Richard Wright was the most prominent black American writer of the 1940s. His novel native son about the corrosive effects of racism made him a literary star and a rarity for the time – a successful black novelist.
But his tenure as an influential black American writer only lasted about a decade. It had fallen out of favor with readers, scholars and cultural critics. His writings were thought to be too preoccupied with how black people were victimized and dehumanized by racism, neglecting to show the beauty and humanity of black American life.
“native son was a best-seller among white readers and Wright saw it as a way for white America to realize what it was doing to black minds and black souls,” said Ralph Eubanks, a writer whose work is focuses on race, identity and the American South.
“However, over time, many people came to see native son like a book that merely codifies racial stereotypes about the whole black beast rapist mythos.”
by Wright native son is a disturbing, controversial and divisive book in American black literature.
The story focuses on the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old living in extreme poverty in Chicago’s South End in the 1930s. He is employed as a driver by a wealthy white liberal family. One evening, Mary – one of his employers – was extremely drunk, so Thomas helped her to her room. Mary’s blind mother enters the room and Thomas accidentally chokes Mary. He is on trial for rape and murder.
“Bigger Thomas becomes who he is…because of the visible and structural constraints of how race was experienced in Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s,” Eubanks said.
Almost 80 years later native sona rejected manuscript of Wright’s novel, The Man Who Lived Underground was published – sparking renewed relevance of his work at a time when racist violence and police killings of black Americans are at the forefront.
“Black Rage on the Page”
In 1940 Jim Crow was still the law of the American South, this was in the midst of the Great Migration of millions of black Americans from the South to northern cities like Chicago. The civil rights movement was still 15 years old.
by Wright native son became a blockbuster hit, selling a quarter of a million copies in three weeks. He viewed this novel as a work of protest, exploring racism, oppression, and violence against black Americans.
Young man, Eddie Glaude did not find native son to be liberating. Quite the contrary. The Princeton professor and author said he was terrified “to see this kind of black rage on the page”.
“Bringing it to life was kind of an externalization of something I felt inside of me…the feeling of being repressed and repressed, of society pressing down on his shoulders, and knowing why and being able to name it. , and to sit in that rage, and spy on the violence that might come out of it, that was really extraordinary to me.”
More harm than good
Wright was ultimately sidelined when criticism of native son has become more prevalent. His brand of protest literature was considered crude and did more harm than good to the cause of black upliftment and equality.
Eventually he was upstaged by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison.
In 1948, activist and writer James Baldwin wrote an essay, Everybody’s Protest Novel, arguing that Wright compromised his art to make a political statement. He was 24 at the time and said Wright stripped characters like Bigger Thomas of their humanity.
“One of Baldwin’s great criticisms of native son is – and so is Ellison – is that Bigger Thomas, in some ways, isn’t really a person. It’s kind of a caricature. I always felt like he was exaggerating to say the book wasn’t really art. Ellison and Baldwin’s criticism is that the book does not do enough to make Bigger Thomas a human being. It’s kind of a monster,” said Anthony Stewart, an English professor at Bucknell University.
Wright was a mentor and close friend of literary critic Ralph Ellison, best known for his novel, Invisible Man. He encouraged Ellison to write fiction as a career.
Ellison’s review of native son was included in an essay published in 1963 titled The world and the juglooking at race in literature.
“Wright began with the ideological proposition that what white people think of Negro reality is more important than what Negroes themselves know it to be,” Ellison wrote of the controversial book.
“Wright could imagine Bigger, but Bigger couldn’t have imagined Richard Wright. Wright saw to that.”
According to Imani Perry, a professor at Princeton University, Baldwin and Ellison criticize Wright’s work as normal to make room for their own work.
“It was really a time when there could only be one black literary star at a time. And so it was kind of a literary parricide.”
She argues that the controversy that followed the deluge of criticism came at a cost in neglecting to appreciate Wright’s true talent.
“Many of us failed to appreciate how extraordinary Wright was as a writer and as an intellectual, whether or not we agreed with his political views on Black Life.”
But the accusation against Wright has been going on for decades – that his fiction depicted black people as helpless targets, stunted and distorted by forces beyond their control, stripped of all agency – that it was a failure of his imagination to fail to portray the humanity, beauty, richness and resilience of inner black lives.
A modified legacy
Wright’s work is often not taught at universities or discussed much in general. But that changed when The Man Who Lived Undergroundhis follow-up novel native sonwas released in 2021.
The novel is very different from native son. Experimental, dreamlike, and surreal, with a black protagonist named Fred Daniels who has almost nothing to do with Bigger Thomas, yet is more racially victimized.
“Fred Daniels is an innocent, believing, God-fearing man with a wife who has a child with a baby on the way who is falsely accused of murdering someone and is put in jail for it. He is at the opposite of Bigger Thomas,” Eubanks said.
In The Man Who Lived Underground, Fred Daniels is randomly arrested by the police after a brutal double murder. He is tortured until he confesses to a crime he did not commit. Eventually, Daniels manages to escape, slipping through an open manhole cover and starting a new life in the world under the city’s sidewalk and buildings. Daniels learns to navigate the subway and finds burrows in several different buildings and businesses. At one, he sees someone being falsely accused of a crime and beaten – by the same policeman who accused and beat him. When he returns to the surface to tell these policemen what he has seen and learned underground, he is shot by one of them.
For Glaude, this recently published book is a startling interpretation of the kind of anxiety that resonates in the United States
“It’s an unflinching account of the effects, the horror of white supremacist life. Period,” Glaude said.
“He is at the core of who we think of ourselves as being in the world we’ve built. And it doesn’t come down to just white violence being imposed on black people or black people turning into monsters because of white people. No, no, no. It’s something much bigger.”
The Man Who Lived Underground maybe that was too much for 1942 – but 2021 seemed like a time it was written for.
“I think the reissue of The Man Who Lived Underground was so important at a time when the cops are still killing us. To clarify that what’s happening today isn’t new doesn’t mean you have to agree with Wright’s aesthetic. But the thing is, what he was trying to account for still needs accounting,” Glaude said.
And it’s not just what Wright explained that’s important. According to Anthony Stewart, this is also what he made possible.
“What Wright makes possible is for people to see an African-American intellectual living among them…an African-American well-known in the public eye and not for being an artist or an athlete.”
Stewart argues that it was easier for people to see a black baseball player like Jackie Robinson Right than to see a prominent black intellectual.
“It’s an unusual thing, a really unusual thing. And so what Wright makes possible, you know, Wright makes Baldwin possible. Wright makes Ellison possible.”
Guests in this episode:
Ralph Eubanks is a literary scholar, professor, journalist and author of several books, including, Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey into Mississippi’s Dark Past.
Eddie Glaude is an award-winning author, James S. McDonnell, Professor Emeritus of African American Studies at the University and Chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University.
Iman Perry is Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and Contributing Editor at The Atlantic magazine.
Anthony Stuart is a Canadian-American professor of English at Bucknell University and an expert on 20th-century American black literature.
*This episode was produced by Chris Wodskou.