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Native Son:  An Essay


Alisha Morgan

What was is like growing up in 1930's Chicago? The answer really depends on whom you ask. Asking a white person would result in a nice, clean answer, but a black person would give you the grittier, darker truth. Take, for example, Richard Wright's main character, Bigger Thomas, from his book Native Son.

Bigger's story is a dark one, that ties in many social issues of the day, to show just how misguided America "black" and "white" really was.  Oppression, racism, justice, pop culture, and communism are used and discussed throughout Native Son to show how black America was treated in the 1930's. These important social aspects of Bigger's story were the reality of many African Americans, which is why Native Son opened the eyes of many Americans.

What was the condition of blacks in the 1930's? How did they view themselves and what kind of consequences came with that portrayal? Bigger Thomas could answer those questions, since he was a symbol for how most blacks lived. Wright describes Bigger's home as a "tiny one room apartment" with "thinly plastered walls." The apartment was prone to rat infestations. In this same apartment lived Bigger, his mother, younger brother Buddy, and little sister Vera. They were poor and depended on Bigger for financial means, even though he was only 19 years old.

This description of the poverty-stricken black America was not a figment of Wright's imagination. The racism that these black people endured was not made up either. There was a negative perception of African Americans in those days. Popular culture displayed this negativity through magazines, propaganda, and motion pictures. Racism was always at the root of the negativity. Blacks were constantly viewing themselves as lower and lesser beings than whites, which were shown educated, elegant, rich, and powerful. Positive black role models were non-existent within pop culture.

These images were the kind Bigger grew up with, which contributed to  his psychological shortcomings. He hated whites because of the power they had over him, but was fearful of them for the same reason. As puts it, "Just as whites fail to conceive of Bigger as an individual, he does not really distinguish between individual whites. To him, they are all the same, frightening and untrustworthy."

Wright wrote about the economic oppression of blacks. It was harder for them to find quality jobs. They did not have the same opportunities for education as whites did. One could not be hired for a decent job if one was not educated. Not only was the lack of education an issue, but so was the media's portrayal of blacks. They were shown to be filthy, dumb, untrustworthy, and equal only to animals. With those perceptions on the minds of white people, it was unlikely that a black person would be hired for a well-paying job. These kinds of conditions would confuse the minds and alter one's right from wrong, just as it did to Bigger. Native Son explains how whites put the negativity of being black into the African American's minds, only for these blacks to commit some crime, which proved to the whites the stereotypes they believed of blacks. Wright tries to offer this message, as writes, "Only when sympathetic understanding exists between blacks and whites will they be able to perceive each other as individuals, not merely as members of a stereotyped group."

Justice, the kind that existed in Wright's day, was also an essential social element of Native Son. Racism was everywhere, even in the so-called fairness of the American justice system. Wright did not even have to make up the hypocrisy of American justice; he just used actual court cases, like the 1938-39 case of Robert Nixon. Nixon was charged for killing a white girl during a robbery, which did not stray too far from Bigger Thomas' story. Wright illustrates the media's position in the criminal system, as well as those of politicians and ambitious lawyers. The media advertises it's version of a criminal story, which will include the role the politicians and lawyers play.

If a politician wants to be re-elected, he had better do what the public (meaning the voting white public) wants him to do. The same goes for the prosecutor. It is important for him to prove the animalistic behavior of the black man, so that the black man will be found guilty. A prosecutor who wins a case like Bigger Thomas' will be guaranteed work and a large income. The hypocrisy of the justice system, though, is that the prosecutor does not have to work hard to prove Bigger is guilty, because racism has already decided he is guilty. Bigger killed Mary Dalton, a white woman, and is now going to trial for it.

However, this trial is not made up of his peers, but rather a jury of 12 white men who 'know' how evil the blacks are and have already sealed Bigger's fate "before his case has even been presented. Bigger does not get the fair trial he is entitled to or the chance to defend himself. Wright depicts the justice system motto, 'equal justice under law,' as being neither equal nor just, but so corrupted by prejudice that the motto has no meaning at all."

The America we know today is very much like and unlike the America of 1930. There is racial understanding, though that does not mean there are no prejudices against any one race. Education is still lacking, but more kids are attending school and graduating from high school than in 1930. That is not to say that all children get a proper education. There are still some children who have to drop out of school to help their parents' financial situation.

As for the judicial system, the jurors can now be male or female of any race and trials are not usually hurried along because of race. If Wright had written Native Son in the year 2002, Bigger's story would have been very different. Thankfully, it was not. I believe the people of the 1940's needed an eye opener as to what African Americans lived through day in and day out. Native Son brought out social issues that needed to be discussed, even now in 2002.

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