12.15.2008

I am actually still getting though the notes and commentary on Richard Wright's Native Son, but I guess you could say I've finished this one - again. It is rare for me to read a book more than once, but I have been rereading this novel in preparation to teach it. I chose it because I remember it being a watershed moment in my understanding of American culture and race and class divisions and the undeniable white privilege that has driven me so far in life. Of course, I was in college, where it seems all epiphanies and revelations are born. It is thrilling to look back from my relative comfort and marvel at that process of becoming.

Now, rereading this classic novel, I am struck by how tedious some of it is. Wright was just so heavy-handed in his handling of this important material. I believe it was an amazon.com reviewer who commented on the language actually getting in the way of the message at times, and I completely agree. However, the message is there, and I uphold its importance still today. I think the reason I was so struck by Bigger Thomas was the way he revealed the truth of complete powerlessness to me. I'm sure that as a petite white woman, I am no ready symbol for power, but I have never felt confined or limited. I have always been assured I could do whatever I wanted to do. And I never questioned that assurance. I never feared the repercussions of my ambitions, minor though they have always been. In Bigger Thomas, I saw and understood for the first time what it meant to experience a life of no expectations and no assurances. And I saw clearly how one act of power - any act of power - can mean so much.

Where I come from, it is not uncommon to see a young guy walking in the road causing traffic to have to swerve around him - and it would be easy to just disregard this action as rudeness or recklessness, as typically youthful self-centeredness. Since reading Native Son, though, I see it as that young man's murder of Mary Dalton. He may not even know he's doing it, but I see him asserting his power by demanding that others go around him. He might not have expectations for his future, but he can be assured that people are going to alter their paths on his account, and subconsciously, that assurance gives him strength.

I am ready for the student complaints about the length and the wordiness, but I remain hopeful that they will learn something about their backgrounds, their futures, and the culture they inhabit through this reading. Maybe one will be changed by it. Isn't that what we really want our literature to do for us?