Saturday, January 5, 2013

Aimless Reading: The W's, Part 34 (Richard Wright)

Native Son
Wright, Richard
Native Son

I think this was my classroom copy of this book from my high school teaching stint in NYC 1992-1994.

Catcher in the Rye was probably the most significant book I read during my adolescence because in helping me find a voice for my own sense of alienation from my peers it also opened up the world of books and reading. That said, Richard Wright's Native Son runs a close second in importance becuse it took the feeling of alienation and made it political.  Holden's alienation is the result of a thwarted search for authenticity among the members of his social class. Bigger's social circumstance is one of de facto alienation and his resistance to it is both tragic and revolutionary. If ever a book I read at that age helped me develop a political consciousness, this was it.

I remember teaching it in NYC. I also taught Black Boy, Wright's autobiography of his youth, to the younger students. I seem to have lost my copy of that. I remember reading aloud from the latter to a group of freshman, about half of whom were black. There was a lot of talk in urban schools at the time about the use of the n-word among black youth. My friend's school in Harlem had posters all through the hallways that had ""N-word" inside a red circle with a slash through it.

There's a passage in that book where a couple of young boys are playing around on a street corner, using the n-word over and over to refer to eh other. Naif that I was, I read this passage aloud to my students. thinking that it would raise a few questions about what it might mean to use this word. After I had said it aloud five or six times, using the same kind of inflections my students did when they spoke to each other, they started to rebel. Kids were shouting out "stop it!"

What ensued was not a discussion of the use of the word by the students, but about the use of the word by me, a white teacher. They were insistent that whatever questions their use of the word raised, I was not allowed to use it. Ever. That pretty much ended the discussion. In my ignorance on the subject I had gotten everyone so angry at me that teaching the lesson was no longer possible. A lesson learned, I suppose.

The debate rages on in the wake of the release of the latest Tarantino movie.

from Native Son


An alarm clock clanged in the dark and silent room. A bed spring creaked. A woman's voice sang out

"Bigger, shut that thing off!"

A surly grunt sounded above the tinny ring of metal. Naked feet swished dryly across the planks in the
wooden floor and the clang ceased abruptly.

"Turn on the light, Bigger."

"Awright," came a sleepy mumble.

Light flooded the room and revealed a black boy standing in a narrow space between two iron beds,
rubbing his eyes with the backs of his hands. From a bed to his right the woman spoke again:

"Buddy, get up from there! I got a big washing on my hands today and I want you-all out of here."

Another black boy rolled from bed and stood up. The woman also rose and stood in her nightgown.

"Turn your heads so I can dress," she said.

The two boys averted their eyes and gazed into a far comer of the room. The woman rushed out, of her
nightgown and put on a pair of step-ins. She turned to the bed from which she had risen and called:

"Vera! Get up from there!"

"What time is it, Ma?" asked a muffled, adolescent voice from beneath a quilt.

"Get up from there, I say!"

"O.K., Ma."

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