Finished Reading Native Son

Three o’clock.

I need some time before I hatch any ideas regarding Native Son, but already I see existential parallels to Camus and Sartre, and it was published before The Stranger and Being and Nothingness. This doesn’t mean necessarily that the French writers read Native Son. Perhaps they and Richard Wright all read the same stuff from prior to 1940. Ideas are airborne and diffuse from place to place, so that existentialism might be considered a time period more than a particular philosophy. People don’t talk much about this in 2022. It’d be hard to characterize the intellectual climate of our own time, other than as the time after the Millennium, which means a great revival of Christianity followed by cynicism and monetary greed.

Why read books like Native Son nowadays? I’m still figuring this out. It’s important for racial justice and awareness of people who are oppressed. But also it raises questions of identity and purpose in life, and how far a person is willing to go to feel happy and free, and like his life has meaning. Further, can a person actually do that in a situation where every avenue to fulfillment is blocked? Bigger wanted to be an aviator; to fly and be free, and free everyone else as well, but instead he pictures everyone in a prison cell like his own. This is the common condition he imagines, the glue for himself and humanity. Rather than freedom he comes face to face with fate, saying his crimes and punishment were inevitable.

The scene of his capture is amazing: when he climbs the water tower and clings tenaciously to the top while the mob below shoots him with water hoses in the freezing winter night of Chicago. There’s an allusion to Christ when he is carried off the tower and dragged by his feet down the stairs, barely conscious all the way to the jail. And like Jesus, Bigger is martyred in the end. The kicker is that Jesus wasn’t a murderer like Bigger Thomas: so is what he did still a form of creation, as his lawyer said to the Court?

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