Native Son, by Richard Wright
Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin
I don’t spend a lot of time pondering Black History Month, but when I do it’s mostly to do with books on sale that I normally wouldn’t look for. The first book I bought last month was Notes of a Native Son, a collection of essays by James Baldwin whose Go Tell It On the Mountain was one of last year’s BHM sale finds. One of the essays in the book is an analysis of Native Son which I’d never read. So I set Baldwin aside, found a copy of Native Son, then went back to Baldwin.
In full disclosure, I am white. Not only am I white but I live in Idaho. My interactions with people of other races mostly occur at church with Spanish-speaking and refugee parishioners. At the same time race is a pervasive national issue, misunderstood or aggressively misinterpreted by people who 1. don’t like to think they have a responsibility for some issues because responsibility is equated with blame, 2. don’t sense their own complicity in perpetuating the problems, and 3. have little ability to place themselves in the lives of others. The last item is one of the things literature helps us do.
Native Son is generally well written but it’s a hard read in the same way that Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a hard read. I’m not the first who saw similarities between Roskalnikov and Bigger Thomas but they’re certainly not identical. Roskolnikov is more like Nathan Leopold of Leopold and Loeb (mentioned frequently in this book), an individual who sees himself as above society and its laws and is determined to prove it by committing murder. Here, Thomas is the opposite. Bigger is overwhelmed by the society in which he lives and feels there’s no hope for any life beyond what is right before him. The anger and frustration of this life makes him want to physically strike out at someone. Baldwin, in his essay on the book, says that he believes that every black man has felt a desire at one time or another to strike a white man, any white man, as a release from the anger inside. Where Roskolnikov and Thomas have similarities is what seems to be a self-destructive drive to make things worse, which is hard to watch.
Bigger kills the daughter of his employer of one day. It’s an accidental act.He helps her to her room because she’s too drunk to climb the stairs, but he panics when he thinks her family will discover he’s been there and smothers her with a pillow while trying to keep her quiet.
Baldwin compares the book to Uncle Tom’s Cabin instead of Crime and Punishment because both books are political and as political novels the characters are stripped of humanity. They are there to serve a purpose. Baldwin believes Wright was not so much telling of the condition of blacks in America as he was predicting a black reaction to those conditions.
Thomas’ own reaction to his subsequent crimes, capture, and trial are a sense of elevation, a sense that he’s done something. At one point being prodded by police to do something he says: “You can’t make me do anything but die.”
The book essentially wraps up with an extended speech by Boris Max, a communist party attorney who volunteers as defense counsel for Thomas. It’s a strange break in the action in which Wright tries to give perspective to Bigger’s crimes. I thought it was over the top and was relieved to read Baldwin call it “one of the most desperate acts in literature.” The book is iconic and does give some insight into life in the 1930s for black Americans. Some scenes are shocking, some just made me uncomfortable but they were meant to do that.
For Baldwin’s other essays, it’s an interesting collection. There’s a story about being arrested in Paris as an “accessory to theft”, a portrait of his strained relationship with his preacher father (this relationship is fictionalized in his first novel Go Tell It On The Mountain), a critique of the film Carmen Jones, a piece on being black in France (where he died in 1987), and an essay/report on the black experience with Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party.
If at some point in the past year or so you’ve wondered what the big deal is with Black Lives Matter or Oscars So White then you might read either book, remembering that Baldwin’s essays, with their descriptions of being denied a seat in a restaurant in New Jersey because “we don’t serve coloreds”, was written the year I was born. Anyone expecting the wounds to have healed in the 60 years since that book was written, or the 75 since Native Son, is determined to live with eyes closed.