Book review: Native Son by Richard Wright

Posted January 17, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 4 Comments

Book review: Native Son by Richard WrightNative Son by Richard Wright
Published by Harper Perennial on August 2, 2005
Genres: Classic, Fiction
Format: Paperback
Pages: 544
Source: my shelves

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Native Son is the story of Bigger Thomas—a cruel, young black male living in the Black Belt of Chicago in the 1930s.  The book is split into three sections, each representing a part of Bigger’s life: Fear, Flight and Fate.

The main narrative is centered on his consciousness—he is frustrated and angry with his lack of opportunity and the feeling that all the decisions made about his life are in fact made by white people.  Even the decisions he makes on his own are based on what white people think.  Where he lives, what he does, how he acts, what he thinks—these are all based on a world in which he doesn’t feel he belongs.  This also makes him confused and afraid, not only of the world around him, but also of himself and what he is capable of.  Because of this confusion and fear, Bigger is forced to make a decision that results in the death of a young, wealthy white woman.  Killing a white woman makes him feel like he has power over the race that has oppressed him for so long, and he finally feels alive.  No longer is he being held captive by white people and their whims.  From now on, Bigger is going to do what HE wants to do.  Even when he is discovered as the killer and has to flee, he is still making his own decisions about what to do.  Unfortunately, these decisions lead to the rape and murder of another woman.  Faced with capture and imprisonment, Bigger must come to terms with his actions and his ultimate fate.

Along with the issues of Jim Crow and racism, Richard Wright also touches on Capitalism, liberalism, Communism and religion.  Each idea is represented by the characters, and their ideas and actions are laid out in a way that lets the reader decide how to feel about them.  In this particular edition, Wright’s essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” is included at the back of the book, and it explains how he came up with the character and why he felt that character needed a voice.  He explains that “Biggers” aren’t just black–there are Biggers in every race–and the basic issues he raises are relevant to any society in which one group of people is being oppressed by another.  The ideas in this book can even be applied to parts of today’s society

Just as Wright’s Black Boy gave me a clear understanding of the embarrassment and shame black men were made to feel before and during the era of Jim Crow (and even today, in some cases), Native Son clearly showed me the guilt, fear and anger they felt, even if it wasn’t outwardly expressed.  There is always that one moment in each of Wright’s books that is like an epiphany, where a character’s feelings and plight are fully explained and become crystal clear.

Native Son is a very good book.  Wright is an excellent writer who can eloquently express his feelings and thoughts while wrapping them in a good storyline.  I was kept interested and in suspense throughout–even when I was reading through pages of dialogue that expressed one of the central ideas, I did not become bored.  Although I didn’t choose to read it for this reason, it is also included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  I think if you are an adult who is interested in black history and the racial and social issues surrounding the Jim Crow era, this is definitely a must read.

(Click here to learn more about Richard Wright.)

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  • Hey Heather! okay, so this is an awesome book. As I mentioned on your FB page, I was an Africana Studies minor (and my dad is quite militant) so I have read many, many books in this genre. (what is the genre anyway, I wouldn’t call it black literature necessarily and it didn’t end with the Harlem Renaissance, though that is when it gained great popularity. I suppose it just represents a period in black literature when writings centered primarily around the plight of black Americans.)

    Anyway, I feel very strongly that these books are very important for young black people– especially men, during the “enlightenment” period of their lives. I think that our generation of black people have lost sight of HOW our collective consciousness came about… why certain social behaviors are so deeply ingrained in our culture… where we got our fixed definition of “black”… books written during this period of time will absolutely give some insight into the formation of the collective black consciousness. Although, young black men do not necessarily experience the same type of blatant oppression in today’s society, subtle and perceived oppression is still alive and well. The perception of oppressi0n is the post dangerous to the young black male psyche in my opinion — passed down from generation to generation, it totally influences their attitudes and behaviors, and their notion of potential and possibility. Coming from a family of college educated men going back a couple generations, I am always baffled by the number of black people in the 21st century who are first generation college students. I am awe struck when I hear black people say that speaking proper English is “talking white.” These are all subtle indicators of the lasting effects of the systematic oppression that has spawned generations of self-debilitating black men. The systems of oppression have been removed, but the psychological damage they caused continue to be passed down and are sure to last for generations if young black people don’t stop the cycle, which brings me back to my original point about why books like this are so important. The potential for enlightenment is great!

    Ironically, I stay far away from books like this nowadays. I read so many of them in college and reading them now actually makes me angry and sad! My heart is broken when I look at the state of the black community, and how little has truly changed…

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  • sandra freeman

    Your review was good, however you are wrong when it comes to your comment about the state of the black community and how little has truly changed. Are you for real the black community has come a long way…do we not have a black president, get informed.

    • Thank you for putting words in my mouth. Nowhere in my review did I say “little has truly changed.”

      Yes, we have a Black president–that in no way means that racism doesn’t exist or that we still don’t have a long way to go. In fact, racism and oppression (the attempted disenfranchisement of Black voters, for example) have become MORE overt since Obama was elected president.

      I am more informed than you obviously know.

      Thank you for the compliment on my review.