Bigger Thomas, although a fictional character, haunts the imagination of white folk.
Richard Wright’s Native Son, where we meet Bigger Thomas, was published in 1940. Benjamin Mays, in eulogizing the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 28 years later after he was assassinated by a white man, said that “no man is ahead of his time.” At the time, people thought that the book was ahead of its time, but it was of the time. Richard Wright dared to write and publish a “protest novel” that no other writer of his time wrote, though perhaps thought about. In fact, James Baldwin wrote, “who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull.” Frantz Fanon, in his 1952 essay, “The Fact of Blackness,” wrote, “In the end, Bigger Thomas acts. To put an end to his tension, he acts, he responds to the world’s anticipation.”
The world that Bigger finds himself in is rife with poverty, hopelessness, and despair, with measures upon measures of racial tension. The legacy of slavery, sharecropping and segregation, hasn’t significantly improved the lot of Black folk in America, that is, what should be realized 75 years after the Civil War. The ideal, the Black Wall Street, was pillaged and plundered and burnt to the ground by white folk in 1923. Dreams are not necessarily deferred. . .
The novel, nightmarish, is dream-like. After the murder of a white woman (Mary), and the rape and murder of a Black woman (Bessie), Bigger moves through the city like a malevolent spirit, that Black boogey man that haunts the imagination of white folk. Despite Baldwin’s words quoted above, he thought that Bigger was a stereotype that would feed into the white imagination. (Why would Black folk even care what white folk thought about a fictional Black character?) Despite being the creation of a Black male author, Bigger is much more than a stereotype. He is all the dreams destroyed, not deferred. He is that Black man that white writers have been writing about for hundreds of years. A case in point, and one of my favorite Shakespearean characters, is Aaron the Moor, in Titus Andronicus. Aaron really doesn’t care what white folk think of him, and only wishes that he could wreak even more havoc. Of all Shakespeare’s villains, only two, Iago, and Richard III, rival Aaron. (Note how the two Moors, Othello, and Aaron, are portrayed in Shakespeare’s works, in his imagination, three hundred years before Bigger!)
Bigger, Bigger, Bigger!
Note: Richard Wright died at the very beginning of the Decisive Decade (1960). It is worth noting that he was born on a plantation near Natchez Mississippi, on September 4, 1908. Wright is one of three great Black autodidacts, two of whom I’ve mentioned during this Black History Month: J.A. Rogers and Malcolm X.