Reliving Bigger Thomas on the Streets in Baltimore

Seventy-five years ago, Richard Wright shocked the country when he created the character Bigger Thomas in his best selling novel, Native Son. In this novel, the author paints a picture of unbearable living condition that Blacks experienced in the inner city of Chicago. The protagonist, Bigger Thomas, personifies the end result of human beings forced to confront racism and poverty.  What was most revealing about Bigger was the degree of his anger and his alienation from the world in which he felt trapped. In order to reconcile his hate for a country that refuses to treat him as an equal, he turns to violence. Accidently killing the white girl serves as a catharsis for him and he then is able to kill again.

In his outstanding narrative history of African American writers and critics, Professor Lawrence P. Jackson writes that, “From start to finish, Wright pointed to the recognition of anger and its potential eruption in violence as primal antidote to racism.” (Lawrence P. Jackson, The Indignant Generation, Princeton University Press, 2011, pg. 115) As I watch the young and alienated Blacks in Baltimore burn and destroy property I think of Bigger. If there was no other escape for Wright’s character than to turn to violence, can we then assume there is no escape for all the young Blacks who are willing to defy logic and challenge a massive police system that they cannot defeat? Just as Bigger was caught, many of them will be captured and sent off to prison. The system may consider incarceration a punishment but they just might consider it freedom.


Many of my young Black brothers and sisters are born into a world filled with poverty, to include dilapidated housing often over run with rodents, roaches and all other vermin in the dwellings, streets and alleys where they live. Richard Wright introduces us to Bigger Thomas, as he is trapping and killing a rat in their apartment. Bigger’s experience is the same that many of our youth encounter today. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade because he found no relevance in education for a black boy. I imagine many of the young Blacks, torching the buildings in Baltimore dropped out of school also.  Bigger and his buddies set out to rob a local merchant in their neighborhood. No different than the young Blacks in Baltimore, who are seen on television stealing merchandise from the CVS Drugstore and the local liquor store. They even invaded a check cashing office, obviously looking for money.

Finally, the great Algerian theoretician and freedom fighter, Franz Fanon, argues in his essay, “The Fact of Blackness,” that Bigger had to do something to relieve all the tension that had built up in him over the years. Much of that tension had to do with the fear and disgrace he felt about being Black and poor in America. That same fear and disgrace transcends to a hatred Bigger harbors toward white people. At the end of the novel when his attorney asked him did he feel any sexual desires for Mary Dalton, the white girl he murders, Bigger responds, “Like her? I hated her! So help me God, I hated her.

Fanon goes on to describe Bigger as a symbol that represents all Black men. There is, however, some exaggeration in Fanon’s representation. But there is also much truth in his writings. I believe that we can honestly extrapolate what Fanon has said to fit the image of many of those young Blacks, who set out to make a statement by burning down their own neighborhoods in Baltimore. No doubt there are many commentators who will dismiss the actions of these young men as those of thugs, hooligans, troublemakers and rabble-rousers. That kind of terminology makes them insignificant and dispensable, and their actions warrant no consideration or credibility.

I am not condoning the violence but only suggesting that just as we have a tendency to criticize the young men and women who turned to acts of destruction, let us be willing to criticize the system that played some part in that kind of behavior. What we cannot overlook is that Richard Wright wrote Native Son in 1940, and many of the inequities in the system that Bigger Thomas confronted and fought, still confront our young. The question I would like to pose is will our youth confront those same conditions of poverty and racism seventy-five years from today and if so, how will they respond?

A Diaspora Connection

On Tuesday, April 21, 2015, San Antonio, Texas scored another first in its history when the city entered into a Friendship City Agreement with Windhoek, the capital of the Republic of Namibia. I not only felt honored but thrilled to be invited to witness this event in the plush Plaza Club on the top floor of the Frost Bank Building here in San Antonio.

San Antonio Mayor and Namibia Mayor Muesee Kazapua toasting

I looked on in admiration as Ambassador Martin Andjaba strolled into the room fresh off a plane from the embassy in Washington, D.C. A wide smile crossed my face when Windhoek Mayor Muesee Kazapua reached out and shook my hand. And I couldn’t have felt more proud as I watched my Mayor, Ivy Taylor, sit at a table and sign the friendship agreement. Watching this historic event triggered thoughts of the great Pan African advocate, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, when he wrote about the Diaspora. He described it as the movement of African people over the centuries by force to all parts of the world. He made it quite clear that our homeland would always be Africa even though we have adjusted to a second homeland out of necessity.

Namibia achieved independence from a South African administration in 1990 and has done quite well in building a strong and vibrant Republic. It borders Angola in the north, South Africa in the south, Botswana in the east and the South Atlantic Ocean in the west. It is obviously in this vicinity that many of our ancestors were forced to leave their homeland. My creative mind then took liberties to imagine that, centuries past, the two mayors’ families may have known each other, and just possibly my ancestors and those of the ambassador crossed paths. For that matter, all the African Americans at the event could feel some connection with the many Africans in the room also experiencing this momentous occasion.

Fred Williams and Ambassador Martin Andjaba of the Republic of NamibiaDr. Du Bois would have been pleased if he could have witnessed the dynamics; it was the Diaspora at work, just like the great thinker would have imagined it. There, at the table was an African mayor from the major city in the Republic of Namibia, sitting next to an African American mayor of the seventh largest city in the United States and the second largest in the State of Texas; both signing an agreement that their respective cities will promote trade and economic cooperation in areas that include renewable energy, health services, biotech, culture and tourism.

I was able to grab the two city leaders’ attention long enough to take a picture with them. I was also able to corral the Ambassador and get one with him. I have to admit I am not a big fan of taking pictures with cell phones, but at that particular time, I sure was glad to know that my wife was an expert at using the cell phone to record history.

Fred Williams with San Antonio Mayor Taylor andNamibia Mayor  Muesee Kazapua

I am immensely grateful to my Mayor for inviting me to this event and to the African delegation for coming all the way from Namibia. I am also grateful to the Ambassador for flying from Washington, D.C., to help make this happen and to my wife for providing me with proof whenever I look at the pictures that this indeed really did happen, and I was not just dreaming of a better world.