Technological advancements such as YouTube and Twitter and the opportunities they present to confront racism mark a victory in the long and vexed relationship between the black community and the media. Throughout American history the mainstream media’s representations of black people as violent and ignorant have helped secure the oppression of African Americans. Although a tradition of resistance—which includes Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, the African American newspaper The Chicago Defender, and the fiction of Charles Chesnutt—developed parallel to this racist project, the systems of institutionalized racism nonetheless maintained control over the media. Media representations of African Americans primarily served to reinforce the Jim Crow ideology of white supremacy by convincing the American public of the danger and inferiority of African Americans. Caricatures of black Americans in newspapers, postcards of lynching victims, and black-faced Hollywood actors pervade U.S. history. In Native Son, Richard Wright demonstrates a particular awareness of this reality as he protests media images of African Americans by highlighting the vilification and demonization of the novel’s protagonist Bigger Thomas by the mainstream media. Wright’s novel contradicts mainstream media representations of African Americans as buffoonish or criminal-minded by depicting the material squalor and psychological torment that accompany black life under Jim Crow. Richard Wright’s identification and confrontation of the news media’s racism through Native Son constitute a turning point in the journey toward African American civil rights in that it paves the way for the black community’s access to media tools that offer the ability to self-represent and resist oppression.

Richard Wright was the first African American author to gain international fame and Native Son, his first novel, was included in the Book of the Month Club series upon its publication in 1940. Although the novel’s first edition was censored to tone down its explicit sexual content, the grim vision of racism in the United States remained. The novel had an immediate impact on the country’s discussion of race as many white reviewers confessed that Native Son convinced them of their ignorance about the African American experience. Wright’s historical impact on the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago can be traced directly to Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election as President of the United States. However, while Wright’s challenge to racist media practices in Native Son inspired empathy and contributed to major civil rights victories for African Americans, journalistic racism continues into the present day. Around the time that Obama became president, a subgenre of rap known as Drill developed on Chicago’s South Side. Drill is characterized by a bleak worldview that dwells on the harsh realities of life in low-income Chicago neighborhoods and many of its most prominent figures rose to fame as teenagers, often because of social media websites such as YouTube and Twitter. As soon as Drill gained national attention, the media’s representations of Drill rappers such as Chief Keef, Lil Durk, and King Louie echo the media’s treatment of Bigger Thomas in Native Son. Even though the media’s essentialization of Bigger as violent, crude, and ignorant leads to his execution, the Drill rappers similarly targeted by the mainstream media utilized social media and, later, their prominence within the mainstream media to advance self-representations that reflect the realities of their lives and environments. In doing so, they avoid sharing Bigger’s fate and ultimately affect positive change for themselves and for Chicago. Drill music finds a parallel with the Black Lives Matter movement—the success of which is largely, though not solely, dependent on their strong social media presence—in their shared interest in supplanting presupposed stereotypes with actual experiences as the basis for their representations of African Americans. Ultimately, the difference between Bigger Thomas and contemporary African Americans is not that the mainstream media is no longer racist, but rather that the democratization of the media provides a means for marginalized people to voice outrage, resist oppression, and create self-representations that accurately reflect their experiences and identities.

Scholarship on Wright abounds, but his interest in challenging media representations of African Americans has received surprisingly little critical attention. Becca Gercken claims that Wright’s characterizations of African Americans accomplish “in prose what filmmakers accomplish in celluloid” and that Native Son and Wright’s later novel, The Outsider, prefigure “the power of the ‘gaze’ to shape behavior, attitudes, and even the sense of self” (633). Later, she concludes by asserting “Wright worked to create a new method of narration—the cinematic novel—to tell the story of two men emasculated by the dominant culture” (646). Anthony Reed further explores Wright’s interest in exposing the real impact of the mainstream media on black life when he comments that Trader Horn—the movie Bigger and Jack see early in the novel—displays the same white anxiety of black resistance depicted in Native Son: “The threat of mob or mass violence such as that which initiates the dramatic chase of Trader Horn haunts Native Son” as demonstrated by the “deployment of two regiments of the Illinois National Guard… to ‘keep public peace’ during Bigger’s trial” (606). As such, Reed demonstrates that by replicating the fears of Trader Horn in Native Son, Wright suggests that media images have an actual and negative impact on black life. In his article “Killing the Documentarian,” Benjamin Balthaser offers a similar commentary of the media’s power in Wright’s works, contextualizing 12 Million Black Voices—Wright’s 1941 photobook, which narrates the African American experience from the beginning of slavery to the Great Migration—and Native Son as reactions to documentary film’s “role in establishing the ‘truth’ about race” (358). Moreover, Balthaser explains that Wright recognized “that racial identity and racial consciousness are mediated through mass culture” and that “Native Son reminds us that this is hardly a neutral or even process” (365). Each of these scholars rightly recognizes Wright’s frustration with the racist ideology of the mainstream media, but I would like to extend their arguments by taking them out of the realm of thematic abstraction and explore the specific means and methods by which the media directly targets Bigger Thomas. Subsequently, I hope to demonstrate that journalistic efforts to criminalize, dehumanize, and execute Bigger signify a broader reality about the media’s treatment of black people.

