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Oftentimes you will hear very successful people talk about the social environment they grew up in.
Usually their social upbringing is great, sometimes it is okay, and other times it is horrible. However, they all have one thing in common: these people admit that their environment made them who they are today. Unfortunately, the same can be said about people who find themselves either in prison or in death row. The horrendous crimes some inmates commit is almost always a result of the traumatizing social environment in which they grew up in. Richard Wright uses this as the foundation of the main character of his book, Bigger Thomas, who kills two women. Nothing can justify the gruesome crimes that Bigger Thomas committed; however, social circumstances such as poverty, systemic racism, fear and hate, and overwhelming economic responsibilities are the origins of the murders of Mary Dalton and Bessie Mears.
It comes as no surprise that the murderer in this book grew up poor and deprived of any opportunities.
Any chance of a future was likely non-existent when Bigger Thomas was born, having grown up in a time period where black people were forcibly deprived of any opportunity. And the reason why was their skin color. “Listen, I’ve talked to this boy. He has no education. He is poor. He is black. And you know what we have made those things mean in our country” (Wright 403). Here, Max is trying to get people to understand part of the complicated motive behind Bigger’s crimes.
He explains the three things that doomed Bigger. His lack of an education, his socioeconomic status, and his skin color. These three things back in this time period made anyone the lowest of the low. A poor, uneducated white man held more power and held a higher status because his skin color awarded him that. Unfortunately, black people during this period of time were not even considered human and were forced into poverty, and poor communities tend to be a breeding ground for violent crime. Not because they (the people) are bad, but because the deprivation of money, food, education, and opportunities make some people desperate. Max made an excellent point pointing out that the poverty in which Bigger grew up on contributed to his crimes.
The reason people of color where deprived of any opportunities was because of the rampant systemic racism going on. It wasn’t just the hate of one man. It was the collaboration of authorities, businesses, and governments. The goal of all this was to keep the colored man poor and uneducated. “…for every school teacher knows the restrictions which we have placed upon Negro education…. real estate operators know that it is not so, for they have agreed upon themselves to keep Negroes within ghetto-areas of cities” (Wright 395). This is evidence that Max also points out. People of color had dreams, aspirations, and ambitions; they, however, were limited in the education they were able to receive, were considered suspicious peoples by the authorities, and were restricted by realtors to certain parts of the city. What part of the cities were black people able to live in? The worst parts that nobody wanted. This took away the chance for Bigger to live out his dreams and aspirations. This systemic racism gave Bigger Thomas and others in his circumstances nothing to live for except crime.
Growing up in poverty and systemic racism contributes to a cycle of fear and hate. Over time, animosity grew inside Bigger that he had a difficult time controlling. All of his problems he blamed on the people that he not only hated but also feared, the ones responsible, the white people in power. “Every time I think about it I feel like somebody’s pouring a red-hot iron down my throat. Goddammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They do things and we can’t” (Wright 20). Bigger gets straight to the point when he expresses his feelings towards his circumstances and white people. Whenever he thinks about it, he can’t help but to get angry and to think about what he can and cannot do. White people are able to live in better parts of the city while black people are confined to the ghetto areas of the city. They are also given a lot more opportunities while black people are not allowed to do many things, such as flying a plane, which is something Bigger would fantasize about. Bigger knows who the people responsible are, and as a result has learned to see them as a different “species,” making it easier to hate and fear them.
At such a young age, Bigger Thomas has had an enormous weight placed on his shoulders. His mother made him economically responsible for the family. At such a young age, Bigger Thomas was given fatherly responsibilities. All that pressure accompanied by an environment full of racism and poverty does nothing but add fuel to the fire. “‘You know, Bigger,’ his mother said, ‘if you don’t take that job the relief’ll cut us off. We won’t have any food’” (Wright 12). Here, his mother places all the responsibility for whatever happens on him. He is the scapegoat and he is the punching bag. Whatever happens to the family will be his fault only because he is expected to be the provider of the house. Deep inside, Bigger is fully aware of the conditions in which he and his family live, and he largely feels responsible for it because he feels like he should be doing more. This is too much for him to bear, so he chooses to ignore it, making it easier for things to get worse.
The socioeconomic upbringing that one is molded in oftentimes is a reflection of the type of person someone will become. Although Bigger does deserve to be held accountable for his crimes, the real reason behind the murders is the social environment in which he grew up in which included poverty, systemic racism, fear and hate, and the responsibility of being a provider for an entire family. Richard Wright uses his book as a tool to describe to readers what it means to be black in such a horrible social environment and to give us knowledge on how to better understand each other. We can use this knowledge to help make the world a better place for all, because brute force, such as sentencing Bigger to death, is only a temporary solution to a long-term problem.
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