Shortly before 8 AM on May 25, 2020, Christian Cooper, fifty-seven, was birdwatching in the Ramble—a semi-wild part of New York’s Central Park—when a cocker spaniel bounded into view pursued by its owner loudly calling for him. Dogs are not allowed off a leash in the Ramble and Christian asked the owner to observe the rules. The dog’s owner, Amy Cooper (no relation), forty, refused. Christian insisted. Christian started filming her. Amy asked him to stop. He refused. She approached him with a threat. Amy is white; Christian is black.
“I’m going to call the cops,” she said. “Please call the cops,” he replied.
“I’m going to call the cops and tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” she continued. Once through to emergency services she tells the dispatcher: “There’s a man. African-American. He’s recording me and threatening me and my dog.” Becoming increasingly shrill, she would go on to mention that he was African American two more times.
Christian posted the video on Facebook; his sister, Melody, posted it on Twitter. In the midst of a global pandemic, both posts went viral.
Thirteen hours later, and 1,200 miles away, at a Minneapolis convenience store called Cup Foods, George Floyd, forty-four, paid for a packet of cigarettes with a $20 note. An employee called the police to tell them she suspected the note was counterfeit. The police came seven minutes later to arrest Floyd. Over the next twenty minutes, they would pull their gun on him, pull him out of his car, and throw him to the ground. Police officer Derek Chauvin, forty-four, would then place his knee on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes. Floyd died. Chauvin is white; Floyd was black.
Several people caught the incident on their cameras. Those videos, too, went viral, sparking global antiracist protests and rebellions across the country in support of Black Lives Matter. “The way we see things is affected by what we know and what we believe,” wrote John Berger in Ways of Seeing. “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”
The sight of Floyd being killed in real time is shocking; but news of it is not. His death at the hands of police does not contradict what we think and know about relations between African Americans and the police, but confirms them. The precise alchemy that makes his death, as opposed to others, so totemic is unclear. But it is precisely because it is emblematic of a broader, systemic issue that many could be galvanized around the incident to such effect. The interaction in Central Park, on the other hand, which was soon eclipsed by the response to Floyd’s death, is in many ways more challenging. In America’s racial morality play, the brutal officer with a badge using disproportionate and deadly force on an unarmed black man is a familiar character. But the Upper West Side female dog-walker wearing a mask fits less easily in the cartoonish and crude understanding of how American racism operates. And yet, there she is, marshaling her relative privilege, drawing on centuries of once spoken but now inherently understood tropes—a black man physically threatening a white woman in the woods—to summon the state to protect a right (to walk her dog untethered in the Ramble) that she doesn’t have. Chauvin had at least seventeen misconduct complaints against him in his twenty-year career. Cooper, who subsequently lost her job, issued an apology the next day asserting: “I am well aware of the pain that misassumptions and insensitive statements about race cause and would never have imagined that I would be involved in the type of incident that occurred with Chris.”
And yet, to understand the nature of American racism it is important to understand these two independent incidents not separately, but together. The brutal and the banal; the lethal and the liberal; the violence that is inflicted and the violence that is implied. For they operate not separately, but in concert. Amy’s threat makes no sense without the promise of Chauvin’s violence; his violence would not be possible without the tacit endorsement of those like her. Both knew they were being filmed. One must assume that they would not have acted in that way if they could have foreseen the ramifications. As such, each, in their own way, betrays the reflexes, impulses, and instincts of people who believe such behavior will elicit no consequences beyond bending the world, and the racial subordinates whom they encounter within it, to their will.
One of the reasons Richard Wright’s Native Son remains an enduring classic is because while the racial power structure outlined in the book has evolved over the years, its basic underpinnings remain recognizable even eighty years later.
True, Chicago, where the book is set, provided the country with the first black president. But it also remains one of the most segregated cities in the nation. The black infant mortality rate there is almost on a par with that of the West Bank. One third of the black children in the Chicago area live in poverty and, according to a 2002 study by the Urban League, 80 percent of the black adult male workforce in the city has a felony record (current or expired). Just as Chauvin and Amy Cooper had forebears that would have been recognizable in the world of Wright’s antihero, Bigger Thomas, so are the descendants of Bigger Thomas recognizable in ours.