When Bigger flees the Dalton family’s residence after journalists discover Mary Dalton’s charred remains in the furnace, the news media immediately accuses him of rape and murder. While Bigger is responsible for Mary’s death, her death was accidental and occurred because Bigger was afraid to be discovered alone in Mary’s room. More ironic yet, because Bigger knows that no one will believe he did not intend to kill Mary, he burns her body in the furnace and as a result there remains no proof to exonerate him from the charge of rape. Ultimately, the suggestion of rape provokes the city to its frenzied manhunt of Bigger. Bigger, who visits Bessie after fleeing the Dalton house upon the discovery of Mary’s remains, is oblivious to the relevance of the black rapist myth until Bessie mentions it: “They’ll…. They’ll say you raped her” (Wright 227). Her prediction immediately comes to fruition—the next newspaper that Bigger reads accuses him of rape. The news media’s assumptions progress rapidly as the same article that reports that the police “expressed belief that Miss Dalton met her death at the hands of the Negro, perhaps in a sex crime” just paragraphs later mentions the angry public reaction to news of “the Negro’s rape and murder of the missing heiress” (243). White Chicagoans reveal their readiness to believe the myth of the black rapist by volunteering in the thousands to assist police in the raid of the South Side. At this point, Wright offers no insight into the mind of any individual white person, probably because he presumes his audience accepts their susceptibility to such beliefs. However, through a conversation between the characters Jack [1] and Jim, he explores why African Americans might side with white oppressors. When Jack states his readiness to turn Bigger over to the police, Jim challenges him:

“But, Jack, s’pose he ain’ guilty?”

“Whut in hell he run offer fer then?”

“Mabbe he thought they wuz gonna blame the murder on him!”

“Lissen, Jim. Ef he wuzn’t guilty, then he oughta stayed ’n’ faced it. Ef Ah knowed where tha’ nigger wuz Ah’d turn ‘im up ’n’ git these white folks off me.”

“But, Jack, ever’ nigger looks guilty t’ white folks when somebody’s done a crime.”

“Yeah; tha’s ’cause so many of us ack like Bigger Thomas; tha’s all. When yuh ack like Bigger Thomas yuh stir up trouble.” (Wright 250-251)

Jack goes on to defend his position by claiming “Ah gotta family” (251) and Jim ends the conversation by proclaiming that he would rather die than give up Bigger to the police. Bigger takes the threat of being turned over to the police by another African American as a matter of course, which is how he takes nearly everything that happens to him. Rather than becoming angry or despondent, Bigger merely commits to firing on “his own people” if they “bothered him” (252). Bigger’s lack of surprise signifies his familiarity with the ideologically invasive effects of Jim Crow.

Bigger’s representation as a murderer and rapist are easy for both African Americans and European Americans to believe because the myth of the black rapist is integral to Jim Crow ideology, the ideology into which police, journalists, and the public are interpellated, or tricked into uncritically accepting. In his postscript to Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Louis Althusser explains the method in which an ideological apparatus establishes its dominance and finds general acceptance. He begins this explanation by dismissing the notion that there exist any innate class divisions outside those advanced “in the ideology of the ruling class” (Althusser 57). He goes on to claim that class relations are reproduced “through a class struggle which counterposes the ruling class and the exploited class” (58). Regarding Bigger’s journalistic treatment in Native Son, his reproduction—to use Althusser’s term—in the media is in fact the reproduction of the subjugation of African Americans. When Althusser writes that to “adopt the point of view of reproduction is… to adopt the point of view of the class struggle” (58), he seems to suggest that such a point of view is subversive in itself. Althusser continues his analysis of the inception of ideologies, writing that ideologies develop “from the social classes at grips in the class struggle: from their conditions of existence, their practices, their experiences of the struggle, etc.” (60). In other words, the act of marginalizing the exploited class also helps to create an ideology that justifies their exploitation. In the context of Native Son, the ideology of the ruling class is the white supremacist ideology established and enforced by Jim Crow segregation; the media’s power and influence in the novel suggests that the mainstream media constitutes a primary mechanism of the development of this ideology. As Vincent Pérez claims in his article “Movies, Marxism, and Jim Crow,” Wright combats the stereotypes of “Black men as brutes, predators, or rapists… popularized in media culture” and demonstrates that “media culture reflects and reproduces White society’s racist formulas” (144-45). In this way, Pérez suggests a symbiotic relationship between the mass media and Jim Crow—while Jim Crow determines the ideological point of view of the media, the media reproduces racist images of black people that uphold Jim Crow’s authority. Bigger’s immediate criminalization by the news media constitutes the reproduction of the class divisions that protect and advance the ideology of the ruling class.

