Taking a tough look at Richard Wright's timely exploration of American race relations

Anyone who understands Richard Wright's novel Native Son understands race matters in the United States. Strictly reading the novel or being able to say what happens in the book is not the same as understanding what happens. One must understand the whys.

The plot is simple: an impoverished 20-year old black man accidentally kills the daughter of his wealthy white employer and pays the highest price. Understanding why protagonist Bigger Thomas acts compels a reader to act differently after reading the book. Though the book was written in 1940, much of it rings as true today as it did then.

Bigger's family shares quarters with rats, and it is nothing a sane person wishes for family or anyone else. Yet Bigger, his sister, brother, and mother who can do no better, are housed in such a place. Time which could be - should be - spent on other tasks is devoted to the rat. Where is it? Is it going to bite one of them? Are there other rats? How much sleep can the family get? Of what quality is this sleep? How prepared can the family be for the next day?

After a night of battling or thinking about battling a rat, Bigger leaves home only to be bombarded by all he does not have. Bigger is not developmentally disabled, but he lives in a society which thwarts his development. Early in the novel when Bigger says, "These white boys sure can fly," he is making a statement about himself and his society.

He's intelligent enough to know flying must be an awesome experience, one of many he won't have. The color of his skin relegated him to a world where blacks don't fly planes, grounded before his birth. The Blacks he knows clean houses, chauffeur, and at all times following instructions of their white "superiors."

So when the white daughter Mary, who definitely does not understand Bigger's situation, orders him to a nightclub on the Southside of Chicago, Bigger reluctantly goes after hesitating as long as he can. What is merely a jaunt for Mary and her friends who mean no harm can be a catastrophe for Bigger, a young man who has very little or no control of his life, especially while in the employ of these free-thinking whites. Bigger's experience keeps a reality on his mind, a reality which whites do not know exists.

How little control Bigger has becomes more apparent than ever. He did not want to go to the nightclub. He did not want to leave the inebriated Mary in the car, but knew he should not be in her bedroom.

Had Mary's date Jan been in the room, he might have been expected to explain. He may have gotten a tongue thrashing by her father, may have been told not to return. Instead, by Bigger attempting to do a good deed and take Mary to her room, this doomed young man dooms himself further. Society had taught him a Black man being in a white woman's bedroom has one meaning: he is there for sex, forbidden sex. Being in Mary's bedroom is so terrible that he must at all costs keep her quiet to prevent his being discovered. The safest, most immediate act is to put a pillow over her face. This is to quiet her; it never occurs to him it might kill her.

Neither Mary nor her friend Jan understands much about Bigger or his world. Only after the murder is discovered is there an attempt to understand Bigger's actions, and this by an extremely small minority. Bigger can't be discovered. Killing her, though an accident, is death for him.

Self-preservation demands that he act. Bigger knows no one would ever believe he killed her in the process of helping her and therefore doing more than his job required. Everything he knows says no one would believe he did not rape Mary. He makes what he believes is his best move: he dismembers Mary's body and puts it in the furnace. A more brilliant move is to ask for a ransom, he thinks.

Involving his girlfriend Bessie continues the spiraling down of Bigger's life. There is no reason to kill Bessie, absolutely no reason except he thinks Bessie may be a threat. He wants to escape. Bigger wants freedom. Bigger, whom we watched bemoan not being able to fly as the white boys do and kill a rat deliberately, kills one woman and then another. He naturally wants to fly away from home.

Bigger is weighed down by his history. What if his parents had been married and living under the same roof? What if his working mom had a decent, livable wage? What if he had lived in a house where he felt safe? What if he had attended a school where teachers valued him, cared about him, wanted him to succeed, helped him to succeed? What if he lived in a desirable neighborhood or village?

What if Bigger had not been plagued by what Dr. Joy D. Leary has labeled post-traumatic slave syndrome? The speculation could continue, but Bigger's life ends because he never had the support one needs to thrive.

A white colleague told me that he never teaches the last third of this book, tells the students they do not have to read it.

"It's all propaganda," he says.

And maybe he's right, but only if he says it's propaganda that Bigger feels so insecure in his inferiority. It's propaganda that Mary feels so secure in her superiority. It is propaganda if he admits both characters - and many in our society - believe the propaganda and pay for it with the diminishing or extinguishing of their lives.

Seattle's INTIMAN Theater is currently showcasing Wright's Native Son, which has been newly adapted for the stage, through Nov. 18.

Native Son is part of INTIMAN's American Cycle of classic stories and civic dialogue, and will be the centerpiece of a unique range of public programs including Community Readings, humanities forums and an original theatrical project created by local high school students

For ticket information, call 206.269.1900 during ticket office hours, Tuesday-Sunday from noon-7 p.m. The Ticket Office and lobby entrance is in the fountain courtyard on the north side of the building.

The INTIMAN Playhouse is at 201 Mercer Street on the northwest corner of Seattle Center campus. The Theatre is between the Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Seattle Repertory Theatre at the 2nd Avenue North and Mercer Street entrance to Seattle Center .

South End writer Georgia S. McDade may be reached via editor@sdistrictjournal.com.[[In-content Ad]]