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Even before James Baldwin...,
This review is from: Native Son (Vintage Classics) (Paperback)
... there was Richard Wright. He wrote this book some 75 years after the ending of America's "original sin," slavery. The central theme is that what replaced it was not much better. The year was 1940, the Great Depression seemed endless, and it was not known that World War would soon provide the "meaningful employment" that would end it. Segregation was the law in the South, the practice in the North, and the very act that created the current president of the United States was illegal in 30 of the 48 states, and would remain illegal in at least 16 of them until as late as 1967. Miscegenation is a very loaded word, used not only in the States, but also in many "colonial environments," and it too is a central aspect of the novel--the desire of a poor black man for that dazzling image that he is not "entitled" to--a rich white woman. The Book of the Month Club selected it as a main selection in that year, and it sold 250,000 copies--but only after Wright agreed to bowdlerize his "cri de coeur," so as not to offend white "sensibilities." The unexpurgated version has finally been restored. Taken within its historical context, I believe it is one of the top ten American novels of the 20th century.
Baldwin actually began his prolific career by criticizing Wright, calling this book "mere protest" fiction. And there is some element of truth in Baldwin's critic: Wright's characters have an element of the two dimensional "socialist realism" of the old Soviet Union--no doubt due to Wright's strong sympathies with the Communists of the time. Ironically though, both Wright and Baldwin decided to give up on America, and each sought solace in the same place--France. On the other hand, "protest" was long overdue, and is central to the novel's message.
It is not an "uplifting" book, and the character's actions are not "redemptive." Bigger Thomas, a black man who grows up in the "made-in-America" hell of Jim Crow laws in the South does not find salvation in the north--Chicago has its own laws that confine him to a ghetto. He murders Mary Dalton, an attractive young white woman, from a "liberal" family. For me the strongest part of the book is the polemic by Max, the white Communist lawyer who is defending Bigger. Consider: "Multiply Bigger Thomas twelve million times... Taken collectively, they are not simply twelve million people; in reality they constitute a separate nation, stunted, stripped, and held captive within this nation, devoid of political, social, economic and property rights." Yet even Max repeatedly calls the man who is Bigger Thomas "boy."
From today's perspective, which is almost as long from when the novel was first written as the novel itself was from the end of slavery, the most remarkable aspect is the change in race relations - still far from perfect - which has resulted in America's first black president. On the other hand, it seems little progress has been made on the economic front. Sure, people have fancier cars, houses, et al., but doubts have again arisen about the fundamental concepts of our economic system - can it function in a manner to deliver economic security to its participants? A question Max would have felt quite comfortable with.
And then to continue Max's oration above: "Do you think that you can kill one of them--even if you killed one every day in the year--and make the others so full of fear that they would not kill? No! Such a foolish policy has never worked and never will. The more you kill, the more you deny and separate..." Written in 1940, but it can serve as a scathing criticism of our so-called "war on terror."
"Native Son" remains an essential read.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on March 18, 2009)