Richard Wright

Richard Wright sits in a library, looking thoughtfully
New York, New York. Richard Wright, Negro poet” by Gordon Parks, source: Library of Congress

Since the last post touched on Richard Wright’s criticism of Zora Neale Huston’s novel, it only makes sense to cover him next. In that context, he took issue with her message that kept Black folks complacent. But I think part of that stems from his own subject-matter: the absurdity of the Black experience in the US.

Native Son (1940) is the novel for which he is most well known. It tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young Black man living in a one bedroom apartment on Chicago’s South side, in the 1930s. Bigger moves on up when he gets a job as a chauffeur for a white family. One night he drives the daughter home from a night out with her boyfriend. He must escort her drunk self upstairs, terrified that someone will see her in his arms. He takes her to her bedroom, where he can’t resist the temptation of the forbidden and kisses her. Her mother, whom Bigger forgets is blind, comes in and he panics, shoving a pillow of the daughter’s face and suffocating her. That’s just the first third of the novel.

The second two thirds detail anger, at both himself and world of white people he feels forced him into a corner. That’s a vast reduction of a quite long story. A whole lot more plays out in the novel, like subplots showcasing Wright’s continued focus on Communism’s failed promises of Black liberation and uplift. 1Robinson, Cedric J. “Richard Wright and the Critique of Class Theory.” in: Black Marxism, 287-306. London: Zed Press, 1983. Wright doesn’t apologize for the crime Bigger commits. Instead, he dedicates the novel to an analysis of the social conditions that make his crime, and its outcomes, possible.

This approach was (and still is) important because of its deviation from the polite social conventions of Black literature of the 19th century. That’s not to throw shade on it but simply to say that a good bit of that intellectual output was questioned by the white literary establishment. So Phyllis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano, and Frederick Douglass spent time attesting to the truth of and within in their works.

But in the early 20th century, we at least had our own literary circles to turn to for inward validation. And Wright’s novel even made his Black contemporaries uncomfortable.

My own personal favorite work by Richard Wright is his collection of novellas, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938). It contains five short-ish pieces that focus more on life in the South. Communism shows up again, which makes sense given the ways it was presented as a salve to the specific oppressions of Jim Crow. Really, it was an attempt to gain bodies.2Sarah Hart Brown, “Communism, Anti-Communism, and Massive Resistance: The Civil Rights Congress in Southern Perspective,” in: Before Brown: Civil Rights and White Backlash in the Modern South, 170-197. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004. But here, the main focus is “that dual role which every Negro must play if he wants to eat and live.” Each of the stories within focuses on this process and its absurdity. 3I’m relying Camus’ definition of the absurd, which is the opposition of two necessary ideals.

In “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” the autobiographical essay that opens the collection, Wright details a situation in which he worked as a bellboy at a hotel. He is arms are full of luggage when a white woman walks in. He knows he’s supposed to take off his hat, but he’s forbidden from putting the luggage on the ground. This situation plays out strangely, with a white man taking his hat off for him. He notes the war of emotions he experiences on the inside: To have said: “Thank you!” would have made the white man think that you thought you were receiving from him a personal service. For such an act I have seen Negroes take a blow in the mouth. Finding the first alternative distasteful, and the second dangerous, I hit upon an acceptable course of action which fell safely between these two poles. I immediately—no sooner than my hat was lifted—pretended that my packages were about to spill, and appeared deeply distressed with keeping them in my arms. In this fashion I evaded having to acknowledge his service, and, in spite of adverse circumstances, salvaged a slender shred of personal pride.
. Because some of the people succeed and others fail at the process, but that has a different bearing altogether on the outcome.

In “Big Boy Leaves” home, a young boy and his friends sneak into a white man’s swimming hole. He catches them and pulls a shotgun on them. Big Boy attempts to defend himself and kills the man in the process, forcing him to leave the South altogether. In “Long Black Song,” a sharecropper gets into with the white men attempting to force him, his wife, and their newborn off their land—even though they’ve paid their dues. I won’t go through all of them, but will say: they are powerful and you should check them out.

Richard Wright had an unsparing way of writing about Black life, one that I think reverberates through our literary traditions from then through now.