After Bigger’s arrest, the news media shifts its intention from criminalization to dehumanization. Such representations appear in the novel’s third book, “Fate,” after Bigger’s inquest. The first article Bigger reads modifies criminal nouns with racial adjectives: “Negro sex-slayer,” “black killer,” “black slayer,” and “Negro killer” (279). By grammatically connecting his race to his alleged crimes, these characterizations essentialize Bigger’s blackness as criminal. This criminalization segues into dehumanization as the journalist describes the reaction of “a terrified young white girl” who screams that Bigger “looks exactly like an ape” (279). The narrator does not report any such character during the scene of the inquest, which takes place in a morgue and includes police, the Daltons, and Mary’s boyfriend Jan Erlone. Rather, the “young white girl” seems to be a fictionalized character meant to personify the threat Bigger allegedly poses to the most vulnerable members of the white community. The journalist reiterates this fear in his comment, “It is easy to imagine how this man, in the grip of a brain-numbing sex passion, overpowered little Mary Dalton” (279). By describing the college-aged Mary as “little,” the author of this article reveals a connection between Mary and the girl at the inquest, as though this “terrified young white girl” is Mary’s ghost or analog. The journalist reiterates Bigger’s threat in his animalistic depiction of Bigger by writing that his “lower jaw protrudes obnoxiously, reminding one of a jungle beast” and that “all in all” Bigger “seems a beast utterly untouched by the softening influences of modern civilization” (280). The suggestion of Bigger’s terrorization of white women and description of his animalistic nature leads into a report from the Jackson Daily Star on Bigger’s childhood in Jackson, Mississippi—which, not coincidentally, is also where Richard Wright grew up. The newspaper’s editor Edward Robertson comments, “Our experience here in Dixie with such depraved types of Negroes has shown that only the death penalty, inflicted in a public and dramatic manner, has any influence upon their peculiar mentality” (280). Although Robertson implies that the police should allow a lynch mob to kill Bigger, public panic drives his capture, trial, and conviction so much that his death constitutes a kind of legal lynching. Bigger’s trial allows news outlets nationwide to cover the case and facilitates the sociopolitical debate between Bigger’s lawyer Boris Max and State Attorney David Buckley in the courtroom. In other words, Bigger’s trial and death sentence are far more public, dramatic, and, therefore, socially legitimate than a vigilante lynching ever could be. For Wright, Bigger’s criminalization, dehumanization, and death are achieved through the mass media’s distribution—and the public’s acceptance—of representations of black people as inhuman, inferior, and criminal.

While Bigger does not represent all—or perhaps any other—African Americans, his oppression throughout Native Son confronts a real issue of misrepresentation and should not be dismissed as merely a theme of the novel. James Baldwin offers one of the earliest and most famous critical evaluations of Native Son when he argues that Bigger Thomas pathologizes black men. Baldwin states that Wright is “trapped by the American image of Negro life” (40) and that Wright leads his audience, through Bigger’s character and perceptions, “to believe that in Negro life there exists no tradition, no field of manners, no possibility of ritual or intercourse” (36). While Baldwin is certainly not alone [2] in his discomfort about Bigger’s character, Keneth Kinnamon, in The Emergence of Richard Wright, complicates such assertions when he suggests Bigger’s general connection to the black community: “To the extent that he is representative of black people in America, this question of the meaning of his individual ‘fate’ relates to the polemic intent of the novel as a whole, which is concerned with the collective racial situation and destiny of American blacks” (129). While Kinnamon recognizes that Bigger does not resemble all African Americans, he does suggest that Wright uses Bigger to explore the oppression faced by the black community. In particular, Wright demonstrates through Bigger’s fate that Jim Crow wields power over the black community through its claim that African Americans pose a direct threat to European Americans.

