The Price of Power: African American Literary Tradition in the Post-Renaissance Era

Joshua Miller ’20

Julia Rogers Research Prize: Margaret Guccione Prize Winner


When it came to leaving an unforgiving imprint upon the American psyche regarding the conditions of African Americans, no literary works were quite as impactful as Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son. As Arnold Rampersad states in his introduction to the novel, “Wright believed that few Americans, [B]lackor [W]hite, were prepared to face squarely and honestly the most profound consequences of more than two centuries of enslavement and segregation of [B]lacks in North America” and set out to compose his own literary work that examined the consequences of centuries of abuse and mistreatment (ix). Thus, in chronicling the experiences of Black people in America, the legacy of slavery played a heavy role in Richard Wright’s writing, to the point that it sometimes appeared as though his depiction of Native Son’s Black male protagonist Bigger is backwards, defying the intentions of artistic movements such as the Harlem Renaissance by revictimizing Bigger and validating the negative caricatures that White America had constructed of Black men. But, if the reader was to examine the breadth of African American literature produced in the post-Renaissance era and consider Bigger’s portrayal not as a promotion for what African Americans should emulate but a reflection of behaviors they were already committing, they would find that Wright’s address was not just a warning to the White community, but the Black community as well. The ways that Wright revictimizes Bigger throughout the course of his novel reveals the flaws in the social power constructs White America used to keep Black people oppressed, and how it only serves to harm both communities.


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