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 authentic, worthy black man, is confirmed.
Jeff and his friends discuss the contemporary, politically aware, and active young black man and his role in defending and furthering the interests of the black “family.” Jeff, like his father, is a man of words, of knowledge and philosophy. The solution for change that he proposes is based on principle informed by reasoned argument. His refusal to put on his military uniform because he no longer believes in his country—a move that deeply upsets his proud father—and his refusal to become involved in the violent agenda of his friends are examples of the logic and firmness of his resolve. This resolve, combined with his caring for the women in his life, portrays him as a positive male role model who contrasts with his gang-member friends, who are confused but well-meaning; Mo, Chips, and Skeeter put their faith in a rhetoric of revolution that they do not quite understand and that exposes Jeff’s family, and by extension every black family, to avoidable peril.
Joseph Walker dedicated The River Niger to “highly underrated black daddies everywhere,” and in the play, as in most of Walker’s work, women are essentially presented in supporting roles; the focus of the play is on the struggles of the male characters in a male-dominated world.
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....
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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, doubting whether they have lived effective lives, and feeling held back by the very people they care for, especially women. Still, Walker’s characters strive to find a purpose and assert their manhood. The prominence of this theme has led some to perceive Walker’s female characters as subordinate to the males. The evidence cited for this view includes Mattie’s ready acceptance of John’s drinking. Also, when Dudley remarks, “Oh, these strong black women!” Ann replies, “I’m only strong if my man needs me to be, sir.”
The play’s action, however, is full of paradox that complicates this criticism. For example, it is Ann who leads Jeff into cooperation with Mo. The moment John dies, Mattie seizes control of the situation. Paradoxically, though she is carrying out her dead husband’s orders, she is very much an autonomous woman: “Shut up!” she commands, “And tell it like Johnny told ya. He ain’t gonna die for nothing, ’cause you ain’t gonna let him! Jeff—open the door, son!... And you better not [screw] up!” In this final scene of the play, though the adult son Jeff receives the baton, it is Mattie, assuming a matriarchal stance, who ensures both that her husband’s sacrifice is honored and that her son behaves like a man. No one on stage takes issue with this imposing demonstration of female strength.
Another paradox involves John’s moving sacrifice—taking on himself the responsibility for others’ crimes. In one sense, the only thing gained is that a stool pigeon is eliminated and several members of the movement avoid arrest. In addition, however, John has made sure that his family—for which all along he has sacrificed his ambitions and his energies—remains safe and intact. He himself has proclaimed that the “true purpose of all revolutions [is] to restore poetry to the godhead!” He asserts that his life was not wasted, that his final act is a revolutionary, poetic statement.
There are no simple answers in The River Niger. The poignantly portrayed conflicts within nearly all of the characters are testimony to the extreme difficulty of achieving some sense of peace and control over one’s own destiny.
African-American Identity Politics Throughout the play, Walker explores a variety of approaches to black struggles for racial equality. Several of the different political philosophies and organizations active among African Americans during the early 1970s are mentioned, discussed, and debated by various characters. Mo, Al, Chips, and Skeeter have chosen to fight racism through belonging to a "revolutionary" organization resembling the Black Panthers. Their approach is to attempt to commit a violent act in the name of revolution. The early black nationalist and separatist leader Marcus Garvey is mentioned, as well as Muslim black nationalist leader Malcolm X.
Jeff chooses to struggle against racism within the law, by planning to become a lawyer. John's wish for his son is that Jeff will succeed in the ‘‘United States of America Air Force’’—that is, in the white, mainstream world. John himself, however, is unsure of where to direct his energies in the struggle for racial equality; he calls himself a "fighter" but doesn't know where the ‘‘battlefield’’ is. Dudley, on the other hand, remains cynical about any prospect of either successfully assimilating into white America or effectively fighting racism. He refers to Jeff s position in the Air Force as that of "a powerless nub in a silly military grist mill’’ and has no faith in the power of black community, describing it as "Just a bunch of black crabs in a barrel, lying to each other, always lying and pulling each other back down.''
Poetry Poetry is an important theme of Walker's play. Although he is a housepainter by trade and a hopeless alcoholic, John is also a poet. Early in the play, John describes himself as a warrior without a battlefield, unsure of how to go about fighting for racial equality. In the end of act 2, he comes closer to defining his "battlefield'' in asserting that his racial pride is expressed through his poetry. He tells Dudley, ‘‘I'm a poet, ya hear me, a poet! When this country—when this world, learns the meaning of poetry—'' John then turns to his son, explaining to him, ‘‘Don't you see, Jeff, poetry is what the revolution's all about—never lose sight of the true purpose of the revolution, all revolutions—to restore poetry to the godhead!’’ John goes on to assert,
Poetry is religion, the alpha and the omega, the cement of the universe. The supereye under which every other eye is scrutinized, and it stretches from one to infinity, from bulls—t to the beatific, the rocking horse of the human spirit—God himself. God himself is pure distilled poetry.
For John, poetry is both a spiritual and a political force. He concludes that, ‘‘Ain't none of us gonna be free until poetry rides a mercury-smooth silver stallion.’’
John, however, fails to appreciate that Jeff has left the military precisely because he values poetry—being teased by a fellow serviceman for writing a poem was the incident which caused him to reassess his values and choose to pursue his own will rather than that of his father or of white society.
The importance of poetry to Walker's concerns with African-American identity and racial equality is indicated by the fact that the title of the play is borrowed from the title of the poem John writes, a poem which celebrates African-American history, culture, and identity.
The Role of Women in the African-American Family Walker's play is concerned with the role of women in the African-American family, particularly in terms of how they treat their men. All the women in the play—Grandma, Mattie, Ann, and Gail—are presented in a positive light because they are completely loving, supportive, and non-judgmental toward their men. Grandma seems to be a role model in her absolute idealization of her deceased husband, asserting, ‘‘my man was a king.’’ Mattie is also presented as a model wife in terms of her acceptance and devotion to her husband and her praise of black men in general. Referring to John, she tells Ann, ‘‘A good man is a treasure.’’ Mattie comments, "White folks proclaim that our men are no good and we go 'round like fools trying to prove them wrong,’’ and asks, ‘‘If our men are no good, then why are all these little white girls trying to gobble 'em up faster than they can pee straight?’’
Although John is an alcoholic, Mattie feels it is her fault; he gave up his educational ambitions in order to support her extended family. The younger women, Ann and Gail, are equally supportive of their men.