Photo of Richard Wright. Source:
The New York Public Library.
The impact of the novel was significant, as it provided a large swath of the country insight into the feelings of helplessness and rage in Black people engendered by systemic racism. While some like James Baldwin criticized the characters as stereotypes and Wright for his style of writing, for others it was the first time they were exposed to the very real conditions many Black folks were living in throughout the United States.
Richard Wright, the author of Native Son, grew up in the South during the institutionalized segregation of Jim Crow.
Wright didn’t get to go to school regularly as a child because his family moved around a lot. Although he was the valedictorian of his junior high school, he had to drop out of school shortly afterwards to support his mother and brother.
At the age of 19, he and his family moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration. Wright worked briefly for the post office before losing his job during the Great Depression. He was drawn to the Communist Party because of its values of equality, although even there he faced bias and racism. Over the next ten years, Wright wrote and had much of his work published by Communist publications.
In 1937, at the age of 29, Wright moved to New York, where he wrote an essay on Harlem for the Federal Writers’ Project. He also became the Harlem editor of a Communist newspaper, and met and developed a long-lasting friendship with fellow writer Ralph Ellison. Wright’s writing was earning him awards and money, and in 1940 he published Native Son. The book was the first Book of the Month Club selection by a Black author. While it was a daring choice for a nationwide readership, it was also criticized for depicting the Black male character as violent, seemingly confirming white people’s worst fears.
Wright collaborated on a play adaptation of Native Son before turning to write a memoir, Black Boy, which was published in 1945. Shortly afterwards, Wright moved permanently to Paris. Wright spent the next 15 years, traveling and writing fiction, essays and poetry. He died of a heart attack on November 28, 1960 at the age of 52.
About Native Son
Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a 20 year old Black man living in poverty on the South Side of Chicago in the 1930’s.
In the novel, we see the desperate poverty Bigger Thomas and his family live in and the unease he feels with being a Black man in a world controlled by white people. In this excerpt from the book, Bigger is speaking to his friend Gus:
“They don’t let us do nothing.”
“The white folks.”
“You talk like you just now finding that out,” Gus said.
“Naw, but I can’t get used to it,” Bigger said. “I swear to God I can’t. I know I oughtn’t think about it, but I can’t help it. Every time I think about it I feel like somebody’s poking a red-hot iron down my throat. Godammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like living in jail. Half the time I feel like I’m on the outside of the world peeping in through a knothole in the fence…”