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The Great Richard Wright

November 5, 2017

Richard Wright

(Here is an excerpt from my book, THE EDUCATION OF A WHITE BOY)

Richard Wright was the first African-American to write a best-selling novel, Native Son, which came out in 1940. The movie was released in 1986 and, get this, it did not star Denzel Washington (who was too busy on the set of St. Elsewhere and also gearing up for Cry Freedom, a film about Stephen Biko, the black South African dissident who stood up to Apartheid and was then jailed, tortured and died in a Pretoria prison). The black protagonist in Native Son, Bigger Thomas, is not the usual Denzel hero bucking the system with courage and a severe ethical code, or one who rises to literacy through self-discipline. Instead, he is an illiterate thug besieged by social pressures who, in the end, is defeated by the system.

Bigger shares a one-room Chicago apartment with his mother, sister and little brother. The novel starts with the anti-hero engaged in combat – against a rat that has invaded the hearth. He subdues it with a frying pan and in the aftermath holds aloft the fruits of war to his disgusted sister. It only gets worse for Bigger.

It is the height of the Great Depression. He is constricted in every sense of the word – socially, spatially and economically — and hates his family because he knows that they are suffering and that he is “powerless to help them,” but, the narrator says, “the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else.” He feels capable of more than menial labor, for instance believing that he “could fly a plane if” he had the chance, but knows that society will never allow it. This leaves him no other outlet than to commit petty theft – toward other poor blacks. His frustration is such that he wants “to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel like this. If not that, he wanted to blot himself out.”

After the rat scene, he and his friends plan the unthinkable – robbing a white storeowner. This is “territory where the full wrath of an alien white world would be turned loose upon them.” Bigger loses his nerve and, not wanting to admit fear to his running mates, beats and humiliates one of them at knifepoint.

Bigger is alienated from everyone, including black people, though he thrills at the Garveyites preaching on the streets about how the white man can go to hell. In his opinion, his friends and family are deluded patsies, in particular his mother and girlfriend, Bessie. The former blinds herself to reality through the Christian church and the latter through alcohol. He, on the other hand, does not “want to sit on a bench and sing, or lie in a corner and sleep. 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.”

In a sense, it is Hollywood and commercialism that undoes Bigger Thomas. Boris Max, a lawyer, sums it up toward the end of the novel: “How alluring, how dazzling it is! How it excites the senses! How it seems to dangle within easy reach of everyone the fulfillment of happiness! How constantly and overwhelmingly the advertisements, radios, newspapers and movies play upon us! But in thinking of them remember that to many they are tokens of mockery. These bright colors may fill our hearts with elation, but to many they are daily taunts. Imagine a man walking amid such a scene, a part of it, and yet knowing that it is not for him!”

The city relief agency offers Bigger a job as a chauffeur for a white family, the Daltons. He sits in a movie theater to contemplate whether or not to take the job. The film being projected on the big screen is about how the other half, the white half, lives in the lap of privilege, and this inspires Bigger to become excited about the job: “Maybe Mr. Dalton was a millionaire. Maybe he had a daughter who was a hot kind of girl; maybe she spent lots of money; maybe she’d like to come to the South Side and see the sights sometimes. Or maybe she had a secret sweetheart and only he would know about it because he would have to drive her around; maybe she would give him money not to tell.” This mocking fantasy clinches it for Bigger, as he will go and interview for the job.

It turns out that Mr. Dalton is a millionaire, but at the expense of African-Americans. He is a slumlord, who, by refusing to rent to blacks in other neighborhoods (de facto segregation), has created a housing shortage and thus is able to charge the Thomas family through the nose for a hovel crawling with vermin. But Dalton fashions himself a philanthropist because he donates ping-pong tables to the Negro YMCA and hires destitute black boys to be house niggers. Society hails him as a good man. Bigger’s movie theatre fantasy becomes even more true when Mr. Dalton entrusts him with the task of chauffeuring around his pretty and spoiled daughter, Mary; and, yes, she does have a secret lover, a radical Communist, Jan Erlone; and, yes, Bigger does bring them to the South Side.

But the fantasy becomes an inverted nightmare. Bigger is patronized by Mary and Jan, who see in the black boy a chance to demonstrate their open-mindedness and loyalty to the Communist ideal of the brotherhood of man. They insist that Bigger take them to eat fried chicken in the ‘hood. He is grows uncomfortable watching Mary get bombed out of her mind, as she becomes, not a friend to the black masses, but rather a major cock-tease. If Bigger had earlier been aware of the taboo against robbing a white storeowner, then he is now frantic at the greatest taboo of all – a black boy alone with a white girl, especially an inebriated rich one.

Bigger is left no choice but to carry Mary to her room, lest her parents blame him for having got their innocent daughter drunk in some South Side dive. He tucks her into bed and is about to get the hell out of there when the legally blind Mrs. Dalton enters the room calling out Mary’s name. Bigger is now in a frenzied panic, as he knows that if he is discovered in the bedroom of a white woman, regardless of his noble intentions, he will be tried for rape, a crime the white man ranks above murder. He holds a hand, then a pillow, over Mary’s mouth, so she will not betray his presence, as the “white blur” that is Mrs. Dalton moves toward him. Mary dies while Mrs. Dalton stands at the bedside and prays over what she thinks is her sleeping daughter. Then there is the spooky white cat that never stops looking at Bigger.

He takes the corpse to the basement and jams it into the furnace. Afterward, the Daltons and the police scramble to locate Mary, which causes Bigger, for once in his life, to feel in control of events. “The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had somehow been cheated, but had now evened the score.” Then he raises the ante by writing a ransom note implicating Jan as the kidnapper, signing it Red. Even though he gives himself away with the sentence Do what this letter say, the authorities are so stoked up on anti-Communism that they never notice the black vernacular. Bigger enlists the gullible Bessie into the plot. Now that he is grappling one-on-one with white power, he is no longer awed by its reputation. In a perverse way, the murder is bringing focus and wholeness to his life.

Then a reporter, with Bigger standing nearby, discovers Mary’s bones in the furnace. He and Bessie flee to an empty building, where his girlfriend learns that Bigger has murdered Mary Dalton. He becomes scared that she will betray him. He loses control, rapes her and, while she is asleep, bashes her head in with a brick and throws her body down an elevator shaft. Now he is beyond good and evil.

The press and all of white Chicago assume that Bigger raped Mary. Why else would he try to burn the body? And isn’t that what black men do to white women? A citywide lynch mob chases him, in a blizzard (the snow reminding him that whiteness is everywhere), until they corner him on a rooftop, an anti-Christian mount, where “Two men stretched his arms out, as though about to crucify him; they placed a foot on each of his wrists, making them sink deep down in the snow. His eyes closed, slowly, and he was swallowed in darkness.” In the coming weeks, the entire black population will pay for Bigger’s crimes, as hundreds get fired from their jobs and others are beaten by white mobs.

The last third of the book is courtroom drama. Jan is crushed by Mary’s death and also feels guilty about having treated Bigger like a novelty. He enlists a fellow Communist, Boris Max, to represent the defendant. Max tries to impress upon the jury how Bigger was shaped by a racist environment that had stifled his humanity, turning him into a hunted animal, leaving him no opportunity for self-expression save crime. The title Native Son indicates the final product of the America Dream – Bigger Thomas. The chickens have come home to roost, and, Max warns, there is going to be a lot more roosting if white society fails to get its act together in time.

The experienced reader is now dreading a Jack London-Upton Sinclair ending wherein Bigger sees the Leninist god and calls for black and white to join together under the socialist banner. At the very end, Mr. Max (Marx) tries to convince Bigger that his execution will not be in vain, that it may well galvanize and improve this predatory capitalist society. But the narrator has been putting less of his own words into Bigger’s mind until now Bigger is thinking and talking for himself.

“Mr. Max” he says from inside his cell, “you go home. I’m all right…I ain’t trying to forgive nobody and I ain’t asking for nobody to forgive me. I ain’t going to cry. They wouldn’t let me live and I killed…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!…What I killed for must’ve 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…It’s the truth, Mr. Max. I can say it now, ‘cause I’m going to die. I know what I’m saying real good and I know how it sounds…Just go and tell Ma I was all right and not to worry none, see? Tell her I was all right and wasn’t crying none…”

Max is horrified by this speech, as the Leninist god has been rejected by a proletariat. He and Bigger, white and black, remain strangers to one another. Max walks away…down the corridor. Bigger smiles “a faint, wry, bitter smile” and hears “the ring of steel against steel as a far door” clangs shut. The end.

No moral uplift here. Native Son will be criticized for the next seventy years, especially by African-Americans, as too bleak a story. They will take extra shots at the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, as having no redeeming value – of not being Denzel. But that was the whole point. For Bigger to have risen from de facto segregation to heroic status would have been to let white America off the hook, and the author had no such intention. In the preface to my copy of the book, Richard Wright explains the genesis of Native Son: “I had written a book of short stories…Uncle Tom’s Children. When the reviews…began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naïve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even banker’s 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…” How can a writer be taken to task for a premeditated act of literature? When I read the last passage of Native Son, of that steel door slamming shut, I was left numb, as if Richard Wright had chained me to the edge of the racial abyss, taped my eyes open, and shouted: White Man, Listen!

I moved on to Wright’s two autobiographies, Black Boy and American Hunger. The story begins with the four-year-old Richard burning down his house in rural Mississippi in 1912. It ends just after May Day, 1936, in Chicago, as former associates, white men of the American Communist Party, toss him onto a sidewalk for daring to march in their brotherhood parade. Black Boy recounts his first nineteen years in Jim Crow South, while American Hunger tells of young adulthood in the Windy City, made windier in the drafty tenements that that were home to his destitute family, much like the fictional Thomas quartet.

Speeches by Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, histories by Du Bois and Zinn, the polemics of Malcolm X, the mini-bios on Harriet Tubman – they all pointed to, and highlighted, Jim Crow, but it took a novelist, Wright, to put me into the skin of black boy in feudal Mississippi. At some point, a Southern black kid will become cognizant of the Other (Du Bois’ Veil), but prior to that he sees the natural beauty of the Delta, “the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.” Then, amidst this Eden, the Other makes its inevitable appearance, as young Richard hears of a white man who has severely beaten a black boy. He gains, over time, the understanding that, in the South, such an act is common and permitted under the law. He watches as his elders crack under the pressure of Jim Crow. His father abandons the struggle and his family when Richard is six. Two years later, his mother breaks down and is an invalid for life. His grandmother and spinster aunt retreat into the narcotic haze of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Whites murder his uncle with absolute impunity so they can take over his modest saloon business. Another uncle must flee in the middle of the night as the Klan is hot on his trail. Meanwhile, Richard is moved from one poor relative to the next, and an orphanage in between, until, at thirteen, he settles, along with his paralyzed mother, in Jackson, Mississippi, in the house of the Seventh-Day Adventist grandma and aunt, who terrorize him and feed him lard and gravy.

