(Chris Jones’s article appeared in the Chicago Tribune, 9/22.)
In 1938, a young African-American named Robert Nixon, a man born in small-town Louisiana, was executed by the electric chair in Chicago for the murder of Florence Thompson Castle, whom Nixon was convicted of killing with a brick. Even by the standards of the time, the racist outpouring that followed Nixon's arrest was astonishing. "He is very black — almost pure Negro" read the last paragraph of the story in this newspaper on June 5, 1938. "His physical characteristics suggest an early link in the species."
That case — and, according to interviews at the time, that specific article — provoked a brilliant young Chicago writer named Richard Wright, the son of a sharecropper, to fully forge "Native Son." The 1940 story of a young black man named Bigger Thomas for whom racism, poverty and ill treatment become so imbued in his psyche as to turn his South Side existence into hell itself. "Native Son" is one of the most thematically crucial and formatively complex American novels of the first half of the 20th century. It sold 250,000 copies within three weeks of its publication. But, all boiled down, it's the story of an impoverished and oppressed man trapped in the very depths of human existence and in a destiny defined and compelled by others.