Published in 1940, Richard Wright’s Native Son was an instant success, even though it met with some controversy and chagrin among middle and upper middle class black Americans, who wished he had published a novel celebrating black people’s ability to transcend oppression. On the other hand, as a contemporaneous Time magazine article noted, Wright had written an even more difficult novel – one about a black man justly accused of murder whose actions were nevertheless shaped by American cultural, social, and economic forces that he couldn’t control. The sales of Native Son made Wright a wealthy writer and one of the most acclaimed black writers of all time. He is often called the "father" of black American literature.
If a black man were to be seen with a white woman (let alone discovered in a white woman’s bedroom) in the United States in Bigger Thomas’s time (around 1940), he faced violent racism. He might be subject to a horrific end similar to that which Emmett Till endured several years later.
In 1955 Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African-American teen, was brutally murdered in Money, Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. He was taken out of his uncle’s house in the middle of the night, beaten, shot in the head, and thrown in the Tallahatchie River with barbed wire wrapped around his neck. His murderers, the husband of the white woman and his half-brother, were acquitted of their crime but later openly confessed to the murder.
Emmett Till’s story was not a singular event in America’s history, but one in a long chain of violent, racist acts. Check out Shmoop History’s “Jim Crow in America” and “Civil Rights Movement: Desegregation” for a more detailed discussion of America’s struggle with racism.
The realities of a racist society were inescapable, and Richard Wright was well aware of the danger his Native Son character, Bigger Thomas, faced for being in Mary Dalton's (a white woman) bedroom. So when Bigger accidentally kills Mary because he fears being found in her room, Wright is asking us to ponder this question: should we blame Bigger or American society for her death?
In many ways Bigger Thomas is like Oliver Twist in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Both characters grow up in horrific environments: Bigger in a rat-infested, one-room apartment in Chicago’s South Side, and Oliver in a “child farm” (notorious for high death rates) and a workhouse outside of London. Both characters are subject to societal injustice, both struggle with extreme poverty. Dickens used Oliver Twist to ask whether bad life circumstances due to poverty and injustice necessarily create criminals. In a way, Native Son can be seen as Richard Wright's response to Dickens's question. Here, Wright seems to argue that American society is responsible for the murderer that Bigger Thomas becomes.
The big question is: are unjust societies responsible for creating the criminals that come out of them? We know Wright's thoughts on the matter, what are yours?