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Native Son by Richard Wright

Native Son by Richard Wright

The first time I remember hearing about the book Native Son by Richard Wright was when Cole Brown – a previous guest on my podcast – chose it as one of his desert island books. I’ve gone on to read – and love – a number of the books Cole recommended me, including the powerful and poignant Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. And so it was that when I was thumbing through the many unread tomes in my apartment the other day, I quickly landed on Richard Wright’s most famous novel, and settled down to read it, not really knowing what I was in for.

Native Son Book Review

Much like Cole’s other recommendations, there’s no doubt about it that Native Son is a sobering read. Published over eighty years ago to both enduring and critical responses from many other African-American writers, including – perhaps most famously – James Baldwin’s Notes on a Native Son. Native Son tells the story of impoverished twenty-year-old Bigger Thomas who lives in a poor area on Chicago’s South Side in the 1930’s.

Soon after the story starts, Bigger finds work as a chauffeur for the Dalton’s – a local, elite family, who are active in their dedication to helping the black community by hiring them as household staff.

From the very beginning of the novel, I read with a great sense of trepidation and doom – for while I didn’t know what exactly was to come (having somehow avoided the blurb entirely) I knew that it wouldn’t be good. Suffice it to say, that a crime is committed – albeit and accidental one, in a sense, and what follows is a nail-biting narrative as both the crime and the consequences spiral out of control.

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One of the biggest surprises for me reading Native Son was both how contemporary it felt, and how utterly unputdownable it was. Because as much as I found much of Native Son alarming, horrific and difficult to read due to the nature of its content, it too was an intense nail-biting book that I couldn’t put down, however much I wanted to.

A book that deals with issues that are devastatingly still relevant and rife and prevalent today – from racism, to police brutality to how Black bodies are exploited, even in death – it’s a story that not only still hangs heavily on my mind, long after I finished reading it; but it too is a book that I think absolutely everyone should read.

Native Son Summary

Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic.

Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Wright’s powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America.

Further reading

I loved this on The Guardian: ‘It couldn’t be more relevant’: the unseen Richard Wright novel finally getting its due

Richard Wright Author Bio

Richard Nathaniel Wright was an African-American author of powerful, sometimes controversial novels, short stories and non-fiction. Much of his literature concerned racial themes. His work helped redefine discussions of race relations in America in the mid-20th century.

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