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International Socialist Review Issue 14, October-November 2000
Richard Wright: "Using Words As a Weapon"
By Annie Levin
RICHARD WRIGHT belonged to a generation of American artists whose work and political views were profoundly influenced by the experience of the Great Depression and the magnificent working-class battles of that era. Wright's novels and essays cut to the heart of a racist society in unflinching and powerful language. In his autobiography Black Boy, he describes his reaction to the German author H.L. Mencken which could apply as well to Wright's own work:
I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? And how did one write like that? I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen, consumed with hate...yes this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club...I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.1
Wright was born into a family of poor sharecroppers in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1908, the grandson of slaves. As a child, he suffered from hunger and illness in an atmosphere of racist terror. In Black Boy he describes his process of self-education in the local library and the aspirations that books raised in him:
I dreamed of going North and writing books, novels. The North symbolized to me all that I had not felt and seen; it had no relation whatever to what actually existed.... I was building up in me a dream which the entire educational system of the South had been rigged to stifle. I was feeling the very thing that the state of Mississippi had spent millions of dollars to make sure I would never feel; I was becoming aware of the thing that the Jim Crow laws had been drafted and passed to keep out of my consciousness. 2
In 1927, he moved with his family to Chicago; but, like thousands of Black migrants, he found he had traded in one kind of oppression for a series of others. Years later in 12 Million Black Voices (1941), Wright would describe the shock of urban life, the alienation of industrial work, the murderous poverty of the ghettos:
There are so many people. For the first time in our lives, we feel human bodies, strangers whose lives and thoughts are unknown to us, pressing always close about us.... It seems as though we are now living inside of a machine; days and events move with a hard reasoning of their own.... No longer do our lives depend upon the soil, the sun, the rain, or the wind; we live by the grace of jobs and the brutal logic of jobs...here in the North cold forces hit you and push you. It is a world of things....3
His searing description of tenement housing could have been written today:
The kitchenette is our prison, our death sentence without a trial, the new form of mob violence that assaults not only the lone individual, but all of us, in its ceaseless attacks.... The kitchenette, with its filth and foul air, with its one toilet for thirty or more tenants, kills our black babies so fast that in many cities twice as many of them die as white babies. The kitchenette scatters death so widely among us that our death rate exceeds our birth rate, and if it were not for the trains and autos bringing us daily into the city from the plantations, we black folk who dwell in the northern cities would die out entirely.... The kitchenette blights the personalities of our growing children, disorganizes them, blinds them to hope, creates problems whose effects can be traced in the characters of its child victims for years afterward...the kitchenette piles up mountains of profits for the Bosses of the Buildings and makes them ever more determined to keep things as they are...the kitchenette is the funnel through which our pulverized lives flow to ruin and death on city pavements, at a profit....4
Soon after Wright arrived in Chicago, the depression hit with great ferocity and he found himself out of work and standing on bread lines. Desperate and hungry, he began to take notice of the class struggle ripping out around him-- demonstrations for relief, tenant strikes, picket lines, and communist organizers delivering speeches on street corners.
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 down with me...a sense of direction was beginning to emerge from the conditions of my life.... My cynicism slid from me. I grew opening and questioning. I wanted to know.5
Wright's political awakening had begun. He later wrote:
The general dislocation of life during the depression caused many white workers to learn through chronic privation that they could not protect their standards of living as long as we blacks were excluded from their unions.... As a consequence many of us have recently become members of steel, auto, packing, and tobacco unions [Wright was a postal worker during this period-ed.]
...In many large cities there were sturdy minorities of us, both black and white, who banded together in disciplined, class-conscious groups and created new organs of action and expression. We were able to seize nine black boys in a jail in Scottsboro, Alabama, lift them so high in our collective hands, focus such a battery of comment and interpretation upon them, that they became symbols to all the world of the plight of black folk in America.
