The Great Depression led to the mass migration of African Americans to northern cities. The sudden influx of blacks in predominantly white areas led to increased tension between the races.
Richard Wright’s novel, “Native Son,” published in 1940, was a product of this time period. This enthralling tale of a young black man named Bigger Thomas accurately reflects the unfair treatment of blacks in that era and the myriad of problems that the treatment produced. Racism becomes a recurring theme as well as a tool Wright uses to paint the reader a picture of the period. By combining this with the sympathetic light in which he writes Bigger, Wright creates an arena in which he can fight the plethora of issues the 1930s had to offer. From the very beginning of the novel the omnipresence of racism is clearly illustrated. Within the first twenty pages of the book Bigger and his friends have casually made remarks like “if you wasn’t black…you could fly a plane” and “it’s funny how the white folk treat us” that depict the distinction between races present during Wright’s life.
Throughout the novel blacks are treated as “other” by common folk and reporters and policemen and even the well meaning Jan and Mary. Through his persistent repetition, Wright displays how commonplace a racist mindset was in the 1930s. In doing this he is able to create a solid base of the society he’s trying to build for the reader. Once Wright has crafted his world he begins to present Bigger in a way that makes it easier for the reader to sympathize with him. From the beginning of the book Bigger wasn’t terribly likable. Fear bred from racism caused him to be violent and angry and disrespectful. This same sense of fear motivated him to beat up his close friend and murder Mary Dalton and rape and murder “[his] girl” Bessie.
During the first two books of 'Native Son' Bigger's acts and thoughts make him seem like a despicable person, but as the book goes on Wright peels back layers that change the way Bigger is displayed. When Max, Bigger's defense lawyer, begins questioning Bigger, Bigger is forced to ponder what drove him to kill and his answers clearly show that he is a victim of circumstance. He speaks of all the things he would've wanted to do if he hadn't been restricted because of the color of his skin: 'I wanted to be an aviator' and 'I wanted to be in the army' and 'I'd like to be in business.'
From the day he was born Bigger had been oppressed just because of his race. This is what stagnated his emotional growth and led to his tendency toward violent outbursts and ultimately led to both Mary's and Bessie's demise. By allowing the reader to see Bigger's hardships and subsequently sympathize with him Wright makes it easier for them to sympathize with the entire race of people facing the same injustices.
'Native Son' is a very important work because Wright is able to transport the reader into an important period in history. He's able to show them the amount of racism present. He is able to make them see the horrid conditions African Americans were facing. He is able to make them sympathize. This is essential because when people begin to care things begin to change.
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