Before Toni and Jimmy, it was Richard Wright for me. He led me to them.
Native Son is the first “Black” novel I ever read in my life. Slipped between the school books and huge Danielle Steeles and beautiful Barbara Taylor Bradfords, with no black or brown faces on any book covers I can recall but Mama by Terry McMillan and Maya Angelou’s memoirs, I found one on this paperback, with the outer plastic layer and inner envelope I recognized from the public library’s books. Come to find out, my mother had checked Native Son out when she was a teenager and never returned it.
Don’t panic librarians! She more than paid the fines. She wound up working there part-time about 30 years later, coordinating a few author readings including one of mine, and this book was one in a poignant continuum that would lead her daughter to be a writer checked out in that very same library one day, nominated for awards in Wright’s name and hearing from librarians nationwide: “We just can’t keep your book in the library” or “We have to keep ordering your book… people never return it.”
Perhaps almost 50 years before I would find that mass market paperback of the novel in 1940, a black man in a black suit like the one on the cover may have more readily signaled ‘chauffeur’ or ‘butler’ to those who picked it up. But I saw the cover and immediately thought ‘church’ or ‘rich’, maybe a George Jefferson moving on up.
The author’s name, “Richard Wright,” conjured a sense of morality and dignity, even royalty. And everything I learned about blacks and books, mostly during Black History Month, was so pretty and celebratory and jazzy Harlem Renaissance. I took the hijacked library book somewhere quiet and prepared to read about, maybe, a very righteous and powerful black man who leads his community over some large hurdle or into a promised land, as a big preacher or a mayor or a wealthy businessman who helps a lot.
What I got were raggedy and crowded Chicago tenements, Cooley High and “We Real Cool” brothers cursing at the pool hall and movie theater in between no jobs or degrading jobs, whole family vs. huge rat killings, quickie sex in between all that, a rape of a black woman who is supposed to be a girlfriend, white or Jewish lawyers talking about Communism or Marxism or something, a murder of a white woman in her own house, her body burned in her family mansion’s incinerator, her disappearance growing in seriousness and finally to a manhunt, a ransom note, a fugitive’s heart-pounding and valiant run through basements and rooftops and the apartment of the same black woman he raped but she let him back in anyway, the fugitive’s capture I was so sad about, and then maybe 200 pages of more of the Communism or Marxism from the white or Jewish lawyers I did not understand. So I skipped past all that to a courtroom trial and the ending I certainly understood: a black man goes to jail.
This was my introduction to the great Black American novel. I was hooked.
I had spent elementary and middle school writing simple family stories and kid silliness, coloring in white characters. They are the only ones I saw who got stories I could see my own life, situations, quandaries and domestic squabbles in. It seemed to be what was wanted and I was good at following directions. Oddly, not one teacher or contest I submitted to asked a black girl to change her characters to match her own complexion.
The crucible of black stories I could see in books, film and television were to remind the world of black oppression I had seen and experienced vicariously in weird situations between whites and black adults around me, or stories they couldn’t let go so they forgot telling them over and over out of the blue. These were all excellent novels, films and shows. The Women of Brewster Place, Roots and The Color Purple were favorites films all watched. Women who were more “cityfied” (meaning they went to Chicago a lot and had African decor or clothes) did have those books. I just could not map my own life onto them at such a young age in a provincial Midwest region.
But Bigger was bigger than that. He gave an adventure, a crime novel, a mystery, a dangerous and scary hero instead of an oppressed saint, a boy my people would have warned me to stay away from who became a crush anyway, for possibilities this big bad boy could make it into a famous book. I adored him for his imperfection and immorality. Maybe I fell in love with him. It was the first time I saw blacks in stories could be like everybody else if that is what the story truly was, criminals and murderers and terrible people, not just figures popping up to correct or improve white injustice, slavery and structural racism. The pressure to be good, set an example and “represent” a race, was not the only way.
It was a match made in heaven. Deep inside, I was not interested in saints and good representatives. They left me nothing to the imagination.
It would be a few more years before I found The Bluest Eye, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, in that same public library. Again, the cover was a trick; I thought of quiet Little House on the Prairie or Little Women tales when it just happened to be a black girl with coarse pigtails sitting on a big house porch. It would be another decade before I found Gayl Jones, whom Morrison edited under her poetic novels about black women drinkers, prisoners, family estrangers and “whores” willing to castrate their men.
If Native Son made black literature more alluring than it ever was for me as a reader, The Bluest Eye made my little world just as alluring and deep for books as a writer. The people in a small Midwest Lorain, Ohio, talked and acted and thought like those in my small Midwest Kankakee, Illinois, down to the writer’s rejection of phonics rules to catch the exact sound of a kind of black English I heard so clearly the characters’ speeches made me think I was hearing things. Since I was just in middle school, the dialogue passages wound up being all I could comprehend or string a story together with, but that was enough at the time to show me what I thought were just everyday people, including myself, were thrilling enough to populate library shelves.
But I would have never found that book in a library if Native Son had not opened my eyes to a path to find more of these dangerous, exciting books by black people. And, I am happy to say, though I did not at all understand it or even complete it until college, I did return The Bluest Eye to the library.