...The fears of black and white lessened in the face of slowly widening acceptance of an identity of interests. When the depression was at its severest, the courts of many cities, at the instigation of the Bosses of the Buildings, sent armed marshals to evict our jobless black families for their inability to pay rent for the rotting kitchenettes. Organized into groups, we black folks smashed the marshals' locks, picked up the paltry sticks of furniture, and replaced the evicted families. Having hurdled fear's first barrier, we found that many white workers were eager to have us in their organizations, and we were proud to feel that at last our strength was sufficient to awaken in others a desire to work with us.6
Being both Black and working class during the depression, Wright knew that he had virtually no chance of becoming a successful writer in the mainstream literary establishment. Looking for both political and artistic discussion, Wright joined the South Side branch of the John Reed Clubs. These were networks of literary clubs and journals set up by the Communist Party (CP) to promote left-wing writers. The CP not only stood at the center of a rising working-class movement, it was a hub of the new explosion of left-wing art, literature and music. Famous artists like Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Ledbelly were either members or close "fellow travellers" during that time.
CP literary journals began publishing Wright's poetry, and he quickly became known around the country. The Party got Wright a job with the Federal Writers Project and connected him to a national network of communist writers. He attended CP Writers Conferences in New York where he was able to meet and collaborate with some of the best artists of his generation. For the first time in his life, Wright became hopeful that racism could be challenged and that class struggle was the key so he joined the Communist Party.
A poem from this period captures his optimism:
I am Black and I have seen Black Hands
Raised in fists of revolt, side by side
With the fists of white workers
And some day-and it is only this which sustains me-
Someday there shall be millions and millions of them
On some red day in a burst of fists on a new horizon.7
Wright's first collection of short stories in 1936, Uncle Tom's Children announced the arrival of, in the words of one critic, "the new generation of Blacks who will no longer turn the other cheek and submit to white harassment as their parents had."8 These are stories about individual and group acts of courage against Jim Crow. Communist organizers also appear as important characters.
In "Fire and Cloud," a Black minister named Reverend Taylor is kidnapped by a white lynch mob after a rumor spreads that he is working with Communists to organize a march. The whites beat Taylor almost to death and order him to return to his congregation to call off the protest. Instead he returns beaten and bloody to stand before his congregation and argue for the march, about which he had initially been hesitant.
And then they march:
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 tremebled; the buildings wavered as if about to topple; and the earth shook. He mumbled out loud, exultingly:
"Freedom belongs to the strong!"9
The story ends there. We are not told but left to imagine what will happen when the courageous, multiracial crowd confronts the police waiting up ahead for them.
Wright always said that without the support of the Party he never would have had the chance to become a successful writer. From his earliest days in Chicago, however, Wright argued with Party officials over what kind of art should be produced by communist writers. The John Reed Clubs and the CP literary journal, New Masses, had been set up to promote a new school of "proletarian art,"-- art whose main purpose was to illustrate political points, such as, that Black and white workers must unite or that there is power in a union. CP officials tried to exert strong editorial control over the content of art produced by Party members.
Wright bristled against these restrictions, arguing, "For the Negro writer, Marxism is but the starting point. No theory 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."10 Wright made an important point, in arguing that fiction should not have to read like a political pamphlet. However, the more the Party tried to insist that he stick to certain subjects in his writing, the more he began to distance himself from political activity and put his career first. He began to develop a somewhat elevated view of the role of the artist in the working-class movement.
The Communists, I felt had oversimplified the experience of those whom they sought to lead. In their efforts to recruit masses, they had missed the meaning of the lives of the masses, had conceived of people in too abstract a manner.... I would tell Communists how common people felt and I would tell common people of the self-sacrifice of Communists who strove for unity among them.11
These strains might have provoked Wright to quit the CP much sooner, had not the Party changed its policies on art almost overnight. In 1935, Stalin issued new directives to the Communist Parties that they should form alliances with "progressive" capitalist powers like the U.S. and Britain, thus beginning the period of the Popular Front. "Communism is twentieth century Americanism" became the new banner. On the artistic scene, the new policy meant abandoning the strict adherence to "proletarian themes" in art.
