Native Son

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Reading and Race: On Slavery in Fiction

1.
In my eighth-grade U.S. History class, each student read a novel written by an African-American writer, about African-Americans.  There were a few books to choose from, but the only ones I remember are Native Son by Richard Wright and Roots by Alex Haley.  Because the latter was so long, no one chose it.  No one but me, that is.  I had never heard of it, nor the adapted mini-series, but the book was big and intimidating, and I was nothing if not a nerd and a show-off.  In my certainly-revised memory,  I pick up a copy from the pile, and the class gasps with admiration and foreboding.  I carry it back to my desk, head held high.

A little background.  I’m white (shocking, I know), and I went to a mostly white, public elementary school in Laurel Canyon, that rock ‘n roll, bohemian enclave in Los Angeles with its bungalows and crumbling mountain-sides.  (In recent years,  it’s gotten much fancier.)  Back then, I felt left out that my parents weren’t British, or former addicts, or ostrich-owners (don’t ask), or screenwriters.  If you think my name is odd–well, you didn’t know Chantilly, or Swan, or America, or Ole, a kid who was only there for a few months before disappearing to who-knows-where.  In the sixth-grade, Spike Lee’s X came out, and a couple of students wore those baseball caps with the letter X on the front–I’m not sure they knew what it meant.  A few had that shirt that read, “Love knows no color.”   This was the same year as the L.A. riots.  Our graduation dance theme was “Rebuilding the Peace.”  The teachers decorated the tables with tiny wooden hammers.

Around that same time, my father got a subscription to The New Yorker.  (For the cartoons.  I’m serious.)  I remember one cover had something to do with Malcolm X, and there were these small illustrations of white faces on it, with the words “white devil” floating around them.  I saw this magazine in the bathroom a few times a day for a week, and it stung and confused me every time. I didn’t understand it.  Why were they devils?  Was that even okay to say?   Was I a white devil?  What the hell did I do?

The next year, I went to junior high in west L.A., a bigger and far more racially diverse school than the one I had graduated from. Because everyone was different at this school, because I was different, I began to truly understand what difference meant.  People sometimes identified me as “white girl” in the hallways, and it made sense.  After all, I was white.  Really white: I burned easily, I wore Converse and shorts from the Gap, and my parents listened to The Grateful Dead.   Twice I was asked, snickering, if my name was Becky.  I learned some Spanish slang.  I learned that some kids went to school on Saturday, to master their parents’ native tongues.  A boy in English class pointed out that Black History month was the shortest month of the year–and that blew my mind. It had never occurred to me.

It was at this school, with my sense of self and the world all shook up, that I read Roots.  Haley called his book “faction”–fiction mixed with fact, and later genealogists debunked his claim that the book told his actual family history.  None of that mattered to me then–or matters now.   My teacher had assigned it as a novel, and like all good fiction, it felt authentic. I devoured the book, and I couldn’t get it off my mind.  I can still remember how I felt reading the section on the slave ship, Kunta Kinte packed in with hundreds of other slaves: the darkness, the suffering, the stench of bodies.  I had learned about the Middle Passage in school, but it wasn’t until it was translated into narrative that it affected me so.  I was appalled and frightened by a history I already knew, for the story of  slavery is far more powerful than a “unit” on it.

In the eighth grade, I began to understand that I, and every American, had inherited something shameful. I began to connect race to history to power, and it was all because of a book.

2.
Reading narrative requires empathy.  The character’s perspective becomes your own, and through this relationship you begin to feel as another person would.   As I read Roots, I felt what Kunta Kinte felt, saw what he saw, and by becoming him, I understood intimately the horrors of slavery.  It’s why nonfiction slave narratives, like those of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, were so important to the abolitionist movement, and why fictional slave narratives persist today.

