Native Son by Richard Wright

  Native Son

  Richard Wright

  With an Introduction by Arnold Rampersad

  The Restored Text Established by the Library of America


  My Mother

  who, when I was a child at her knee, taught me to revere

  the fanciful and the imaginative

  Even today is my complaint rebellious,

  My stroke is heavier than my groaning.




  Introduction by Arnold Rampersad

  Book One

  Book Two

  Book Three

  How “Bigger” Was Born

  Note on the Text

  About the Author

  Other Books by Richard Wright


  About the Publisher


  The sound of the alarm that opens Native Son was Richard Wright’s urgent call in 1940 to America to awaken from its self-induced slumber about the reality of race relations in the nation. As proud, rich, and powerful as America was, Wright insisted, the nation was facing a grave danger, one that would ultimately destroy the United States if its dimensions and devious complexity were not recognized. Native Son was intended to be America’s guide in confronting this danger.

  Wright believed that few Americans, black or white, were prepared to face squarely and honestly the most profound consequences of more than two centuries of the enslavement and segregation of blacks in North America. The dehumanization of African Americans during slavery had been followed in the long aftermath of the Civil War by their often brutal repression in the South and by conditions of life in many respects equally severe in the nominally integrated North. Nevertheless, Wright knew, blacks and whites alike continued to cling to a range of fantasies about the true nature of the relationship between the races even as the nation lurched inexorably toward a possible collapse over the fundamental question of justice for the despised African American minority.

  Among blacks, the centuries of abuse and exploitation had created ways of life marked by patterns of duplicity, including self-deception, as well as something far more forbidding and lethal. Slavery and neo-slavery had led not simply to the development of a psychology of timidity, passivity, and even cowardice among the African American masses, Wright suggests in Native Son, but also to an ominous emerging element of which Bigger Thomas, the central character of the novel, is a reliable if particularly forbidding example. Although this new element was itself susceptible to fantasy and self-deception, what set its members apart from other blacks was the depth of their estrangement from both black and white culture, their hatred of both groups, and their sometimes unconscious but powerful identification of violence against other human beings as the most appropriate response to the disastrous conditions of their lives. Within the confines of the black world, this violence was easily directed at fellow blacks; but increasingly, Wright warned his readers, this violence would be aimed at whites.

  Wright understood fully that this message was radical to the core, and that his novel Native Son was like no other book in the history of African American literature. In 1937, in his landmark essay “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” he had characterized African American literature to that time as fundamentally lacking in forthrightness and independence. “Generally speaking,” he had written reprovingly, “Negro writing in the past has been confined to humble novels, poems, and plays, prim and decorous ambassadors who went a-begging to white America…dressed in the knee-pants of servility…. For the most part these artistic ambassadors were received as though they were French poodles who do clever tricks.” To some extent, Wright certainly had overstated the case for the inadequacy of past black writers. At least since the publication of David Walker’s vitriolic Appeal in 1829, some had vigorously protested against racism and warned white Americans about its dire consequences. Indeed, the inevitability of violence as a response to the African American condition had been the subject of literary works not only by blacks but also by whites, such as George Washington Cable in the nineteenth century and, in Wright’s own time, William Faulkner.

  For example, in his short story “Of the Coming of John” in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and in his novel Dark Princess (1928), W. E. B. Du Bois, probably the leading African American intellectual and polemicist of his day, had depicted young black heroes enraged by racism and literally striking whites who had offended them. Blacks had hailed Claude McKay’s 1919 sonnet “If We Must Die” as a call to militant self-defense against marauding whites. Jean Toomer’s modernist landmark Cane (1923) included one sketch in which a black man coolly kills a white man who draws a knife on him. However, such episodes were few and far between, and—with rare exceptions—virtually all of these black writers had placed at the center of their episodes of violence a protagonist of intelligence and sensitivity driven to an uncharacteristic act, a man of feeling from the black leadership class forced to act in ways otherwise beneath him. Not so with Wright in Native Son.

  Bigger Thomas is decidedly of the poorest class, with no pretense to a sophisticated education, to anything more than rudimentary reading, or to ideals. Bigger is occasionally cunning, but there is little that is subtle about his intelligence or refined about his emotions. Knowing almost nothing about books or serious magazines, intellectually he is a creature of the movie house, where he is an easy prey to fantasies concocted by Hollywood for the gullible. He despises religion; appeals to religious faith either bore or enrage him. Estranged from his family, he is remote even from his mother; he has apparently grown up without his father, who is never mentioned in Native Son. Wright sets the tone for the depiction of Bigger Thomas in the first scene of the novel when he pits him physically against a rat that terrorizes the family. Bigger wins this battle, but not without a loss of dignity from which he barely recovers by the end of the book.

