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Fall 1998

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Spring 98 > Article

A Case Of Literary Arson
by Steven N. Koppes

A child sets fire to his grandmother’s apartment and the blaze ignites the African-American consciousness.

The death of Betty Shabazz? Well, yes. But decades before, it was also the Native Sonexperience of author Richard Wright.

The similarity of the two events led Joel Black, a UGA associate professor of comparative literature, to draw new insights into Wright’s seminal work, Native Son.

"When Wright was four years old, he himself set fire to his grandparents’ Mississippi home and nearly killed his sick grandmother, with whom he lived," Black said. Wright was so traumatized by the fire that he used it as the open-ing scene of his 1945 autobiography, Black Boy.

Black has found some striking similarities — but also some important differences — in Wright’s experience and that of 12-year-old Malcolm Shabazz, Malcolm X’s grandson, who set fire to his grandmother’s apartment in 1997.

Published in 1940, Wright’s novel Native Son tells the horrific story of Bigger Thomas, who kills his employer’s daughter and then burns the body. "The crime that Bigger Thomas commits is supposedly an accident. He’s in her bedroom and he doesn’t want to be detected. In order to keep her quiet he puts a pillow over her and accidentally smothers her," Black said.

Wright depicts Bigger Thomas as violent but fearful. In fact, according to Black, Bigger Thomas’s fear echoes the fear that haunted Wright after he set fire to his grandmother’s house. The young Wright feared less for his grandmother than for himself if his role in the accident were found out.

"It’s as if Wright, in his character Bigger Thomas, has presented an emotionally stunted version of himself, a man who’s unable to grasp the violence of his act because he’s so overwhelmed by his own fear," Black said.

In Bigger Thomas, Wright not only presented a traumatized youth, but he also twisted the character inside-out, according to Black. As a result, most readers experience Bigger Thomas as a nightmarish, traumatizing figure.

Unlike Malcolm Shabazz, Wright had set his fire accidentally. Even so, Wright’s grandmother easily could have suffered the same fate as Betty Shabazz. If Wright’s grandmother had died in the fire, it probably would have spelled the end of the young man’s future as a novelist, Black said. And readers never would have experienced Native Son, which Black regards as an American Crime and Punishment, the Russian masterpiece by Fedor Dostoevski.

"Instead, this potentially tragic experience became a rich, primal memory for Richard Wright," Black said. "It obsessed him. He thought about it and transformed it into a scene that got replayed again and again in his writing. He worked through the experience in his writing, rather than simply let himself become victimized by it."

Black presented a paper on the Shabazz fire and Native Son last summer at the International Comparative Literature Association’s triennial meeting in Leiden, Holland. The paper grew out of Black’s ongoing research on the relationship between art and violence.

For more information, e-mail Joel Black at jblack@uga.cc.uga.edu

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