But stories also require complicity: the reader participates in the action of the story simply by imagining and interpreting it.  As Zadie Smith points out in this short interview:
Fiction is like a hypothetical area in which to act. That’s what Aristotle thought—that fictional narrative was a place to imagine what you would do in this, that, or the other situation. I believe that, and it’s what I love most about fiction.
I agree with Smith here, and it’s why I don’t like books that make that arena of ethics too simplistic. I don’t need my characters to be heroic; in fact, I prefer them not to be.  Their choices should be difficult, their situations complicated, and if they emerge from events unaffected or unscathed, then they do not seem authentic.   They stop mattering to me.

But what if a novel’s “hypothetical area in which to act” is a historical landscape that places pressures on its characters that we haven’t experienced ourselves?  What if that landscape is the antebellum South?  My empathy is immediately ignited by these stories, but so too is my complicity.   As a white reader, I’m simultaneously made to understand the experience of slavery, and I also must wrestle with how I’m implicated in that past.  For although I identify with the book’s main characters, there’s another part of my brain that knows I can’t.  If this book were made into a movie, I think, I’d look more like the overseer’s wife than the protagonist. I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced that awful feeling.  On goodreads a few months ago, some dolt wrote that he hated books about slavery because, and I paraphrase: “I wasn’t the one to rape your great, great, great grandmother!”  In other words, it wasn’t his fault slavery happened, he didn’t want to hear any more about it.  And that’s the thing: slave narratives keep us hearing about it, they keep that chain between the past and the present alive.  For me, reading one can be complicated and uncomfortable business, and it’s partly why I continue to seek them out.

3.
But only partly.  In Victor La Valle’s Year in Reading post, he wrote:
I don’t know about you, but when I read that book takes place during slavery my defenses go up immediately. It’s going to be “serious” and “important” and “teach us something” and….oh, I’m sorry, I almost fell asleep.
He’s right–“serious” and “important” are sometimes just synonyms for “boring.”  But good books about slavery are readable, very much so.  Is it wrong to say they’re entertaining?  Well, they can be.  This isn’t “tea towel” fiction, it’s fiction where the stakes are high, and people’s lives are at risk.  There are secrets.  There is real fear.  The power dynamics between characters are complicated and fascinating, or they should be.  People are fighting for a sliver of self that isn’t owned and denigrated by another person, and that makes me care and keeps me turning the pages.

One novel for which this is especially true is The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, the very book that LaValle recommended in his post.  James’s novel takes place not in America, but Jamaica, at the turn of the 19th century.   Told in dialect, it’s about a young female slave named Lilith who participates in a plot to overthrow her plantation master.   Though it takes some time to get used to this voice and particular syntax, it’s wholly absorbing once you do, perhaps because the language is a kind of bridge into this past.  The prose pulls you into Lilith’s consciousness, which reflects the violent and brutal world in which she lives.

And let me tell you: The Book of Night Women is one of the most violent and brutal books I have ever read. One day I read it for four hours straight, and the world was all wobbly and terrible after I put it down. Its unflinching depiction of slavery reminded me of something from Wyatt Mason’s profile of Edward P. Jones, whose novel The Known World, about black slaveholders in antebellum Virginia, explores the tangled, contradictory ways that slavery can involve and affect an entire community.  In that novel, which I (and many others) consider a masterpiece, Jones quotes census numbers and scholarly texts–all of them made up.  Mason writes:
What research on the subject Jones undertook was, in fact, quickly derailed after he happened upon an account of a white slave owner who spent her days abusing one of her black slaves, a little girl, by beating her head against a wall. “If I had wanted to tell the whole story of slavery, Americans couldn’t have taken that,” Jones told an interviewer. “People want to think that there was slavery, and then we got beyond it. People don’t want to hear that a woman would take a child and bang her head against the wall day after day. It’s nice that I didn’t read all those books. What I would have had to put down is far, far harsher and bleaker.
Marlon James, on the other hand, did seem to read all of those books, and his novel faces those harsh realities head on.  But Jones and James’ books are similar in that their characters are multidimensional, no matter their race, and the smallest dramas are specific and deeply felt, which makes these historical backdrops all the more real for a contemporary reader. In the Book of Night Women, for instance, Lilith becomes romantically involved with her Irish overseer, Quinn.  He believes, as an Irishman, that he understands oppression as she does, but she knows that can’t be (and we, as readers of this narrative, know it, too). Their relationship is tender and sexy at times, and weird and upsetting at others.  And usually it’s all of those qualities simultaneously, and you feel at once turned on, repelled, skeptical, nervous, grateful and vulnerable.

