The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Native sons and daughters of Korea

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Nov. 13, 2018 - 17:13

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In his monumental novel “Native Son,” Richard Wright depicts the tragic life of an African-American boy named Bigger Thomas who has to survive in the hostile environment of the white-dominant American society of the 1930s. It was the Great Depression era, and African-Americans were particularly in trouble because they were “last hired and first fired” at the time. Unable to get a job, Thomas is forced to live with his family in a one-room tenement in a slum district on Chicago’s South Side. Naturally, he is frustrated and burning with anger toward society.

One day, Thomas gets a job as a chauffeur for Mr. Dalton, a white real-estate mogul who makes huge profits by manipulating the prices of apartment buildings he owns, including the one where Thomas lives. On the first day of his job, Thomas picks up Dalton’s daughter, Mary, and takes her and her boyfriend, Jan, to a pub. Later that night, when Thomas drives Mary back home, he has to carry her to her bedroom upstairs because she is so drunk that she cannot walk alone.

When Thomas tucks her in bed and is about to leave, Mrs. Dalton, who is blind, walks into Mary’s room. Thomas was terrified, for in the 1930s, an African-American boy would surely be castrated or killed, if and when caught in a white woman’s bedroom while she is sleeping. Panicked, Thomas instinctively presses Mary’s face with her pillow to silence her as she mumbles in bed. When Mrs. Dalton is gone, Thomas finds that he has accidentally suffocated Mary. Horrified, he takes Mary to the basement and tries to push her body into the furnace to burn it. When Mary’s head does not fit into the furnace, Thomas brutally cuts her neck with an ax.

The brutal murder of a white woman by a black boy stirs the city. Thomas flees as police pursue him. While running from police, Thomas reflects on his situation and realizes his murder is an inevitable outcome of American society’s discrimination, prejudice and maltreatment of African-Americans like him. He realizes that white America does not recognize him as a native son of America even though he is.

Eventually, Thomas is arrested and put on trial as a cold-blooded murderer. In fact, however, he was forced to kill Mary due to the prejudice of society against African-Americans. Nevertheless, Thomas is sentenced to death and executed. Thomas’ tragedy stemmed from the fact that society did not treat him as a native son of America because of differences such as his skin color. The problem is that prejudice brings forth tragic consequences: in “Native Son,” Mary, an innocent white girl, is killed.

Reading “Native Son,” one comes to think about Korea’s native sons and daughters, and society’s prejudice against them. In Korea, there are approximately 160,000 multicultural families, which means there may be at least 160,000 or more transnational children in our society. Born and raised in Korea, they are native sons and daughters. Therefore, we should embrace the idea of a rainbow coalition. Our appearances may be slightly different, but together we can build a gorgeous rainbow bridge with colorful diversity. To make Korea truly great, we should embrace ethnic and cultural differences.

If we do not care about the children from rapidly increasing multicultural families, we will soon encounter many frustrated people like Thomas in Korean society, who are alienated, embittered and burning with rage. According to the press, when bullied at school due to their broken Korean speech or different skin color, some of them drop out and become social pariahs. From kindergarten on, teachers should teach students how to embrace differences, how to overcome prejudice, and how to celebrate cultural and ethnic diversity. It is the teacher’s job to educate students to become global citizens, not ultra-nationalists.

If we are not prepared, then we should take heed of the probable consequences, which would be irreparably devastating. Like Thomas, frustrated children from multicultural families might become walking time bombs in our society if they feel they are unjustly treated and discriminated against. This would cause significant damage to our society and would not be good for the future of Korea. We should accept these children as our own and help them to succeed in an unfamiliar environment.

Newspaper reports say that in Europe, terrorists often turn out to be the frustrated second-generation of immigrants from Middle Eastern countries. Of course, Korea is different from European nations in many respects. Nevertheless, we, too, should be aware of the problem before it is too late. We should acknowledge children from multicultural families as native sons and daughters of Korea and embrace them as our own.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of Malaga in Spain. He can be reached at -- Ed.