Native Son | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Native Son | Context


Racial segregation was firmly entrenched in American law and culture by the 1930s and 1940s when Native Son takes place. Blacks and whites were separated in virtually every aspect of life, from housing to schools to public drinking fountains and transportation. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 established the "separate but equal" doctrine that declared racially separate facilities legal under the U.S. Constitution, and this ruling would shape the country's racial landscape until the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Of course, history has shown that separate was not equal, and facilities for black citizens were, at best, substandard. In cities blacks lived in designated areas, such as Harlem in New York City and the South Side in Chicago, with little to no opportunity to move beyond these zones. Many residents in these neighborhoods, Wright included, had migrated north to escape the repressive Jim Crow laws of the South. While these areas made some economic progress through the 1920s, the Great Depression curtailed expanded work opportunities, which were limited from the start. In 1930s Chicago, the degree of separation between the black and white communities ranked among the highest in the country, with most of the city's black population residing in a few blocks of the South Side known as the "Black Belt." Crowded spaces and crumbling, unhygienic living conditions were the norm, but rent was equal to or greater than rent in white neighborhoods.

Personal Influences

In his essay "How Bigger Was Born," published in all editions of Native Son after the first printing, Wright describes his early years living with grandparents, aunts, and uncles in rural areas and small towns in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas. During this period Wright met a number of young, disaffected black men and teenagers he calls his early prototypes for Bigger Thomas. These early "Biggers" engaged in acts of bullying and violence without having any real awareness of their own motives or the possible cultural influences driving their actions, such as segregation or Jim Crow laws. After Wright moved to Memphis and later Chicago, he met other Bigger types who influenced the full form of the character. In the essay Wright comments directly about his experience working with teenage boys in a "Black Belt" community center, filled with young Biggers who would not be appeased by hobbies and activities designed to keep them out of trouble.

Wright also drew heavily from the many cases of black men arrested and given show trials, as opposed to fair trials, all around the United States. Specifically, he was influenced by the case of Robert Nixon, a young man tried for multiple rapes and murders in Chicago while Wright was in New York working on Native Son. Wright later wrote openly about drawing the lurid and biased press reports that appear in Native Son directly from the Chicago Tribune's coverage of the Nixon case.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Communist Party was gaining support among some segments of the American population. This created a panic among political leaders that culminated in the U.S. Senate hearings led by Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957) in the 1950s. Communism gained traction in the 1930s because of the Great Depression and frustration with both economic and racial inequality throughout the country. As an active communist, Wright weaves the party's fight against segregation into the fabric of Native Son.

Critical Reception

Native Son was the first book by a black author to be selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1940, although the club did ask Wright to remove a scene in which Bigger and his friend masturbate in a movie theater (the scene was restored in later editions). Despite the novel's success, some black readers were uncomfortable with Bigger's character because he reinforced negative stereotypes. Wright's friend and contemporary, James Baldwin (1924–1987), published an essay criticizing the novel for this reason. At the same time, some white readers were predictably uncomfortable with the novel's criticism of their role in race relations, and the book was banned in several areas, especially the Deep South. Still the novel was popular enough to be adapted to the stage by the end of 1940, and the play also proved highly successful. A film adaptation, Sangre Negra, directed by Pierre Chenal (1904–1990) and filmed mainly in Argentina, starred Wright in the role of Bigger. It premiered in 1951 to mixed reviews. Thanks to the success of Native Son, other black novelists, including Baldwin, found literary success throughout the 20th century.

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