The false accusation of rape—such as the one levied against Bigger—historically ranks among Jim Crow’s most powerful weapons in the subjugation of the African American community. In his book A Rage for Order, Joel Williamson notes that when economic depression struck the American South in the 1890s—simultaneous with the formation of the interracially administered Populist party—white men, who “saw themselves as the providers and protectors in their families… found themselves less and less able to provide for their women” (82). Williamson claims that the myth of “the black beast rapist” took form in response to a perceived threat against white masculinity: “If white men could not provide for their women materially as they had done before, they could certainly protect them from a much more awful threat—the outrage of their purity, and hence their piety, by black men” (82). Later in the book, Williamson notes that in 1905 in Atlanta, which had experienced “rough and rapid growth… in the previous decade,” three rapes committed by white men against black women “received little notice in the press, even though one was a most awful and murderous affair” while similar charges against black men were believed unquestioningly regardless of implausibility (147). Apparently there were precautions taken to protect the black community against increasing white fears of black sexual violence, but “the best precautions failed, and the white man’s awful revenge spread a terror through the black community.” It seems then that the myth of the black rapist developed to combat the increasing economic, social, or political presence of African Americans. To put it differently, the widespread representation of black men as sexual predators—the same representation applied to Bigger that enrages white Chicagoans and secures his death sentence—intentionally undermined the black community’s progress and upheld white supremacy.

Richard Wright’s attempts to expose the realities of black life and challenge mainstream representations of African Americans in Native Son found immediate acclaim. A review in The Christian Century—a Chicago-based magazine that published works by figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reinhold Niebuhr—praises Native Son’s efficacy, claiming the novel was “completely convincing in the stark reality of its people and profoundly disturbing to those unaccustomed to look beneath the respectable surface of city life” (82). Clifton Fadiman, writing in the New Yorker, makes a similar argument when he claimed that almost nobody “can read [Native Son] without an enlarged and painful sense of what it means to be a Negro in the United States of America seventy-seven years after the Emancipation Proclamation” (48). By praising the realism of Wright’s representations of African American life, these reviewers imply that such representations contrast with the images of black life typically offered to a white audience. It is true that Wright’s work also inspired negative reviews, but the fact that mainstream presses—both religious and secular—praised Wright for advancing new and realistic representations of black life demonstrates the necessity and success of Wright’s project.

The impact of Native Son did not end with its effect on contemporary reviewers, but rather the novel signified a milestone in the African American Civil Rights Movement. In her article “A Negative Utopia,” Zoe Trodd writes that in 1940, the year of Native Son’s publication, “Richard Wright defined a central struggle of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement” (25). Specifically, Trodd credits Wright with demonstrating segregation’s duality as “both physical and psychological” which he expresses through “a cultural borderland of manholes, coal-bunkers, and sewers.” Trodd suggests that Wright’s protests transcended literature and constituted a part of the Civil Rights Movement alongside fights for “the physical space of buses, public schools, and lunch counters” and “symbolic space” such as “the ballot box.” In “Early Civil Rights ‘Voice Work’”—an article that draws a parallel between the impact of Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston on the Civil Rights Movement—Megan Obourn argues for a more direct connection between Native Son and the fight for civil rights. Obourn claims that Wright’s first novel calls readers “to engage (violently if necessary) in a struggle to disrupt the power structures in place so that such a[n African American literary] political voice might be able to emerge” (260). Although Wright eventually left the United States and moved to France, his legacy continued in Chicago. In 1941, the year after Native Son was published, James Farmer moved to Chicago to organize protests against racial segregation. He formed the Committee of Racial Equality (CORE), a multiracial group that was largely comprised of graduate students from the University of Chicago (“James Farmer: A Chicago Lunch Counter Sit-In”). The group successfully integrated Jack Spratt Coffeehouse, which stood less than a mile from the Dalton home in Native Son. [3]The Civil Rights Movement continued in Chicago over the coming decades and, as Adam Green notes in his book Selling the Race, in 1966, “[Martin Luther] King joined local and national organizers in a… campaign to ‘end slums’ through mass challenge to segregated real estate markets structuring the vast majority of the city” (216). This resistance to racist housing practices again calls to mind Native Son, as Mr. Dalton owns the South Side Real Estate Company that rents the Thomas family their kitchenette. Wright’s resistance to white supremacy and his understanding of the specific needs of the African American community distinguish him as a prophetic voice. However, far from crying in the wilderness, Wright spoke directly to a generation of activists who heard his call for equality, empowerment, and freedom.

Perhaps the most potent milestone in the Civil Rights Movement’s legacy in Chicago is the historic 2008 election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. [4] Although Obama grew up in Hawaii, in 1985 he accepted a job as a community organizer, “helping poor blacks on Chicago’s South Side” (Lizza). More specifically, Obama was hired by “a group that aimed to convert the black churches of Chicago’s South Side into agents of social change.” Perhaps Obama worked with one of the South Side churches Wright praises in 12 Million Black Voices: “Our churches provide social activities for us, cook and serve meals, organize baseball and basketball teams, operate stores and businesses, and conduct social agencies” (131). Obama met his wife, Michelle (née Robinson), who was born and raised on the South Side, while coworkers at a Chicago law firm. The couple married and had two daughters, but even after he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, the Obama family remained on the South Side, albeit in a much more affluent area than where Bigger and his family live. Even so, the Obamas moved from the South Side of Chicago into the White House. In 2012, the year that Obama was elected to his second term as president, a subgenre of gangster rap that developed in South Side Chicago called Drill gained national attention and the most prominent Drill musicians received journalistic treatment uncomfortably similar to the media representations of Bigger in Native Son.

