Friday, February 1, 2013

Richard Wright

African Americans “have been made to feel a sense of difference. So deep has the white-hot iron of exclusion been burnt into their hearts that thousands have lost the desire to become identified with American Civilisation” – Richard Wright, ‘Blueprint for Negro Writing’

In Black is a Country Nikhil Pal Singh mentions many individuals deemed integral to the struggle for African American civil rights throughout the twentieth century. One name that appears frequently is that of Richard Wright, a man Singh describes as an “up-and-coming black protest [writer]” The author alludes to the significance of Wright as a “New Negro” who provided crucial voices of protest from within the arts world. As an African American born in the Jim Crow South at the turn of the twentieth century, Wright’s writing and experiences encapsulate several key themes we have seen throughout our analysis of Fanon and Bell. 
Although most notable for his fictional biography Native Son, Wright’s semi-autobiographical novel Black Boy provides an insight into the crippling psychological oppression of segregation upon black children. Reflecting the structure of a slave narrative, Black Boy indicates the author’s realisation from a young age of the inferior status imposed upon him by society. The most prevalent theme Wright addresses is the fear white supremacy instilled in him as a young boy. His analysis of the murder of his uncle represents the emotionally repressive nature of racism, writing that “fear drowned out grief” (Black Boy, p.52).

His discussion of the violence imposed upon African Americans in the South seems to agree with Fanon’s notion that physical force is necessary to overturn the tyrannical system of fear. This is further indicated through his commitment to radical left-wing political ideology which is seen through his involvement in the Communist Party in American Hunger. His beliefs suggest that activism was needed from outside the political mainstream in order to enact agency upon the lives of black people in America. Wright’s far-left views, although anti-Stalinist, reflect the need for revolution in order to overturn white patriarchy. 

 “black movements were beginning to illustrate a crucial political lesson, namely that the demand for democracy was both irreducible and unpredictable” – Richard Wright

                Much like the more radical wing of the Civil Rights Movement, Wright’s ideology was not without criticism. Integrationists such as W.E.B. DuBois reprimanded Wright for perpetuating the divide between blacks and whites, commenting that there was “not a single broad minded, open-hearted white person in his book.” Although DuBois’ argument is in line with the integrationist ideal, one could contend that “open-hearted” whites in the early- to mid- twentieth century South were few and far between. 


  1. Response by Matthew Gennari:
    I have always been intrigued by Richard Wright since reading Black Boy in high school, and I was happy read further about him in Black is a Country.

    Even more interesting is the comparison between both the ideas and life experiences of Richard Wright and W.E.B. Du Bois. You're right that Du Bois did not care for him much, and many of his ideas did seem like they would further the divide between blacks and whites. Du Bois grew up in Massachusetts hiding his fear of whites, and while those fears existed he also had many more freedoms than Wright did growing up in Mississippi. In Black Boy Wright recounts his horrific experiences growing up in Mississippi and in many way pours out his fears of white people and identifies why those fears exist. In class the other day when we were talking about Roots and Alex Haley we were discussing how “true” or in contrast how “exaggerated” some accounts of history have been. We also were discussing what liberties Haley took in writing the autobiography with Malcolm X. What is so remarkable about Black Boy is that it seems so real, almost to the point where one could not make the content up, and that is to me what is so powerful about the book. It is understandable that Du Bois would be angered by Wright’s book, because Du Bois thought it would discredit him, but if he was actually upset by the book it was because he could not handle the truth, and he also did not have nearly as hard of a life as Wright had. What I find amazing about him is that through all the horrific experiences he had with Whites that we see in Black Boy, in many ways he still sought to unify Blacks and Whites as he was (At Times) a Marxist. In the final the final stanza of his poem "I Have Seen Black Hands" Wright says

    I am black and I have seen black hands
    Raised in fists of revolt, side by side with the white fists
    Of white workers,
    And some day -- and it is only this which sustains me--
    Some day there shall be millions and millions of them,
    On some red day in a burst of fists on a new horizon!

    Racism is often caused by class difference. Although it is interesting because there has been a shift and today studies suggest that higher-class individuals are more accepting of other races, regardless of that individuals race, mostly due to the fact that they have greater access to education and knowledge.
    Regardless, for Wright his class difference was caused by race.

  2. Scarlet,
    First, let me just say that I am so thrilled that you posted on Wright. I often want Singh to spend more time thinking through Wright’s impact and his politics, or lack thereof, in his book. Wright was an expatriate, choosing to live in Paris rather than the United States as an adult. But this transatlantic move was not his first migration. He moved from Mississippi to Chicago as a young man in order to escape the Jim Crow South as you say.
    Wright’s impact on American literature has been so profound and is often over-looked. As has his impact on how white readers first encounter or understand the effects of segregation. After Lorraine Hansberry, Wright was the second African American author I was taught when I was assigned to read a portion of Black Boy in high school. Written in 1940, Wright’s novel Native Son is one of the best-selling American novels period.
    Wright argued that words could be used as weapons. He used his platform as a member of left circles and the local branch of the Communist party to disseminate a particular kind of message against the exploitation of labor and against racist terror. Wright had a sophisticated understanding of the use of violence by a white supremacist power structure in the South. He revealed that violence was spectacular in order to not only provoke fear but to further constitute power in the every day. He showed these methods most clearly in the short story collection Uncle Tom’s Children, a truly masterful work.
    As Matthew notes, early in his career, Wright was interested in a cross-racial alliance among workers and this thinking was of course influenced by the communist platform he was contributing to and participating with while he was in Chicago. He saw workers as a force for change, but this change could occur at multiple levels, and one of these was in the deployment of literature. I think the image of raised fists is so interesting here. It should have several visual resonances for us as we think about forms of power and taking a hold of power.


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