Native Son – Richard Wright (1940)

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…they needed a certain picture of the world; there was one way of living they preferred above all others; and they were blind to what did not fit. They did not want to see what others are doing if that doing did not feed their own desires. All one had to do was to be bold, do something nobody had thought of…

Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, is one heckuva powerful novel to read, and I can’t believe that it’s not more common in required reading lists for English classes, because it brings up so many discussion points: racism, housing, poverty, education, perseverance… And the writing… It was just great.

To back up a little, let me explain how this title was chosen in the first place. February is African American (or Black) History Month in the U.S., which is I think an important public recognition of the contributions of the African-American people over the years.

I have been wanting to add more POC authors and topics to my TBR, and thus, this reading project was born.

Native Son is a novel that covers the journey of one Bigger Thomas, raised in one room with a single mother and two other siblings, and one of thousands who lived in on the South Side of Chicago (or the Black Belt as Wright describes it). It’s the late 1930’s, and Bigger (like a lot of other people) had stopped his education early due to having to work to support his family. It was during one of the gaps in employment when the crux of this whole matter arises.

Bigger is selected by one of the wealthy philanthropists to get trained to be his chauffeur. It’s win-win for everyone it seems: the rich people feel better for “saving” one of the many poor people, and the guy in the job gets to feed his family. What could possibly go wrong?

Surrounded by desperate people with little access to resources, Bigger is skirting the edge of crime, but it’s not until one night that he actually crosses over into that dark world. After accidentally committing murder one night with someone in his employer’s family, Bigger finds a freedom in himself and his life that he had never experienced before. And once someone has tasted freedom after years of being in chains, it’s very hard to go back…

 “No Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull.”

The novel is divided into three separate parts (Flight, Fear, Fate) and time is very compressed in the story. The whole book’s action happens only over a couple of weeks, and it’s compelling to see Bigger’s life journey as it just spirals and spirals down.

wright_richardWright uses an omniscient POV, so readers can see what everyone is thinking as the narrative progresses, and it’s a really good writing choice to use this as you get to understand the motivations of each person in the story balanced with what the rest of the world sees. The world only sees the actions and reactions of the characters, and without the access to the characters’ thoughts, you can see how things can go very very wrong.

So – to the story itself: Bigger takes the new job eagerly, and meets his employers who allow him to have a room in their big house. You never really know when you might need a chauffeur, and the married couple who hired him thinks themselves very big-hearted to take a boy out of the South Side. Indeed, they have done a lot for the African-American community, donating millions of dollars to black schools, and training centers.

On the first night of his first day of chauffeuring, Bigger takes Mary, the (white) daughter of the house to a party elsewhere, where she stays for a while and picks up a male friend, and then they cruise around, reluctant to go home. Both Mary and her new friend are progressive for the time, so when they want to stop and get a drink or two, they naturally invite Bigger in with them to have a drink as well.

After a while, it gets to be very late and Mary needs to get back to sleep as she’s traveling out of town the next day. She is, however, completely wasted from all the alcohol she’s been drinking, and after dropping her friend off, Bigger is forced to help Mary into the house and put her to bed. No big deal, except that this was 1930’s Chicago, smack in the middle of Jim Crow laws, and “negros” didn’t go into young white lady’s bedrooms at three in the morning.

And then the story ricochets from there, and you go along willingly for the wild ride. Bigger ends up being accused of rape and murder, which is the start of his downfall, as you can imagine. However, as the book progresses, Wright carefully points out all the cultural problems in such a way that you can follow Bigger’s thinking and how easy it was for him to fall into this legal trap.

Murder is wrong, but it was accidental. Why didn’t Bigger just leave Mary in the room? Because one thing happens which triggers a whole onslaught of other related events, but every single stage of this journey is based on faulty cultural assumptions (i.e. White vs. Black), so honestly how could this event have played out any differently? It really couldn’t have, and that’s why it was a really effective writing decision to use the omniscient point of view. Having all the thoughts of each character means that you, as the reader, see the logic in some of the decisions that follow when the book’s characters don’t.

The first part, Fear, is when Wright is setting up the scene of the poverty and high levels of unemployment that the African-American community faces just trying to live their lives. There’s a lot of fear around: white people fear black people, black people fear white people, and almost every action that anyone takes is grounded by being afraid. It’s a fraught time for the country, and such racial tension is easy to be ignited with the open flames of unrest and discontent.