Instead the Party began cultivating well-known artists and writers as "fellow travelers" and using their credibility as a way of gaining more influence in middle-class circles. Wright was highly enthusiastic when CP president Earl Browder proclaimed at the American Writers Conference in 1935, that, "The first demand of the party upon its writer members is that they shall be good writers...so that they can really serve the party. We do not want to take good writers and make bad strike leaders out of them."12
By the time Wright had joined the Party, the Stalinization of the Communist Party was well underway, leading the best militants in a generation of workers down a path of betrayal. But in those years, the Stalinist twists and turns that would drive away so many committed rank and file members, did not bother Wright. He explained, "The rightness or wrongness of a given set of tactical actions by the Communist Party does not strike me as being of any great ultimate importance.... They are the rebels against the limits of life."13
In 1936, he took a job in New York as the Harlem editor of the Daily Worker newspaper where he wrote over 200 articles for the paper in seven months. He had a wonderful ability to capture the issues and daily struggles of people in Harlem, in a popular language and with clear political points.
With the hugely successful publication of Uncle Tom's Children, Wright's star began rising on the literary and political scene. His biographer describes how, "under the Party's aegis, Wright received countless honors...never refusing for that period, along with his political work to play the role which the party expected of him as one of its best known writers."14 Sometimes, playing the role of Party writer meant lending his name to Stalinism's most indefensible positions, for example, when he signed on to an ad defending Stalin's Moscow trials of Trotskyists.
Under CP sponsorship, Wright launched a new literary journal in 1937 called New Challenge, which aimed, in his words, "to present the literature and conditions of life of American Negroes in relationship to the struggle against war and fascism." Though the journal was shortlived, Wright's essay in the first issue, "Blueprint for Negro Writing," became influential for many Black writers of the 1960s. In it, he called on Black writers to reject racist stereotypes in their writing and use "all available techniques" to highlight "the interaction of social, economic, and political themes." In contrast, he lambasted the work of conservative writer Zora Neale Hurston for perpetuating "minstrel show tradition and cliches about Black life." Wright also called on Black writers to draw on "ethnic and popular traditions" in their work in order to draw out political points.15
In 1940, Wright published the most influential work of his career, Native Son. Critic Irving Howe wrote, "the day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.... It made impossible a repetition of the old lies..."16 The novel tells the story of a young Black man named Bigger Thomas, who grows up in the ghettos of Chicago, knowing only a life of hardship and oppression. Everything changes when he finds work in the home of the Dalton family, where he gains a glimpse into an undreamed of world of wealth and privilege. Then one night, Bigger accidentally kills the daughter of the family and has to go on the run. But it is only then, running from the police and going on a violent crime spree, that he experiences the first sense of real freedom in his life.
In the last third of the novel, Bigger's communist lawyer Max argues in court that capitalism in general, and the Daltons in particular, have created the conditions for his crimes and therefore bear responsibility for them. For Mr. Dalton, we learn, is the owner of the rotten slum housing in which Bigger grew up. The portrayal of Dalton exposes the Northern capitalist who fancies himself more enlightened than his Southern counterpart but who presides over a vicious system of de facto segregation. Bigger commits his violence in a few moments of fear and rage, but the institutions Dalton runs have meted out their slow, hidden violence on Bigger and his family all their lives.
Max argues poignantly, "Consider the mere physical aspect of our civilization. How alluring, how dazzling it is!...How it seems to dangle within easy reach of everyone the fulfillment of happiness!...But in thinking of them remember that to many they are tokens of mockery...Imagine a man walking amid such a scene, a part of it, and yet knowing that it is not for him."17
Perhaps the most searing image in all of Native Son is the scene that opens the novel. Bigger and his family are waking up in their one-room tenement apartment when they are attacked by a wild, foot-long monster of a rat. In an unforgettable and intense scene, Bigger wrestles with the rat and smashes it with a frying pan. The rat brings home at once the wretched conditions Bigger and his family live in. But in an eerie way, the rat symbolizes Bigger's situation in life--cornered, fierce, rebellious but ultimately, smashed down.
