Dangerous Minds

On March 1st 1940, the African American author Richard Wright published his novel “Native Son”. It was a book that gained both instant attention and notoriety. Owing to the contentious subject matter the writer’s intention was widely misunderstood by critics.

It is a book about the short and tempestuous life of a young African American man called Bigger Thomas. Thomas is deliberately painted as a morally ambiguous character, his existence is neither romanticised nor patronised.

Thomas is born into an atmosphere of poverty and oppression. As he grows older he is increasingly frustrated by his lack of education and opportunity. He becomes an aggressive bully and a misogynist, and in the closing chapters he is sentenced to death for rape and murder.

Wright`s narrative details how the inchoate rage that burned in the opening chapters tempers into self pity and he solemnly accepts his fate. Many of Wright`s contemporaries loathed the book and castigated him for his stereotypical portrayal of a black man. However Wright sincerely believed that he was just representing the realities of a violent and prejudiced society.

It is uncomfortable to confront reality in its unvarnished state but the most profound pieces of art focus on the darker episodes of human experiences. Bigger Thomas is a fictional character in a work of literature, but other representations of this character have filtered into popular culture.

Tupac Shakur was a real person who had lived experience of poverty and oppression but in many ways he had greater educational and artistic opportunities in 1990s America than the writers of Wright`s generation. Shakur was initially a performing arts student with prodigious talents in acting and music, but grew up in the shadow of real danger as the son of prominent Black Panther activists. He was under the radar of the police authorities since his birth.

When Shakur was in his late teens he moved from New York to California to explore a career in rap music. Shakur was distinct from other rappers of that era, as his college education meant that his material was fiercely articulate. He was conscious of issues like police brutality and street gangs. His stage persona was unlike the shy bookish young man that he really was behind the scenes.

However his alter ego was nihilistic and anti-social, an artistic rendering of the “thug” that so many people feared or respected depending upon his audience. It was also an image that was extremely lucrative but had sinister implications when art began to blur into reality. Shakur was arrested numerous times for misdemeanours, before ending up in jail for sexual assault.

Shakur maintained that the incident involving a female fan was a consensual encounter, but there were suggestions that alcohol and drugs had blurred his judgement and admitted there were times when he was guilty of extreme chauvinism but never violence.

Shakur was serving his sentence when a rap label run by a shady individual called Suge Knight offered a deal. In exchange for bail he gave him a recording contract. Knight had known connections to real gangsters.

Shakur felt that he had no choice but to accept Knight`s offer. But his experience of incarceration had changed him, and he wanted to use his music to transcend the caricature of the thug. Still his reputation for rattling conventional society never left him and he was shot dead in suspicious circumstances.

It is a sad reflection of society that bright, young artists can be manipulated by opportunists and then die in circumstances beyond their control. It is also tragic that we are still having the same arguments about racial stereotypes in art and we haven’t really learned anything since Richard Wright started the conversation back in 1940.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s