Native Son chronicles the Chicago Richard Wright—like so many other African Americans—found on the other side of the Great Migration.
“An indescribable city, huge, roaring, dirty, noisy, raw, stark, brutal; a city of extremes: torrid summers and sub-zero winters, white people and black people, the English language and strange tongues, foreign born and native born, scabby poverty and gaudy luxury, high idealism and hard cynicism!” – Richard Wright, “How Bigger Was Born”
In the Black Belt
Redlining, the practice of tying mortgage rates and availability to so-called risk—a flimsy code for privileging whiteness—carved the city into segregated “extremes.” In the Chicago Housing Authority’s 1938 map of “mortgage risk districts,” 4605 South Drexel Boulevard, where Native Son’s Dalton family lives, falls within a tiny all-white “A District,” for long-term mortgages. Just blocks away, the Thomas family lives at 3721 South Indiana Avenue—in a vast, red “D District,” categorically denied mortgages.
In the burgeoning “Black Belt,” realtors split former single-family multi-room apartments, where white families might pay $50 a month, into small one-room “kitchenettes,” with a shared bathroom down the hall. Savvy and unscrupulous realtors stood to quadruple their profits: Native Son’s Thomas family pays $8 a week. In 12 Million Black Voices, Wright’s 1941 “Folk History of the Negro in the United States,” he calls the kitchenette “the funnel through which our pulverized lives flow to ruin and death on the city pavement at a profit.”
In the Headlines
“Any Negro who has lived in the North or the South knows that times without number he has heard of some Negro boy being picked up on the streets and carted off to jail and charged with ‘rape,’” Wright decries, “Life had made the plot over and over again, to the extent that I knew it by heart.” Even as Wright drafted Native Son, the same old story blazed through the headlines again and fueled his novel.
During the 1938 prosecution of Robert Nixon for the alleged rape and murder of several women, Chicago’s white mainstream newspapers the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Daily Times luridly sensationalized Nixon as a “jungle beast,” “ape-like,” and “very black—almost pure Negro. His physical characteristics suggest an earlier link in the species.” Simultaneously, the leading African American newspaper Chicago Defender contended that police had brutalized Nixon and coerced his confession. As crucially, the Defender held that his innocence or guilt were irrelevant to his fundamental humanity. Rather than tracing the silhouette of a racist archetype, the Defender delved into his experience under headlines like “Robert Nixon, Who Has Faced Chair Seven Times, Tells Just How It Feels.”