J.R. Johnson

On Native Son by Richard Wright

(May 1940)

Originally published as The Negro’s Fight, Labor Action, Vol 4 No. 7, 27 May 1940, pp. 1 & 3.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 55–58.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Six weeks after publication, Native Son, a novel about a Negro by a Negro, Richard Wright, had sold a quarter of a million copies. This is not only a question of literature. Whatever brings a nationally oppressed minority to the notice of the oppressing majority is of political importance.

Bigger Thomas, the hero, comes very close to raping a white woman; then, accidentally, it is true, murders her. He burns the corpse in the furnace.

Then he writes a fake kidnapper’s note, demanding ten thousand dollars as the price of restoring her to her home. His crime is discovered and to save himself he cold-bloodedly kills his Negro girl-friend, Bessie. He is caught and is sentenced to death. The action takes place in Chicago.

Crime and the Negro

This is the bald outline of the story, and periodically you can read in the press similar stories about Negro “rapists” and Negro “killers.” Not only the white but the Negro press features such crimes. Whenever the Anti-Lynching Bill comes up in the House you can be sure to hear Southern Senators quoting statistics to show the high percentage of dangerous criminals in the Negro population.

Now, the most dangerous criminals, gangsters and racketeers in America are not Negroes. Al Capone is no Negro. But Richard Wright, the Negro author, has accepted the challenge. He says in effect,

“You fill your press with accounts of Negro crime. In the South, you use the Negro’s alleged criminality to prove that he can only be kept in order by extra-legal means, such as lynching and brutal segregation. Very well then, let us take one of the worst possible examples of Negro crime; let us examine the case; let us see who this criminal is; let us see whom he murdered and why; let us see what was his state of mind before he murdered and after. Let us see who were his friends, who persecuted him, who tried to help him before the murders, and who tried to help him afterwards.”

The result is one of the most powerful novels of the last twenty-five years. Wright says: Black Bigger did the things he did because American capitalist society has made an outcast of the black man. Bigger is not the sinner. He is the man sinned against. Bigger stands in the dock and is sentenced but it is the American social order which is on trial.

To conceive such an idea and to carry it out as Wright has done is a tremendous achievement.

Is Bigger “Typical”?

People have criticized Bigger Thomas as not being a “typical” Negro. What is a “typical” Negro? “Typical” of what? In capitalist society at the present time, no “typical” Negro could express the point of view that Wright wished to portray. Bigger Thomas represents the Negro in revolt. He does not quote Marx and say, ’’Workers of the world unite,” or, “Black and white, unite and fight.” He does not even know what the “Reds” stand for. But he is a revolutionary nevertheless, instinctive but none the less powerful. In his eyes, as in the eyes of most Negroes, it is white society which suppresses him, humiliates him, stands over him with a whip and keeps him cowering in holes and corners.

And Bigger will not stand for it. He hates the white skin as the obvious symbol of his oppression. It is an accident which sets him off on his career. It is his intense nature which drives him so far along the path of crime. But in his sense of oppression, his hatred of the whites, and his violence, once he takes that road, he is typical of millions of Negroes.

The great majority of them feel as Bigger feels, think as Bigger thinks, and hate as Bigger hates; but they have learnt to suppress it. The flames burn very low, but they are there. Far more powerful stimuli will be needed to make them act as Bigger acted. That is all.

When Liebknecht said in 1914, “The main enemy is a home,” he seemed a lone figure, a madman. But by November 1918 he was a very “typical” German. In that all important sense Bigger is “typical.” He is not travelling up a by-path. He is on the main road, only further on than the rest of his people. A great social crisis will convert millions of Negroes into Bigger Thomases. Only where he acted against isolated persons, they will act against organized society.

A Novel that Approaches Greatness

Wright shows all but the most supreme confidence in the rightness of his theme and his capacity to carry it out. I say “all but,” because Wright makes Bigger very nearly rape the woman and commit the first murder by accident, at least as far as he acted consciously. Shakespeare and Dostoevsky certainly, and perhaps Tolstoy, would not have hesitated; they would have made Bigger consciously commit both crimes. That Wright was not certain of himself is proved by the fact, among others, that he makes a lawyer deliver a long, bad, and tiresome speech at the very end of the book, saying all over again what the book had already very clearly and powerfully said. He need not have been afraid. The novel contains abundant evidence that he could have carried even this extension of his theme to a triumphant success.

Consider, for example, the main psychological theme of the book. Bigger commits murder. But having committed murder, in the instinct to save himself, he pits his brains against the whites and for the first time is conscious of acting as a man, free, unrestricted, and with a will of his own.

Wright does not only say this in words. He has conceived and executed his novel in those terms. Before the murder Bigger is irresolute, frustrated, longing but hopeless. Once he realizes, however, that he has committed murder and must defend himself, he becomes the embodiment of initiative, endurance, courage, and will.

How the boy fights! I can remember nowhere in literature so magnificent and yet so unrhetorical a determination to fight to the end. It is not merely for his life. Trapped on the roof, he counts his bullets and leaves the last one for himself. It is pride in himself, as a free man with a hardly-bought freedom. He will not capitulate to those white men – it is revolutionary pride.

Last updated on 25.8.2012