The life of Richard Wright, born in 1908 less than a half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment's ratification ended U.S. slavery, in some way stands as testament to the United States' ability to reinvent itself. In less than fifty years, the United States, former prison house to black human chattel, counted among its citizens one of the most prominent writers of the twentieth century. This writer also happened to be the grandson of black American slaves. American exceptionalism encourages us to look upon the facts of Wright's life and stand astounded that it took only two generations for the nation to turn a slave into a great American writer. Yet buying into the narrative of American exceptionalism requires that we make ourselves blind to the harsh realities that marred black life in the United States from post-emancipation well into the twentieth century: Jim Crow, urban poverty, racism, underemployment, high infant mortality, and the list goes on. Unable to rectify the sense of his own humanity with the history and the reality of the state-sanctioned inequality under which most blacks lived during the early part of the twentieth century, Richard Wright spent his life critiquing the myth of American racial progress engendered by notions of American exceptionalism.
It was a critique that mandated Wright hone an artistic vision of America as a nation imperiled by its refusal to admit black humanity. His responsibility, he felt as an artist, was to represent the negative realities that were generated by such a national incapacity. In his critically acclaimed novel, Native Son (1940), Wright explored the possibility that Bigger Thomas's, the novel's protagonist, social construction and resultant retaliation were founded upon the reality that his human potential would be forever denied by white power structures. The first Book-of-the-Month Club selection written by an African American, Native Son is a graphically violent imagining of how black inhumanity is created by U.S. racism and racial inequity. Bigger's fear, flight, and fate are dictated by the destructive American racial landscape that produced him. In responding to one critic's negative review of the violence in Native Son, Wright retorted:
[I]f there had been one person in the Dalton household who viewed Bigger Thomas as a human being, the crime would have been solved in half an hour.
Did not Bigger himself know that it was the denial of his personality that enabled him to escape detection so long? The one piece of incriminating evidence which would have solved the "murder mystery" was Bigger's humanity, and the Daltons, Britten, and the newspaper men could not see or admit the living clue of Bigger's humanity under their very eyes! ("I Bite the Hand That Feeds Me" 828)
For Wright, more destructive than Bigger's murders of Bessie Mears and Mary Dalton was the racist nation that made the deeds inevitable: Bigger murdered because he was black and poor, and he nearly got away with murder because he was not considered human in the eyes of the novel's white characters for those same reasons. Even the most well-intentioned white characters, like Bigger's defense lawyer Boris Max, are hamstrung by an inability to grasp Bigger as more than a symbol of racial oppression; they are unable to reckon with him as a human being, an agent of his own destiny.
As Baldwin would point out on numerous occasions, Wright's protest fiction was always at some level a disingenuous image of black identity because Wright was unwilling to grapple with the reality of black humanity in his literary rendering of American race relations. In the critique that rocked their relationship, Baldwin noted that Bigger Thomas's failing, and therefore Wright's failing, was that he "admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him from his birth" ("Everybody's Protest Novel" 18). …