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Book review: ‘Native Son’ by Richard Wright

Emmanuel Omodeinde

Emmanuel is a 21-year-old English Literature and Film student who loves films, TV, books and pop culture. He is particularly interested in postcolonial literature.

‘Native Son’ was written by African-American writer, Richard Wright, and published in 1940. Deemed a protest novel, it was a massive success, and sold 250, 000 copies in its first three weeks making Wright the first best-selling black writer in America. It tells the story of a 20-year-old African-American man named Bigger Thomas living in poverty on the segregated south side of Chicago. He gets a job as a chauffeur for the wealthy white Dalton family. The patriarch, Mr Dalton is an owner of a majority stock in the real estate company which Bigger’s family pays rent to. Mr Dalton’s wife, Mrs Dalton is blind and their 23-year-old daughter, Mary, is becoming increasingly influenced by Jan Erlone, a leader of a community party front.

The climax of the narrative comes when Mary asks Bigger to drive her around one day. She meets up with Jan and they invite Bigger to eat and drink with them. They all get drunk, so Bigger takes Mary home to put her to bed. He becomes sexually aroused and tries to rape her, but the blind Mrs Dalton walks into Mary’s room and in his haste to avoid being caught with a white woman he accidentally smothers Mary. Wracked with guilt, Bigger flees and attempts to cover his tracks, but eventually accepts the futility of escape as he feels as though he had pre-emptiely committed the crimes.

The novel makes many apt observations about race and the struggles Black people experience living in America. Unfortunately, in the current Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump eras, few realities have changed since the book was written eight decades ago. Police brutality, black deaths in police custody, and mass-incarceration of African-Americans–especially men–are still the greatest issues affecting Black Americans today. High violent crime rates, white flight, segregation, and gentrification ushered by the Jim Crow Laws, forced African-Americans into deprived neighbourhoods in the south side of Chicago.

The novel, however, was not released without controversy and criticism. Some African-American writers saw the depiction of Bigger Thomas as a collection of racist stereotypes about black men. Fellow writer, James Baldwin, who was a friend and protégé said: “No American Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull.” However, Baldwin also criticised the novel for its stereotypical protagonist. Personally, I see Bigger Thomas as an archetype of black men and an extreme representation of the trapped feeling many Black people feel while living in western societies dominated by white supremacy. Jordan Peele’s satirical horror-thriller ‘Get Out’ conveyed the same ideas through its main protagonist and the concept of the sunken place. Although the novel may not do much to change the stereotypes some hold on to about black people, it’s far from one-dimensional. One may argue that it could be more nuanced in its observations about race, but in my opinion, it is a powerful and incredibly written masterpiece.


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