From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject Outcasts and Desperados: On Richard Wright’s Double Vision
Date October 15, 2021 1:05 AM
  Links have been removed from this email. Learn more in the FAQ.
  Links have been removed from this email. Learn more in the FAQ.
[ A long forgotten if seminal early Richard Wright novel is
brought back to life by Library of America for a new generation of
readers.] [[link removed]]


[[link removed]]


Adam Shatz
October 7, 2021
London Review of Books
[[link removed]]

[[link removed]]
[[link removed]]
* [[link removed]]

_ A long forgotten if seminal early Richard Wright novel is brought
back to life by Library of America for a new generation of readers. _

Richard Wright by Gordon Parks, 1943, Farm Security Administration -
Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress


When​ Richard Wright sailed to France in 1946, he was 38 years old
and already a legend. He was America’s most famous black writer, the
author of two books hailed as classics the moment they were published:
the 1940 novel _Native Son_ and the 1945 memoir _Black Boy_. By
‘choosing exile’, as he put it, he hoped both to free himself from
American racism and to put an ocean between himself and the Communist
Party of the United States, in which he’d first come to prominence
as a writer of proletarian fiction only to find himself accused of
subversive, Trotskyist tendencies. In Paris he was a celebrity. French
writers and American expatriates flocked to the Café Monaco, where he
held court a short walk from his Left Bank flat. ‘Dick greeted
everyone with boisterous condescension,’ Chester Himes remembered.
‘It was obvious he was the king thereabouts.’

His place on the throne was shakier than he imagined. The novels he
wrote in Paris, where he would spend the rest of his life, failed to
deliver on the promise of _Native Son_, the incendiary tale of a poor
black chauffeur in Chicago, Bigger Thomas, who achieves a grisly sense
of selfhood after killing two women: his black girlfriend and the
daughter of his wealthy white employer. But even that novel’s
reputation declined, thanks in large part to another black American in
Paris. In 1949 James Baldwin described _Native Son_ as a
modern-day _Uncle Tom’s Cabin_, ‘a continuation, a complement of
that monstrous legend it was written to destroy’, arguing that
Bigger Thomas ‘admits the possibility of his being subhuman’ and
that Wright was no less guilty than Harriet Beecher Stowe of insisting
that a person’s ‘categorisation ... cannot be transcended.’
Baldwin, whose success Wright had done much to promote, wasn’t the
only protégé to turn against him. In 1963 Ralph Ellison wrote that,
in Bigger Thomas, Wright had created not a black character other black
people would recognise, but ‘a near subhuman indictment of white
oppression’ crudely ‘designed to shock whites out of their
apathy’. Ellison’s hyper-cerebral protagonist in _Invisible Man_,
who is able to see far beyond his own condition, was a pointed
rejoinder to Bigger’s inarticulate and explosive rage.

That rage had once been important to Ellison too. During their days in
the CPUSA, he had sent a letter to Wright commending Bigger’s
‘revolutionary significance’. Readers horrified by Bigger’s
violence, Ellison insisted, ‘fail to see that what’s _bad_ in
Bigger from the point of view of bourgeois society is _good_ from
our point of view ... Would that all Negroes were as psychologically
free as Bigger and as capable of positive action!’ This argument was
echoed in 1966 by the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, who
called Bigger ‘the black rebel of the ghetto’, with ‘no
trace ... of the Martin Luther King-type self-effacing love for his
oppressors’. For Cleaver, who wrote in his memoir that he had
practised raping black women before graduating to white women, Bigger
embodied an authentic, revolutionary black masculinity that Baldwin, a
gay man, naturally despised.

The Man Who Lived Underground 
[[link removed]]
By Richard Wright (Afterword by Malcom Wright)
Penguin Random House; 249 pages
April 20, 2021
Hardcover:  $22.95; (Library of America
[[link removed]]:  $17.95)
ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Penguin Random House
The Black Power movement’s patriarchal and homophobic embrace of
Wright did little to salvage his reputation, especially after the rise
of black feminism in the 1970s. In Black Macho and the Myth of the
Superwoman (1978), Michele Wallace traced the movement’s ‘love
affair with Black Macho’ back to Native Son. Black women writers
never forgave Wright for having once accused Zora Neale Hurston of
writing ‘in the safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see
the Negro live’. It didn’t matter that he had denounced the
absence of female speakers at the 1956 Conference of Black Writers and
Artists in Paris, insisting that black men could only be free if black
women were too. Or that in a 1957 book of reportage he had catalogued
the forms of oppression suffered by women in contemporary Spain,
comparing the Catholic cult of ‘female purity’ to the Ku Klux
Klan’s defence of white womanhood. Thanks to Native Son, he
continued to be associated with the idea that, in Darryl Pinckney’s
words, ‘the black man can only come to life as the white man’s
nightmare, the defiler of white women.’

