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Wright, Richard 1908–1960
An American short story writer and novelist, Wright was praised for his early realistic portraits of the experiences, fears, and frustrations of southern blacks. Wright was a spokesman for black rights and beliefs, and his early work depicts a southern society that exhibits few outside influences. His later work, of which Native Son is an example, shows both broader scope and the author's philosophical movement from political naiveté to Marxist belief, and finally to an anti-Marxist attitude. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 4, 9.)
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Richard Wright was a Black man born on a white, Mississippi plantation, and carried, by fits and starts, from one white, southern town to the next. In short, he was born into the antagonistic context of hostile whites wielding power against him. In this, his background mirrors our majority Black experience. And so, we readily accept the validity of Native Son/Bigger Thomas, who pits himself against overwhelming, white force. Moreover, Native Son (undoubtedly Wright's most influential book) conforms to white standards we have swallowed regarding literary weight: It is apparently symbolic (rather than realistic), "serious" (unrelievedly grim), socio-political (rather than "personal") in its scale, and not so much "emotional" as impassioned in its deliberate execution.
Given the antagonistic premise of Native Son/the personal beginnings of Richard Wright, a Black man on enemy turf, it follows that his novel should pull you forward with its furious imagination, saturate the reader with varieties of hatred, deal horror, climax in violence, and ram hard—ram hard—against a destiny of doom. But suppose the premise is a different one? (pp. 5-6)
June Jordan, "On Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston: Notes toward a Balancing of Love and Hatred" (copyright © 1974 June Jordan), in Black World, Vol. XXIII, No. 10, August, 1974, pp. 4-8.∗
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Wright's stories of helpless or long-suffering Blacks victimized by societal and individual White brutality mark the beginning of a new era in Black fiction and even his least important pieces contain unforgettable scenes and characters that burn their way into the reader's consciousness; characteristic is the savage sequence of events of "Big Boy Leaves Home," climaxed by a lynching which leaves the protagonist completely lost, alienated from life, a victim of meaningless and unjustified racial hatred and bigotry. But for all his talent, Wright's people—misunderstood, exploited, vilely misused by Whites—tend to be almost as one-dimensional as many of the stereotypes of the proletarian short fiction of the thirties. As a sad and moving testimonial to the evil of racism and its effect upon a gifted and bitterly disillusioned human being, Uncle Tom's Children and Eight Men constitute a disturbing and towering and permanent landmark in the literary history of Black-White relations, and their influence upon the younger generation of Black writers was and continues to be profound. (pp. 233-34)
William Peden, "The Black Explosion," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1975 by Newberry College), Vol. XII, No. 3, Summer, 1975, pp. 231-41.∗
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With the rise of black studies programs throughout the country, an omnibus collection of Wright's work was inevitable. The author's widow, Ellen Wright, and Michel Fabre … have assembled a broad sampling of Wright's work…. Although the [Richard Wright Reader] is weighted toward Wright's fiction, there are representative selections from his correspondence, his poetry, his political and literary essays, and his travel writing. (p. 46)
Surveying its scope, we see that a man's past is never really dead. For Wright, the formative experiences were his mother's religious fanaticism (she was a Seventh-day Adventist), with its crippling repressions and proscriptions, and the virulent racism that confronted him at nearly every stage of his determined search for self-realization. Brutalized and misunderstood by both his family and his society, Wright developed personal characteristics that were reflected in most of his writing: rebelliousness, introversion, a quest for selfhood, a longing for stable and meaningful values, an appetite for violence.
The editors lead off with a segment from Black Boy that depicts Wright's adolescent struggle to educate himself beyond his station with forbidden library books…. He had already outgrown the one-dimensional identity whites had designed for him and was learning to hate instead of fear them. "It was probably a mere accident that I never killed," he comments offhandedly. It is no surprise, then, to move on to Wright's short journalistic piece, "Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite," one of the author's earliest publications, and find Wright exulting over Louis's defeat of Max Baer in their 1935 bout. Racial antagonism and violence come together again in "Long Black Song" and "Fire and Cloud," a couple of rather crude stories from Uncle Tom's Children. These two strains culminate in Native Son, in which Wright's account of the black American's caged misery is so convincing that we accept murder as an understandable (if not excusable) response.
