Tag Archives: Racism

Native Son by Richard Wright

I usually do not like recommending books to the average stranger, because my tastes, though wide, are more precise as I age. But I’m telling you, EVERYONE should read these two books NOW!  Native Son (1940) is a work of fiction that astounds me.

For years I have wanted to read Wright but never got around to it. In my twenties, I read a handful of Black authors and liked them but became a little burned out on the subject, much like telling a talker, “OK, I get it.”

Well, as I aged, I learned a lot about how things work and how people are, and about how I am. I am a white male. And as I became older and wiser, I discovered I had racist issues as is expected, since society is full of racism. My racism wasn’t hatred or feelings of inequality, but such that I bought into a lot of stereotypes that society threw at me.

Recently, I’ve gotten into a writer, Nelson Algren, who was a close friend with  Wright. They met at the Federal Writer’s Project in Chicago, and this gave Wright the time and money to produce Native Son.  Both were “Communists” in the 30’s and 40’s. Both experienced life from the bottom of society. Native Son, as well as Algren’s early novels, delves deeper into the intricate ways that the top and middle of American society preys upon its poor and black people than any work of fiction that I have read.

It is an exceptional novel that begins with high drama and is able to sustain the climax for the entire novel. The protagonist is Bigger Thomas, a 20 year old African-American male, who at his mother’s urging gets a real job. He is a young “thug” surviving by stealing and using his wits. Wright intentionally makes him a stereotypical thug for effect. If Bigger is an acceptable young man, who fit into society, it would be easy for everyone to let him pursuit the “American Dream.” But Bigger is trapped in 1930’s society in Chicago slums. The Jim Crow effects reach northward in more subtle ways, but they are not subtle if you are black. Bigger was not allowed to be an AMERICAN. He was only a “Negro Nationalist” living in America. Bigger was unwanted by his OWN PEOPLE and “his” country of birth.

Bigger knows how to survive in a tough black reality. He is exceptionally smart and can figure out the con in every game. But all he knows of the white world is to avoid it. It is ok to rob a black liquor store, but not a white one. He knows the Cops will come down on you hard if you mess with white folks.

So the real action begins when Bigger gets a job as a chauffeur for a rich, white family.  One night out with the beautiful daughter (Mary) of this rich man, and her Communist boyfriend (Jan) forces Bigger to cross many boundaries he doesn’t want to. He soon learns that one small action can change  the lives of many. We are all interconnected in a very simple, yet complex way although we seem all separate from one another.

If I had to give one book to Middle School to College aged people to read, Native Son is the one. The language is so simple and Wright makes the complex ways of interconnectedness so clear than everyone can see.  This modern world is made to make us a cold money making machine. And we roll along with this machine as it grinds out human lives beneath it.

To some, who are not willing to open their minds, it may feel that white people are on trial here but it is more that society is on trial. Individuals only make up a tiny part of it. But individuals and their actions can shape the world at large. In groups, we go easily along with what is inhumane in society.

The great baseball player Curt Flood, speaking about The St. Louis Cardinals owner August Busch, who was astonished to learn that black players could not stay at white hotels during spring training, said: “It shows you how you can segregate yourself into the back seat of a limousine and not know what’s going on.”  In the novel, the wealthy Mr. Dalton is one that rolls along with it. He is a great philanthropist and supporter of black people but he also had made his wealth in real estate at black people’s expense.

There is an innocent intelligence to the main character Bigger Thomas. He knows what is going on, but not quite. His survival in his black world is much different than his trying to stay alive in the white world. The rules are much different.  He learns as he goes. Experience is his teacher. In the end, what Bigger (and the reader) has to learn goes SOUL DEEP. It speeds by all the rules of civilization. The REDS, the WHITES, and the BLACKS are all weighing on Bigger’s mind wanting something from him that he cannot give. He is truly an outsider who must face a reality he could never have imagined.

Another book that I highly suggest is The Fire Next Time (1962), a work of non-fiction by James Baldwin, an adversary of Richard Wright. It is very enlightening, collecting two Letters, written during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.  Each Letter looks frankly at the state of American race relations from the black perspective, as well as Baldwin’s personal history.

It was a suggestion offered by a Facebook friend, who said it should be taught in school. It did not disappoint me. In fact, it inflamed me even though it is 55 years old.

We have both books in three different formats. I used all three with both books. I read both the Hardcover versions, the eBook (when around a computer), and listened to the Audiobook as well.  I usually have a hard time following along with an audio version but both books were a joy to listen to. The Native Son CD is beyond excellent.

Reviewed by Tom, Main Library

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

After simmering on this book for a couple of weeks now, I’m changing my original 4 stars to a 2 ½ stars.

Ruth Jefferson is a Labor and Delivery nurse in Connecticut. She has worked more than twenty years in this field. For all intents and purposes, she is good at what she does.