Black feminists weren’t the only ones to take offence. In 1986 the
novelist David Bradley confessed that the first time he read Native

I shed no tears for Bigger. I wanted him dead; by legal means if
possible, by lynching if necessary ... I did not see Bigger Thomas as
a symbol of any kind of black man. To me he was a sociopath, pure and
simple ... If the price of becoming a black writer was following the
model of Native Son, I would just have to write like a honky.

Novelists never completely shake off an association with the murderers
they invent: Dostoevsky is still remembered for Raskolnikov, Camus for
Meursault. The difference in Wright’s case is that Bigger Thomas is
practically _all_ he is remembered for. Wright is not just blamed
for Bigger but almost mistaken for him.

On the surface, Wright’s life bore little resemblance to Bigger’s:
he was a child of the rural South not the northern ghetto, a self-made
intellectual and writer. But as a young man in Chicago he had had a
series of menial jobs in hospitals and the postal service and could
identify all too easily with Bigger’s anger at the white world. He
had known Bigger’s fear of white people’s arbitrary power – in
his view, this was the ‘fundamental emotion guiding black
personality and behaviour’, even if it sometimes appeared in the
‘disguise that is called Negro laughter’. It wasn’t only whites
he wanted to provoke with _Native Son_, but members of the decorous
black middle class, who felt that a figure like Bigger Thomas was a
threat to their precarious status on the margins of white America.

_Native Son_ was a work of shocking intransigence in its portrayal of
black rage, in its treatment of liberal whites and, above all, in its
violence. After suffocating his employer’s daughter, Mary Dalton,
with a pillow – he’s terrified that she might alert her blind
mother to his presence in her bedroom, and that he might be accused of
rape – Bigger slices up her corpse and burns it in a furnace. His
violence is recounted as if it were the concentrated payback for
hundreds of years of anti-black violence and humiliation, and
described with graphic relish. When he murders his girlfriend, Bess,
to prevent her from revealing his crime, he feels a rush of
exhilaration: at last he has accomplished ‘something that was all
his own’, an act no one would have imagined him daring enough to
execute. ‘Elation filled him.’ No longer emasculated by fear, no
longer ‘a black timid Negro boy’ in a white man’s world, he has
‘a sense of wholeness’, of power over his oppressors. He is a man
who has ‘evened the score’.

Frantz Fanon drew on _Native Son_ to examine the violent impulses
that racism creates in its victims. ‘Bigger Thomas ... is afraid,
terribly afraid. But afraid of what?’ Fanon wrote in _Black Skin,
White Masks_ in 1952. ‘Of himself. We don’t yet know who he is,
but he knows that fear will haunt the world once the world finds
out.’ For Fanon, Wright had shown that violence is a way to ‘put
an end to the tension’, to a ‘feeling of not existing’ in
white-dominated society. ‘The black man is a toy in the hands of the
white man. So in order to break the vicious circle, he explodes.’
For Bigger, murder provides an irresistible glimpse of freedom. It is
‘disintoxicating’, as Fanon would write of anti-colonial violence
in _The Wretched of the Earth_. ‘I didn’t want to kill,’ Bigger
tells his lawyer, ‘but what I killed for, I _am_.’

It was hardly surprising that middle-class black readers had little
desire to be associated with Bigger. But for Wright, Bigger Thomas was
not – or not merely – a symbol of persecuted black masculinity. He
was a symbol of the psychic injuries of oppression, rootlessness and
dispossession under capitalism. Wright said that he had met defiant
men like Bigger while growing up in segregated Mississippi, men who
rebelled ‘at least for a sweet brief spell’ before they were
‘shot, hanged, maimed, lynched’. But in Chicago and New York he
had ‘made the discovery that Bigger Thomas was not black all the
time ... and there were literally millions of him, everywhere. The
extension of my sense of the personality of Bigger was the pivot of my
life; it altered the complexion of my existence.’ As he became aware
of ‘a vast, muddied pool of human life in America’, he began to
see that segregation was ‘an appendage of a far vaster and in many
respects more ruthless and impersonal commodity-profit machine’.

