THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in Chicago in the 1930s; published in 1940.
A young black man accidentally kills a rich white girl, an act that turns out to free him psychologically from the oppressive racism that has shaped his life, even as he is hunted down and imprisoned by white society.
Richard Wright, born in 1908 near Natchez, Mississippi, moved to Chicago with his family in 1927. In doing so the Wrights joined a steady stream of black families who left behind Southern poverty and racism to search for a better life in the North, in what came to be known as the “Great Migration.” Often, however, they merely ended up trading rural poverty for urban squalor, with only superficial changes in the racism of the surrounding white society. This oppressive urban environment forms the back-drop to Native Son, Wright’s first full-length novel.
The Great Migration
Blacks had begun leaving the South in significant numbers near the end of the nineteenth century, but in the period during and after World War I these numbers jumped dramatically. Between 1915 and 1930, over one million black Americans made the journey north, in what was at that time the largest migratory movement in American history. It would be surpassed only by a second wave of black migration northward, beginning in 1940 and lasting until the 1970s.
Both social and economic factors spurred the Great Migration (this term, originally applied to the first wave, is now often used to include both). During the first wave—that is, from 1915 to 1930—many Southern blacks believed that the racial prejudice to which they were subjected would lessen as they moved north. In Southern states like Mississippi (where, like Wright himself, Bigger Thomas in Native Son was born), rumors spread that whites in the North would welcome black migrants. Even blacks who discounted such rumors made the move, expecting to find less discrimination than in the South. Added to this social incentive was the attraction of industrial jobs in Northern cities, metropolises in which large black populations now appeared for the first time.
The Great Depression
The Great Migration was slowed—but not stopped—by another massive event of the early twentieth century, the Great Depression of the 1930s. Nearly all Americans suffered during this period of economic upheaval as banks collapsed, savings evaporated, and wages fell while unemployment soared. In general, blacks were harder hit than whites, for as their pool of jobs shrank, whites began displacing black workers who had held menial jobs that whites once considered beneath them. The nation’s unemployment rate, at 15 percent in 1930, peaked at 25 percent three years later and remained high for the rest of the decade. African American organizations estimated that black unemployment rates during the Depression were at least double the national figures. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and the spur to American industry created by the demands of World War II brought some limited relief by the end of the decade, but throughout the 1930s joblessness and extreme poverty created a bleak outlook for urban blacks.
Chicago’s South Side
Black populations rose in virtually every major Northern city from 1915 to 1930, but New York City and Chicago had by far the largest. In New York’s Upper Manhattan, Harlem became home to the glittering black cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, which flourished during the 1920s. Its Midwestern equivalent was found on Chicago’s South Side. A good deal of Chicago’s black residents lived on the city’s South Side, in a narrow strip of land that whites called the Black Belt. Chicago’s black population grew from 44,000 in 1910 to over 100,000 in 1920; by 1930, that figure had shot up to 278,000.
The Black Belt extended for some thirty blocks on either side of South State Street, the major artery running south from the Loop, Chicago’s central business district. Unlike white immigrants, blacks were largely restricted to this single area, although there was an enclave located on the West Side. Those lucky enough to find work in a factory or meatpacking plant faced a long commute to and from work. Many, however, had little luck finding a job. “It was hard to get a job, oh real hard,” one immigrant from Mississippi later remembered. “And it was double hard, triple hard for a colored to get jobs” (Grossman, pp. 182-83). As Native Son opens, Bigger Thomas has received an offer of work that his mother, brother, and sister pressure him to accept. For a young black man such an opportunity would have been rare, which explains his family’s concern, for they have no other prospective source of steady income.
Housing in the Black Belt
The Black Belt reached its geographical limitations by about 1920; over the next ten years, as Chicago’s black population more than doubled, the area in which blacks were forced to live hardly expanded at all. Housing discrimination prevented middleclass blacks (mostly the Old Settlers) from moving to white areas. Both black and white landlords, taking advantage of the blacks’ inability to live elsewhere, charged high rents for what soon became slum dwellings. Often older run-down apartment buildings were divided up in small units called “kitchenettes,” in which an entire family would occupy a single small room. One stove and a rough toilet might be shared among several such families. Bigger’s family occupies a single room, whose squalor the opening scene of Native Son vividly illustrates as Bigger traps and kills a large, vicious rat.
