Haunted by a Native Son: Thoughts on Richard Wright's Masterpiece

"You cannot make me do nothing but die"

The beauty of books comes from their ability to stay with you long after the pages have been shut. Many a famous author and critic have commented on the echoes of a character's life haunting you for the rest of yours, coming to the forefront of your mind at the most surprising of moments.

For some, there are many books that have had that effect on their life, for others there is that special one. Mine is Richard Wright's masterpiece Native Son. Reading that first line I had no idea what devastating and heartbreaking emotions I was about to be put through.

The horror of Bigger Thomas's story lies in the inevitability of his fate. Living within the brutal fatalism of the inner-city as a young black boy in America, every corner turned offers a new way to be tripped up or dragged down. The hardest thing to stomach is the eventual crime by which Bigger meets his fate. The rape and murder of a young white girl in a moment of panic, and the gut-wrenching way in which he tries to cover up his crime cause the reader to shudder and groan. 

Bigger's violence is a reaction to a man unable to figure out how he should recognise and react to a white woman attempting to talk to him as an equal. He can only assume that in some way this is a trap, a way to cause his downfall once and for all. 

Wright makes a point of showing Bigger has the potential for violence long before he commits murder. Anger and frustration manifests itself against his friends and people in the streets from the very first pages. The narrative strongly calls to mind James Baldwin's Another Country, another story whose young black character's face a brutal inevitability, destined to tragedy and humiliation. 

The fullness with which Wright provides emotion and truth is astounding. Each horrific moment (many of which made me have to actually shut the book and pause for a moment- an astounding achievement for a writer to do to his readers) is like a car crash that you cannot turn away from. 

And bravest of all, Wright doesn't offer any redemption, any easing end notes. You finish the novel in a type of shell-shock. Bigger is not someone I would want to meet. I almost feel like even Wright is scared of him. There is a true evilness to his spirit. Wright is not excusing that. He just prompts us to ask what put that seed of evil there. How many times does someone have to be told their wrong, less than, other than the norm before it'll have an effect on them. 

So many questions are raised in this novel that I'm still trying to figure out the answers to. Bigger is a character that will not leave me alone. I find his echo in other characters I meet in film, book and in the news. When Wright wrote this back in the 1930's, I wonder if he believed by now that some answers and solutions would be found? I don't know, probably not. Trayvon Martin, Stephen Lawrence, the London Riots in 2011, all point towards a world heartbreakingly too similar to the one Bigger Thomas existed in.