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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Native Son

Native Son

by Richard Wright

(5/5 stars)

What separates an old book from a classic book? The classic book has themes and ideas that are relevant and important to readers decades or even centuries after its initial printing. "Native Son" fits this definition because its portrayal of the doomed young black man Bigger Thomas is just as relevant today as it was in 1940.

For the obligatory plot summary, Bigger Thomas is 20 years old and lives in one cramped, rat-infested room on Chicago's South Side with his mother, younger brother, and sister. At this point Bigger is already a petty criminal, sticking up some black businesses with his buddies Gus, Jack, and GH because the police don't care if black kids rob black businessmen. When he's offered a job as chauffeur to the rich white Dalton family, Bigger is reluctant at first, until he sees the Dalton's attractive daughter Mary on a Newsreel. But Mary is no Paris Hilton-style heiress partying her days away. She is involved with a Communist leader named Jan and has Bigger drive her to meet him. Jan and Mary's well-intentioned but heavy handed kindness towards Bigger makes him uncomfortable, more so when they ask him to take them to somewhere to eat on the South Side. This begins a night of drinking that leads to all three getting drunk, Mary most of all. She is so out of it that Bigger has to help her into the house. While standing over her bed, Mary's blind mother enters the room. Bigger panics and accidentally suffocates Mary. After this he panics further by stuffing her into the furnace. Soon enough this deception is found out and Bigger is a fugitive before finally being caught and brought to "justice."

If I were to nitpick I would say there's a little too much interior monologue that at times slows the story down to a crawl. And the speech by Bigger's lawyer goes on much too long so that it seems like his defensive plan is to filibuster. Those are very small and unimportant imperfections.

A quick word here on what this story is not: it is not a story about injustice. Bigger does commit the second-degree murder of Mary Dalton. He compounds this by fleeing, killing an unwitting accomplice, and resisting arrest. The only crime he's accused of he didn't commit was the rape of Mary Dalton--how officials could determine this since her body was burned I have no idea. This isn't a story like "To Kill A Mockingbird" about a black man being railroaded by the white courts.

"Native Son" is more complex than that. This is a book more about the causes that create a man like Bigger Thomas. It's about the oppressive society that caged young black men like him in the South Side, teaching them to fear and hate the white man so that he doesn't trust even well-meaning do-gooders like Jan and his lawyer. The killing of Mary Dalton is a by-product of the fear and ignorance bred by centuries of hatred and discrimination. That is of course the real injustice here.

For examples of how this message continues to be relevant, one need look no further than high-profile, racially-dividing cases like Michael Vick, OJ Simpson, or Rodney King among many others. While advances have been made since the time of "Native Son"'s first printing, every day there are still new Bigger Thomases being created and stuffed into an already overcrowded prison system. That's what makes "Native Son" a true classic.

That is all.

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