In “How Bigger was Born” Richard Wright effectively uses his protagonist to express his views on the larger society. Through character development, Wright is able to comment and message on the world as he sees it. For example, Bigger’s study of and connection to fascist movements across the world stood out. Wright grew up and wrote during an era where fascism was on full display. He would have been a child during WW1 but a grown man during WW2. The debate around the effectiveness of governments and regimes would have been in full swing. Because Bigger studied and commented on its effectiveness, means Wright used his protagonist to explore polarizing topics. Bigger wanted to be powerful, he wanted to be in control of his life, he wanted to matter. Naturally, he sought out examples. And while it may be abhorrent to admire these fascist leaders, especially through today’s lens, what Bigger and possibly Wright saw were men who were feared and effective.
After reading and processing this part of the origin story, Bigger made a lot more sense to me. Whether it was Bigger 2, whose hardness was directed toward the whites in the South, Bigger 5 who rode the streetcars and sat wherever he pleased, or Bigger Thomas who gazed up at the planes in the sky knowing his ceiling would never reach that high, there was a clear understanding that there was a larger life at stake. But other than a few fleeting moments, these Biggers were, for the most part powerless. The small acts of rebellion, while feeding their need to fight back, could not do much to change their situation at large other than land them in and out of the prison system.
The attraction to and admiration of the Hitlers and Mousillinis, therefore, seems natural. They “did Things”. The Biggers of the world, knowing there is more to life, are angry and frustrated by being subdued in their environments. They gravitate towards those who can effect change. Bigger’s attraction to a leader stems from the deep desire for change but the lack of opportunity to do so. It is through this vantage that I see the parallels to Malcolm X. Malcolm Little was an aware, frustrated, angry young man with few options. He, like Bigger, landed in jail. From there, he fashioned the tools and skills that would lead him to prominence and a place where he could effectively advocate for change. Young Malcolm grew up poor and endured many of the same racial tensions and racist encounters as Bigger. Thus, in their youth, they both turned to a life of crime, neither having the ability to give their inner Bigger a productive outlet. However, the key difference is that Malcolm X was introduced to a platform that allowed him a prism to project his Bigger. His intelligence and leadership abilities were not wasted – he had an incredible impact on Black lives, on the Civil Rights movement, and on American and global culture. Because Malcolm was “found” and cultivated, he could put his gifts to work. Arguably, Bigger Thomas was a decision or two away from having a different path in life. The larger question is how many Biggers do we have today rotting in our prison systems or on the streets, unable to share their gifts with society. How many Malcolm’s are yet to be discovered?