In the early 20th century, a significant shift took place as the Great Migration saw nearly 6 million African Americans move from the rural Southern US to urban centres in the North, such as Chicago where Native Son is set. This movement was in search of better opportunities, escaping the oppressive Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation. However, the shadow of the Great Depression in the 1930s cast wide, with economic disparities affecting many, especially African Americans.
Upon reaching northern cities like Chicago, African Americans often encountered a new set of challenges. Despite escaping the overt racism of the South, they found themselves relegated to crowded ghettos, facing fresh discrimination in housing and employment. The cultural tension this fostered occasionally erupted into violence, as seen in events like the 1919 Chicago Race Riot. These urban centres were melting pots of conflicting aspirations and prejudices.
Amidst this backdrop, the literary world was undergoing its own evolution. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s had celebrated black talent and artistry, but by the 1930s, its vibrancy waned due to economic hardships. A rising trend in literature was realism, an approach that depicted life's gritty truths. Richard Wright's Native Son captured this essence, providing an unvarnished look at black urban life. Additionally, Wright's association with the Communist Party, which sought to address racial and class inequalities, influenced his writings.