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The Black American Tragedy

He had trouble with the novel that was to follow Native Son, and turned to writing his autobiography after some of the blacks in the audience when he gave a talk at Fisk told him that nobody had said such things in public before. Black Boy, as it appeared in 1945, took Wright’s life story up to 1927, with his departure for Chicago. Once again, Wright had agreed to crucial cuts for commercial, political, and cultural reasons. He wanted to be published, to have another success. Whatever the reasons, dropping the second half was not necessarily the wrong decision.

Because Black Boy concludes with a sober rumination about what awaited Wright compared to what he had been through, it ends on something like a note of hope, which was what his publishers and Book-of-the-Month Club wanted. It is an up-from-slavery, up-from-the-dangerous-South story, and its emotional outlines are familiar, even reassuring. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. once pointed out, readers of slave autobiographies in the nineteenth century were comforted by the knowledge that the sheer existence of such a book meant that the narrator had escaped slavery and was looking back on his troubles from the safe haven of the North.

The Library of America edition of Wright’s work includes his autobiography as he first intended it. Arnold Rampersad notes that the previous omission of the second section of Wright’s autobiography altered considerably Wright’s meaning about growing up black in the US. The inclusion here of the Chicago material—the Black Belt during the Depression, Party idealism succeeded by disillusion—makes for a much bleaker work overall. There is now no personal triumph over his environment; the North is no less brutal than the South in its racism. The complete work is critical of the Party. Wright recalls the shock of the purge trial of another black Party member in Chicago in 1935 and that shortly afterward, when he marched in a May Day parade, Party members spotted him and dragged him from the line to the sidewalk. He was under suspicion.

Wright picked himself up and returned to his paper and pen and isolation. And the two sections of American Hunger end with a sense of lonely mission. “I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo,…to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.” Wright published a portion of the second section in a magazine in 1944, in order to publicize his break with the Communist Party, and in time he would rail more against his former associates than against the FBI for trying to wreck his career.

It took some years before Wright published another book, by which time he was remarried and living with his young family in France, where he had gone with Gertrude Stein’s help and against the State Department’s wishes. Wright traveled widely, to the Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1953, to the Bandung conference of nonaligned nations in Indonesia in 1955. Rowley is good on Wright’s years of voluntary exile, though other sources provide more details about the rivalries and political infighting among black expatriates on the Left Bank,6 infighting that exacerbated Wright’s anxieties about political plots and rumors of conspiracy in his last years.

W.E.B. Du Bois had been refused a passport to travel to the First International Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in Paris in 1956. He sent a blunt message to the congress attacking African-Americans approved of by the US State Department, which hurt Wright, because he was an organizer of the congress. But Wright had also gone to the American embassy before the congress opened and then written to the State Department in Washington to express his concern that the Communist Party might achieve undue influence at the congress through African-American delegates such as Paul Robeson and Du Bois. Wright was aware of FBI and CIA surveillance of his activities. He signed an affidavit concerning his Communist past at the American embassy in 1954, and maybe his moments of cooperation with US authorities came not only from his anticommunism, but also from his unease about his position as a self-employed black writer abroad.

Immediately after Wright’s sudden death of a heart attack in a Paris hospital in 1960, rumors began to circulate that the CIA had poisoned him. It was one of these stories that got magnified by the politics of the decade. The alleged assassination of Wright became the subject of John A. Williams’s novel The Man Who Cried I Am (1968). But the picture we have long had, of Wright hounded in his sanctuary because the US government feared the publicity of his negative remarks about the racial situation in the US, has been tempered somewhat by the knowledge that he volunteered to brief the American consulate in Accra on Nkrumah’s politics in 1953.

Then, too, black Americans in France lived under considerable constraint during the escalation of the independence war in Algeria. The French government threatened to deport them if they spoke out. Even if the language was not a barrier to their becoming more integrated into French society, black intellectuals were discouraged from taking a public part in the most important political debate going on in France at that time. The restriction threw them back on one another, back to quarrels and feelings from home they could not leave behind. Wright apparently told Ralph Ellison that he went to France because he had no place else to go after he left the Communist Party.

Hard times in France as well as bad memories of the US may help to explain why developing an international perspective became so important to Wright. He reacted to Africa as a Western intellectual, one who couldn’t wait to see the defeat of tribalism, which he deplored, as much as colonialism. He had his Céline-like moments of hate. Some observers—among them James Baldwin—sneered at his close relationship with Beauvoir and, to a lesser extent, Sartre, because they were sure their philosophy had nothing to teach him. Now that we know that it was Ellison—i.e., a black writer—who first interested Wright in Existentialist writings, we hear less about Wright’s Eurocentrism. When the young Baldwin watched Wright in a café, ignored by Africans and by African-Americans, he took Wright’s isolation as a warning to himself. But Wright’s isolation was what he could always trust. He claimed to value the “state of abandonment, aloneness.”

