I spent my high school years studying the cornerstones of literature, the Great Gatsby's charm, poor Hester Prynne, who fell victim to a hypocritical society. For some reason, I just couldn't get into Beowulf. But Julius Caesar? I played him in the class play: Et tu, Brute?
The reality of what was missing didn't hit me until my freshman year in college. Here I was, a supposed well-rounded young black woman, and I had never read a major novel by an African-American. None were among the mainstream classics in school. I had never thought to read such a book on my own.
So when my college professor assigned a review on a book of choice, I walked to the library and came out with Richard Wright's Native Son.
It is the story of Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old black man, living in a one-room flat with his mother and two siblings in early 1900s Chicago. Racism and poverty have quashed any dreams he may have had. He lives aimlessly, a tough exterior masking his fear. Then he accidentally kills a rich white woman. Rather than tell the truth, he covers it up _ no one would believe it was an accident. He dupes those around him and finds a strange sense of empowerment. He has outwitted the pretentious white man.
I remember staying up well past 3 a.m., reading Native Son. I had to put it down at times, hoping to stall Bigger's impending doom. In other parts, I cried.
The plot is outlandish; the underlying themes touching on communism and institutional racism are complex. But what got me was that I could relate to Bigger. Like the time he and his friend played "white," just like my friends and I used to. We would overenunciate our words and talk enthusiastically about insignificant things. In this, we mocked the disparity of the black-white worlds. We were catching the bus to school, talking about girls who got pregnant and trying to get jobs to pay for extracurricular sports activities, senior pictures and college application fees. As we saw it, they talked about things like not being able to borrow their dad's car _ "Oh. My. Gawd!"
Just like Bigger, I thought they had everything. And I feared them. He played tough in the 'hood, but grew frightened in a room full of whites. As for me, I would leave my black neighborhood and go to predominantly white schools. I would sit in my college-bound courses, at times the only black student in the classroom. I studied my classmates as much as my textbooks. They lived in the white neighborhood; their families had money. Their parents had gone to college. I had better grades than many of them, but somehow they seemed smarter. So I would sit and observe, listen as they discussed the author's underlying theme and its implications for the day, my bowed head a silent "Yessuh" to their opinions.
A freshman in college, I lamented that I was like Bigger. The fact that Wright gave him a name similar to a derogation for African-Americans was not lost on me.
Twelve years later, I reread Native Son. The memories flood back. The first time I read it, I identified with the weight of oppression, the fact that society forced Bigger to run a tiring, endless race in which he could only pray to keep up, but never win. On second read, however, Bigger revealed much more. Perhaps maturity and life experience helped me see that his oppressors' true power lies, not in their beliefs, but in their ability to make Bigger believe their beliefs. Yes, I knew that it was possible to be black and have fewer opportunities than some and yet be much different from Bigger.
Wright's highly debated Native Son is a classic for sure. But I wondered why I never read about Bigger in English class.