BLACK INSTITUTIONS ON THE SOUTH SIDE
By the 1930s, the South Side of Chicago was beginning to replace Harlem as the nation’s leading black community. Black roots went back further in Chicago than in the more recently settled Harlem, and by the time of the Great Migration older settlers had established a firm civic foundation on which the immigrants could rely. These earlier black immigrants, who had begun arriving in the last decades of the nineteenth century, called themselves “Old Settlers,” while they referred to the more recent arrivals from the rural South as “Home People.” The Old Settlers established religious institutions, including the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church and the Olivet Baptist Church; the Young Women’s Christian Association and Young Men’s Christian Association (YWCA and YMCA) also each operated one branch on the South Side. The black newspaper The Defender, which vocally attacked antiblack discrimination, had its offices on State Street.
While completing Native Son, Wright began work on a book for the Federal Writers’ Project (part of Roosevelt’s New Deal group of programs) that included a section about the South Side slums. In the book, called 12 Million Black Voices, Wright describes the slums’ economic injustice:
And the Bosses of the Buildings take these old houses and convert them into “kitchenettes,” and then rent them to us at rates so high that they make fabulous fortunes before the houses are too old for habitation.... They take, say, a seven-room apartment, which rents for $50 a month to whites, and cut it up into seven small apartments, of one room each.... The Bosses of the Buildings rent these kitchenettes to us at the rate of, say, $6 a week. Hence, the same apartment for which white people—who can get jobs anywhere and who receive higher wages than we—pay $50 a month is rented to us for $42 a week!
(Wright, 12 Million Black Voices, p. 104)
In Native Son, Mr. Dalton, the white man who employs Bigger and whose daughter Bigger accidentally kills, is just such a “Boss of the Buildings,” a wealthy man who derives much of his income from renting slum apartments to blacks.
The harshest manifestation of white prejudice and hegemony in the South, lynching is the murder without trial, usually by an angry mob, of a person accused of a crime or other transgression. White-on-black lynching mounted in the years after the Civil War, as Southern whites struggled to maintain control over freed blacks. This type of lynching, the most prevalent by far in the postwar years, reached its peak in the 1890s (when more than a hundred blacks were lynched each year), continuing in lesser numbers into the early decades of the twentieth century. Roughly 95 percent of all lynchings occurred in the South.
THE IDA B. WELLS HOMES
Born a slave in 1862, Ida B. Wells moved to Chicago after being driven out of Memphis in the 1890s for her antilynching writings in black newspapers there; she died in Chicago in 1930. Chicago’s earliest housing project, the Ida B. Wells Homes, was built in the 1930s. The project, which provided housing for over fifteen thousand black families, was finished in 1940, the year that Native Son was published. Lauded at first by the black community, such projects were later seen as fostering segregation and helping to create a black ghetto.
Aside from lynching’s harsh reality—a Southern reality, remembered if not encountered by black migrants to the North—even blacks in the North faced its constant threat. It is this threat to which Bigger responds when he finds himself, through no fault of his own, about to be discovered with a white girl in her bedroom. For as black antilynching crusader Ida B. Wells pointed out, a common excuse for lynching a black man was that he had raped a white woman. For many Southern white men, “rape” could mean anything from consensual sexual intimacy between a black man and a white woman to their simply holding hands. Or, as all blacks knew, the charge of rape might simply be a fabricated excuse for whites to get rid of an “uppity” black.
