Wright’s Depicts Racism in America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Richard Wright’s Native Son shocked white Americans with its graphic depiction of the rage and violence engendered by racism in the hearts of African Americans.

Summary of Event

In 1939, Richard Wright completed work on Native Son, his second work of fiction and his first full-length novel. The book’s publication in 1940 immediately established Wright as an important author and a spokesman on conditions facing African Americans. Earlier, Wright had published a collection of four novellas titled Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), Uncle Tom’s Children (Wright, R.)[Uncle Toms Children] which gained him the attention of some literary critics and helped him to win a Guggenheim Fellowship. The fellowship enabled Wright to devote all his time to writing. [kw]Wright’s Native Son Depicts Racism in America (1940)[Wrights Native Son Depicts Racism in America (1940)] [kw]Native Son Depicts Racism in America, Wright’s (1940) [kw]Racism in America, Wright’s Native Son Depicts (1940) [kw]America, Wright’s Native Son Depicts Racism in (1940) Native Son (Wright, R.) Discrimination;racial [g]United States;1940: Wright’s Native Son Depicts Racism in America[10130] [c]Literature;1940: Wright’s Native Son Depicts Racism in America[10130] [c]Social issues and reform;1940: Wright’s Native Son Depicts Racism in America[10130] Wright, Richard

Native Son, published by Harper’s, was unlike any book by an African American writer ever published up to that time. Speaking of Uncle Tom’s Children, Wright had said, “I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” Native Son was indeed such a book. To avoid the unfocused sympathy of those who wished to avoid the hard realities of life for African Americans, Wright created for his protagonist a violent young black man in Chicago, Bigger Thomas, who murders two women, one black and one white, and who is then condemned to death, which he faces unrepentantly. Bigger and all his friends are resentful, frustrated by racism, and both fearful of the white world and inclined to violence toward it.

Harper’s was somewhat concerned about the graphic nature of some of the book, but the publisher insisted on only limited changes. Just before publication, however, the Book-of-the-Month Club Book-of-the-Month Club[Book of the Month Club] expressed interest in including Native Son as one of its selections if several sexually explicit scenes were removed and if Bigger Thomas did not show such obvious sexual interest in the white character, Mary Dalton. Wright agreed to these changes.

Upon publication in 1940, Native Son became an immediate hit. In less than six months, a quarter of a million copies had been sold at five dollars a copy—at a time when the minimum wage in the United States was thirty-five cents an hour. The first edition sold out in only three hours. Virtually every major newspaper and magazine in the nation reviewed the book. Native Son was on the best seller list for nearly four months. No other African American writer had ever achieved such fame and financial success. Moreover, no other African American writer had ever focused such attention on the conditions of life in black ghettos before. In the introduction to the first edition, Dorothy Canfield Canfield, Dorothy wrote: “Native Son is the first report in fiction we have had from those who succumb to . . . crosscurrents of contradictory nerve impulses, from those whose behavior patterns give evidence of the same bewildering, senseless tangle of abnormal nerve-reactions studied in animals in laboratory experiments.” For many white Americans, Bigger Thomas became a symbol of the entire black community.

Prior to the publication of Native Son, Wright had worked at a variety of jobs to support himself, his invalid mother, a number of relatives, and a wife. These jobs had included janitorial work, selling burial insurance, employment on the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, and occasional writing for left-wing and Communist Party publications. Wright had joined the Communist Party in 1935, but he resigned his membership in 1944. With the financial security brought by the success of Native Son, Wright could devote himself to literary pursuits, and he spent the rest of his life writing.

The first impact of Native Son on Wright’s writing was to encourage him to produce an autobiography, Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945), Black Boy (Wright, R.) which described his life growing up in the South. Wright was born near Natchez, Mississippi, in 1908, and his parents then took the family to Memphis, where Wright’s father abandoned them. There followed an itinerant existence in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi that entailed rough and bruising contact with Jim Crow segregation laws and the heavy-handed demands for obsequious behavior made by the racial etiquette of the place and time. Black Boy ended with Wright’s migration to Chicago and the vaguely expressed hope that life would be better there. This book also became a matter of national debate and helped to establish Wright as a commentator on current racial conditions, not just a writer of fiction. More than four hundred thousand copies of the book were sold within a few weeks.

The financial independence delivered by Native Son also allowed Wright to make some personal changes. He divorced his first wife, to whom he had been married for less than a year, and married Ellen Poplar, a Jewish woman, in 1942. The couple had one child, a daughter named Julia.

The African American community recognized the accomplishment represented by Native Son when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awarded Wright its prestigious Spingarn Medal in 1940.

Native Son launched Wright’s career as a writer. He went on to produce nineteen major fiction and nonfiction works, screenplays, and stage plays, and he became the first of the modern generation of African American writers.

Significance

Since its publication in 1940, Richard Wright’s Native Son has never been out of print. Orson Welles produced a Broadway play based on the book, and film versions were released in 1950 and 1986. The book and its author have been the subject of numerous scholarly and popular investigations from literary, historical, and sociological perspectives.