6.

Wright looked forward to the disappearance of black literature as a category, according to a 1957 essay, “The Literature of the Negro of the United States.” Black literature was not, for Wright, a static category, but one formed and continually shaped by history. Pushkin and Dumas, though black according to the American code, were not black writers since they were at one with their culture. Not even Phillis Wheatley, with her stanzas in the style of Pope, was a part of the black literary heritage as defined by Wright. Because she was so deeply integrated into American colonial culture she was able to share the passions and the hopes of the general population. Black, Wright states, is a word having purely social meaning in America, not racial or biological. Being black was, further, a personal attitude, an imposed circumstance. It meant, in translation, suffering. Hence, black literature was one of lament, of despair rising from race hate and subjugation.

The black writer, Wright says, felt an emotional predicament—forced to express himself in this culture’s language and yet excluded from full participation in the culture. A further confinement: “The Negro writer had no choice in his subject matter: he could not select his experiences.” The “folk utterance” remained for the dispossessed, and Wright includes himself in this tradition.

He hoped that one day black writers would write out of the shared hopes of millions, that they would feel a community with the miserable all over the globe, and come to represent the aspirations of the downtrodden everywhere. He saw in the novels of writers like Ellison the beginnings of a new, wider identification with the world. “If the expression of the American Negro should take a sharp turn toward strictly racial themes, then you will know by that token that we are suffering our old and ancient agonies at the hands of our white neighbors.”

Reviews of black writers of the 1940s and 1950s conveyed the overall impression that blacks could write autobiography more reliably than they could write good novels. When they did write fiction, the expectation was that it would have the sweat of realism, or else it was not authentic. But authenticity was at the core of arguments about Wright, arguments that were a continuation on the black side of town of the “paleface and redskin” debate in American literature between the genteel tradition and pioneer roughness. Hurston had complained that Wright’s picture of the South as “a dismal, hopeless section ruled by brutal hatred” coincided with Communist propaganda while Wright charged that Hurston gave whites the black South that made them either laugh or weep. The debate about where to put the emphasis in the experience of blacks in the South, either on the health of the black community in spite of racism or on a racism that made the South the soil of dysfunction, was also a debate about historical and emotional accuracy. What was the South really like?

Baldwin and Ellison both knew that Bigger Thomas was merely an example to Wright, not a hero, but they objected to Native Son for what they viewed as Wright’s failure to “grasp the function of artistically induced catharsis,” for not having a main character who can be redeemed, for not sufficiently honoring the affirmative qualities of black culture. Nowadays their famous criticisms seem less revealing about his work than about their historical period. It was a time of unease with political content. Just as the passage of time has made clear how modern Native Son was, so their objections to the unremitting violence in Wright now look like old-fashioned uplift criticism in their concern for what Wright might be saying about the general image of blacks—as in there are some things best left unsaid in front of whites.

Nevertheless, Baldwin wrote with such eloquence, twice, against Wright’s novel and the protest tradition as though he knew his two essays would be a defining moment for him as a young writer. Ellison said he read Native Son as it came out of Wright’s typewriter. They were very close then. Toward the end of his life, Ellison was saying that he and Albert Murray hadn’t needed Native Son, because they’d read Malraux’s Man’s Fate (1932), but that was literary snobbery, revealing where they were willing to go when it came to liking a novel sympathetic to Communists. Ellison had had an irascible exchange with Irving Howe over Wright and Howe’s contention that a Negro novelist could hardly write about anything other than the unrelieved suffering of his people.7

In writing about the turn-of-the-century black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, Wright noted that Dunbar was a recessive character, about whom we knew little; that he was haunted, obsessed, and that it was a miracle he was able to write at all, to try to communicate with other humans. In a way, the same could be said of Wright. Now that we accept that black and white writers in the US had more in common than was previously considered, it is possible to see Wright for what he finally was: the last of the great Midwestern realists. An American Tragedy, Native Son…

  1. 6

    Such as James Campbell’s Paris Interzone: Richard Wright, Lolita, Boris Vian, and Others on the Left Bank, 1946–1960 (London: Secker and Warburg, 1994).

  2. 7

    See Critical Essays on Richard Wright, edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani (G.K. Hall, 1982), which reprints the Howe, Baldwin, and Ellison essays.

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