In Jackson, he completes a full year of school. He works at odd jobs to feed himself and to buy school supplies, and, in the process, he runs straight into the scary arms of Jim Crow. One early employer, a white housewife, upbraids him for turning down a plate of moldy, green molasses. At the local brickyard, the owner’s dog sinks his teeth into Richard, who then asks if the infection now spreading is something to worry about, to which the bossman laughs, and says: “A dog bite can’t hurt a nigger.” He tries to learn the optics trade, whereupon two hillbillies threaten his life for daring to fathom the sacred art of lens grinding. The further I got into Black Boy, the more I could feel Wright’s mounting claustrophobia. I had a knot in my stomach throughout the book.

Like Bigger Thomas, Richard is also alienated from, and critical toward, fellow blacks, so that he fits into no group. He is neither house nor field nigger. At one point, he asks “what on earth was the matter with me, why it was I never seemed to do things as people expected them to be done. Every word and gesture I made seemed to provoke hostility.”

But I knew the reason for his alienation. Richard was a born writer, which is a curse as much as a blessing. If the writer is not born into an artistic or scholastic environment, the urge to read and write may remain an unnamable desire, a seed buried under a mound of external ignorance, that will only manifest itself in gnawing rebellion or in creative destruction or in childish delusion. The good news is that whether the frustrated and unwitting artist grows up in a black religious home in Mississippi or white one in Levittown, PA, books will somehow rise up on the horizon of his mind, like a dim North Star, and he will grope forward in that direction until his intellect begins to glow with recognition, when at last he staggers into literary Bethlehem. That he will have arrived late does not matter, for he, too, has gifts to bring.

For Richard, the goal of becoming a writer came early in life, but his immediate surroundings, both black and white, stymied him at every turn. His religious fanatic of a grandmother would not allow him to read anything not pro-God, while the same lady who fed him moldy leftovers scoffed: “You’ll never be a writer. Who on earth put such ideas into your nigger head?” Midway through Black Boy, the older Richard, the narrator now in Bethlehem, laments that this “environment contained nothing more alien than writing or the desire to express one’s self in writing.” Following the dog-bite incident, when it truly hits home that, in the South, he is perceived as an animal, he grows “silent and reserved as the nature of the world in which I lived became plain and undeniable; the bleakness of the future affected my will to study…living as a Negro was cold and hard.” Was his family right to call him a bad seed? “Why was it considered wrong to ask questions?…It seemed inconceivable to me that one should surrender to what seemed wrong…how could one live in a world in which one’s mind and perceptions meant nothing and authority and tradition meant everything?” He graduates from the ninth grade and that is the end of his formal education.

The turning point comes after he escapes Mississippi to the less oppressive, though still Jim Crow, Memphis, Tennessee. He is eighteen-years-old and finds a job at another optics company, but this time he is smart enough not to demonstrate to white co-workers that he is a smart young man. One morning, he is reading the city newspaper and comes across an editorial denouncing the editor of the American Mercury, H.L. Mencken. “I wondered what…this Mencken had done to call down upon him the scorn of the South.” He borrows a library card from the only approachable white man in the optics shop, an Irish Roman Catholic. Then he sits down to read two of Mencken’s books, and a whole universe opens up to him, as the North Star brightens to a glorious beacon of hope. It is through Mencken’s essays and opinions that Richard discovers his literary role models, the naturalists – Dreiser, Hardy and Dostoyevsky. In the novel Babbit by Sinclair Lewis, he learns the foibles and ludicrous thought-process of the blowhard American businessman. In Main Street, Lewis portrays white people in an even more ridiculous light. Richard admits that the act of reading “was like a drug, a dope.” What he “derived from these novels was nothing less than a sense of life itself. All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel…”

American Hunger starts when he migrates to Chicago in 1927. He intensifies his self-education program, though for the next nine years he will remain employed at menial jobs. Along the way, he joins the John Reed Club so to associate with writers, the catch being that he must also develop Communist sympathies. He laughs at the black Communists who lecture on the streets doing bad imitations of Lenin, pounding a right fist into a left palm, and wearing the famous hat. He becomes a member of the Party in 1934, but his artistic nature leads him to clash with its dogmatism. “I could not refute the general Communist analysis of the world; the only drawback was that their world was just too simple for belief.” He is accused of being – gasp! – an intellectual, to which a dumbfounded Richard says: “I sweep the streets for a living.” Later he expounds on this problem: “But there existed in the Western world an element that baffled and frightened the Communist party: the prevalence of self-achieved literacy. Even a Negro, entrapped by ignorance and exploitation – as I had been – could, if he had the will and the love for it, learn to read and understand the world in which he lived.” Hence why, in the end, he is tossed, airborne, from the 1936 May Day parade.

But the eternal loner brushes himself off and, on the last page of American Hunger, heads back home to his desk. He picks up a pencil and holds “it over a sheet of white paper,” and broods that, when the time is ripe, he “will hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”

This is the man who, three years after the Mat Day incident, would finish the chilling portrait of Bigger Thomas. Just as Hemingway claimed that the American novel begins with Huckleberry Finn, so it can be said that the African-American novel dates from Native Son, regardless of how critics of both races have felt about Bigger not being a positive role model. Some critics of the book have scoffed at its contrived plot and clichéd prose, that it is not a refined work of literature. What these aesthetes fail to understand is that only someone who had been denied an education all the way into adulthood could have written Native Son, and because Richard arrived so late in Bethlehem, and even then having to sweep the streets for a living, the writing was not going to measure up to the aristocratic Marcel Proust. This is a book about life by someone who knew all about life before he knew about words.

In 1947, he and his white wife moved to France where he would die in 1960 of a condition which was the opposite of how he had lived for fifty-two years – heart failure. During this time he, like Du Bois, became more interested in international racism. He hung out with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, which led to speculation that he was becoming an Existentialist, forgetting that, years ago, he had created Bigger Thomas, the original existentialist character.

In 1959, Martin Luther King, recovering from a knife wound to his chest inflicted by a deranged woman in New York, was en route to India when he stopped in France to meet the famous Richard Wright. The only distinct memory of the occasion was from Wright’s daughter, Julia, then seventeen, who had never lived in America. Her father called her into the room and asked King to reveal the scar on his chest. Then Wright announced to her: “This is what happens to people in the States who speak up for their rights.”

Richard Wright was the first African-American to write a best-selling novel, Native Son, which came out in 1940. The movie was released in 1986 and, get this, it did not star Denzel Washington (who was too busy on the set of St. Elsewhere and also gearing up for Cry Freedom, a film about Stephen Biko, the black South African dissident who stood up to Apartheid and was then jailed, tortured and died in a Pretoria prison). The black protagonist in Native Son, Bigger Thomas, is not the usual Denzel hero bucking the system with courage and a severe ethical code, or one who rises to literacy through self-discipline. Instead, he is an illiterate thug besieged by social pressures who, in the end, is defeated by the system.

Bigger shares a one-room Chicago apartment with his mother, sister and little brother. The novel starts with the anti-hero engaged in combat – against a rat that has invaded the hearth. He subdues it with a frying pan and in the aftermath holds aloft the fruits of war to his disgusted sister. It only gets worse for Bigger.

It is the height of the Great Depression. He is constricted in every sense of the word – socially, spatially and economically — and hates his family because he knows that they are suffering and that he is “powerless to help them,” but, the narrator says, “the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else.” He feels capable of more than menial labor, for instance believing that he “could fly a plane if” he had the chance, but knows that society will never allow it. This leaves him no other outlet than to commit petty theft – toward other poor blacks. His frustration is such that he wants “to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel like this. If not that, he wanted to blot himself out.”

After the rat scene, he and his friends plan the unthinkable – robbing a white storeowner. This is “territory where the full wrath of an alien white world would be turned loose upon them.” Bigger loses his nerve and, not wanting to admit fear to his running mates, beats and humiliates one of them at knifepoint.

Bigger is alienated from everyone, including black people, though he thrills at the Garveyites preaching on the streets about how the white man can go to hell. In his opinion, his friends and family are deluded patsies, in particular his mother and girlfriend, Bessie. The former blinds herself to reality through the Christian church and the latter through alcohol. He, on the other hand, does not “want to sit on a bench and sing, or lie in a corner and sleep. 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.”

In a sense, it is Hollywood and commercialism that undoes Bigger Thomas. Boris Max, a lawyer, sums it up toward the end of the novel: “How alluring, how dazzling it is! How it excites the senses! How it seems to dangle within easy reach of everyone the fulfillment of happiness! How constantly and overwhelmingly the advertisements, radios, newspapers and movies play upon us! But in thinking of them remember that to many they are tokens of mockery. These bright colors may fill our hearts with elation, but to many they are daily taunts. Imagine a man walking amid such a scene, a part of it, and yet knowing that it is not for him!”

The city relief agency offers Bigger a job as a chauffeur for a white family, the Daltons. He sits in a movie theater to contemplate whether or not to take the job. The film being projected on the big screen is about how the other half, the white half, lives in the lap of privilege, and this inspires Bigger to become excited about the job: “Maybe Mr. Dalton was a millionaire. Maybe he had a daughter who was a hot kind of girl; maybe she spent lots of money; maybe she’d like to come to the South Side and see the sights sometimes. Or maybe she had a secret sweetheart and only he would know about it because he would have to drive her around; maybe she would give him money not to tell.” This mocking fantasy clinches it for Bigger, as he will go and interview for the job.

It turns out that Mr. Dalton is a millionaire, but at the expense of African-Americans. He is a slumlord, who, by refusing to rent to blacks in other neighborhoods (de facto segregation), has created a housing shortage and thus is able to charge the Thomas family through the nose for a hovel crawling with vermin. But Dalton fashions himself a philanthropist because he donates ping-pong tables to the Negro YMCA and hires destitute black boys to be house niggers. Society hails him as a good man. Bigger’s movie theatre fantasy becomes even more true when Mr. Dalton entrusts him with the task of chauffeuring around his pretty and spoiled daughter, Mary; and, yes, she does have a secret lover, a radical Communist, Jan Erlone; and, yes, Bigger does bring them to the South Side.

But the fantasy becomes an inverted nightmare. Bigger is patronized by Mary and Jan, who see in the black boy a chance to demonstrate their open-mindedness and loyalty to the Communist ideal of the brotherhood of man. They insist that Bigger take them to eat fried chicken in the ‘hood. He is grows uncomfortable watching Mary get bombed out of her mind, as she becomes, not a friend to the black masses, but rather a major cock-tease. If Bigger had earlier been aware of the taboo against robbing a white storeowner, then he is now frantic at the greatest taboo of all – a black boy alone with a white girl, especially an inebriated rich one.

