Themes and Meanings
A three-act domestic drama set in Harlem in 1973, The River Niger reveals the personal struggles of house painter-poet John Williams and his family and provides references to and commentary on the social and political issues of the time that surround the affirmation of African American identity on its own terms, as opposed to the terms imposed by the dominant white majority or emanating from a compromising, integrationist solution.
The domestic tragedy of The River Niger is also a tragedy with wider, social implications. An examination of personal as well as communal values is experienced by the characters who question the meaning of their lives, which includes the reality of being black in the United States. In Grandma Wilhemina Geneva Brown’s comments about not considering herself as black—and therefore as superior to blacks—a complex, historical viewpoint on race emerges. The one black person she truly admires is her husband, Ben Brown, who died defending his land against a white poacher.
John Williams and his lifelong friend Dudley Stanton, a doctor of Jamaican descent, bandy statements that refer to blackness in a humorous, good-natured way, exploring perception and prejudice, insight and cliché. In the completion of his poem and the killing of the police informer that results in his own death, John reaches a clear achievement as his past failures are reconciled and his status as an “African warrior,” an...
(The entire section is 450 words.)