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The Wright Stuff

Understanding the radical vision of ‘Native Son.’

Sep 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 03 • By JAMES SEATON
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It is telling that Martha Nussbaum, in her account of why the reader feels a “deep sympathy” for Bigger, does not even refer to the murder of Bessie Mears, leaving those who have not read Native Son with the impression that Bigger’s only crime was the accidental killing of Mary Dalton. (Posner, meanwhile, errs in declaring that Bigger “is not even charged with the murder of his girlfriend.” Posner calls this “a commentary on white indifference to black life,” which seems reasonable; but it is one invented by Richard Posner, not Richard Wright.)

After Bigger is captured and brought to trial, Jan Erlone secures an attorney for him, Communist sympathizer Boris Max. In a long speech in which he seems to speak with the authority of the author, Max does not attempt to diminish Bigger’s guilt but to magnify it. He tells the court:

This Negro boy’s entire attitude toward life is a crime! .  .  . Every time he comes in contact with us, he kills! It is a physiological and psychological reaction, embedded in his being. Every thought he thinks is a potential murder. .  .  . His very existence is a crime against the state!

Max stresses that Bigger Thomas should not be considered “a victim of injustice,” and does not “ask that this Court be sympathetic with him.” Instead, he calls on the court—and presumably upon the reader—to “banish from our minds the thought that [Bigger Thomas] is an unfortunate victim of injustice.” The relationship between blacks and whites is an instance of the conflict that, according to Max, is the engine of history: “What is happening here today is not injustice but oppression, an attempt to throttle or stamp out a new form of life.” 

Blacks and whites are, in effect, at war with one another. Black people in the United States, according to Max and, presumably, Wright, “are not simply twelve million people; in reality they constitute a separate nation, stunted, stripped, and held captive within this nation, devoid of political, social, economic, and property rights.” 

Bigger Thomas’s killings should not be thought of as violations of law and order but, instead, as incidents in a war in which the moral rules of peaceful society do not apply. The heart of Max’s case is his claim, seemingly seconded by Wright, that Bigger Thomas is representative of all black people in the United States. Max tells the court: “Multiply Bigger Thomas twelve million times, allowing for environmental and temperamental variations, and for those Negroes who are completely under the influence of the church, and you have the psychology of the Negro people.” 

If, following Max’s argument, Bigger Thomas is thought of as a symbol rather than as an individual human being, the execution of Bigger Thomas would not be simply the proper legal punishment for specific crimes, but rather a symbolic admission that the only final solution to the conflict between blacks and whites is what would today be called genocide. 

Max makes this bold claim quite explicit: “But if we say that we must kill him, then let us have the courage and honesty to say: ‘Let us kill them all. They are not human. There’s no room for them.’ Then let us do it.” Presumably Max—and Wright—make this argument in the belief that most white Americans, even those who might believe that Bigger Thomas deserved the electric chair for his two killings, would lack the ruthlessness—what Max calls “the courage and honesty”—to agree to genocide. 

(It is worth remembering that, when the novel was published in 1940, the policy Boris Max offers as one of two alternatives was actually being planned and acted on in Germany by those who felt about an individual Jew what Boris Max says is the case about Bigger Thomas: “His very existence is a crime against the state!” Meanwhile, as a loyal Communist, Richard Wright in 1940 was arguing against any conflict with Nazi Germany, a position he maintained from the August 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact until Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.)

Richard Wright, it appears, did not want his readers, certainly not his white readers, to sympathize or identify with Bigger Thomas. He did not want bankers’ daughters or anybody else to “weep over” his protagonist. He was determined to shock, frighten, and disturb. He wanted his readers to fear the possibility that they might someday run into a Bigger Thomas, whose “every thought” is “potential murder.” Wright wanted to scare his audience into considering what they otherwise would not accept, that they could never consider themselves truly safe until the United States underwent a radical transformation, specifically a revolution led by the Communist party.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the Richard Wright who wrote Native Son was wrong about many things. In “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” he condemned almost all aspects of black culture and achievement as irrelevant to the reality of undeclared war. He rejected the black church as escapist,  disparaged those who, like the NAACP, “employed a thousand ruses and stratagems of struggle to win their rights,” and dismissed black singers and musicians who “projected their hurts and longings into more naïve and mundane forms—blues, jazz, swing—and, without intellectual guidance, tried to build up a compensatory nourishment for themselves.” 

Those first readers of Native Son who accepted the novel as an accurate portrayal of the black experience would have been unprepared for the legal triumph of the NAACP in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and other such cases, and entirely surprised by the leadership role of the black church in the struggle for civil rights, demonstrated most strikingly, but by no means exclusively, in the career of Martin Luther King Jr. And from the perspective of the 21st century, the folly of Wright’s denigration of the art of composers like Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, musicians like Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong, and singers like Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday as “naïve and mundane” is even more obvious than it was in 1940.

But before one criticizes or, for that matter, praises Native Son and its view of the racial situation in the United States, it is important to make the effort to understand the novel as it is written and appreciate the radical quality of Richard Wright’s vision. Nussbaum’s praise and Posner’s criticism both fail to address the main reason Native Son remains important: The novel offers the most powerful and imaginative case yet made for the thesis—still vehemently asserted by believers undaunted by the election of a black president—that the underlying relationship between blacks and whites in America is a state of war that cannot be ended by any mere reform, such as the achievement of equality before the law, but only by revolution. 

In demonstrating so powerfully the drastically impoverished view of African-American life and achievement required by this thesis, Richard Wright has left us all in his debt—especially, perhaps, if we do not ultimately agree with him.

James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States

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