4.
Kindred by Octavia Butler asks the reader to feel myriad emotions, too, and it proves literally that a character cannot emerge from important events unscathed.  Butler’s book is not only about slavery, it’s about time travel.  That’s right: its main character, a black woman named Dana (actually her full name is Edana–which I loved), is again and again sent against her will to nineteenth-century Maryland to keep her white ancestor, Rufus, safe.  If he dies too soon, she will never be born.  The book’s premise reminds me of the comedian Louis CK’s routine about being white.  (“Black people can’t fuck with time machines!” he jokes.  “A black guy with a time machine is like, “Hey, nothing before 1980, thank you, I don’t want to go.”) Every time Dana returns from these trips as a slave, only a few minutes or a few hours have passed in her real life in 1970’s L.A.  Nevertheless, she carries her experience of slavery on her body–she returns injured, scarred, and by the end of the book (it’s also where the book opens), she returns to the present without an arm.  In other words, the past will always interfere with the present.  She can’t fully understand this history without it damaging her.

Dana’s white husband Kevin is also taken into the past with her, and it’s here that the book is most compelling and thought-provoking to me.  In Maryland, Dana and Kevin must play slave and master in order to spend the night together, and after Kevin’s trapped in the past for years, he takes on the same speech patterns as the whites during that time.  The couple want to believe that their personal relationship can remain pure, that the political and social climate of slavery won’t infect their interactions, but that’s impossible.  The very first time Dana returns from Maryland, she momentarily mistakes Kevin for a white southerner, out to hurt her, and she is frightened of him.  The past  has already trespassed onto the present, where she is supposed to feel safe and equal. It happens quickly.

With Kindred, I identified with Dana, even if, were I to time travel back to antebellum Maryland, my problems would probably be more similar to Kevin’s.  But like Dana, I’m a woman who lives in Los Angeles.  Like Dana, I’m a writer.  And like Dana before she time travels, I’ve read about slavery, and so I can only approach it as a reader.  Because Dana is a modern woman, she is wearing pants when she is transported, and in antebellum Maryland, characters ask her why she’s dressed as a man. They want to know why she talks as she does.  And how she learned to write.  They wonder aloud if she thinks she’s white–she sure does carry herself that way.  Maybe Dana’s belief in her own equality ties her more strongly to me, a contemporary female reader, than race ties her to the black slaves in antebellum Maryland.  Or it only does, until a point.  Or it does and it doesn’t, at the same time.  Either way, Butler has performed a kind of identity magic trick with her novel.  By experiencing this world as Dana does, as any contemporary person would, I too must suffer at the hands of slavery.

5.
When we’re younger, it feels like the only books we’re given about black people are about slavery, just as the only books we’re given about Jewish people are about the holocaust.  There’s a danger there, as we might be led to believe these are the only stories such writers are allowed to tell.  Not at all.  As many contemporary black authors have proven, there are a zillion ways to write the black experience, and using  slavery as a subject is just one of them.  But writers like Marlon James, Edward P. Jones and Octavia Butler (and others, like the inimitable Toni Morrison–my God, have you read A Mercy?) prove that the fact of slavery is still upon us, it still haunts us, and that it can be told and retold in powerful, surprising and evocative ways that engage a reader.  Or this reader, at least.

Modern Library Revue: #95 Under the Net

I think it’s a symptom of the internet age, or my impending old age, or doom, that while I used to amble into a used book shop with no particular book in mind and leave satisfied with a bulging grocery bag, now I find myself a slave to a roster.  Before, I would keep a vague running list of books I wanted to read, which basically encompassed the whole of literature as I understood it, so that any pile of two dollar books was bound to yield several items of interest.   And now I want what I want when I want it.  

