Episode #1436

American Icons: Native Son

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Friday, September 06, 2013

This is the novel about racism that America couldn't ignore.

The story of a young man in the ghetto who turns to murder was an overnight sensation. Richard Wright set out to confront white readers with the most brutal consequences of racism, and finally lay to rest the stereotype of the passive Uncle Tom — “he literally wanted to create a bigger Thomas,” one scholar argues. But some think Native Son exploited the worst stereotypes of black youth. “Is this giving me permission to go kill white women?” wondered a young Carl Hancock Rux. “Is that what we’re supposed to be doing now?”

We trace the line from Bigger Thomas to Notorious B.I.G., and visit a high school drama class acting out Native Son, and struggling to grasp the racism their grandparents experienced. With Nathan McCall, Carl Hancock Rux, and Richard Wright's daughter, Julia Wright.

Thank you to the following people for their time and research: Frankie Bailey, Timuel Black, James Campbell, The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, Thomas Cripps, Dolores Fish, Rebecca Hall, Margot McMahon, Gabriel Mendes, Bayo Ojikutu, Howard Pitsch and the Fort Greene Association, Tim Samuelson, and Malcolm Wright.

 

Bonus Track: Nathan McCall on how Native Son changed his life

Hear producer Amanda Aronczyk's full interview with Nathan McCall, author of Makes Me Wanna Holler.

 

Video: Richard Wright's screen test for the original film of Native Son

 

Slideshow: The Stivers High School for the Arts' production of Native Son

Native Son American Icons Studio 360
Tom Patterson

Eric McCalister as Bigger Thomas in the Stivers High School for the Arts' production of Native Son.

Native Son American Icons Studio 360
Tom Patterson

Bigger (Eric McCalister) carries an inebriated Mary Dalton (Alayna Spence) home, trying to avoid waking her family. 

Native Son American Icons Studio 360
Tom Patterson

Clara (Ashley Brooks) cries in fear when she learns that Bigger (Eric McCalister) has killed young, white Mary Dalton. In the dramatic adaptation of Native Son, the character of Clara fills the role of Bessie in the novel. 

Native Son American Icons Studio 360
Tom Patterson

Bigger (Eric McCalister) writes a ransom note while Clara (Ashley Brooks) begs him to stop.

Native Son American Icons Studio 360
Tom Patterson

Bigger (Eric McCalister) threatens to kill Gus (Frederick Hayes) when Gus admits he's scared to rob a store owned by a white man.

Native Son American Icons Studio 360
Tom Patterson

Bigger Thomas (Eric McCalister).

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Guests:

Timuel Black, Percival Everett, Jamie Hector, Harold Lucas, Eric McCalister, Nathan McCall, James Peterson, Carl Hancock Rux, Elena Spence, Angela Tomaselli, Trysh Travis, Jerry Ward, Richard Wesley and Julia Wright

Produced by:

Amanda Aronczyk

Editors:

David Krasnow

Contributors:

John DeLore, Ann Heppermann and Aileen LeBlanc

Comments [6]

Andy Rome from White Plains, NY

Great show!! As always, thanks. Can someone please give me the source of that blues piano music in the background?

Sep. 14 2013 10:15 AM
Jake from New York

Great show. Native Son was so mind blowing in 1940, and is still compelling today. For people interested in a critical examination of Wright’s work and the fear, alienation and dread that enveloped Bigger Thomas’ world, "The Art of Richard Wright"(1969) by Edward Margolies is a fine book. http://www.amazon.com/The-Richard-Wright-Chicago-Classic/dp/0809303450

Sep. 09 2013 02:37 PM
Rita from New York City

What a superb show you did today on Richard Wright and "Native Son." The pace of change in the 21st century is sweeping away all historical context for younger people (I'm 61). Racism: how it functioned, how it still functions -- has become an archaic, irrelevant topic for young people. We have Barack Obama, 'nuff said. Then the Supreme Court rolls back voting protections and we're caught by surprise.

This episode helps restore the context. But the discussion of "Native Son" as literature and the impact it had on individual scholars, as well as the fascinating discussion of current-day high school students performing the play, were equally important.

This show is a great example of the melding of art, history and politics...truly a multi-disciplinary broadcast. Thank you!

Sep. 08 2013 12:42 PM
Paula White from Montclair, NJ

Completely awesome broadcast. Completely.

Sep. 08 2013 11:39 AM
Kurt Andersen from Brooklyn

Thank *you*, Riannon. We do our best, and sometimes that works.

Sep. 07 2013 05:07 PM
Riannon Walsh from Philadelphia

Kurt
It has been 44 years since I read Native Son at age 15. Your program this morning took me through a time warp and back again in the most comprehensive & realistic way that any article/program or personal experience involving racisim and the American situation has done in a very long time.

The sorrow that follows your broadcast is a weaving together of two thoughts that cannot justify one another...but are indisputable. They are:

so much has changed....so little has changed

Thank you for the broadcast. As always with your work--informative, touching, compelling and ever so neccessary

Sep. 07 2013 08:05 AM

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