A situation that many black men especially feared was having a white woman make sexual advances toward them. If the man rejected the advances, the woman might accuse him of rape, and he could easily face a lynching. If he accepted them, the couple might be discovered, in which case white men would accuse him of rape, and he would still be lynched. Either way, sexual involvement with a white woman—or even the hint of such involvement—meant mortal danger for black men in the South. In the North, too the threat of lynching or other white mob violence (as depicted in Native Son after Bigger’s arrest) remained a very real one in the minds of most blacks. Statistics show there was just cause for this fear. From 1882 to 1968, at least nine teen blacks were lynched in the Northern state of Illinois; they were accused most commonly of murder, assault, or rape.
Black activism in Chicago
If Harlem was African America’s cultural capital in the century’s opening decades, by the 1930s Chicago was becoming its political center. New York may have been headquarters for major black activist groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League, but the Chicago branches of these organizations were known for their radicalism in championing the rights of African Americans. Also, in the mid-1930s, Chicago became the home of Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist organization with strong appeal to poor young male migrants from the South. In real life, thousands of potential Biggers changed course by joining the Nation of Islam, also known as the Black Muslims, whose strict dress and behavior codes underlie a strong spirit of community activism.
Native Son, however, explores the predicament of those who lack such antidotes to racism’s constant psychological invasions. In keeping with this focus, the novel doesn’t mention the Black Muslims. Also in this vein, the novel’s references to the NAACP merely stress that organization’s inclusion of whites, such as the wealthy Mr. Dalton, who eases his conscience by supporting black organizations while he grows rich charging exorbitant rents from poor blacks.
Though he would later abandon them, during the 1930s Richard Wright embraced communist ideas, like many American intellectuals at the time. To many writers and artists, communism seemed to be a coherent response to democratic capitalism’s obvious inequalities and shortcomings. While America and the rest of the capitalist world suffered in the depths of economic depression, communist Russia appeared to be making progress both economically and socially in creating a “classless” society. Wright joined the Communist Party in 1933 and was active in it until 1942.
The party supported black causes, most visibly by providing legal representation for the black defendants in the famous Scottsboro Case of the 1930s. Nine black youths, ages thirteen to twenty, had been arrested in Alabama in 1931, accused of raping two white women. When eight of the nine were sentenced to death by an Alabama court, the Communist Party took up the case, winning on appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Several of the defendants, however, were retried in Alabama and ended up serving long prison sentences, despite one of the alleged victims’ having retracted her story. In Native Son, Jan Erlone, the communist boyfriend of Mary Dalton (the girl Bigger later kills), brings up the Scottsboro Case in conversation with Bigger, attempting to enlist his sympathies. Bigger, however, remains unresponsive to communist ideas. Native Son portrays communism, like black activism, as ultimately ineffective in combating racism’s social and psychological effects.
Bigger Thomas, a young black man, lives in poverty in a one-room apartment with his mother, younger brother, and sister. Though Bigger has been in reform school, a local job agency has managed to arrange an interview for him with a wealthy white man, Mr. Dalton, who needs a driver. Bigger grows irritated when his mother and sister pressure him to follow through with the interview, arranged for later that day. While deciding whether to go, Bigger encounters his friends, with whom he shares restlessness and contempt for whites. Prone to sudden acts of violence, Bigger attacks one of his friends at a pool hall where they meet.
Hired by Mr. Dalton, Bigger is given his first task—to drive the Daltons’ daughter Mary to the university that evening. Mary, however, instead goes to meet her boyfriend Jan Erlone, a communist. The two whites have been working with the Communist Party to help blacks, and they insist on Bigger’s accompanying them to a restaurant frequented by blacks. Later the three of them get drunk and Bigger takes Mary home. The girl is too drunk to make it to her room alone, so Bigger helps her to bed. Confused and aroused, Bigger is standing over the unconscious girl when Mrs. Dalton, who is blind, enters the bedroom.
In a panic over the possibility of being caught in a white girl’s bedroom, Bigger puts a pillow over Mary’s face to keep her from making a noise. As Mrs. Dalton approaches, calling out to see why Mary doesn’t answer, Bigger unknowingly pushes down on the pillow, smothering the girl. Mrs. Dalton, meanwhile, having smelt the alcohol and concluded that Mary is drunk, leaves in disgust. Finding than he has killed Mary, Bigger takes the body to the basement and, after cutting the head off to make it fit, stuffs it into the coal furnace.
