What Wright Got Wrong

James Seaton unravels what Richard Wright was up to in Native Son:

[He] did not want his readers, certainly not his white readers, to sympathize or identify with Bigger Thomas. He did not want bankers’ daughters or anybody else to “weep over” his protagonist. He was determined to shock, frighten, and disturb. He wanted his readers to fear the possibility that they might someday run into a Bigger Thomas, whose “every thought” is “potential murder.” Wright wanted to scare his audience into considering what they otherwise would not accept, that they could never consider themselves truly safe until the United States underwent a radical transformation, specifically a revolution led by the Communist party.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the Richard Wright who wrote Native Son was wrong about many things.

In “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” he condemned almost all aspects of black culture and achievement as irrelevant to the reality of undeclared war. He rejected the black church as escapist,  disparaged those who, like the NAACP, “employed a thousand ruses and stratagems of struggle to win their rights,” and dismissed black singers and musicians who “projected their hurts and longings into more naïve and mundane forms—blues, jazz, swing—and, without intellectual guidance, tried to build up a compensatory nourishment for themselves.”

Those first readers of Native Son who accepted the novel as an accurate portrayal of the black experience would have been unprepared for the legal triumph of the NAACP in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and other such cases, and entirely surprised by the leadership role of the black church in the struggle for civil rights, demonstrated most strikingly, but by no means exclusively, in the career of Martin Luther King Jr. And from the perspective of the 21st century, the folly of Wright’s denigration of the art of composers like Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, musicians like Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong, and singers like Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday as “naïve and mundane” is even more obvious than it was in 1940.