Wright presented Bigger Thomas as the humiliated, alienated and
dangerous ‘product of a dislocated society’, seething with fear
and envy, susceptible to fantasies of power, domination and revenge.
‘He liked to hear of how Japan was conquering China; of how Hitler
was running the Jews to the ground; of how Mussolini was invading
Spain.’ Wright obliquely alluded to Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa
movement, with its fusion of black nationalism and militarist
discipline. ‘Someday,’ Bigger muses, ‘there would be a black man
who would whip the black people into a tight band and together they
would act and end fear and shame.’ In linking social atomisation and
fear, racism and authoritarianism, _Native Son_ anticipated Hannah
Arendt’s _Origins of Totalitarianism_, and Wright suggested that
Bigger ‘carried within himself the potentialities of either
communism or fascism’.

Baldwin criticised Wright for overlooking the traditions, rituals and
family relationships that protect and fortify black communities in
even the most appalling conditions. But Wright wasn’t interested in
the structures of support or mutual aid that enabled black people to
survive as a collective. He was drawn to outcasts and desperados who
had fallen through the cracks to find themselves adrift, naked, in
mass society. He himself was a loner, never at ease in his own family,
and hostile to the Church thanks to a grandmother who frowned on
reading anything other than the Bible. His fiercest quarrels inside
the Communist Party were with black militants who shared his
working-class roots but didn’t trust him as one of them: he was too
intellectual, too independent. He was unmoved by the promise of
‘another country’ where black Americans would at last be free.
Unlike the young Baldwin, Wright doubted that such a country would
ever exist in his homeland.

Why did Baldwin and others mistake Wright for a crude proletarian
realist? His engagement with the Communist Party – he had been a
leader of the Chicago John Reed Club, the CPUSA writers’ group,
and published journalism in _The New Masses_ – contributed, but
Wright’s relationship with the party had always been stormy,
particularly when it came to aesthetics. His 1937 manifesto,
‘Blueprint for Negro Writing’, laid out the case for a radical,
politically engaged modernism, and he had no time for sentimental
depictions of the lives of the poor and oppressed. The direct,
sometimes coarse prose of _Native Son_ represented a deliberate
rupture with comforting modes of realism.

The demands of the publishing industry helped conceal Wright’s
modernist leanings. His 1938 novel about a day in the life of a black
postal worker, _Lawd Today!,_ written under the influence of Joyce,
was never published in his lifetime. But the market also had a hand in
the works that did appear, ironing out complexity and rejecting
anything that might be too unsettling for white readers. Under
pressure from the Book of the Month club, Wright’s editors at
Harper & Brothers suppressed passages in _Native Son_ describing
Bigger Thomas and Mary Dalton in bed. ‘The sharp bones of her hips
move in a hard and veritable grind. Her mouth was open and her breath
came slow and deep.’ This is not rape: it is the sort of encounter
between a black man and a white woman that the myth of the black
rapist was intended to conceal. By expurgating such passages,
Wright’s publishers not only restored the image of the pure,
virginal white woman, but deprived Bigger of a comprehensible motive
for his panic. They magnified the brutality of his crime and turned
him into a monster. The original version of the novel wasn’t
published until 1992, when the Library of America brought out a
restored edition of five of Wright’s books. When Baldwin and Ellison
took aim at _Native Son_, it was the Book of the Month version of
Bigger they were writing about.

Wright’s memoir also raised objections from the Book of the Month
club. One member of the selection committee, Dorothy Canfield Fisher,
was offended by the way _Black Boy_ overlooked those white Americans
who ‘have done what they could to lighten the dark stain of racial
discrimination in our nation’. The second half of the book, about
Wright’s often harrowing experiences in Chicago and New York and his
struggles inside the CPUSA, was cut entirely, so that the memoir
could be read as a hopeful tale of exodus from Southern terror rather
than a caustic commentary on the pervasiveness of racism on both sides
of the Mason-Dixon line.

More​ was suppressed too. Wright’s publishers rejected the novel
he at the time considered his most important, written between _Native
Son_ and _Black Boy_. An abridged version of _The Man Who Lived
Underground_ appeared in the posthumous collection _Eight
Men_ (1961) and attracted some influential admirers, including Irving
Howe, who declared its ‘sense of narrative rhythm’ to be
‘superior to anything in his full-length novels’. Despite this,
the complete novel hasn’t appeared in print until now. It’s a
short, riveting, exploratory work, begun in June 1941, after the Nazi
invasion of the Soviet Union. Two weeks before the invasion, at the
opening session of the fourth American Writers’ Congress, he had
given a passionate speech against the war. To his fury,
the CPUSA had suspended its campaign against racism in the war
industries, and with the American military still segregated, he
refused to support a white man’s army. (He was later drafted but
declared psychologically unfit, apparently because of his views about
racism.) Although he wasn’t yet ready to leave the party, he
withdrew from its activities and poured all his energy into _The Man
Who Lived Underground_.

