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Saturday, March 26, 2011


American Hunger: Richard Wright

Richard Wright was a towering figure in 20th century U.S. literature.  Raised in desperate poverty in the Jim Crow South, Wright went on to become a world-renowned author and an influential figure on the political Left.  His life is in part a story of triumph in the face of tremendous obstacles imposed by a racist society.  Wright’s personal story is also inseparable from the political and social dynamics that shaped his age.  Wright was part of a generation of black radicals in the 1930s who joined the U.S. Communist Party, seeing it as the only promising vehicle for black liberation on the political horizon.  Wright was a member of the CP for more than a decade, and his best-known writings are a product of that era.

This talk will attempt to tell Wright’s powerful story in the context of the political dynamics of the tumultuous era through which he lived.  Wright’s politics and writing were shaped indelibly by an era marked by economic depression, a resurgent working class movement, and titanic struggles internationally between the forces of the left and those of the right, exemplified by the rise of Fascism in Spain, Italy, and Germany.  After leaving the Communist Party quietly in 1942, Wright went on to move to France where he continued to write and publish.  While he drifted from his political commitments of the late 1930s and early 1940s, the framework provided by Marxism left permanent marks on Wright’s thinking and writing. 

Wright was born near Natchez, Mississipi a century ago in 1908.  Early in life, while living in Memphis, Wright’s father abandoned the family.  Soon afterward, his mother suffered a severe stroke, leaving her disabled, and leaving Richard Wright and his brother Leon to live at the mercy of a their extended family.  Wright’s early life is powerfully recounted in many biographies, but the most vivid source is Black Boy, his own autobiography, published in 1946.

In Black Boy, hunger serves as a powerful running metaphor, a literal description of Wright’s condition for much of his childhood, but also a way of describing his own desire to live beyond the boundaries proscribed by Jim Crow segregation in the South.

He writes:

Hunger stole upon me so slowly that at first I was not aware of what hunger really meant.  Hunger had always been more or less at my elbow when I played, but now I began to wake up at night to find hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly… Whenever I begged for food now my mother would pour me a cup of tea which would still the clamor in my stomach for a moment or two; but a little later I would feel hunger nudging my ribs, twisting my empty guts until they ached. (BB: 14-15)

As Wright grew older, he came to love reading and desperately sought whatever literary material he could find.  This was quite controversial in the household of his grandmother, who viewed any secular reading as the work of the devil.  Wright links his physical hunger to the hunger for knowledge in this moving passage:

School opened and I began the seventh grade.  My old hunger was still with me and I lived on what I did not eat.  Perhaps the sunshine, the fresh air, and the pot liquor from the greens kept me going.  Of an evening I would sit in my room reading, and suddenly I would become aware of the smelling meat frying in a neighbor’s kitchen and I would wonder what it was like to eat as much meat as one wanted.  My mind would drift into a fantasy and I would imagine myself a son in a family that had meat on the table at each meal; then I would become disgruntled with my futile daydreams and would rise and shut the window to bar the torturing scent of meat. (BB: 137)

Throughout Wright’s years in the South, the threat of brutal racist violence cast a pall across his life.  At the age of eight, Wright and his mother lived with his Aunt Maggie and Uncle Hoskins.  Silas Hoskins was a successful store owner, but local whites wanted his store, his land, and his willing subordination to racist authority.  One day, his uncle was murdered and the family had to flee town.  There was no burial and no question of Maggie claiming any of her husband’s assets.  Later Bob Greenley, the brother of a classmate, was taken into a car on a country road and shot.  Bob worked in a local hotel and was accused of sleeping with a white prostitute.  Memories of these acts of terror would color Wright’s vision of the Jim Crow South and animate his fiction.

