From Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas to Ferguson’s Michael Brown: The Reality of Indignant Forces in Post-Racial America

They beat him with a club and kicked him. They mocked and laughed at this monkey. They showcased their brute master-like antebellum aggression over this simple nigger. He displayed every bit of his nigger caste characteristic, the lowest of the North American caste system. White men in blue suits screamed boy over and over again. The world watched this brutality as if it was fiction. The power of white supremacy had taken its toll in a fashion most ubiquitous to black folks. The scene of white officers beating Rodney King was shocking, yet not surprising, as former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates stated, “My goodness, here is this black person who is being beaten. It looks like the Old South.”That March 1992 event marked another narrative of racial alienation in the United States, as white cops furthered the aims of white supremacy. King was just a black boy. There was no thought of this boy’s black mother, who was part of a long line of women advancing the case for oppressed black men in America.

Americans were recently reminded that indignant forces constitute violence and death for black Americans, as illustrated by Cleveland, Ohio police officers who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice for playing in a park with a toy gun. Both white Cleveland cops stated that “[Tamir] looked like a grown man”, another racial caricature black men face. Though all people of color have faced oppression, black men in particular have faced indignant forces in the United States at a far more alarming rate. They have found support among leftist allies, including black women who have also faced the same realities. Present day and historical forces have long aimed to incarcerate Negros from achieving the plight of white Americans. Thus, greater action and awareness is still needed to bring about equality in a mythical post-racial society.

 Historically, leftist groups such as the Communist Party USA have supported marginalized Americans. The CP USA is in a vastly different place today than in the 1950s. Then, under the guise of American conservatives, such as Joseph McCarthy, there were far fewer avenues for American expression. This was evident in the role CP USA played in denouncing the murder of Emmett Till. The Communist Party influenced by an African-American communist female named Pat Ellis, who encouraged Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till, to have an open casket at her son’s funeral for the entire world to see. Mother Till and the Communist Party wanted the world to witness the extent of indignant racism and hate propagated by American injustice. Thus the world saw, and still see, the dismembered body of a 14-year-old black kid who was beaten, shot, and physically mutilated for whistling at a white woman. And though leftist females enunciated this call to action, there was resistance to their leadership.

In a 1931 article published in the Daily Worker, Walter White of the NAACP stated that black women who joined the Communist Party were “ignorant and uncouth victims who were being led to the slaughter by dangerously bold radicals.”A number of black men beyond White voiced concerns about the CP and its motives. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and A. Philip Randolph were among those suspicious of the Comintern, though each played their own role in the CP. In a sense, their concerns were driven by their intellectual and patriarchal dismay for the contributions of Negro women, who not only faced the duality of being Negro and female, but who were also victims of oppression. Black women struggled against both the oppression of black men and white society, as they fought to move the Negro race forward by shedding light on the social injustice surrounding them. Though some of these Negro women were the constructs of men, they offered a type of gravitas needed in the black community. Wright introduced the American conscious to Bigger Thomas inNative Son. Wright, who expressed the unnerving reality of being a southern Negro, catapulted his journey to the Southside of Chicago in his semi-autobiographical work,Black Boy. Wright’s construct was clearly influenced by his early years in Mississippi and upbringing; he noted in Black Boy that

… things that influenced my conduct as a Negro did not have to happen to me directly; I needed but to hear of them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of my consciousness. Indeed, the white brutality that I had not seen was a more effective control of my behavior than that which I knew.

In Native Son, Wright echoes his own mother’s religiosity in the depiction of Bigger Thomas’ mother, who expresses grave concern her boy in an oppressed American society. She feared the worst for him, which should not surprise the American reader. While black men wrestled with unemployment, poverty, and threats most familiar to them in a capitalist society, black women aggressively protested and criticized black leadership via communist’s forums and papers, such as the Harlem Liberator. They modeled social relief efforts for Negro leaders in the CP, on matters such as assisting the poor.When meat prices escalated in Harlem, black women, who were committed to social activism, used threats of riot and public protest against butchers to force prices to decline. As a result, butchers closed shop for four days while prices decreased.