The novel was inspired by a story Wright read in a detective magazine
about a white man in California who lived for several months in a
hideout. Wright’s protagonist, Fred Daniels, is black, but unlike
Bigger Thomas he is also innocent. The novel begins on a Saturday
evening when Daniels, a working-class, churchgoing man with a pregnant
wife, is stopped by the police and accused of killing a white man in
order to rape his wife. They beat him with a blackjack, and promise he
can go home if he signs a confession. Although he’s innocent, he
feels ‘condemned, inescapably guilty of some nameless deed’, and
agrees to confess, if only to end the agony and see his wife. When the
police take him to his apartment she goes into labour. They rush her
to hospital, where he manages to escape. He opens a sewer and climbs
inside, sensing in ‘the whispering rush of the water’ the
‘illusion of another world with other values and other laws’. As
many critics have said, _The Man Who Lived Underground_ seems
startlingly contemporary in its treatment of police violence against
an innocent black man. The story of the interrogation has particular
resonances with the 1989 Central Park Five case, in which a group of
black and Latino teenagers were manipulated into confessing to the
rape of a white female jogger. Not surprisingly, _The Man Who Lived
Underground_ has been held up as a prescient indictment of the racist
carceral state – a parable for the era of Black Lives Matter.

But this is another misrepresentation. In fact, the book is much less
of a protest novel than _Native Son_, and takes even greater
liberties with naturalism. Its setting and atmosphere – chases
through sewers, frenzied manhunts – recall noirish films like Fritz
Lang’s _M_ and Carol Reed’s _The Third Man_. The writing
combines the blunt rhythms of hard-boiled detective fiction with
kinetic, almost phantasmagorical strokes, intensities of emotion and
colour. As Howe observed of _Native Son_, ‘naturalism pushed to an
extreme turns here into something other than itself, a kind of
expressionist outburst, no longer a replica of the familiar social
world but a self-contained realm of grotesque emblems.’ However much
the novel may reveal about police brutality and racism, Wright thought
of it as a novel of ideas rather than a book about racial injustice:
as he told his agent, it was ‘the first time I’ve really tried to
step beyond the straight black-white stuff’.

Daniels is a victim of police violence, but Wright’s narrative
doesn’t hinge on his victimisation so much as on the mutations of
his consciousness as he builds a new home for himself underground,
illuminated by a single lightbulb. (Ellison, who knew all about
Wright’s novella, equipped his own underground man with 1369
lightbulbs.) He steals money from a real-estate and insurance company
that has ‘collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from
poor coloured folks’ – ‘not to spend, but just to keep around
and look at’. He ‘rubbed the money with his fingers, as though
expecting it suddenly to reveal secret qualities’: this is money as
Marx describes it in his essay on ‘the mysterious character of the
commodity form’. As Daniels observes ‘with a musing smile’, it
is ‘just like any other kind of paper’, and he uses it to
wallpaper his underground home, a ‘mocking symbol’ of his exile
from the world that rejected him. When another man is accused of the
theft he has committed he can only conclude that ‘everybody’s
guilty.’ The contingency and artifice of the world outside, the
‘dead world of sunshine and rain he had left’, leads him to the
realisation that somehow ‘he was _all_ people. In some utterable
fashion he was _all_ people and they were _he_.’ Rather than
hardening his sense of individual identity, racist persecution leads
him to an almost cosmic awareness of what he shares with others.

One of the novel’s first readers was the German-Jewish psychiatrist
Fredric Wertham, who sent a poem in response:

The Freudians talk about the id
And bury it below.
But Richard Wright took off the lid
And let us see the woe.

Wertham, a professor at Johns Hopkins who moved in left-wing circles,
shared Wright’s conviction that there was ‘no other act ... that
so gathers together the threads of personal, social, political life of
the nation as crime’. Wright had written to Wertham after reading
his book _Dark Legend: A Study in Murder_, about a young Italian
immigrant who killed his sexually adventurous mother to defend the
honour of his dead father. Wertham, in turn, published a remarkable
essay on _Native Son_, linking the bedroom scene to a repressed
episode from Wright’s childhood. They later joined forces to set up
the Lafargue Clinic, which provided cheap psychiatric counselling for
people in Harlem. Wright’s friendship with Wertham reflected his
desire to fuse the insights of Marx and Freud – he said they were
two of his favourite ‘poets’ – and apply them to the lives of
oppressed people, especially victims of racism. ‘I’m convinced
that the next great arena of discovery in the Negro will be the dark
landscape of his own mind, what living in America has done to him,’
he wrote in his diary.

