The Trial of Bigger Thomas: Race, Gender, and Trespass
NYU Review of Law & Social Change, Vol. 31, p. 1, 2006
50 Pages Posted: 29 Aug 2006
This article examines Richard Wright's Native Son - which ends with its protagonist Bigger Thomas awaiting execution for the rape and murder of a white woman - to offer three interrelated close readings that go beyond the usual law-and-literature approaches. It examines the three "real life" cases that informed Wright as he was writing Native Son - the trial of Robert Nixon, the Scottsboro Boys case, and the prosecution of Leopold and Loeb - and demonstrates that Native Son, more than simply problematizing criminal justice issues, foregrounds the way in which society and the law actively participate in the construction(s) of race and gender, and challenges the traditional utilitarian and retributive justifications for punishment. The article posits that the real crime motivating Bigger's prosecution is not murder and rape, but a violation of what the author terms the "white letter law" of "trespass."
Although the text that motivates the article is Native Son, the goal of the article is significantly larger. Much of the criticism of the law-and-literature movement centers around claims that it lacks discipline and boundaries. Through its explication of Native Son, this article redirects such thinking about law-and-literature by suggesting that only wider landscapes, a new critical geography, will reinvigorate the discipline.
Keywords: law and literature, race, crime
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