“These were the rhythms of his life: indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and moments of anger—like water ebbing and flowing from the tug of a far-away invisible force. Being this way was a need of his as deep as eating. He was like a strange plant blooming in the day and wilting at night; but the sun that made it bloom and the cold darkness that made it wilt were never seen. It was his own sun and darkness, a private and personal sun and darkness.” – Richard Wright, Native Son
This story is still heavily on my mind. I think if I’d read it earlier, I would have reacted to it differently. There is so much going on it has been hard for me to write a coherent review but I feel compelled to write down some of my thoughts, regardless of how disjointed they may be.
The story starts off with a poor black family trying to kill a rat in their apartment, it reeks of poverty from the start and quickly materializes into showing us the dark side of racist American society. It introduces us to our protagonist, Bigger Thomas, who I’d heard of even before I read this book; I knew that he had accidentally killed a white girl, and then killed a black girl to cover his crime. I’d even read James Baldwin’s literary criticism of this book, but there was more to this story than that. Had I known, I wouldn’t have stayed away from this novel for this long.
The mind-numbing lives black people had to live was clearly illustrated from the start. The drugs, alcohol, women, pool playing, cheap movies, religion….all were seen as ways to not think about what was going on around them. As Bigger said, “He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair.”
My feelings about the book were in part influenced by the current civil rights movement in the States. If that hadn’t been going on, the book would still have been horrific, but with it, it was even more visceral. It would have been more satisfying to have finished reading the book and said, “Thank God all that crazy racism stuff is over,” but watch the news on any given day and you know it’s alive and well.
I was fascinated by how the whites and blacks interacted. In the book, we have a rich white family, the Dalton’s, who are actually the good guys but even they had a problematic way of looking at, and dealing with, the blacks they purported to be helping. They made them appear so simplistic, almost like children. On the other hand, Mary, the daughter, did not really understand that her being overly friendly to Bigger, or inviting him to eat with her, was actually making him uncomfortable and could cause serious repercussions for him. In her privileged position she failed to have much empathy or understanding for Bigger. I saw Mary and her boyfriend Jan as behaving like old-school anthropologists, going to observe blacks “in their natural habitat”, as it were. Their actions were very voyeuristic and I could understand Bigger’s rage at their behaviour. The psychological aspects of race and poverty is not something they understood, coming from privileged backgrounds. There was the lack of privacy the poor had, the fact that their lives were so clearly on display and that they had little to no control over their lives that made Jan and Mary’s actions particularly degrading.
To be honest, this book scared me. It scared me because it showed that you can have groups of people living in close proximity, yet not knowing anything about each other, instead holding on to an alien image of the other:
“To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one’s feet in the dark. As long as he and his black folks did not go beyond certain limits, there was no need to fear that white force. But whether they feared it or not, each and every day of their lives they lived with it; even when words did not sound its name, they acknowledged its reality. As long as they lived here in this prescribed corner of the city, they paid mute tribute to it.”
It scared me because people are treated according to their race, and like it or not, recent events have shown this. It scared me that the coloured body can be exploited, even in death.
Poor Bessie, she said: “I just work! I ain’t had no happiness, no nothing. I just work. I’m black and I work and don’t bother nobody…” Probably the cry of so many at the time. And to make matters even worse, in death her body is exploited. What made her death even sadder and more tragic was this:
“Though he had killed a black girl and a white girl, he knew that it would be for the death of the white girl that he would be punished. The black girl was merely “evidence.”
The media whipping people into a frenzy, not just with race but with Islamophobia, is happening now, just as it happened back then:
“Several hundred Negroes resembling Bigger Thomas were rounded up…” Like the panelist at a Black History Month event I attended this week said, regarding his having been stopped by the Vancouver police who said he fitted a description of a black man wanted for robbery, “You mean a black man between 5’ 2” and 7’ 3?”
This book showed me the impact of racism in an even more profound way than in other books I’ve read.I don’t think I will ever forget it.