Native Son is a challenging book for a lot of reasons. The language is rather straight-forward, but Wright gives us a character that commits first by accident, then on purpose, some of the most heinous crimes imaginable and asks us to reckon with it as readers. He does this through a trial scene that does not show us someone innocent being railroaded by the justice system, but by someone on trial for crimes they did commit being railroaded by the whole capitalistic system of the United State up until the commission of the crimes, and then being used as a scapegoat for that whole system.
This is the story of Bigger Thomas, a petty criminal in his youth whose life is not particularly exceptional and who is neither that good of a person nor that bad of a person. He’s a pure product of the USA, a native of Chicago growing up in the very racist United States in the 1920s and 1930s. He takes a job he doesn’t want being a chauffeur for a rich liberal white family. He doesn’t want the job because it’s being presented to him as charity, as if to say, here’s a handout to make something out of yourself. He finds this insulting because he’s well aware that his entire need of charity is because of the legal and cultural restrictions being placed upon, on purpose, as a young Black man. And so when on that job he is treated with dignity, but too much familiarity by the young pretty daughter of the family and her Communist friend, he is enraged. He’s enraged because they are asking him to consider them equals when he knows society doesn’t allow that, knowing that if he were caught in this compromising situation, they would be scolded and he might well be killed. So their well-intentioned act is treated as dangerous and hostile ignorance. This anger leads to his accidental killing of the daughter, for which the subsequent manhunt and trial take up the rest of the novel.
Although some of the legal logic that places him in such a precarious position in the novel has shifted in this country, it’s so very clear that the cultural logic has stayed much the same. While (up until 2016) that vile hatred of Black people in the US stayed relatively coded and silent, the feelings still permeate so much of our society. This novel is incredibly relevant today because it exposes the dangerous naivete of liberalism/Socialism that places the actual consequence of good intentions onto Black bodies, all while still showing that no matter the venue, the overt racism of America hasn’t gone anywhere.