How "Bigger" Was Born Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated February 23, 2023.

Harper & Brothers released Native Son on March 1, 1940, and on March 12 of that year, Richard Wright presented a lecture titled "How 'Bigger' Was Born" at Columbia University in New York City. He went on to give this lecture four more times, including two times in Harlem, and in Chicago and North Carolina.

Harper's magazine later released the lecture as a booklet, and it was subsequently added to later versions of the novel. The lecture was also incorporated into the updated version of Native Son, which was published by The Library of America in 1991, and by HarperPerennial in 1993.

While some artists may consider their work complete once it's been created, Wright is different in that he eagerly discusses and explains the significance of his creations. He admits that there are some meanings in his book that he didn't realize until he wrote them down, but he still makes an effort to explain the meanings he did intentionally put into Native Son. This makes his essay "How 'Bigger' Was Born" valuable for readers who appreciate an author's intentions and believe that good literature is a deliberate creation. In other words, Wright's essay is an important document for those who value the conscious creation of successful literature, and it is a gift for those readers who appreciate understanding an author's intentions.

In his lecture, Wright reveals that his creation of the character Bigger Thomas was partly influenced by his own experiences, as discussed in the analysis of Book One: Fear. He specifically identifies several sources that inspired him to create the fictional character. One of these sources was his encounters with five different individuals, all named Bigger Thomas, during his youth in the South. One of the Bigger Thomases was a childhood bully who would tease Wright and his friends, while another was a teenage boy who openly showed his disdain for a society run by white people. This second Bigger Thomas would buy things on credit from white-owned stores but never pay for them, and he lived in shacks that were owned by white people but never paid rent.

According to Wright, the most recent update he had on "Bigger No. 2" was that he was in prison. While working as a ticket-taker at a movie theater for African Americans, Wright encountered "Bigger No. 3," who regularly caused him pain by pinching him and walking past him without paying. Later on, it was revealed that "Bigger No. 3" was shot in the back and killed by a white police officer while he was delivering alcohol during the Prohibition era. "Bigger No. 4" was another person who rebelled against the "Jim Crow" segregation laws which legally and forcibly separated African Americans from white society in the South before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. "Bigger No. 4" frequently stated the truth that "white people do not allow us to do anything."

He was deemed insane and placed in a mental institution in the end. "Bigger No. 5" refused with a knife in hand to sit in the "colored" section on streetcars, which could have led to fatal consequences. Wright comments that he doesn't know what happened to Bigger No. 5, but he has an idea. The Biggers' distinguishing feature was not their poverty or lack of basic human rights, as these were common experiences among African Americans. It was their rebelliousness that made them stand out. Their defiance was not a deliberate or organized political act, but rather an innate, frequently brutal, and risky one.

Wright used a previous work experience he...

(This entire section contains 4084 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

had at the Boys' Club in the South Side of Chicago as inspiration for Bigger. This club received funding from wealthy white individuals who claimed to be assisting underprivileged black youth. Wright's role there involved being a recreation counselor where he arranged and supervised games like ping-pong, marbles, checkers, and baseball.

He highlights that the rich supporters who provided funds for the club didn't do it out of a charitable act. Instead, their actual motive was to divert the attention of these teenagers and prevent them from loitering on the streets. The reason behind this was to avoid any theft or harm to the affluent "valuable white property" that was adjacent to the Black Belt neighborhood.

Wright acknowledges that he had the expectation that the frustrated and mistreated youths like Bigger Thomas would resort to stealing, and thereby demonstrate the absurdity and offensiveness of the notion that ping-pong could alleviate the impact of living in the ghetto. He discloses that his anticipations were generally fulfilled. This incident from Wright's life exemplifies how accurately the specifics in Native Son reflect real-life situations. The book portrays that Mr. Dalton's benevolent act involved giving ping-pong tables to a facility that catered to black young people.

