Long-Lost Brothers: How Nihilism Provides Bigger Thomas and Biggie Smalls With a Soul

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This article builds on scholarship that already links Native Son’s protagonist Bigger Thomas to real-life gangsta rappers such as Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. James Baxter Peterson calls Biggie Smalls a “Bigger figure.” In other words, the persona/character created by the popular, deceased rapper was a kind of literary descendant of Bigger Thomas in the sense that he’s an echo of the “bad nigger” character type presented so memorably in Native Son. In his own work, Nick De Genova invokes both gangsta rap and Wright to complicate the definition of nihilism, which he describes as a state of mind resulting from two competing forces: the drive to self-preservation and the drive to self-destruction. His definition of nihilism suggests an intellectual and emotional life for the gangsta and gangsta rapper, arguably a dangerous claim in a contemporary American mainstream culture that has largely sought to deny his humanity. In this article, a close reading of Native Son and Biggie Small’s seminal rap album Ready to Die shows the striking similarities between Bigger Thomas and Biggie Smalls. In their respective texts, both characters experience existential struggles as they negotiate a society that induces a fractured psychology, causing them to fluctuate between the death impulse and the self-preservation impulse. Seen from this perspective, Bigger Thomas and Biggie Smalls exemplify a kind of nihilism that embodies existential struggle instead of mere hopelessness and meaninglessness. This perspective also aims to revitalize discussion of the artistic and intellectual merit of gangsta rap as well as inspire a reconsideration of the humanity of those “gangstas” whom many in society view in only two dimensions.

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