Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) was the first novel by an African American to become a bestseller and the first selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club. And until the rise of Toni Morrison and other black women writers, Wright was widely considered the leading African-American author, while Native Son vied with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) as the preeminent novel of the African-American experience.
Despite its success, the novel was controversial from the first, as Wright had known it would be. His own “mental censor” told him that his portrait of Bigger Thomas as a representative of all African Americans would be misunderstood and exploited by “reactionary whites,” condemned by his own “white and black comrades in the Communist party,” and rejected by “the Negro middle and professional classes.”
Native Son remains a controversial novel. In Poetic Justice (1997), Martha Nussbaum argues that the novel is still valuable because it “promotes habits of mind that lead toward social equality in that they contribute to the dismantling of the stereotypes that support group hatred.” She claims that while the novel “avoids evoking an easy sympathy that would say, despite differences in circumstance, we are all brothers under the skin,” it successfully encourages a more meaningful “deep sympathy.” Readers are forced to try “to see the world through Bigger’s eyes” and, therefore, are led, even while “recogniz[ing] the inappropriateness of some of [Bigger’s] emotions to their object,” to feel “a deep sympathy . . . for Bigger’s predicament, a principled anger at the structures of racism that have made him as he is.”
Nussbaum’s interpretation confirms the overall thesis of Poetic Justice that reading novels, at least the right kind of novels, “can be a bridge . . . to a vision of justice” remarkably like Nussbaum’s own.
Richard Posner responded to her argument in his Law and Literature (2009) by claiming that Native Son is a “period piece” lacking permanent value, in large part because, as one reads, “the [minor] black characters lose their three-dimensionality” while the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is presented on some occasions as a morally responsible character and, on others, as a mere victim of circumstances whose actions, even murder, have no moral resonance at all. What Nussbaum calls “the moral teaching of Native Son” about the human cost of racism “is not exactly news, and anyway it is not well presented in Wright’s novel,” says Posner.
In considering the impact of Native Son, it is well to remember what effect the author himself was attempting to achieve. In his 1940 essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Richard Wright declared that he was determined in Native Son to avoid the mistake he believed he had made in writing the stories collected in Uncle Tom’s Children (1938):
When the reviews of that book began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naïve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, 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.
The text of Native Son reveals that Wright, indeed, went out of his way to make it difficult for readers of any race to feel much sympathy, deep or otherwise, for the novel’s protagonist. Wright ensured that even bankers’ daughters would find it difficult to “read and weep over and feel good about” his main character. It is true that when Bigger Thomas smothers Mary Dalton, the Communist-sympathizing daughter of a wealthy liberal slumlord, the reader, taken inside Bigger’s mind, knows that the killing was entirely accidental.
After he is hired as a chauffeur by the Dalton family, Bigger’s first task is to drive Mary to a meeting with her Communist boyfriend Jan Erlone. Later in the evening, Mary and Jan insist that Bigger eat and drink with them, much to his own embarrassment and humiliation. After dropping off Jan, Bigger drives Mary home, but she is so drunk that she passes out and he is forced to carry her to her bedroom. He puts her to bed but is surprised by the appearance of Mrs. Dalton, who is blind but can smell whiskey on Mary’s breath.
Bigger, the reader learns, is “intimidated to the core” by Mrs. Dalton’s appearance; he takes it for granted that any white parent, even the seemingly sympathetic Mrs. Dalton, would be outraged to discover a black man in a daughter’s bedroom. Certain that “if Mary spoke [Mrs. Dalton] would come to the side of the bed and discover him,” he covers Mary’s face with a pillow to prevent her from speaking. All Bigger cares about is that Mary Dalton “not move or make any sound that would betray him.”
It is only after Mrs. Dalton leaves that he turns to Mary and discovers that she is dead. Bigger has killed Mary Dalton because of his fear that it would be disastrous for a black man to be found in the bedroom of a white woman, no matter how innocent or plausible his reason for being there.
So far, the reader remains sympathetic to Bigger, well aware that the killing was entirely accidental. After he realizes Mary Dalton is dead, however, the first thing Bigger does is put her body in the furnace and burn it. Unfortunately, the corpse does not fit and he tries to cut off Mary’s head with his knife but fails, as Wright takes care to inform the reader: “He whacked harder, but the head would not come off.” Finally Bigger finds a way, and again Wright does not spare the reader any details:
He got the hatchet, held the head at a slanting angle with his left hand and, after pausing in an attitude of prayer, sent the blade of the hatchet into the bone of the throat with all the strength of his body. The head rolled off.
Even at this point it might be possible for readers determined to sympathize with a black protagonist to convince themselves that their horror at the mutilation of Mary Dalton’s body is merely an instinctive reaction. Wright, however, takes the reader inside Bigger’s mind to find him telling himself that it was really Mary’s own fault that she was killed: “Hell, she made me do it! I couldn’t help it! I couldn’t help it! She should’ve known better! She should’ve left me alone, goddammit!”
Bigger actually takes pride in the killing and refuses to think of it as an accident.
Though he had killed by accident, not once did he feel the need to tell himself that it had been an accident. . . . And in a certain sense he knew that the girl’s death had not been accidental. He had killed many times before, only on those other times there had been no handy victim or circumstances to make visible or dramatic his will to kill.
Bigger is, in fact, elated by the killing: “Now who on earth would think that he, a black timid Negro boy, would murder and burn a rich white girl and would sit and wait for his breakfast like this? Elation filled him.” He is only unhappy that all the money he got out of the accidental killing was the cash Mary had in her purse:
But of the whole business there was one angle that bothered him; he should have gotten more money out of it; he should have planned it. He had acted too hastily and accidentally. Next time things would be much different; he would plan and arrange so that he would have money enough to keep him a long time.
Bigger Thomas does, indeed, kill one more time, but his next victim is not a rich white girl but his black girlfriend, Bessie Mears.
On the run, he kills her on purpose and in cold blood, having reflected that it would be easier to escape from the police without her than with her. While the reader knows that Bigger did not rape Mary Dalton (though he will be accused of doing so), Bigger does, in fact, rape Bessie Mears just before he kills her. And while Mary seemingly felt no pain when she was smothered in a drunken stupor, Bessie has no such luck. Bigger strikes her head repeatedly with a brick and then throws her body down an airshaft. The reader later learns that her suffering did not end immediately.
At Bigger’s trial, the prosecutor, saying that he represents “the families of Mary Dalton and Bessie Mears,” points to medical testimony indicating that Bessie “was not dead when she hit the bottom of that shaft; she froze to death later, trying to climb out!” For Bigger himself, the two killings had seemed morally equivalent: “He had done this. He had brought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him. He was living, truly and deeply, no matter what others might think, looking at him with their blind eyes.”
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.