Bigger Thomas is a young Black man in Chicago. He lives in a small apartment with his family, is at risk of being kicked off relief, and spends his days hanging around, plotting small crimes with his friends. He gets a job, a charity case from a wealthy, white real-estate magnate in town, a socialite whose college-aged daughter, Mary, flirts around with communists to the chagrin of her parents.
Bigger is hired as a chauffeur. On his first day on the job, he is to take Mary to University. She instructs him to take her out to hang out with her leftist friends. He does; she gets blackout drunk. He takes her home, deeply fearful of being blamed for her condition and accused of rape. Panicking, he smothers her with a pillow and she dies. He cuts her up and puts her in the furnace and then tries to blame her disappearance on the “reds.” Her body is discovered when the press is in the home interviewing the parents. He sneaks out and flees. So ends the first act of the novel. You know how the rest will end; so did I; and so it did.
My first thought when reading Native Son was, “this book could have been written in the 50’s,” and then I found myself a fool, as if the 50’s didn’t emerge from the 30’s and 40’s. My second thought was, “this book could have been written today,” and then I felt even more daft, as if the way we treat Black men in today’s society didn’t emerge from the 50’s and the 40’s and the 30’s and all of the decades and all of the centuries that came before. It’s my privilege to think that the past and the present are two different things.
Richard Wright was an active member of the Communist Party and Native Son’s handling of the relationships between communists and Black folks foretold the alliances and conflicts that would grow to national scale in the coming decades. The relationship is perhaps a bit rosy: while Wright found amicable relations among communists in Chicago, his New York comrades were just as racist as their capitalist counterparts and denounced Wright as a “bourgeois intellectual.” History doesn’t repeat but it sure does rhyme.
The rhythms of the story are so relatable today: the wealthy family whose daughter Bigger killed owned the tenements where Bigger lived, renting them to Black residents for a higher fee than to white residents. The philanthropist father praised himself for giving to the NAACP and for donating Ping Pong tables to the local Black community center. The portrayal is neoliberalism distilled: commit your sins in the name of profit and racial exclusion, then cleanse them with a donation. The last time we saw corruption of this kind so rampant a theologist nailed theses to a German church door.
It’s the novel’s final scene which sends us reeling: Mr. Max, a Jewish labor lawyer who takes up Bigger’s defense gives a heartfelt but ultimately futile speech in the attempt to spare Bigger the executioner. His arguments are for the reader more than the judge, pleas to understand that the cause of Mary’s death is not only Bigger’s actions, but the very conditions that led Bigger to make his choices and take those actions. The capitalist system is equally to blame, Max argues, and while we can condemn Bigger we condemn ourselves by doing so. He tells Mary’s blind mother, “Your philanthropy was as tragically blind as your sightless eyes!”
But these arguments fall short—not just before the judge, but before Bigger, too, who in his final moments reveals himself as exactly the sort of separatist that Max argues against. He has no remorse in killing Mary. “I didn’t want to kill! But what I killed for, I am. It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder…” he tells Max. “What I killed for must’ve been good! It must have been good! When a man kills, it’s for something…. I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ‘em.”
In my edition of the text, Wright’s essay “How Bigger Was Born” explains how Bigger’s role as a Black nationalist can be seen as an emergent phenomenon of what happens when communities are held down and given no room to grow. (As I publish this, we see the effects of this reaching its tragic end elsewhere in the world.) Wright writes, “I’ve even heard Negroes say that maybe Hitler and Mussolini are all right; that maybe Stalin is all right. They did not say this out of any intellectual comprehension of the forces at work in the world, but because they felt that these men ‘did things,’ a phrase which is charged with more meaning than the mere words imply.”
As one reads Native Son, it’s easy to see Bigger as the flawed protagonist even as you watch with horror as his flight, capture, conviction, and condemnation unfold. Bigger makes bad choices, choices that seem simple to avoid for those of us who don’t live his life. This is intentional: Wright rejects the narrative of the perfect victim, the protagonist who does no wrong and is oppressed by injustices beyond his grasp. He paints a picture of a person who does unquestionable wrong, but who deserves dignity nevertheless. And in presenting Bigger as a nationalist in the end, he brings forth the recognition that sometimes evil will rise to counterbalance evil, that the only solution must be to break the cycles of violence and hatred, even if it means setting aside our fury and retribution. “Do you think that the white daughters in the homes of America will be any safer if you kill this boy? No! I tell you in all solemnity that they won’t! The surest way to make certain that there will be more such murders is to kill this boy.”
Native Son is not a perfect book. It has its flaws. I have not yet mentioned that Bigger kills a second woman in this tale, his girlfriend, a Black woman, who he disposes of because she knows he killed Mary. Bigger beats Bessie to death and drops her down a garbage chute. She does not die right away but freezes to death. This murder creates no outrage, nor does it add to the complexity of the narrative of justice and salvation. This handling has received criticism and it weakens the book: how can we address the scales of justice when the story discards Black women in this way? There’s some meta-narrative to be read in it, but it’s hackish in comparison to the rest of the story. This is a shame.
Native Son was the first book in my restart of the Modern Library list that I hadn’t read before. I had tried once but struggled. I’m glad I waited. It’s a book that retains deep modern relevance, and I’m grateful for having read it.
To read more about my Modern Library project, read this post.
Photo of State Street in Chicago with brick houses, 1925. (The Negro in Chicago, 1779-1929, Washington Intercollegiate Club of Chicago, Inc., 1929.), source: National Park Service