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Professor John Howard Birss, Jr. Memorial Series – Native Son by Richard Wright

By Christine S. Fagan Collection Management Librarian



A Celebration of the 75th Anniversary of Native Son by Richard Wright


Each year Roger Williams University celebrates a significant anniversary of the publication of a great work of literature, starting in 2001 with the 150th anniversary of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and continuing in 2015 with the 75th anniversary of Richard Wright’s Native Son. When Native Son was published in 1940 it was one of the first major novels about African-Americans written by an African- American.  This protest novel was an immediate bestseller and chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Still, it was a controversial work banned by many public high schools and libraries throughout the United States.  The novel was adapted for the stage several times with the initial production directed by Orson Welles on Broadway.

When Native Son was selected in 2014 the Birss Committee could not have predicted how reflective it would be of the current explosion of racial tension within our society.  This tragic novel remains a moving and accurate testimony of the plight of the African-American man in the United States.  While strides toward equality have been made since the 1930s, there remains a significant socio-economic divide between white and black America.  Racial profiling and unfair treatment of African-Americans still occurs within the criminal justice system.

Bigger Thomas, the protagonist in Native Son, commits two murders and is captured, imprisoned, tried and sentenced to death.  The irony of the story is that while it unfolds, despite the horror of the crimes committed, the reader comes to understand the forces of society that fuel the anger causing Bigger to commit these murders.  In the end one wonders who is really at fault — Bigger Thomas or American society.

Today one wonders who is really at fault in two recent cases involving the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City — the suspects or the police officers.  In the face of these dilemmas and the current racial tension in our society, Richard Wright’s Native Son continues to tell us what it is like to grow up black, poor and angry in America.  The fact that this story remains so relevant is an indication of how far we still have to go to achieve racial equality in America.




Events & Exhibition

Library Exhibition

February 1 – March 31, 2015

“Richard Wright’s Native Son: Then and Now”

Prepared by

Professor Christine S. Fagan Collection Management Librarian, Roger Williams University

Sponsored by The Professor John Howard Birss, Jr. Memorial Library Fund

Featured in the exhibition is the first edition of Native Son along with photographs of Richard Wright and a controversial unpublished essay by Wright entitled “I Chose Paris.”  The exhibition also juxtaposes photographs of South Side Chicago in the 1930s, the novel’s setting, and contemporary photographs of protests in response to recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City.

Artifacts on display are courtesy of:  Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library New Haven, Connecticut; Kent State University Libraries, Special Collections and Archives, Kent, Ohio; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC;  Douglas and Judith Krupp Library, Bryant University, Smithfield, Rhode Island;  Redwood Library, Newport, Rhode Island

Book Discussion Group

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

7:00 p.m. – 2nd-Floor Mezzanine, RWU Library

Moderators: James Tackach, Professor of English

Abigail DeVeuve, RWU Honors Program Student

Co-sponsored by the University Honors Program and RWU Library

Panel Discussion

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

5:00 p.m. – Mary Tefft White Cultural Center, RWU Library

“Reading Native Son in the Twenty-First Century”

Keith Stokes, President of Development and Planning, Mayfield Group

Diana Hassel, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs & Professor, RWU School of Law

Moderator: Dean Robert Eisinger, Feinstein College of Arts and Sciences


Panel discussion will juxtapose the timely and relevant plot and characters of Native Son with recent events involving interracial tensions, justice, and law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and other communities across the country.

Keynote Address

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

4:00 p.m. – Feinstein College of Arts and Sciences, CAS 162

‘“Life had made the plot over and over again’:

Violence, Stigmatization, and the Ongoing Relevance of Richard Wright’s Native Son”

Jennifer Jensen Wallach, Associate Professor of History, University of North Texas

Sponsored by The Professor John Howard Birss, Jr. Memorial Lecture Fund

All events are free and open to the public