In Black Boy, Wright describes the effects of such an atmosphere:

No Negroes in my environment had ever thought of organizing, no matter in how orderly a fashion, and petitioning their white employers for higher wages.  The very thought would have been terrifying to them, and they knew that the whites would have retaliated with swift brutality.  So, pretending to conform to the laws of the whites, grinning, bowing, they let their fingers stick to what they could touch.  And the whites seemed to like it. (BB: 199-200)

Wright was only able to attend school through the ninth grade.  He continued his education on his own by reading anything he could get his hands on.  While living in Memphis and working at an optical factory, Wright was able to get books by convincing white coworkers to allow him to use their library cards.  Blacks were not allowed into public libraries.  He forged notes, saying “Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have  some books by H.L. Menken?” Wright would go to the library pretending to be the stereotype of an uneducated black man, on an errand to get books for whites.  Wright went through this degrading charade countless times, as it was his only way of gaining access to the future he longed for as a writer.  Using this base method Wright devoured contemporary fiction and political analysis by the best known writers of his day.  Contemporary novels and political and philosophical polemics opened up new vistas for Wright, vastly expanding his horizons beyond the narrow confines imposed by segregation.

Reading A Book of Prefaces by Menken, Wright was struck by the potency of the written word:

What was this?  I stood up trying to realize what reality lay behind the meaning of the words… Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words.  He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. (BB:248)

In 1927, at the age of 19, Wright was able to move to Chicago with his family.  He quickly discovered that despite his talent and willingness to work hard, it would remain incredibly difficult to find stable and lucrative employment.  Having spent his life under the heel of Jim Crow segregation, Wright hoped that Chicago would exude an air of possibility and promise.  He was deeply disappointed.  In Black Boy, he describes his shock:

My first glimpse of the flat black stretches of Chicago depressed and dismayed me, mocked all my fantasies.  Chicago seemed an unreal city whose mythical houses were built on slabs of black coal wreathed in palls of gray smoke, houses whose foundations were sinking slowly into the dank prairie… Everything seemed makeshift, temporary.  I caught an abiding sense of insecurity in the people around me… Wherever my eyes turned they saw stricken, frightened black faces trying vainly to cope with a civilization that they did not understand.  I felt lonely.  I had fled one insecurity and had embraced another. (BB: 261, 263)

In 1929, the stock market crash and the ensuing depression made Wright’s employment prospects even more grim.  He soon found himself at relief agencies looking for money and food for himself and his family.  The crisis destroyed whatever transitory hopes he may have had in the American Dream.  Wright had always believed that personal talent and effort could eventually bring him out of poverty, but the severity of the crisis forced him towards a new perspective.  Wright’s class consciousness was born on the bread lines, as he stood with unemployed workers, white and black.  As he put it:

The day I begged bread from the city officials was the day that showed me I was not alone in my loneliness; society had cast millions of others with me… a sense of direction was beginning to emerge from the conditions of my life… My cynicism slid from me.  I grew open and questioning. I wanted to know. (Zirin: 48)

Over time, Wright began to take the Communist Party more seriously.  His initial reaction to the CP was that they seemed out of touch with reality and excessively bombastic.  He wrote,

I saw black men mounted upon soap boxes at street corners, bellowing about bread, rights and revolution.  I liked their courage but I doubted their wisdom.  The speakers claimed that negroes were angry, that they were ready to rise and join their white fellow workers to make a revolution.  I was in and out of many Negro homes each day and I knew that the Negroes were lost, ignorant, sick in mind and body… the agitators did not know how to appeal to the people they sought to lead. (citation: ??)

There may be a kernel of truth to Wright’s criticism as this was the era of the CP’s so-called “Third Period” in which world revolution was seen as imminent, making it the task of revolutionaries to ruthlessly expose all political forces to the right of them, instead of working to build real coalitions that united the left.  Communists denounced reform socialists as social fascists in this era.

As Wright got to know more party members and sympathizers his attitude shifted.  Most importantly the conditions of his life were forcing him to become political.  His life’s ambition was to be able to live comfortably and to write—and this dream was thwarted at every turn by racism and class oppression.  The frustrations of these expectations led Wright towards class politics.  Yet there was also a streak of individualism that remained a central strain in his personality for years to come.