Drill earned instant notoriety when the sixteen-year-old rapper Chief Keef (born Keith Cozart) produced a music video for his song “I Don’t Like” while under house arrest for pointing a gun at two Chicago police officers. The video depicts Cozart and his friends dancing, smoking marijuana, and brandishing guns in his South Side home. In Native Son, when Bigger drives Mary and Jan around the South Side, Mary confesses that she knows nothing about African Americans who live only blocks from her: “I just want to see. I want to know these people. Never in my life have I been inside of a Negro home. Yet they must live like we live. They’re human….” (70). Mary’s comments come across as condescending in the context of the novel, but she probably is not alone in her lack of knowledge about black life and culture. Such ignorance is not necessarily the fault of Mary or any other individual white person, but rather the result of a system that refuses to allow either interracial friendships or black self-representation. Chief Keef became famous in 2012, but he joined YouTube in 2008 and, while the channel primarily served to promote his music, the earliest videos capture him joking with his friends, arguing with his mother, and using drugs (Cozart, “BigGucci Sosa”). It may be tempting to refuse to acknowledge these videos as serious attempts at self-representation, either because the content is crudely crafted or offensive, but what matters about Chief Keef’s early home videos is that he created them to chronicle his life and represent his identity. The same holds true for the “I Don’t Like” music video—Keef did not direct this video, but it is safe to assume he held significant creative control over its production since it predated his fame. The universal accessibility of YouTube, which serves both as a social media network and a video-sharing platform, simultaneously facilitated Chief Keef’s self-representation and enabled users worldwide to do what Mary Dalton never could—see inside a South Side Chicago home. Within a few months, the song racked up nearly 30 million views and earned Chief Keef a contract with Interscope Records. Today, the 20-year-old rapper lives in a mansion in Laurel Canyon.

While a few journalists and bloggers praised Drill music for offering Chicago youth a way to avoid a life of crime, most criticized the genre as either glorifying or contributing to the violence in Chicago. Because of his recent ascent to fame, Chief Keef received the majority of this criticism. Writing six months after the release of “I Don’t Like,” Whet Moser criticizes Keef’s song as “mercilessly simple” and lacking “a self-consciousness, a moral consideration.” He goes on to condemn Keef’s music in general as “lyrically, rhymically [sic], and emotionally diminished.” Other reviewers blame Keef directly for his alleged involvement in the murder of another South Side rapper and rival gang member, Lil JoJo. An article titled “Did Chief Keef Admit To Ordering Lil JoJo’s Murder?,” an anonymous NewsOne Staff writer argues that Keef incriminates himself in the chorus to his popular single “Love Sosa” when he raps: “Hit him with that Cobra [5] / Now that boy slumped over.” The suggestion that such vague and generic lyrics constitute an admission of guilt signifies an invocation of those old stereotypes of African Americans as stupid—because of his alleged confession to murder in a song intended for mass-distribution—and violent. In a Salon article that contextualizes Keef within the culture of Drill music, Mark Guarino writes, “Four days after Sandy Hook, Interscope drops the debut album of Chief Keef, who police say may be linked to murder.” Despite the fact that the murder he “may be linked to” is Lil JoJo’s and not those in Sandy Hook, the juxtaposition of Keef’s record release with the school shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut—a crime committed by a middle-class white male—implies that Keef’s music has an impact on violence nation-wide, even if it is not a direct impact. In an opinion piece for NBC Chicago, Edward McClelland verbalizes the racist fears that underlie the media’s representation of Chief Keef. To explain why he did not purchase Finally Rich, Keef’s first studio album, McClelland—who is white—states: “I also don’t want to pay $14 for the minstrel show of listening to a real live South Side thug.” Comments such as Moser’s, Guarino’s, and McClelland’s call to mind the journalist in Native Son who suggests that Bigger “[defies] all efforts of compassion” and claims, “the brutish Negro seemed indifferent to his fate, as though… the electric chair held no terror for him” (280). Even so, it seems that for Chief Keef, such defamation holds little significance. Unlike Bigger—who obsessively read every news article about himself throughout most of Native Son—Chief Keef seemed entirely disinterested not only in the media’s negative representation of him, but also in his newfound fame altogether. According to Jessica Hopper, Keef allegedly responded to only one question from the news media in 2012: “Asked how it feels to have just played to his biggest hometown audience yet, he replies without pausing, ‘This? This ain’t shit’” (Hopper). However, while Chief Keef’s overnight rise to fame afforded him the ability to be cocky, other rappers from Chicago’s Drill scene found the mainstream media’s attacks more of a challenge to overcome.

