The Library of America consistently produces wonderful volumes, and Richard Wright's "Early Works" is a strong member of the set. As I worked my way through this volume, I found myself re-thinking questions I have put aside for a while, challenging attitudes that I have acquired as part of our zeitgeist. I did not find that much of interest in "Lawd Today!" and "Uncle Tom's Children," the first two selections in the volume. Perhaps I will take another look at them in the future. However, "Native Son" was a revelation to me, and I found it amazing.
As a student of Mississippi literature, as well as a native Mississippian, I am surprised that I had not read "Native Son" before. I wonder what response Wright might expect me (a white Mississippian) to have to his work. The answer is not as simple as one might think. Growing up in Mississippi, I worked as a dishwasher. I ran errands for people who looked down on me and wanted me to act stupid and grateful. I felt the harsh sting of minor capitalists zealously defending their tiny empires. Like Wright, I grew up in a single-parent household with extremely limited resources. Like Wright, I never had a feeling that "the system" wanted to do anything but keep me in my place. Like Wright, I looked around to see that my people were limited by their ignorance and fear. For all of our differences, white and black Mississippians have far more in common than most people want to admit. It is part of what makes us such a fertile field for literature.
The easy response for a white person, Mississippian or not, is simply to be reactionary, to allow "Native Son" to confirm easy stereotypes. In "How `Bigger' Was Born," Wright acknowledges that one of the dangers he faced in writing "Native Son" was that those who are pre-disposed to see Bigger as typical of "those people" in general and of blacks in particular would find unequivocal confirmation of their prejudices. Wright must have been constantly tempted to avoid writing with such brutal honesty.
However, it is this honesty that forms the core of Wright's artistic achievement and makes his work enduring, almost prophetic. Bigger Thomas represents a type that still exists in plentitude. In "How `Bigger' Was Born," Wright explicitly makes the point that Bigger represents a type that is both black and white, a person growing up in the land of plenty without prospects or hope, without enough education to replace instinct with rational calculation. Unable to participate and without a place, our Biggers simply want to blot out everything and everyone from the face of the earth. Some of them unknowingly follow Bigger's example and kill what they think is killing them.
I think I see Bigger every day on the black streets of Atlanta. A close relative of Bigger lives in the white trailer parks in our suburbs. Bigger acts every time a teenager commits a senseless murder, every time a child shoots up a school. I hear an analysis of Bigger when a demagogue politician says that we should just lock them up and throw away the key.
The Biggers of the world are irretrievably lost. As Wright clearly shows, there is no way to cure or save or even rehabilitate such people. Even at the hour of their death, they will not understand context, never know why they act as they do, always returning to the basest of emotions for self-justification. They continue to kill out of fear, and we continue to fear them.
People used to think that they knew how to prevent more Biggers from appearing, how we might save those not yet lost. There was hope that we could change things so that there would be no more Biggers. It turns out that we have Biggers aplenty and more arising every day. Perhaps we always will. No one seems to care any more.
This volume affected me greatly, and I think that it will repay several close readings. It is a definite keeper, well worth the price.