Required Reading: Native Son
Racial tension in Chicago is always a difficult topic to approach. Growing up as a white male in a segregated north suburban middle-class neighborhood, my privilege in the world is omnipresent to say the least. Never will I truly experience urban racial conflict as the likes of Spike Lee, Stacey Koon, or Richard Wright have. And yet, I feel a strange compulsion to these issues. I feel that I am different, that I’m not a cross burning 1950s Cicero white supremacist, that I am a ‘good’ white person. Alas, I admit I have crimes of my own. The concept was first introduced to me in high school when I heard Minor Threat’s ‘Guilty of Being White.’ My racial crimes are not so much conscious as much as they are complacent. My lack of proactivity condemns me existentially as the court condemns a murderer physically. Aware of historical racial issues as well as my relation to them, so did I delve into Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son.
The main character, who I hesitate to call a protagonist, is Bigger Thomas. He initially leads an unassuming life. He drops out of school; he lives in a rat-infested one-bedroom apartment in the Black Belt on the south side with his mother, sister and brother; he’s resistant to the idea of real work and he hangs around with a ‘bad crowd.’ Bigger finds release in fantastical movies that depict lives he can never obtain. Early on, we know he is a hate-filled individual: “He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them.”
Bigger anticipates that if he were to ever actually fully understand his lot in life, he would wind up killing himself or someone else. Eventually, this prediction comes true, although not with purpose. To keep himself from getting in trouble, he ends up accidentally suffocating the daughter of a wealthy white man for whom he was hired to be the chauffer. To cover this up, he burns her body in the furnace, an act that when ultimately uncovered by the media and police, further condemns him in the eyes of whites.
Native Son is separated into three sections: Fear, Flight, Fate. The first section introduces Bigger and his new job and takes us through his night out with Mary Dalton, a Communist sympathizer and her friend and CP member Jan Erlone. These two treat Bigger as an equal, but he is off-put by their friendliness. He feels extremely self-conscious sitting with them at a Black Belt restaurant uncommon for white folks to patronize. The first section takes place in one day, culminating in the murder and cover-up. The second and third parts of the story follow the aftermath of the murder, the failed cover-up, and the prosecution of Bigger Thomas.
The reader is pulled in many directions throughout the book. Bigger’s crimes. The details of Biggers struggles make it hard to believe this could be set in the Chicago we know today. Our racial divisions are fierce, but the extremity portrayed in this book has seriously got to be eons away, right? But noting South Side addresses, Cook County jails or references to the University on the Midway bring the reader’s imagination right back home, whether we want to admit it or not.
Aside from its racial and political content, the book is full of literary comparisons. The furnace where he burned Mary Dalton’s body is akin to Poe’s telltale heart beneath the floorboards. His inner turmoil and paranoia combined with a sense of freedom and cunning evokes Raskolnikov’s own psyche in Crime and Punishment. Likewise, the detachment he later feels, his cold personality proven by the prosecution, as well as his rejection of religion is reminiscent of the existential hero Meursault in the Stranger.
In 2011, we would like to think that we are beyond such strict racial divisions. The unfortunate truth is that Chicago is still one of the most segregated cities in the country, with pockets of gentrification and integration. Thus, over 70 years later, this book still retains its significance in generating discussion revolving around fear, hate, violence and power struggles between races. The disproportionately white north side garners many more luxuries than the predominantly black south side (of particular discussion recently, the amount of south side food deserts as well as disinterest in expanding the area’s public transportation). It’s almost disheartening to think things will always be this way. At the very least, read this book in hopes that there will never be another one written just like it.