Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.)

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

While confronting basic dilemmas faced by African Americans during the period of the play, Walker’s characters present a spectrum of responses to those dilemmas. Grandma Wilhemina refuses to consider herself or her children black. Dudley Stanton displays cynicism about all the races. Mo and his men parrot the revolutionary rhetoric of the time. John flirts with assimilationism as he anticipates Jeff’s graduation from Air Force navigation school. Finally, Jeff, resisting assimilation, is determined to change the system from within.

One can sense within these characters human feelings and conflicts that run deeper than their outward attitudes. Wilhemina acknowledges that her late husband was black; she admires him, because he died protecting his property against a white intruder. Stanton’s cynicism is belied by his obvious affection for his longtime friend John. Mo’s men may be putting the African American community at risk by failing to understand the consequences of their rhetoric. These contradictions underscore that there is no unambiguous solution to the dilemmas facing African Americans—and, indeed, all people. For this reason, the play has resonated profoundly with both African American audiences and those of other ethnicities.

Walker dedicated The River Niger “to my mother and father and to highly underrated black daddies everywhere.” A primary theme in Walker’s plays is black men confronting failure and poverty,...

(The entire section is 590 words.)


(Drama for Students)

African-American Identity Politics
Throughout the play, Walker explores a variety of approaches to black struggles for racial...

(The entire section is 757 words.)