“The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever,” wrote Irving Howe. A life-changing book is a rare thing, but this one changed mine when I first read it in 1987. Wright’s storytelling, his use of narrative voice and point of view, hold such strengths that I not only understood intellectually the societal forces at work on Bigger Thomas but also felt internally his hatreds and fears and powerlessness and rage—not abstractly but viscerally, emotionally. I recognized in a new way the racism that causes Bigger's violence, and I found myself rooting for his escape, hoping that in the end he might find a way to dodge the fate that America and his own nature have set out for him. This is the wonder of deep identification and human empathy that good fiction owns. The scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls the publication of Native Son “the single most influential shaping force in black literary history.” I submit that it’s not only black literary history but American history itself that has been shaped by this powerful classic. In my view, it’s a must-read for all of us.
From Books That Inspire 2009.