Bigger lived in the Southside of Chicago and was from the low nigger caste of American culture. He had no education and was constantly met with resistance in finding work. His mother feared this symbolized a message of despair for her son, who was lost in a world controlled by white supremacy. Wright was clearly thinking about Bigger’s mother as a symbol of hope, despite her religious convictions, which would not rescue black folks from their oppressors. However, he aimed his hate at Bigger, who was executed by an American lynch mob, which represented the hypocrisy of Christianity and capitalism. Due to Bigger’s hate for the injustice that capitalism and Jim Crow had created, he took the life of his white employer’s daughter, who possessed the privileges capitalism granted white people. But, in killing her and trying to pin the death on her communist boy friend, Wright illustrated a moment of confusion, as he took aim at the lies of the Negro Chicago communist, and that of Jim Crow America. Even before the birth of Bigger by Wright, black communist women, such as Mary Peavey called for black men to unite and take action against the lynchings Negros faced. She warned black leaders that leftist actions were needed for Negro liberation.                               

It was Abel Meeropol, a Jewish communist, who penned the lyrics for Strange Fruit, furthering the message of liberation. Billie Holiday conveyed the brutality of Jim Crow lynchings by singing Meeropol’s protest song across Harlem and other cities, using its message to showcase the darkness of injustice. The lyrics read:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Pastoral scene of the gallant South,  The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh, And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop.[

Meeropol and Holiday’s calls were met slowly and with resistance by the Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) administration, as the lynching of black folks continued to rise from1930 to 1960. With the support of black women, the CP USA increased its activities as the Comintern furthered the goals of Joseph Stalin, who believed that greater unity and a sense of international efforts must take hold.

Responding to Stalin’s control of the Comintern, CP USA organized interracial meetings, socials, and demonstrations to increase solidarity. The CP USA had a huge impact in the American South, particularly in Alabama, as the Party galvanized support around the Scottsboro boys, who were wrongly accused of raping a white woman, and were to be crucified like Christ by an unjust American legal system.The difference, of course, was that Christ’s own people, fellow Jews tried and crucified him, while Negros such as, the Scottsboro boys, were charged by southern whites.

Communist sympathizer Countee Cullen’s depiction of white supremacy was reflected in his poem, Christ Recrucified. Cullen, like so many Negros of the early period, endorsed the actions of communism, though he never joined the party. He compared the oppression of blacks to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ here:

The South is crucifying Christ again. Christ’s awful wrong is that he’s dark of hue. The sin for which no blamelessness atones;  But lest the sameness of the cross should tire.  They kill him now with famished tongues of fire. And while he burns, good men, and women, too, Shout, battling for his black and brittle bones.

Cullen’s contemporary, Langston Hughes, contributed his writings to the CP USA newspaper during the period of the Comintern. He expressed his disdain toward southern injustice during the Scottsboro trial, through his response: Christ in Alabama. It reads,

Christ is a nigger,
Beaten and black:
Oh, bare your back!

Mary is His mother:
Mammy of the South,
Silence your mouth.

God is His father:
White Master above
Grant Him your love.

Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth,
Nigger Christ
On the cross
Of the South.

The poem brings to light the crisis of lynching and southern brutality born from white supremacy. Further, due to Hughe’s relationship with the CP, Christ in Alabama was an interracial showing of solidarity among Negros, Jews, whites and others.  

Like Cullen and Hughes, Wright created a similar depiction using his Native Soncharacter Bigger Thomas, who faced the electric chair in the presence of a white God.  Bigger, like that of Ferguson, Missouri’s Michael Brown, epitomized fear in white America. A grown Negro weary with years of micro aggressions staggered in his unconscious thought. Bigger struggled to find work, which pits him against the power structure of white males, who failed to see beyond the veil of Bigger’s darkness. Both Thomas and Brown represented a larger issue in the American construct. Historically, it was white dogma that launched the myth that black men prey on white women leading the Scottsboro boys and the murder of Emmett Till. Popular culture, under the control of white supremacy, portrayed black men as sexual champions. Thus, black men have been the secret fantasy of white women, when in reality it was white men who often preyed on black women as a demonstration of their power.

