Friday, February 22, 2013

Uncle Tom's Children

We've read some of James Baldwin's work in this class, so I thought I would draw attention to one of his biggest inspirations: Richard Wright. Wright was a black author who directly preceded Baldwin. He is best known for Native Son (1940), a novel that tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man living in the ghetto of Chicago, who is driven to crime by his extreme poverty. Baldwin once remarked that "No American Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living inside his skull," in addition to publishing an essay collection titled Notes from a Native Son (1955).

I'd like to discuss on of Wright's lesser known works, a short story collection titled Uncle Tom's Children. The book's five stories are all set in the Jim Crow-era Deep South, and each explores the consequences of racial tension in that setting. While the title posits the book as a sort of spiritual successor to Uncle Tom's Cabin, unlike Harriet Beecher Stowe's preachy, often melodramatic novel, Wright's stories are brutal and ambiguous. 

Much of his work falls under the umbrella of literary naturalism, a movement that began in the early 20th century which focused on characters and their actions being shaped by their environment rather than their free will. Indeed, Wright's stark narratives often present situations in which events, even extremities like murder, seem to just happen rather than being plotted out by the characters.

Violence is a major theme in Wright's work. Take, for example, "Big Boy Leaves Home," the text of which can be found here:

[SPOILERS] In the story, four young black boys are playing by the river. A white woman spots them rolling around naked and, alarmed, calls for help. A white man named Jim emerges and shoots two of the boys, killing them. The eldest of the remaining two, Big Boy, wrestles the gun from his control and kills Jim. He flees to his family, who arrange for him to leave home the next day in a pickup truck. That night, Big Boy becomes scared that mob is searching for him, and finds himself hiding from a group of white men and their hounds. He hides in a dirt mound, where one of the dogs finds him. Big Boy strangles the dog to death in an act of primal fear and self-defense. The next day, on his way to safety in the pickup truck, he learns that Bobo, the other remaining boy, was captured and burned at the stake by the white men. The story ends with Big Boy reflecting on his state of affairs.

Wright's story depicts in brutal detail the extreme violence to which racial tensions could escalate in the postslavery era. Uncle Tom's Children is a powerful, emotionally gripping read.

1 comment:

  1. I had never heard of Richard Wright or read Uncle Tom's Children but I'm glad to be introduced to him. After skimming "Big Boy Leaves Home" and reading your summary, I can definitely pinpoint Wright's literary naturalism. The demise of the four main characters happens due to an unexpected turn of events. The grim situation that Big Boy finds himself in was not chosen --- Big Boy was simply reacting in self-defense to the murder of his two friends. The murder itself was prompted by a seemingly innocent and jovial event.

    Although I am not normally attracted to narratives that include a lot of violence, I think Wright reflects the often cruel realities of the time. .


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