Wright explored his own mental landscape in ‘Memories of My
Grandmother’, a previously unpublished essay that appears as an
appendix to _The Man Who Lived Underground_ and describes the
experiences that lay behind the novel. The first – an encounter with
the ‘strangely familiar’ – took place in Chicago, shortly before
his grandmother’s death in 1934. Wright thought he had ‘swept my
life clean ... of the religious influences of my grandmother’,
until he read a book that ‘miraculously linked my grandmother’s
life to my own in a most startling manner’: Gertrude
Stein’s _Three Lives_. Reading ‘Melanctha’, Stein’s story in
black vernacular speech, at his grandmother’s flat, ‘I suddenly
began to hear the _English_ language for the first time in my
life! ... But more than that; suddenly I began to hear my
grandmother speak for the first time.’ Later, he read the story
aloud in a basement on the South Side to a ‘group of illiterate,
class-conscious Negro workers ... and there were such wild howls of
delight, such expressions of recognition, that I could barely

Somehow Wright connects this moment to a form of music his grandmother
had reviled: the blues, with their manner of ‘freely juxtaposing
totally unrelated images and symbols and then tying them into some
overall concept, mood, feeling’. By imposing a strange order on the
fragments of a chaotic, intolerable reality, the blues mark ‘the
advent of surrealism on the American scene’. Wright was familiar
with surrealism from his experience of psychoanalysis, but the blues
represented a surrealism born of necessity rather than theory – not
unlike the surrealism of the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, whose
epic _Notebook of a Return to the Native Land_ was discovered by
André Breton in a haberdashery shop in Fort-de-France. Suddenly,
Wright could see parallels with his grandmother’s ‘ardent and
volatile religious disposition’, which he had previously found
‘illogical if not degrading’. After reading about the white man
who had lived underground, he immediately thought about his
grandmother, who, in her religious life, had retreated from the world.
The ‘guilt theme’ provided him with a ‘steady beat upon which I
proceeded to improvise’, as in jazz, with its ‘improvised,
tone-coloured melodies’. (Almost as an afterthought, he adds that
this was linked, ‘in a rather muted way’, to ‘the problem of the
Negro’, since ‘if you accuse a man of something that he did not
do ... it has the power of upsetting his entire way of life.’)
Wright was always a deeply self-reflective writer. But ‘Memories of
My Grandmother’ is especially revealing about the way he wanted to
write: a homegrown modernism inspired by tabloids and pulp cinema, the
blues and black working-class life, and a robust sense of the absurd.

The same memories, the same ‘strangely familiar’ juxtapositions of
the ‘unrelated’ that Wright believed defined black experience in
America, went into the writing of _Black Boy_. That Wright lived to
tell the tale was itself a near miracle: his early life was nearly as
saturated with death and misery as his fiction. The rural Mississippi
he grew up in was the epicentre of American apartheid. His
grandfather, who had escaped slavery and joined the Union army only to
be deprived of his war pension, hated white people ‘too much to talk
of them’. When Wright was three, his family moved to Memphis,
Tennessee, where his father abandoned them. His mother worked as a
cook for a white family but soon became an invalid, and he was largely
raised by his austere, Seventh Day Adventist grandmother, who looked
so white she could have been a ‘pretty Victorian woman’. It took
him a while to learn to ‘sense white people as “white”
people’, because ‘many of my relatives were “white”-looking
people.’ He didn’t have to go to school to realise that race was a
construct – not that any school in America would have taught him

To be a black male in the South was to be at constant risk of catching
‘the white death’ – especially after the First World War ended,
and black soldiers returned home to face a new wave of violence.
Wright’s uncle was murdered by white men envious of his success in
business; a classmate’s brother was lynched and castrated for
sleeping with a white prostitute. Baldwin lamented the fact that in
Wright’s fiction ‘there is a great space where sex ought to be;
and what usually fills this space is violence.’ But anti-black
violence, from property destruction to lynching, was the overwhelming
reality of Wright’s childhood, and it was often ignited by rumours
of sex between black men and white women. By the time he turned

I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a
predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a
sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what
life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the
meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning
out of meaningless suffering.

All this, he found, gave him ‘insight into the suffering of
others’, drawing him to what he called the ‘drama of human feeling
which is hidden by the external drama of life’. But it also
intensified his sense of separation from people who didn’t see what
he did.

