Time has a way of revealing unexpected legacies.
After 75 years, Native Son’s influence in the literary canon still cannot be overstated. Wright’s marvel remains today, as in 1940 when it was originally released, a very important book. But over the years the debate over the book’s label as “protest fiction” has long since eclipsed all rumblings of its merits as a work of literature. We can thank James Baldwin for this. For it was Baldwin who, at the young age of 24, took aim at Native Son, in his 1949 essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” (and later in “Many Thousands Gone”) denouncing Wright for having stripped Bigger Thomas, the African-American protagonist, of his humanity in order to elicit white sympathy. Baldwin accused Wright of pandering for political gain, and Native Son of holding no more truth than an organizing pamphlet (similar to the papers handed to Bigger by the young, Communist girl, Mary, whom he accidentally murders).
At the center of Baldwin’s criticisms of “protest fiction” is a long-standing tension between politics and art. But further, Baldwin expresses a deep suspicion of the writer’s split allegiances—who the writer is writing to and who the writer writes for, why they are writing at all, and at whose expense—and the human costs of placing politics before truth. His disdain toward protest fiction lies “in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.”
Wright insisted that there was, indeed, truth in Bigger’s character. In “How Bigger Was Born,” Wright explains that Bigger was created, not from a single person but a composite of five different persons he encountered in his earlier years growing up in Roxie, Mississippi. Bigger is real, Wright insists, and it was not until he realized that Bigger lived inside him, and all blacks, that Wright became convinced by what he represented. “The more I thought of it the more I became convinced that if I did not write of Bigger as I saw and felt him, if I did not try to make him a living personality and at the same time a symbol of all the larger things I felt and saw in him, I’d be reacting as Bigger himself reacted: that is, I’d be acting out of fear if I let what I thought whites would say constrict and paralyze me,” Wright reasoned. “As I contemplated Bigger and what he meant, I said to myself: ‘I must write this novel, not only for others to read, but to free myself of this sense of shame and fear.’ In fact, the novel, as time passed, grew upon me to the extent that it became a necessity to write it; the writing of it turned into a way of living for me.”
Baldwin agreed to a degree that the symbol of Bigger was rooted in something real: “there is, I should think, no Negro living in America who has not felt, briefly or for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees and to varying effect, simple, naked and unanswerable hatred.” But Bigger’s symbolism, for Baldwin, could never liberate the oppressed because hate and fear was all he was. Bigger was a mere projection of one element of black life, lacking the complexity and nuance that defines human existence. Wright, a deft and smart writer, likely knew this much. His goal was to present Bigger as a symbol of American guilt and fear to shame and terrify white (and some black) audiences. And on many accounts he succeeded: Native Son was selected to be in the Book of the Month Club, the first by black author, and within its first three weeks on the shelves it sold more than 315,000 copies. But in questioning Bigger’s humanity, Wright was, in turn, questioning all black humanity. And as a result, he sacrificed his subject, who he was writing for, at the expense of his audience, who he was writing to. In effect, the image of Bigger became more important than Bigger, the human being.
Before I opened the pages of Native Son, a 25-year-old rapper from Compton, California named Kendrick Lamar had, unbeknownst to me, already begun shaping my ideas of protest fiction and teasing out the idea of Bigger Thomas. Lamar’s debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, tells a searingly honest autobiographical account of a young, black teenager navigating the trappings and tribulations of an impoverished, gang-ridden city eating itself from the inside-out. In many ways, the young protagonist inhabits the mindset of Wright’s Bigger Thomas. Wandering through the perilous streets of his neighborhood where “Pakistan on every porch is fine,” a young Lamar falls victim to a similarly hateful and near suicidal haze which clouds his judgment, making him more violent and defiant. “Step on my neck and get blood on ya Nike check. I don’t mind because one day you’ll respect the good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” he spits on “good kid.” On “The Art of Peer Pressure” he admits: “the energy we bringing sure to carry away a flock of positive activists and fill they body with hate if it’s necessary.”
In numerous anecdotes, Lamar describes the quotidian life in Compton: rugged, unapologetic, boisterous, unforgiving. Unfettered hatred sometimes consumes not just himself, but his posse. But these admissions don’t broach into the musical equivalent of “protest fiction” because they are part of a more robust portraiture. Revealingly, Lamar frequently accepts these feelings as a part of himself, at times harboring them, other times unleashing. He does not exploit the image of inner-city life and oppression by reducing himself to only hate or fear to invoke sympathy. Rather, he simply presents his truth as it is—hate with love as its counterbalance, in its entirety. The examples of this complexity are plentiful. When, heartbreakingly, a member of Lamar’s crew is gunned down, instead of retaliating, a young Lamar decides he’s “tired of this shit! I’m tired of running!” In another instant, he questions his own reactions to his predicament: “And I’m not sure why I’m infatuated with death, My imagination is surely an aggravation of threats.” Each time, the protagonist accepts Bigger’s mentality, but is not consumed by his hatred. In doing so, Lamar accepts his responsibility to his subjects—he’s one of them—and he doesn’t try to shame his audience into feeling guilt of fear.
Unlike Wright’s Native Son, Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city is more than a projection of the oppressed; rather, it presents the paradox of human existence, accepting the weight of living under oppression while also maintaining what Baldwin calls the “most profound reality of the American experience,” the unyielding “force and anguish and terror of love.”
This is what ultimately remains absent in protest fiction. And it is why Bigger Thomas represents nothing more than a creature living in poor neighborhood with no hope or possibility of transcendence. Which is no legacy worth remembering.