Freedom, an especially sacred word in the black vocabulary, meant more than just political liberty to Wright. The search for an authentic self consumed the novelist from one end of his career to the other as he shed successive identities supplied by his religion-obsessed mother, by the southern bigots he fled, and by the northern Communists he joined. But The Outsider shows that Wright, for all his intelligence and willpower, could not remake himself. The existentialism he embraced so fervently was only another religion, replacing both Christianity and communism, whereas the novel's spiritual thrashings, rhetorical afflatus, and relentless pedantry are more reminiscent of the tabernacle than of the French cafés Wright frequented at that time.
Many of these same conclusions can be drawn from American Hunger, a slender, autobiographical work that was detached from the original manuscript of Black Boy and that has now been published in its entirety for the first time. Here, writing of Chicago in the 1930s, Wright is at his naturalistic best. He offers spare and telling sketches of racial abuse and condescension, of working conditions at the time, of poisonous factionalism and ideological rigidity among the Communists, of his groping emergence as an artist. Like all of Wright's memorable work, it makes creative use of his past rather than turning away from it in self-defeating gestures of renunciation. As in Native Son and Black Boy, he brings an unusual combination of intelligence and candor to the subject of race relations and teaches blacks what to be proud of in their heritage—and whites what to be ashamed of in theirs. (pp. 46-7)
Robert F. Moss, "Caged Misery," in Saturday Review (© 1978 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 5, No. 8, January 21, 1978, pp. 45-7.
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The principal value of any reader is that it can present in a single volume a broad sampling of a master's work. The publication of the "Richard Wright Reader" is to be applauded on this account, because the range of subject matter and technique Mr. Wright commanded have been lost to the audience that knows him only as the "angry" author of "Native Son" and "Black Boy." Without disparaging either novel, one can acknowledge that they offer a limited portrait of the artist at a distinct time and place in his career; the selections in this book remind us that Mr. Wright's career spanned 22 productive years.
It is not difficult to find reasons for the fascination Mr. Wright's life and work continue to have for black writers. As Mr. Fabre [the co-editor] often indicates in his notes, Mr. Wright was a conscious artist, a writer who learned from his reading of other masters, who employed inventive literary techniques to dramatize his knowledge of black language and culture. The pattern of Mr. Wright's early life mirrored the mass migration of blacks from South to North, from rural areas to the cities, from communal folk life to urban alienation. In "Black Boy," "Lawd Today" and "Native Son" the promise and bitter disappointment of these historic movements are captured. Mr. Wright's later years reflect the intellectual odyssey of black people in the second half of the 20th century. He examined the legacy of the African past; he documented the rise of the emerging nations and analyzed the political consequences of this redistribution of power for all oppressed people. Although Mr. Wright temporarily embraced various isms—communism, black nationalism, existentialism—he regarded each system as valid only so long as it freed him to grapple on his own terms with the vast, unclassifiable welter of experience. Always at the center of Mr. Wright's work is his insistence on the sanctity of the individual imagination, but this insistence is tempered by his vision of black people's collective destiny. In "Blueprint for Negro Writing" he has left us his example, his challenge: "The Negro writer … has a serious responsibility. In order to do justice to his subject matter, in order to depict Negro life in all of its manifold and intricate relationships, a deep, informed, and complex consciousness is necessary: a consciousness which draws for its strength upon the fluid lore of a great people, and molds this lore with the concepts that move and direct the forces of history today." (p. 32)
John Wideman, "Native Son," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 5, 1978, pp. 11, 32.