Such negative representations took a greater financial and emotional toll on Lil Durk (born Durk Banks), a Drill rapper and reputed member of the Black Disciples gang from the South Side neighborhood called Englewood. Like Chief Keef, Lil Durk rose to prominence in 2012—he signed a contract with Def Jam Records in April of that year and within a few months nearly every article about Lil JoJo’s murder mentions that JoJo and Durk traded insults in the weeks preceding his death. In 2012, 500 people were murdered in Chicago (Federal Bureau of Investigation), so the suggestions of Durk’s involvement in Jojo’s death inspired panic that resulted in a series of concert cancellations that cost him $30,000 (Lyubovny). He laments his negative media representation in his 2013 song “Dis Ain’t What U Want”:

In my own city they hate on me, put weight on me

Fuck TMZ, fuck Breaking News, and ABC

I can’t do no shows because I terrify my city

They say I terrify my city

When asked to elaborate on these lyrics during his interview with Vlad TV he explained, “A lot of shit that’s been going on they blaming us.… So when I say I terrify them, I terrify them. In my eyes, that’s how it is. If you stopping my shows, basically you terrified of what’s going to happen” (Lyubovny). Lil Durk does not seem to be referring to particular news reports, but rather his treatment in general. Ironically, but unsurprisingly, this song was ill received by critics who claimed Drill music’s popularity contributed to the city’s rising murder rate. Hip hop magazine XXL speculated that “Lil Durk may find himself in hot water over a controversial lyric on his latest single” that “is an apparent reference to slain 16-year-old rapper Lil JoJo” (XXL Staff). Lil Durk responded to such criticisms in 2015 on the song “What Your Life Like” when he raps:

They say the murders started after L’s, [6] not my fault, got shit to tell

Take it wrong, they got it after ‘Dis Ain’t What U Want’

Nigga, this ain’t what you want, got that call, they cancelled twenty shows

That’s money down the drain, I got kids, don’t take it wrong

Durk contradicts the popular claim that Drill music increased Chicago’s gang activity by claiming that his lyrics merely report on the violence so common to the South Side. He also implies that music presents an alternative to the lifestyle he describes in his music. When he raps “don’t take it wrong,” he urges the media not to misunderstand him since such misunderstandings affect his ability to provide for his family. Durk expressed a similar concern the previous year when he explains his withdrawal from gang life: “Y’all can have that killing shit. My son, my daughter need they daddy” (Lyubovny). Music offers Lil Durk an opportunity to provide a safer and more financially stable upbringing for his children than his own childhood was. Just as the media representations of African Americans as violent and uncouth had a direct effect on black life in Native Son, similar representations negatively impact black life in the 2010’s. Critics who attempt to hinder the popularity and commercial appeal of Drill music, though they may seek to combat violence, actually threaten to prevent these young African American men—and in some cases their families—from escaping violence.

Although the Drill rappers bear similarities to Bigger Thomas in their mistreatment by the media, they contrast in their attitude toward Chicago. For Bigger, life in Chicago is defined by his lack of freedom, a confinement he addresses early in Native Son: “I reckon we the only things in this city that can’t go where we want to go and do what we want to do” (21). Later, when Jan asks Bigger for his thoughts on Chicago, Bigger replies, “It’ll do” (74). In 12 Million Black Voices, Wright relates that in the south, “the world moved by signs we knew. But here in the North cold forces hit you and push you” (100) and that “even in crowded northern cities” there are “elderly black women, hungry for the South but afraid to return” (135). Wright’s suggestion that African Americans in northern cities such as Chicago are at best indifferent to urban life signifies the difficulty of adjusting from the agrarian south to the industrial north following the Great Migration. Indeed, while Bigger and the millions of migrants in 12 Million Black Voices have only been in Chicago and comparable cities for a few years, rappers such as Lil Durk are probably the descendants of migrants. When Durk laments his vilification in the media, part of his anger rests in the fact that it happens “in my own city” (“Dis Ain’t What U Want”). Chief Keef expresses a similar attachment to Chicago in his song “W.W.Y.D.” while speaking before the first verse: “What does Chicago mean to me? I mean, that’s my city, so it means a lot…. It’s an honor to be able to say that I’m from Chicago…. You know what I’m saying? South Side.” Responding directly to the media’s denunciation of Drill, King Louie (born Louis King Johnson, Jr.)—the rapper who coined the term “Chiraq” in 2009 and survived a gunshot to his head in December 2015 (Grebey)—raps in his song “To Live and Die in Chicago”: “don’t take offense when I speak about murders and bitches, etcetera / I’m just speaking Chicago / The media people just eat it up, but really we run Chicago.” In this way, King Louie claims his lyrics report—rather than encourage—violence or sexual promiscuity common to Chicago. More importantly, he asserts that he and his friends control what happens in Chicago, thereby rejecting the notion that the media has any purview in the city. He is right—the project to disempower Drill artists that began in 2012 was a misguided failure. In a 2014 article for Huffington Post, Tony Delerme claims that Chicago’s murder rate “is at it’s lowest in 50 years” and goes on to credit Drill for the decrease of violence: “This isn’t to say that rapping is the only way to stop the violence in Chicago, but it can help. It’s in chasing a dream that you ultimately find your life’s purpose.” Additionally, every Drill rapper that invoked the media’s ire—especially Lil Durk and Chief Keef—continues to enjoy commercial success. The media’s suggestion that Drill rappers constitute a threat to Chicago is contradicted by the sense of ownership these artists demonstrate in relation to the city of Chicago in general and the South Side in particular.

