Native Son
Richard Wright, 1940

Bigger Thomas, a black hoodlum from the south side of Chicago, is assigned by a relief agency to serve as a chauffeur for the Daltons, a rich white family. Caught in a potentially compromising situation with the family's rebellious daughter Mary, Bigger accidentally kills her while trying to keep her quiet... and discovers that committing murder is the most fulfilling thing he's ever done.

This book had been on my to-read list for something on the order of fifteen years, since I knew it was part of the 20th-century American canon but it had never shown up on any of my reading lists in college or grad school. It starts off promisingly enough, as Wright quickly establishes something sorely lacking in most of the literature I've read recently: narrative momentum. But then... well, let me put it this way. Someone once asked Douglas Adams what the message of Hitchhiker's was. He replied, "No message. If I'd wanted to write a message I'd have written a message. I wrote a book." Not so here. Wright so badly wanted to write a message that he sets up a courtroom scene, has the defense lawyer stand up, opens a set of quotation marks, inserts his message, closes the quotation marks, and has the lawyer sit down. That's not good!

The basic message of Native Son is what has come to be known as the black rage defense. The version in the novel goes something like this: people want to make something of their lives. But society gives blacks no opportunity to do so. The only life society will allow a black person is one of endless backbreaking labor to further enrich wealthy white people. This realization turns black people into cauldrons of fury. At some point this fury will be unleashed, and the oppressors will discover that perhaps that whole oppression thing was counterproductive.

Now, you can call that karma, but the thing about karma is that it doesn't keep a ledger sheet. Karma just means that whatever you dump into the system has to come out somewhere. One of Wright's most noteworthy touches is that he makes the Daltons not purely evil slumlords, but philanthropists who have given $5 million to the NAACP and similar organizations. Mary and her boyfriend in particular try to reach out to Thomas, only for him to kill the former and pin the crime on the latter. Now, Wright was a communist, and so part of the point here is the extreme left's rejection of the moderate left: the philanthropy angle allows Wright to sneer at liberal guilt. But I think the plot is largely shaped by the physics of karma. Oppression has turned Bigger Thomas into a hate machine. Strike out at him, and he will hate you; ignore him, and he will hate you; be kind to him, and he will hate you. The irony is that those who take this last approach are the ones who dare to come close to him and therefore bear the brunt of his hatred even as they are the least deserving of it.

Of course, there's one other reason that Mary Dalton falls prey to Bigger Thomas: her family has servants. I occasionally encounter families like the Daltons in my job, and I am always struck by this paradox of wealth. Take a trip up the socioeconomic ladder and see how people live. At the bottom you have poor minorities like the Thomases living in slums in the inner cities. As you work your way up to the more affluent reaches of the scale, things change both geographically and demographically. As you move out into the bohemian neighborhoods the population gets more diverse, then gets less so as you continue into the ritzier neighborhoods. Then you get to the white-bread suburbs, where people have put distance between themselves and the slums; the distances grow vast when you reach the exurbs, and are crisscrossed by enormous walls when you make it to the gated communities. So, yeah. You've traveled dozens of miles. Every face you see is white now. You've been waved through by the guards. You reach another gate and get buzzed through via the intercom. Finally, you walk through the door... and suddenly you're back in the 'hood, since the family of three has a staff of ten Third-World immigrants tromping around the house scrubbing the toilets and vacuuming the expensive rugs and, y'know, raising the baby and stuff. This always blows my mind. Bigger Thomas, as a black man with an eighth-grade education, wasn't allowed to rent an apartment outside the strictly demarcated ghetto on the South Side. Even showing his face in a white neighborhood risked serious trouble. No, the only place outside the desperately impoverished Black Belt that Bigger Thomas was allowed to go... was the home of the man who owned half of Chicago. It's like the world's biggest game of Stratego.

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