The objectives of required reading lists are to teach and expose high school students to books that society deems as a must read to all. The books chosen on a high school reading list define literature and convey different themes such as race, love, and equality. A novel should evoke emotional response, challenge the reader’s perspective, and present information that is applicable to the current society. Native Son by Richard Wright should be read by high school students because it allows readers to empathize with the characters, challenges the reader’s perspective through thought provoking questions, and is set in the 1940s therefore presenting the issue of race which is still dominant.
Native Son is written in Bigger Thomas’ point of view which allows the readers to read from the perspective of a twenty-year-old black man in poverty. Bigger Thomas is the main character who the book is centered on. The novel begins with Thomas waking up in his family’s small apartment on the South Side of Chicago. Thomas has developed a sense of helplessness because of the racial prejudice in which he grew up. This led to Thomas having a minimal mindset and led to his demise. With the acknowledgment that he cannot be anything more beyond mediocre, Thomas takes a job as a chauffeur for the Daltons. The Daltons are Thomas’ wealthy employers.
One night, Thomas is assigned to drive Mr. Dalton’s daughter, Mary, who treats him as a respected individual and acknowledges him as someone beyond just a black man. This causes internal chaos in Thomas because no white person had ever treated he in the same manner. After driving Mary for the night, Thomas helps her up the stair because she was intoxicated. However, as Thomas was placing Mary on her bed, her mother walked in. Even though Mary’s mother is blind, the fear of being caught helping Mary leads to Thomas accidentally suffocating Mary with a pillow.
Realizing his actions, Thomas decides to burn Mary’s body in the Dalton’s furnace. Next, he decides to run away so that he is not caught for his actions. Eventually, he is caught and deemed guilty for killing and burning Mary’s body. Furthermore, he is charged for raping her before he killed her. Thomas enlists Boris A. Max as his lawyer who also treats and speaks to him in a respectful manner which leads to him eventually viewing whites as individuals and equals. Max argues that Thomas is a product of the racist society in which he grew up in and is not to be blamed for his actions.
A novel on the high school reading list should evoke emotional response. Despite the nature of the crimes committed by Thomas in Native Son, the readers empathize for him. Thomas was merely trying to do his job, but he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. It is evident that the label “black” created a negative mindset that Thomas adopted because of society. “He was something he hated, the badge of shame which he knew was attached to a black skin” (Wright, 67). When characters in the book view Thomas as a person and not a label, this creates internal turmoil.
Up until the point of interaction between Thomas and his lawyer, he does not view himself as worthy or equal to the with white man in society. Therefore, it is during his time in the jail that Bigger discovers he is more than just a label. “He was standing in the midst of a vast crowd of men, white men and black men and all men, and the sun’s rays melted away the many differences, the colors, the clothes, and drew what was common and good upward toward the sun…” (Wright, 362). Readers can have empathy towards Thomas because of the way he thinks little of himself and how others view him. Not as an individual that deserves a fair trial, but as a black man that was already deemed guilty because of his race.
In addition, a novel on the high school reading list should challenge the reader’s perspective. The book indeed challenges readers because of the interplay of nature vs. nurture. Nature vs. nurture pertains to whether behavior is largely due to the environment or genes. Evident from the beginning is the black and white division and the impact of racism on individuals during times of segregation. The book highlights this division and its effects through Thomas who is a poor, young, black man. The crimes that he committed were not because he was a violent person in nature but rather driven by fear of the social conditions.
Thomas is a product of society due to the racial prejudice of the 1940s. “Violence is a personal necessity for the oppressed…It is not a strategy consciously devised. It is the deep, instinctive expression of a human being denied individuality” (Wright, 67). Thomas was forced to resort to violent measures in order to find his sense of identity. The question presented by the novel is whether Thomas is to fully blame for his actions. Further talk about nature v. nurture
Lastly, a novel on the high school reading list should present information that pertains to the current world. The topic race is extensively discussed and presented from the view point of a character that experienced racism. Even though public institutions and facilities are no longer segregated, there is still racism present today. Beyond history classes, race is something that should be further discussed in schools. In society, there has been an increase in situations that involve race ranging from police men unlawfully arresting black individuals to individuals calling the police on black people that have not done anything wrong at all. High school students need to be more sensitive and aware of other students’ race and cultural background. The book Native Son increases cultural competence of the readers because it allows readers to interpret the effects on racism on an individual even though they may have not personally experienced it. Overall, the issue of racism will remain relevant until it is resolved.