Under the Net was a long-time bee in my bonnet.  There are so many Iris Murdoch novels, in so many printings; they are a fixture in secondhand book shops.  When I realized that this one, her first, was on the Modern Library list, I thought I was bound to come across it before too long.  For nine months it eluded me, although in pursuit of that title I managed to read five other Murdoch novels.  In the same way, I read Black Boy instead of Native Son, and Young Torless instead of The Man Without Qualities, and loathsome Henderson the Rain King instead of Herzog.  Which is a good thing!  I’m better for having read them all.  But every year that goes by finds me less happy to cast the net in this haphazard fashion (hence my summer of discontent).  I require specific titles now.  I’ve undergone a paradigm shift.  It’s kind of a bummer, actually.

(I do know all about libraries, and I cherish them.  But I like to own the books that I read, and I like to read books that I own.  In case there is an emergency.  It’s a thing about me.)

Anyway, I wanted to read Under the Net, and I got sick of looking in vain and reading things other than Under the Net, and I finally outsourced the job to the internet.  I felt sort of guilty about this, like buying a pet instead of adopting.  I did it media mail, which seemed more virtuous, in the manner of hard church pews and wooden teeth.   After eight days, the novel arrived.  All things considered, the experience was obscenely convenient.

Someone once said (it was me) that Iris Murdoch wrote so many novels that if you are in the mood to read something by her, there is probably a fresh one available.  It’s like having a harem wherein all the inmates are related to one another and look alike, yet retain sterling qualities of their own.  I quote myself not because I’m the last word on Iris Murdoch, but because the metaphor has useful application here.  If Murdoch’s huge oeuvre is a harem of related women, then reading Under the Net is like going in back in time to meet their matriarch, coltish and sepia-toned on the day she was plucked from her village. 

I have always thought that The Sea, The Sea stands apart from the other Murdoch novels I’ve read, largely because of the spicy and pitch-perfect first person narrative.  I thought, perhaps, that it was a prime example of late-ish Murdoch at the height of her powers.  So I was surprised to discover find that her first novel, published in 1954, has more in common with The Sea² (1978), than any of the works published between (that I’ve read, of course).  Like The Sea², Under the Net is written in the first person.  The earlier novel’s narrator, translator and occasional writer Jack Donoghue, is kind of a feckless, easier-going, impoverished prototype of Charles Arrowby, who came a quarter century later.  I suppose they really don’t have much in common, since Arrowby’s whole being is centered on being the opposite of feckless and easy-going and impoverished.  But they are both educated, afraid of commitment, and very funny.  They are memorable, varying somewhat from the stock cast of awful aesthetes and academes who populate the majority of her novels.  Not that Donoghue isn’t one of those, but his way with words is considerably more amusing.  Here, kicked out of one rent-free situation, he ponders the future:
It was certainly something of a problem to know where to go next.  I wondered if Dave Gellman would harbour us.  I fondled the idea, though I suspected it was no good.  Dave is an old friend, but he’s a philosopher, not the kind that tells you about your horoscope and the number of the beast, but a real one like Kant and Plato, so of course he has no money.
The whole experience of Under the Net was surprising.  Unless one has made a pointed effort to study them, one can have only a hazy sense of the zeitgeist of decades and places in which one hasn’t lived.  That said, Iris Murdoch is so relentlessly urbane and modern that Under the Net seemed to me much younger than its 55 years.  I’m aware that drinking and being feckless and running around was not unheard of in the 1950s–I did read Lucky Jim (also published 1954.  In fact, I think Jim Dixon could conceivably have enjoyed a matey bender with Jack Donaghue and company).  But the people of Under the Net seemed very hip, or at least as though they could have easily populated a later novel.  Perhaps it’s not that Murdoch was cutting-edge, but that her eternal engagement with the pedantic, the bachanalian, and the emotionally stunted will never go out of style.

