Rest in Power, Richard Wright!
On the 113th anniversary of your birth, Sept. 4, 1908.
Today, September 4, marks the 113th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wright (1908-1960), one of our most important modern American writers, a crucial figure in both the Black radical and Marxist traditions. A path-breaking revolutionary artist, a searing social critic, and a powerful transnational truth-teller, Wright dramatized crises afflicting the USA and the world, in a style that everyday people could grapple with, often leaving us with unforgettable images and scenes burned into memory for life.
Wright mapped the social and psychological terrain of the modern world: from the deep Jim Crow South where he was raised, to the modern industrial cities of Chicago and New York to which he fled, to Paris, France and then to the decolonizing “Third World,” where, nearing the end of his too-short life, he glimpsed new hope—and new obstacles—for radical change. Wherever he looked, Wright discerned the oppression and the resistance of Black and working-class people, attending to the oft-hidden human agency that made and unmade the world around us, yet without looking away from ugly truths, many of which of which still remain with us since his death over sixty years ago in 1960. Wright was arguably the first Black best-selling author in American history, and among the best-known, openly anti-capitalist and anti-racist public intellectuals of the 20th century.
Yet, in most Left circles, Wright’s birthday today will go unmarked, the opportunity to reflect on his legacy, once again missed. What a terrible shame. For Richard Wright’s radical work remains as relevant as ever, in the era where the alleged “post-racialism” of Obama has given way to the neo-fascist fears of the MAGA era, and where the new Jim Crow has given rise to Black Lives Matter, a moment when both anti-racist and, yes, socialist consciousness and organization are resurfacing and entangling in vexing but promising new ways.
Born outside Natchez, Mississippi to Ella Wilson, a former schoolteacher and domestic worker, and Nathaniel Wright, a sharecropper-turned itinerant laborer, Richard Wright was the grandson of slaves. As relayed in his best-selling memoir Black Boy, his youth was plagued by hunger, poverty, eviction, and constant fear, especially after his father left the family and his mother succumbed to a paralyzing stroke when he was still a young boy. Facing a vicious world with little buffer, Wright became acutely sensitized to the horrors of working-class Black life. He was terrorized by the specter of white violence, perplexed by the absurd “common sense” of a racist social order, and at the same time alienated by the religious fundamentalism of his own family (whose Seventh Day Adventism seems to have further cut Wright off from the surrounding Black community).
With the help of his mother’s early guidance—and despite his grandmother’s tyrannical fundamentalism—Wright sought his redemption in books and in writing, though he never received formal schooling past the eighth grade, and seldom completed a school year without a major life disruption. Escaping the Deep South for Memphis, Tennessee in his teens, while still working to support his family, Wright risked all to travel to the burgeoning concrete metropolis of Chicago in 1927, only to soon be confronted by the cataclysm of the Great Depression, an event which drove him to desperate measures to survive, even while forcing a consciousness of the deep crises affecting modern society more generally.
During the 1930s and early 40s Wright would transform his life (and the world) through reading, writing, radical investigation, and activism, in part through a passionate, twelve-year association with the Communist Party USA (1932-44), then the largest and most dynamic radical organization in the United States. Publishing first a series of revolutionary poems, then short stories focused on racist oppression and resistance in the Jim Crow South (Uncle Tom’s Children, 1938), Wright achieved national and world-wide acclaim with his blistering 1940 novel Native Son, and his astonishing autobiography, Black Boy (1945), the latter “Northern” portion of which was published posthumously under the title, American Hunger (1977). Among his lesser known but essential works of Wright’s pro-communist period are the documentary history of the slavery and the Great Migration,12 Million Black Voices, (1941), his posthumously published novel of urban black male alienation, Lawd Today, as well as the surrealist novella, The Man Who Lived Underground, recently brought out in its full novel form by the Library of America.
Following an extended period of readjustment after a bitter and public break from the Communist Party, and a relocation to France, Wright produced a string of works also still worth consideration today, including his furiously iconoclastic philosophical potboiler, The Outsider (1953), three books of travel writing, Pagan Spain, Black Power (he may well have coined the term), and The Color Curtain, as well as the collected speeches and essays assembled under the title, White Man, Listen! In recent years, growing attention has been given to Wright’s later and posthumously published works and still unpublished drafts held at the Beineck Library at Yale University.
Thirteen years ago, in 2008, Wright’s centenary was dutifully marked by the publication of several significant scholarly books and anthologies, and by the convening of several national and international conferences reflecting on the legacies of this important—if controversial— historical figure. And the recent 2021 publication of Wright’s 1941 novel version of “The Man Who Lived Underground” has certainly drawn some well-deserved attention. Nonetheless, over a decade since Wright’s centenary in 2008, it cannot be said that this centenary scholarship has permeated public and activist discourse as widely as it should.