Wright discovered a new wellspring of motivation for his book Native Son in the response of the white community to his earlier work, Uncle Tom's Children. The book was a compilation of stories depicting the horrors of racism in the South, which garnered considerable empathy from liberal audiences in the North. However, Wright felt dissatisfied with the fact that even wealthy and privileged individuals, such as bankers' daughters, could read the book and feel moved to tears without having to confront the full extent of the issues it addressed. As a result, he made a personal pledge that his next book would be so raw and profound that readers would have to confront it without the comfort of tears.

In his previous work, Wright accurately depicted the horrific realities of racism in the South in a vivid and detailed manner, which led to unexpected sympathy even from wealthy Northern whites who were responsible for oppressing and segregating Northern black communities. However, in his book Native Son, Wright corrected this oversight by setting the story in Chicago and emphasizing the clear division between impoverished ghetto dwellers like the Thomases and wealthy, potentially liberal, whites like the Daltons. To prevent the type of unwanted sympathy he received from privileged readers in his previous book, Wright created the character of Bigger Thomas, a person without hope who is brutalized by the harsh realities of ghetto life and holds a deep-seated hatred for a world that he does not fully comprehend.

Wright explains that he finds Bigger Thomas to be a true representation of a certain type of African American who has been neglected in literature. He believes that it's not difficult to understand why some African Americans have become rebellious and dangerous, and he briefly examines the history of white supremacy in the Southern United States after the end of slavery. Wright's explanation suggests that those who are surprised by the behavior of individuals like Bigger Thomas may be unaware of the historical context that has contributed to their actions.

Although "radical reconstruction" was supposed to be a political initiative created and supported by white abolitionists and African American leaders, such as Frederick Douglass, that would bring about significant change, the newly freed slaves experienced a different form of oppression in the Southern states after the Civil War. The main focus of radical reconstruction was to give African American men the right to vote, even though women of all races were not allowed to vote in the United States until 1920, and Southern black women were not permitted to vote until 1965.

The text argued for the education of African Americans, the allocation of land to former slaves for farming, and the safeguarding of their rights from the former slave-owning group with the help of Union soldiers. However, Radical Reconstruction was ultimately defeated due to political manipulation and extreme violence. Union soldiers left the South, and the Ku Klux Klan, an unofficial military faction of former slave-owners, subjected African Americans to inhumane treatment such as torture, lynching, and mass killing, reducing them to a subhuman status.

Wright points out that a vast number of Black people were denied access to land, voting rights, and the use of public spaces. Furthermore, they were also denied the opportunity to receive an education. Bigger No. 4, who was labeled as insane by white society, used to express that African Americans were not allowed to do anything. Wright made these observations during a time when Southern Black people had not yet achieved their fundamental legal rights, a milestone that would take another 25 years.

The Black community was forcefully prevented from benefitting from the wealth that they had contributed to creating through their labor. Despite living in close proximity to more affluent white neighborhoods, African-American communities in the South were often nothing more than shantytowns. This led to a strong sense of alienation that Black people experienced, not only in the South but also in the North. The path to prosperity was obstructed by either racial laws in the South or economic laws in the North. Ultimately, the police, National Guard, and army enforced these laws. Even though prosperity was within reach, it remained out of reach due to these systemic barriers.

It is understandable why individuals like Bigger Thomas would arise under such circumstances. Although they lack education, they are acutely aware of the limitations imposed upon them, which fuels their rebelliousness and leads to an unfounded animosity towards all things associated with whiteness. Wright was intrigued by the Bigger Thomas phenomenon and actively investigated whether the alienation that led to his emergence was unique to African Americans or not.

Wright's exploration had significant literary and philosophical-political consequences for him as a writer. It prompted him to frequently incorporate the theme of alienation in his literary works, and it also directed him away from African-American-centered philosophies towards Marxism, which is a comprehensive theory of oppression and alienation. According to Marx's theory, the fundamental form of alienation is the alienation of all laborers, regardless of race or gender, from the products of their labor.

The Marxist perspective, which asserts that society is segregated into classes based on one's relationship to the wealth-generating resources, resonated with the young Richard Wright, as it suggested that Black people would not have to fight against a huge sea of whiteness on their own.

