So far in my life I have dated girls from a variety of racial backgrounds, including black, asian and oriental. For someone who is almost oppressively cynical it is perhaps surprising that I entered each relationship with a certain level of naivety. Despite being well aware that racism still exists, I didn’t expect the amount of negative attention these relationships received. One incident always comes to my mind, which is the time I and my black girlfriend were accosted by a group of black teenagers one afternoon; the kids seemed to be incredibly upset by this coupling, which they perceived as an affront, and so they started to follow us and shout insults [racist insults, no less!]. I’m not entirely certain how we managed to get out of it without the incident turning violent and still now, some time later, I feel uneasy when passing a group of similar kids on my own.
Yet, it wasn’t only overt racism that was the problem. More pertinently, in terms of what I found most interesting about the book under review here, there was the endlessly in[s]ane behaviour and comments from people who were well-intentioned. People were so petrified of doing or saying the wrong thing, of being politically incorrect, or were trying too hard not to be politically correct [because they felt this was also insulting], that they made themselves and everyone around them uncomfortable. Having had these experiences my reading of Native Son has retrospectively been enriched. Obviously, I am not saying my experiences are comparable to the brutal and systematic racism that, historically, people of certain races have been subjected to, nor are they similar to what happens in Wright’s novel, which is itself extreme, but that they are, for someone who cares nothing for all this will-to-power bullshit, a reminder of just how much tension and weirdness still surrounds this issue.
I read the book a couple of years ago, but, as I remember it, the central character, Bigger Thomas, is a touchy, listless, youth who is given a job with an affluent white family. The head of the family is well-known for his benevolent attitude towards the black population, and so Bigger appears to have got himself a good gig. Of course, from our perspective the idea that the white man is to be applauded for giving a black young man some menial work makes us wriggle a bit in our skin, and Bigger’s lack of gratitude is telling. In any case, things go well enough for Bigger until the man’s daughter takes an interest in him. She makes an effort to talk to him, to be his friend, despite Bigger’s desire to be left alone to do his job as he is employed to do it. And it was this, this exploration of woolly-headed, well meaning, liberal white attitudes, and how at odds their desires are with what Bigger wants, that really made the novel for me.
There is such complex psychology involved in these exchanges, in terms of the girl who thinks she is helping Bigger but who is really jeopardising his job, who believes she cares about the plight of black people in America, and Bigger in particular, but who really is exacerbating the problem, and treating him with an arrogant lack of consideration, by not respecting his wishes; her behaviour, as with a lot of so-styled well-meaning liberals, is really directed at herself not at the person or group she purports to want to help; her actions are born out of self-obsession, out of a desire to make herself feel good. As for Bigger, he doesn’t want to be anyone’s dogsbody, of course, no one does, and so he is not reticent to respond to her friendly advances because he loves his job, but because he is aware that a friendship, a true friendship, with the girl is impossible even if he desired it. There is a powerful scene in a cafe or restaurant when Bigger is all but forced to eat with the girl and her boyfriend; his discomfort, and his shame, is palpable; the couple, however, are having a whale of time and think themselves to be wonderfully open-minded. Elegant slumming, I think you call this kind of thing. And race is not the only issue on the menu here, either; I feel that Native Son has interesting and important things to say about how the poor, the underclass, in general are treated and perceived by the more privileged people squatting on their shoulders.
Not wishing to spoil it for first-time readers I won’t say too much about the tragic, violent heart of the novel, except to say that as a consequence of the girl’s attention Bigger does a terrible thing. It takes quite a lot to shock me, but what Bigger does, and his attempts to cover it up, really did make me gasp. It is an act that, in some way, is motivated by fear; Wright seems to be suggesting that the oppressive atmosphere that surrounds Bigger, not just in the house but society as a whole, breeds violence, paranoia, and insanity, and, I think, he’s largely correct in that. As for the novel as a whole, there is, in the second half, some polemical guff that’s a bit dry and bit too in your face for my taste, and the writing throughout is only adequate. Wright’s style isn’t poetic, or particularly controlled or eye-catching. It just is. The matter-of-fact prose prevents Native Son, for me anyway, from being a masterpiece, but perhaps enhances the page-turner quality of the work. Native Son is an easy and quick read, but is also tight and thrilling and well worth investing the [not extensive] time in.