One morning, she meets Davis Bauer, a beautiful baby boy. As she is giving him his newborn checkup, she senses something off with the parents. When she hands the baby back to his mother, his father requests to see her manager. When her manager returns from meeting with the new baby’s parents, Ruth is made aware that she is no longer allowed to work on their case.

You see, Ruth is African-American and the Bauer’s are white supremacists. What happens later is both sad and eye opening. After a sudden turn of events, the Bauer’s baby dies and Ruth is put on trial for his murder.

As I delved more into this book, it felt more like racism was on trial. This woman, who was simply doing her job, was thrown to the wolves by her employer because they knew that the parents wanted blood. It made me angry and it also made me very sad.

Small Great Things is told from the points of view of Ruth Jefferson, Turk Bauer and Ruth’s lawyer, Kennedy McQuarrie. I can completely relate to Ruth. I, too, am an African-American woman, raising a teenage son, albeit with my husband, in a time when it’s not very easy to be an African-American. Especially when it feels like our sons are targets for all types of things. I, like Ruth, have raised my son with integrity and the knowledge that he can be anything that he wants to be as long as he puts in the work. I, like Ruth, just want to prove that I can do my job just as well as anyone else.

When I started to read the words of Turk Bauer, my stomach clenched up in metaphorical knots. I wanted to vomit. I felt pent up rage and anger coursing through my blood. His words were vile and spoken with vitriol and I hated him instantly. I wanted to hate Jodi Picoult, too, because she had written these words for this character. I also know that, in order to be a great writer, you have to be able to draw out your reader’s emotions. She did just that.

I don’t even want to call Turk a man because he acted like an animal. He was out for revenge and the driving factor was the color of Ruth’s skin. Although I knew that he wasn’t real, he was a caricature of people that we all know exist.

Kennedy McQuarrie was also a character that I don’t know if I liked or just tolerated. She existed in her own world with her physician husband and outspoken young daughter. Until she met Ruth, her main thought was that she didn’t see color. Her character seemed to be one that was added for readers who may not like the content of Ms. Picoult’s new book yet would find comfort in reading about someone that was just like them. She is that person that insists they aren’t racist.

The more I read about race and how it pertained to the plight that Ruth Jefferson was going through, the more that I realized that the color of my skin is more than just a color. It symbolizes who I am in this country, in this state, in this city, in my life. This book brought out so many emotions that I didn’t really understand that I had. I felt anger at times and I wanted to punch Turk Bauer in the throat with all that I had. I also felt helpless and very sad. Most of all, I felt hurt.

The more I read this book, I became a little bit more perturbed and questioned the author’s motives. Like The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, Ms. Picoult has taken to writing a book from the viewpoint of an African-American woman, even though she is white. What bothers me about books like this are, although they are written well, if you have not had the African-American experience, how can you portray it as though you have? When you leave your pen and paper behind, you are able to settle back into your privilege and reap the benefits of it.

Like Ms. Stockett, Jodi Picoult is set to make money from the movie about this book. A book about experiences that she has never had. A book off the back of a fictional, African-American character with real world problems.

Picoult says, in an interview that she did with NPR’s Scott Simon, that she has wanted to write a book on race relations for about twenty years. Why did she wait until now, when so many things are happening with regards to race, to cash in on this movement? Maybe that is what bothers me the most.

I implore you to read the book. Maybe I read too much into it and am completely absorbed by my feelings about it. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll give it a 3.

Formats Available:  Regular Type, Large Type, eBook, Audiobook

Reviewed by Damera, Okolona Branch

Timeliness: Ten Books About Racism

OK, I’m going to get real for a moment.

A topic like racism is always difficult, most especially in print (in my opinion).  On one hand, you don’t want it to devolve into a screed because the topic is too important to let get lost in gobs of alienating rhetoric.  On the other, it is exactly that this topic is important that you don’t want to let the emotional import of it get lost in a dry examination, especially so in a time such as we currently face when some attempt to strip out emotion for their own purposes (be those reasons good, bad, or indifferent).

Let me be very clear.  Like it or not, racism exists.  It is a part of our daily existence whether we wish to consciously participate in it or not.  This last point, one’s conscious participation is the very bone – and also the bane – of contention in most debates.

So why not dig into the topic and see what you can learn?

Below are ten books that you can find in the library that can help you explore this topic*:

  1. Burning All Illusions: Writings from The Nation on Race, 1866-2002, edited by Paula J. Giddings
  2. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki
  3. How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev
  4. A Promise and a Way of Life: White Antiracist Activism by Becky Thompson
  5. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva
  6. The Redneck Manifesto by Jim Goad
  7. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
  8. The Wall Between by Anne Braden
  9. White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training by Judy Katz
  10. White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son by Tim Wise

*These selections are not meant to be the definitive statement on such a complicated social issue.

Of course, I welcome suggestions for additions to this list or for general comments on the topic as a whole.  If you wish to respond,  please click the “Leave a reply” link above.  Please remember that this forum is one that will not publish profanity, racially-charged slurs, personal attacks, or threats of any nature.

Article by Tony, Main Library