Bigger is left no choice but to carry Mary to her room, lest her parents blame him for having got their innocent daughter drunk in some South Side dive. He tucks her into bed and is about to get the hell out of there when the legally blind Mrs. Dalton enters the room calling out Mary’s name. Bigger is now in a frenzied panic, as he knows that if he is discovered in the bedroom of a white woman, regardless of his noble intentions, he will be tried for rape, a crime the white man ranks above murder. He holds a hand, then a pillow, over Mary’s mouth, so she will not betray his presence, as the “white blur” that is Mrs. Dalton moves toward him. Mary dies while Mrs. Dalton stands at the bedside and prays over what she thinks is her sleeping daughter. Then there is the spooky white cat that never stops looking at Bigger.

He takes the corpse to the basement and jams it into the furnace. Afterward, the Daltons and the police scramble to locate Mary, which causes Bigger, for once in his life, to feel in control of events. “The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had somehow been cheated, but had now evened the score.” Then he raises the ante by writing a ransom note implicating Jan as the kidnapper, signing it Red. Even though he gives himself away with the sentence Do what this letter say, the authorities are so stoked up on anti-Communism that they never notice the black vernacular. Bigger enlists the gullible Bessie into the plot. Now that he is grappling one-on-one with white power, he is no longer awed by its reputation. In a perverse way, the murder is bringing focus and wholeness to his life.

Then a reporter, with Bigger standing nearby, discovers Mary’s bones in the furnace. He and Bessie flee to an empty building, where his girlfriend learns that Bigger has murdered Mary Dalton. He becomes scared that she will betray him. He loses control, rapes her and, while she is asleep, bashes her head in with a brick and throws her body down an elevator shaft. Now he is beyond good and evil.

The press and all of white Chicago assume that Bigger raped Mary. Why else would he try to burn the body? And isn’t that what black men do to white women? A citywide lynch mob chases him, in a blizzard (the snow reminding him that whiteness is everywhere), until they corner him on a rooftop, an anti-Christian mount, where “Two men stretched his arms out, as though about to crucify him; they placed a foot on each of his wrists, making them sink deep down in the snow. His eyes closed, slowly, and he was swallowed in darkness.” In the coming weeks, the entire black population will pay for Bigger’s crimes, as hundreds get fired from their jobs and others are beaten by white mobs.

The last third of the book is courtroom drama. Jan is crushed by Mary’s death and also feels guilty about having treated Bigger like a novelty. He enlists a fellow Communist, Boris Max, to represent the defendant. Max tries to impress upon the jury how Bigger was shaped by a racist environment that had stifled his humanity, turning him into a hunted animal, leaving him no opportunity for self-expression save crime. The title Native Son indicates the final product of the America Dream – Bigger Thomas. The chickens have come home to roost, and, Max warns, there is going to be a lot more roosting if white society fails to get its act together in time.

The experienced reader is now dreading a Jack London-Upton Sinclair ending wherein Bigger sees the Leninist god and calls for black and white to join together under the socialist banner. At the very end, Mr. Max (Marx) tries to convince Bigger that his execution will not be in vain, that it may well galvanize and improve this predatory capitalist society. But the narrator has been putting less of his own words into Bigger’s mind until now Bigger is thinking and talking for himself.

“Mr. Max” he says from inside his cell, “you go home. I’m all right…I ain’t trying to forgive nobody and I ain’t asking for nobody to forgive me. I ain’t going to cry. They wouldn’t let me live and I killed…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!…What I killed for must’ve 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…It’s the truth, Mr. Max. I can say it now, ‘cause I’m going to die. I know what I’m saying real good and I know how it sounds…Just go and tell Ma I was all right and not to worry none, see? Tell her I was all right and wasn’t crying none…”

Max is horrified by this speech, as the Leninist god has been rejected by a proletariat. He and Bigger, white and black, remain strangers to one another. Max walks away…down the corridor. Bigger smiles “a faint, wry, bitter smile” and hears “the ring of steel against steel as a far door” clangs shut. The end.

No moral uplift here. Native Son will be criticized for the next seventy years, especially by African-Americans, as too bleak a story. They will take extra shots at the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, as having no redeeming value – of not being Denzel. But that was the whole point. For Bigger to have risen from de facto segregation to heroic status would have been to let white America off the hook, and the author had no such intention. In the preface to my copy of the book, Richard Wright explains the genesis of Native Son: “I had written a book of short stories…Uncle Tom’s Children. When the reviews…began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naïve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even banker’s 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…” How can a writer be taken to task for a premeditated act of literature? When I read the last passage of Native Son, of that steel door slamming shut, I was left numb, as if Richard Wright had chained me to the edge of the racial abyss, taped my eyes open, and shouted: White Man, Listen!

I moved on to Wright’s two autobiographies, Black Boy and American Hunger. The story begins with the four-year-old Richard burning down his house in rural Mississippi in 1912. It ends just after May Day, 1936, in Chicago, as former associates, white men of the American Communist Party, toss him onto a sidewalk for daring to march in their brotherhood parade. Black Boy recounts his first nineteen years in Jim Crow South, while American Hunger tells of young adulthood in the Windy City, made windier in the drafty tenements that that were home to his destitute family, much like the fictional Thomas quartet.

Speeches by Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, histories by Du Bois and Zinn, the polemics of Malcolm X, the mini-bios on Harriet Tubman – they all pointed to, and highlighted, Jim Crow, but it took a novelist, Wright, to put me into the skin of black boy in feudal Mississippi. At some point, a Southern black kid will become cognizant of the Other (Du Bois’ Veil), but prior to that he sees the natural beauty of the Delta, “the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.” Then, amidst this Eden, the Other makes its inevitable appearance, as young Richard hears of a white man who has severely beaten a black boy. He gains, over time, the understanding that, in the South, such an act is common and permitted under the law. He watches as his elders crack under the pressure of Jim Crow. His father abandons the struggle and his family when Richard is six. Two years later, his mother breaks down and is an invalid for life. His grandmother and spinster aunt retreat into the narcotic haze of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Whites murder his uncle with absolute impunity so they can take over his modest saloon business. Another uncle must flee in the middle of the night as the Klan is hot on his trail. Meanwhile, Richard is moved from one poor relative to the next, and an orphanage in between, until, at thirteen, he settles, along with his paralyzed mother, in Jackson, Mississippi, in the house of the Seventh-Day Adventist grandma and aunt, who terrorize him and feed him lard and gravy.

In Jackson, he completes a full year of school. He works at odd jobs to feed himself and to buy school supplies, and, in the process, he runs straight into the scary arms of Jim Crow. One early employer, a white housewife, upbraids him for turning down a plate of moldy, green molasses. At the local brickyard, the owner’s dog sinks his teeth into Richard, who then asks if the infection now spreading is something to worry about, to which the bossman laughs, and says: “A dog bite can’t hurt a nigger.” He tries to learn the optics trade, whereupon two hillbillies threaten his life for daring to fathom the sacred art of lens grinding. The further I got into Black Boy, the more I could feel Wright’s mounting claustrophobia. I had a knot in my stomach throughout the book.

Like Bigger Thomas, Richard is also alienated from, and critical toward, fellow blacks, so that he fits into no group. He is neither house nor field nigger. At one point, he asks “what on earth was the matter with me, why it was I never seemed to do things as people expected them to be done. Every word and gesture I made seemed to provoke hostility.”

But I knew the reason for his alienation. Richard was a born writer, which is a curse as much as a blessing. If the writer is not born into an artistic or scholastic environment, the urge to read and write may remain an unnamable desire, a seed buried under a mound of external ignorance, that will only manifest itself in gnawing rebellion or in creative destruction or in childish delusion. The good news is that whether the frustrated and unwitting artist grows up in a black religious home in Mississippi or white one in Levittown, PA, books will somehow rise up on the horizon of his mind, like a dim North Star, and he will grope forward in that direction until his intellect begins to glow with recognition, when at last he staggers into literary Bethlehem. That he will have arrived late does not matter, for he, too, has gifts to bring.

For Richard, the goal of becoming a writer came early in life, but his immediate surroundings, both black and white, stymied him at every turn. His religious fanatic of a grandmother would not allow him to read anything not pro-God, while the same lady who fed him moldy leftovers scoffed: “You’ll never be a writer. Who on earth put such ideas into your nigger head?” Midway through Black Boy, the older Richard, the narrator now in Bethlehem, laments that this “environment contained nothing more alien than writing or the desire to express one’s self in writing.” Following the dog-bite incident, when it truly hits home that, in the South, he is perceived as an animal, he grows “silent and reserved as the nature of the world in which I lived became plain and undeniable; the bleakness of the future affected my will to study…living as a Negro was cold and hard.” Was his family right to call him a bad seed? “Why was it considered wrong to ask questions?…It seemed inconceivable to me that one should surrender to what seemed wrong…how could one live in a world in which one’s mind and perceptions meant nothing and authority and tradition meant everything?” He graduates from the ninth grade and that is the end of his formal education.

The turning point comes after he escapes Mississippi to the less oppressive, though still Jim Crow, Memphis, Tennessee. He is eighteen-years-old and finds a job at another optics company, but this time he is smart enough not to demonstrate to white co-workers that he is a smart young man. One morning, he is reading the city newspaper and comes across an editorial denouncing the editor of the American Mercury, H.L. Mencken. “I wondered what…this Mencken had done to call down upon him the scorn of the South.” He borrows a library card from the only approachable white man in the optics shop, an Irish Roman Catholic. Then he sits down to read two of Mencken’s books, and a whole universe opens up to him, as the North Star brightens to a glorious beacon of hope. It is through Mencken’s essays and opinions that Richard discovers his literary role models, the naturalists – Dreiser, Hardy and Dostoyevsky. In the novel Babbit by Sinclair Lewis, he learns the foibles and ludicrous thought-process of the blowhard American businessman. In Main Street, Lewis portrays white people in an even more ridiculous light. Richard admits that the act of reading “was like a drug, a dope.” What he “derived from these novels was nothing less than a sense of life itself. All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel…”

American Hunger starts when he migrates to Chicago in 1927. He intensifies his self-education program, though for the next nine years he will remain employed at menial jobs. Along the way, he joins the John Reed Club so to associate with writers, the catch being that he must also develop Communist sympathies. He laughs at the black Communists who lecture on the streets doing bad imitations of Lenin, pounding a right fist into a left palm, and wearing the famous hat. He becomes a member of the Party in 1934, but his artistic nature leads him to clash with its dogmatism. “I could not refute the general Communist analysis of the world; the only drawback was that their world was just too simple for belief.” He is accused of being – gasp! – an intellectual, to which a dumbfounded Richard says: “I sweep the streets for a living.” Later he expounds on this problem: “But there existed in the Western world an element that baffled and frightened the Communist party: the prevalence of self-achieved literacy. Even a Negro, entrapped by ignorance and exploitation – as I had been – could, if he had the will and the love for it, learn to read and understand the world in which he lived.” Hence why, in the end, he is tossed, airborne, from the 1936 May Day parade.