_Black Boy_ was denounced by Southern segregationists like the
Mississippi senator Theodore Bilbo, who called it ‘the dirtiest,
filthiest, lousiest, most obscene piece of writing that I have ever
seen in print’, designed to ‘plant the seeds of hate in every
Negro in America ... against the white race anywhere’. Even in New
York, Wright and his wife, Ellen, had to set up a fake corporation to
buy a house, since no bank would give a black man a mortgage,
especially a black man married to a white woman. They didn’t dare
walk arm in arm on the street. His white leftist friends couldn’t
provide much comfort: they couldn’t understand why Harlem exploded
in riots in 1943 after a black soldier was killed by a white
policeman. Wright’s confrontations with America left him exhausted
– and desperate to flee. Although he’d quit the Communist Party,
he remained under FBI surveillance, because J. Edgar Hoover saw him
as even more subversive than his former allies.

In​ 1946, Wright accepted a formal invitation from Claude
Lévi-Strauss to visit France. When he and Ellen arrived in Paris with
their young daughter, a reporter asked him whether the ‘black
problem’ was close to being resolved in America. ‘There is not a
black problem in the United States, but a white problem,’ Wright
replied. The existentialists embraced him, and he said he had more
freedom on a single block in Paris than in all of the United States.
Camus arranged for _Black Boy_ to be published by Gallimard, and
Sartre and Beauvoir championed him as an exemplary _engagé_ writer,
an outsider who wrote about ‘the struggle of a man against the
resistance of the world’ (in Beauvoir’s words), and a victim of
racism who exposed the lie of the American dream. Though Sartre and
Beauvoir were fellow-travellers, they were willing to overlook his
hatred of Soviet communism.

As if determined to play the role in which his French admirers had
cast him, Wright sometimes spoke as though he’d made a sudden
metamorphosis from black man to existential man: ‘I have no race
except that which is forced upon me. I have no country except that to
which I’m obliged to belong. I have no traditions. I’m free. I
have only the future.’ He hadn’t come all the way to France to
write sequels to _Native Son_ and _Black Boy_; he wanted to expand
his reach both imaginatively and geographically. His fiction became
more explicitly philosophical, featuring long – sometimes tortured
– disquisitions on guilt, freedom and responsibility. He also began
to travel, writing essayistic, introspective works of reportage that
– as Hazel Rowley pointed out in her 2001 Life of Wright –
prefigured the New Journalism.

Wright’s American friends looked askance at his romance with the
Parisian existentialists. ‘You see I kept saying his books were not
Negro,’ Gertrude Stein confided in Carl Van Vechten. ‘That is what
I liked in them so much, but now when he isn’t, do I like it so
much?’ Wright resented the notion that he was obliged to represent
what Stein called the ‘spirit of his race’. He considered himself
a novelist, not a ‘Negro novelist’, but the fiction he published
in France tended to vindicate those who believed that exile had cut
him off from the world his work depended on. _The Outsider_ (1953),
his most ambitious attempt at an existentialist fiction, was a long,
unwieldy novel of ideas, by turns pulpy and ponderous, with a plot so
improbable – a black nihilist postal worker in Chicago, gruesome
murders and a manhunt – that it would have caused a B-movie director
to blush.

But it was also a brave attempt to explore the dark landscape of Cold
War paranoia and fear. As a black writer who had severed his
connections to everything that had anchored him – family, country
and comrades – Wright was now experiencing a new form of isolation
and claustrophobia. His black nihilist postal worker, Damon Cross, who
moves to Harlem under a false identity after killing an acquaintance,
has also severed all connections. He too is both isolated and
confined, embroiled in the factional struggles of the Communist Party
while failing to find common ground with a group of black men cracking
jokes about whites – he can’t find ‘in this world rebels with
whom he could feel at home’. ‘All writing is a secret form of
autobiography,’ Wright said, and so it is with _The Outsider_. It
was, after all, Wright’s sense of himself as an outsider – an
intellectual, as well as a black pariah – that had led him into the
Communist Party and out of it again. The Cold War exacerbated his
feeling of homelessness, of being caught between Stalinism and the
American empire.