  Although American literature had witnessed cameo appearances by renegade blacks (examples of the “bad nigger,” as Sterling A. Brown called one of the main literary stereotypes of African American character), no one quite like Bigger Thomas had ever been seen before the publication of Native Son. Nevertheless, one can locate at least some of the key elements of Bigger’s characterization in a broader literary tradition. Unmistakably behind Native Son, although in no way detracting from Wright’s personal achievement in creating the novel, is the tradition of naturalism, especially urban naturalism, in American writing as epitomized before Wright by novelists such as Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, and James T. Farrell. To such writers, the city in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries in America could be an alluring place; but it also often was, for persons without brains or money or simply good luck, a crucible in which the superficial elements of personality and civilization were quickly burned away, to reveal the animal underneath.

  As Wright grew up in the South under the harsh conditions he would describe in his autobiography Black Boy (1945) and began to read fiction, he took readily to urban naturalism. For him, the road to Native Son had started with his first exposure to the major naturalists and realists. “All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel,” he declared in Black Boy, “and I could not read enough of them.” He was born in Mississippi in 1908, the first of two sons of a sharecropper who deserted his family when Richard was five or six. Soon after, his mother suffered paralytic strokes that left her dependent on her own mother, a devout religious fundamentalist and stern disciplinarian who apparently tried to crush Wright’s childhood interest in the world of the imagination. While his mother sank in he eyes into the embodiment of passivity and victimization, he found it almost impossible to forge warm ties with other human b
eings. For a while, Wright and his brother lived in an orphanage. Later he would recall his childhood as a time of hunger—for food, but also for affection, understanding, and education. A good student, he never finished high school. His jobs in the South were marked by harassment by whites and by his own disdain for what segregation and racism had done to distort the humanity of his fellow blacks, as he saw it. In 1927, he fled the South for Chicago.

  If Wright took quickly to naturalism, two other intellectual forces modified his understanding of its ideas and helped to shape Native Son. The first was communism, or dialectical materialism; the second was Wright’s almost instinctive sympathy for and identification with the germ of the modern philosophy called existentialism—a sympathy and an identification that predate his years of residence in Paris following his emigration in 1947 and his friendship there with some of the most famous existentialist philosophers and artists. Communism and existentialism exist, in certain ways, in tension with naturalism. The former defines identity mainly through the instrument of economic determinism; economic, social, political, and historic factors, above all, determine consciousness. The latter, existentialism, shares with naturalism a gloomy sense of fundamental human relations but emphasizes the power of the will in creating identity. In his rise to intellectual maturity as represented by Native Son, Wright took upon himself the daunting task of reconciling sometimes conflicting elements of these intellectual traditions in order to represent reality as he understood it. Above all, he undertook to achieve as an artist, working in the form of the novel, a synthesis he would have found virtually impossible as a philosopher or an ideologue.

  Between 1933 and 1940, or during the first major stage of his literary career, communism was clearly the major intellectual and political force of Wright’s life. In Chicago he seemed headed for a career in the post office but was also determined to become a writer. In that city (the setting of Native Son), he found a circle of like-minded young men and women when, in 1933, he joined the recently formed local branch of the John Reed Club, a nationwide organization founded by the party precisely to attract writers and artists to its ranks. If, as Wright later claimed, he had learned from the iconoclastic journalist H. L. Mencken how one could use “words as weapons,” the Communist party offered him and other writers, in the midst of the Great Depression, a sense of ideological and political purpose and consistency, as well as international connections.

  As a creative writer, Wright started out as a poet, singing, sometimes in a fashion that showed the influence of Walt Whitman, the revolutionary potential of the masses, including the black masses. When he turned to fiction, however, in the novel Lawd Today! (posthumously published), the radical socialist fervor that marked his poetry was severely modified by a different vision, that of a particularly bleak urban naturalism mixed somewhat uneasily with elements of modernist fictional technique borrowed from various sources, including James Joyce’s Ulysses. Lawd Today! tells the story of one day in the life of a black postal worker and his three closest friends, also male black post office employees, in Chicago’s South Side. Dominating the lives of these men is a chronic desire for sensual gratification, mainly in the form of food, alcohol, and sex. If in a sometimes heavy-handed way, Wright seeks to document a typical day in their lives, the better to show the extent to which they are ignorant of any moral, intellectual, esthetic, or religious idea or ideal worthy of the name. The action of the novel, which takes place on Lincoln’s Birthday, is juxtaposed against a solemn tribute to Abraham Lincoln that casts a further pall over the aimless lives of these men.

  Lawd Today! was rejected by at least a half-dozen major American publishers. When Wright’s first book, Uncle Tom’s Children, finally appeared, it comprised four stories or novellas; a revised edition in 1940 added a fifth story, “Bright and Morning Star.” In these tales, all set in the South, Wright showed his skill in writing not only Communist-style narrations but also far less didactic fictions. The pieces “Fire and Cloud” and “Bright and Morning Star” are stories about radical political activity that feature a strong endorsement of the revolutionary potential of the masses; they both also touch on the uneasy interplay between communism and elements of black cultural nationalism. The other stories, “Big Boy Leaves Home,” “Long Black Song,” and “Down by the Riverside,” are far less didactic. All of the five stories implicitly protest against racism and segregation, but the second group offers no program that would show the way out of the morass of racial discrimination.