But the eternal loner brushes himself off and, on the last page of American Hunger, heads back home to his desk. He picks up a pencil and holds “it over a sheet of white paper,” and broods that, when the time is ripe, he “will hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”

This is the man who, three years after the Mat Day incident, would finish the chilling portrait of Bigger Thomas. Just as Hemingway claimed that the American novel begins with Huckleberry Finn, so it can be said that the African-American novel dates from Native Son, regardless of how critics of both races have felt about Bigger not being a positive role model. Some critics of the book have scoffed at its contrived plot and clichéd prose, that it is not a refined work of literature. What these aesthetes fail to understand is that only someone who had been denied an education all the way into adulthood could have written Native Son, and because Richard arrived so late in Bethlehem, and even then having to sweep the streets for a living, the writing was not going to measure up to the aristocratic Marcel Proust. This is a book about life by someone who knew all about life before he knew about words.

In 1947, he and his white wife moved to France where he would die in 1960 of a condition which was the opposite of how he had lived for fifty-two years – heart failure. During this time he, like Du Bois, became more interested in international racism. He hung out with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, which led to speculation that he was becoming an Existentialist, forgetting that, years ago, he had created Bigger Thomas, the original existentialist character.

In 1959, Martin Luther King, recovering from a knife wound to his chest inflicted by a deranged woman in New York, was en route to India when he stopped in France to meet the famous Richard Wright. The only distinct memory of the occasion was from Wright’s daughter, Julia, then seventeen, who had never lived in America. Her father called her into the room and asked King to reveal the scar on his chest. Then Wright announced to her: “This is what happens to people in the States who speak up for their rights.”

Richard Wright was the first African-American to write a best-selling novel, Native Son, which came out in 1940. The movie was released in 1986 and, get this, it did not star Denzel Washington (who was too busy on the set of St. Elsewhere and also gearing up for Cry Freedom, a film about Stephen Biko, the black South African dissident who stood up to Apartheid and was then jailed, tortured and died in a Pretoria prison). The black protagonist in Native Son, Bigger Thomas, is not the usual Denzel hero bucking the system with courage and a severe ethical code, or one who rises to literacy through self-discipline. Instead, he is an illiterate thug besieged by social pressures who, in the end, is defeated by the system.

Bigger shares a one-room Chicago apartment with his mother, sister and little brother. The novel starts with the anti-hero engaged in combat – against a rat that has invaded the hearth. He subdues it with a frying pan and in the aftermath holds aloft the fruits of war to his disgusted sister. It only gets worse for Bigger.

It is the height of the Great Depression. He is constricted in every sense of the word – socially, spatially and economically — and hates his family because he knows that they are suffering and that he is “powerless to help them,” but, the narrator says, “the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else.” He feels capable of more than menial labor, for instance believing that he “could fly a plane if” he had the chance, but knows that society will never allow it. This leaves him no other outlet than to commit petty theft – toward other poor blacks. His frustration is such that he wants “to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel like this. If not that, he wanted to blot himself out.”

After the rat scene, he and his friends plan the unthinkable – robbing a white storeowner. This is “territory where the full wrath of an alien white world would be turned loose upon them.” Bigger loses his nerve and, not wanting to admit fear to his running mates, beats and humiliates one of them at knifepoint.

Bigger is alienated from everyone, including black people, though he thrills at the Garveyites preaching on the streets about how the white man can go to hell. In his opinion, his friends and family are deluded patsies, in particular his mother and girlfriend, Bessie. The former blinds herself to reality through the Christian church and the latter through alcohol. He, on the other hand, does not “want to sit on a bench and sing, or lie in a corner and sleep. 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.”

In a sense, it is Hollywood and commercialism that undoes Bigger Thomas. Boris Max, a lawyer, sums it up toward the end of the novel: “How alluring, how dazzling it is! How it excites the senses! How it seems to dangle within easy reach of everyone the fulfillment of happiness! How constantly and overwhelmingly the advertisements, radios, newspapers and movies play upon us! But in thinking of them remember that to many they are tokens of mockery. These bright colors may fill our hearts with elation, but to many they are daily taunts. Imagine a man walking amid such a scene, a part of it, and yet knowing that it is not for him!”

The city relief agency offers Bigger a job as a chauffeur for a white family, the Daltons. He sits in a movie theater to contemplate whether or not to take the job. The film being projected on the big screen is about how the other half, the white half, lives in the lap of privilege, and this inspires Bigger to become excited about the job: “Maybe Mr. Dalton was a millionaire. Maybe he had a daughter who was a hot kind of girl; maybe she spent lots of money; maybe she’d like to come to the South Side and see the sights sometimes. Or maybe she had a secret sweetheart and only he would know about it because he would have to drive her around; maybe she would give him money not to tell.” This mocking fantasy clinches it for Bigger, as he will go and interview for the job.

It turns out that Mr. Dalton is a millionaire, but at the expense of African-Americans. He is a slumlord, who, by refusing to rent to blacks in other neighborhoods (de facto segregation), has created a housing shortage and thus is able to charge the Thomas family through the nose for a hovel crawling with vermin. But Dalton fashions himself a philanthropist because he donates ping-pong tables to the Negro YMCA and hires destitute black boys to be house niggers. Society hails him as a good man. Bigger’s movie theatre fantasy becomes even more true when Mr. Dalton entrusts him with the task of chauffeuring around his pretty and spoiled daughter, Mary; and, yes, she does have a secret lover, a radical Communist, Jan Erlone; and, yes, Bigger does bring them to the South Side.

But the fantasy becomes an inverted nightmare. Bigger is patronized by Mary and Jan, who see in the black boy a chance to demonstrate their open-mindedness and loyalty to the Communist ideal of the brotherhood of man. They insist that Bigger take them to eat fried chicken in the ‘hood. He is grows uncomfortable watching Mary get bombed out of her mind, as she becomes, not a friend to the black masses, but rather a major cock-tease. If Bigger had earlier been aware of the taboo against robbing a white storeowner, then he is now frantic at the greatest taboo of all – a black boy alone with a white girl, especially an inebriated rich one.

Bigger is left no choice but to carry Mary to her room, lest her parents blame him for having got their innocent daughter drunk in some South Side dive. He tucks her into bed and is about to get the hell out of there when the legally blind Mrs. Dalton enters the room calling out Mary’s name. Bigger is now in a frenzied panic, as he knows that if he is discovered in the bedroom of a white woman, regardless of his noble intentions, he will be tried for rape, a crime the white man ranks above murder. He holds a hand, then a pillow, over Mary’s mouth, so she will not betray his presence, as the “white blur” that is Mrs. Dalton moves toward him. Mary dies while Mrs. Dalton stands at the bedside and prays over what she thinks is her sleeping daughter. Then there is the spooky white cat that never stops looking at Bigger.

He takes the corpse to the basement and jams it into the furnace. Afterward, the Daltons and the police scramble to locate Mary, which causes Bigger, for once in his life, to feel in control of events. “The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had somehow been cheated, but had now evened the score.” Then he raises the ante by writing a ransom note implicating Jan as the kidnapper, signing it Red. Even though he gives himself away with the sentence Do what this letter say, the authorities are so stoked up on anti-Communism that they never notice the black vernacular. Bigger enlists the gullible Bessie into the plot. Now that he is grappling one-on-one with white power, he is no longer awed by its reputation. In a perverse way, the murder is bringing focus and wholeness to his life.

Then a reporter, with Bigger standing nearby, discovers Mary’s bones in the furnace. He and Bessie flee to an empty building, where his girlfriend learns that Bigger has murdered Mary Dalton. He becomes scared that she will betray him. He loses control, rapes her and, while she is asleep, bashes her head in with a brick and throws her body down an elevator shaft. Now he is beyond good and evil.

The press and all of white Chicago assume that Bigger raped Mary. Why else would he try to burn the body? And isn’t that what black men do to white women? A citywide lynch mob chases him, in a blizzard (the snow reminding him that whiteness is everywhere), until they corner him on a rooftop, an anti-Christian mount, where “Two men stretched his arms out, as though about to crucify him; they placed a foot on each of his wrists, making them sink deep down in the snow. His eyes closed, slowly, and he was swallowed in darkness.” In the coming weeks, the entire black population will pay for Bigger’s crimes, as hundreds get fired from their jobs and others are beaten by white mobs.

The last third of the book is courtroom drama. Jan is crushed by Mary’s death and also feels guilty about having treated Bigger like a novelty. He enlists a fellow Communist, Boris Max, to represent the defendant. Max tries to impress upon the jury how Bigger was shaped by a racist environment that had stifled his humanity, turning him into a hunted animal, leaving him no opportunity for self-expression save crime. The title Native Son indicates the final product of the America Dream – Bigger Thomas. The chickens have come home to roost, and, Max warns, there is going to be a lot more roosting if white society fails to get its act together in time.

The experienced reader is now dreading a Jack London-Upton Sinclair ending wherein Bigger sees the Leninist god and calls for black and white to join together under the socialist banner. At the very end, Mr. Max (Marx) tries to convince Bigger that his execution will not be in vain, that it may well galvanize and improve this predatory capitalist society. But the narrator has been putting less of his own words into Bigger’s mind until now Bigger is thinking and talking for himself.

“Mr. Max” he says from inside his cell, “you go home. I’m all right…I ain’t trying to forgive nobody and I ain’t asking for nobody to forgive me. I ain’t going to cry. They wouldn’t let me live and I killed…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!…What I killed for must’ve 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…It’s the truth, Mr. Max. I can say it now, ‘cause I’m going to die. I know what I’m saying real good and I know how it sounds…Just go and tell Ma I was all right and not to worry none, see? Tell her I was all right and wasn’t crying none…”

Max is horrified by this speech, as the Leninist god has been rejected by a proletariat. He and Bigger, white and black, remain strangers to one another. Max walks away…down the corridor. Bigger smiles “a faint, wry, bitter smile” and hears “the ring of steel against steel as a far door” clangs shut. The end.