Wright’s formal introduction to the CP came through the Chicago John Reed Club, named after a U.S. journalist who witnessed the Russian Revolution first hand, and wrote the classic book, Ten Days that Shook the World.  Wright was wary of joining the club, doubting that white Communists could have a genuine commitment to black equality.  Yet eventually, curiosity won out and Wright attended a meeting.

I opened [the door] and stepped into the strangest room I had ever seen.  Paper and cigarette butts lay on the floor.  A few benches ran along the walls, above which were vivid colors depicting figures of workers carrying streaming banners.  The mouths of the workers gaped in wild cries; their legs were sprawled over cities. (Rowley: 75-76)

Wright enjoyed the company.  He was shown copies of the New Masses, the national literary magazine associated with the clubs, and of Left Front, the Chicago club’s own journal.  These impressed him, and were a new kind of writing from anything he had encountered before.  Many of these writers had been poor like him, and they wrote about their experiences.  Langston Hughes and other black writers regularly appeared in the New Masses.  White writers also wrote about issues of racism and black oppression.  Much space was given to the case of the Scottsboro Boys, one in which 9 young black men were falsely charged with rape in Jim Crow Alabama.

Wright began to write poetry for the club and to share his writing.  For the first time in his life, he was surrounded by writers and artists who collaborated, shared criticisms, and talked passionately about the relationship between art and social change.  In the words of Wright’s biographer Hazel Rowley, “The John Reed Club was Wright’s university.”

A few months after Wright joined the club he was elected as its executive secretary.  Soon after, a party member told him that if he wanted to remain the club’s leader, he should join the party.  Though this is exactly what Wright had initially feared, by this point he had been won to the idea that Communism was the most effective path to solidarity between black and white workers.  Once Wright was assured that his duties as executive secretary would be accepted as his contribution to Party work, he paid his first membership dues.

Wright became part of a generation of writers who dedicated their fiction to portraying the lives and struggles of working people.  In 1935, Wright became part of the Illinois Writers Project, funded by the Works Progress Administration established by President Roosevelt.  At this moment, the CP moved from the political perspective of the Third Period to a new one called the Popular Front.  Shocked by the rise of fascism in Germany, which might have been prevented had Communists united with Socialists and others in the labor movement in a United Front against fascism, the CP swung further to the Right.  The popular front advocated unity not only among groups on the working class left, but also with so-called progressive sections of the capitalist class.  In the U.S. this meant that the CP became uncritical defenders of Roosevelt and the Democratic Party.  It also meant that they sought to win the support of liberals in all areas of work, including the cultural arena.  The John Reed Clubs were dissolved, a move Wright opposed forcefully, replaced only by a national League of American Writers.  Though Wright argued that this would leave local left writers with no home, Wright was elected as part of the national leadership of the new group in order to appease him and keep one of the CP’s literary stars in the fold.

Later, the South Side Writers group was established in Chicago.  Heavily influenced by Wright, these black Chicago writers distanced themselves from their Harlem Renaissance predecessors.  Where the Harlem writers looked back with nostalgia on their rural, Southern past, this new generation wrote with an urban toughness born of the depression and of the impact of the political left.  They wanted to write about the “negro masses” and wanted their writing to be informed by Marxism.  They wrote about black culture, folklore, religion, and sport, but refused to be restricted to black material, seeing their literary heritage as simultaneously European, and white and black American.  For the first time in U.S. history, black writers were meeting to discuss their task as black writers.  This is the beginning of what critic Robert Bone has called the “Chicago Renaissance,” a phenomenal outpouring of work between 1935 and 1950.  Much of this writing is little known now, but it had a tremendous impact in its time.