The rat's belly pulsed with fear. Bigger advanced a step and the rat emitted a long thin song of defiance, its black beady eyes glittering, its tiny forefeet pawing the air restlessly... [After it is killed] He kicked the splintered box out of the way and the flat black body of the rat lay exposed, its two long yellow tusks showing distinctly. Bigger took a shovel and pounded the rat's head, crushing it, cursing hysterically.18
As Wright later commented, "the Bigger Thomases were the only Negroes I know of who consistently violated the Jim Crow laws of the South and got away with it, at least for a sweet brief spell. Eventually the whites who restricted their lives made them pay a terrible price. They were shot, hanged, maimed, lynched, or generally hounded until they were either dead or their spirits broken."19
The following year Wright published a lesser known but equally powerful work, 12 Million Black Voices (1941), a history of Black life from slavery through Jim Crow. The book itself is illustrated with unforgettable photographs depicting Black communities from slavery to Jim Crow, through migration North. Wright uses repetition to poetic effect, naming the ruling class of the South, the "Lords of the Land," and the ruling class of the North as "the Bosses of the Buildings."
When Wright talks about the slave trade, he relentlessly compares the grandeur and high ideals of industrializing America to the reality of the slave trade that was making it all run:
Never before had human life on earth felt more confident; human feelings grew sensitive and complex, and human sentiment, pouring from the newly released human organism, wrapped itself about the whole world, each man and object in it, creating an all-powerful atmosphere of ambition and passion in which we black slaves were the main objects of exploitation.
...They built powerful empires, replete with authority and comfort and, as a protecting superstructure, they spun tight ideological webs of their right to domination. Daily these eager men slashed off the rotting trappings of feudal life...and in its stead, they launched the foundations of a new dispensation to prove that man could step beyond the boundaries of ignorance and superstition and live by reason. And they shackled millions of us to labor for them, to give them the instrumentalities.
To protect their delicately balanced edifice of political power, the Lords of the Land proceeded to neutralize the strength of us blacks and the growing restlessness of the poor whites by dividing and ruling us, by inciting us against one another...Fear became the handmaiden of cotton culture, spreading and deepening; but the slave ships sailed on, bringing thousands yearly to the New World.20
Wright writes an unbearably moving description of Black sharecropper's life:
Most of the flogging and lynchings occur at harvest time when the fruit hangs heavy and ripe, when the leaves are red and gold, when the nuts fall from the trees, when the earth offers its best. The thought of harvest steals upon us with a sense of inescapable judgement. It is time now to settle accounts with the Lords of the Land, to divide the crops and pay old debts, and we are afraid...And after we have divided the crops we are still entangled as deeply as ever in this hateful web of cotton culture. We are older; our bodies are weaker; our families are larger; our clothes are in rags; we are still in debt; and worst of all, we face another year that holds even less hope than the one we have just endured....
When alone, we stand and look out over the green, rolling fields and wonder why it is that living here is so hard, everything seems to whisper of the possibility of happiness, of satisfying experiences; but somehow happiness and satisfaction never come into our lives. The land upon which we live holds a promise but the promise fades with the passing seasons.21
Wright's break with the CP
By the time 12 Million Black Voices was published, Wright's growing distance from the Communist Party was headed towards a definitive break.
The final straw had to do with the CP's dramatic shift in policy towards the question of whether the U.S. should enter the World War.
In September 1939, when Stalin signed the Non-Agression Pact with Hitler's Germany, the Communist Parties switched overnight from Popular Front support for the liberal democracies to a new antiwar line. Many communists around the world were horrified, having spent most of the decade fighting fascism. Wright, however, liked and defended the new line because it coincided with his belief that the US could never fight a war against fascism while it practiced racism at home.
