Author: Richard Wright
Genre: Classics, African-American Literature
Blurb: Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic.
Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Wright's powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America.
Me: This absolutely blew my mind. I don't know if I've ever gained so much insight, voice to my own conflicting thoughts, and yet such an entertaining reading experience from one book before.
There is no way I will say everything I want to in this review, but first I'll touch on the literary aspects and then move on to some ideas that I really connected to in the book.
First of all, Wright's writing is gorgeous. The way he utilises verbs and syntax creates a constant tension between the reader and the plot, making the most minute things seem thrilling. I could not put this book down because of the urgent voice the words convey. He also put such a direct, brave voice to thoughts that were incredibly complex regarding race and prejudice that made the point very clear to the reader. I don't think he could have phrased those any better.
A lot of readers who don't like this novel as much have a problem with the protagonist, Bigger Thomas. They say he is an exaggeration of the classic black stereotype and what whites may have perceived blacks to be in the time period, and that he is inherently a bad person and bad character and it is hard to relate to him. I disagree. Not only do I completely understand Richard Wright when he says he finds Bigger Thomases everywhere, in every race, trying to escape a condition that has been forced on them but I also think that even though he has incredible flaws as a person, Bigger Thomas makes the story as powerful as it is. He allows for the simultaneous doubt from the reader at a criminal but also the understanding of guttural emotions that haven't been allowed an outlet.
In the third part of the novel, sometimes criticised for being too dry and political, Bigger's lawyer's speech is included as to why Bigger's crime should be considered in the larger context of African American life in America and not just with Bigger. This entire part was so powerful for me. It explained how because of a society that inherently restricts and doesn't allow for recognition of black emotions and experiences, it is only natural for men like Bigger to react instinctively when put in a situation of danger due to his color. Although his race does not justify his crime, it is important to realize that all people need the knowledge that someone else shares their emotional experience and that they have control over their lives- a feeling many African Americans, and other minorities, lack. Because of this, Bigger and other average people are not able to understand the emotions and thoughts that run in their minds because it stems from a much larger, all-encompassing problem.
Reading this, I felt like I had a revelation about not only race relations in America, but why social justice is applicable and why it is necessary. Not only that, but as we see the effects of continued discrimination and prejudice today, it is important to give the Bigger Thomases of the world, (which I believe there's a little bit of him in everyone) a chance to be listened to and acknowledged before such a cruel situation happens for both parties.
I hope to revisit this book and analyze it deeper- I think there is an interesting argument to be made about it generalizing certain groups, excluding women from the picture, etc. that others have brought up. But for now, reading this book has been an eye-opening experience.
Overall: Should be required reading for every American and every person. Not only gorgeously written, but has the most important and approachable perspective on race and humanity in general.
“Men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread.”
“He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fulness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair."
"It was when he read the newspapers or magazines, went to the movies, or walked along the streets with crowds, that he felt what he wanted: to merge himself with others and be a part of this world, to lose himself in it so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black."
Rating: Absolutely beat my scale.