Some people rely on selling their labor to make a living, while others who already have enough wealth can buy machinery and hire others to work for them. The employing class can exploit their workers' productivity to increase their wealth.

Although the workers continue to be workers and rely on their income from one paycheck to another, Marx acknowledged that certain groups of workers, like African Americans, were subject to greater exploitation than others. However, he maintained that all workers, regardless of their country, nationality, or race, shared more common ground than differences. The Communist Party of the United States, which professed Marxist ideology at least in theory, believed that workers of different races, particularly black and white workers, must come together to defeat both racism and class oppression.

Wright became increasingly interested in the challenges faced by labor, and he discovered that the tales of the Russian revolutionaries revealed a more widespread type of alienation recognized by Marxism. During his speech, he provides a significant illustration from one of these stories that not only conveys a message about alienation but also offers insight into Wright's complicated connection with the Communist Party.

It would be beneficial to analyze Wright's example thoroughly due to its ambiguous nature. In his account, he describes reading a fascinating pamphlet that recounts the friendship between Gorky and Lenin while they were in exile. The pamphlet includes a story of how Lenin and Gorky were strolling down a street in London, and Lenin gestured towards various landmarks, such as Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and the library, all of which could have multiple meanings.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who headed the Bolshevik Party, which later became the Communist Party, led a resistance against the Russian czar's autocratic rule. The party operated in secrecy since it was illegal, and Lenin had to live outside of Russia for fear of being arrested by the czar's authorities. In 1917, Lenin successfully led a revolution in Russia with the goal of creating a socialist society, given that all forms of political opposition were prohibited in the country.

Maxim Gorky, a renowned Russian writer who had a connection with Lenin and supported the revolutionary cause, was discussed by Wright. Wright noted that Lenin had a disposition of "exclusion" or detachment from the London landmarks he was pointing out, even though they were magnificent. These landmarks belonged to the wealthy, the very people that Lenin and all communists were fighting against on behalf of the poorer classes. The landmarks symbolized an entire advanced society that had been constructed by the laboring hands of the masses of poor people, who were now being prevented from benefiting from its advantages. Wright interpreted Lenin's position as similar to the "Bigger Thomas reaction," which refers to the character Bigger Thomas from Richard Wright's novel "Native Son," who is overwhelmed and paralyzed by the oppressive and discriminatory society he lives in.

Lenin's influence actually encouraged Wright to adopt Communist beliefs, but he didn't join the Communist Party until approximately a decade after Lenin's passing. By that time, Josef Stalin had taken over in Russia, and his group had gained complete dominance over the Communist Parties across the globe.

The Stalinist philosophy differed significantly from Marxist ideology, and Stalin went against Lenin's belief in the importance of internal discussions and disagreements within the party. Richard Wright frequently disagreed with the Stalinist leadership during his time in the Communist Party of the United States, ultimately leading to his departure from the party in 1942 and his abandonment of Marxist principles.

In 1940, Wright gave a speech called "How 'Bigger' Was Born" while still being an active member of the Party, despite having had several disagreements with its leadership. Despite this, he attempted to adhere to the Party's beliefs and refrained from aggravating his precarious situation.

Richard Wright's story about Lenin sheds light on his tumultuous political career. However, the writer acknowledges that Lenin did not have the reported conversation with Maxim Gorky during his time in exile, and that the conversation did in fact take place in 1902 between Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the second most prominent leader of the Russian Revolution.

Following Lenin's passing, Trotsky opposed Stalin's political stance and became a fierce adversary. He was initially kicked out of the Communist Party, then expelled from the Soviet Union, and eventually murdered by one of Stalin's agents while in exile in Mexico in the same year Native Son was released. In his book on Lenin published in 1924 in Moscow, Trotsky shared the now-famous tale of his walk with Lenin in London, which he had previously recounted in an essay titled "Lenin and the Old Iskra."

Richard Wright's meticulous research and scholarly approach are evident from the notes he left behind for Native Son. In his novel, he endeavored to recreate the Depression-era Chicago ghetto with great accuracy. While he intentionally deviated from realism at times, such as in the Fate scene where he introduced twelve visitors into Bigger's cramped prison cell for dramatic effect.

