Thursday, June 16, 2011

Reflections on Richard Wright

I recently read Richard Wright's biography, "Black Boy," and his novel, "Native Son." Richard Wright was never required reading when I was in school; his name came up several times in books that I have read, and his novel "Native Son" was mentioned in the movie "American History X" that sets the father off in a tirade about "Affirmative Blacktion" to the family at the dinner table. While reading James Baldwin recently, I learned that he and Richard Wright had a feud over political matters.

"Black Boy" is a fascinating, deep autobiographical depiction about growing up in Mississippi during segregation and Jim Crow. The novel not only reflects upon the discrimination that he felt over his skin color, but it also showed the effect that it had upon his family. His grandmother and most of his family were devout Seventh-Day Adventists. His mother became ill and he was forced to live with various relatives for short periods of time and most of his life with his grandparents who were nursing his ill mother in the same household. His grandmother shunned him because he refused to accept that particular belief system to where she provided very little for him; she refused to let him get a job on Saturdays so he could provide for his own basic needs and his education; he was dragged to church and put on the spot by friends and family; and he spent a lot of time arguing and pondering the existence of a God while he was faced with the reality of his surroundings that made him believe religion was more of a ploy to feel comfortable with segregation and income inequality.

Wright's later life includes one of educating himself through reading books on philosophy and psychology--he pursued understanding reason and became mindful of his own surroundings as his liberation from the harsh reality of not being treated as an equal amongst his co-workers, family, friends, and society. He also became a communist and became active with a communist organization--something that he writes extensively about when he was questioned about his reading material and was shunned for developing a sense of intellectualism. His views on being a communist were something that he later wrote a great deal about explaining his frustration with it.
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...
Wright's "Native Son" is even more fascinating as a work of fiction. The character known as Bigger Thomas is a young, poor, and frustrated young man living in Chicago in the 1930s. Bigger goes to work for a white wealthy family as their driver and recognizes their daughter as an actress that he saw in a movie. The family owns the building that Bigger's family lives in that is overpriced, infested with vermin, and is located in a part of town where blacks are forced to live. Bigger is ordered to take the daughter out for the evening which leads to a rendezvous with one of her male suitors who is a member of the Communist Party. The night leads to the daughter and the male suitor known as "Jan" patronizing Bigger; they force him to take them to his neighborhood, eat with them in a restaurant in his neighborhood where Bigger's accomplices and his girlfriend frequent, and then the night ends with Jan being dropped off and Bigger murdering the daughter by accident, and then burning her body in the furnace. Bigger then acts as if nothing has happened and then gets the plan to try and get ransom out of the family who believes she's missing; Bigger then murders his own girlfriend and is later caught by the authorities who equate him to the level of a monster. Bigger then meets an attorney named "Max" who comes up with a defense in court proving that Bigger's surroundings and situation of being a segregated male in society led him to the act of brutality.

While it's a tall order to try and understand the last part of that without reading the book, I think it applies to society as a whole. Many of the people who commit crimes in this world are acting out as a result of their environment. When you examine the home lives or the backgrounds of some people who have committed some of the worst crimes in the history of the world, you get an understanding of what led them to that point. "Native Son" and "Black Boy" are books about one's own surroundings and the struggle to try and understand and make peace with them. These aren't just typical African-American literature novels, but they both make deep philosophical points about anyone's life.

If you have never read "Native Son" or "Black Boy," you should definitely put them on your list. Richard Wright was one of the gems of American Literature. His unique experiences and narratives will make you see many things differently. His experiences with communism show that he was striving to discover an understanding of our lives when it comes to making a living and having some self-respect in the world only to find that things are not always what they seem. His stories of educating himself and survival of some truly hard times in his life will give you a reality based sense of inspiration.
“The impulse to dream was slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing.” - Richard Wright

No comments:

Post a Comment