Although the author was a Mississippian who set his story in Chicago and wrote it while living in New York, the plot of Native Son has continued to be a metaphor for much of the black experience throughout the United States. The book explores individuals, their environments, and the ways in which environments shape people. In an essay titled “How Bigger Was Born,” Wright wrote of his character:

He is a product of a dislocated society; he is a dispossessed and disinherited man; he is all of this and he lives amid the greatest possible plenty on earth and he is looking and feeling for a way out. . . . He was an American because he was also a native son; but he was also a Negro nationalist in a vague sense because he was not allowed to live as an American. Such was his way of life and mine; neither Bigger nor I resided fully in either camp.

In 1940, most white Americans were unaware of such feelings on the part of African Americans. There was little contact between the races. In a survey taken in 1942, less than half of all white Americans approved of integrated transportation facilities, and only about one in three approved of integrated schools or neighborhoods. Most whites, however, seemed to feel that blacks were satisfied with existing conditions. The usual white concept of African Americans was bifurcated. On one hand were the happy-go-lucky “darkies,” who were obviously poor and socially unequal but who did not worry about their situation at all; on the other were the fearful, downtrodden victims of southern bigotry. Native Son confronted the United States with the fact that the first of these stereotypes was false and the second was a national, not a regional, problem.

Richard Wright.

(Library of Congress)

The growing urban ghettos of the North and West were not lands of opportunity but instead festering wounds in which people lived and died largely without hope. On a broad scale, Wright brought into the open the hatred, fear, and violence that he saw as characterizing American race relations. After Native Son, literary critic Irving Howe asserted, “American culture was changed forever.” Quaintness and idealized folksiness disappeared from black literature, and the way was opened for later African American writers to emphasize their own ethnic culture. Later black writers could repudiate white culture and could celebrate black identity and even militancy. Wright’s message in Native Son, variations of which have appeared frequently since, is that African Americans may wish to destroy the symbols of white cultural dominance and control. Trickery, when directed toward the dominant culture, is acceptable, as is militancy. These ideas have become widespread since the publication of Native Son.

This does not mean that the influence of Native Son has been seen as all positive, even by blacks. James Baldwin Baldwin, James commented that the book was “the most powerful and celebrated statement we have yet had of what it means to be a Negro in America.” Baldwin, however, did not think Wright dealt adequately with the psychological and social conditions of Bigger Thomas’s life, and he argued that this failure prevented Wright from conveying any sense of black life as a complex group reality. In a 1949 essay titled “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin wrote that Native Son was in its own way as simple-minded as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852). In “Many Thousands Gone,” an essay published in 1951, Baldwin remarked that Wright wrote as if racism were a social problem that could not be cured but could be checked.

Although Wright’s reputation as a writer and as a spokesman for African Americans ebbed during the 1950’s, as younger black writers such as Baldwin and Ralph Ellison rejected Wright’s naturalistic style of writing as well as the Marxist overtones of Native Son, Wright’s influence was revived in the 1960’s. With the growth of the militant black consciousness movement, there came a resurgence of interest in Wright’s work. It is generally agreed that Wright’s influence in Native Son is not a matter of literary style or technique. The novel’s impact, rather, comes from ideas and attitudes, and Wright’s work became a force in the social and intellectual history of the United States in the last half of the twentieth century. A part of this impact developed from Wright’s work after Native Son. Wright described Bigger as “vaguely a Negro nationalist.” During the years Wright spent in France, from 1947 to his death in 1960, he spent much of his time supporting nationalist movements in Africa.

Wright wrote with a mixture of fearlessness and brilliance. He said he wanted to move black writing beyond the servile depiction of stereotyped “colored people.” With Native Son he accomplished that while at the same time showing how little black Americans and white Americans really knew about one another. Native Son (Wright, R.) Discrimination;racial

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abcarian, Richard. Richard Wright’s “Native Son”: A Critical Handbook. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1970. Collection of reviews, critical essays, and chapters on topics related to Native Son. Insights presented are informed by the context of the book’s publication in the aftermath of the racial unrest of the 1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bone, Robert. Richard Wright. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969. Brief sketch of Wright’s life provides a good source of information on the author for general readers. Includes some analysis of his work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Butler, Robert J., ed. The Critical Response to Richard Wright. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Collection of critical essays discussing Native Son, Black Boy, and two other major Wright works. Includes commentary by the editor on how critical responses to Wright have changed in the years since Native Son was first published.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fabre, Michael. The World of Richard Wright. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1985. Collection of essays written over a period of twenty years by one of Wright’s most prominent biographers. Considers many aspects of Wright’s art and interests.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Felgar, Robert. Richard Wright. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Brief biography focuses on the facts of Wright’s life and devotes little discussion to critical analysis of his work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gayle, Addison. Richard Wright: Ordeal of a Native Son. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1983. Biography presents an informative account of Wright’s life, especially his years in France. Examines the issue of whether or not Wright was the target of special scrutiny by the U.S. government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hakutani, Yoshinobu, ed. Critical Essays on Richard Wright. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. Collection of essays on Wright’s work by various writers and critics includes important essays by James Baldwin and Irving Howe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rowley, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. New York: Henry Holt, 2001. Comprehensive, in-depth biography places Wright’s work in the larger context of American society and the era in which he wrote.

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