It's hard to believe that Wright simply overlooked the fact that the book he was reading about Lenin was written by Trotsky, or that he mistakenly mixed up Gorky's name with the actual author's name. This is particularly unlikely given that Wright was a prominent intellectual in the Communist Party, during a period when all members of the American Communist movement were well aware of the distinction between Trotsky and Gorky.

Essentially, Wright did not want to publicly admit that he was inspired by a book written by Trotsky, even though the book praised Lenin. This was because Lenin was no longer a threat to anyone, having passed away, whereas Stalin was still in power and had transformed Lenin into an almost divine figure. Meanwhile, Trotsky, who was still alive at the time, was constantly criticizing Stalin and exposing his deceitful behavior, which made him a target for persecution.

Despite being Lenin's closest comrade, Trotsky was accused by Stalin of being a "counterrevolutionary," a fascist, an agent of foreign governments with reactionary agendas, and the ultimate adversary of the Soviet state. Any positive mention of Trotsky or Trotskyism by a member of a Communist Party would result in immediate and swift expulsion, and Wright was fully cognizant of this fact.

Wright was put off by the rigid and uncompromising views of the Stalin group, but he wasn't ready to completely sever ties with the Communist Party in 1940. This was a common attitude among socialists who were committed to the cause during the 1930s and 1940s but were bewildered and put off by Stalinism. Despite being repelled by Stalinism, many socialists were hesitant to leave the Stalinized Communist Parties because the Soviet Union was the only country in the world to have abolished capitalism.

The Trotskyist groups, which were the only ones challenging Stalinism with a revolutionary approach, were relatively small and did not seem promising to many skeptical Stalinists. Specifically, even those who were highly critical of Stalin had been influenced by his negative portrayal of Trotsky through propaganda. As a result, Richard Wright and many other members of the Communist Party tried to justify the Party's actions for as long as they could bear it. When Wright eventually left the Party, he also abandoned revolutionary socialism altogether.

Wright's issue with the Communist Party transformed from a political problem to a philosophical one concerning Marxism. In "How 'Bigger' Was Born," Wright addresses this problem both explicitly and implicitly. He explains that his portrayal of the character Bigger did not align with the moderate African-American leaders' desire to showcase only positive representations of Black life to white audiences, nor did it conform to the Communist Party's theoretical predictions, which depicted African Americans solely in positive roles within revolutionary movements.

Wright disregards the concerns of the moderates who he believes are unrealistic in thinking that positive images alone can bring about actual change. However, he is more cautious about potential objections from the Communist side regarding the character of Bigger. Despite still being a member of the Party and acknowledging their understanding of society and its goals, Wright thinks that individuals like Bigger Thomas are so marginalized from the economy and society, even from organized anti-capitalist and anti-racist groups, that they may not have a place within the Marxist movement. This philosophical dilemma exacerbates Wright's increasing disagreement with communism on a political level.

Wright had knowledge of the Marxist interpretation of a group within society, which included both black and white people, that was situated even lower than the class of workers who were being exploited. He demonstrated his understanding by referencing Hitler and fascism. In 1933, when Hitler rose to power in Germany, his political party had garnered the support of numerous individuals who were habitually jobless, known as the lumpenproletariat.

Those who felt completely without hope and disconnected from society were less likely to be influenced by the optimistic beliefs of the socialist and communist parties, which were primarily embraced by the large groups of organized laborers. The political views of the Nazis, if they could be called such, were filled with negative and contradictory ideas, consisting of frenzied tirades against Jews, Bolsheviks, and wealthy capitalists.

Hitler's belief in the revival of the German nation through mystical and irrational means, resulting in a powerful and prosperous "thousand-year Reich," resonated with the millions who had been left destitute by the severe economic depression in Germany, which was far more devastating than the one experienced by the American economy. To combat the appeal of fascist demagoguery, the organized working class, viewed from a Marxist perspective, has a responsibility to form connections with the jobless, organize hunger marches and rent strikes, and persuade them to align with workers.