In Paris there were new connections to be made among men and women who
were forging a collective future for themselves in anti-colonial
struggles. Wright c0-founded _Présence Africaine_ with Aimé
Césaire, Leopold Senghor and Alioune Diop, and helped organise its
Conference of Black Writers and Artists at the Sorbonne. Like most
black writers in Paris, including Baldwin, he shied away from
declaring support for the Algerian national liberation struggle, but
he also refused to sign a statement denouncing the Soviet invasion of
Hungary unless it condemned the war in Suez too. His first travel
book, _Black Power_, came out of a trip to the Gold Coast in 1953,
taken at the urging of the pan-African intellectual George Padmore.
Kwame Nkrumah invited him to give a speech but otherwise ignored him,
arousing Wright’s suspicion that Nkrumah saw him as an
anti-communist spy. ‘My blackness did not help me,’ he noted,
among Africans who didn’t see him as a brother. In his diary from
the Gold Coast he described himself as ‘enervated, listless ... I
find myself longing to take a ship and go home.’

Yet his commitment to independence in Africa and beyond was
unwavering. In 1955 he went to cover the Bandung Conference of
non-aligned countries, where he found himself confronting a new,
insurgent politics inspired by the two mystical illusions with which
he’d wrestled back home: race and faith. The book he wrote about the
trip, _The Colour Curtain_, begins on the flight to Indonesia, where
an Arab journalist, also on his way to Bandung, shows him photographs
of Palestinian refugees expelled from their villages. ‘I peered up
into the face of the journalist; his eyes were unblinking, hot,
fanatic. This man was religious ... And the Jews had been spurred by
religious dreams to build a state in Palestine ... Irrationalism
meeting irrationalism.’ Western imperialism’s great legacy among
its former subjects, Wright argued, was an intense racial
consciousness, which – with dangerous ease – could be fused with
religious feeling to mobilise the masses. But he was also moved by the
display of Afro-Asian unity at Bandung, ‘a decisive moment in the
consciousness of 65 per cent of the human race’ that seemed to
promise a ‘de-Occidentalisation of mankind’ and therefore a time
when ‘there will be no East or West.’

_White Man, Listen!,_ published in 1957, was Wright’s most
confessional account of the inner drama of decolonisation. He
dedicated it to Eric Williams, the prime minister of Trinidad and
author of _Capitalism and Slavery_, and to the ‘Westernised and
tragic elite of Africa, Asia and the West Indians, the lonely
outsiders who exist precariously on the cliff-like margins of many
cultures’. The ‘“whiteness” of the white world’, the spread
of white supremacy in countries dominated by imperialism, had left
native elites orphaned: they could never be fully Western but neither
could they find a haven in their own traditions. Wright saw aspects of
himself in the colonised elites of Africa and Asia, especially in
their tendency to ‘hide their deepest reactions from those they fear
would penalise them if they suspected what they really felt’. Like
Wright, many had been attracted to the non-racial, secular politics of
the Communist Party, which had enabled the racially oppressed to
‘meet revolutionary fragments of the hostile race on a plane of
equality’. But with the rise of independence struggles, and the
birth of the non-aligned movement, Africans and Asians could now
collectively express their ‘racial feelings ... in all their
turgid passion’.

‘My position is a split one,’ Wright said. ‘I’m black. I’m a
man of the West ... I see and understand the West ... but I also
see and understand the non or anti-Western point of view. How is this
possible? The double vision of mine stems from my being a product of
Western civilisation and from my racial identity.’ Wright didn’t
consider his ‘double vision’ to be a source of torment,
as W.E.B. Du Bois had described ‘double consciousness’ in _The
Souls of Black Folk_. It was, rather, an intellectual asset, allowing
him to ‘see both worlds from another and third point of view’, and
to see the colonised as both ‘victims of their own religious
projections and victims of Western imperialism’. An anonymous
reviewer in _El Moudjahid,_ the French-language newspaper of the
Algerian National Liberation Front, took strong exception to this
claim. The author was almost certainly Fanon, who six years earlier
had sent a fan letter to Wright. But by the time _White Man,
Listen!_ appeared, Fanon had joined the Algerian revolution, and lost
interest in, and patience with, the private sorrows of colonised
elites. ‘It is true,’ he wrote in his review, ‘that the drama of
consciousness of a Westernised black, torn between his white culture
and his negritude, can be very painful; but this drama, which, after
all, kills no one, is too particular to be representative: the
misfortune of the colonised African masses, exploited, subjugated, is
first of all of a vital, material order.’ The psychic agonies of
members of the elite were, he wrote, ‘a luxury that they are unable
to afford’.