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Uncle Tom and Sambo have disappeared from contemporary black literature. The black rebel, driven to assert himself, often violently, has replaced the acquiescent victim…. The writer most frequently credited with making the Negro "visible" is Richard Wright…. Offering historical and sociological, as well as psychological insights into the American character, Wright examines the rebel, his behavior and motivations, his background. Products of a lower-class black environment, Wright's rebels are well acquainted with hunger, disease, poverty. They learn quickly from frightened mothers and beaten fathers not to expect much from America. Their dreams of power are undercut by the reality of Jim Crow and more subtle discrimination. Ambition is discouraged; impotency reinforced. All entrances and exits are blocked. Trapped, Wright's black man may choose to suffer his fate passively; he may reluctantly accept his status as a victim. But not for long. Wright's victims are generally minor characters or else they evolve into sullen rebels. (pp. 4-5)
Wright's rebels [are] lonely, alienated individuals [who] seek affirmation in action. Passion, impulsiveness, and often violence characterize many of Wright's protagonists. Most are nonreflective and unable to articulate their agony. Driven by explosive emotions, they seek escape in alcohol, sex, and brutal encounters. Some leave the repressive South for the "promised land." Movement from town to city, job to job is common. Family and friends disperse; new alliances are formed but inevitably nothing changes. Disenchantment grows, finally erupting in violence. Meaning is found not in the past, but in the present. The rebel's identity depends on action…. Wright's rebels feel most exhilarated, most alive when they have taken life. (p. 6)
Wright's strongest fiction, written before he left the United States, deals with the problems of lower class Southern and Northern Negroes. (p. 7)
For most of Wright's protagonists the only alternative is violent rebellion if they are to replace self-contempt with self-respect. Persecuted for years, they become powder kegs of rage waiting to be ignited. The pattern is established in Uncle Tom's Children, Southern tales depicting the development of Negro victim into black rebel. The seeds of Northern defiance are planted in the South where a gentle minister helplessly watches his congregation starve; a Negro woman is beaten while trying to protect her son; a hard working farmer discovers that his wife is "fair game" for whites; and a Negro youth witnesses his friends' brutal murder and mutilation. Two of the stories—"Fire and Cloud" and "Bright and Morning Star"—written during Wright's communist period, suggest radical political action as a possible solution for the Negro's troubles, but they are not representative of the collection, which pits individual blacks against villainous whites. (p. 18)
Native Son serves as Wright's warning to white America to recognize her invisible sons before they ruthlessly judge and condemn their country. With nothing to live for, his characters are willing to die for freedom. The more intelligent and sensitive they are, the more they threaten society, as Cross Damon proves when a sense of powerlessness drives him to play God in The Outsider. Despite Wright's insistence that race is only incidental to the novel, evidence indicates otherwise. "Damon's crimes were part and parcel of the everyday life of man, most particularly Black men." What distinguishes Damon from Wright's other black rebels is his philosophical temperament, his tendency to analyze his actions. In other respects he fits the tradition of Wright's persecuted protagonists. Though well educated, he is frustrated and … locked into a monotonous, demeaning post office job and an unhappy marriage…. Although he lies and kills, he is able to deceive the Communists and Eva, his white girlfriend, by acting naive and innocent. In fact, the whole novel focuses on his role playing, his attempt to take advantage of a train wreck and assume a new identity in New York. But Cross can no more change his behavior and escape his problem than Bigger can.
