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Bigger(’s) Agency

Performative Signifyin(g) and African American Identity in Richard Wright’s ‚Native Son‘

Sebastian Müller

Pages 337 - 350


The process of race-thinking has constituted a problem for African American identity formation ever since the pseudo-scientific notion of race was established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By approaching Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright’s ‚Native Son‘ through a focus on gender and racial performativity (Butler, Ehlers, Fleetwood) and signifyin(g) (Gates), the article contributes to existing scholarship on race-thinking and subjection to racialized discourses. It argues that Bigger’s identity is not only socially and culturally constructed by race-thinking but through dimensions of performativity that allow Bigger to question, contest, and reinscribe his own (African American) identity in transformative, creative ways that counter racial stereotypes fixed by the process of race-thinking. Bigger’s performative signifyin(g), however, also runs the risk of reinforcing stereotypes through imitative practices, which limits the usefulness of performative signifyin(g) as a subversive practice.


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