Promotional still for the original Broadway production of Native Son. Photo by Fred Fehl for Mercury Productions on Wikimedia Commons.

A Conversation with Trudier Harris on Bigger: A Literary Life

Bigger Thomas, the central figure in Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, eludes easy categorization. In Bigger: A Literary Life, Trudier Harris examines his continued relevance in debates over Black men and the violence of racism. In this Q&A, Harris talks to us about the impact of Wright’s character and his lasting literary legacy.

Bigger: A Literary Life is a biography of the fictional character Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright’s incendiary novel Native Son. Why write a biography of a fictional character, over a literary critique or analysis? Tell us more about your biographical approach.

TH: I chose the biographical approach for the challenge, for its innovative possibilities. After having authored several books of traditional literary criticism, I found the idea of concentrating on a single character as if he were a human being quite appealing. I wanted to see how far I could go in separating Bigger Thomas from Richard Wright—without doing damage to either. I was curious about the ways in which Bigger escapes the various forms of containment that Wright imposes upon him—his educational level, for example—as well as those that are at the heart of having an erudite narrator showcase the life of a character who dropped out of school after the eighth grade. Bigger: A Literary Life is by no means an “in place of” “literary critique or analysis”; it is instead an “in addition” to that usual pattern of evaluating a literary text. By taking the biography of a character approach to Native Son, I hope to encourage other scholars to follow a similar path—with the caveat, of course, that no character is ultimately, finally, separated from his or her creator.

In the introduction, you detail the reaction of a white female student to Bigger’s violent and troubled narrative. How does your biography inform and contextualize the demonization of Bigger?

TH: Consider Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and her character Cholly Breedlove. Cholly, like his literary father Bigger Thomas, kills and rapes. Yet Morrison, bowing to the pattern that Wright had set, refuses to allow readers to condemn Cholly from a simplistic moral position rooted in prejudice and a superficial aversion to violence. She enables readers to see and understand how Cholly came to be the monster that he is. That is precisely what Wright does. Readers are put in the position of evaluating their own morality even as they apply standards of behavior to Bigger. They may finally reject Bigger, but they do so only after Wright has shown them how Bigger came to be. Thus, condemnation must come after understanding, and sensitive readers might be inclined to re-evaluate their own morality and their conceptions of American democracy in arriving at that understanding. It is easy to label a person or a character as a monster or demon; it is much more challenging to seek answers to how such a state came to be.

When initially published, some African American writers embraced Bigger, while others, such as James Baldwin, critiqued and dismissed Native Son as protest fiction. Why was this the case?

TH: African American literature prior to the publication of Native Son was a mixture of folk creation, attempts to escape race through education and class, and polite evocations to white readers to see the humanity in Black people. Bigger goes against the grain of that “best foot forward” tradition and is unabashedly immoral, criminal, violent, and murderous. With Bigger, Wright instigated what became known as the Protest Tradition. For James Baldwin, that tradition, which was designed to evoke sufficient responses in readers that they would work to transform American society, denied the humanity of the characters created to accomplish such work. For Baldwin, begging before the altar of white acceptance and asking to be incorporated into American society was not the direction in which he believed Black writing should go. By attempting to appeal so much to white largesse, Black authors made their characters somewhat less than human as they groveled before those who had the power to recognize them as part of the human family. To Baldwin, Wright could only achieve his objective by shutting Bigger out of and off from the very traditions in African American culture (music, church) that had sustained generations of Bigger’s historical and literary forebears.

In your biography, you explore debates between Black critics and Communist artists in the 1930s and 1940s, Black feminists and Black power activists in the 1960s, and up to the Black Lives Matter movement. What debates around Bigger continue into the present day?

TH: Since questions of Black humanity are still relevant in 2024, and since the Black Lives Matter movement is ongoing, I would suggest that those are the debates that are relevant to Bigger. In the twenty-first century, too many populations in America are still considered disposable, unworthy of attention from any agencies that could transform their lives. Too many populations are still outside the mainstream of American opportunity. Too many gaps still exist between the “haves” and the “have nots,” the Mary Daltons of America versus the Bigger Thomases. Democracy still fails too many Black and Brown Americans. Educational and employment opportunities are still too limited for large segments of our population. As long as minority populations in America do not have voice in what happens to them, as long as non-White people disproportionately populate our prisons, as long as systems of justice fail, Bigger Thomas will be relevant to whatever conversations occur about identity, citizenship, race, justice, equality, freedom, and democracy.

How have film and stage adaptations of Native Son reinvigorated discussions about social justice, representation, and racism in American life?

TH: While stage adaptations of Native Son in the 1940s were successful, every film adaptation of Native Son, beginning with the one in which Wright starred as Bigger in 1951, has been a failure. The 1986 and 2019 films have occasioned more discussion about deviation from the novel than they have about social justice and racism. Indeed, a review of the films will show that filmmakers deliberately toned-down racial conflict in order to garner viewing audiences. Perhaps, in the places around the country where colleges, universities, and small theaters put on Native Son, there might be more adherence to the plot; films consistently transform the plot to meet the racial (Bigger and Mr. Dalton sit and chat about computers), social (Bessie and Mary are both students), and technological (cell phones) times. Anyone viewing such creations perhaps needs to understand that he or she is viewing entertainment, not politically sensitive narratives that could lead to “reinvigorated discussions” about racial and social justice issues in American society.

In 1940, Book-of-the-Month Club published Native Son with several passages excised from the final manuscript. The book continues to endure censorship amidst book bans in the United States. While it may be tempting to disinherit Bigger, why shouldn’t we?

TH: I am always fascinated by—and indeed have lectured on—book banning. For me, the issue is a matter of attempt at thought control—combined with this country’s continuing refusal to confront and truly evaluate its history. We should not disinherit Bigger because he represents the best of American individualism. Bigger evokes the “up by the bootstraps” tradition of Americans wanting to improve the social and economic conditions into which they are born. We should not disinherit Bigger because he, like millions of American citizens, wants a way out of poverty. Bigger, also like millions of Americans, wants to matter to the ubiquitous powers that control America. Bigger wants American Democracy to work for him, which is what countless numbers of Americans have wanted throughout our history. Bigger wants to be understood, to be accepted, to be counted, to matter—how much more American is that? If we tempt to disinherit Bigger, then we attempt to invalidate everything upon which these United States of America were founded.

Trudier Harris is J. Carlyle Sitterson Distinguished Professor of English, emerita, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and University Distinguished Research Professor of English, emerita, University of Alabama. She is the author of numerous books, including From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature from Charles Chesnutt to Toni Morrison and The Scary Mason-Dixon Line: African American Writers and the South. She lives in Tuscaloosa, AL.

Recent Posts

All Blogs