1001 Book Review: Native Son by Richard Wright
Native Son by Richard Wright
Published in: 1940
Reviewed by: Jen
Rating: 4.5 stars
Find it here: Native Son
There are some books that will leave a lasting impression on you and Native Son was one of those books for me. This novel put me through the emotional wringer. I cried multiple times, I was often disgusted at the description of violence, I was inspired, and now I feel emotionally drained. I have to confess that I’m writing this review with tears in my eyes.
Native Son is the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man living in Chicago in the 1930s. When he commits a terrible crime, it throws him into a downward spiral resulting in more violence and a whole series of events and ramifications. The question at the center of the book isn’t whether Bigger committed the crime — he is clearly guilty — but why he did so.
Richard Wright was the grandson of four former slaves. Despite having only an 8th grade education, he became the top selling African-American author of his time. Native Son was his first novel and it made Wright the first best-selling black author in the United States. Henry Louis Gates called Native Son the “single most influential shaping force in black literary history.”
The author writes the story of Bigger with incredible insight and produces a brilliantly written and powerful story about what it is like to be black and poor in America. He doesn’t justify Bigger’s crimes but he explains how and why they were understandable in the context of Bigger’s environment. There are times when the books feels more like a ideological speech than it does a novel but I was thoroughly engaged even in those sections. Bigger himself is not that complex of a character and at times appears to be a caricature, but he serves the author’s purpose to protest conditions of black Americans in the 1940.
What’s incredibly sad about his book is that while it was published in 1940 it almost could have been written today. Wright touches upon multiple levels of race discrimination. He illustrates how the media frames causes of crime perpetrated by black men, how even seemingly altruistic whites are complicit in maintaining a social system that undermines the possibilities and futures of black men in America.
Some readers have criticized Wright’s book in perpetuating certain stereotypes about poor black men in America. I do think Wright was able to make some interesting points by using such a character. You can read more about this debate in this Feb 2015 New York Times article.
Even if you don’t agree with the author’s reasoning, it is a thought-provoking and emotional read. Warning to sensitive readers — the book contains some graphic descriptions of violence that can be hard to read.
Want to try it for yourself? You can find the book here:Native Son