How "Bigger" Was Born Summary and Analysis
Native Son was published by Harper & Brothers on March 1, 1940. On March 12 of the same year, Richard Wright delivered the lecture, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” at Columbia University in New York City. He eventually gave this lecture four more times, twice in Harlem, and in Chicago and North Carolina. Harper’s soon published the lecture as a pamphlet, and it was included in subsequent editions of the novel. It is also included in the restored text of Native Son, published by The Library of America in 1991, and HarperPerennial in 1993.
Unlike some artists, who feel strongly that once they have created a work of art, their job is done, Wright was eager to discuss and explain the significance of his creation. He concedes that there are “meanings in my book of which I was not aware until they literally spilled out upon the paper.” Nevertheless, he makes an effort to describe those meanings which he did put consciously into Native Son. Therefore, for those readers who value an author’s intentions (and there are many these days who do not), and who believe that successful literature is in the main a conscious creation, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” is a document of great import, a gift.
As was partly discussed in the analysis of Book One: Fear, Wright identifies in his lecture several sources from his own experience that led him to create the fictional Bigger Thomas. The first source was his youthful encounters with five separate real-life Bigger Thomases, who lived in the South. “Bigger No. 1” was a childhood bully, who taunted Wright and his friends; “Bigger No. 2” was a teen-aged boy who did not disguise his contempt for white-run society. He bought things on credit at white-owned stores and never paid for them; he lived in white-owned shacks and did not pay rent. Wright tells us that the last he heard of “Bigger No. 2,” he was in prison. When Wright worked as a ticket-taker in a Negro movie house, he encountered “Bigger No. 3,” who routinely gave him a painful pinch and pushed past him without paying. Bigger No. 3, we learn, was later shot in the back and killed by a white cop while delivering liquor during prohibition. “Bigger No. 4” was another rebel who broke the “Jim Crow” segregation laws—remember, before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans were forcibly, legally separated from white society in the South. Bigger No. 4 often stated the simple truth that “white folks won’t let us do nothing.” He was ultimately declared insane and put in a mental institution. “Bigger No. 5” defiantly refused, knife in hand, to sit in the “colored” section on streetcars—an action that had potentially deadly consequences. Wright remarks, “I don’t know what happened to Bigger No. 5. But I can guess.” What was unique about each of these Biggers was not their poverty or their want of basic human rights. All African Americans existed under these conditions. It was their defiance that set the Biggers apart. It was not an organized, consciously political defiance; it was elemental, often brutal, and dangerous.
Another source Wright drew upon when he created Bigger was a job he once had in Chicago’s South Side Boys’ Club. The club was funded by rich whites who ostensibly wanted to help ghettoized black youth. Wright was employed as a kind of recreation counselor, and organized games of ping-pong, marbles, checkers, and baseball. He points out that funding the club was not an act of charity on the part of its wealthy patrons: its real purpose was to distract these teens and keep them off the streets, where they might steal or otherwise harm the “valuable white property which adjoined the Black Belt” ghetto. Wright admits that he hoped the youths, these wronged and angry Bigger Thomases, would go out and steal anyway, and prove how ridiculous—even obscene—it was to think that the effects of ghetto existence could be improved by ping-pong. He reveals that his...
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