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Unspecified Year: Bigger Thomas

March 3rd, 2011 Headsman

The main character of Richard Wright’s Native Son was condemned to a March 3 electrocution by the state of Illinois.

In Number 666-983, indictment for murder, the sentence of the Court is that you, Bigger Thomas, shall die on or before midnight of Friday, March third,* in a manner prescribed by the laws of this state.

The Court finds your age to be twenty.

The Sheriff may retire with the prisoner.

Readers are not treated to the actual execution scene, but the hopelessness of Bigger Thomas’s situation is the book‘s whole context and theme. There is little room to entertain a reprieve.

“In the first draft I had Bigger going smack to the electric chair,” the author remarked. “But I felt that two murders were enough for one novel. I cut the final scene.”

The first Book of the Month club selection by an African American author was an instant best-seller, but hardly easy reading. Wright tackles the catastrophic “hatred, fear, and violence” suffusing negro life.

Bigger Thomas grows up wretched and impoverished in Depression-era Chicago and eventually commits an accidental homicide, then rapes and murders his girlfriend. Wright took some heat for staging a character seemingly written to whites’ darkest fears of African-Americans, but it was his object to force the reader to relate to a brutish, violent man whose brutality is conditioned by the world he inhabits.

Bigger Thomas’s trial has his lawyer present an overt indictment of structural oppression as the true cause of Bigger’s crime.

“I didn’t want to kill,” Bigger shouted. “But what I killed for, I am! It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder … What I killed for must’ve been good!” Bigger’s voice was full of frenzied anguish. “It must have been good! When a man kills, it’s for something … I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ‘em. It’s the truth …”

Whether Wright truly broke out of the existing literary genres may be a matter of debate.

James Baldwin considered Native Son to be of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin tradition, “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality … the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses.”

All of Bigger’s life is controlled, defined by his hatred and his fear … elow the surface of this novel there lies, as it seems to me, a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy … Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth. But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.

-“Everybody’s Protest Novel” (pdf)

“Protest novel” or otherwise, Native Son‘s mainstream success extended to the stage, where Orson Welles — fresh from the debut of Citizen Kane — directed a Wright-written adaptation in 1941. Less successfully, Wright himself played the title role in a 1951 Argentinian film.

“Bigger Thomas” is also the name of a long-running ska band.

Though the novel is not yet public domain in the United States, it is in some countries — and can be perused free here.

* For the finicky chronologist: Native Son was published in 1940. At that point, the most recent occasions March 3 had fallen on a Friday were 1939 and 1933.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Fictional,Illinois,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA

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4 thoughts on “Unspecified Year: Bigger Thomas”

  1. Headsman says:

    I thought this was a more serious site

    Man, did you come to the wrong place.

  2. W.E. Miller says:

    So now this site is used to discuss fictitious executions and even one of an unknown date. Say it ain’t so, Shoeless Joe. I thought this was a more serious site than this!

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