The past decade years has certainly seen an upsurge in public attention and mass protest highlighting the persistence of systemic racism in the US, and the epidemic of police murder targeting (especially) urban black men across this country. Since the vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012 and the high-profile police murders of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown in 2014, and again with the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor —we have seen the slogans of “Hands Up Don’t Shoot!” “I Can’t Breathe” and “#BlackLivesMatter” swell into a many-headed-hydra of resistance. Discussions of police brutality, mass incarceration, and other forms of racist state-sanctioned violence have been brought to the fore in ways not seen since perhaps the era of Black Power.
Within this upsurge, and following in the wakes of both the Occupy Wall Street movement and the surprising success of the Bernie Sanders campaign (and the subsequent breakthrough growth of Democratic Socialists of America), we have seen a developing dialogue—at times productive, at times contentious—about the relationship between Race and Class struggles, Black Liberation and Socialism, as well as the organizational methods of building movements “versus” organizing political party-type organizations.
Writers and Black public intellectuals addressing broader & activist audiences—from award-winning authors Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi, to radical Black public intellectuals such as Robin D. G. Kelley, Peniel Joseph, Angela Davis, Cornel West, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and the formal spokespersons for the Black Lives Matter organization, often draw from the realm of Black literature. But seldom do they draw from Wright’s work. Writers such as Coates and Kendi, draw rather from Wright’s literary contemporaries—and indeed from some of Wright’s most vociferous detractors—Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin. (Kendi’s recently co-edited volume 400 Hundred Souls, which contains 40 chapters, each exploring a decade of Black life and culture in America since 1619, does not have a single entry focusing on Wright, despite his massive importance in both the 1930s and the 1940s.)
There are of course good reasons to return to each of these talented Black writers; each has plenty to teach us—as we seek to learn both from the strides, and the lapses of those who have come before us. And this is true of Wright as well. Big time.
Why then return to Richard Wright today? With all the rich Black writing and thought that is out there today, what makes Wright’s work from generations ago still worth our time and attention?
I can think of dozens of reasons, but for this short article, I will focus on a pithy FIFTEEN below.
WHY RICHARD WRIGHT STILL MATTERS
1) Wright was a radical writer who could reach masses
Wright offers us an example of a writer who achieved in his writing style a “complex simplicity” that enabled him to communicate difficult and complex social realities to a mass audience and, to an unprecedented degree, across racial lines. At the same time, he sought to deploy “art as a weapon” and this remains a model for how radical political insights can be made accessible to a broad readership through the savvy appropriation of popular cultural forms. (To this day I regularly run into working-class, regular folks, non-academics, who were struck the bone by Wright’s work in middle school or in high school.)
2) Wright was a nuanced cultural critic—attentive to the utopian and ideological aspects of mass culture
Wright’s work shows a nuanced critical approach to mass and popular culture, from violent sports such as boxing to popular music, recognizing both their utopian and ideological dynamics (see his journalism on Harlem’s responses to Joe Louis victories, and his take on the broad popularity of Black music in 12 Million Black Voices). He appreciated the way in which mass culture resonated with Black and working-class audiences, without neglecting the co-optive and manipulative dynamics often built-in to these cultural events insofar as they were still being managed by the ruling class.
3) Wright powerfully dramatized the multi-layered and evolving oppression of Black and working-class people
His work documents, dramatizes, and analyses conditions and resistance in both the Jim Crow South and the ghettoized industrial North, while attending closely to the significant differences in the mode of racist social control and state repression dominant in different historical and geographical moments. He attended to enduring features of this society, without freezing them in place and forgetting how they too may change across place and time.
4) Wright represents an inspiring example of how communist commitment could enable revolutionary creativity
Wright offers us an inspiring and illuminating, example of a “Red/Black” synthesis of socialist (communist!) and anti-racist politics. His experience and his work testifies to both the powerful collaboration between a movement and a party-affiliated artist. His newly collected Daily Worker journalism shows how his involvement with this pro-communist outlet pushed him to investigate the conditions, the consciousness, and the collective activities of the masses of Harlem—in ways that no doubt influenced and enriched his literary work, (even while the toil of daily reportage took its toll).
5) Wright represents a cautionary tale, revealing to us the tensions that can lead to destructive dynamics within the Left
As sure as Wright’s pro-communist period remains an inspiration and an illumination, his longer term political trajectory remains a warning, and in some respects a tragedy. If few writers in US history were so openly identified and supportive of the Communist Party, few had such an embittered and public break with the radical organization. What happened? What went wrong? And what can we learn from this traumatic and tragic political break up? Wright’s work, particularly his autobiographical writings (including the still-unpublished early drafts of what was first entitled, “Black Confession”) offers us a chance to learn more about the tensions and contradictions that threaten such critical communism combination, in the context of the USA in particular. Few writers offer us such a vital interrogation of the challenges by mixing yet maintaining intellectual individuality in the midst of raging collective struggle and organization.