To avoid discovery, Bigger attempts to frame Jan for Mary’s disappearance, lying to investigators and concocting a ransom note that he signs “Red,” meaning communist (Wright, Native Son, p. 215). His ploy is discovered, however, when the remains of the body cause the furnace to malfunction. The story has by that point gotten heavy press coverage; in fact, a group of reporters are the ones who discover the girl’s remains in the furnace after the basement fills with smoke.
Fleeing, Bigger turns to his girlfriend, Bessie, whose aid he had earlier enlisted with the ransom note. Having told her of his crime, he now kills her as well, battering her head with a brick and dumping her down an air shaft. On the run, Bigger hides in abandoned buildings, venturing out to buy or steal newspapers so that he can keep abreast of the investigation. Finally, after encountering two policemen and knocking one of them out, Bigger is cornered and arrested.
In jail, Bigger turns inward, accepting responsibility for his crime without ever attempting to explain it away by describing the accidental circumstances that led to it. As he told Bessie, he has felt like killing many times before, but never had the opportunity. Now, in accepting his guilt, Bigger has gained a measure of control over his own life for the first time. Jan, who has forgiven Trigger, brings to Bigger’s cell Boris Max, a lawyer from the Communist Party who says he will defend Bigger. Aside from the deaths of Mary and Bessie, Bigger is also charged with raping Mary, which most white observers of the case assume him to have done. At first remaining silent, Bigger later strongly denies the rape charge.
The grand jury, presided over by the coroner, opens by questioning the witnesses, including Jan Erlone and the Daltons. Under hostile questioning by the racially prejudiced and anticommunist prosecutor, Jan is accused of advocating, among other things, social equality for blacks. The coroner overrules Boris Max’s objections to the questioning. Under Max’s examination, Mr. Dalton describes his charitable support of black organizations such as the NAACP, but admits that he charges blacks higher rents than he would charge whites, and that he refuses to rent to blacks in white neighborhoods.
Indicted by the grand jury, Bigger faces a trial that is conducted on similar, racially biased lines. Max’s long speech in Bigger’s defense outlines the racial prejudice of white society, claiming that society itself has shaped Bigger to an extent that explains—if not excuses—Bigger’s crime. Max has had Bigger plead guilty, but argues against a death sentence, asking instead for life imprisonment. After a brief recess, however, the judge sentences Bigger to death.
Having failed to get the governor to commute the sentence, Max visits Bigger, who has shut out the world and struggles to come to terms with his impending execution. In the novel’s final scene, Max helps Bigger understand that his white persecutors share, in a fundamental way, the same hate-producing fear that has shaped Bigger’s life. Finally freed from hate and fear, Bigger declares that he believes in himself, and that he is ready to face death.
Bigger and the outside world
In Bigger Thomas, Wright was determined to create a character for whom the reader could not feel pity. Only through such a character, Wright believed, could he dramatize the corrosive effects of racism, not only on its perpetrators but also on its victims. Wright thus portrays Bigger in terms that vividly illustrate the alienation that Bigger feels not only from white society, but also from other blacks, even from his own friends and family. Bigger exists as an island of rage and frustration in a world that offers him no rewards save those of violence.
One important way that Bigger interacts with the outside world is through the media—news-reels, magazines, newspapers. In the first half of Native Son, Bigger repeatedly feels an urge to retreat from reality into magazines and movie houses, where he views a newsreel featuring Mary Dalton as a glamorous society girl. When he sees news stories of German and Japanese conquests, he identifies with the urge to aggression that they represent. “He was not concerned with whether these acts were right or wrong,” the novel tells us, “they simply appealed to him as possible avenues of escape” (Native Son, p. 130). Whether of a glamorous yet unreachable white world or of international events, the images he sees offer only momentary escape. Ultimately they merely sharpen his sense of constant frustration.