  By the time Uncle Tom’s Children appeared in 1938, Wright was already questioning the authority of the Communist party where it mattered most to him, that is, where his autonomy as an artist was concerned. Clearly for him the revolutionary confidence of “Bright and Morning Star” and the prize-winning “Fire and Cloud,” which ends with blacks and whites marching together in the South, obscured the truth about the two major races in America. His non-Communist stories, too, with their country Southern settings and their emphasis on youth, womanhood, or a struggle with the elements, later seemed to Wright curiously curtailed expositions, indeed, almost local color. Most disturbing to Wright even as he enjoyed the accolades that came to him as a result of Uncle Tom’s Children was the quality of lyric idealism that suffused the entire collection and allowed the final effect of the book to be mainly, at least as Wright saw it in his uncompromising way, a good cry.

  Wright understood that neither his employment of a radical socialist esthetic, which preferred simple stories of revolutionary activity, nor his more subjective attempts to depict and comment on race relations in the South, had succeeded in doing what he had established as the major goal of his writing—the exposure of the starkest realities of American life where race was concerned. Wright knew that much of that life was quite beyond hope, that racism and segregation were not forces to be eradicated easily by programs, much less by slogans, and that even the most graphic evocations of suffering would not be enough to move readers to see racism for what it was. As he himself put it, Wright discovered that in Uncle Tom’s Children he had written “a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and feel good about.” He then swore that the one that followed would be different. He would make sure that “no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.”

  That next book was Native Son. As Wright later recalled, when he started to write the story of Bigger Thomas, the basic story flowed almost without an effort. In a real sense, he had been studying Bigger Thomas all of his life. Wright’s essential Bigger Thomas was not so much a particular character caught in a specific episode of criminal activity as a crime waiting to happen; all the elements to create Bigger’s mentality were historically in place in America, stocked by the criminal racial situation that was America. “I had spent years learning about Bigger, what had made him, what he meant; so, when the time came for writing, what had made him and what he meant constituted my plot.” Translating this idea into a narrative also came easily; the plot “fell out, so to speak.” In truth, Wright heavily revised the manuscript as he worked, and the dramatic opening scene, featuring Bigger and his rat, was a late addition; but almost everything else took shape swiftly in response to a mighty effort by Wright to complete his novel.

  At the center of Native Son is Bigger’s consciousness. Where had Bigger come from? In his essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” also published in 1940, Wright conceded that as with any sincere artist, his work of art had a life of its own: “There are meanings in my books of which I was not aware until they literally spilled out upon the paper.” On the other hand, he was well aware from the start of the fundamental nature of his central character, who epitomized for Wright the most radical effect of racism on the black psyche. He recalled having met at least five specific Biggers in his youth. The first had been an ugly, brutish bully who, impervious to notions of justice or fair play, had intimidated and abused Wright and other black boys. The remaining prototy
pes of Bigger, however, distinguished themselves by the way in which their antisocial behavior was linked to their hatred of whites. That behavior moved on a spectrum from a devious opposition to white power to an open defiance of even its most intimidating shibboleths. Surviving miraculously in some cases, the most aggressive Biggers could not be cowed by threats of violence or by the law.

  Bigger, however, was not an exclusively black phenomenon. Wright himself declared that the turning point for him in his understanding of social reality—“the pivot of my life”—was his discovery of the ubiquitousness of Bigger: “there were literally millions of him everywhere.” White Biggers abounded in response to the same fundamental environment that had helped sponsor, in situations that involved blacks, the secondary conditions that produced black Biggers. These conditions reflected the failures of modern civilization—the death of genuine spiritual values and traditions, the harsh ness of economic greed and exploitation, the avarice for glittering material goods that, in a culture of consumerism, ultimately possessed the possessor. White Biggers, too, were as cut off from nurturing communal values and as emotionally ravaged by a gnawing sense of alienation as the black Biggers who had impressed themselves on Wright’s imagination. These men (Wright seems never to have conceived of Bigger in female terms) saw in a garish light the failure of their society, its cultural and political ideals and promises, and refused to accept the compromises that most individuals make for simple self-preservation.

  The existence of Bigger across racial lines enabled Wright both to come to terms with the limitations of black American culture, of which he would write with almost abusive force in his autobiography Black Boy, and to set the problems facing blacks alongside those facing whites and thus allow a reciprocity of interest and influence that he had never guessed at in his youth. Nevertheless, the task of representing Bigger in fiction remained daunting. Unlike the dogmatic Communist ideology Wright was in the process of repudiating, the social and political criticism implicit in these marginal lives was by definition incoherent. “Their actions had simply made impressions upon my sensibilities as I lived from day to day,” Wright recalled, “impressions which crystallized and coagulated into clusters and configurations of memory, attitudes, moods, ideas. And these subjective states, in turn, were automatically stored away somewhere in me. I was not even aware of the process. But, excited over the book which I had set myself to write, under the stress of emotion, these things came surging up, tangled, fused, knotted, entertaining me by the sheer variety and potency of their meaning and suggestiveness.”

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