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Chicago’s Native Son


Book coverI recently visited the city. Joann and I met my brother and his wife during a short stay (December 19-21). They were there for a week, and we joined them for three nights staying downtown on the “Magnificent Mile.” We did not stray more than a few blocks from the Hard Rock hotel, so it was easy to imagine that all is well in the Windy City.

But all is not well, of course. Just a few short miles from the swanky heart of the city–where the big story during our stay was the shoplifting theft of a $95,000 coat–the city suffers with some of the highest rates of murder and violent crime in the country. In the world.[1]

We did not encounter the protesters who have been demonstrating in the aftermath of the shooting of Laquan McDonald by a Chicago cop. A cop who was charged with first-degree murder, an exceedingly rare event in Chicago. [2] He was indicted only after a reporter sued and forced the release of a 13-month-old dash-cam video that shows reports of the incident filed by police were fabricated. McDonald was not shot by an officer acting in self-defense. He was executed on the street without a trial.

$95,000 coat theftJust a week prior to our visit I read Richard Wright’s Native Son. I did not read this in response to what is going on in Chicago or in anticipation of our trip. Rather, I read it because it is on my list of Great Novels of the 20th-Century. Prior to picking it up, I did not even realize it was set in Chicago. And I certainly wasn’t prepared for its sad relevance to what is occurring in the city today.

The novel portrays a senseless murder by its African-American protagonist, Bigger Thomas, while Wright poses the rhetorical question, “what should we expect?” His point, that Thomas, like so many others facing the limited futures dictated by the brutal discrimination–unofficial and official–of 1940s America, was the inevitable product of a profoundly broken system.

Wright wrote about this system in an essay appended to my copy of this novel. This excerpt from it seems familiar:[3]

Let me describe this stereotyped situation: A crime wave is sweeping a city and citizens are clamoring for police action. Squad cars cruise the Black Belt and grab the first Negro boy who seems to be unattached and homeless. He is held for perhaps a week without charge or bail, without the privilege of communicating with anyone, including his own relatives. After a few days this boy “confesses” anything that he is asked to confess, any crime that handily happens to be unsolved and on the calendar. Why does he confess? After the boy has been grilled night and day, hanged up by his thumbs, dangled by his feet out of twenty-story windows, and beaten (in places that leave no scars—cops have found a way to do that), he signs the papers before him, papers which are usually accompanied by a verbal promise to the boy that he will not go to the electric chair. Of course, he ends up by being executed or sentenced for life. If you think I’m telling tall tales, get chummy with some white cop who works in a Black Belt district and ask him for the lowdown.
When a black boy is carted off to jail in such a fashion, it is almost impossible to do anything for him. Even well-disposed Negro lawyers find it difficult to defend him, for the boy will plead guilty one day and then not guilty the next, according to the degree of pressure and persuasion that is brought to bear upon his frightened personality from one side or the other. Even the boy’s own family is scared to death; sometimes fear of police intimidation makes them hesitate to acknowledge that the boy is a blood relation of theirs.

But after all, Wright wrote this only 80 years or so after emancipation. These things take time, right? Now, nearly another 80 years along, we have made so much progress. Haven’t we?[4]

This is an enlightening and sobering read. The author paints a frightening picture of the fruits of racial injustice. Even some of Wright’s follow African-American writers of the day were shocked and dismayed by its unblinking portrayal of Bigger Thomas.[5] Many whites were horrified. But the novel contains profound truth. Truth we were not ready to deal with in 1940 and seem incapable of acknowledging even today. Bigger Thomas and the conditions that help to create him still exist.

The Atlantic magazine coverI’m not sure the novel effected any change.

In April of this year, The Atlantic magazine published Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case For Reparations”. It is a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the tragic ongoing legacy of our history of official and unofficial discrimination. (If you have difficulty reading this article on The Atlantic’s website, download this PDF version.) It is as important a piece of journalism as appeared in 2015.

I’m not sure this essay will effect any change.

Richard Wright’s Native Son is listed at #23 on Bachblog’s
113 Great Novels of the 20th Century. It was first published in 1940.


  1. The theft of the coat has nothing to do with this book, of course. I just found it to be an interesting juxtaposition. While many in the city are deeply affected by the inqualities that have persisted here for so long, beautiful people buy $95,000 coats in Chicago’s blissful and insulated downtown. [^]
  2. According to a story in the Chicago Tribune, “The case marks the first time a Chicago police officer has been charged with first-degree murder for an on-duty fatality in nearly 35 years. Van Dyke faces a minimum of 20 years in prison if convicted of first-degree murder.” [^]
  3. The edition I read was published in 1991 by the Library of America, marking the first appearance of Wright’s complete text. Scenes cut in the originally published version were too shocking to be printed in 1940. This LOA edition includes Wright’s 1940 essay “How Bigger Was Born” in an appendix. [^]
  4. In many ways we have made progress. It would be ignorant and dishonest to deny that. But we have so, so far to go.
    The recent unrest across this country by Black Lives Matter and others surrounding the all-too-frequent shootings of black men (and children) by police is not going away until our justice system acknowledges the problem and takes real steps to solve it. Camera phones, if nothing else, will force this issue. [^]
  5. James Baldwin was one writer who, at least initially, denigrated the book. He also said, though, “who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull?”
    I’m not sure what Ralph Ellison thought of Native Son, but I believe his 1952 novel Invisible Man is a worthy companion to it. Wright’s character epitomizes “damned if you do” while Ellison’s epitomizes “damned if you don’t.” I wrote about Ellison’s novel in Books Read 2014 – Fiction (part two). [^]

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