In A Blueprint for Negro Writing, Richard Wright remarked that some black writers,

may feel that only dupes believe in ‘ism’s, they may feel with some justification that another commitment means only another disillusionment.  But anyone destitute of a theory about the meaning structure and direction of modern society is a lost victim in a world he cannot understand or control. (Gates ed.: 1385)

This article, written in 1937, was one of Wright’s most influential statements on the role and purpose of Black writing.  It gave full articulation to many of the trends evidenced in the Chicago school he helped to inspire.  Wright argued that the political stakes facing black writers were high:

With the gradual decline of the moral authority of the Negro church, and with the increasing irresolution which is paralyzing Negro middle class leadership, a new role is devolving upon the Negro writer.  He being called upon to do no less than create values by which his race is to struggle, live and die… for the Negro writer, Marxism is but the starting point.  No theory of life can take the place of life.  After Marxism has laid bare the skeleton of society, there remains the task of the writer to plant flesh upon those bones out of his will to live… Every iota of gain in human thought and sensibility should be ready grist for his mill, no matter how far-fetched they may seem in their immediate implications. (Gates ed: 1384-1385)

Wright faced continual frustrations in the South Side units of the Communist Party over the political demands the party made of artists’ time and energy.  Wright was bitter about the disparaging comments organizers would make about the time Wright spent researching and writing.  In 1936, Wright briefly left the party over these frustrations.  The Party quickly shifted and offered Wright a position in New York as Harlem editor of the Daily Worker.  Wright accepted the offer and rejoined.  Both sides hoped that a change of scenery would bring political friction to a minimum

In May of 1937, Wright left for New York and began writing a wide range of exposes on conditions in Harlem and reports on political events.  Though Wright produced memorable work, he was continually frustrated that he had little time for his own writing.

In spite of Wright’s success in publishing short stories and writing for left publications, his ambition to get a novel in print were thwarted for years.  Two books, Lawd Today and Tarbaby’s Dawn were rejected for publication.  Editors said that the books were strong and realistic portrayals of black life, but that they could never be commercially viable.

Things finally changed with the publication of Uncle Toms’ Children, a collection of short stories, in March 1938.  These stories are Wright’s most stridently pro-communist publication.  They are bitter recountings of the horror and violence of Southern racism, and of the desperate resistance of black workers.  One story, Fire and Cloud, is focused on a preacher, Reverend Taylor, who is unsure of whether to join local communists in calling a march for relief.  Eventually he and others are viciously assaulted by local whites, but march anyway.  The final story, Bright and Morning Star, is about a communist organizer and his mother who attempt to thwart police infiltration of local organizing meetings.

In Fire and Cloud, Wright gives a moving description of the march that Reverend Taylor helps to lead:

When they reached the park that separated the white district from the black, the poor whites were waiting.  Taylor trembled when he saw them join, swelling the mass that moved toward the town.  He looked ahead and saw black and white marching; he looked behind and saw black and white marching… A baptism of clean joy swept over Taylor.  He kept his eyes on the sea of black and white faces.  The song swelled louder and vibrated through him.  This is the way! He thought.  Gawd ain no lie! He ain no lie! His eyes grew wet with tears, blurring his vision: the sky trembled; the buildings wavered as if about to topple; and the earth shook.  He mumbled out loud exultingly: Freedom belongs to the strong! (UTC: 219-220)

The work was a success.  The initial print run was a modest 550 copies.  By June 1 it was in its second printing, and by the end of the month 1700 copies had been sold.  Most critics raved.  Time magazine wrote, “The U.S has never had a first-rate Negro novelist.  Last week the promise of one appeared.”  Even Eleanor Roosevelt declared the book “beautifully written.”

The stories in Uncle Tom’s Children are powerful, but soaked to the marrow in the brutal violence of the Jim Crow South.  Not a story goes by without the gruesome death of at least one black character at the hands of a racist white community.  The books are examples of the best of Social Realism, an artistic movement that flourished in the 1930s—which at its worst produced cartoonish depictions of workers as infallible heroes, and capitalists as charicatured villains.  In retrospect, Wright’s criticism of his own work was that his black characters were too romantically drawn.  In his famous words he had written a book, which even a banker’s daughter could weep over.  He would react to this dramatically in his next published work, the famous novel Native Son.