The plot of Under the Net doesn’t bear summarizing.  It is farcical and, I dare say, “rollicking;” there’s even a dog who stars in movies.  I am unused to feeling so little feminist rage during a Murdoch novel; this one was light-hearted and lacked the sinister undertones present in, for example, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine and Message to the Planet.  Under the Net could even be called a buddy novel; Donoghue and his Irish familiar, Finn, reminded me not a little of my favorite John Irving book, The Water Method Man, and the adventures of Bogus Trumper (also a translator), and Merrill Overturf described therein.

I find it odd that this novel would make it onto the Modern Library list over TS².  It’s a little fluffy.  But, as we’ve been hearing so much recently, lists are problematic, and the Modern Library list is so problematic on so many levels that its defects no longer shock.  Pluralities are weird.  Still, Under the Net’s presence on the list caused me to hunt it down and read it, which not only caused me to have a nice Sunday afternoon (it’s short), but freed up a spot on the roster.  That’s one for the list.  Then again, the existence of a list only serves to codify things and thus intensify the need for a roster, which causes me to have fewer pleasant afternoons digging through bookshops, and more neurotic episodes on the internet.  That’s one against. 

 Anyway, Under the Net was fun and I liked it.  I’ll leave you with a word from Jack, who has troubles of his own: 
I glanced hastily through the manuscripts.  Once before, in a rage, Magdalen had torn up the first sixty stanzas of an epic poem called And Mr Oppenheim Shall Inherit the Earth. This dated from the time when I had ideals.  At that time too it had not yet become clear to me that the present age was not one in which it was impossible to write an epic. At that time I naively imagined that there was no reason why one should not attempt to write anything that one felt inclined to write.  But nothing is more paralyzing than a sense of historical perspective, especially in literary matters . . . But to return to Mr Oppenheim; my friends had criticized the title because it sounded anti-Semitic, though of course Mr Oppenheim simply symbolized big business, but Madge didn’t tear it up for that, but out of pique, because I broke a lunch date with her to meet a woman novelist.  The latter was a dead loss, but I can back to find Mr Oppenheim in pieces.  This was in the old days, but I feared that the performance might have been repeated. Who knows what thoughts were passing through that girl’s mind while she was deciding to throw me out?  There’s nothing like a woman’s doing you an injury for making her incensed against you.  I know myself how exasperating it is of other people to put themselves in positions where you have to injure them. 

Modern Library Revue: #20 Native Son

I think I was the last of my age peers to read Native Son; I feel like most of us read it in school. Either I never had it in a course, or I did, but it was during one of my bouts of absenteeism from class and scholastic responsibility. So I got it from the library a few years ago. I had no idea what it was about, but I knew that it was a book about race and a Huge Deal.

I started the novel, and I had a feeling of dread from the page one, and when I got to the severed head I quit, feeling dispirited. There is a moment in the (completely unrelated) Fitzgerald novel The Beautiful and the Damned, wherein three elite gentleman make plans to see a show: “The thing is tersely called ‘The Woman,'” says one character. “I presume that she will pay.” Stripped entirely of its context, I have always felt that this remark is an elegant statement of life’s facts. At the time of my first reading, Richard Wright’s novel seemed to reaffirm my conviction that this is true (and this, mind you, was before I had even got to poor Bessie). This particular woman, severed-headed Mary, was pretty awful, but I didn’t want to read about her getting stuffed in the furnace. And things seemed so inevitable for Bigger Thomas; the only place for the story to go was down. Talking of tropes, we all know what happened when a black man was suspected to have looked sideways a white woman. Bigger Thomas’ goose was cooked long before he put a pillow over Mary’s face.

Much later it occurred to me what a fraud I am. How, I thought, am I going to go crazy for 2666, happily slogging through 100 pages of murdered women, while this crucial American work offends my delicate sensibilities? So I returned to the novel with my nerves steeled. I gave it another chance, and it knocked my everloving socks off.

