The summer after I graduated from high school, I got a part-time job working at a dog kennel in my hometown. On my very first day, a 30-year-old stoner named Daryn gave me a tour of the facilities and showed me how to rotate the dogs between indoor and outdoor kennels. Most of the dogs were lodged individually, but dogs from the same household were allowed to stay together if requested by the owner.
When we reached the “large dog” wing, two mean-as-shit Rottweilers broke out in a fight. Daryn told me later they were brothers, which explained why they were sharing a kennel and why they were sharing it poorly. Daryn jumped into their kennel to wrestle them apart, shouting “Get the hose!” over his shoulder, and I did. I grabbed the hose and blasted the two dogs right in the chest, one after the other, startling them just enough for Daryn to split them up. I spent the next twenty minutes or so bandaging Daryn’s bloody hands, since he insisted “based on experience” that they didn’t need stitches.
As we left the break room, Daryn laughed and said, “Welcome to Best Friends Pet Resort.” And I remember thinking, This is a TERRIBLE first day on the job.
Native Son opens in 1930s Chicago and the dead of winter. Twenty-year-old Bigger Thomas assures his mother of his plans to accept a job chauffeuring for the Daltons—a rich white family that, incidentally, owns the building Bigger lives in. That afternoon, he meets Mr. Dalton, who agrees to hire him and requests that he drive Mary, his daughter, to school.
But instead of going to school, Mary directs Bigger to pick up her Communist boyfriend, Jan, for a wild night on the town. On returning home early the next morning, Bigger helps a drunken Mary upstairs to her room and panics when her blind mother walks in the door. Hoping to quiet her so she doesn’t give him away, Bigger smothers Mary with a pillow—accidentally killing her.
In an effort to destroy the evidence of his crime, Bigger feeds Mary’s body into the furnace. But when her head doesn’t fit, he is forced to decapitate her with a knife (and, later, a hatchet) before returning home for a few hours of sleep.
And I remember thinking, No, THAT is a terrible first day on the job.
This is not to say that Bigger is a likable, sympathetic character. In many ways, he is aggressively unlikable: a violent, contentious bully and rapist, Bigger feels little remorse for killing Mary and actually forgets about his subsequent attack on Bessie (the girlfriend he hopes to silence when it’s clear she can’t tag along on his getaway).
But Wright intended, all along, to write a monster—not a hero. Bigger isn’t meant to be likable; he is meant to demonstrate how the cycle of oppression, hatred, and violence so deeply rooted in U.S. race relations is both self-perpetuating and universally destructive. A poor black man with an eighth grade education, Bigger doesn’t bother with hopes and dreams for the future: With only odd jobs available to support his family, a cramped and rat-infested apartment that still manages to be a ripoff, and a sense of self informed only by the mocking, hateful portrayals of black people in the media, why would he? In his own words:
A guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything… You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing.
For the reader, as for Bigger, the events of the novel feel like a series of inevitabilities slowly closing in. From its earliest pages, Bigger expresses a generalized apprehension—a feeling “like something awful’s going to happen” to him. When something does—Mary’s death—it’s an accident, but he knows no one will believe him. “I knew that some time or other they was going to get me for something,” he says. “I’m black. I don’t have to do nothing for ’em to get me. The first white finger they point at me, I’m a goner.” The discovery of Mary’s body seems inevitable, as the hours tick by, as does Bigger’s imminent flight. Bessie’s slaughter seems inevitable the more she refuses to be his accomplice, and Bigger’s capture seems inevitable the more his manhunt grows in fury. His execution is, of course, a given—and Bigger knows that, too.
Still, murder makes Bigger feel, for the first time ever, powerful. He is both smug and outraged when the Dalton family and a group of reporters underestimate his intelligence in assuming he had nothing to do with Mary’s disappearance or the ransom note he fabricated. His actions following Mary’s death are, absurdly, among the first decisions he ever makes by and for himself. But, ultimately—inevitably—he winds up back where he started:
Not only had he lived where they told him to live, not only had he done what they told him to do, not only had he done these things until he had killed to be quit of them; but even after obeying, after killing, they still ruled him. He was their property, heart and soul, body and blood; what they did claimed every atom of him, sleeping and waking; it colored life and dictated the terms of death.
In Native Son, Wright forces us to confront the gruesome realities of racism and the role we play in it—how fear and hate are both cause and effect when it comes to racial oppression. Just as whites dehumanize(d) blacks, Bigger dehumanizes them, too, leading on both sides to violence. The stereotype of the “barbaric black aggressor,” like most stereotypes, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—and the cycle continues to spin its wheels.
Bigger embodies all of this and more as a black man standing before the “looming mountain of white hate.” He has no choices in life, and therefore no control. And, within this context—our own shared heritage as a nation—Wright asks us: Is Bigger individually responsible for his crimes, or does society share some of the blame? Is it fair to condemn the villains we ourselves created? And is it possible, for one person or many, to turn the tide of the inevitable?
In his essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Wright attempts to account for the resentment, anger, anxiety, and despair that define Bigger and his real-world counterparts. He describes the “Biggers” in his own life, and the fates they met with, and what he learned from them. In pulling at the threads of their shared experience, Wright unravels a truth universally acknowledged yet often taken for granted: We are all, in our essence, alike—and it is our environments that differ.
Among millions of people the deepest convictions of life are never discussed openly; they are felt, implied, hinted at tacitly and obliquely in their hopes and fears. We live by an idealism that makes us believe that the Constitution is a good document of government, that the Bill of Rights is a good legal and humane principle to safeguard our civil liberties, that every man and woman should have the opportunity to realize himself, to seek his own individual fate and goal, his own peculiar and untranslatable destiny. I don’t say that Bigger knew this in the terms in which I’m speaking of it; I don’t say that any such thought ever entered his head. His emotional and intellectual life was never that articulate. But he knew it emotionally, intuitively, for his emotions and desires were developed, and he caught it, as most of us do, from the mental and emotional climate of our time. Bigger had all of this in him, dammed up, buried, implied, and I had to develop it in fictional form.
Wright notes, in closing, that early American authors “complained bitterly about the bleakness and flatness of the American scene.” If only they had lived to see the 20th century, he says, they would find enough tragedy in the African American experience to satisfy their creative appetite: “And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.”
Harsh words, maybe—but ones we need to hear, and keep hearing. Which just so happens to be Wright’s specialty.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
Wright insists that he doesn’t know “if Native Son is a good book or a bad book.” My vote? Neither. Native Son is a great book, earning its place on The List and then some.
“Don’t you love me?”
“About as much as you love me.”
“How much is that?”
“You ought to know.”
Either he was too weak, or the world was too strong; he did not know which.
But what was he after? What did he want? What did he love and what did he hate? He did not know. There was something he knew and something he felt; something the world gave him and something he himself had; something spread out in front of him and something spread out in back; and never in all his life, with this black skin of his, had the two worlds, thought and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been together; never had he felt a sense of wholeness.