No moral uplift here. Native Son will be criticized for the next seventy years, especially by African-Americans, as too bleak a story. They will take extra shots at the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, as having no redeeming value – of not being Denzel. But that was the whole point. For Bigger to have risen from de facto segregation to heroic status would have been to let white America off the hook, and the author had no such intention. In the preface to my copy of the book, Richard Wright explains the genesis of Native Son: “I had written a book of short stories…Uncle Tom’s Children. When the reviews…began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naïve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even banker’s 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…” How can a writer be taken to task for a premeditated act of literature? When I read the last passage of Native Son, of that steel door slamming shut, I was left numb, as if Richard Wright had chained me to the edge of the racial abyss, taped my eyes open, and shouted: White Man, Listen!

I moved on to Wright’s two autobiographies, Black Boy and American Hunger. The story begins with the four-year-old Richard burning down his house in rural Mississippi in 1912. It ends just after May Day, 1936, in Chicago, as former associates, white men of the American Communist Party, toss him onto a sidewalk for daring to march in their brotherhood parade. Black Boy recounts his first nineteen years in Jim Crow South, while American Hunger tells of young adulthood in the Windy City, made windier in the drafty tenements that that were home to his destitute family, much like the fictional Thomas quartet.

Speeches by Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, histories by Du Bois and Zinn, the polemics of Malcolm X, the mini-bios on Harriet Tubman – they all pointed to, and highlighted, Jim Crow, but it took a novelist, Wright, to put me into the skin of black boy in feudal Mississippi. At some point, a Southern black kid will become cognizant of the Other (Du Bois’ Veil), but prior to that he sees the natural beauty of the Delta, “the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.” Then, amidst this Eden, the Other makes its inevitable appearance, as young Richard hears of a white man who has severely beaten a black boy. He gains, over time, the understanding that, in the South, such an act is common and permitted under the law. He watches as his elders crack under the pressure of Jim Crow. His father abandons the struggle and his family when Richard is six. Two years later, his mother breaks down and is an invalid for life. His grandmother and spinster aunt retreat into the narcotic haze of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Whites murder his uncle with absolute impunity so they can take over his modest saloon business. Another uncle must flee in the middle of the night as the Klan is hot on his trail. Meanwhile, Richard is moved from one poor relative to the next, and an orphanage in between, until, at thirteen, he settles, along with his paralyzed mother, in Jackson, Mississippi, in the house of the Seventh-Day Adventist grandma and aunt, who terrorize him and feed him lard and gravy.

In Jackson, he completes a full year of school. He works at odd jobs to feed himself and to buy school supplies, and, in the process, he runs straight into the scary arms of Jim Crow. One early employer, a white housewife, upbraids him for turning down a plate of moldy, green molasses. At the local brickyard, the owner’s dog sinks his teeth into Richard, who then asks if the infection now spreading is something to worry about, to which the bossman laughs, and says: “A dog bite can’t hurt a nigger.” He tries to learn the optics trade, whereupon two hillbillies threaten his life for daring to fathom the sacred art of lens grinding. The further I got into Black Boy, the more I could feel Wright’s mounting claustrophobia. I had a knot in my stomach throughout the book.

Like Bigger Thomas, Richard is also alienated from, and critical toward, fellow blacks, so that he fits into no group. He is neither house nor field nigger. At one point, he asks “what on earth was the matter with me, why it was I never seemed to do things as people expected them to be done. Every word and gesture I made seemed to provoke hostility.”

But I knew the reason for his alienation. Richard was a born writer, which is a curse as much as a blessing. If the writer is not born into an artistic or scholastic environment, the urge to read and write may remain an unnamable desire, a seed buried under a mound of external ignorance, that will only manifest itself in gnawing rebellion or in creative destruction or in childish delusion. The good news is that whether the frustrated and unwitting artist grows up in a black religious home in Mississippi or white one in Levittown, PA, books will somehow rise up on the horizon of his mind, like a dim North Star, and he will grope forward in that direction until his intellect begins to glow with recognition, when at last he staggers into literary Bethlehem. That he will have arrived late does not matter, for he, too, has gifts to bring.

For Richard, the goal of becoming a writer came early in life, but his immediate surroundings, both black and white, stymied him at every turn. His religious fanatic of a grandmother would not allow him to read anything not pro-God, while the same lady who fed him moldy leftovers scoffed: “You’ll never be a writer. Who on earth put such ideas into your nigger head?” Midway through Black Boy, the older Richard, the narrator now in Bethlehem, laments that this “environment contained nothing more alien than writing or the desire to express one’s self in writing.” Following the dog-bite incident, when it truly hits home that, in the South, he is perceived as an animal, he grows “silent and reserved as the nature of the world in which I lived became plain and undeniable; the bleakness of the future affected my will to study…living as a Negro was cold and hard.” Was his family right to call him a bad seed? “Why was it considered wrong to ask questions?…It seemed inconceivable to me that one should surrender to what seemed wrong…how could one live in a world in which one’s mind and perceptions meant nothing and authority and tradition meant everything?” He graduates from the ninth grade and that is the end of his formal education.

The turning point comes after he escapes Mississippi to the less oppressive, though still Jim Crow, Memphis, Tennessee. He is eighteen-years-old and finds a job at another optics company, but this time he is smart enough not to demonstrate to white co-workers that he is a smart young man. One morning, he is reading the city newspaper and comes across an editorial denouncing the editor of the American Mercury, H.L. Mencken. “I wondered what…this Mencken had done to call down upon him the scorn of the South.” He borrows a library card from the only approachable white man in the optics shop, an Irish Roman Catholic. Then he sits down to read two of Mencken’s books, and a whole universe opens up to him, as the North Star brightens to a glorious beacon of hope. It is through Mencken’s essays and opinions that Richard discovers his literary role models, the naturalists – Dreiser, Hardy and Dostoyevsky. In the novel Babbit by Sinclair Lewis, he learns the foibles and ludicrous thought-process of the blowhard American businessman. In Main Street, Lewis portrays white people in an even more ridiculous light. Richard admits that the act of reading “was like a drug, a dope.” What he “derived from these novels was nothing less than a sense of life itself. All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel…”

American Hunger starts when he migrates to Chicago in 1927. He intensifies his self-education program, though for the next nine years he will remain employed at menial jobs. Along the way, he joins the John Reed Club so to associate with writers, the catch being that he must also develop Communist sympathies. He laughs at the black Communists who lecture on the streets doing bad imitations of Lenin, pounding a right fist into a left palm, and wearing the famous hat. He becomes a member of the Party in 1934, but his artistic nature leads him to clash with its dogmatism. “I could not refute the general Communist analysis of the world; the only drawback was that their world was just too simple for belief.” He is accused of being – gasp! – an intellectual, to which a dumbfounded Richard says: “I sweep the streets for a living.” Later he expounds on this problem: “But there existed in the Western world an element that baffled and frightened the Communist party: the prevalence of self-achieved literacy. Even a Negro, entrapped by ignorance and exploitation – as I had been – could, if he had the will and the love for it, learn to read and understand the world in which he lived.” Hence why, in the end, he is tossed, airborne, from the 1936 May Day parade.

But the eternal loner brushes himself off and, on the last page of American Hunger, heads back home to his desk. He picks up a pencil and holds “it over a sheet of white paper,” and broods that, when the time is ripe, he “will hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”

This is the man who, three years after the Mat Day incident, would finish the chilling portrait of Bigger Thomas. Just as Hemingway claimed that the American novel begins with Huckleberry Finn, so it can be said that the African-American novel dates from Native Son, regardless of how critics of both races have felt about Bigger not being a positive role model. Some critics of the book have scoffed at its contrived plot and clichéd prose, that it is not a refined work of literature. What these aesthetes fail to understand is that only someone who had been denied an education all the way into adulthood could have written Native Son, and because Richard arrived so late in Bethlehem, and even then having to sweep the streets for a living, the writing was not going to measure up to the aristocratic Marcel Proust. This is a book about life by someone who knew all about life before he knew about words.

In 1947, he and his white wife moved to France where he would die in 1960 of a condition which was the opposite of how he had lived for fifty-two years – heart failure. During this time he, like Du Bois, became more interested in international racism. He hung out with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, which led to speculation that he was becoming an Existentialist, forgetting that, years ago, he had created Bigger Thomas, the original existentialist character.

In 1959, Martin Luther King, recovering from a knife wound to his chest inflicted by a deranged woman in New York, was en route to India when he stopped in France to meet the famous Richard Wright. The only distinct memory of the occasion was from Wright’s daughter, Julia, then seventeen, who had never lived in America. Her father called her into the room and asked King to reveal the scar on his chest. Then Wright announced to her: “This is what happens to people in the States who speak up for their rights.”

Richard Wright was the first African-American to write a best-selling novel, Native Son, which came out in 1940. The movie was released in 1986 and, get this, it did not star Denzel Washington (who was too busy on the set of St. Elsewhere and also gearing up for Cry Freedom, a film about Stephen Biko, the black South African dissident who stood up to Apartheid and was then jailed, tortured and died in a Pretoria prison). The black protagonist in Native Son, Bigger Thomas, is not the usual Denzel hero bucking the system with courage and a severe ethical code, or one who rises to literacy through self-discipline. Instead, he is an illiterate thug besieged by social pressures who, in the end, is defeated by the system.

Bigger shares a one-room Chicago apartment with his mother, sister and little brother. The novel starts with the anti-hero engaged in combat – against a rat that has invaded the hearth. He subdues it with a frying pan and in the aftermath holds aloft the fruits of war to his disgusted sister. It only gets worse for Bigger.

It is the height of the Great Depression. He is constricted in every sense of the word – socially, spatially and economically — and hates his family because he knows that they are suffering and that he is “powerless to help them,” but, the narrator says, “the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else.” He feels capable of more than menial labor, for instance believing that he “could fly a plane if” he had the chance, but knows that society will never allow it. This leaves him no other outlet than to commit petty theft – toward other poor blacks. His frustration is such that he wants “to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel like this. If not that, he wanted to blot himself out.”

After the rat scene, he and his friends plan the unthinkable – robbing a white storeowner. This is “territory where the full wrath of an alien white world would be turned loose upon them.” Bigger loses his nerve and, not wanting to admit fear to his running mates, beats and humiliates one of them at knifepoint.

Bigger is alienated from everyone, including black people, though he thrills at the Garveyites preaching on the streets about how the white man can go to hell. In his opinion, his friends and family are deluded patsies, in particular his mother and girlfriend, Bessie. The former blinds herself to reality through the Christian church and the latter through alcohol. He, on the other hand, does not “want to sit on a bench and sing, or lie in a corner and sleep. 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.”

