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?