LAW & LITERATURE | Richard Wright's Native Son: Dread in Chicago's desolate South Side.

AuthorNormey, Rob

September 1, 2020By Rob Normey

As I write, impassioned protests in Kenosha and elsewhere attest to the anguish experienced by many Americans at the racialized violence meted out to African Americans. The incomprehensible shooting in the back of Jacob Blake, father of three, by a white police officer is the latest in a string of recent shootings and assaults. Shocking levels of violence by whites against black Americans is in fact a recurring theme in U.S. history.

One of the first significant protest works to explore racism, oppression and violence against black Americans is Richard Wright's 1940 novel, Native Son. Wright was a black American who fled the Jim Crow south (Mississippi) to inhabit what must have seemed a new form of prison on the South Side of Chicago in the 1930s. He interrogates the racist practices of his society from the standpoint of its victims. Never before had such a threatening, dangerous character as Bigger Thomas been selected as the central consciousness who will lead the reader through a lengthy novel. The three parts - Fear, Flight and Fate - reveal in economic terms the stark nature of the predicament and the powerful response of the main character.

Major critic Irving Howe summed up the novel's significance by claiming it changed American culture forever. Howe stated that Wright's work had made impossible a repetition of the old lies, and brought into the open the hatred, fear and violence that have crippled the culture. The Modern Library's list of the best 100 novels ranked Native Son as No. 20. As a formidable, path-breaking protest novel, though, it is easier to value it as an important social event and provocative exploration of the vexing problems of race relations in America than it is perhaps to endorse its brilliance and greatness as a work of art.

In this Black Lives Matter era, this novel provides readers an unrelenting look at the violence that the forces of law unleash on the black characters who emerge from their one-room apartments and do life in conditions little better than those faced by actual prisoners. The opening chapter is a perfectly executed description of the stunted lives of Bigger, his mother and his two siblings, under the pressure of hunger and despair. It is twenty year-old-Bigger, badgered by his mother to find employment or lose welfare benefits, whose toughness and tenacity is needed to once again battle a huge black rat menacing the Thomas family. The author gives a vivid and...

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