Native Son

A couple years ago we found a copy of Richard Wright’s famous novel Native Son tucked into the corner of a Goodwill’s book section. It sat on the shelf and in the queue of both our long reading lists until I finally decided to pick it up this year. I’ve been a pretty slow reader lately so it took me a while to get through the book but I’m glad I took the time to read it.

About halfway through the book I started wondering why it took me until I read Ta-nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me to know who Richard Wright was. This book was just as good if not better than the classics we read in high school like Brave New WorldOf Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, and All Quiet on the Western Front — some of these authors are even Wright’s contemporaries. Why not include a book that wrestles with the same weighty societal mores but from the perspective of a black artist in 1940s Chicago? The answer is surely nuanced and multi-faceted but part of it surely had to do with the fact that our district’s English curriculum was largely, if not entirely, set by white people.

Native Son is a book about power, violence, fear, and survival. It’s a book about how crimes and criminals are created in the hearts and minds of society reflecting onto individuals. It’s about words and actions speaking louder than money. And it’s also about an anti-hero, Bigger Thomas, a black man in Chicago who accidentally kills a white woman.

From the beginning of the book, Wright doesn’t set you up to love Bigger. He’s cruel to his sister, his mother, his friends, pretty much everybody else in his life. He gets offered a job in a wealthy white household to be their chauffeur and through an escalating set of circumstances, ends up killing their daughter. Wright’s narration throughout these events helps you understand Bigger’s actions, reactions, and perspective on the lot was dealt and ultimately keeps him sympathetic, even if you’re never fully rooting for him.

Aside from the beautiful writing, what struck me most about the book was how little has changed. You don’t hear about vigilante mobs coming after black men accused of committing crimes against white people now, but you do hear them dehumanized with a lot of the same language used by the newspapers and white people in Native Son. You still see well meaning white people “giving a chance” to black people they perceive as “troubled” while simultaneously reinforcing systems of oppression against those same populations.

There’s a myth a lot of northern people still believe that slavery, racism, and segregation didn’t exist in states that didn’t secede during the civil war and Native Son does a good job of exposing and showing just how those systems worked in big northern cities like Chicago. Wright shows how housing discrimination was much more than the redlining policies where mortgages weren’t given to people who lived in certain parts of the city. It was also a systemic practice of refusing to rent in certain parts of the city to black families.

Mr. Dalton, the well-to-do white man who hires Bigger as a driver, was also his family’s landlord. During his trial, Bigger’s attorney questions Dalton asking why he charges more in rent to black families than white families. His answer, there’s more demand for housing in black neighborhoods which drives up rent. His attorney follows up to ask why Dalton refuses to let black families rent in white neighborhoods with lower rent he calls it a matter of practice and tradition. Thus the Black Belt of 1930s Chicago was created through a systemic practice of segregation that raised rents on disproportionately poorer black families, and reinforced by the practice of redlining those wealthier families out of home ownership opportunities. Today, gentrification carries on this legacy in many cities.

Those same policies lead to prejudices and Wright doesn’t let you forget that Bigger was born and became an adult believing he embodied the stereotypes he was born into. He saw himself a certain kind of person: black, a criminal, and in poverty, facing a world full of those like him and others. And when you’re born believing you’re a certain way, it’s hard to see many other possibilities. We still struggle with this problem today. We see it in unemployment rates, standardized test scores, patterns of gentrification, access to social services, voting rights… the list goes on an on. We also still see white savior types like Mr. Dalton throwing money at communities or rushing to give people a “chance” without understanding the underlying human condition.

All in all, Native Son was a sad story reflecting a sad reality that hasn’t changed much in the intervening 77 years since it was published. Heartbreaking is how I think about Bigger, his family, his friends, the Daltons, and the City of Chicago portrayed in the book.  It’s also the word I use when I think about Jamar Clark, Tamir Rice, their families, all the white folks (probably including me!) who try to fix when they should be listening, and all the systems that still keep minorities apart, unequal, and disenfranchised.

How to be blinded by privilege

Yesterday in the wake of another comedian and powerful person, Sen. Al Franken, being accused of sexual indiscretions, a piece I saw shared by a lot of smart people was by Lindy West in the New York Times called “Why Men Aren’t Funny. Eventually, I found time to read it and I largely agree with it, especially the final conclusion that the comedy industry props up an immensely patriarchal system that masquerades as a meritocracy. That seems super obvious to me, and I agree that the solution is to prop up comics — and other professionals — who “are not male, not straight, not cisgender, not white.”

One thing that made me pause in West’s piece was her astonishment at Marc Maron’s apparent ignorance of this patriarchy.

A great many people have been pointing out women’s disadvantages in comedy for a very long time. Those people are called women. In return, we’ve been abused, discredited, blacklisted, turned into punch lines and driven out of the industry.

I don’t find this surprising both as a Maron listener and as a person of significant privilege. I am all of male, straight, cisgender, and white (MSCW), after all. It’s not to excuse Maron’s ignorance to say it’s not surprising. It is tremendously easy to be blinded by your own privilege, even if someone confronts you with it. I’ve encountered fellow MSCWs who are staggered when they’re confronted with these realities and so ignorant to them they can’t even imagine how to make it right. These are people I look up to at work in many ways. They’re people I admire for their ingenuity, but they’re blind to the broader scope of their privilege in the workplace.

Maron might be a perfect example of how easy it is to be blinded by privilege. I lost track of how many times he said something like “you’ve paid your dues, you know the deal,” to a comic guest — especially one from the old guard. He’s congratulated comics who “paid their dues” and worked out his prejudices against comics who didn’t pay their dues or found success some other way. Yet, despite the evidence, he still sees (or perhaps saw) “paying your dues” as an important part of being a professional comic. Listening to it, it sounds like he has an agenda, a worldview he’s trying to reinforce; it sounds a lot like the way other MSCWs justify their biases and prejudices about the other parts of the world.

It’s an easy trap to assume the system that worked for you works equitably for all even when you know it doesn’t. Failing to understand how others are locked out those systems, and rejecting evidence to the contrary is the definition of hegemonic privilege. It’s the same trap that allows white folks to reach the conclusion that all black kids need to do to avoid being shot by police is pull up their pants, stop looking like gangsters, and hanging around with thugs. It’s really easy for a white person to say, “well my kid’s been arrested a couple times and he didn’t get shot because he cooperated with the police. Just ask Bill Cosby, he knows!” to dismiss the overwhelming evidence that black youth are disproportionately targets of arrest and police violence.

It’s the trap of our default setting and it’s imperative for all of us to go out of our way to toggle that setting toward empathy. After the election, I saw a lot of people saying that over thanksgiving we MSCWs needed to start talking to our relatives who overwhelmingly supported Trump. We need to do a lot more than talking, and we need to talk to the ones who supported Hillary, too. Maron isn’t the only person to embody otherwise progressive viewpoints while propping up problematic power structures, and comedy clearly isn’t the only industry. We need to be confronting our people stuck on their default settings wherever they are, whenever it happens.