With its population split more or less evenly among whites, blacks, and Chicanos, Chicago is multiracial, reliably Democratic, and evidently racist. Bigger Thomas’s heirs (in condition, not in deed) are everywhere. While reporting on all the children and teens who were shot dead in one day in the US for my book Another Day in the Death of America, I interviewed Doriane Miller, a general practitioner on the city’s South Side, where Bigger grew up, who told me how young people were showing up at her surgery with psychosomatic symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder. They also had RIP tattoos, which indicated someone close to them had died. “But when I tried to help them tie the pieces between their personal experience around this life-changing event and why they were in the office to see me in primary care, they would say: ‘This is no big deal, this happens every day, please ask your next question,’ ‘What are you going to do about it? Nothing is going to change what’s happened,’” Miller told me. “There was that sense that this is the way it is in my life and in my community. And so, you suck it up, you man up and you move on. They think, ‘What’s the point? I don’t care. There’s nothing you can do about this. Most of the people I know at the age of twenty-five have passed on in my community. The same thing is going to happen to me.’” She explained: “And so, in that late adolescent mind frame in which you tend to do more risk-taking and tend not to think about the consequences of your behavior on your future, you think, ‘What the heck, I’m not going to be here anyhow. I might as well live fast die young and leave a pretty corpse.’”
I had assumed that at least one person would be shot dead in Chicago on the random day I had chosen to focus on for my book. Sure enough, Tyshon Anderson, eighteen, was killed in a stairwell, just by East 79th Street on the South Side. Tyshon was a gang member and from his social media postings appeared to be a drug dealer, too. A Facebook post from ten months before he was killed shows at least $400 on a table, $250 of which is spread out in a fan with a gun beneath the central arch. The caption reads: “A day’s work.” “Tyshon was not an innocent boy,” says Regina, Tyshon’s godmother and one of his mother’s best friends. She knew Tyshon “before he was even thought of.” “He did burglary, sold drugs, he killed people. He had power in the street. He really did. Especially for such a young kid. He had power. A lot of people were intimidated by him and they were scared of him. I know he had bodies under his belt.”
With Tyshon, as with Bigger, it is, of course, vital to talk about personal responsibility. Both young men made choices; they made bad ones. The decisions they made affected others in devastating ways. Had I picked another day to cover gun deaths, I could well have been profiling one of Tyshon’s victims. Not only are both the products of racism, they inflict considerable pain on the people, most often the black people, around them. All of this matters.
And yet, none of it counts for much unless one is also prepared to talk about the collective responsibility for a society that creates the culture, and the odds, in which individuals must operate. Good choices, by themselves, are not enough. One study, by sociologist Devah Pager, revealed how employment chances differ according to race and criminal status. With black and white individuals presenting almost identical credentials including a high school diploma, a white man with a criminal record was slightly more likely to be considered for a job than a black man without one. A paper presented to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s annual conference in October 2014 revealed that, by the time they get to forty, high school dropouts born to rich families are as likely to be earning high salaries as college graduates from poor families. Or as The Washington Post put it: “Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong.”
None of this condones or excuses antisocial behavior. But it does illustrate the power structure of the society in which we are asked to behave and sets the parameters for how one might behave respectably while still inflicting pain and hardship. In Wright’s novel, Mr. Dalton gives millions to a civil rights organization and is committed to offering Bigger a chance. But as Max points out in his summation, Dalton also made those millions as a slumlord, charging black people more and refusing to rent to them beyond their segregated enclave. Mr. Dalton owns the rat-infested tenement in which Bigger’s family lives.
In his essay “How Bigger Was Born,” Wright explains that, while Bigger’s racial identity was essential to the storyline of Native Son, it was not exclusive to the condition. “I made the discovery that Bigger Thomas was not black all the time; he was white too, and there were literally millions of him everywhere,” he writes. “He is the product of a dislocated society; he is a dispossessed and disinherited man; he is all of this, and he lives amid the greatest possible plenty on earth and he is looking and feeling for a way out. Whether he’ll follow some gaudy, hysterical leader who’ll promise rashly to fill the void in him, or whether he’ll come to an understanding with the millions of his fellow workers… depends upon the future drift of events in America.” The direction of that “drift,” for now, is clear. At the time of writing, the “gaudy, hysterical leader” has been in the White House for almost four years and has emboldened the likes of Amy Cooper and Chauvin in their actions.
Following the 1967 race riots that started in Detroit, President Lyndon B. Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes. “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans,” the report argued in February 1968. “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” Two months later, Martin Luther King was assassinated and several cities, including Chicago, went up in flames.