Only after killing Mary Dalton does Bigger feel that he has somehow taken control of his life. He associates this feeling with the world he has been shown over and over in the media:
He felt that he had destiny in his grasp.... [H]e was moving toward that sense of fulness he had so often but inadequately felt in magazines and movies. The shame and fear and hate which Mary and Jan and Mr. Dalton and that huge rich house had made rise so hot and hard in him had now cooled and softened. His being black and at the bottom of the world was something which he could take with a new-born strength. What his knife and gun had once meant to him, his knowledge of having secretly murdered Mary now meant.
(Native Son, p. 170)
Just as the media exaggerates the glamour of white society, so does it distort Bigger by depicting him as brutishly savage. Describing him as a “beast” and an “ape,” newspaper stories about Bigger assume his guilt: “It is easy to imagine how this man, in the grip of a brain-numbing sex passion, overpowered little Mary Dalton, raped her, murdered her, beheaded her” (Native Son, p. 323).
FROM A FICTIONAL NEWS STORY IN NATIVE SON
An Irish police captain remarked... “I’m convinced that death is the only cure for the likes of him.”... From Jackson. Mississippi, came a report yesterday from Edward Robertson, editor of the Jackson Daily Star, regarding Bigger Thomas’ boyhood there. The editor wired: “He was raised here and is known to local residents as an irreformable sneak thief and liar.”
(Native Son, p. 323)
FROM AN ACTUAL NEWS STORY ON ROBERT NIXON
From Tallulah [Louisiana] yesterday came a report on Nixon’s boyhood there. Sherif [sic] A. J. D. Sezler of Madison parish wired: “Nixon was raised here and is known as a sneak thief and house prowler.... Nothing but death will cure him.”
(Chicago Daily Tribune, sec. 1, p. 3)
Clearly, Wright took much of the material for Native Son from his own life experiences as a young migrant to Chicago from Mississippi. In an essay entitled “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” he enumerates no fewer than five “Biggers” he had known at various times in his life. All served as models for the fictional Bigger, though Wright also says that he had met many more Biggers, both black and white. Wright found literary models in the realism of authors such as Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser. He based the structure of Native Son on Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy, in which a young drifter accidentally commits murder, flees, gets caught, and then faces a concluding trial.
Wright also drew on a widely publicized case in which a young black Chicago man, Robert Nixon, was arrested and convicted of killing and raping several women. Wright’s friend and biographer Margaret Walker reports that Wright, in New York when he was working on Native Son, asked her to send him clippings on the case from the Chicago papers. “The major portion of Native Son is built on information and action from those clippings,” Walker claims (Walker, p. 123-24). For example, Nixon beat one of the women to death with a brick, and Bigger kills Bessie this same way in the novel. Echoes of the clippings also appear in the news stories that Wright includes in his narrative. Nixon was executed in 1939.
Native Son enjoyed immediate and spectacular success, both commercially and with the critics. Selling 250,000 copies within six weeks, it was chosen by the Book of the Month Club and stayed on the bestseller lists for months. It was reviewed by every major newspaper, making Richard Wright not only a major American literary figure but also a leading spokesman for African Americans.
Critics praised Native Son for its honest, un-sentimental examination of racism’s psychological effects. While most reviews were overwhelmingly favorable, there were a few attacks from both the black and white communities. James Baldwin, a young friend of Wright, dismissed the book in an essay entitled “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” arguing that its emphasis on social protest detracted from its artistic merit. Wright was also threatened with lynching if he came back to Mississippi. Many, however, agreed with Irving Howe, who wrote that “the day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever” (Howe in Walker, p. 153).
Chicago Daily Tribune. (May 31, 1938): sec. 1, p. 3.
Goodman, James. Stories of Scottsboro. New York: Pantheon, 1994.
Grossman, James R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners and the Great Migration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Lemann, Nicholas. The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Walker, Margaret. Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius. New York: Amistad, 1988.
Wright, Richard. Native Son. 1940. Reprint. Native Son and How ”Bigger” Was Born. New York: Harper, 1993.
Wright, Richard. 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States. New York: Viking, 1941.