I tend to go through vintage phases where I binge-watch a lot of classic Hollywood films and TV shows. Well, I started doing that with books and I wanted to review two pieces of literature that, to this day, still impact the lives of many.
The first novel that I re-read was from my favorite author, Richard Wright, entitled Native Son.
“Well, they own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They like God. They don’t even let you feel what you want to feel. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die.”
This story takes place in Chicago during the 1930s. Bigger Thomas, the main character, is a 20-year-old black man whose had a hard time staying out of trouble as well as coping with poverty, racism, and the overall disadvantage that came with being black in America, specifically at that time. However, he’s given an opportunity to clean up his act and support his family by becoming a chauffeur for a very wealthy family, the Daltons. That optimism is quickly shattered when, out of fear, a murder happens at the hands of Bigger Thomas. The narrative goes from “hope for the future” to running for your life to defending the misunderstood.
When I first read this story back in Middle School I didn’t understand why I was so connected to Bigger Thomas. Now that I’m older and because I’ve read this book 4 times, I understand why. I see myself in Bigger Thomas, not in relations to the bad choices he made but mostly because of the insecurity and defeatedness (at times) that comes with being a black man. There were moments during the story, particularly Bigger’s conversations with his lawyer, that I just had to pause and process everything that was being said.
Native Son was published in 1940 but the content is still relative to present-day. By the end of the story, I understood why Bigger was so angry and why I couldn’t look at him as the aggressor.
The next book that I read was from Zora Neal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
“Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.”
This narrative takes place around the early 20th century (1900s) throughout the south, Florida and Georgia. The main character, Janie Crawford, tells her story as a flashback to her best friend, Pheoby. Focusing on her relationships with her three husbands, Their Eyes Were Watching God sheds light on the powerlessness that women, particularly black women, felt during that time. Janie does find true love with her third husband, Tea Cake, but there was still a lack of freedom throughout that relationship as well. Ultimately, her journey to happiness is achieved after she has found her own voice and self-worth.
Awhile back, a friend of mine suggested that I read this story with her. I had already seen the movie starring Halle Berry but knew that the book would have more content. However, by the time that I finished I didn’t look at this novel as just a romance, this was a story about self-empowerment for women. Janie’s character didn’t have a voice for herself throughout this entire story; married off at 16 to her first husband, told how to dress, silenced by abuse, but still remained faithful. And what really opened my eyes was the fact that the abuse she received was from the hands of black men.
Within the black community, a lot of black men (myself included) have a tendency to tune out some of the black feminists who pride themselves on telling black men how oppressive we’ve been to them, not taking into consideration that we may need to hear some of those uncomfortable truths. Historically speaking, women have been silenced and controlled by men. So in regards to my community, if you are a man and you don’t value the unique struggles of black women or even want to admit that some black men have taken society’s abuse out on black women, you are not a part of the solution for uplift.
It was by pure coincidence that I read these two novels back-to-back, considering the criticism that Richard Wright had towards Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. He stated, “Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh.” I would have to disagree. Both Hurston and Wright told the truth about black life during specific time periods, so much so, that I can still relate to some of the messages in each. And if anyone laughs, they just don’t understand classic literature.
Until Next Time…
“Between Laughter and Tears.” Relations of Race. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.