Richard Wright’s attempt to make way for alternative representations of African Americans finds a sequel in the artwork for two recent Drill albums. The cover art for the deluxe edition of Lil Durk’s first studio album—entitled Remember My Name and released in June 2015—features an illustration of the rapper’s face made up of Englewood street names. The album’s cover art, which visually reinforces his claim that Chicago is his city, along with album title’s command to remember his name, signifies Lil Durk’s assertion of agency over his own image and identity. After all, Bigger Thomas is frequently referred to with racial epithets instead of his name. Through this self-representation, Lil Durk demands that his audience recognize his personhood and its intrinsic connection with the environment that produced him. Chief Keef’s most recent album, Bang 3—released in two installments in August and September of 2015—constitutes a similar attempt to visually represent himself through his Chicagoan identity. The album’s cover art features a hand, presumably Keef’s, holding up three fingers, each adorned by a Chicago Bulls NBA championship ring. That Chief Keef—whose nickname “Sosa” pays homage to Sammy Sosa, the famous outfielder who played for both the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Cubs—draws such connections between himself and Chicago athletes suggests a desire to represent himself through Chicago’s achievements rather than its violence. These efforts by Lil Durk and Chief Keef to reclaim agency over their public image after their vilification in the media indicates a general progress in black civil rights. I do not mean to suggest that either of these artists should be compared to Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, for example. Rather, the fact that young African American men from impoverished Chicago neighborhoods possess power over their public image demonstrates a measure of progress in social justice by revealing a sharply different outcome than the one Richard Wright depicts in the early 1940s. Wright only published 12 Million Black Voices—which offers positive representations of African Americans—after he became history’s first internationally recognized African American author. Bigger Thomas, on the other hand, is routinely silenced, ignored, and not taken at his word. While I certainly do not wish to argue that Lil Durk, Chief Keef, or any other Drill artist is a contemporary version of the “Bigger Thomas” personality type Wright describes in “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” there is a striking resemblance between the way the media treats Bigger in Native Son and the way the media treats Drill rappers. The primary difference between the reality that Wright describes in Native Son and the reality of contemporary media hostility toward marginalized African Americans—such as those who comprise the Drill subgenre—is that technological progress has produced media tools with which black people can advance realistic representations of African American life.

Even though Chief Keef, Lil Durk, and King Louie may have been individualistic in their usage of the media to represent themselves and their environment, they nonetheless contribute to and signify the broader efforts of African Americans who utilize social media to confront white supremacy. The movement that best demonstrates the function of social media platforms to address the realities of the African American experience is Black Lives Matter. Founded after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the killing of Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter describes itself as a “national-based organization working for the validity of Black life” and locates its roots “in the experiences of Black people in this country [the United States] who actively resist our dehumanization” (“About the Black Lives Matter Network”). In other words, while Black Lives Matter and Drill music contrast in meaningful ways, both movements seek to combat the continuing oppression and misrepresentation of African Americans. Although Black Lives Matter maintains a significant physical presence through rallies, protests, and other forms of activism, its visibility has largely been achieved through social media. For example, on Twitter in July 2016—the month that Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, five Dallas police officers, and three Baton Rouge police officers were murdered—the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was, on an hourly average, tweeted 983 times, retweeted 2,888 times, and seen by 2.17 million users (Rite Tag). In contrast, the hashtag #AllLivesMatter—coined in protest against Black Lives Matter—was tweeted 154 times, retweeted 288 times, and seen by 292,000 users each hour. Such statistics alone say little about the effectiveness of Black Lives Matter, but in Native Son Richard Wright demonstrates that black lives surely did not matter to European Americans in the first half of the twentieth century—and for centuries prior. Moreover, in his essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Wright dispels any possible notion of Bigger’s singularity when he describes life in the Southern United States:

