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for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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The very first night of his new job Bigger finds that he has accidentally

killed Mary Dalton. The story then rushes through a series of other

crimes to Bigger's arrest and conviction with a sort of grim inevitability.



Books by Richard Wright

 Richard Wright: Early Works  / Black Boy  / Native Son  / Uncle Tom's Children / 12 Million Black Voices  / Richard Wright: Later Works

The Outsider  /  Pagan Spain Black Power  /  White Man Listen!  / The Color Curtain Savage Holiday / The Long Dream

Eight Men: Short Stories  / Haiku / American Hunger /  Lawd Today!

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 Richard Wright's Native Son

A review by Edward Skillin, Jr.


It is nearly twenty years since Theodore Dreiser published his bulky American Tragedy, an indictment of America's heartless worship of money and business success. Environment was meant to be the real villain in his rough-hewn tale of crime and inevitable punishment. However he produced a rather different effect. His hero Clyde Griffiths' sense of guilt was developed so painstakingly and he seemed so normal an individual that the reader came to identify himself individually with Clyde and feel personally guilty of the crime.

Richard Wright has followed a strikingly similar pattern in Native Son. In this case it is more difficult for the reader to identify himself with young Bigger Thomas, who, by the time the story opens, is in a highly pathological state. Besides, the environment of South Side Chicago's Negro district is far more vicious, more potent for evil, than Clyde Griffiths' smaller mid-western factory town. Finally, Mr. Wright handles the problem of style with far greater ease than Mr. Dreiser. Except for the defense attorney's long speech toward the end of the book--a wholly unnecessary pointing of the moral--Native Son fairly races along both in narrative and dialogue. So Mr. Wright really does succeed in making environment the principal villain in this new American Tragedy.

Even compared with Dreiser this volume is strong meat. from the moment a giant black rat steals into the Thomas family's one-room flat, on the opening pages, till Bigger in his death cell bids his attorney farewell on page 359, Native Son is a "shocker." It is brutal, frank, sordid. It is no book for adolescents or for squeamish adults. but this brutality is skillfully subordinated to a wider purpose.

To be sure most Americans are no longer ignorant that the Negro over here is a victim of the most unjust discrimination. Many have heard, for instance, that in some parts of Harlem people sleep in three shifts in order to meet the rents. Negroes have to pay the piper since they are barred from other sections of Manhattan. Lynching in the South and border states and the mental-emotional outlook that violence manifests are also widely known. But from most of us these situations are as far removed as a Chinese flood or the inhumanities of a French penal colony in the Guianas. Yet the problem is at our very doors.

Mr. Wright makes it real by reducing it to very simple human terms. When young Bigger Thomas goes to work for a wealthy family which might eventually have him, he already is a problem case. He is a member of a poolroom gang that has not yet pulled off a major crime but might well do so any day. He regularly has illicit relations with a young waitress. And deep in his breast rankles a burning resentment against the white race which seems to thwart his ambitions at every turn and keeps his family in abject misery. He cannot bear to face his true situation squarely.

What makes Native Son doubly tragic is that Bigger's first victim is a white girl who is sincerely trying to be his friend, to treat him as a fellow human being. Mary's sweetheart is a communist who also tries to befriend Bigger to the very end. Her mother, who is blind, loves to encourage Negroes to study and get ahead. the only poetic justice is that Mary's father was one of the landlords whose exorbitant rents cause such widespread misery in Chicago, New York, and in all other cities where Negroes are so harshly segregated.

The very first night of his new job Bigger finds that he has accidentally killed Mary Dalton. The story then rushes through a series of other crimes to Bigger's arrest and conviction with a sort of grim inevitability. Again, it is highly reminiscent of the even more acute sense of impending doom that comes upon Dreiser's Clyde Griffitths who knows and makes the readers of the American Tragedy painfully aware that nothing will save him from the chair.

Here and there Richard Wright gives hints as to the way out of the tragic situation he has epitomized so stirringly in Bigger Thomas. Boys' clubs and ping pong tables he holds in contempt; palliatives such as settlement houses do not provide the answer either for the injustices to his race. Religion appears in his pages as well-meaning but futile. Some new social system--not necessarily the Marxist one-- is implicitly his prescription. As is so often the case in real life, only the communists in this novel succeed in convincing the Negro that they sincerely believe and act on the principle of the brotherhood of man.

There is one final reason that this startling book provides such a challenge to all Americans. Bigger knew that he, like many innocent lynch victims, would be presumed guilty as a matter of course if he was apprehended under suspicious circumstances. To be looked upon as ignorant, lazy, shiftless, vicious, subhuman by a white master race was what enraged him most. His deepest satisfaction is to know at the very end something that might have saved him six months earlier, that one white man really accepts him on equal terms as a man. Is that an impossible prescription for a starter?

Source: Commonweal (March 8, 1940)

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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