The Power of Literature in Perpetuating or Challenging Racism in America

In “Black Boys and Native Sons” by Irving Howe, Howe presents James Baldwin’s strong assertions about Richard Wright’s protest novel Native Son. Baldwin writes that although the novel was “undertaken out of sympathy for the Negro,” presenting Bigger as a monster, “a social victim or mythic agent of sexual prowess” confined Bigger as a Negro to “the very tones of violence that he [as a Black man] has known all his life.” The portrayal of Bigger Thomas and the implications that it provided for Black men and ‘Blackness’ was a topic I often questioned once completing the novel. Like Baldwin, I too wondered, if Wright’s goal was to show the negative effects of white America on Black Americans, then why paint the picture that Blacks were the problem in society? As we further discussed in class, Wright’s depiction of Bigger Thomas only further perpetuated the stereotype that white people had of Black men being violent and dangerous. Native Son articulated everything that Americans were thinking but were afraid to say out loud and because it did that, and confirmed a harsh and negative stereotype of Black culture, it was way more regressive than it was progressive. It presented a sociological issue that I found could not be fixed or at least could not be accurately addressed through Wright’s literary portrayal of Bigger. Native Son rather than empowering Black culture and progressing the already bad image that they had in society, instead incited and stirred up its white audience, verifying to them that the Black race was inferior. It perpetuated the same stereotype and tone of violence that Black men like Bigger were subjected to their whole lives and did not give Black people and even Black authors like Baldwin much room to grow and prove society and white America wrong about their preconceptions. Because Wright failed to humanize Bigger and defined him as a reactionary experimental figure that only operated on suffering and violence, the predominantly white audience of the novel who then shared that message with America were unable to understand and view Bigger as a realized individual. According to Howe, this negative portrayal communicated “that only through struggle could men with black skins, and for that matter, all the oppressed of the world, achieve their humanity.” As a result of Native Son, deepened racial divides, completely missing the mark of what Wright claimed it was not supposed to do. 

This exemplified to me how much literature can take responsibility for either deepening or diminishing societal issues like racism and racial inequality. As someone who studies Sociology, I acknowledge that there are a multitude of factors that contribute to societal problems but I never really imagined literature as having as much of an impact on shaping social narratives and perceptions in the way that Native Son did. Now, I am eager to read and find out how James Baldwin will use his literature to portray Negro men and Black culture. Although Howe stated that “Baldwin has not yet succeeded in composing the kind of novel he counterpoised to the work of Richard Wright” I am curious to see myself how Baldwin will counter the work of Wright in his own writings. Unlike Native Son, I hope that Baldwin’s work gives Black America the recognition it deserves and advances the image of Black men, Black women, and Blackness in general.