Native Sonned

The other day, in response to this post on Ralph Ellison, commenter judedc asked:


In talk to me like I'm stupid mode, can the horde provide a few examples of crude, provincial protest literature?

I threw in Richard Wright's Native Son, and in another genre, Spike Lee's Bamboozled. I could have also thrown in the reams of bad "Kill Whitey/Off The Pigs" poetry I wrote circa 93. But Wright seemed like the best example to me, though I don't know how well the word "provincial" applies. 

I may well be carrying a grudge because, when I went off to college, Native Son was one of those "must reads." It didn't help that I was just coming off Zora Neal Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, a book that did more to shape my notions of a black aesthetic that probably any I've ever read. I found Hurston work elegant, confident and self-possessed. I found Wright to be pretty much the opposite--didactic, cranky and insecure. 

I never believed Bigger to be an actual person. In fact, I thought Wright actually ended up doing the work of the racists he sought to denounce, by committing the common lefty mistake of portraying a people under siege as devoid of humanity. (Lefties say it's because of systemic forces. Righties say it's culture or genes. I don't buy either.) The lesson Native Son for me was pretty simple--when you don't write well the racists win. 

But the book obviously enjoys a high place in the canon. Horde legionnaire Ekapa responded with this defense of Native Son:

I believe that we do Wright a great disservice by viewing his work through the lens of a tradition that he was very deliberately and very consciously not working within. Native Son is firmly within the modernist social realism as practiced most famously by the playwright Bertolt Brecht. 

Since this is a convention that never gained a firm foothold in US literary/artistic circles for a myriad of reasons, there's a tendency, misguided in my view, to see work that is in that vein as an aesthetic failure when in fact it is operating within a different milieu, one that our US orientation is hostile to in ways that affect us at a deeply unconscious level leading us to a dismissal and denigration of the work. 

Yes, both Ellison and Wright are working within the rather capacious modernist tradition, but operating in different parts of it. Ellison's allegiance is to the part of modernism rooted in the romantic movement that privileges a sort of platonic aesthetic rigour, while Wright's work is firmly within the section of modernism rooted in realism/naturalism. Ellison's pronouncements though trenchant within the tradition that he works in, ultimately have very little of import to say about the work of people like Wright or Brecht for that matter.

I don't know anything about Bertolt Brecht or really modernist social realism. When I hear the phrase I think, though, I think of Theodore Dreiser and Diego Rivera. But  I imagine these guys are related, aesthetically, but I'm not really clear on how.

At any rate, I think I'd open the floor up for discussion. I'd like nothing more than to develop an aesthetic appreciation of Native Son.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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