After the success of Uncle Tom’s Children, Wright’s path in the publishing world was made easier.  He worked furiously on Native Son for years, finally publishing it in March, 1940.  The book was released in collaboration with the Book-of-the-Month club, which had a huge impact on literature sales in this era.  This was the first time the club chose a black author, and the selection was done cautiously.  The book exceeded all expectations.  Harper and Brothers printed 170,000 copies of Native Son, an extraordinary print run for a first novel.  Within a few days, they reprinted the book.  Within a few weeks, Native Son had sold more copies than any novel Harper had published in the previous twenty years.  It is no exaggeration to say that Native Son almost instantly transformed the literary scene in the U.S.

What was it that made the book so powerful?  Wright delivered an unflinching look at racism and class inequality, not in the rural South but in the heart of Chicago.  The book’s main character, Bigger Thomas, broke all stereotypes in writing about blacks.  Bigger lives in desperate poverty, emblematized by a brutal battle with a massive house rat that opens the novel.

Bigger goes to work as a driver for the rich, liberal Dalton family who donates money to Negro charities.  Wright took aim at the hypocrisy of liberalism, by showing how this family could claim to be a friend to blacks, while simultaneously owning the slum in which Bigger’s family was forced to live.  Bigger accidently murders Mary Dalton, the real estate tycoon’s daughter, after an evening in which he has been taken out by Mary and her Communist boyfriend Jan.

Bigger then is forced on the run and chased throughout the city in a manhunt that takes on the character of a lynch-mob atmosphere.  Bigger is falsely charged with rape, which enflames racist white passions to no end.

Once he is caught, Bigger faces jail where he is defended by a Communist lawyer named Max, who defends Bigger from a kangaroo court.  Max’s argument is that the institutions the Daltons run have subjected Bigger and his family to a slow, hidden violence for all of their lives.  He argues:

I plead with you to see a mode of life in our midst, a mode of life stunted and distorted, but possessing its own laws and claims, an existence of men growing out of the soil prepared by the collective but blind will of a hundred million people.  I beg you to recognize human life draped in a form and guise alien to ours, but springing from a soil plowed and sown by all our hands.  I ask you to recognize the laws and processes flowing from such a condition, understand them, seek to change them.  If we do none of these, then we should not pretend horror or surprise when thwarted life expresses itself in fear and hate and crime. (NS: 388)

Wright’s choices with Bigger’s character stand in stark contrast to those he made in Uncle Tom’s Children.  Bigger is drawn without a trace of sentimentality.  He is no hero; no martyr.  Bigger is a bully among his friends and a petty criminal.  Bigger has little emotional connection to his family or to his girlfriend Bessie.  In fact he kills Bessie to prevent her blowing his cover as he is on the run.  In an essay on the making of Native Son, Wright wrote,

I could not write of Bigger convincingly if I did not depict him as he was: that is, resentful toward whites, sullen, angry, ignorant, emotionally unstable, depressed and unaccountably elated at times, and unable even, because of his own lack of inner organization which American oppression has fostered in him, to unite with members of his own race. (NS: 448)

Wright was making a powerful statement.  He wanted to force the reading public to acknowledge the traces of barbarism that oppression and exploitation produce among those at the bottom of U.S. society.  In the course of the book, he also succeeds in humanizing a character that is vilified by society as a whole.

The picture of the Communist Party in this novel is quite complex.  Jan is shown to be clumsy and mechanical, expecting Bigger to respond magically to his appeals for class solidarity.  Wright shows how he and Mary reinforce Bigger’s feelings of hate and alienation even as they try to demonstrate their desire for black equality.  Wright said that he wrote the book in part to show Communists how to better relate to and understand the black workers they aimed to organize.  Yet at the end of the book, it is the Communist Max who is the author’s voice, giving meaning to Bigger’s life struggles and explaining the roots of his crime.  While some critics have seen Native Son as a preview of Wright’s eventual disillusionment with the CP, it is the theoretical framework of Marxism which animates the book and gives its final section meaning.