In 1941, Wright traveled around the country for the Party delivering a speech called "Not my people's war" where he argued, "Indeed, the Negro's experience with past wars, his attitude towards the present one, his attitude of chronic distrust, constitute the most incisive and graphic refutation of every idealistic statement made by the war leaders as to the alleged democratic goal and aim of this war."22
Then on June 22, 1941, Hitler broke the pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. Overnight, the line changed again and the Party became the most patriotic advocate of US entry into the war. Wright agreed to change his position publicly but privately, he felt betrayed. His anger mounted as it became clear that the CP's uncritical support of the US war effort meant they were abandoning the fight against racism. The Party would not tolerate any action that would embarrass the Roosevelt Administration. In the spring of 1941, Wright was horrified to learn that the CP would not participate in A. Philip Randolph's March on Washington to oppose segregation in the army. The last straw came when the CP endorsed a Red Cross decision to segregate blood donations.
Responding to a CP critic who had gone so far as to argue that Native Son damaged the U.S. war effort because it called too much attention to racism, Wright replied:
Are we not confronted here with the attitude of 'moral dodgers'...who, wanting to conquer the fascist enemy, do not want to rid their lives of the fascist-like practices of which they have grown so profitably fond?...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.... Can you know this and hesitate to speak or act?23
That year, after a decade of loyal membership, Wright quit the Party. He later described the pain and confusion that accompanied the 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...24
For several years, Wright refrained from public criticism of the CP but as he increasingly came to believe that Stalinism was an evil force, he decided to go on the offensive. In 1944, he published an essay called "I tried to be a communist" that attacked the Communists for being corrupt and authoritarian. Wright allowed the essay to be published in a famous anti-Communist anthology The God That Failed.
This proved to be a serious political mistake. In the growing atmosphere of Cold War anticommunism, Wright's article provided ammunition for McCarthyites who crowed over their latest "recruit."
But unlike other former Communists of that era, Wright refused to join the enemy camp or cease his relentless attack on American racism. He published his autobiography Black Boy (1945) which exposed the horror of apartheid in the South, in the very year when the US was trying to claim its mantle as leader of the free world. Then abruptly, at the height of his fame and financial success, Wright announced he was moving with his family to France because he could no longer bear to watch his children grow up in America's viciously racist environment. To the outrage of American officials, he elaborated on this theme in another widely published essay called "I choose exile" that denounced U.S. racism and imperialism. "I realized that a bare recital, when uttered in an alien atmosphere, of the facts of Negro life in America constituted a kind of anti-American propaganda."25
Wright's self-imposed exile also reflected a retreat from the hope that social change was possible in the U.S. The terrible reality of the war, the betrayal of Stalinism, the McCarthy era witch-hunts that were beginning, sounded the end of his belief in the working class. "For I knew in my heart that I should never be able to write that way again, should never be able to feel with that simple sharpness about life, should never again express such passionate hope, should never again make so total a commitment of faith."26
To Wright's credit, he never sided with the U.S. in the Cold War. He continued to believe that the Soviet Union and the U.S. were twin monsters of imperialism that together, threatened to annihilate the world. In France, he joined a circle of radical intellectuals that included Jean Paul Sartre, Gertrude Stein, and George Padmore who tried to formulate a place for themselves as "non Communist revolutionaries." Wright greatly admired Padmore's involvement in Third World anti-colonial movements.
Throughout the 1950s, Wright explored new philosophies that could point a way toward freedom, but he inevitably grew to believe that the real conflict in society was not between classes but one of the individual versus society, the intellectual versus totalitarianism. Looking at a world that seemed hopelessly divided between Western capitalism and Stalin's state capitalism, it is not surprising that Wright began to despair.
From hope to despair
In the last year of his life he wrote, "May it not ultimately develop that this sense of being disinherited is not mainly political at all, that politics serves it as a temporary vessel, that Marxist ideology in particular is but a transitory makeshift pending a more accurate diagnosis?"27
His 1953 novel, The Outsider, reflects this state of despair. It tells the story of a Black postal worker named Cross Damon who discovers that he is utterly alone and that the whole world--his family, his community, communists, the U.S. government--is seeking, in some way, to manipulate and destroy him.