In a sense, it is Hollywood and commercialism that undoes Bigger Thomas. Boris Max, a lawyer, sums it up toward the end of the novel: “How alluring, how dazzling it is! How it excites the senses! How it seems to dangle within easy reach of everyone the fulfillment of happiness! How constantly and overwhelmingly the advertisements, radios, newspapers and movies play upon us! But in thinking of them remember that to many they are tokens of mockery. These bright colors may fill our hearts with elation, but to many they are daily taunts. Imagine a man walking amid such a scene, a part of it, and yet knowing that it is not for him!”

The city relief agency offers Bigger a job as a chauffeur for a white family, the Daltons. He sits in a movie theater to contemplate whether or not to take the job. The film being projected on the big screen is about how the other half, the white half, lives in the lap of privilege, and this inspires Bigger to become excited about the job: “Maybe Mr. Dalton was a millionaire. Maybe he had a daughter who was a hot kind of girl; maybe she spent lots of money; maybe she’d like to come to the South Side and see the sights sometimes. Or maybe she had a secret sweetheart and only he would know about it because he would have to drive her around; maybe she would give him money not to tell.” This mocking fantasy clinches it for Bigger, as he will go and interview for the job.

It turns out that Mr. Dalton is a millionaire, but at the expense of African-Americans. He is a slumlord, who, by refusing to rent to blacks in other neighborhoods (de facto segregation), has created a housing shortage and thus is able to charge the Thomas family through the nose for a hovel crawling with vermin. But Dalton fashions himself a philanthropist because he donates ping-pong tables to the Negro YMCA and hires destitute black boys to be house niggers. Society hails him as a good man. Bigger’s movie theatre fantasy becomes even more true when Mr. Dalton entrusts him with the task of chauffeuring around his pretty and spoiled daughter, Mary; and, yes, she does have a secret lover, a radical Communist, Jan Erlone; and, yes, Bigger does bring them to the South Side.

But the fantasy becomes an inverted nightmare. Bigger is patronized by Mary and Jan, who see in the black boy a chance to demonstrate their open-mindedness and loyalty to the Communist ideal of the brotherhood of man. They insist that Bigger take them to eat fried chicken in the ‘hood. He is grows uncomfortable watching Mary get bombed out of her mind, as she becomes, not a friend to the black masses, but rather a major cock-tease. If Bigger had earlier been aware of the taboo against robbing a white storeowner, then he is now frantic at the greatest taboo of all – a black boy alone with a white girl, especially an inebriated rich one.

Bigger is left no choice but to carry Mary to her room, lest her parents blame him for having got their innocent daughter drunk in some South Side dive. He tucks her into bed and is about to get the hell out of there when the legally blind Mrs. Dalton enters the room calling out Mary’s name. Bigger is now in a frenzied panic, as he knows that if he is discovered in the bedroom of a white woman, regardless of his noble intentions, he will be tried for rape, a crime the white man ranks above murder. He holds a hand, then a pillow, over Mary’s mouth, so she will not betray his presence, as the “white blur” that is Mrs. Dalton moves toward him. Mary dies while Mrs. Dalton stands at the bedside and prays over what she thinks is her sleeping daughter. Then there is the spooky white cat that never stops looking at Bigger.

He takes the corpse to the basement and jams it into the furnace. Afterward, the Daltons and the police scramble to locate Mary, which causes Bigger, for once in his life, to feel in control of events. “The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had somehow been cheated, but had now evened the score.” Then he raises the ante by writing a ransom note implicating Jan as the kidnapper, signing it Red. Even though he gives himself away with the sentence Do what this letter say, the authorities are so stoked up on anti-Communism that they never notice the black vernacular. Bigger enlists the gullible Bessie into the plot. Now that he is grappling one-on-one with white power, he is no longer awed by its reputation. In a perverse way, the murder is bringing focus and wholeness to his life.

Then a reporter, with Bigger standing nearby, discovers Mary’s bones in the furnace. He and Bessie flee to an empty building, where his girlfriend learns that Bigger has murdered Mary Dalton. He becomes scared that she will betray him. He loses control, rapes her and, while she is asleep, bashes her head in with a brick and throws her body down an elevator shaft. Now he is beyond good and evil.

The press and all of white Chicago assume that Bigger raped Mary. Why else would he try to burn the body? And isn’t that what black men do to white women? A citywide lynch mob chases him, in a blizzard (the snow reminding him that whiteness is everywhere), until they corner him on a rooftop, an anti-Christian mount, where “Two men stretched his arms out, as though about to crucify him; they placed a foot on each of his wrists, making them sink deep down in the snow. His eyes closed, slowly, and he was swallowed in darkness.” In the coming weeks, the entire black population will pay for Bigger’s crimes, as hundreds get fired from their jobs and others are beaten by white mobs.

The last third of the book is courtroom drama. Jan is crushed by Mary’s death and also feels guilty about having treated Bigger like a novelty. He enlists a fellow Communist, Boris Max, to represent the defendant. Max tries to impress upon the jury how Bigger was shaped by a racist environment that had stifled his humanity, turning him into a hunted animal, leaving him no opportunity for self-expression save crime. The title Native Son indicates the final product of the America Dream – Bigger Thomas. The chickens have come home to roost, and, Max warns, there is going to be a lot more roosting if white society fails to get its act together in time.

The experienced reader is now dreading a Jack London-Upton Sinclair ending wherein Bigger sees the Leninist god and calls for black and white to join together under the socialist banner. At the very end, Mr. Max (Marx) tries to convince Bigger that his execution will not be in vain, that it may well galvanize and improve this predatory capitalist society. But the narrator has been putting less of his own words into Bigger’s mind until now Bigger is thinking and talking for himself.

“Mr. Max” he says from inside his cell, “you go home. I’m all right…I ain’t trying to forgive nobody and I ain’t asking for nobody to forgive me. I ain’t going to cry. They wouldn’t let me live and I killed…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!…What I killed for must’ve 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…It’s the truth, Mr. Max. I can say it now, ‘cause I’m going to die. I know what I’m saying real good and I know how it sounds…Just go and tell Ma I was all right and not to worry none, see? Tell her I was all right and wasn’t crying none…”

Max is horrified by this speech, as the Leninist god has been rejected by a proletariat. He and Bigger, white and black, remain strangers to one another. Max walks away…down the corridor. Bigger smiles “a faint, wry, bitter smile” and hears “the ring of steel against steel as a far door” clangs shut. The end.

No moral uplift here. Native Son will be criticized for the next seventy years, especially by African-Americans, as too bleak a story. They will take extra shots at the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, as having no redeeming value – of not being Denzel. But that was the whole point. For Bigger to have risen from de facto segregation to heroic status would have been to let white America off the hook, and the author had no such intention. In the preface to my copy of the book, Richard Wright explains the genesis of Native Son: “I had written a book of short stories…Uncle Tom’s Children. When the reviews…began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naïve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even banker’s 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…” How can a writer be taken to task for a premeditated act of literature? When I read the last passage of Native Son, of that steel door slamming shut, I was left numb, as if Richard Wright had chained me to the edge of the racial abyss, taped my eyes open, and shouted: White Man, Listen!

I moved on to Wright’s two autobiographies, Black Boy and American Hunger. The story begins with the four-year-old Richard burning down his house in rural Mississippi in 1912. It ends just after May Day, 1936, in Chicago, as former associates, white men of the American Communist Party, toss him onto a sidewalk for daring to march in their brotherhood parade. Black Boy recounts his first nineteen years in Jim Crow South, while American Hunger tells of young adulthood in the Windy City, made windier in the drafty tenements that that were home to his destitute family, much like the fictional Thomas quartet.

Speeches by Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, histories by Du Bois and Zinn, the polemics of Malcolm X, the mini-bios on Harriet Tubman – they all pointed to, and highlighted, Jim Crow, but it took a novelist, Wright, to put me into the skin of black boy in feudal Mississippi. At some point, a Southern black kid will become cognizant of the Other (Du Bois’ Veil), but prior to that he sees the natural beauty of the Delta, “the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.” Then, amidst this Eden, the Other makes its inevitable appearance, as young Richard hears of a white man who has severely beaten a black boy. He gains, over time, the understanding that, in the South, such an act is common and permitted under the law. He watches as his elders crack under the pressure of Jim Crow. His father abandons the struggle and his family when Richard is six. Two years later, his mother breaks down and is an invalid for life. His grandmother and spinster aunt retreat into the narcotic haze of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Whites murder his uncle with absolute impunity so they can take over his modest saloon business. Another uncle must flee in the middle of the night as the Klan is hot on his trail. Meanwhile, Richard is moved from one poor relative to the next, and an orphanage in between, until, at thirteen, he settles, along with his paralyzed mother, in Jackson, Mississippi, in the house of the Seventh-Day Adventist grandma and aunt, who terrorize him and feed him lard and gravy.

In Jackson, he completes a full year of school. He works at odd jobs to feed himself and to buy school supplies, and, in the process, he runs straight into the scary arms of Jim Crow. One early employer, a white housewife, upbraids him for turning down a plate of moldy, green molasses. At the local brickyard, the owner’s dog sinks his teeth into Richard, who then asks if the infection now spreading is something to worry about, to which the bossman laughs, and says: “A dog bite can’t hurt a nigger.” He tries to learn the optics trade, whereupon two hillbillies threaten his life for daring to fathom the sacred art of lens grinding. The further I got into Black Boy, the more I could feel Wright’s mounting claustrophobia. I had a knot in my stomach throughout the book.

Like Bigger Thomas, Richard is also alienated from, and critical toward, fellow blacks, so that he fits into no group. He is neither house nor field nigger. At one point, he asks “what on earth was the matter with me, why it was I never seemed to do things as people expected them to be done. Every word and gesture I made seemed to provoke hostility.”

But I knew the reason for his alienation. Richard was a born writer, which is a curse as much as a blessing. If the writer is not born into an artistic or scholastic environment, the urge to read and write may remain an unnamable desire, a seed buried under a mound of external ignorance, that will only manifest itself in gnawing rebellion or in creative destruction or in childish delusion. The good news is that whether the frustrated and unwitting artist grows up in a black religious home in Mississippi or white one in Levittown, PA, books will somehow rise up on the horizon of his mind, like a dim North Star, and he will grope forward in that direction until his intellect begins to glow with recognition, when at last he staggers into literary Bethlehem. That he will have arrived late does not matter, for he, too, has gifts to bring.

