Monday, February 08, 1999

Richard Wright

Since this is Black History month, I want to talk to you this morning about a Black writer. There are so many to choose from, both contemporary and from the past. In talking to a fellow-Ole Mole contributor, Jan Haaken, I was reminded again about how few people, even people in the Left, know much about Richard Wright. In my opinion, Wright is one of the most important writers of all time. Still, though many leftists know enough about him to associate him with the Harlem Renaissance artists, few know that he was born and raised in the deep south, and only ‘escaped’ to Chicago and thence to Harlem when he was in his late teens. Wright lived both in very small, rural towns and in some larger southern cities, but even in the city, he could not, as a Black person, own a library card! Over the course of many months, while working in an optical grinding company, he came to trust one white man enough to ask if he could borrow his library card. This man had sent him, on occasion, to pick up books for him, giving Wright a note with the names of the books he wanted. By pretending total ignorance, adopting the shuffle that he so hated and had so much trouble adopting (though his smarter ‘city-wise’ friends, who had as much contempt for the white people as he, tried to teach him how to turn the shuffle against the white man, how to use it for gain)—at any rate, by bowing and shuffling and pretending not even to be able to read, Wright began checking books out of the library in a self-education program that is almost unbelievable. Without any formal training, he read not only the great novelists, but also Marx and Freud and Hegel and Heidegger. And he didn’t just read them. One cannot read his truly great works without seeing how thoroughly he understand European philosophy and political theory.

I think the problems of promoting a good understanding of Wright and his work are compounded by the fact that his 1940 novel, Native Son, was made into a decent but not good motion picture that scared people, but did not (as Wright so carefully does) point out the rationality of the fright and the social steps required to meet the very real problems. Indeed, even as a novel, unless one really understands Wright and what he is about, one could easily be depressed and frightened without knowing what we might call the lesson of the novel. An additional and very much avoidable problem (though the failure to avoid it is a symptom of the economic oppression Wright tries to expose) is that only the first half of Wright’s autobiographical novel was published in the late thirties and early forties. Wright gave the entire manuscript to his publishers under the title Hunger in America. And he was speaking of a hunger both physical and (if you will) spiritual. While the first half, published under the less inflammatory title, Black Boy, is a powerful and wonderfully drawn piece, it ends just as Wright is about to move to the big cities of the East, and where he was immediately and permanently politicized. The second half (not published at all until 1977—except for a few segments published separately in the forties), given the title American Hunger, deals with Wright’s discovery of other like-minded artists in the John Reed Club and his eventual involvement with the American Communist Party. This second section was far too political for the comfort of the publishers, and with lies and evasions, the first half was published and promises made about the second half. (Only in the last couple of years has there finally come out a recombining of the two halfs into one.)

So, were I to recommend what of Wright’s to read and the order in which to read it, I would suggest beginning with the two halves of the autobiography, and then turning not to the Bigger Thomas stories or Native Son, but to his highly autobiographical novel The Outsider. Perhaps even better than American Hunger, The Outsider describes the later parts of Wright’s life in Chicago and New York City, and it also displays his profound understanding of Marxism, the racism and blatant use made of Black struggles by the American Communist Party, and his (to me) almost incredible grasp of European existentialism and what is usually called phenomenology. Wright understands very well the Marxian notion of alienation, one based on the worker’s alienation both from the product of his/her labor and other workers with whom s/he toils under the capitalist mode of production, but Wright also understands and refuses to ignore or explain away other more primordial causes and forms of alienation.

Without saying too much of the novel here, the lead character is, like Wright once was, a Black postal worker, alienated from white people and the white corporate structure for sure, but also alienated from the black community in which he lives. His constant reading of philosophy and political theory makes him appear odd to his fellow workers and even to his own family. And, of course, he is not merely reading these works; he is living them—he is in the deepest and best sense an intellectual who is trying to understand and to bring out of concealment the sociopolitical world he finds himself in. This strange man, an outsider in almost all ways, is in the grip of an angst that he cannot even describe to those around him. Although it is Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus who are most famous for their descriptions of a kind of fundamental existential predicament, a struggle to find and/or create meaning in the midst of the material realities one finds oneself in, Wright’s description is so much more real, so much less the rather excessive complaints of intellectuals who, in many ways, are already protected from some of the harshest aspects of their world. What I want to say is that Wright’s is a mature, adult account of political and existential struggle. Simone de Beauvoir has pointed out so lucidly how naive she and Sartre (and Camus) were when Sartre became famous for Nausea and the early plays. She says that, at the time, they thought everyone was as free as they were, so that once they transcended their kind of existential predicament, they could become authentic. To her credit, she says later that they should have talked more of bread and less of existential freedom. It took Sartre another ten or twenty years to even begin to understand how to reconcile his existential philosophy and his dawning allegiance to Marxism (as well as a deep suspicion of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party); the fusion of these things is apparent in Wright as early as Black Boy , and articulated clearly in The Outsider.

I think The Outsider has been less widely read and commented on precisely because it is a deep and difficult book, but it is also well worth the effort. Even the storyline is an intriguing one: this character, so misunderstood by all those around him and feeling so much circumscribed by their expectations, suddenly (and quite literally) has the chance to escape his identity, his life, and take up a new one. I leave it to you as a reader to decide how well he does with his second chance.

Finally, I would commend to you too an essay entitled “White Man Listen.” Wright warns us all just what the consequences of brutal economic oppression will do over the course of time, just what it will produce. Again, I think reading this essay before one reads Native Son and the Bigger Thomas stories will give important keys to the author’s intentions in this, his best known, novel. As well and as clearly as Franz Fanon, Wright recognizes what happens when oppressed people, in this case Black people, take on the values of the oppressor. Let me close by reading just a short passage from an early section in American Hunger.

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