People who have followed Books Here And There the longest will recall that I am a big fan of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, about the shattered life of Bigger Thomas, a man compelled by circumstance to murder one of his benefactors in Chicago and then cover up her murder in order to protect himself. It’s a vivid, powerful, preachy, but ultimately persuasive tale that I first read in junior high and have never forgotten. Wright later penned a foreword to an edition of the book which explained how Bigger was invented, and how Wright himself went about his daily work. That essay was one of my first exposures to the writing life and how the craft is practiced, and I will always be grateful to Wright for writing it.
Now, Moze Halperin tells us that Suzan-Lori Parks and Rashid Johnson are working on a project to bring Native Son to the screen. I’m all for it. This won’t be the first time Native Son has been adapted; there was, as I recall, a television movie made several years ago now, one not seen by many. There’s a huge opportunity to tell a story worth telling here, and tell it with some of Wright’s own passion and bruising eloquence. We’ve come a long way in race relations since 1940, but we still have far to go. The themes that Wright addresses–the exploitation of the impoverished, the condescension of the upper-class, the denial of genuine opportunity to move up on the social scale toward prosperity–are themes that people still live out today. For all the opportunities that Bigger Thomas appeared to have to make a life for himself, there remained firmly in place boundaries and social codes he dare not transgress, boundaries that kept the possibilities of his life permanently limited. Those limitations are a significant factor in Bigger’s turn toward violence, and while they cannot excuse that violence (as Wright tells us they do not), they do explain it to a great degree. The explanation, mostly voiced by Bigger’s lawyer, Mr. Max, is one that still has relevance for us today: “I wish I could bring into this courtroom evidence of a more morally-worthy nature,” Max says to the jury. “You may kill Bigger Thomas, if you choose,” he says, “and that would be the end of his life. But that would not be the end of this crime!”
What Wright drives at in Native Son is not the act of the individual but the creation of the circumstances under which that individual acts. The Bigger Thomases of the world may be executed for the crimes they commit, but until we eliminate the conditions that create Bigger Thomases, we really haven’t accomplished anything. It’s an old argument, but it remains as persuasive as it was when it was first made thousands of years ago as the Greeks and Romans wrestled with the problems of poverty and crime. In our own time, we can create educational and economic opportunities for those that need them, and we do so every day. The other part of the equation of happiness, however–the generous spirit of the acceptance of another’s talents and his experience of life–is far more difficult to add. But it can be done. Slowly, day-by-day, perhaps, but it can be done. That grudging acceptance is the idea that animated James Baldwin’s identification with Wright in his collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son. And that acceptance, difficult as it is to achieve, may well be one of last steps we have to take before we can call ourselves a truly civilized society.