Intended as an existential hero of any race, he is really a "vicious, angry … intellectual version of [the primitive] Bigger Thomas." Both manipulate people in order to feel powerful. (pp. 21-2)
Wright's black Christianity emphasizes humility, submission, and other worldliness—all of which consign Negroes to living deaths. In Black Boy, Native Son, and "The Man Who Lived Underground," autocratic churches, self-serving preachers, and hysterical congregations exude death and darkness. Protagonists like Bigger Thomas and Fred Daniels find little in religion to guide them and much to make them rebel. (p. 32)
In Black Power Wright examined Christianity's destructive impact on Africans and Afro-Americans. Both British imperialists and American slave masters, he believed, used the church to tame "the savages." Unknowingly missionaries contributed to white supremacy with unfortunate consequences for the blacks. Africans were treated as pagan children unable to govern themselves. Their traditions were labelled barbarous; their high priests and medicine men were stripped of authority, and the natives were made dependent on whites. Severe psychological problems developed. Like American Negroes, Africans "lived uneasily and frustratedly in two worlds … believing in neither of them."… (p. 33)
In the autobiographical Black Boy, the author identifies Negro religion with white repression. Both foster unwarranted shame and guilt. Church emphasis on original sin reinforces guilt about skin color. In both cases the Negro is marked from birth and made to feel guilty over that which he cannot control. Whites equate black with evil; the church stresses man's innate wickedness. Together they convince Negroes of their inferiority. Understandably, then, Wright depicts his grandmother as the most oppressive, powerful figure in the family. Nearly white and fanatically religious, she represents the conspiracy of white society and black church to restrain Negroes. Rigid, humorless, and harshly disciplinarian, Granny struggles to prove her purity, her whiteness by cleansing the sinners around her…. Cleanliness of soul, mind, and body are stressed constantly. But baths and prayers cannot change reality: Richard is black; his mother and brother are black; and Granny with her few drops of Negro blood is black. Ultimately they have to face the fact that white society and the black church make salvation possible only in the next life. Some, especially Wright's women, accept such precepts and redouble their efforts to gain entry into heaven. Others, particularly his young male protagonists, remain skeptical about a religion which values death more than life. They require answers but receive lectures or sermons. (p. 41)
[The] atmosphere in Wright's churches is claustrophobic and death-like. For Wright and other black writers most Negro churches were indifferent to life. In Black Boy "terrifyingly sweet hymns" …, joyous outbursts, and powerful sermons praise death which will free suffering Negroes from this world. The faithful will be rewarded in heaven, but darkness, fire, and brimstone await nonbelievers like Wright. (p. 47)
Clearly, Wright's myopic church … cannot guide the lost. Its promise of salvation is empty; its baptismal water is dirty, and incapable of purifying desperate black men. In fact, water, like fire, is used as a symbol of death by Wright. In one surrealistic scene [in Eight Men] Daniels, trying to cleanse himself physically and spiritually, imagines the faucet water turning into blood. In another scene he dreams of himself as Christ walking on water and attempting to save a drowning woman and baby. But Daniels (and by extension Christianity) fails: the sea turns rough, pulling all three into its swirling depths. The sequence fore-shadows Daniels's actual death. Rejected by the church, he surrenders to the police who shoot him as he leads them to his hideaway. The last image is one of Daniels's swallowing "thick, bitter water" … which becomes his soggy grave…. [In Native Son] Bigger becomes the target of [police] hoses and is overwhelmed by rushing streams of freezing water. Later in prison, when he recalls the icy water, Bigger is visited by the Reverend Hammond who preaches to him about Christ's mercy and prays that the "Lawd [will] wash [his sins] as white snow."… The scene underscores the church's delusions, and the inappropriateness of white Christianity's symbols and rituals for suffering Negroes.