6) Wright offers us a complex dialectic of the interaction between Race and Class
Wright’s precocious 1937 essay, “Blueprint for Negro Writing” (published when he was only 29), still represents a crucial example of dialectical thinking when it comes to the relationship between black nationalism and proletarian class struggle in the context of white supremacist US capitalism. In that article, Wright argues for the necessity of engaging Black people (and oppressed people more generally) through the particular cultural forms that have been foisted upon them, often by conditions and forces not of their own choosing. (These include folk culture, the realm of religion and the church, as well as popular music forms, etc.) He thus challenges a narrow Marxism or socialism that would see economic interests as the baseline of appeal to workers regardless of race. At the same time Wright is unusually frank in recognizing that the racialized cultural terrain to which Black and oppressed people are systematically confined does not merely reflect their life, but often “distorts” it as well. The immediate racist violence of lynching (or police murder) for instance, certainly stokes the righteous desires of Black subjects for social change (and the overturning of racism), but a racialized/nationalist response to this violence, however understandable, often does not have what it takes to actually confront and end the racist practice; moreover, focusing in racial/binary terms on the spectacle of racist violence risks producing a perspective that is blind to the fact that not all whites are pro-lynching, that police violence targets poor whites as well, and that the interests of white workers, for instance, are not necessarily served by such a practice, however much the lynchers seek to speak in the name of all “white civilization.”
Indeed, Wright goes so far as to argue that the point of engaging and expressing a Black nationalist point of view is precisely the dialectical one: to enable people to grasp it, its historical origins, its limits, and thus the need to move through this nationalist perspective, transcending the imposed limits of a racist class society, towards a proletarian internationalism that can enable all the world’s long-stifled people to unleash their full human potential.
7) Wright takes Racism seriously, while refusing to reify “Race”
Wright gives us an example of a figure who took Black oppression seriously—as a central feature of American society—without either reifying race as an ontological category, or negating the potential, the actuality, the importance, and the necessity of white comradeship (as well as liberal white “ally-ship”) for the struggle against racism and for social emancipation; Wright remained at his core a revolutionary humanist.
8 ) Wright was an internationalist revolutionary thinker
Wright was a boldly internationalist thinker; from his earliest works, his appraisal of the possibilities and strategies for Black emancipation in America were shaped by a dawning awareness of the state of the global struggle against colonialism, racism, capitalism, and empire. Through the 40s, Wright’s internationalism foregrounded the important breakthroughs of the Communist movement, in and beyond the Soviet Union. In the 50s, Wright’s global horizon encompassed the revolutionary nationalist and anti-colonial movements of the emergent “Third World.”
9) Wright was a close critic of the dangers of toxic masculinity
Wright offers us a shocking yet under-appreciated close critique of toxic masculinity, charting the dangers to self and other posed by a violently hardened American individualism. Read critically, the notoriously brutal treatment which many of Wright’s female characters receive at the hands of male figures (from Lil’s beatings by Jake Johnson in Lawd Today to Silas’s attempted horse whipping of Sarah in “Long Black Song” to Bigger Thomas’s infamous murder of both Mary Dalton and Bessie in Native Son) can—I would say must—be read as a critical confrontation with dynamics by which individuals who are themselves victims of social oppression can reproduce the abuse by passing it on to those around them, maintaining a sense of “control” by asserting domination within the ghetto or margin where they remain nonetheless confined. This aspect of Wright’s work has frequently been misunderstood.
10) Wright was someone who refused to romanticize the oppressed
Wright’s work refuses to romanticize the oppressed, challenging both liberals and radicals, nationalists and communists, to recognize the degree to which oppression oppresses people. Most famously though the example of Bigger Thomas in Native Son, but also in such classic texts as “Bright and Morning Star,” Wright confronts us with the uncomfortable but crucial truth that those who must live under conditions of oppression are often driven to assert themselves—even in resistance—in ways that reproduce rather than transcend dominant patterns of social oppression. It challenges us to think about how resistance without reflection can compound rather than alleviate what hurts us.
