Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Native Son

I read Native Son this month. It is basically a historical fiction genre book - but it wasn't called that when it was written. I am not a big fiction reader so I'm not sure about the category, but it does trace the life of a fictional character that could have existed in any one of many US cities during the past 140 years. The book is about an African American man who lives a life of oppression and is almost type cast to commit horrific murder against one or more white people.

Written by the much heralded Richard Wright, it captures in agonizing detail the life of Bigger Thomas during the period of a few weeks. Bigger is based on a number of men and boys that Wright new growing up in the South during Jim Crow. The story is set in late 1930's Chicago -- amidst the slums of the black ghetto.

I live just off of 46th street about 3 blocks from "4605 South Drexel", the location of the home in which Bigger worked and committed his initial crime (we live on the black side of the "color line" spoken of in the book -- a line that to this day remains intact). This was definitely a hook for me as the primary characters travel around my home and community. The park that they drive around in for 2 hours (Washington Park) separates my home from our ministry site and I drive those roads daily.

It will take some time for me to process the book and its lessons or interest for me. I think that besides the geographic setting the interest I have is in seeing the community through the eyes of an African American author. I think to some degree Wright is just "tellin the truth" about the life of an oppressed people. On the other hand "hope" is what sucks the life out of the characters, they live without any joy, and the preacher is just a wishful thinker -- not really a real character. These are all things that I know are core aspects of the community and therefore I think not honestly portrayed.

On the other hand he has a great ability to describe the effects of oppression and injustice to the community as a whole and why a real estate tycoon who gives millions to assist the community he helps oppress is really someone trying in vain to do something helpful -- basically the man is just applying balm to his own conscience, not actually working for change.

The other critique I had was that Bigger was externally void of almost any words or thoughts but internally able to articulate his feelings and sense of the world in masterful prose. Partly I think this was Wrights means of showing how someone who appears to be less than a man externally is actually much more than what he appears. But I kept thinking that the contrast between the Bigger external and internal was too much -- the internal man was Wright himself. Maybe that was his whole point?

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