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.

NativeSon

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?

Where Have All the Heroes Gone? or Should African American Literature serve as a vehicle to uplift the race and perpetuate a positive image of the culture?

Images: Dorothy West and Langston Hughes - Photo Courtesy of: http://www.infoplease.com/spot/bhmlit1.html
Images: Dorothy West and Langston Hughes | Photo By www.infoplease.com

In the June 1941, issue of Crisis Magazine, Langston Hughes asked the question, “Where are the Black heroes in our literature?” The greatest of all our cultural icons was alluding to the failure of Black writers to create heroes in their works. Hughes went on in that article to elaborate, “Where, in all our books is that compelling flame of spirit and passion that makes a man say, ‘I too am a hero because my race has produced heroes.’”

It is the responsibility of the artist to critique the literature of his or her time, and determine if the writing will serve as a vehicle to uplift the race and perpetuate a positive image of the culture. Hughes obviously was not happy with the images portrayed through novels of his time, to include Bigger Thomas in Native Son.  Even though Native Son was an excellent written novel, and no doubt Richard Wright was one of the great artists of his time, it is difficult to view Bigger as anything other than a tragic depiction of the Black male.

The question then is why have Black writers failed to create positive images of the male when writing of the Black experience in this country? Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois argued that it was not the fault of Black writers, but the fault of publishers not willing to publish works that portray the strong Black hero. In a speech given at the 1926 National Association for Advancement of Colored People’s national convention he raised the issue, “Suppose the only Negro who survived some centuries hence was the Negro painted by white Americans in the novels and essays they have written. What would people in a hundred years say of Black Americans?” His conclusion was that they would see only weak men and subservient women. Du Bois went on to point out that, “In responding to material portraying positive images of Blacks, the publishers would often say, “It is not interesting to white folks. They want Uncle Toms, Topsies, good darkies and clowns.”

Essentially Black writers were limited in their ability to strike back at the false images painted of Black people and their culture. The only Black writers published were those willing to follow the rules established by the publishing houses. Twenty years later, Zora Neale Hurston observed that publishing companies used their control as a way to dictate the kind of stories from Black writers suitable for publication.

The constant barrage of negative portrayals of Blacks in the ante-bellum south and after the Civil War, right up to the present has had a devastating affect on the race. The irony is that segments of the Black population have internalized these images and now play them out in reality. That is clearly demonstrated through what is termed “Urban Street Fiction”. Much of the literature is nihilistic in theme and holds out no hope for the future. Writers of “Urban Fiction” write about the chaos with no consideration for the human dimension.  The plots are built around, “you get yours and I’m going to get mine at any cost.” There is no redeeming value; only an ugly reality feeding into an age-old belief system that Blacks must be contained because of their bestiality. If one reads these novels and internalizes them as a true depiction of the contemporary Black race, they would be inclined to believe the negative stereotypes painted over a hundred years ago. Many of these books are sitting on the library shelves and are available to children of all ages. How then is it possible to inculcate them with a positive and healthy image of their culture, if it is depicted in such a pejorative manner? This is in no way an argument for censorship, but instead a plea for works that counter some of the negative writings.

We are all familiar with the saying, “Our youth are our future.” If then our children are our future, don’t we have an obligation to give them an opportunity to succeed? But how can they possibly succeed if they are surrounded by negativity.  Some of the rap music they listen to is negative. The urban fiction they read is negative. Often their home environment is negative, and their peer groups reek of negativity. Then how is it possible for them to ever enjoy a positive experience about who they are?

In that Crisis article, Hughes continued, “We have a need for books and plays that will encourage and inspire our youth, set for them examples and patterns of conduct, move and stir them to be forth-right, strong, clear-thinking and unafraid.”  Consistent with Hughes’ advice, we must define ourselves for our children in order to alter the destructive direction in which our culture is going. Ralph Ellison, author of the great American classic, Invisible Man, wrote as early as 1944, “The solution to the problem confronting the Negro will be achieved when he is able to define himself for what he is and what he desires to be.”

Those of us who are committed artists, have a tremendous responsibility to counter these negative portrayals of our race and culture through works that stress positive messages to our youth. Knowledge of one’s heritage and history is key to healthy growth in any culture. If our youth do not know their history, then they really do not know who they are, and therefore are easy prey for those who produce this devastatingly dangerous literature. Again, Hughes addressed this problem,  “The negative behaviors and altered mental states of lead characters in literary works (by Black authors) might leave future generations wondering if Black people lacked heroes.” Hughes’ observation in 1941 is still applicable today. A Spanish writer, Mario Vargas Llosa stated, “Literature is the window to view the soul of a people.” If much of our contemporary literature reflects the quality of our culture and our collective soul then, we as writers, have a great deal of work to do. Our overall goal should be to improve on the images of Blacks in literature.  Accepting Ralph Ellison’s challenge to define ourselves by telling our stories our way, we can begin to alter the destructive images of our race, and instead accentuate the strength, beauty, and an enduring love generated by our ancestors for decades.