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1 INTRODUCTION THE SCARS OF MEMORY they ask me to remember but they want me to remember their memories and I keep on remembering mine —Lucille Clifton, “why some people be mad at me sometimes” Jonathan doesn’t know his family history. —Wendell Holloway “Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinng!” The shrill ringing of an alarm clock opens Richard Wright’s explosive 1940 novel Native Son, deploying a new kind of language for the reading public to consider when talking about race. Native Son simultaneously captivated and terrified its readers with the story of Bigger Thomas’s abject poverty and his subsequent slide into an impossible nightmare when he accidentally kills a wealthy white teenage girl and then rapes and murders his girlfriend to whom he has confessed the original crime. With this book, Wright tore into the consciousness of the reading public. Native Son won many accolades and sold nearly a quarter of a million copies soon after being named the March selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club.1 What was it that drew readers to Bigger’s nightmare? It’s unlikely they came for the mere spectacle of racial violence, since they could get something akin to that merely by opening their newspaper to the crime blotter, where “colored” really meant criminal. Instead, they came to Native 2 / Introduction Son because they believed that it offered them a purchase on the Negro worldview. Native Son allowed white liberal friends of the race to see behind the veil and moan, stammer, and shout. This was all by design, of course, and Wright said as much in his evocative essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born.” He had no intention of repeating in Native Son the “naïve mistake” he had made in Uncle Tom’s Children, published two years earlier. Upon reading glowing reviews of this earlier work, Wright lamented “that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.”2 In the world of black cultural expression, Wright’s Native Son came at the end of a two-decade-long celebration of arts, letters, and music. This era, the New Negro Renaissance, was animated by a new sensibility concerning African American cultural contributions as whites raced to consume black poetry, literature, painting, sculpture, and music. It was also an era of a changing political language as blacks began to assert their claim to full citizenship more aggressively than in the past. Nationalist Marcus Garvey thrilled the black masses gathering in increasing numbers in northern and midwestern cities with his call for race pride and a black empire; intellectual and provocateur W. E. B. Du Bois warned white America that black soldiers were returning from fighting in Europe and would continue to fight for their freedoms at home; poet Claude McKay urged his audiences to “face the murderous, cowardly pack . . . Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back.” Political organizations, not just individuals, were also fluent in this new discourse. For example, the Communist Party USA and then the Popular Front looked appealing to many blacks who had become frustrated with the Democratic and Republican Party status quo.3 In the fall of 1940, a mere six months after Native Son was published, several prominent blacks lobbied President Franklin Roosevelt, urging him to desegregate the armed forces. When labor leader A. Philip Randolph, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) executive secretary Walter White, and National Urban League head T. Arnold Hill were rebuffed, Randolph developed a new tactic aimed at forcing Roosevelt ’s hand. As the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids as well as the first president of the Popular Front–era National Negro Congress, Randolph believed he could tap into a vast network of organized workers who shared his frustrations with the pace of change. In January 1941, and in response to Roosevelt’s stonewalling, Randolph issued a call for blacks to Introduction / 3 march on the nation’s capital to denounce segregation in the armed forces as well as rampant discrimination in the nation’s defense industries. Roosevelt sent New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia and then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to convince Randolph to cancel the march. Randolph did not comply and even increased the size of...


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