Understandably then, most of Wright's protagonists, like their author, reject the church. They are unable to reconcile Christ's saintly crucifix with the K.K.K.'s fiery cross. To embrace the former, as their submissive mothers do, may prolong their lives, but they rebel and are unwilling to pay the price—emasculation and death of the spirit. Like Wright, they "cannot feel weak and lost in a cosmic manner … [and they are revolted by how] His creatures serve Him."… Grovelling before whites is reprehensible but may be necessary; grovelling before God is contemptible. Furthermore, they cannot believe in their mothers' insatiable God who demands complete obedience and sacrifice of all earthly pleasures. Such a God, Wright believed, worsened the Negroes' plight, depriving them of dignity and initiative. (pp. 49-50)
In Twelve Million Black Voices Wright recorded the "complex movement of a debased feudal folk toward a twentieth century urbanization."… Described in Black Boy and several recent biographies, Wright's life reflects a migratory pattern which began in rural Mississippi and ended in cosmopolitan Paris. ba desire to escape persecution and humiliation caused him first to leave the South and later the nation. The decision was not easy, for it is apparent that he thought of himself as an American and also missed the South whose beauty and folk culture he describes in Black Boy, Uncle Tom's Children, and The Long Dream…. Although the "nightmarish landscape" haunts the author with its scenes of degradations, castrations, and lynchings, there is another attractive, almost seductive side to the South, a world of "morning dew …, wet, green garden paths …, dreamy Mississippi waters …, of wild geese and sugar cane," and hovering over all "the blood-red glare of the sun's afterglow."… It was the South's lushness which nurtured Wright and which he was forced to leave but never forgot, as his fiction repeatedly illustrates. (p. 79)
Some of Wright's southern folk endure in a way that his other characters do not. They are the real heroes of his fiction. In "The Man Who Saw The Flood" a black peasant family return to their water soaked land after a ravaging flood. A certain stoicism prevails as the family gives thanks that a few possessions [were spared]…. It is as if the people and the land are one in their determination to persevere, to recover, and sustain life…. Those who remain in the rural South sometimes perish, but their lives are marked by a courage and commitment which Wright's northern characters lack. (pp. 86-7)
As they leave their land, Wright's characters become corrupted. Thus, in The Long Dream Tyree Tucker enriches himself at the expense of poor blacks. Since the tale is set in the rural South, he attempts to fulfill his familial responsibility but he lacks the Old Testament dignity which Wright's peasants exhibit. As a member of the black bourgeoisie, he has lost touch with nature and his people. Instead of tilling the land, he exploits helpless Negroes and cooperates with crooked whites to maintain his power. But the latter betray him, and in the end he dies without dignity, like most of Wright's northern protagonists. (p. 87)
Professionally Wright … found himself dependent on Jewish liberals…. Jews offered money, personal and literary advice, protection against racism, and love, all of which Wright needed and appreciated. But such assistance also emphasized his helplessness and dependency.
Not surprisingly, Wright's ambivalence about Jews appears in his writing…. According to Black Boy, black anti-Semitism originated in the church and home. Parents "generally approved" of it; the fundamentalists encouraged it. "Antagonism towards Jews," Wright observed, "was bred in [Negroes] from childhood; it was not merely racial prejudice, it was part of their cultural heritage."… Like Baldwin, Wright realized that Jews occupied a precarious position in America and therefore provided safe targets for Negro frustration…. Both Southern Negroes and Jews found it easier to turn on each other than on white Christians.
The complexity of Negro-Jewish relations increased as Wright travelled North. In the more subtly racist North blacks entered a "no man's land" in human relations, never knowing precisely what to expect from whites and especially from Jews. (pp. 95-7)
Wright's ambivalence towards Jews is developed most fully in Native Son. Bigger Thomas resents the Jews who own so many businesses in Chicago's Black Belt, but he values his Jewish lawyer's assistance. For the first time in his life, he meets a white who seems concerned about him. Yet the relationship also unsettles Bigger who becomes vulnerable after he learns to trust Max. Helpless, he "felt that he was sitting and holding his life … in his hands, waiting for Max to tell him what to do with it; and it made him hate himself."… By breaking down Bigger's defenses, his hatred of whites, by encouraging him to analyze racism and to communicate his feelings, Max acquires tremendous power over his black client. Not only is he responsible for his defense but for his soul as well. One wrong glance or word can shatter Bigger's confidence and faith. Unfortunately Max … cannot truly empathize with blacks. Culturally and morally on "another planet" …, he is horrified by Bigger's rationalization of murder…. [He] is blind to the black rebel's unique sensibility. (p. 98)
Evelyn Gross Avery, in her Rebels and Victims: The Fiction of Richard Wright and Bernard Malamud (copyright © 1979 by Kennikat Press Corp.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1979, 116 p.
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