Rereading Native Son

I’ve begun re-reading a book (with the students in my philosophical issues in literature class this semester) which, as I noted here a while ago, made a dramatic impact on me on my first reading of it: Richard Wright‘s Native Son. Thus far, I’ve read and discussed Book One with my students (on Wednesday last week); we will resume discussions on April 8th once spring break is over. But even on this brief revisitation I’m struck by how my reading has changed. I’m now twenty-six years older than I was on my first reading. Then, I was thinking about returning to graduate school; now, I’m a tenured professor assigning the same text to my undergraduates. Then, I read Native Son in the anticipation of discussing it with my girlfriend, who had gifted it to me; I think I subconsciously hoped to impress an older and wiser woman with my sensitive and nuanced take on Bigger Thomas’ fate. Now, I read Book One (Fear) of Native Son in anticipation of discussing it with my students, many of whom have already shown themselves capable of sensitive and nuanced readings of the novels I have assigned them thus far; I therefore look forward to their understanding of this classic novel, daring to hope that they will bring a new interpretation and understanding of this material to my attention.  For my part, I’m far more attentive to many plot details and devices on this reading; I’ve become, I think, a more careful and sensitive reader over the years, looking for more, and often finding it, in the texts I read.

Before we began class discussions I subjected my students to a little autobiographical detail: I informed them of my prior reading, of the book’s influence on me, of the passage of time since then, how I would be re-reading the text with them, and so on. I did not detail the full extent of Native Son‘s impact on me; that discussion will have to wait till Bigger’s trial and his defense by Max. But I cannot wait to do so; I wonder if I will be able to capture the sense I had twenty-six years ago of suddenly seeing the world in a whole new light. One part of that anticipation also fills me with dread; what if my students simply do not ‘get’ from it what I was able to? What if, indeed, as I read on, I find myself disappointed by Native Son?

But if the first class discussion last week was any indicator, I needn’t entertain such fears. My students ‘came through’: they had read the first book closely; they had responded to Wright’s dramatic evocation of a fearful, angry, and violent Bigger, living in a ‘black world’ disjoint from a ‘white world,’ destined to run afoul of those forces that had conspired to make him who he was, to drive him to kill, negligently and willfully alike, onwards to his fatal rendezvous with America, his home and his graveyard. Bigger’s story endures; it does so because much else–like the forces that harried him–has too.

Reading Native Son

Partha Chatterjee describes his experience of first reading Edward Said‘s Orientalism:

I will long remember the day I read Orientalism. It must have been in November or December of 1980. In India, this season is classically called Hemanta and assigned a slot between autumn and winter. In Calcutta, where nothing classical remains untarnished, all that this means is a few weeks of uncertain temperatures when the rains have gone, the fans have been switched off, and people wait expectantly to take out their sweaters and shawls. I remember the day because the house was being repainted and everything was topsy-turvy. I sat on the floor of the room in which I usually work, now emptied of its furniture, reading Edward Said whom I had never read before. I read right through the day and, after the workmen had left in the evening, well into the night. Now whenever I think of Orientalism, the image comes back to me of an empty room with a red floor and bare white walls, a familiar room suddenly made unfamiliar. [As cited in S.N. Balagangadhara, Reconceptualizing Indian Studies, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 35]

In 1991, I was gifted Richard Wright‘s Native Son by a girlfriend of mine. I had not heard of Wright; I certainly had not read Native Son. I was–as might be surmised–callow and ill-read.

A few days after receiving this generous gift, I began reading it; I will long remember the day I did. It was summer time in New Jersey; the nights came late, providing some relief from the muggy heat of the day. I had driven back from work, eaten an early dinner, and then retired to my tiny bedroom to read; my two roommates were still occupied elsewhere, one at graduate school, the other at work; I had solitude and quiet and time, near perfect conditions for reading. I propped my pillow up against the wall, rested my head against it, stretched out on the modest futon mattress that served as ‘bed’ and read Native Son.

I read Book One: Fear and Book Two: Flight. Then, as I read Book Three: Fate, and as Bigger Thomas approached his final, irresistible fate, I felt as if the world, and the place I had previously inhabited in it, was fast becoming unrecognizable. And yet, simultaneously, I was becoming more comprehensible to myself; suddenly I understood . As I lay there, slumped, stunned, struggling to take in the dramatically new portrait that Wright was painting for me of race, class, subjugation, and resistance, I felt as if the walls of the room I was in were moving back, somehow expanding to accommodate a growth I felt within me of something I had never experienced before.  I couldn’t stop; I continued to read, sickened and fascinated in equal measure by the tragedy whose contours had been traced out for me in such eloquent fashion by Wright. I knew I would never see my past life in the same way again; I didn’t think I would ever feel as I had before I read Native Son ever again. Now, whenever I think of Native Son, I think of that evening, that room, and its walls, seemingly being pushed back by the expanding consciousness they enclosed.