That said, Wright’s ambivalence about the CP itself was to grow over the next few years.  Wright left the CP in 1942, just two years after Native Son’s publication.  To explain this we have to return to an examination of the political trajectory of the Communist Party.  Earlier, I discussed the party’s Popular Front era.  Those dynamics came to an abrupt halt in 1939, when Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact.  Soon after, Hitler’s armies moved through Eastern Europe, while Stalin claimed half of Poland.  The CP had advocated a popular front, one of whose components had been the goal of winning allies in the capitalist West against the threat of a German war on the Soviet Union.  Now Stalin was making a deal with the devil, which he saw as a better safeguard for the Soviet Union’s territorial integrity.  The world’s communist parties switched on a dime, and began to revive the classic Marxist arguments against imperialism to urge countries like the U.S. not to enter the war on the side of the allies.  This radical shift in line disillusioned wide layers of communists, and the party faced a large scale exodus.  Wright stayed aboard the erratic communist ship through this maelstrom.  Then in 1941, Hitler betrayed Stalin, invading Russia, leading to devastation of the USSR and massive losses for both the German and Russian armies.  The CP immediately became the most staunchly pro-war voice in U.S. politics, urging the U.S. to enter the war on the side of the allies, now joined by the Soviet Union.

Wright had a hard time stomaching this, but publicly toed the party line.  What finally pushed him to leave was the CP’s refusal to challenge segregation in the military, which the CP thought would undermine the war effort.  This was a tragic moment for the U.S. left.  The CP condoned discrimination against blacks and the internment of their own Japanese-American members.  The last straw was the Communist Party’s endorsement of a Red Cross decision to segregate blood donations.

Wright went on to write:

There are 13,000,000 black people in the United States who practically have no voice in the government that governs them; who must fight in the United States army under Jim Crow conditions of racial humiliation; who literally have the blood, which they so generously offer out of their veins to wounded soldiers, segregated in blood banks of the American Red Cross, as though their blood were the blood of sub-humans. (ISR: 65)

Initially, Wright left the party quietly, but he was to raise his criticisms of the Party publicly in the years to come.  Wright published an essay in the anti-communist anthology, The God that Failed.  Later he described the pain and confusion that accompanied his decision:

When I was a member of the Communist Party I took that party seriously, and when I discovered that I was holding a tainted instrument in my hands, I dropped that instrument… Communism had not been for me simply a fad, a hobby; it had a deep functional meaning for my life.  Therefore when I left the Communist Party I no longer had a protective barrier, no defenses between me and a hostile racial environment that absorbed all of my time emotions and attention.” (ISR:65)

In rejecting the Communist Party, Wright also came to distance himself from Marxism as a method for understanding and changing the world.  Unfortunately, the anti-Stalinist revolutionary left was too small and too weak to be a pole of political attraction for someone like Wright disillusioned with the CP’s many unprincipled twists and turns.

Wright’s decision to leave the U.S. for Paris in 1946 was spurred by a range of factors.  Wright’s break with the CP meant that he no longer had a political commitment tying him to U.S. politics.  Wright was also attracted to the artistic ferment alive in post-war France, where existentialism was rising from the ashes of a Europe wracked by war.  Most importantly, Wright was utterly exhausted by the ongoing reality of racism in the U.S.  He had to jump through hoops to buy a house in New York’s Greenwich Village for his family.  Wright found the racism he continued to confront even as a wildly successful author unbearable.

Wright’s life as an expatriate routinely gets far less attention than his time in the U.S.  This is partly because no literary work of his ever approached the commercial and critical success of Native Son.  Yet Wright’s development in this era is significant, revealing how his politics and literary direction evolved following his break with the Communist Party.  Wright became close to the leading existentialist figures in Paris at the time, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir.  He inhabited Paris’ leading intellectual and artistic cafes and was surrounded by an international array of artists, writers, and thinkers.  Wright also became close to leading figures in the national liberation movements breaking out across the colonial world, particularly those in Africa.  Wright was especially close to George and Dorothy Padmore who lived in London and were close to Ghana’s prime minister Kwame N’Krumah.

