A student of mine approached me soon after we began reading Native Son. She was concerned by the graphic nature of the novel, and she tried to explain to me that she’d already read a number of “books like this,” so she felt that it would be okay for her to sit this one out.
Native Son is a terribly difficult novel to get through. There are a couple of really graphic and ugly scenes in the story, but neither scene (nor anything that leads up to it) is gratuitous; those scenes are vital to our understanding of the reality of the main character. I insisted that she continue in the reading. I told her that I understood that it was hard to read, but that I thought it was important that she keep at it.
She came to me again this morning, upset about yet another graphic murder in the story. She had worked herself into tears, and I spent the better part of ten minutes trying to explain to her that a good part of the POINT of this novel is the graphic nature of those scenes and of the lives of the people in the story – those people who find themselves with choiceless choices. I’m not sure she heard me, though, so I wrote her this note (which I cc’d to her mother, just to give her a heads-up). My hope is that I hit the right note of appreciating her objections while explaining why I think it’s important for her to keep at it.
I understand that you’re upset right now, Honey, and I am genuinely sorry for that. I want you to understand, though, that I think that the work that you’re doing is very important, and that I wouldn’t be asking you to do it if I didn’t think it was something you could handle.
Native Son is a VERY difficult novel to get through. I know that the graphic description of two of the key events is particularly troubling to you, and I fully appreciate why you feel that way; please don’t think for a moment that I don’t understand that. What I want you to understand, though, is that those scenes are desperately important to the overall function of the novel.
One of the central ideas of this work is the brutality of the life that Bigger (and by extension, other oppressed people) live EVERY SINGLE DAY. We don’t want to look at the ugliness; we don’t want to look at the desperation and the despair and the fear and the rage that are an everyday reality for people who find themselves in impossible situations with impossible choices. We, as members of a privileged class – you and I are white, educated, reasonably wealthy people living in stable families in a reasonably safe and clean and well-appointed environment – can say we understand how other people live, but we really don’t see it; we can only imagine it. It’s uncomfortable when we’re presented – full-on and in our faces – with the hard and cruel and brutal that other people have to live around all the time. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable; it’s supposed to make you uneasy. I want for you to use the skills of critical and professional distance that we’ve been practicing all year to take a step back from those scenes. The point isn’t the graphic descriptions (though I know they’re hard to get around): the point is that Bigger doesn’t believe he has any other choices.
What are the implications of that fact, and what kind of work can you do with that knowledge? What kind of spin does that put on your thinking about current events, or about the reality that you and I get to participate in a system that deliberately and brutally excludes entire populations of people? What does the investigation of Bigger’s reality – of his self-image and his self-esteem, of his prospects and his goals, of his aspirations and his dreams, of his relationships and the ways he believes he’s supposed to behave – do to the ways you think about yourself? To the ways you think about our collective past? To the ways you think about our present, and the policies, stereotypes, and assumptions that we continue to create (or to perpetuate)?
There’s a lot of really great thinking to be mined from this novel. I’m eager to get Mr. Carson in to the class to help you all work through the history of the time period – and to see how some of those policies and attitudes are STILL in place today (have you been paying attention to all the racism that’s evident in our current political and national news? Have you heard of Treyvon Martin and seen all the ugliness that has stirred up?). This novel is an important one for you to have in your arsenal; I know that you’re angry and upset, but I also know that you’re smart enough to get past that and to do some really significant thinking.
Trust me, Josephine; I have faith that you’re more than capable of getting through this, and of coming out on the other end with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of race, economics, and politics that will give you a really strong and impressive foundation for a lot of the work you’re going to be asked to do in college. Remember, too, that I’m around to talk you through all of it; I don’t expect you to do any of this work on your own.