11) Wright was attentive to the contradictory dynamics of compensatory and defensive consciousness, among the oppressed in particular
In a way that encompasses critiques of masculinist individualism, black nationalism, and dominant modes of religion, as well as other more secular and commodified “opiates of the people,” Wright’s materialist dialectic consistently attends to the ways in which the pressure of oppression may lead its victims to seek socio-psychological cover in the “bulwark” of institutions, ideologies, or modes of subjectivity that give a sense of protection or immediate safety, while either neglecting or making the individual even more vulnerable to the genuine threats waiting in the wings. The first chapter of his memoir Black Boy ends with what might be a synecdoche: the young Richard hiding beneath a burning house (he accidentally set the fire) psychologically feeling “safe” from the wrath of his parents even as he puts himself in greater danger.
12) Wright was relentlessly attentive to the class divisions running through life in the USA
While never losing focus on the horrific absurdity of Black oppression and white racial terrorism in the United States—and increasingly, in his later work, worldwide—Wright refused to treat Black people as a unified amorphous block, foregrounding instead the class, cultural, and ideological divisions that ran through the Black ‘community,’ and their implications for politics and subjectivity alike. Wright’s hopes rested not with the “talented tenth” or with the Black petty or big bourgeoisie, but squarely with the expropriated and newly urbanized black working class, which, at the time of his writing in the early 40s, promised to bring the powerful historical consciousness that was the legacy of slavery to bear on the concentrated force of modern industrial production.
13) Wright centers the terror and brutality of Black life in America, while also attending to the danger and difficulty of immediate responses to this violence
Wright foregrounds the brutality and centrality of violence in the African American historical experience, but the way that he frames and reflects on the causes and effects of violence—its spectacular visibility, its spectral and traumatic lingering —captures social and psychological dimensions that are often neglected in current discussions. He incorporated elements of Marxism, psychoanalysis and existentialism.
14) Wright helps diagnose the social and historical basis for fascism in the United States, and in the modern world more generally
Wright anticipated the rise of a fascist tendencies within the United States, attending to the ways that the social dislocations and unfulfilled/betrayed promises of modernity rendered the masses of people anxious and hungry, not only for bread, but for some system of belief or belonging that could repair the existential rift in their rootless being. Interestingly, and provocatively, Wright saw this dynamic as broadly applicable and as deeply contradictory. It could, as he wrote in “How Bigger Was Born,” lead people to struggle for a communism that would truly improve the lives of the working class and the oppressed, or it could lead them to rally around the false flag of fascism. Furthermore, Wright saw in this the socio-psychological implications of this historical rupture as affecting Black and white Americans both, notwithstanding their drastically different structural positions with respect to the ruling order of white supremacy and Jim Crow racism.
15) Finally, for now, Wright reminds of the transformative power of reading and writing, of the importance of the collectivized cultural front for the nourishing of the radical movement
Wright’s work, and his memoir in particular, remind us of the power of reading and writing to transform individual lives as well as to inspire and offer thoughtful guidance to radical social movements. Of note here are the CP-sponsored worker-writer centers, known as John Reed Clubs, which we so crucial to Wright’s own development and his social vision. The actual experience of interracial comradeship in these clubs were formative to Wright’s thinking, not just as a strategic alliance but as proof positive that another world, beyond the strangling binary stripes of racist society, was possible.
The reasons for Wright’s relative obscurity in many circles today are partly the product of (unfortunate) contingent circumstances. For one thing, his celebrity came before the arrival of television, denying us ready YouTube access to his utterly quotable body of work. We still await the great Richard Wright documentary. Wright left the USA to live in exile, mainly in France, in 1947, and while he continued to follow developments in the US, there is no doubt that his separation from the land of his birth had a negative effect on both his readership and, arguably, also on his ability to capture the realities of a rapidly changing society in his later works.
Tragically, Wright’s severe and sudden sickness and premature death in 1960 at the age of 52, prevented him from having the opportunity to witness and respond to the rising militancy of the phase of the Civil Rights Movement, inaugurated by the student-led sit-ins that spread from Greensboro, North Carolina to fifty southern cities. Unlike James Baldwin, Wright never got to make the return trip back to the United States to engage an America, and a Black-led social movement, that was just then leaping to catch up with thoughts Wright put down on paper decades earlier.
To these circumstances of time and place we can add a nagging political complication:
Wright’s long-time and very public affiliation with the Communist Party undoubtedly made (and make) him anathema to circles that have been influenced by anti-communism. Even today, many of those who make the argument for an alliance of socialism and Black liberation have come through political trajectories who tend to project a one-sided negative view of the mid-20th century Communist movement, lumping in and neglecting Wright as a result. At the same time, Wright’s very public and very bitter break with the CPUSA—and soon after with the Communist movement generally—deprived him, after the 1940s of the institutional support and readership that he had relied upon for his most prolific and influential period.
Nonetheless, on this 113th of Richard Wright’s birth, let us remember him, take up again his work, and commit ourselves to learning from what he offers us. There is still so much to discover, to reflect upon, and to share. Rest in Power Richard Wright!