The Ballad of OJ: America’s Real Life Bigger Thomas


With the passing of O.J. Simpson, who died a few weeks ago on April 10th, cemented his fate as the 90s icon in a white Ford Bronco. Maybe the most watched 35-mile-per-hour police chase of all time. To many, O.J. Simpson transcended his racial limitations of being a Black man born into poverty in the projects of San Francisco, CA. Simpson himself once said, “I’m not Black. I’m OJ”. In hindsight, many interpreted this quote as informing the world at large that he would not be a part of any struggles for Black liberation and had sold out to white America. O.J. no longer saw himself as a Black man in a racist America, but as “one of the good ones–an “Uncle Tom”. But is that really what he was saying?

O.J., through the contemporary lens, had either sold out Black America for fame and fortune or he was as a sympathetic pawn of underclass ideology from his upbringing in the Potrero Hill projects; a victim of his own pathology. He was a complicated modern day “Bigger Thomas”, the character of Richard’s Wright’s “Native Son”. Bigger Thomas is the complex and tragic protagonist in Wright’s novel who is used as an avatar for what we now call “underclass ideology”. Basically, that’s a theory that says that poor people’s negative behaviors are a direct result of their pathology. It eschews a class analysis for an oversimplified understanding. Poor people are inherently defective. 

Bigger is an angry young Black man who lives in oppressive societal conditions around him in 1930s Chicago. He resides in a cramped apartment with his family in a segregated area, facing limited economic opportunities and constant threats of racial discrimination and violence. His upbringing and surroundings instill in him a sense of powerlessness and resentment toward the white-dominated society.

As the narrative unfolds, Bigger gets a job working for a wealthy white family as a chauffeur for their daughter Mary. Bigger’s life takes a dark turn when he accidentally kills Mary Dalton, the daughter of his wealthy employer. This tragic event sets off a chain of reactions that continue to spiral out of control for Bigger causing him to finally be imprisoned and sentenced to death. Bigger’s actions, while morally reprehensible, can be seen as the result of a lifetime of oppression and lack of agency. The conditions that mold Bigger make him morally deficient, his fear and frustration manifest into destructive behaviors.  

In Wright’s introduction to “The Black Metropolis,” Wright compares the “Bigger Thomas’s” of the world to Hitler. “Do not hold a light attitude toward the slums of Chicago’s south side. Remember that Hitler came out of such a slum. Remember that Chicago could be another Vienna of American fascism! Out of these mucky slums can come ideas either quickening life or hastening death, giving us peace or carrying us toward another war.

So is O.J. an afropessimistic totem or simply an upwardly Black bourgeois celebrity? 

In the 70s, the aspirations of the 50s and 60s era Civil Rights Movement were realized as more Black people were being indoctrinated into middle class security. O.J. was post racial in the sense that he wasn’t the best “Black Man” for the job, but simply the best candidate for the job. More Black faces in seats of power either in the private business sector or the political realm meant that those accomplishments would trickle down to elevate Black people into the middle class strata of capitalism. As my good friend and author Toure Reed once told me, “Trickle down didn’t work for all those white folks under Reagan, so why would we think it would work for us?” 

O.J. was now a brand, not unlike we saw with Micheal Jordan in the 80s. Consumable, gorgeous, safe, apolitical, and perfectly pliable for Madison Ave and Hollywood to churn out products and movies.

We could overcome racial barriers to be indoctrinated into the white picket fence American Dream. O.J. Simpson was able to break out of what some saw as a racial caste system and be seen as more than just a good athlete, but truly a racial asset for white acceptance of Black humanity. O.J. ‘s declaration of racial transcendence should be seen as less of a denunciation of his Blackness, but as his emancipation from the lower class status he was born into in a racist pre-Civil Rights Act America. O.J. was now a brand, not unlike we saw with Micheal Jordan in the 80s. Consumable, gorgeous, safe, apolitical, and perfectly pliable for Madison Ave and Hollywood to churn out products and movies. 

O.J. starts this journey out first as the embodiment of Black excellence. This idea of O.J. not being “Black” is a bit of revisionist history, based in a notion of Black “authenticity”. O.J. embraced his Blackness when it aided in his brand at the time. O.J. graced multiple covers of Jet and Ebony magazine, a staple of my Black grandmother’s household, as it did many other Black American homes at that time. Jet and Ebony were as common on the kitchen table as the morning paper. O.J. Simpson was shown with his Black then-wife, Marguerite, and beautiful Black smiling children. O.J. was an aspirational goal in post Civil Rights Act America. An avatar for Black bourgeois achievement. 

