accident but, knowing he will not be believed because of the colour of his skin, Bigger feeds her body to the furnace in the cellar, gruesomely having to remove her head to fit her in.
In his mind he feels he has murdered countless times: the confusing and heady combination of guilt, hatred and lack of self-esteem that his society has bred in him ensures that his feelings towards the whites he encounters are part rage, part helplessness. As though the act of killing Mary has freed him in some way, allowed him to see himself as a real man, capable of taking action, no matter how wrong the action, Bigger toys with pride in his behaviour until he realises that the law will undoubtedly catch him and sentence him to death. Or, more likely, he will be killed at the hands of a lynch mob whose hate and fear are being cranked up and up by a propagandist press.
Bigger kills again, this time it is his girlfriend who dies because he's afraid she might betray him when he goes on the run. The papers do not appear concerned about the death of a young black woman and simply use the details to portray Bigger as even more of a monster than they've already painted him. Almost at every turn Bigger is faced with anger and prejudice, both of which are fuelled by an underlying fear of a black American population which at that time numbered twelve million.
When he is caught he finds no comfort in the words of his mother who urges him to confess all to God so that they might meet again in the afterlife. He holds out no hope that anyone will understand the emotions coursing through him, many of which he himself has only come to understand because of what he has done. For the first time in his life he sees the extent of segregation and the limited channels of thought and expectation such a system imposes upon the lower caste. The only one who understands this, the only one who seems capable of drawing it out of Bigger in conversation, is the Jewish lawyer who represents him. A Communist sympathiser, Max attempts to negate the death sentence by arguing to the court that, while readily admitting he has murdered, Bigger is a symptom of a skewed and oppressive social network.
Richard Wright's narrative style is abrupt, it is heavily muscled and downright pushy. The novel was dismissed by James Baldwin, another black writer who, like Wright, first came to priminence through the 'Harlem Renaissance' (in the 20s and 30s Jewish publishers began to print books by black writers which other publishing houses had turned down, thus a new generation of writers and poets were able to find a wider audience for their unique perspective on American culture). Baldwin considered 'Native Son' to be a 'protest novel', and it is true to say that there is a powerful odour of propaganda inhabiting the book, much of it arguing for black equality but some of it also shaped and driven by Wright's own sympathies for the Communist cause. And yet Max's impassioned summing-up plea for imprisonment instead of the electric chair for Bigger, for all its Bolshevik rhetoric, is the most compelling part of the novel for it is the sole instance of a character who can see the larger picture when it comes to American society. Max appreciates that every time a black criminal is treated with so much more hostility than a white criminal, every time the press and public hound black people for the misdemenours they themselves might equally be capable of, the social problems which raised a generation of men like Bigger will never improve.
Wright died in 1960 and therefore witnessed only the fledging changes finally ushered in during the sixties when segregation was outlawed. He did not live to see black culture become increasingly intergrated into American society during the seventies and eighties. He did not live to see what might have been considered impossible in the 1940s: a black President. But he knew exactly what the problems were and trealised hat centuries of indoctrination needed overthrowing before such changes could come about. No country is ever perfect, Utopia was not what black people were arguing for in Wright's time. Equal rights to earn a living, to choose their careers, to decide where they wanted to live: those were the freedoms black society were being denied. And Wright tells such an evocative tale of the effects of such restrictions that it becomes patently obvious that habit, not logic or reason, was keeping those restrictions in place. If only white America had known and acted on this fact earlier, novels like this would no longer hold such resonance.

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