Richard Wright, the father figure of African American literature, both nurtured and was rejected by his two most conspicuous heirs, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Wright, who took Ellison under his wing in New York in the late 1930s, told his acolyte to stop copying him, that he was mimicking, not cultivating his own style. Ellison responded that he was trying to learn to write well by imitating his mentor. That was when they were close. Baldwin, too, started out as a pupil and an admirer who saw Wright poised to be the greatest Black writer in the United States.
Though it happened slowly, by 1941, Ellison betrayed signs of feeling that Wright, affiliated off and on with the Communist Party, wrote fiction that was too ideological and not sensitive enough to nuance: Wright wanted to testify to the monstrosities of white supremacy, rather than the power of Black resilience. Ellison grew committed to the poetry of American democracy, despite how badly it was sullied; he swore by the virtues of individualism. Calling Wright “Poor Richard,” Baldwin joined Ellison in lamenting their mentor’s failure to see the beauty of Black people. The two of them never ceased to love Wright’s prose, but they came to reject his perspective.
I admit I’ve been inclined to share their verdict, based on Wright’s first novel, Native Son, published in 1940, which I read again and again in classes before and during college. I’ve parroted the notes I took in lectures, and I’ve taught a version of those lectures myself: Bigger Thomas was a protagonist stripped of any redeeming qualities, so distorted by the conditions of racism that he became an avatar more than a character, and an unsettling representation of Blackness.
My assessment of Wright has begun to shift over the past couple of years. I’ve read 12 Million Black Voices (1941)— his reflections on the Great Migration, accompanied by Farm Security Administration photographs taken during the Depression—and been struck by his broad sympathy. And I’ve reread Black Boy (1945), a memoir I hadn’t touched since my final year of high school in the Northeast, in a writing seminar led by a teacher born, like me, in Birmingham, Alabama. Wright reached for the very core of the human condition in his portrait of growing up destitute in the Deep South during the early 20th century and then making his way north: abundance everywhere and terrible hunger, tragedy mixed with the quotidian in the most disorienting ways. The experience he evoked might not have been every Black life, but it was indeed a part of Black life. In Mississippi, the land could swallow you whole. In Chicago, a rat might bite you, because after all, you were made to live in slums no different from rat traps. Wright was showing us something true, if not absolute—how, with the plantation breathing at your back and deferred dreams before you, a tragedy happened.
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