Wright was unhappy with how the Communist Party treated impoverished residents of the ghetto. Additionally, he believed that the principles of Marcus Garvey, a proponent of African-American nationalism, were similar to the message of German nationalism, which resulted in Nazism. Despite this, Wright did not support Garvey's "Universal Negro Improvement Association," which aimed to create independent nations for African Americans, preferably in Africa.

The concept of Garveyism and black nationalism in general has a strong attraction for a group of people who have experienced immense anger, similar to the descendants of African slaves in America. The Communist Party, despite their ideology, acknowledged the intense and unyielding nature of racism in the South and briefly suggested the creation of a separate state for African Americans in that region.

Wright believed that the straightforward ideas of Garveyism had the potential to be more attractive to African Americans who had been excluded from American society, compared to the complex ideas of Marxism. In his novel Native Son, the character Bigger expresses a general admiration for Hitler and Mussolini, and hopes for a future black leader who would unite black people and help them overcome their fear and shame.

Meanwhile, Bigger appears to take pleasure in accusing Jan, the Communist, of Mary Dalton's death. However, Bigger's sympathies are misguided. It is incredibly inappropriate for an African-American to admire Hitler, who was the most evil racist killer in history and preached that black people were not human but rather monkeys. Wright explains that he attempted to understand Bigger's jumbled and muddled nationalist sentiments with his own conscious and knowledgeable beliefs.

Wright's analysis of American society during the 1940s clearly had a Marxist perspective. At that time, the American economy was still being severely affected by the Great Depression, which created a possibility for those who were suffering to either adopt communism or some extreme form of nationalism. Among the group of white shopkeepers who had gone bankrupt and white workers who were constantly unemployed, the latter chose to embrace fascism.

Aside from the Ku Klux Klan, other fascist groups were present in America during the Great Depression. These included the Silver Shirts, Father Coughlin's National Union for Social Justice, and the German-American Bund, which openly supported Hitler's Nazis. These organizations promoted repugnant and dangerous forms of prejudice, targeting Jews, Catholics (in the case of the Ku Klux Klan), and particularly African Americans. It is clear that for African Americans, fascism can never be a viable means of political representation.

According to Wright, black nationalism, particularly Garveyism, was seen as a rival to communism in winning the support of African Americans. The main issue he was examining was whether Bigger Thomas would be swayed by a flashy and overly emotional leader who would make unrealistic promises, or whether he would find common ground with his fellow workers through trade union or revolutionary leadership. Wright believed that the best course of action for Bigger was to adopt Marxism, but its success would depend on several factors.

According to Wright, the most significant aspect was the "future trend of events in America," which Marxists refer to as the "objective" component of history. However, the "subjective" factor, which is the Communist Party's capacity to effectively connect with African Americans, was also crucial, and Wright was skeptical about this ability.

Wright had a goal in mind when he wrote Native Son, which was to uncover certain aspects of African-American life that, in his view, were not comprehended by his fellow members of the Communist Party. His logic was that if Communists were to truly understand people like Bigger Thomas, then they needed to realize just how disconnected they were from even the organized labor opposition to the capitalist system. In essence, Wright hoped to enlighten his comrades about the true extent of alienation felt by African Americans, and the urgent need for change.

The core ideas of the psychological/existentialist view of Bigger Thomas conflict with the naturalist/Marxist perspective, but in his work Native Son, Wright managed to incorporate both. It's evident that in 1940, Wright believed that Marxism tackled the primary issues related to human societal structures under capitalism, including but not limited to hunger, lack of shelter, joblessness, discrimination, female oppression, and similar problems.

He held the view that a socialist society could solve some problems, but there would still be issues arising from individual existence. Therefore, Richard Wright's novel, Native Son, goes beyond being a typical example of literary naturalism, as it introduces the question of individual existence. The book aims to understand man as a social being with a unique individual existence that cannot be reduced to societal factors alone. Although it is not an exclusive philosophical problem, it is a dominant one that Wright never fully resolved throughout his life.

Previous

Book 3: Fate Summary