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Richard Wright’s Native Son was one of the earliest American novels to openly and forthrightly look at the problem of racial prejudice in United States. It was published in 1940, at a time when the civil rights struggle was slowly gathering the steam and power that would bring it to the forefront of American life two decades later.
Prior to the publication of Native Son, perhaps the best known book to look at racism was Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While Stowe’s book was revolutionary for its time, it has not stood the test of time like Native Son has.
Native Son’s enduring success lies in its realistic look at the effects of racism. While Stowe’s Uncle Tom was an impossibly righteous slave, Wright’s Bigger Thomas is a down and dirty, gritty, violent, terrified creature on the run from an angry white mob that included the police. In light of the current conflicts between law enforcement and the African-American community, it is easy to see why Native Son still carries a punch today, over 70 years after it became a bestseller.
Part of the effectiveness of the novel lies in Wright’s portrayal of Bigger as a young man who is caught in a web of forces and conflicts that he cannot control. Bigger is not only traumatized by the accidental killing he commits, he is also damaged emotionally and psychologically by the effects of racism on his life:
He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them.
Because of his place in society, a place shared by so many black people at that time, he cannot even have a healthy, supportive family life. Racism seeps into every aspect of his life and warps what should be positive emotions into pangs of bitterness.
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