Bigger Thomas is a twenty-year-old black hoodlum from South Side Chicago in the 1930s. When his petty criminal acts spill over into accidental killing, then to rape and murder, the whole city erupts into chaos in their hatred against him.
This book really confused me. I’ll say first off that it’s a fast, powerful book that is very well-written. Once I picked it up, I didn’t want to put it down. Though I had obligations outside my house and was gone for hours each day, I still managed to read this 500+ page book in 3 days. Even when I didn’t like it very much, I wanted to keep reading. It was like watching a trainwreck. I couldn’t put it down.
I say “even when I didn’t like it very much.” Really, I was just confused, and maybe the best way to go about this review is to take you though my thought processes. The first 100 or so pages of the book follow Bigger closely as he engages in violent, bullying behavior like terrifying his sister with a dead rat and forcing a friend to lick a knife on threat of slitting open the guy’s throat. He’s a nasty horrible human being and I can’t sympathize with him one bit, though I tried. During this section, I thought maybe Wright was trying to say that Bigger acted this way because of his poverty and the oppression of black people. But then the next 150 pages follows Bigger as his petty crimes turn into murder, ransoming, and later rape and more murder. By that point, there was no way I could look at Bigger with any sympathy at all. He was disgusting human trash.
That was what confused me. Having read those 250 pages, all I could think was that Wright was showing that black people were horrible human beings. That made no sense, and the idea really made me angry. If that first half of the book had been written by a white person, I’d think it was racist. And I know that Wright is not racist against black people. I know this is supposed to be a seminal work about race relations and oppression. I was so, so confused. I couldn’t believe that Wright wanted us to feel any pity for Bigger – he’d written Bigger in a way that it was impossible to sympathize with him – but if I couldn’t pity Bigger, what was the point of the book? So I just kept reading.
Soon, though, I thought I started to see where this was going as the cops hunt Bigger down. As Chicago erupted into riots, lynching black people, illegally searching their houses, firing black employees as a “precaution,” writing newspaper articles about how they’re just “black apes” and ought to be segregated and kept uneducated for “their own happiness.” I thought maybe this book isn’t about Bigger. Bigger was a nasty horrible piece of human trash – but there are nasty horrible pieces of human trash in every race. Maybe this wasn’t about Bigger and his crimes, but about the way people reacted to them. It was contrast, because originally they thought this murder had been committed by a white communist (they hated communists almost as much as they hated black people) and yet there had been no riots or people lynching or firing communists around the city. There had been reaction, oh yes, but it was controlled.
I started to see. Or I thought I did, anyway. But then the book turned again at the trial. Native Son fell victim to the popular early-to-mid-1900s style of presenting a long philosophical text in the latter half of the book (think 1984 and the book Winston reads word for word). Bigger’s lawyer gives a 30-page long speech. Oh my goodness. I hate, hate, hate that, by the way. Just saying. Authors need to get off their soapbox a little bit. I had to do some skimming there. I did read enough of the speech to realize that Wright did want us to feel sorry for Bigger, though. He wanted us to think that these crimes were somehow the product of Bigger’s environment growing up, that his environment excused him of all crimes, and I fundamentally disagree with that. I agree that the double standard of how people treated him in their reaction to this crime was disgusting beyond words. I read the newspaper articles that were quoted and just boiled with anger and indignation against stupid white oppressors. But even peoples’ reactions DO NOT EXCUSE the horrible things that Bigger did.
People around Bigger tried. His mother and siblings tried their best. They lived in horrible conditions that no human being should have to live in, but they did their best to try to be loving and good. Bigger didn’t learn his violence from his family. The white people that hired him to work for them were naive, but they were trying their best to improve conditions for black Americans. They donated millions to schools. They hired people who were poor or juvenile delinquents, trying to give them a chance to change their lives. They paid him extra money for his job. They tried to encourage him to go to school and get an education, to better his life. They weren’t mean people. Naive and accidentally condescending, oh yes, but they tried the best they knew how. Their daughter, Mary, was even more naive. She wanted to be Bigger’s friend. She wanted to learn “how Negroes lived.” She treated him as if he were an interesting pet. She was dumb, but she was not purposely mean. And then there were people who were honest. White people. Jan and Max both treated Bigger as a human being and an equal. They did everything they could for him.
Bigger Thomas had a chance to be a better person. His crimes were inexcusable. I feel no pity for him at all, despite what Wright wants me to feel. But what the majority of white people did to him – and to other blacks – was no better. Worse in fact. And I think that’s what I have to take from this in the end. I have to say sorry, I hate Bigger Thomas, but while he ought to have been punished for his crimes, the reaction of people around him was disproportionate to those crimes. I know that had he been white, he would have been punished, but it would not have been the same. Not at all. To me, that’s what this book is about: inequality of justice.
I hope we have improved in the seventy years since this book was published. I imagine we have some, but I’m sure we have not gotten as far as we should. There are still people out there who are racist and oppressive. Discrimination – and not just against blacks – still exists all over our country. If we really want equality, perhaps we ought to listen to what Max says in the middle of his 30-page speech:
Men are men and life is life, and we must deal with them as they are; and if we want to change them, we must deal with them in the form in which they exist and have their being.