Career and social climbing would be the hallmark of Simpon’s career. Simpson reached the highest heights at the collegiate level by winning the Heisman Trophy at the University of Southern California, then he went on to be the number one pick overall by the Buffalo Bills. Simpson had a Hall of Fame career and had what many argue is the greatest season a running back has ever had in the NFL in 1973 by running for 2,000 yards in only 14 games (the NFL went to 16 soon after and now plays 17 games). A gridiron legend, after his playing days were over, he was a sideline reporter for ratings juggernaut Monday Night Football, became a Madison Avenue pitchman, which led to a rather successful Hollywood career as an actor (Don’t forget, before the Naked Gun movies, O.J. was in the television mini series Roots!)

Simpson did as many male celebrities of his ilk do when social climbing, and left his original wife for a younger, whiter woman. While still married to the then-pregnant Marguerite, Simpson met an 18-year-old Nicole Brown (O.J. was 30) when she was a waitress at a Beverly Hills nightclub. That night, sadly, would be the beginning of the end for both of them. 

Simpson would marry Nicole Brown 8 years later in 1985. That marriage would last only 7 years and while their nuptials ended in divorce, the two will be inextricably linked forever. 

Nicole Brown and her acquaintance, Ron Goldman, were found stabbed to death in her home in 1994. A few years removed from a tumultuous and violent marriage, O.J. was the main suspect in the murder. Police detective Mark Furman attempted to plant blood evidence, and the nine month trial ended in O.J.’s acquittal.

Aided by a dream team of lawyers, people called the Brown/Goldman murder trial the “Trial of the Century”. At this point in his career, O.J. was no longer gracing the cover of any magazines unless it was to portray him as a psychopathic murderer.

The Brown/Goldman murders, sadly, were perfect fodder for a round-the-clock cable news cycle starving for content. From tabloids to television, nothing captured the American body politic like O.J. Simpson. Many Black Americans felt worried that another Black man would get railroaded by a racist criminal justice system (the Rodney King trial was just 3 years earlier), while many white Americans were worried a guilty man would get off for murder because of his ability to put together a stellar cast of attorneys. 

O.J. Simpson’s trial wasn’t the first celebrity murder trial, and sadly, probably won’t be the last. In 2013 former New England Patriots star tight end Aaron Hernandez was found guilty of killing friend and semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd, and this was right after the Oscar Pistorious case where the Olympian shot his girlfriend 4 times through a door “mistaking” her for an intruder. Lana Turner. Robert Blake. Phil Spector. Those are just a few of the famous people who have been involved in murder trials. Their upbringing and pathology were never part of their criminal defenses, or the public conversation surrounding their crimes. The Brown/Goldman murders were the perfect combination of titillating sex, violence, and betrayal that is gobbled up by true crime aficionados. The umami of middle class media indulgence. A genocide was playing out in the Balkans, but we couldn’t be bothered, we had to know what would happened to O.J. 

The acquittal was presented as a victory for Black America. Finally we would get the legal system to work for us. Or at least “we” could if “we” were rich former athletes and movie stars. To say the least, O.J. Simpson’s life before and after his trial were not representative of the quotidian Black American experience. He was wealthy and was able to use his fame and wealth to shield him from legal consequences of his actions. At least until he couldn’t.  

In 2007, Simpson and a group of men robbed a memorabilia dealer of former items that Simpson once owned. Simpson’s co-defendants (who were Black) made plea deals and O.J. Simpson would be found guilty on charges of armed robbery and kidnapping that got him sentenced to 33 years in prison. He would be granted parole in 2013.  

If Black America was awarded their “O.J. prize”, as comedian Chris Rock put it in his 1997 comedy special “Bring the Pain”, then white America was awarded their recompense with O.J.’s arrest and conviction in 2007. These cultural victories bore no fruit for either side, but for years to come, the lives of O.J. Simpson, Nicole Brown, and Ron Goldman will be forever linked in a morbid matrimony, the same way in which Charles Manson is linked to Roman Polansky. In the end, O.J. Simpson wasn’t a sellout, but simply possessed the politics and sensibilities of an upper-class socialite. I don’t see him as a victim of his inner-city pathology, as much as a rich person who can pay for legal inconveniences. 

Had the Brown/Goldman murder happened in today’s hyper-political, social media climate, it might be a popular case garnering attention, but I don’t believe that would languish in the minds of people for decades after it was over.  O.J. will not be remembered by his Hall of Fame football career, or his acting, but wearing ill fitting gloves in a courtroom. 

O.J. Simpson, America’s real life Bigger Thomas. 

“He had lived and acted on the assumption that he was alone, and now he saw that he had not been. What he had done made others suffer. No matter how much he would long for them to forget him, they would not be able to.”

-Richard Wright, Native Son