For Richard, the goal of becoming a writer came early in life, but his immediate surroundings, both black and white, stymied him at every turn. His religious fanatic of a grandmother would not allow him to read anything not pro-God, while the same lady who fed him moldy leftovers scoffed: “You’ll never be a writer. Who on earth put such ideas into your nigger head?” Midway through Black Boy, the older Richard, the narrator now in Bethlehem, laments that this “environment contained nothing more alien than writing or the desire to express one’s self in writing.” Following the dog-bite incident, when it truly hits home that, in the South, he is perceived as an animal, he grows “silent and reserved as the nature of the world in which I lived became plain and undeniable; the bleakness of the future affected my will to study…living as a Negro was cold and hard.” Was his family right to call him a bad seed? “Why was it considered wrong to ask questions?…It seemed inconceivable to me that one should surrender to what seemed wrong…how could one live in a world in which one’s mind and perceptions meant nothing and authority and tradition meant everything?” He graduates from the ninth grade and that is the end of his formal education.

The turning point comes after he escapes Mississippi to the less oppressive, though still Jim Crow, Memphis, Tennessee. He is eighteen-years-old and finds a job at another optics company, but this time he is smart enough not to demonstrate to white co-workers that he is a smart young man. One morning, he is reading the city newspaper and comes across an editorial denouncing the editor of the American Mercury, H.L. Mencken. “I wondered what…this Mencken had done to call down upon him the scorn of the South.” He borrows a library card from the only approachable white man in the optics shop, an Irish Roman Catholic. Then he sits down to read two of Mencken’s books, and a whole universe opens up to him, as the North Star brightens to a glorious beacon of hope. It is through Mencken’s essays and opinions that Richard discovers his literary role models, the naturalists – Dreiser, Hardy and Dostoyevsky. In the novel Babbit by Sinclair Lewis, he learns the foibles and ludicrous thought-process of the blowhard American businessman. In Main Street, Lewis portrays white people in an even more ridiculous light. Richard admits that the act of reading “was like a drug, a dope.” What he “derived from these novels was nothing less than a sense of life itself. All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel…”

American Hunger starts when he migrates to Chicago in 1927. He intensifies his self-education program, though for the next nine years he will remain employed at menial jobs. Along the way, he joins the John Reed Club so to associate with writers, the catch being that he must also develop Communist sympathies. He laughs at the black Communists who lecture on the streets doing bad imitations of Lenin, pounding a right fist into a left palm, and wearing the famous hat. He becomes a member of the Party in 1934, but his artistic nature leads him to clash with its dogmatism. “I could not refute the general Communist analysis of the world; the only drawback was that their world was just too simple for belief.” He is accused of being – gasp! – an intellectual, to which a dumbfounded Richard says: “I sweep the streets for a living.” Later he expounds on this problem: “But there existed in the Western world an element that baffled and frightened the Communist party: the prevalence of self-achieved literacy. Even a Negro, entrapped by ignorance and exploitation – as I had been – could, if he had the will and the love for it, learn to read and understand the world in which he lived.” Hence why, in the end, he is tossed, airborne, from the 1936 May Day parade.

But the eternal loner brushes himself off and, on the last page of American Hunger, heads back home to his desk. He picks up a pencil and holds “it over a sheet of white paper,” and broods that, when the time is ripe, he “will hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”

This is the man who, three years after the Mat Day incident, would finish the chilling portrait of Bigger Thomas. Just as Hemingway claimed that the American novel begins with Huckleberry Finn, so it can be said that the African-American novel dates from Native Son, regardless of how critics of both races have felt about Bigger not being a positive role model. Some critics of the book have scoffed at its contrived plot and clichéd prose, that it is not a refined work of literature. What these aesthetes fail to understand is that only someone who had been denied an education all the way into adulthood could have written Native Son, and because Richard arrived so late in Bethlehem, and even then having to sweep the streets for a living, the writing was not going to measure up to the aristocratic Marcel Proust. This is a book about life by someone who knew all about life before he knew about words.

In 1947, he and his white wife moved to France where he would die in 1960 of a condition which was the opposite of how he had lived for fifty-two years – heart failure. During this time he, like Du Bois, became more interested in international racism. He hung out with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, which led to speculation that he was becoming an Existentialist, forgetting that, years ago, he had created Bigger Thomas, the original existentialist character.

In 1959, Martin Luther King, recovering from a knife wound to his chest inflicted by a deranged woman in New York, was en route to India when he stopped in France to meet the famous Richard Wright. The only distinct memory of the occasion was from Wright’s daughter, Julia, then seventeen, who had never lived in America. Her father called her into the room and asked King to reveal the scar on his chest. Then Wright announced to her: “This is what happens to people in the States who speak up for their rights.”

Richard Wright was the first African-American to write a best-selling novel, Native Son, which came out in 1940. The movie was released in 1986 and, get this, it did not star Denzel Washington (who was too busy on the set of St. Elsewhere and also gearing up for Cry Freedom, a film about Stephen Biko, the black South African dissident who stood up to Apartheid and was then jailed, tortured and died in a Pretoria prison). The black protagonist in Native Son, Bigger Thomas, is not the usual Denzel hero bucking the system with courage and a severe ethical code, or one who rises to literacy through self-discipline. Instead, he is an illiterate thug besieged by social pressures who, in the end, is defeated by the system.

Bigger shares a one-room Chicago apartment with his mother, sister and little brother. The novel starts with the anti-hero engaged in combat – against a rat that has invaded the hearth. He subdues it with a frying pan and in the aftermath holds aloft the fruits of war to his disgusted sister. It only gets worse for Bigger.

It is the height of the Great Depression. He is constricted in every sense of the word – socially, spatially and economically — and hates his family because he knows that they are suffering and that he is “powerless to help them,” but, the narrator says, “the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else.” He feels capable of more than menial labor, for instance believing that he “could fly a plane if” he had the chance, but knows that society will never allow it. This leaves him no other outlet than to commit petty theft – toward other poor blacks. His frustration is such that he wants “to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel like this. If not that, he wanted to blot himself out.”

After the rat scene, he and his friends plan the unthinkable – robbing a white storeowner. This is “territory where the full wrath of an alien white world would be turned loose upon them.” Bigger loses his nerve and, not wanting to admit fear to his running mates, beats and humiliates one of them at knifepoint.

Bigger is alienated from everyone, including black people, though he thrills at the Garveyites preaching on the streets about how the white man can go to hell. In his opinion, his friends and family are deluded patsies, in particular his mother and girlfriend, Bessie. The former blinds herself to reality through the Christian church and the latter through alcohol. He, on the other hand, does not “want to sit on a bench and sing, or lie in a corner and sleep. 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.”

In a sense, it is Hollywood and commercialism that undoes Bigger Thomas. Boris Max, a lawyer, sums it up toward the end of the novel: “How alluring, how dazzling it is! How it excites the senses! How it seems to dangle within easy reach of everyone the fulfillment of happiness! How constantly and overwhelmingly the advertisements, radios, newspapers and movies play upon us! But in thinking of them remember that to many they are tokens of mockery. These bright colors may fill our hearts with elation, but to many they are daily taunts. Imagine a man walking amid such a scene, a part of it, and yet knowing that it is not for him!”

The city relief agency offers Bigger a job as a chauffeur for a white family, the Daltons. He sits in a movie theater to contemplate whether or not to take the job. The film being projected on the big screen is about how the other half, the white half, lives in the lap of privilege, and this inspires Bigger to become excited about the job: “Maybe Mr. Dalton was a millionaire. Maybe he had a daughter who was a hot kind of girl; maybe she spent lots of money; maybe she’d like to come to the South Side and see the sights sometimes. Or maybe she had a secret sweetheart and only he would know about it because he would have to drive her around; maybe she would give him money not to tell.” This mocking fantasy clinches it for Bigger, as he will go and interview for the job.

It turns out that Mr. Dalton is a millionaire, but at the expense of African-Americans. He is a slumlord, who, by refusing to rent to blacks in other neighborhoods (de facto segregation), has created a housing shortage and thus is able to charge the Thomas family through the nose for a hovel crawling with vermin. But Dalton fashions himself a philanthropist because he donates ping-pong tables to the Negro YMCA and hires destitute black boys to be house niggers. Society hails him as a good man. Bigger’s movie theatre fantasy becomes even more true when Mr. Dalton entrusts him with the task of chauffeuring around his pretty and spoiled daughter, Mary; and, yes, she does have a secret lover, a radical Communist, Jan Erlone; and, yes, Bigger does bring them to the South Side.

But the fantasy becomes an inverted nightmare. Bigger is patronized by Mary and Jan, who see in the black boy a chance to demonstrate their open-mindedness and loyalty to the Communist ideal of the brotherhood of man. They insist that Bigger take them to eat fried chicken in the ‘hood. He is grows uncomfortable watching Mary get bombed out of her mind, as she becomes, not a friend to the black masses, but rather a major cock-tease. If Bigger had earlier been aware of the taboo against robbing a white storeowner, then he is now frantic at the greatest taboo of all – a black boy alone with a white girl, especially an inebriated rich one.

Bigger is left no choice but to carry Mary to her room, lest her parents blame him for having got their innocent daughter drunk in some South Side dive. He tucks her into bed and is about to get the hell out of there when the legally blind Mrs. Dalton enters the room calling out Mary’s name. Bigger is now in a frenzied panic, as he knows that if he is discovered in the bedroom of a white woman, regardless of his noble intentions, he will be tried for rape, a crime the white man ranks above murder. He holds a hand, then a pillow, over Mary’s mouth, so she will not betray his presence, as the “white blur” that is Mrs. Dalton moves toward him. Mary dies while Mrs. Dalton stands at the bedside and prays over what she thinks is her sleeping daughter. Then there is the spooky white cat that never stops looking at Bigger.

He takes the corpse to the basement and jams it into the furnace. Afterward, the Daltons and the police scramble to locate Mary, which causes Bigger, for once in his life, to feel in control of events. “The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had somehow been cheated, but had now evened the score.” Then he raises the ante by writing a ransom note implicating Jan as the kidnapper, signing it Red. Even though he gives himself away with the sentence Do what this letter say, the authorities are so stoked up on anti-Communism that they never notice the black vernacular. Bigger enlists the gullible Bessie into the plot. Now that he is grappling one-on-one with white power, he is no longer awed by its reputation. In a perverse way, the murder is bringing focus and wholeness to his life.

Then a reporter, with Bigger standing nearby, discovers Mary’s bones in the furnace. He and Bessie flee to an empty building, where his girlfriend learns that Bigger has murdered Mary Dalton. He becomes scared that she will betray him. He loses control, rapes her and, while she is asleep, bashes her head in with a brick and throws her body down an elevator shaft. Now he is beyond good and evil.

The press and all of white Chicago assume that Bigger raped Mary. Why else would he try to burn the body? And isn’t that what black men do to white women? A citywide lynch mob chases him, in a blizzard (the snow reminding him that whiteness is everywhere), until they corner him on a rooftop, an anti-Christian mount, where “Two men stretched his arms out, as though about to crucify him; they placed a foot on each of his wrists, making them sink deep down in the snow. His eyes closed, slowly, and he was swallowed in darkness.” In the coming weeks, the entire black population will pay for Bigger’s crimes, as hundreds get fired from their jobs and others are beaten by white mobs.

