It's no secret that some of the most amazing—and, perhaps more importantly, important—art is difficult to encounter. Hard to watch. Stomach-churning.
We're not talking about things that are gross (although we heart John Waters movies). We're not talking about visceral horror like the stuff in Saw or supernatural horror like the stuff in Paranormal Activity. We're not even talking about something that looks like a messed up nightmare-scape—like the art of Egon Schiele or Frida Kahlo.
We're talking about something way, way more upsetting than that: art that portrays the horror that can exist in everyday life. Art like, for example, Richard Wright's Native Son.
Published in 1940, Native Son was an instant success, even as it met with some controversy. But the fact that Native Son met with controversy is about as surprising as the fact that kitten videos cheer people up. As a Time magazine article notes, Wright had written an insanely difficult novel—one about a black man justly accused of murder whose actions were nevertheless shaped by cultural, social, and economic forces that he couldn’t control.
Yup. This novel is about a murderer. And not only that, but it's a novel that makes you feel both sympathy and empathy for the murderer... as well as deeply, skin-crawlingly uncomfortable about the hideous, monstrous, all-expletives-are-still-not-enough-to-express-the-nausea-we-feel way that mid-century America treated black people.
The sales of Native Son made Wright the wealthiest black writer of the time, and sealed his reputation as one of the most acclaimed American writers. It also served as a massive wake-up call for the American public. Author James Baldwin wrote that, "No American N**** exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull."
And no, Baldwin wasn't disturbingly talking about little fictional characters hanging out in his brainpan. He was addressing the fact that the suffocating, cloistering and infuriating racial prejudice of the middle of the 20th Century created (totally unsurprisingly) feelings of anger and anguish among black people.
So yes. Native Son isn't easy. In fact, it's harder than watching a Lars von Trier film festival while listening to someone play the musical saw... while wearing Alexander McQueen heels. But it's also one of the—if not the—most important books you'll ever read.
We don't usually go for the "You have to read this!" tactic. We're die-hard literature geeks, and if we started telling people "You have to read this!" chances are we'd amend that statement with "And this! And this! And this!" until we'd given our entire personal libraries away on loan (the horror!)... or people started calling us the Lit Nerds That Cried Wolf (to which we'd say "Nice Aesop reference!").
But with Native Son it's another story. You have to read this.
You especially have to read this if you're American, because this novel deals with the incredibly shameful history of American racism. But even if you don't hail from the US of A, you'd be hard pressed to find a book that more searchingly and horrifically tackles the topic of race in America.
A quick history lesson, Shmoopers:
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.
And Emmett Till’s story was not a singular event in America’s history, but one in a long chain of violent, racist acts. The realities of a racist society were inescapable. And Richard Wright was well aware of them.
That's why he sets up the murder in Native Son as a deeply complex act. Bigger Thomas helps his (white) employer's daughter, Mary Dalton, up to her bedroom when she's blackout drunk. But when Mary's mother comes into the room, Bigger is petrified of being caught, and accidentally smothers Mary because he wants to keep her quiet—he knows what the consequences of being caught in a white woman's room could be.
In Native Son, Wright is asking us to ponder this question: should we blame Bigger or American society for her death? How are unjust societies responsible for creating the criminals that come out of them?
These aren't easy-peasy questions. These are excruciatingly difficult questions... which is exactly why we should be asking them. Reading Native Son isn't a walk in the park. It's an arduous and upsetting journey, but it's one that we as Americans—or even citizens of the world—have to take.
Native Son, a movie directed by Pierre Chenal. Though this film doesn’t have very good reviews, Richard Wright himself does star as Bigger Thomas.
Native Son a 1986 movie directed by Jerrold Freedman. This film didn’t get very good reviews either, but Matt Dillon plays Jan and Oprah acts as Bigger’s mother.
Richard Wright: Black Boy, a PBS production.
A photo of Richard Wright writing at his desk.
Send Your Letter With Richard
A stamp of Richard Wright. You know you've made it into history when you're stamp-ified.
Best 100 English-Language Books
Time Magazine picked Native Son as one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923.
Some information on Richard Wright’s life and a bibliography of resources for further reading.