In retrospect, I am discomfited that I took Bigger so personally the first time I picked up the novel, and that I actually to an extent, failed to separate the author from his creation. I have never assumed that John Fowles sympathized with men who hold women hostage in their basements, so why would I think Richard Wright was holding up this crapbag Bigger as a delightful specimen of humanity? Why did it suddenly matter that the woman always pays? Surely a book so lauded wouldn’t deal in pointless female victimization (okay, one might, especially if it was by Norman Mailer, but that’s a story for another day).

Wright’s novel begins with Bigger Thomas doing a series of hateful things. Mean to his sister, mean to his long-suffering, hard-working mother, mean to his friends, prone to violent rages. Starting the novel, I admit I had that ignoble instinct I so hate when I hear it from the mouths of right-wing reactionaries; the sentiment that basically goes “Do what your parents did, Sir. Get a job, Sir.” When I got near the end of the book, to read basically the same words come out of the miserable dickhead State’s Attorney’s mouth during Bigger’s (sham) trial, that hurt.
No! He cursed his mother! He said that he did not want to work! He wanted to loaf about the streets, steal from newsstands, rob stores, meddle with women, frequent dives, attend cheap movies, and chase prostitutes!
It’s a shocking sensation, to see yourself partially mirrored in the novel’s villainous bigot. That’s good art, friends! Especially because by the time you’ve made it to the State’s Attorney you, (I, that is) do feel pretty terrible for Bigger. And also just terrible.

Wright’s pacing is brilliant. It starts hard. It’s a realistic sort of pace. It doesn’t get easier as the novel goes on, but things get explained. They start to make more sense. In life, when you hear about something terrible, you usually haven’t prepared for it by reading a treatise on human behavior and motivations beforehand. And, unfortunately, often you don’t want to take the time to reflect on said behavior and motivations. You just want to say, “Do what your parents, did, Sir. Get a job, sir.” You want to put the book down.

I think I really quit the novel that first time because I had a premonition that it was going to be hard, and possibly even hard on me. I suspected that it wouldn’t let me walk the easy, feel-good path with regard to racism – the Newbery Medal kind of way, where even though terrible things happen, humanity mostly prevails and, ideally, a triumph or two of the human spirit takes place. The kind of book, additionally, that lets me, as a white person, feel confident that I would have been friends with Cassie Logan even if the town disapproved.

But Native Son is not a novel that wants to hold anybody’s hand. Native Son does not want to tuck you into bed at night and reassure you that you are with it. Wright, starting as he did with a hugely unlovable character, dares you to face certain realities. Namely, that discussions of oppression are infinitely more comfortable when members of the oppressed race in question are doing things like passively resisting, writing monumental novels, and being elected president by a majority of the country so that one can say “My goodness, we’ve come a long way!” But that’s stupid. The reason that institutionalized racism is despicable is because it takes away humanity. Obviously it makes the oppressor ugly; but it can make its victims ugly too. Ugliness breeds ugliness. Why should a book about something ugly be made palatable so that I, a white lady, can feel uplifted?

Normally I don’t read authors’ explanations of their work, because I prefer the author to not be tiresome and talk about himself all the time, when he could be working hard to create more entertainment for me. However, I found Wright’s essay “How ‘Bigger’ was born” (included in some editions of Native Son) fascinating. I’m not crazy about the writing style in Native Son, although it more than serves its purpose in the novel, but I love Richard Wright’s prose in the Bigger essay (and in Black Boy). I enjoy the prose, and it was illuminating to learn why Wright sat down to write this novel. But the essay mainly struck me as impressive proof positive that the author set out to do a very specific something, and, in fact, did that very thing.
I had written a book of short stories which was published under the title of Uncle Tom’s Children. When the reviews of that book began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naive mistake. I found that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears. It was this that made me get to work in earnest.
Well, I’m hear to say that this is hard and deep, and that I faced it without the consolation of tears. The man did what he wanted. And, I would add, did in spite of “the fears which a Negro feels from living in America – standing over me, draped in white, warning me not to write.”

Post Script: A twisted coincidence: lest you think this book and its indictment of American society is no longer relevant, consider this: as I was writing this Revue, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is fucking quoted on my copy of this novel, was arrested for, it would seems, entering his home while black.

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