October 23-25, 2003

Richard Wright’s powerful novel, published to great acclaim in 1940, has had a varied critical history. Though Native Son was widely praised and sold well (it was a selection of the Book of the Month Club) later African-American writers and critics found Wright’s portrayal of racial relations in America to be severely flawed. James Baldwin famously compared Native Son to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, complaining that Wright had created a simplistic study that pandered to white America’s stereotyped conceptions of black men as dangerous, brutish criminals. Ralph Ellison, an early protégé of Wright’s, also came to criticize Native Son as overly simplistic. Wright’s literary reputation declined in the 1950s, to be revived during the civil-rights movements.

This novel, subject to so much disparagement, is now one of the acknowledged classics of twentieth-century American literature, a staple of high-school classrooms, assured of a prominent place in any list of African-American writing. Yet its critical reception remains unsettled. Most discussion of Native Son centers around the figure of Bigger, without achieving consensus as to how this character is to be viewed. Is he a helpless victim of his environment? A symbol of the proletariat empowered by violence? Is the incompleteness of Bigger’s personality a realistic portrayal or an act of bad faith that succumbs to racist caricature?

Interpretation of Native Son is further complicated by the fact that the turning points of the plot — Bigger’s accidental murder of a white woman, and his later rape and murder of his girlfriend — occur at the tense intersection of race and gender. As a consequence, readings of the novel tend to be polarized between studies of the role of race in the novel and examinations of the place of sexual violence. To sympathize with Bigger is to ignore the fate of the two women who die at his hands; while to concentrate on Bigger’s victims is to neglect Bigger’s own victimization by a violently racist society.

As is fitting with a novel of such complexity (a complexity only exacerbated by its critical reception) this seminar will present Native Son at the intersection of several disciplines. We will discuss Wright’s use of, and influence on, sociological methodology; the presence of race in discourses of modernism and modernity; and strategies of teaching Native Son. Other topics for discussion may include the significance of Native Son in the context of black migration, the role of the object world in the novel, and Wright’s relationship to naturalism. While any final consensus on Native Son may be impossible to achieve, this troubled and troubling novel allows us to set the ground for productive debate in several fields.

Presenters will include Kenneth Warren (English Languages and Literatures, African American Studies), Jacqueline Stewart (English Languages and Literatures, Cinema and Media Studies, African American Studies), Jacqueline Goldsby (English Languages and Literatures), Janice Knight (English Languages and Literatures).

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