Wright​ would have accepted the difference between material
necessity and the ‘luxury’ of merely being lost between one
identity and another. But he understood – in part thanks to his own
struggles as a black Southern refugee who had made his way north –
that the obstacles on the road to freedom were as much psychological
as economic. The violence and exploitation of imperialism, along with
Western education and the secular styles of thought and ideology it
exported to the colonies, had created forms of dislocation –
patterns of dependence, hierarchy, cultural schizophrenia – that
political independence couldn’t overcome overnight. Unsparing in its
indictment of the West, but alert to the destructive allure of
nativism and other sectarian passions, Wright’s appraisal of the
post-colonial condition was full of suggestive ambiguities. As Doris
Lessing recognised, this ambivalence was an expression of lucidity –
and courage. Wright’s trilogy of books about decolonisation was the
great achievement of his last decade, but to his contemporaries,
especially his black contemporaries, his candour came across as
scepticism, even disdain, towards the African motherland at the dawn
of its emancipation. He seemed to have little to offer the colonised
other than patronising ‘tough love’.

As a novelist, meanwhile, Wright looked more and more like a literary
Sonny Liston, knocked out by not one but two Muhammad Alis: Ellison,
whose rhetorical pyrotechnics threw the leaden philosophising of _The
Outsider_ into embarrassing relief; and Baldwin, whose winding,
hypnotic sentences evoked the cadences of the Church from which Wright
had escaped. His personal life, too, was in crisis. His marriage had
fallen apart, and the novelist William Gardner Smith ran away with his
mistress. He became convinced – with good reason – that the black
expatriate journalist Richard Gibson was spying on him for the CIA.
In his last year Wright slept with a revolver beside his bed. When
friends made light of his paranoia, he said that ‘any black man who
is not paranoid is in serious shape.’ He rang up friends in the
middle of the night – Sartre, the black expatriate cartoonist Ollie
Harrington, the anarchist Daniel Guérin – to vent his frustrations.
He found solace at his country home, where he spent his time gardening
and writing haikus about the sun and rain in the fields of
Mississippi, children in the alleys of Chicago tenements, his dead
mother’s melancholy expression. His late fiction, especially his
short stories, expressed a longing for the speech, the humour and the
blues sensibility of the working-class black Americans he seemed to
have left behind when he crossed the Atlantic. When Baldwin read the
posthumous stories in _Eight Men_, he could ‘not avoid feeling that
Wright, as he died, was acquiring a new tone, and a less uncertain
aesthetic distance, and a new depth’.

For all his proud solitude, Wright never imagined that he was fighting
merely for himself. In his last public speech, ‘The Situation of the
Negro Artist and Intellectual in American Society’, delivered at the
American Church on the Quai d’Orsay on 8 November 1960, Wright
described the world of black writers as a ‘nightmarish jungle’
controlled by a white publishing industry that was only too happy to
see them tear one another apart in furies of Darwinian competition. He
thundered against black churches and concert halls for shutting their
doors to Paul Robeson, who had been blacklisted and stripped of his
passport. As much as he despised Robeson’s communism, he hated
Robeson’s racist enemies more. He was done with the protest novel
but not with protesting, and he was emboldened by the knowledge that
his audience included American government agents. It might have been a
scene in his last novel, ‘The Island of Hallucination’, a darkly
satirical portrait of black writers in Cold War Paris that has still
never been published.

Shortly after his address, Wright fell ill with an infection; less
than three weeks later, he was dead. (His daughter, Julia, still
believes he was poisoned by the CIA; others blame the KGB.) Thomas
Diop, an editor at _Présence Africaine_, gave the eulogy at a
private ceremony at Père Lachaise on 3 December 1960. ‘Dick’s
body was cremated,’ Chester Himes wrote, ‘the coffin consumed by
flames as Dick’s enemies showered praise on his body.’ ‘Listen
to Dick,’ Ollie Harrington whispered to him. ‘He hears what
they’re saying about him.’

_[ESSAYIST ADAM SHATZ is the LRB’s U.S. editor, based in New
York. He is working on a book about Frantz Fanon.]_

_ Information on subscribing to The London Review of Books is
available HERE
[[link removed]]_

[[link removed]]
[[link removed]]
* [[link removed]]







Submit via web [[link removed]]
Submit via email
Frequently asked questions [[link removed]]
Manage subscription [[link removed]]
Visit [[link removed]]

Twitter [[link removed]]

Facebook [[link removed]]



[link removed]

To unsubscribe from the xxxxxx list, click the following link:
[link removed]
Screenshot of the email generated on import

Message Analysis

  • Sender: Portside
  • Political Party: n/a
  • Country: United States
  • State/Locality: n/a
  • Office: n/a
  • Email Providers:
    • L-Soft LISTSERV