In 1940’s America, if a black man was seen with a white woman he faced untold acts of racism and violence. But if he was caught in bed with a white woman he would certainly be horrifically killed. This was the dilemma that faced the main character (Thomas Bigger) of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. Richard Wright has the reputation of being the ‘father’ of Black American Literature.
Similarities have been drawn between Thomas Bigger and Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens), as children both of them grew up in horrible environments and both characters were subjected to social injustice and poverty in the extreme. The character of Oliver Twist was used to tackle the question as to whether living in poverty and surrounded by injustice always gave rise to the creation of criminals, whilst Thomas Bigger was used to debate whether the society in America was responsible for creating Bigger to be a murderer. It could also be questioned as to whether Wright was answering Dickens question regarding criminality.
Despite the content Native Son was an immediate success, however there was a pocket of debate amongst middle and upper middle class black Americans, who felt that Wright should have focussed his writing on a celebration of the ability of black people to rise above oppression.
In ‘Native Son’, he character Bigger Thomas accidentally kills Mary, who is a white woman, because he was so fearful of being caught in her room. Wight is actually asking the reader to contemplate the bigger question of whether Bigger is totally to blame for his actions or should we put the blame on American society.
In consideration for this we should consider that case of Emmett Till, (1955). Emmett was only 14 years old but was murdered in Mississippi. The murder was horrific if he was an adult, but he was still a child. His crime was to whistle at a white woman. The murderer of the child was the husband of the woman and his half-brother. The question that needs again to be asked is whether they acted of their own free will or were they influenced by American society. Even today America continues to struggle with racism.
Going back to Dickens and his rhetorical question about society is there enough that is being done to help people understand the influence of society on the behaviour of the individual and to break down the prejudices that are unfounded and unacceptable.
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