Wright’s first published novel abroad was The Outsider, which was released in 1952.  The novel is a fascinating and deeply dark portrait of a black man thoroughly alienated from the society around him.  Unlike Bigger however, this protagonist, Cross Damon, is an intellectual.  The story takes off following a gruesome train accident in which Damon is presumed dead, allowing him to create a new life, breaking completely with his mother, estranged wife, three children, and pregnant girlfriend.  The book is a bizarre journey through intensely psychological, existential angst and philosophical speculation.  Damon becomes a murderer, first to protect his new identity, and later simply because he can, and because he detests the politically menacing figures who become his victims.  The story is intensely anti-communist.  Damon encounters the CP after fleeing Chicago for New York, and from the start sees it as a cynical operation that professes belief in class struggle to the public, but inside is ruled by the callous logic of crude power politics.  “Don’t tell me about the nobility of labor, the glorious future,” Damon tells a Communist Party leader.  You don’t believe in that.  That’s for others and you damn well know it.” (Outsider: 487)  Later Damon explains:

“real Communist leaders do not believe in its ideology as an article of faith.  Such an ideology is simply in their hands and minds as an instrument for organizing people.  A real Communist would have a certain degree of contempt for you if you passionately believed in his ideology.  He would accept you as a follower, but not as an equal.  The real heart of Communism… is the will to power.” (Outsider: 515)

The novels many twists, turns, and violent murders are impossible to recount here.  By the end of the book, we are left with a deeply pessimistic perspective on the potential for any form of progressive organization in modern society.  We are also unsure whether the virtually all-knowing protagonist truly represents Wright’s political and social perspective or is that of a psychotic madman.

Wright went on to write several important works of non-fiction.  In Black Power, Wright tells the story of his trip to Ghana, which he visited seeking perspective on the national liberation struggles growing in Africa.  The book is beautifully written and engaging, presenting us with Wright’s deeply complicated relationship to developments in Africa.  Wright admits to a significant inability to truly understand developments and relate to Ghana’s people because of the tremendous differences in culture and politics separating the pre-capitalist elements of Ghanaian culture from Wright’s worldview as a product of the industrialized West.  The book reveals the contradiction between Wright’s sympathy with the country’s national liberation movement and his admitted distance from aspects of the culture and society.  Wright was attracted by the hope exuded by these new national liberation movements, yet rejected any essentialist racial argument about the inherent identity of black interests and political views across differences of class and culture.  Also, Wright states from the outset that while he is no longer a Communist, he will attempt to employ a Marxist analysis of class and social development as the best means of understanding colonial and post-colonial society.

Pagan Spain, is viewed by many as the strongest of Wright’s non-fiction.  Wright visited and wrote about Spain under the heel of Franco’s fascist dictatorship which lasted long after the end of World War II.  He explores the pre-modern elements of religious and social culture that persisted in Spain alongside nominally orthodox Catholicism.

In The Color Curtain, Wright reports on the Bandung conference of 1955 which drew together representatives of the liberated governments of dozens of former colonies.  Here, Wright comes closest to adopting the third world nationalism of the era, writing with characteristic flair and intelligence.  Wright expanded on some of the themes in this book in a collection of essays soon to follow, titled simply, “White Man, Listen!”  Richard Wright died in 1960, only 52 years old.  At the time of his death, Wright was struggling to get his work published in the U.S.

I noted earlier Wright’s comment that a writer destitute of a theory about the character of modern society would become lost in a world he cannot understand or control.  The comment was poignant, but in many ways, it helps to understand Wright’s own erratic political trajectory in the 1950s, inspired first by existentialism, then by third world nationalism, always engaged in the political challenges confronting his world, but without a political home or foundation.  Wright’s life describes a trajectory shared by millions of workers in the 1930s and 40s—inspired by the possibility of socialism, and then betrayed by the reality of Stalinism.  After the leaving the CP, Wright continued to produce important work—but his writing never regained the sense of hope and possibility that was linked to his days as a member of the Party.  Wright’s legacy is an important one for the Left to understand and recover.  While Wright may be read in many a high school, rarely are the politics that guided this man’s work discussed and understood.  The entire legacy of the artistic awakening of the 1930s and 40s, of which Wright was a leading figure, is one we need to rediscover and celebrate.


1 comment:

  1. Visual art by FAVIANNA RODRIGUEZ
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