The white neighbor decided to limit the amount of education his black neighbor could receive; decided to keep him off the police force and out of the local national guards; to segregate him residentially; to Jim Crow him in public places; to restrict his participation in the professions and jobs; and to build up a vast, dense ideology of racial superiority that would justify any act of violence taken against him to defend white dominance; and further, to condition him to hope for little and to receive that little without rebelling. (438)

As though to dispel the notion that white supremacy existed only the Deep South, Wright explains that “in the North or the South” black men were arrested on trumped up charges so often that “it had become a representative symbol of the Negro’s uncertain position in America” (455). One might fairly claim that the United States has not progressed enough—or at all—since Wright penned these words 75 years ago. For example, in the wake of a “Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict white NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the chokehold death of Eric Garner,” the New York Daily News reported that between 1999 and 2014 on-duty officers of the New York Police Department killed at least 179 people—86% of those whose race was known were African American or Hispanic—“only 3 cases led to indictments—and just 1 conviction” and even that officer “was not sentenced to jail time” (Ryley, Hicks, Tracy, Marzulli, and Gregorian). Shaun King writes that police officers nationwide killed more people in 2015 than in 2014 and that “a 0% conviction rate still exists.” Such hopelessness is certainly understandable, but despite the criminal justice system’s continuing corruption and racism, public opinion seems to have shifted dramatically since the publication of Native Son.

While Richard Wright perceived that there were perhaps only two white people in 1940 who would publicly assert the importance of black life—as suggested by Jan Erlone’s and Boris Max’s lonely defense of Bigger—a study published in July 2016 by the Pew Research Center claims that 43% of white Americans either strongly or somewhat support the Black Lives Matter movement (Horowitz and Livingston). [7] The conference paper “Characterizing the Demographics Behind the #BlackLivesMatter Movement” sheds more light on this support by revealing that between April 11, 2012, and May 10, 2015, 3.54 million tweets used the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, and 46.9% of them were authored by white people (Olteanu, Weber, and Gatica-Perez 311, 313). In other words, while white supremacy obviously continues to plague the United States, social media’s democratizing effects enable people of any race to subvert the media’s racist project by proclaiming with greater frequency that black lives do matter. Richard Wright, who died in 1960, probably never dreamed of social media, or even the Internet, but his confrontation of the Jim Crow news media helped pave the way for the public assertion of the value of black life by the African American Civil Rights Movement, an assertion emphasized through Drill music and, especially, Black Lives Matter. I sincerely hope we can look forward to a day when racism no longer afflicts the United States, but until then let us not lose sight of the fact that technological advancements such as YouTube or Twitter can be powerful weapons against systemic racism in their ability to identify, expose, and reverse white supremacist action against the black community.

 

Notes

1. This character is not the same Jack that Bigger plots to rob Blum’s with earlier in Native Son. Aside from the fact that their manners of speech are completely different, this Jack claims to have a “wife ’n’ baby” while there is no indication that Bigger’s friend is married or has children (Wright 251).

2. For a fuller analysis of Bigger Thomas’s relationship to the black community, see James Baldwin’s classic study Notes of a Native Son, specifically the chapters “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Many Thousands Gone.” More recent treatments of this issue include Aimé J. Ellis’s “Where Is Bigger’s Humanity? Black Male Community in Richard Wright’s Native Son,” W. Lawrence Hogue’s “Can the Subaltern Speak? A Postcolonial, Existential Reading of Richard Wright’s Native Son,” or Matthew Elder’s “Social Demarcation and the Forms of Psychological Fracture in Book One of Richard Wright’s Native Son.”

3. Jack Spratt Coffeehouse was on 47th Street and Kimbark Avenue  (“James Farmer: A Lunch Counter Sit-In”); the Daltons live at 4605 Drexel Boulevard (Wright 44).

4. It is important to note that Obama’s mother was a European American woman from Kansas and his father was a black man from Kenya. He is nonetheless the first U.S. President with any African heritage and is generally considered the first black president.

5. This lyric refers to Colt’s King Cobra revolver.

6. In an interview with Fader magazine, Lil Durk explains that “L’s” holds multiple meanings, such as “life, love, loyalty,” and the Chicago gang “Lamron,” which is Normal—the street he grew up on—backwards (Zeichner). In this context, he may be referring to his popular 2012 single “L’s Anthem.”

7. It is also worth noting that only 22% of white Americans oppose Black Lives Matter and 30% “said they have not heard anything about” the movement (Horowitz and Livingston).

 

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