The second part, Flight, is right after Bigger murders Mary, and the events that occur very quickly after that, as Bigger has to leave home to hide from the police. This is a really tense novel, if you haven’t picked that up already, and it was soooo difficult to actually put down. (There are no chapter breaks and no paragraph breaks to take a breath. You are as exhausted as Bigger gets when you’re reading it.) Bigger is on the run…

The final section, Fate, is when the law catches up with Bigger and he faces his court trial for the death penalty for murder (and not just murder: murder of a white woman by a black man…). Even more shocking and great media fodder. The trial ends up drawing massive attention, and people rally outside the court room shouting and chanting what they think should happen to Bigger.

But Bigger’s lawyer, Mr. Max, gives an astonishing speech in his closing arguments – you’ll have to read it to believe it – and throughout his talk, Mr. Max clearly shines the spotlights on the cultural mores and assumptions that have led to this situation. Taking a birds-eye view (with the omniscient POV) opens the full range of reasons why Bigger murdered Mary. Was he culpable?  Sure, but how much blame can you assign to a racist society which cuts off opportunities for betterment to a large part of society? Where does the line stop?

Anyway, a fascinating read and one that kept me up rather later a few nights as I just couldn’t leave Bigger without knowing his fate. Highly recommended as a African-American classic. Everyone should be reading this, even (and perhaps especially) the Orange Goblin (if he can read).

Part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month.

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TBR chat continues…

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Here’s a photo of my TBR shelves in case you’d like a nosey.

I always enjoy seeing other people’s bookshelves, so thought I’d let you guys into my inner sanctum sanctorum!

You’re welcome.  🙂

Time to Play with the TBR…

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Strolling around the blogosphere seeing what’s going on, I read Thomas’ great blog at Hogglestock, and saw that he had a complete re-org of his library shelves (and he really does have a dedicated library room. #SeriousReader.)

Seeing the photos of him messing around with his book collection made me want to at least catalogue what titles are in my own TBR pile, thinking that if I had a better idea of what books I actually owned, it would actually lead to an increased likelihood of me reading them (in theory).

Plus – like a lot of book-y people, I love lists.

So, I opened up an Excel sheet and got to work. With the leg in plaster, I couldn’t pull all the books off the shelf (a la Thomas), so I ended taking photos with my camera of each shelf, and then moved to another room to type up the info, using the photos as reference for adding to the Excel sheet. It worked out really well, and although it’s not the same as physically taking books off the shelf and physically handling them, it came close enough for me.

(I’m still going to remove all the books from my bookshelves at some point, but that can happen only when this cast is removed. Not too long now… One more month to go.)

Reading about other people’s TBR piles, I became very curious about what exactly my own stash was holding, and I dug in. The end results were pretty interesting (to me, at least), and the numbers weren’t as bad as I had thought. (Everything is relative though.)

My total of TBR (both fiction and NF) is 399. (Let’s say 400 in case I missed a title here or there.)

This is divided up into two main categories:

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I am quite surprised about the number of fiction books that I have. I would have sworn that I had less than that, but you can’t fight numbers, can you?

With the NF, I seem to have a penchant for buying books concerned with history (mostly Victorian), but some other historical pieces slip through the net at times (e.g. social history, early American life etc.), social justice [esp. in the last year or so], travel, well-written biographies and autobiographies, and then the always-popular books-about-books.

That said, there are some rather random (but still interesting) one-off topics in there:

  • The true story of a guy who follows the journey of a swallow from northern Europe to Africa…
  • The true story of someone who retraces the journey of a person back in history who tried to track down the mythical city of Atlantis and never returned…
  • A historical look at the attitude towards sex in America and how it changes (or doesn’t, as the case may be)…
  • The suffragettes, the history of Roe v. Wade and abortion in America and other related issues…
  • A journalistic view of sorority life for students at university…
  • An AIDS memoir…

And the list just continues. I’m very glad that I took the time to do this project as it’s opened my eyes to the books I already own, all of which I’d like to read. (Except one or two odd titles that are going to the FoL Library Sale forthwith. I have no idea how they slipped through the defensive team, but there you go… Can’t win them all.)