Reviewed by: Michael Blackmore
“Men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread.”
Amazingly, March 1 is the 75th anniversary of Native Son and it still stands as a powerful exploration of racism and violence. Despite its historic status, I avoided reading it for years because of the graphic violence and particularly the violence toward women it was known for. Once I read it, I found it a compelling novel that kept pulling me deeper in, despite those issues.
Native Son is a protest novel, touching on issues of race and class that are just as real in contemporary times as they were in 1940. Wright’s prose style is naturalistic which made for easy reading and underscored in a powerful way the events within it.
The lead, Bigger, is often without empathy for others because of his underlying fear, jealousy and anger as a black man living in a world that shuts him out and diminishes him as a person because of his race. This serves as a crucible leading to horrific acts by Bigger and ultimately triggers an examination of the forces that shape him and the beginnings of too late self-examination by him.
Because Bigger doesn’t fall into the easy place of being a hero, or even “anti-hero,” I find the book makes for a much more substantial exploration of the complexities of race and violence in America. What happens is disturbing, but the world in which it happens is just as disturbing – which is the power of the book to me. Seventy five years later and still an essential read.