The last third of the book is courtroom drama. Jan is crushed by Mary’s death and also feels guilty about having treated Bigger like a novelty. He enlists a fellow Communist, Boris Max, to represent the defendant. Max tries to impress upon the jury how Bigger was shaped by a racist environment that had stifled his humanity, turning him into a hunted animal, leaving him no opportunity for self-expression save crime. The title Native Son indicates the final product of the America Dream – Bigger Thomas. The chickens have come home to roost, and, Max warns, there is going to be a lot more roosting if white society fails to get its act together in time.

The experienced reader is now dreading a Jack London-Upton Sinclair ending wherein Bigger sees the Leninist god and calls for black and white to join together under the socialist banner. At the very end, Mr. Max (Marx) tries to convince Bigger that his execution will not be in vain, that it may well galvanize and improve this predatory capitalist society. But the narrator has been putting less of his own words into Bigger’s mind until now Bigger is thinking and talking for himself.

“Mr. Max” he says from inside his cell, “you go home. I’m all right…I ain’t trying to forgive nobody and I ain’t asking for nobody to forgive me. I ain’t going to cry. They wouldn’t let me live and I killed…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!…What I killed for must’ve 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…It’s the truth, Mr. Max. I can say it now, ‘cause I’m going to die. I know what I’m saying real good and I know how it sounds…Just go and tell Ma I was all right and not to worry none, see? Tell her I was all right and wasn’t crying none…”

Max is horrified by this speech, as the Leninist god has been rejected by a proletariat. He and Bigger, white and black, remain strangers to one another. Max walks away…down the corridor. Bigger smiles “a faint, wry, bitter smile” and hears “the ring of steel against steel as a far door” clangs shut. The end.

No moral uplift here. Native Son will be criticized for the next seventy years, especially by African-Americans, as too bleak a story. They will take extra shots at the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, as having no redeeming value – of not being Denzel. But that was the whole point. For Bigger to have risen from de facto segregation to heroic status would have been to let white America off the hook, and the author had no such intention. In the preface to my copy of the book, Richard Wright explains the genesis of Native Son: “I had written a book of short stories…Uncle Tom’s Children. When the reviews…began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naïve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even banker’s 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…” How can a writer be taken to task for a premeditated act of literature? When I read the last passage of Native Son, of that steel door slamming shut, I was left numb, as if Richard Wright had chained me to the edge of the racial abyss, taped my eyes open, and shouted: White Man, Listen!

I moved on to Wright’s two autobiographies, Black Boy and American Hunger. The story begins with the four-year-old Richard burning down his house in rural Mississippi in 1912. It ends just after May Day, 1936, in Chicago, as former associates, white men of the American Communist Party, toss him onto a sidewalk for daring to march in their brotherhood parade. Black Boy recounts his first nineteen years in Jim Crow South, while American Hunger tells of young adulthood in the Windy City, made windier in the drafty tenements that that were home to his destitute family, much like the fictional Thomas quartet.

Speeches by Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, histories by Du Bois and Zinn, the polemics of Malcolm X, the mini-bios on Harriet Tubman – they all pointed to, and highlighted, Jim Crow, but it took a novelist, Wright, to put me into the skin of black boy in feudal Mississippi. At some point, a Southern black kid will become cognizant of the Other (Du Bois’ Veil), but prior to that he sees the natural beauty of the Delta, “the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.” Then, amidst this Eden, the Other makes its inevitable appearance, as young Richard hears of a white man who has severely beaten a black boy. He gains, over time, the understanding that, in the South, such an act is common and permitted under the law. He watches as his elders crack under the pressure of Jim Crow. His father abandons the struggle and his family when Richard is six. Two years later, his mother breaks down and is an invalid for life. His grandmother and spinster aunt retreat into the narcotic haze of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Whites murder his uncle with absolute impunity so they can take over his modest saloon business. Another uncle must flee in the middle of the night as the Klan is hot on his trail. Meanwhile, Richard is moved from one poor relative to the next, and an orphanage in between, until, at thirteen, he settles, along with his paralyzed mother, in Jackson, Mississippi, in the house of the Seventh-Day Adventist grandma and aunt, who terrorize him and feed him lard and gravy.

In Jackson, he completes a full year of school. He works at odd jobs to feed himself and to buy school supplies, and, in the process, he runs straight into the scary arms of Jim Crow. One early employer, a white housewife, upbraids him for turning down a plate of moldy, green molasses. At the local brickyard, the owner’s dog sinks his teeth into Richard, who then asks if the infection now spreading is something to worry about, to which the bossman laughs, and says: “A dog bite can’t hurt a nigger.” He tries to learn the optics trade, whereupon two hillbillies threaten his life for daring to fathom the sacred art of lens grinding. The further I got into Black Boy, the more I could feel Wright’s mounting claustrophobia. I had a knot in my stomach throughout the book.

Like Bigger Thomas, Richard is also alienated from, and critical toward, fellow blacks, so that he fits into no group. He is neither house nor field nigger. At one point, he asks “what on earth was the matter with me, why it was I never seemed to do things as people expected them to be done. Every word and gesture I made seemed to provoke hostility.”

But I knew the reason for his alienation. Richard was a born writer, which is a curse as much as a blessing. If the writer is not born into an artistic or scholastic environment, the urge to read and write may remain an unnamable desire, a seed buried under a mound of external ignorance, that will only manifest itself in gnawing rebellion or in creative destruction or in childish delusion. The good news is that whether the frustrated and unwitting artist grows up in a black religious home in Mississippi or white one in Levittown, PA, books will somehow rise up on the horizon of his mind, like a dim North Star, and he will grope forward in that direction until his intellect begins to glow with recognition, when at last he staggers into literary Bethlehem. That he will have arrived late does not matter, for he, too, has gifts to bring.

For Richard, the goal of becoming a writer came early in life, but his immediate surroundings, both black and white, stymied him at every turn. His religious fanatic of a grandmother would not allow him to read anything not pro-God, while the same lady who fed him moldy leftovers scoffed: “You’ll never be a writer. Who on earth put such ideas into your nigger head?” Midway through Black Boy, the older Richard, the narrator now in Bethlehem, laments that this “environment contained nothing more alien than writing or the desire to express one’s self in writing.” Following the dog-bite incident, when it truly hits home that, in the South, he is perceived as an animal, he grows “silent and reserved as the nature of the world in which I lived became plain and undeniable; the bleakness of the future affected my will to study…living as a Negro was cold and hard.” Was his family right to call him a bad seed? “Why was it considered wrong to ask questions?…It seemed inconceivable to me that one should surrender to what seemed wrong…how could one live in a world in which one’s mind and perceptions meant nothing and authority and tradition meant everything?” He graduates from the ninth grade and that is the end of his formal education.

The turning point comes after he escapes Mississippi to the less oppressive, though still Jim Crow, Memphis, Tennessee. He is eighteen-years-old and finds a job at another optics company, but this time he is smart enough not to demonstrate to white co-workers that he is a smart young man. One morning, he is reading the city newspaper and comes across an editorial denouncing the editor of the American Mercury, H.L. Mencken. “I wondered what…this Mencken had done to call down upon him the scorn of the South.” He borrows a library card from the only approachable white man in the optics shop, an Irish Roman Catholic. Then he sits down to read two of Mencken’s books, and a whole universe opens up to him, as the North Star brightens to a glorious beacon of hope. It is through Mencken’s essays and opinions that Richard discovers his literary role models, the naturalists – Dreiser, Hardy and Dostoyevsky. In the novel Babbit by Sinclair Lewis, he learns the foibles and ludicrous thought-process of the blowhard American businessman. In Main Street, Lewis portrays white people in an even more ridiculous light. Richard admits that the act of reading “was like a drug, a dope.” What he “derived from these novels was nothing less than a sense of life itself. All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel…”

American Hunger starts when he migrates to Chicago in 1927. He intensifies his self-education program, though for the next nine years he will remain employed at menial jobs. Along the way, he joins the John Reed Club so to associate with writers, the catch being that he must also develop Communist sympathies. He laughs at the black Communists who lecture on the streets doing bad imitations of Lenin, pounding a right fist into a left palm, and wearing the famous hat. He becomes a member of the Party in 1934, but his artistic nature leads him to clash with its dogmatism. “I could not refute the general Communist analysis of the world; the only drawback was that their world was just too simple for belief.” He is accused of being – gasp! – an intellectual, to which a dumbfounded Richard says: “I sweep the streets for a living.” Later he expounds on this problem: “But there existed in the Western world an element that baffled and frightened the Communist party: the prevalence of self-achieved literacy. Even a Negro, entrapped by ignorance and exploitation – as I had been – could, if he had the will and the love for it, learn to read and understand the world in which he lived.” Hence why, in the end, he is tossed, airborne, from the 1936 May Day parade.

But the eternal loner brushes himself off and, on the last page of American Hunger, heads back home to his desk. He picks up a pencil and holds “it over a sheet of white paper,” and broods that, when the time is ripe, he “will hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”

This is the man who, three years after the Mat Day incident, would finish the chilling portrait of Bigger Thomas. Just as Hemingway claimed that the American novel begins with Huckleberry Finn, so it can be said that the African-American novel dates from Native Son, regardless of how critics of both races have felt about Bigger not being a positive role model. Some critics of the book have scoffed at its contrived plot and clichéd prose, that it is not a refined work of literature. What these aesthetes fail to understand is that only someone who had been denied an education all the way into adulthood could have written Native Son, and because Richard arrived so late in Bethlehem, and even then having to sweep the streets for a living, the writing was not going to measure up to the aristocratic Marcel Proust. This is a book about life by someone who knew all about life before he knew about words.

In 1947, he and his white wife moved to France where he would die in 1960 of a condition which was the opposite of how he had lived for fifty-two years – heart failure. During this time he, like Du Bois, became more interested in international racism. He hung out with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, which led to speculation that he was becoming an Existentialist, forgetting that, years ago, he had created Bigger Thomas, the original existentialist character.

In 1959, Martin Luther King, recovering from a knife wound to his chest inflicted by a deranged woman in New York, was en route to India when he stopped in France to meet the famous Richard Wright. The only distinct memory of the occasion was from Wright’s daughter, Julia, then seventeen, who had never lived in America. Her father called her into the room and asked King to reveal the scar on his chest. Then Wright announced to her: “This is what happens to people in the States who speak up for their rights.”

 

(Check out my website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

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