“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.”
In his 1940 essay “How Bigger Was Born,” Richard Wright traced Native Son’s protagonist back to young men he encountered growing up, who, bristling against the oppressive Jim Crow South, lived and died by violence.
Born in 1908 near Natchez, Mississippi, Wright shuffled among relatives across several states after his illiterate sharecropper father abandoned him and his mother fell ill. One of Wright’s happier summers with a favorite aunt ended abruptly when a white mob murdered her husband to usurp his lucrative saloon.
At nineteen Wright “first glimpsed Chicago through the naïve eyes of a young Mississippi Negro to whom the South Side loomed as the Promised Land”—a promise squalid kitchenette apartments, low-wage jobs, and meager government relief soon betrayed. When Wright began working at the South Side Boys' Club, he realized white benefactors bankrolled the club “to distract Bigger with ping-pong, checkers, swimming, marbles, and baseball in order that he might not roam the streets and harm the valuable white property.” While less overt than Jim Crow, “these little stopgaps were utterly inadequate to fill up the centuries-long chasm of emptiness which American civilization had created in these Biggers.”
Voicing his frustrations with the world he faced, Wright regularly published poems and essays in Communist Party magazines, penned two novels (Lawd Today! and Tarbaby’s Dawn) that publishers rejected, and published his first book, Uncle Tom’s Children, in time for his thirtieth birthday. Despite the acclaim that book received, white readers’ responses disappointed Wright:
“ I found that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears. It was this that made me get to work in dead earnest.”
He got to work writing Native Son. As Wright sketched the ‘Biggers’ he’d met, an internal censor stalled him: would Bigger validate pernicious stereotypes for white readers? Would middle-class African Americans chafe at his depiction? Wright soon realized, he “must write this novel, not only for others to read, but to free [himself] of this sense of shame and fear."
Working to understand Bigger, ruminated Wright, “was the pivot of [his] life; it altered the complexion of [his] existence.” By birthing Bigger, Wright was reborn.
NAMBI E. KELLEY
Over 40 years after Wright’s Native Son first became a bestseller and instant, if controversial, classic, an 8-year-old Nambi E. Kelley pulled it off the shelf at home.
Thrilled at recognizing street names and addresses just blocks from where she lived in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, the precocious child read on in secret, even as the story’s unfolding violence awoke her suspicion that this wasn’t kid stuff. Her mother discovered her, and pried the half-finished but already beloved novel from her hands. “It was disturbing, but I couldn’t put it down,” Kelley described in the first rehearsal of her adaptation of Native Son at Yale Rep: “I kept reading because I was hungry.”
Reunited with the novel in high school, Kelley has not put it down since. In 2013, without knowing Kelley’s long captivation with Native Son, Chicago’s American Blues Theater, where Kelley is an ensemble member, commissioned the acclaimed playwright and performer to adapt it for the stage. Court Theatre, a company committed to re-examining classic texts, added their support to the commission and co-produced the adaptation’s world premiere on their South Side stage, just blocks from where the novel takes place.
Kelley was entrenched in a 400-page first draft—a loyal and detailed transmigration of the novel in all its Dostoevskian scope—when George Zimmerman walked free after the murder of Trayvon Martin. Kelley “thought about how a group of people could listen to that testimony and say—and this was before #BlackLivesMatter—that this black life did not matter.” She felt deeply troubled that the jury “put themselves in the mind of the person who pulled the trigger as opposed to the mind of the person who was killed.”
Throwing out her draft to begin anew, Kelley supplanted Wright’s linear plot with a crucible for radical empathy. In her vision, sixty-four scenes represent a split-second of Bigger’s thoughts through a dissociative mind-map. As Richard Wright prepared his first draft of the novel in 1938, he resolved, his “ultimate purpose in writing such a book is to reveal the inner landscape of the Negro mind.” Kelley made that her mandate.
“If people are not inside Bigger’s mind [they] do not understand why he made the choices he made,” Kelley urged. Her “task was to get inside. Bigger is not a monster; he is a man. How do you feel what he feels and understand the choices that he made?”
- Molly FitzMaurice