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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Are Uncle Tom’s Children Bound by History?

Page references are to the 1965 paperback Harper Perennial edition.

Uncle Tom’s Children is a remarkable first book, all the more for the fact that these insightful and artful stories were the work of an author who, due to American racism, had only an elementary school education. Apart from that severe limitation, Wright also spent his youth in his grandmother’s Seventh Day Adventist household in which worldly amusements such as non-scriptural reading were forbidden. Through heroic exertions of will, he managed to educate himself and write several of the most important works of the American twentieth century. He did receive aid in his development from the Communist Party that sponsored the John Reed Clubs and the Left Front literary journal that had given him critical support and recognition and from the cultural commitment of the New Deal whose WPA Writers Project had supported him.
Wright had, of course, a troubled relationship with the Party, having left Chicago partly to escape the political scene that had allowed him to emerge as a writer. Though he later resigned his membership and contributed to the anti-communist The God that Failed in 1949, he remained a principled leftist. He avoided, for instance, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, correctly suspecting its roots in the CIA.

Critics who comment on Wright’s political evolution often say explicitly that his motive for leaving the Party was his refusal to write agit-prop with plots guided by vulgar notions of revolutionary art. Indeed, in spite of the unsparing, precise, and detailed picture of American racism he details, he never succeeded in integrating his social view with his artistic practice, and most of his fiction is ultimately more psychological and philosophical than political.

In fact his theoretical call to arms, “The Blueprint for Black Writers,” criticizes not reactionary literature but rather phony literature, either the museum-like preservation of folk culture or the second-rate imitation of mainstream writers. He devastatingly quotes Lenin to the effect that the petty bourgeois in their attempt to emulate the rich often succeed only in caricature. Reference to Lenin may seem doctrinaire, yet what he was insisting upon was the presentation of the truth of his own experience, neither more nor less than, say, Hemingway might have done.

Even the essay “I Tried to be a Communist” [1], his apologia for leaving the Party, has no mention of any conflicts over literary principles, no critique of Marxist ideology, or even of the Party’s shifting views of a correct line – his criticism of the Party is virtually entirely about the jockeying for power of individuals, each so bizarre and groundless in their accusations that an escaped mental patient claiming higher party standing can command authority. The jealousy, backstabbing, and cynical manipulation in pursuit of power he describes in the CPUSA, far from peculiar to that group, are familiar to workers in many educational institutions and corporate offices.

He describes the first conflict in the Chicago group as between the clique of painters who held the leadership and that of writers who challenged them. [2] In the shadow cast by Stalin’s purges, his friend Ross is accused of betraying the movement He mentions the publication of “Big Boy Leaves Home” without a word about any criticism of his writing. Apart from this unjust condemnation, his other major policy conflict is over the dissolution of the John Reed Clubs which he presents as an example of the Party’s top-down management in which members were expected to support any decision from above without discussion or dissent. Serious though it is, this criticism of the Communist Party has nothing to do with censorship or nonartistic influence on his own work. Indeed he more than once reports praise for his writing by Party members.

This book, along with Native Son and Black Boy, are the most accurate and highly charged accounts of incidents in the latter part of the hundred years of terror in the South that followed the withdrawal of federal troops as part of the corrupt election deal allowing Hayes to take the presidency in 1877, called the Great Compromise by some and the Great Betrayal by others. Though none of the picture Wright paints contradicts Marxist analysis, little of what he implies requires it either. Wright clearly seeks to set down the terms of his own profound experience of Jim Crow.

Apart from Wright’s expert use of dialect [3], he is notable for foregrounding the psychological concomitants of racism, including its strong sexual element. [4] Significantly less evident in the two stories in which Communists play a role, sexual motives are prominent in all the others. In the autobiographical piece “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” Wright relates the case of a man who was castrated for having sex with a white prostitute. In “Big Boy Leaves Home” the crisis of transgression is dramatically intensified by the fact that the white women saw naked black bodies. Action arises from a rape in “Long Black Song.” In “Down by the Riverside” Mann’s questioners suspect him of improprieties with Mrs. Heartfield.

Apart from the neuroses of the oppressor, Wright is equally eloquent on the consequences for the oppressed. In his own version Wright restates DuBois’ classic formulation of double consciousness: “Here I learned to lie, , to steal, to dissemble. I learned to play that dual role which every Negro must play if he wants to eat and live.” (13) Silas of “Long Black Song” rages “Ah’m gonna be hard! When they come fer me Ah’m gonna be here!” while next lamenting “But, Lawd, Ah don wanna be this way!” (152-3) In “Fire and Cloud” Rev. Taylor retreats into a dissociative state. “When Taylor spoke he seemed to be outside of himself, listening to his own words, aghast and fearful.” (185) Mann has “wild impulse” to shoot blindly. (120)
Yet the greatness of Wright’s vision utterly transcends these historically bound themes. Wright found in France both an escape from the American racial atmosphere and the congenial philosophy of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus (who were all like him intellectuals of the left), but the existentialist moments are already present in his work long before The Outsider and The Long Dream. Silas’ monologue, cited above, continues “It don mean nothing! Yuh die ef yuh fight! Yuh die ef yuh doin fight. Either way yuh die n it don mean nothing . . .” (153) To him “It don make no difference which way Ah go.” (152) When Mann inadvertently kills, it reminds the reader of nothing so much as Meursault’s murder in The Stranger.

Wright’s rural Southern characters have much in common with Sartre’s man of good faith [5] who strives for the impossible and can experience freedom only with angoisse. They resemble Camus’ man of action who defies human limitation by breaking the paralysis of helplessness: Silas in his desperation sounds rather like Camus when he wrote “all I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice.” [6] Far from being shaped by Negrophiles in France, Wright’s later, more explicitly existential books were a natural growth from his earlier work.

In the concluding lines of “Bright and Morning Star” which ends Uncle Tom’s Children, Sue dies by violence, but remains defiant to the end and finds this lethal assault “forced her to live again, intensely.” (263) In her strength of will she finds her affirmation, her “morning star,” neither in the promises of her church nor in the promise of revolution. Communist organizing provided the terms of her rebellion in the time and place in which she finds herself in history, but her psychology is not dependent on the specific conditions of her life. In the same way Wright’s vision included but was not limited by a sensitive and informed response to social conditions of his time.

1. Originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1944 and later reprinted in the hugely successful The God that Failed edited by the anti-communist British Labourite Richard Crossman.

2. It is surely noteworthy that both these contending groups were artists. Though Wright had been introduced to the Communists through his fellow workers in the post office, one finds no mention of them or of stockyard or steel workers in the accounts of leadership.

3. His unimpeachable bona fides as a proletarian was challenged by fellow Communists because, though self-educated, he spoke in an educated and genteel manner.

4. See Advertisements for Myself for an account of the piece Norman Mailer had written for Lyle Stuart’s The Independent which asked, “Can’t we have some honesty about what’s going o in the South? Everybody who knows the South knows that the white man fears the sexual potency of the Negro,” provoking Faulkner to attack his masculinity. Eleanor Roosevelt may have been doing the same thing when she reacted to the statement by calling him “horrible.” Few white writers equaled Mailer’s insight when he wrote in “The White Negro,” “Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk.”

5. See Being and Nothingness, Washington Square Press edition, 1977, p. 724..

6. Albert Camus, “Neither Victims nor Executioners.”

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