Richard Wright Short Fiction Analysis
“Fire and Cloud” in Uncle Tom’s Children is perhaps the best representative of Richard Wright’s early short fiction. It won first prize in the 1938 Story magazine contest which had more than four hundred entries, marking Wright’s first triumph with American publishers. Charles K. O’Neill made a radio adaptation of the story after it appeared in American Scenes.
“Fire and Cloud”
Unlike the later works concerning black ghetto experience, “Fire and Cloud” has a pastoral quality, recognizing the strong bond of the southern black to the soil and the support he has drawn from religion. Wright reproduces faithfully the southern black dialect in both conversation and internal meditations. This use of dialect emphasizes the relative lack of sophistication of rural blacks. His protagonist, Reverend Taylor, is representative of the “old Negro,” who has withstood centuries of oppression, sustained by hard work on the land and humble faith in a merciful God.
Wright’s attitude toward religion, however, is ambivalent. Although he recognizes it as contributing to the quiet nobility of the hero, it also prevents Taylor from taking effective social action when his people are literally starving. The final triumph of Reverend Taylor is that he puts aside the conciliatory attitude which was part of his religious training and becomes a social activist. Instead of turning the other cheek after being humiliated and beaten by white men, he embraces the methods of his Marxist supporters, meeting oppression with mass demonstration. Strength of numbers proves more effective and appropriate for getting relief from the bigoted white establishment than all his piety and loving kindness. Early in the story Taylor exclaims “The good Lawds gonna clean up this ol worl some day! Hes gonna make a new Heaven n a new Earth!” His last words, however, are “Freedom belongs t the strong!”
The situation of the story no doubt reflects Wright’s early experience when his sharecropper father was driven off the plantation. Taylor’s people are starving because the white people, who own all the land, have prohibited the blacks from raising food on it. No matter how Taylor pleads for relief, the local white officials tell him to wait and see if federal aid may be forthcoming. When two Communist agitators begin pushing Taylor to lead a mass demonstration against the local government, white officials have Taylor kidnapped and beaten, along with several deacons of his church. Instead of intimidating them, this suffering converts them to open confrontation. As the Communists promised, the poor whites join the blacks in the march, which forces the white authorities to release food to those facing starvation.
The story’s strength lies in revealing through three dialogues the psychological dilemma of the protagonist as opposing groups demand his support. He resists the Communists initially because their methods employ threat of open war on the whites—“N tha ain Gawds way!” The agitators say he will be responsible if their demonstration fails through lack of numbers and participants are slaughtered. On the other hand, the mayor and chief of police threaten Taylor that they will hold him personally responsible if any of his church members join the march. After a humiliating and futile exchange with these men, Taylor faces his own church deacons, who are themselves divided and look to him for leadership. He knows that one of their number, who is just waiting for a chance to oust him from his church, will run to the mayor and police with any evidence of Taylor’s insubordination. In a pathetic attempt to shift the burden of responsibility that threatens to destroy him no matter what he does, he reiterates the stubborn stand he has maintained with all three groups: He will not order the demonstration, but he will march with his people if they choose to demonstrate. The brutal horse-whipping that Taylor endures as a result of this moderate stand convinces him of the futility of trying to placate everybody. The Uncle Tom becomes a rebel.
Critics sometimes deplore the episodes of raw brutality described in graphic detail in Wright’s fiction, but violence is the clue here to his message. Behind the white man’s paternalistic talk is the persuasion of whip and gun. Only superior force can cope with such an antagonist.
“The Man Who Lived Underground”
Wright’s best piece of short fiction is “The Man Who Lived...
(The entire section is 1852 words.)