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How much longer will Bigger endure?; Nearly 60 years later, 'Native Son' character is Everyman for black men

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BIGGER THOMAS lives. He lives in our prisons, he lives in our cities' drug-infested neighborhoods and he lives in the hearts of nearly all black men -- regardless of status and income -- who've been lashed by racism.

Several generations of Biggers have been born since "Native Son" opened with the "Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinng!" of an alarm clock in a rat-infested tenement on Chicago's South Side.

Society ignored the alarm clock in 1940 when the novel appeared and today the alarm still goes unheeded. Back then, Bigger, like nearly all black men, was invisible to white society unless he committed a crime. Today, Bigger is all too visible -- his image constantly kept before us by the media. He is Willie Horton; he is the mythical kidnapper a white South Carolina woman blamed for drowning her sons; he is O.J. Simpson, whose honorary white status was revoked after he was accused of killing of his wife and her friend, both white.

"Native Son" author Richard Wright portrayed Bigger as a figure who was molded by racism, poverty, poor education and discrimination. Wright, then a communist, held Bigger up as a monstrous symbol of the social inequality that's inevitable under capitalism.

Bigger hated not only the white world, but he hated himself and other blacks, including his family. Bigger's self-loathing is manifest in this passage:

" ... He hated his family because he knew they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair. So he held toward them an attitude of iron reserve; he lived with them, but behind a wall, a curtain. And toward himself he was even more exacting. He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else. So he denied himself and acted tough."

Not long after "Native Son" was published, Wright explained Bigger's origin in an essay, "How Bigger Was Born."

"The birth of Bigger Thomas goes back to my childhood, and there was not just one Bigger, but many of them, more than I could count and more than you suspect," Wright wrote.

He said "Bigger No. 1" was the bully who snatched balls, marbles and other toys from the other black children in Wright's old neighborhood in Jackson, Miss.

"We would stand around pouting, sniffling, trying to keep back our tears, begging for our playthings. But Bigger would refuse. ... And never was he happier than when he had someone cornered and at his mercy: it seemed that the deepest meaning of his squalid life was in him at such times."

Wright said he did not know the fate of "Bigger No. 1," but he suspected that his end was violent.

Bigger No. 2's anger was directed toward whites. He bought food and clothes on credit and would not pay for them. And he refused to pay rent. He wound up in prison.

Bigger No. 3 was labeled a "bad nigger" by the white folks. He was shot and killed by a white cop.

Bigger No. 4 laughed and cursed while he broke the Jim Crow laws. He became depressed and was sent to an asylum for the insane.

Bigger No. 5 sat in the white section of a streetcar, and drew a knife on the white conductor who told him to move. His act of defiance "sparked an intense flash of pride" among the other blacks on the streetcar.

If Wright were alive today, perhaps his list would grow. When "Native Son" was published, few blacks held visible positions in society. Today's Bigger has greater social mobility.

O.J. Simpson might have provided Wright with the grist for Bigger No. 6, the wealthy black sports hero or entertainer who marries a white woman, lives in a white neighborhood and comes to be seen as white by society.

As the Simpson case exemplifies, this honorary white status is conditional. Simpson underwent an overnight transformation from "The Juice," Heisman Trophy winner and movie actor, to Bigger No. 6, the murderous black brute defended by a legal "dream team."

In the novel, Bigger was defended by Max, a white lawyer who served as a mouthpiece for Wright's communists beliefs. Max blamed Bigger's actions on the racist society that produced him.

Simpson's lead attorney was an affluent black man who put the racist sins of the Los Angeles Police Department on trial with the words: " If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."

Simpson walked free, but his punishment is to forever be reminded that he's no better than Bigger Thomas.

Then there's Tupac Shakur, Bigger No. 7.

Tupac was driven by talent, anger and a death wish. This Bigger had money and fame, but he couldn't get away from the thug life. This Bigger looked at death and said, "Picture Me Rollin'." He stood on life's stage and saw "racist faces" and asked, "How Long Will They Mourn Me?" This Bigger died young and left us wondering what could have been. In death, Tupac Shakur serves as a reminder of all the wasted young lives taken by the carnage on our nation's streets.

Over the years, "Native Son" has not gone without criticism. James Baldwin described it as "the most powerful and celebrated statement we have yet had of what it means to be a Negro in America." He also felt frustrated by what Wright failed to include in the novel. At the end of "Native Son" the reader knows as little about Bigger as at the beginning, and the same is true of the forces that created him, said Baldwin.

"Bigger has no discernible relationship to himself, to his own life, to his own people, nor to any other people -- in this respect, perhaps, he is most American -- and his force comes not from his significance as a social [or anti-social] unit, but from his significance as the incarnation of a myth," Baldwin said.

Langston Hughes, the black poet and writer, also expresssed contempt for Wright's characterization of Bigger, which he saw as a demeaning stereotype.

Today, nearly 60 years after his birth, Bigger still serves as a figurative Everyman for black males. And every black man who has been hassled by the police, denied housing on the basis of race or suffered alienation and discrimination in the workplace knows what it's like to be treated like Bigger.

Yes, Bigger Thomas lives. The question is whether he will endure.

Mike Adams is the editor of Perspective.

Pub Date: 02/28/99

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