Bigger Thomas, an inner-city youth, is so full of anger and shame at being black in a white world that by age twenty he is a petty criminal, far down the road to disaster. Even the efforts of a benevolent white family to lift him out of his plight serve only to stoke his rage. His subsequent actions drive him into deeper trouble, ultimately bringing him to judgment.
Wright uses a suspenseful crime drama to draw the reader into a debate about America’s racial divisions. In a series of courtroom scenes, almost every institution comes under fire: government, business, the Church, even black society itself.
Native Son preceded other important works such as The Color Purple and 12 Years a Slave in observing the world through the eyes of African Americans. Though some of the reasoning on Bigger’s behalf is specious, the author makes a persuasive argument that anyone backed into a corner must choose either to fight back or succumb. For a personality like Bigger, neither choice offers the prospect of relief.
Wright skillfully weaves through his tale the Communist movement, a major issue in the America of his day. The supporting characters are well-drawn and serve to enhance his balanced exploration of social problems.
Although the novel has achieved the status of a classic, I occasionally found it repetitious and tedious. It also contains frequent profanity and a couple of sex scenes that are mild by today’s standards. All factors considered, I give it a rating of four stars out of five.