But Native Son is more than just social commentary; it is also compelling as a work of literature. James Baldwin had a point when he slammed books like Native Son in his now renowned, friendship-ending essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” “Literature and sociology are not one and the same,” he argued, bemoaning the attempt to portray “life fitted neatly into pegs.” Yes, there is a one-dimensional functionality to the secondary characters in Native Son—shortly after meeting Bigger, Jan Erlone, Mary Dalton’s communist boyfriend, marvels at the Chicago skyline and tells him, “We’ll own all that some day, Bigger. After the revolution it’ll be ours. But we’ll have to fight for it… And when that day comes… there’ll be no black and white and no rich and poor”; Mr. Britten, the private detective, asks Peggy, the Daltons’ housekeeper, if Bigger’s behavior has changed since he’s known communists: “When he talks, does he wave his hands around a lot, like he’s been around a lot of Jews?”; Bigger’s girlfriend, Bessie, laments her lot: “I ain’t had no happiness, no nothing. I just work. I’m black and I work and don’t bother nobody”; Max’s summation at the trial is long and self-indulgent—but Baldwin missed the point, which is that the function these characters fulfill is to drive a dynamic narrative that explores and exposes the inner workings of Bigger’s troubled mind. It is through his collision with them that we follow our charmless protagonist as he vacillates between rage, fear, shame, and alienation.
Bigger is complex. Part Heathcliff, part Raskolnikov, he stalks the city—a mass of brooding resentment and violent impulsivity, in a fugue state. Brutalized and brutal, belittled and bewildered, submissive and threatening, amoral, immoral, ambivalent, antisocial, he tears through his life, more vicious and dismissive to most of those who are close to him and show him love than those who humiliate him. Left as such, Bigger would be an archetypal character in America’s racial pathology (like the boxer Sonny Liston who, according to LeRoi Jones, white people saw as “the big black Negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in [and] deal him under for all the hurts white men, through their arbitrary order, have been able to inflict on the world”). Indeed, in one aspect, Wright has conjured through Bigger the personification of Baldwin’s observation in The Fire Next Time that “the most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose. You do not need ten such men—one will do.” Bigger is one such man. By the end of the book, we know him intimately.
But Wright doesn’t leave him there. From the outside, Bigger may be archetypal, but from the inside, he is hardly a stereotypical character for the simple reason that few had ever written from inside his mind before. We do not identify with him; but we do identify through him. While his actions—murders, rape, violence, extortion—are obscene, Wright sees to it that we do not regard them as unfathomable. Bigger’s humiliation, his anxiety, alienation, and rage are tested in a number of dramatic settings—a new job, with his posse, with Bessie, at home, on the run, with lawyers, in prison—each time producing scenarios that are, for the most part, credible and engaging. In short, Bigger Thomas is not a stock character. The entire drama of the book stems from his mind and his actions.
Baldwin lampooned the protest novel as a “badly written and wildly improbable” tome that [puts] “the good of society… before style or characterization.” Native Son is not badly written, though it is in parts improbable; the characterization is, at times, formulaic, but the style is not. It does not, in the tradition of either socialist realist or conventional liberal literature, end with a clear moral message, offer redemption or suggest solutions. It works as a novel; the one thing it doesn’t work as is propaganda.
The ambivalence to a work that foregrounds a black murderer and rapist in 1940 is easy to understand. Bigger finds himself in an entirely unfamiliar situation—chauffeuring a white woman, intent on rebelling against her class, and her communist boyfriend, as they drink their way around town. That’s not a normal night out for anyone, then or now. All the same, in the eyes of white society he emerges as a character they already know—the lascivious, bestial black rapist and murderer, and Wright felt that pressure acutely. But herein lies the book’s core strength.
“Like Bigger himself,” Wright wrote in “How Bigger Was Born,” “I felt a mental censor… [whose] warnings were translated into my own thought processes thus: ‘What will white people think if I draw the picture of such a Negro boy? Will they not at once say: See, didn’t we tell you all along that niggers are like that?’” But he actively resisted it. “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…”
In this respect, Native Son stands less in the tradition of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, and closer in spirit to Langston Hughes’s 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”—a manifesto for black writers hemmed in by strictures imposed by race thinking. “We younger Negro artists who create, now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame,” Hughes wrote. “If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
This essay is adapted from the author’s afterword to a new edition of Richard Wright’s Native Son issued by Vintage Classics to mark the eightieth anniversary of the novel’s original publication.
An earlier version of this essay misattributed to Norman Mailer the quotation concerning Sonny Liston; it was from LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka). It also misidentified the late American sociologist Devah Pager as David Pager (a professor of computer science who is her father). The article has been updated, and the originating publisher informed.