In a speech that reveals Wright's own despair, Damon wonders,
Why were some people fated, like Job to live a never-ending debate between themselves and their sense of what they believed life should be? Why did some hearts feel insulted at being alive, humiliated at the terms of existence? It was as though one felt that one had been promised something and when that promise had not been kept, one felt a sense of loss that made life intolerable; it was as though one was angry and did not know toward what or whom the anger should be directed; it was as though one felt betrayed but could never determine the manner of the betrayal.28
The Outsider is unfortunately a retreat from Wright's previous work. Artistically, it does not hold together, often becoming rambling and preachy. Instead of exposing the inner workings of the society we live in, as his earlier works did brilliantly, The Outsider clouds those workings with an intense level of misogyny and nihilism.
However, despite the despair that permeates The Outsider, Wright never completely gave up on political change. He sided wholeheartedly with the anticolonial revolutions taking place across Africa, and he hoped the new African nations could provide a model for Black liberation around the world.
Wright died in Paris, fearful of returning to the U.S. lest he be the subject of government persecution. At the time of his death, he was having trouble getting his work published in the U.S. and critics from both the Right and the Left were relentless in trying to discredit his work. But with the rise of the Black Power movement in the 1960s, Wright's work and vision were rediscovered by those who saw in Bigger Thomas "a forerunner of the Watts rebels."29 His body of work as a whole captured a trajectory that millions of workers around the world had shared--a belief in the promise of socialism, followed by a betrayal by the reality of Stalinism. His best work paints a picture of our society that takes one's breath away with its ruthless accuracy and poetic language. The energy and optimism he felt in the 1930s and 40s does not dim with time, and his work should be read and loved by a new generation of anti-racist fighters and socialists.
Annie Levin, a teacher in Lynn, Massachusetts, is a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 1037, and a member of the International Socialist Organization.
1 Richard Wright, Black Boy, in Ellen Wright and Michael Fabre, eds., The Richard Wright Reader, (New York: Harper &Row, 1978), p. 17.
2 Ibid, p.11.
3 Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices, in The Richard Wright Reader, p. 207.
4 Ibid, p. 212.
5 Quoted in Michel Fabre, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993), p. 92.
6 12 Million Black Voices, in The Richard Wright Reader, p.238-240.
7 Richard Wright, "I Have Seen Black Hands" in The Richard Wright Reader, p. 246.
8 Quoted in Fabre, p. 160.
9 Richard Wright, "Fire and Cloud," in The Richard Wright Reader, p. 345.
10 Richard Wright, "Blueprint for Negro Writing," in The Richard Wright Reader, p.44.
11 Richard Wright, "I tried to be a communist," in The God That Failed, ed. Richard Crossman (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949), p. 120.
12 Quoted in Fabre, p.118.
13 Quoted in Fabre, p. 193.
14 Fabre, p. 165.
15 Fabre, p. 142-43.
16 Irving Howe, "Black Boys and Native Sons," Dissent, Volume 10, Autumn, 1963, p. 355.
17 Richard Wright, Native Son (New York: Harper and Row, 1989), p. 277.
18 Native Son, p. 9.
19 Richard Wright, "How Bigger was Born" (New York: Harper and Row, 1940), p.xxvii.
20 12 Million Black Voices, p 152.
21 12 Million Black Voices, p.170.
22 Quoted in Fabre, p. 223.
23 Richard Wright, Letter to Antonio Frasconi, in The Richard Wright Reader, p. 68.
24 Quoted in Fabre, p. 231.
25 Quoted in Fabre, p.185.
26 Richard Wright, quoted in Crossman, p. 162.
27 Quoted in Fabre.
28 Richard Wright, The Outsider (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), p. 24.
29 Fabre, p. xxiii.