Police brutality is the great savior of white male dominance. In a world with a changing economy, black men present new challenges to white male hegemony. For decades right-winged conservatives launched attacks against the burgeoning plight of black males seeking advancement through education, while faulting liberal affirmative action policies that threatened their white institutional power structures.

The recent attacks on black males (Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner) reminds Americans that social justice is needed. The lies of black-on-black crime by institutional power structures continue to distract Americans from the facts: black men are being crucified.  Black mothers worry about their black sons, while black men fear the injustice that incarcerates one out of every six of them.They fear a life of crime and victimization, much like Bigger Thomas, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and the Scottsboro boys of Alabama. And though the Right would have Americans with their black president believe in the post-racial myth, recent surveys find that Americans believe the racial divide is as great as ever. Thirteen percent of Americans believe that racism is the most pressing problem, noting a growing distrust of police officers. This matter will only persist as black males in the 21st century continue to face similar daily micro aggressions faced by Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas.

This trend of thought can be traced back to the turn of the century when police officers were the champions of enforcing de jure laws that permitted Jim Crow to dominate. Historians and social activists looking to evaluate this trend might find it interesting that the history of police brutality directly links to the rise of gangster rap, Watts, the Black Panthers, the 1992 LA Riot, and the famous drive of OJ Simpson. In each case, an argument can be made regarding the correlation between Jim Crow, police brutality, and the action. If one looked at gangster rap, many artists of the 1980s and 90s contend that their plight was impacted by economic forces that placed education on the back burner. The lyrics of rapper Ice Cube in one of his lyrics, contends that there are more brothers in prison than in college. Though some blame can be placed on individuals, one cannot dismiss the role of race and economics within the current power structure; if one is a poor minority living in an urban region not yet gentrified due to an urban Renaissance, the totality of revenue is not enough to provide a quality education. Rappers frustrated by this clearly reflected their anger at their community, showcasing the thug life and black-on-black crime.                                                        

Due to the escalation of violence in some communities, police officers find themselves at odds with blacks living within these communities; however, the black middle class is not willing to neither dismiss nor allow justification for police brutality due to urban violence. The black middle class contends that often times those looking to be uniformed police officers seek a position of authority. Academics have documented greater abuse by police officers toward the black middle class than those living in gang plagued areas, hence promoting a symbiotic relationship between black proletarians and the black bourgeoisie. Some speculate that this is a mere matter of intellectual and financial attainment by blacks over a uniformed cop. Others argue that it is a power play between the two sides, as each seeks to define their position of authority. In the end, blacks will argue that having the police come to their rescue involves too much risk. Though a gross generalization, the black middle class believes they are as isolated as black proletarians and cannot depend on the police. One might recall the Henry Lewis Gates’ incident. When a uniformed cop profiled the noted black academic and assumed Mr. Gates was breaking into his own home.


The four acquitted officers involved in the 1992 Rodney King beating served notice of the historical factors of race and authority, which can be traced back to the Watts riots of 1965. It was the aftermath of Watts, in which black urbanites turned to the Black Panthers and gangs for solidarity. The irony is that the organization of the Panthers initially gave rise to a diversity of gangs who defined their territory and sought to protect black urbanites against the indignant forces of the police. Clearly, the LA riots following Rodney King was not revolutionary enough to prevent future atrocities created by an unjust legal system, as noted by the acquittal of Treyvon Martin’s killer George Zimmerman, the murders of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown by a white power structure founded and protected by police brutality. War against injustice must continue in the 21st century as black men continue to fall victim to an oppressive system.


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