Content Note – discussion of fictional rape and murder follows.
THIS IS NOT A DRILL, Y’ALL: Variety is reporting that Richard Wright’s novel Native Son will be adapted for film by Rashid Johnson and Suzan-Lori Parks. And I’m not sure I can effectively express how excited, interested, trepidatious, and curious this development makes me! Native Son is a crucial text of the 20th century. Published in 1940, it was an enormous best seller and the first Black novel to made a Book of the Month Club selection, which was sort of like being listed on Oprah’s Book Club back in the day. It is a challenging, at times frustrating, yet very true to life expression of urban Black life under de facto Jim Crow. It is also possibly the last truly Naturalist novel of the American 20th century. I teach Native Son quite frequently, in a 20th century American lit course. It fits well at the middle of the semester, requiring students to engage with the lack of progress for Black Americans in 1940, and to set up the (minor) advancements made by 1959, the year the next text on the syllabus, A Raisin in the Sun, was published. But Native Son is a problematic text. So problematic, in fact, that Wright wrote an entire essay, called “How Bigger Was Born” to head off possible critiques and explain his reasoning behind the novel. So, it is this problematic quality combined with the choice of screenplay writer combined with our current political/social zeitgeist that has me so excited. Oh, and did I mention that there’s already been a film adaptation of the novel, starring Richard Wright as Bigger? Yeah, so let’s talk about it. But there is so much to discuss, this is going to be a two-parter.
As a Naturalist novel, Native Son bears most of the associated hallmarks of this style: a marginalized protagonist who has little agency, claustrophobic setting, harsh environment, animalistic imagery, and an examination of society’s ills without offering a specific solution. Naturalist texts tend to written from a 3rd person point of view, as well, since Naturalist protagonists don’t have enough power to speak for themselves. These tend to be bleak, pessimistic texts meant to point out the ways in which people are marginalized, by external forces beyond their control. For example, Bigger is marginalized due to his race, his relative lack of education, his poverty, and his family history (his father had been lynched). He lives in Chicago, which is portrayed (accurately enough) as a deeply segregated, hostile, oppressive environment. Everything from his lack of privacy at home to the (very white) blizzard that comes through keeps Bigger down.
When I teach this novel, I often recommend that my students read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ landmark article, “The Case for Reparations,” in The Atlantic. In it, Coates lays out just how devastating the pre-Civil Rights Act bank practice of red lining, or keeping African Americans from being able to access mortgages and other home buying assistance was to future generations. Chicago is one of his primary examples, and the character of Bigger suffers due to the lack of housing in the city. This article situates Native Son–and later, A Raisin in the Sun–historically, so students can see these texts were not imagined completely out of whole cloth.
Native Son is not, however, without its problems. It is a novel in three parts, “Fear,” “Flight,” and “Fate,” each of which tells you something about the action contained within those pages. Just a content note: I am going to discuss plot details here, which will surely “spoil” this 77 year old book for you if you haven’t read it, so deal with that. Bigger commits two murders in this novel. First, he more or less accidentally smothers, Mary, a rich white girl, for fear of being found in her bedroom, even though he was working for her family at the time. He realizes that even the hint of him near a white woman in a potential sexual manner would mean arrest and possibly execution. (He also fondles her before he kills her, and as she is quite drunk, she cannot consent to his touching.) So in a moment of panic, he puts a pillow over her face and smothers Mary so she cannot call out to her mother (who is blind) and reveal his presence in the room. Students can, broadly speaking, “forgive” Bigger this crime. He did not intend to murder Mary, and he is rightly afraid of the repercussions that would occur given the racist justice system. Many students even stick with Bigger after he decided to hide the murder by chopping off Mary’s head and sticking her body and head in the house’s furnace. While that is quite distasteful, most students still understand the limited options available to Bigger and can express sympathy for the character at this point.
It is in the next section, “Flight,” that students’ responses tend to shift sharply. First, Bigger decides he wants to blackmail Mary’s family, and he ropes his rather pathetic girlfriend, Bessie, into his scheme. He threatens her and hits her, and eventually, rapes and murders her. Bigger doesn’t have to do any of this. If Mary’s murder was an accident, brought on by the oppressive environment of Bigger’s life, Bessie was a cruel, needless act of violence, unmotivated by nothing except Bigger’s own internalized anger and fear. It made Bigger feel powerful, but it a short lived feeling. Bessie is not a fully realized character in the novel, but her dead body serves as evidence later in Bigger’s inquest. She is not evidence in her own murder, but rather, used as evidence in Mary’s murder. She is literally wheeled into the courtroom to “prove” that Bigger is a monster, deserving of death because he killed a white woman. Thus, Bessie illustrates the systemic racism of the justice system as it relates to Bigger, but also as it relates to Black women more specifically. After Bigger kills Bessie, though, students cannot usually find any more sympathy for this character.
And yet Bigger is an interesting flashpoint for talking about institutional racism. Bigger is “guilty af,” as I told my students to much laughter one day, but that was important for Wright. He did not necessarily want to present a saint, railroaded by an unfair system. He wanted to show a guilty man who is still railroaded by an unfair system. In the novel, several other unsolved murders are pinned on Bigger, just because Chicago cops decided he did them. They don’t need any evidence, just the fact that he is a Black monster guilty of other crimes is enough. And so, Bigger’s plight become more complicated than merely an innocent man unfairly accused.
I also have my students read this Storify I created, from a conversation on writer Jamelle Bouie’s Twitter account. In the conversation, Bouie discusses his intense dislike of the novel, of its failure at Naturalism, and more. Other individuals jump into the discussion, and it provides a lively look at the novel’s contemporary impact. In the classroom I make sure students understand that the texts we study do not end with the four walls of out classroom, and this particular online discussion (although it is getting older with every semester) demonstrates this sentiment.
But now, with a film adaptation looming, perhaps the argument that Native Son has a contemporary impact will be easier to make! In Part II, I’ll discuss the work of Suzan-Lori Parks, my questions about how the team will adapt this text, and why you should watch the bonkers version of the film which stars a rather old Richard Wright as Bigger, regardless of what the new film is like.