Although no specific city is mentioned, the setting resembles Chicago of the late 1930s. Wright points out the sharp contrasts between the black slum world and the affluent world of the Daltons, which has been built at the blacks’ expense. Wright sets the particular hardships of black residents of South Side Chicago against the background of the Great Depression, political and economic corruption, and urban blight. Native Son explores the social unrest created by the hard economic times and the attendant interest in radical political solutions represented by Marxists such as Jan Erlone and Boris Max.

In creating Native Son Wright drew upon his memories of nearly ten years’ residence in South Side Chicago, sociological studies of Chicago compiled by Louis Wirth, and material taken directly from the highly publicized trial of a Chicago black man named Robert Nixon. Eventually convicted and electrocuted for murdering a white woman with a brick, Nixon was at one point defended by the leftist International Labor Defense. Wright made considerable use of the sensational racist media coverage of the Nixon trial.