When the late Richard Wright's epoch-making novel, "Native Son," was published, in 1940, Wright agreed--at the instigation of the Book-of-the-Month Club--to excise an early scene in which the hero, a black boy named Bigger Thomas, and his pal Jack masturbate in a darkened movie theater. By today's post-"Portnoy's Complaint" standards, the excised scene is both brief and tame. Its most explicit portion reads as follows:
Bigger moved restlessly and his breath quickened; he looked round in the shadows to see if any attendant was near, then slouched far down in his seat. He glanced at Jack and saw that Jack was watching him out of the corners of his eyes. They both laughed.
'You at it again?' Jack asked.
'I'm polishing my nightstick,' Bigger said.
'I'll beat you,' Jack said.
'Go to hell.' Everything else in this once-unpublishable scene is less, not more, explicit than the passage just quoted.
It would be a mistake, however, to take the restoration of Wright's original text as a minor footnote in the history of artistic license in the notoriously prudish United States. The excised episode is not about sex. It is about race.
The constant theme in "Black Boy," Wright's autobiography, is the corrosive effect of racism on ties among blacks in the Mississippi and Tennessee of the author's boyhood (Wright was born in 1908). In one excruciating episode, the whites in two offices on opposite sides of a Memphis street conspire to convince their two errand boys, one of whom is Wright, that the other boy is planning to ambush him. The whites provide the two young blacks with knives "for self-defense" and wait in sadistic silence for the knife-fight they know will take place.
The whites in this episode are prepared to see their errand boys die for their amusement. And yet, even when the young Wright foils the plot by seeking out the other errand-boy and flushing out the ugly truth, the two young black men never quite succeed in trusting each other:
'There are a million black boys like us to run errands,' I said. 'They wouldn't care if we killed each other.'
'I know it,' Harrison said.
Was he acting? I could not believe in him. We were toying with the idea of death for no reason that stemmed from our own lives, but because the men who ruled us had thrust the idea into our minds. Each of us depended upon the whites for the bread we ate, and we actually trusted the whites more than we did each other. Yet there existed in us a longing to trust men of our own color. Again Harrison and I parted, vowing not to be influenced by what our white boss men said to us. The vicious manipulation of young Wright and Harrison by their bosses required more than simple cruelty. It also required the whites' awareness of the blacks' mistrust of one another. In his famous Partisan Review attack on Wright, James Baldwin insisted that the oppressed always understands the oppressor better than the oppressor understands him. Wright simply disagreed, and "Native Son" is crucially about Bigger Thomas' inarticulate anger that whites, whether friends or foes, saw his condition with a clarity that eluded Bigger himself. The merits of Baldwin's and Wright's respective views aside, Wright enacts his view with rigorous consistency in "Native Son."
In that novel, Bigger Thomas, who has killed one white woman by accident and a second deliberately, attempting to conceal the first crime, is interrogated by a police officer:
"What's the use of your holding out, boy? Make it easy for yourself."
Why not talk and get it over with? They knew he was guilty. They could prove it. If he did not talk, then they would say he had committed every crime they could think of.
"Boy, why didn't you and your pals rob Blum's store like you'd planned to last Saturday?"
Bigger looked at him in surprise. They had found that out, too!
"You didn't think I knew about that, did you? I know a lot more, boy. I know about that dirty trick you and your friend Jack pulled off in the Regal Theatre, too. You wonder how I know it? The manager told us when we were checking up. I know what boys like you do, Bigger. Now, come on. You wrote that kidnap note, didn't you?"
"Yeah," he sighed. "I wrote it." That sigh is the turning point of the book. With it Bigger's resistance cracks. But for decades, the novel has been read without the earlier scene in the Regal Theatre, the one excised at the request of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Until now, in other words, we have not known why it is just this question that finally unmans Bigger. It unmans him, obviously, because it forces him to conclude that there is nothing about him so inconsequential, so merely private and personal, that it may not be stripped from him and turned into a weapon in the hand of his oppressor. For this stripping away of the last shred of dignity and resistance, the policeman's exposure of the boy's masturbation is masterfully chosen.
Baldwin wrote of Wright's protagonist: "Bigger has no discernible relationship to himself, to his own life, to his own people, nor to any other people--in this respect, perhaps, he is most American--and his force comes, not from his significance as a social (or anti-social) unit, but from his significance as the incarnation of a myth." In "How 'Bigger' Was Born," Wright wrote of his own creation: "I had . . . to show what oppression had done to Bigger's relationships with his own people, how it had split him off from them, how it had baffled him; how oppression seems to hinder and stifle in the victim those very qualities of character which are so essential for an effective struggle against the oppressor." The two judgments of Bigger are different, but the two perceptions of him are essentially the same.
At the debut of the Library of America in 1982, no one was more widely cited than the late literary critic Edmund Wilson, who years earlier had called for a standard edition of American literary classics matching the Editions de la Pleiade of the French classics. In a famous article, Wilson had claimed that text criticism as practiced by American academics was a boondoggle blocking access to the works themselves.
Wilson had a point, but Arnold Ampersad's restored edition of "Native Son" shows that the academics had a point too. This new edition gives us a "Native Son" in which the key line in the key scene is restored to the great good fortune of American letters. The scene as we now have it is central both to an ongoing conversation among African-American writers and critics and to the consciousness among all American readers of what it means to live in a multiracial society in which power splits along racial lines.
Uncle Tom's Children
Black Boy (American Hunger)
(Library of America: $35 each; 936 pp. and 887 pp., respectively)