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Richard Wright and the Third World

[Part 1]

A few weeks ago, I discussed the importance of Toni Morrison as a contemporary African-American author who captured the black experience in important ways. Today I wish to discuss the writings of Richard Wright (1908-1960), an African-American writer of an earlier generation who paved the way for the emergence of contemporary African-American literature.

He was one of the widely discussed writers in developing countries during the 1960s and 1970s because so many of his literary and intellectual concerns had a direct bearing on the preoccupations of writers and intellectuals in the developing world. In this column and the next, my intent is to draw attention to one aspect of Richard Wright that I think is highly significant - his notion of power and its implications for those living as marginalised citizens in Third World countries. This is indeed a facet of his writing that has received scant attention.

Richard Wright, to be sure, never formulated a comprehensive and coherent concept of power. However, throughout his writings one can observe an implicit notion of power which opens up productive lines of thinking. It is this aspect of his writing that I wish to focus in these columns. The concept of power has been subject to diverse interpretations by modern theorists.

Theorist

My privileged theorist in this discussion is Michael Foucault; he enables us to navigate productively the complex terrain of Richard Wright’s fiction Foucault’s concept of power differs significantly from that of most other theorists who have grappled with this topic. He was not interested in the questions of what power is and where it comes from. He was more concerned with such issues as exercise of power and its impact. Unlike most other theorists, he did not see power as a property to be owned but a relationship that brings the dominators and the dominated into a close alliance. The establishment of power is vitally connected to the production of discourse. According to Foucault, power circulates in society in the form of a chain.

It is also his conviction that human subjects are formed in discourse when we seek to understand the work and vision of Richard Wright, this concept of power advanced by Foucault can prove to be if great value. In these columns I will be focusing primarily on his novel Native Son, which, in my judgment, is Wright’s most accomplished work of fiction.

Native Son contains a story set in the 1930s that deals with the life and death of Bigger Thomas who was forced to commit murder as a consequence of the racial hatred he was subject to. The novel is divided into three parts, called Fear ,Flight and Fate. The very opening of the novel suggests symbolically the nature of the oppressive world in which the protagonist is condemned to live, and the squalor and violence that are endemic to it. The opening episode sets the tone for the human oppression that is to unfold in the narrative.

‘Goddam Bigger whispered fiercely, whirling and kicking out his leg with all the strength of his body. The force of his movement shook the rest loose and it sailed the air and struck a wall. Instantly, it rolled over and leaped again. Bigger dodged and the rat landed against a table leg. With clenched teeth, bigger held the skillet; he was afraid to hurl it, fearing that he might miss. The rat squeaked and turned and ran in a narrow circle, looking for a place to hide. It leaped again past bigger and scurried on dry rasping feet to one side of the box and then to the other, searching for the hole. Then it turned and reared up on its hind legs.’

The first part of the novel, fear, examines Bigger’s inability to see himself as an individual and to face up to his troubling emotions with any degree of self-assurance.

Culture

He dislikes whiteen and white culture as intensely as he dislikes himself and the culture that is forced to inhabit. This section culminates with his accidental murder of Mary. The second part of the novel entitled Flight, examines the mind-set of Bigger who realises that sooner or later he will be discovered as the murderer by the police.

However, his very act of murder and the reports of it in newspapers serve to give him a sense of much-needed identity. He feels, for once in his life, that he has succeeded in coming out of his shell of invisibility. Ironically, his act of killing has given him a sense of life.

While exulting in his new identity and sense of living, he kills his girlfriend Bessie and is apprehended by the police. The final section if the novel, Fate, shows us Bigger Thomas in prison as he awaits his trial and then is presented to us as he undergoes the trial. He is found guilty and is condemned to die; the defence of Bigger out up by his attorney Boris Max, calls attention to the social roots of his crimes to no avail. This forms the core of the third section of the novel.

The essence of Native Son, as I see it, is Bigger Thomas’ realisation of his identity and how it is complexly related to the concept of power that I explained at the beginning. Bigger Thomas is seeking to assert his identity in a society which is determined to deny him his identity and visibility; he is seeking to attain a sense of visibility in a world which has cast him into the shadows of invisibility. For Bigger to realise his identity and attain visibility, he has to subvert the cultural discourse into which he has been born. The need for subverting the dominant cultural discourse so as to create a more satisfying human one is acutely felt in most third world countries that are struggling with the forces of colonialism and neo-colonalism.

It is largely for this reason that Richard Wright struck a deep chord of response in many writers and intellectuals in developing countries.

It is clear that Native Son helped to open a new phase in African-American literature, and that it became a reference point for subsequent writers living in pockets of marginal cultures within oppressive dominant power structures. Many decades ago, the distinguished American literary critic Irving Howe made the following interesting observation. ‘The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.

No matter how much qualifying the book might later need, it made impossible repetition of old lies. In all its crudeness, melodrama, and claustrophobia of vision, Richard Wright’s novel brought out into the open as no one had done before, the hatred, fear, and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture.’

James Baldwin, the eminent African-American writer and one of the harshest critics of Wright, said that Native Son is ‘the most powerful and celebrated statement e have yet had of what it means to be a negro in America,’ another critic observed that, ‘With one powerful thrust Wright had breached the ghetto walls. He had gained a hearing, claimed a territory, and challenged the conscience of a nation.’ All of these laudatory remarks, many more along similar lines, testify to the immense influence that this novel had on the American public imagination.

Native son, to my mind exercised a profound influence that it did and opened up a new psychological and moral territory for the novel in America largely because it sought to challenge the dominant and encompassing cultural discourse, thereby underscoring the need for the establishment of newer power relations in society.

It is indeed this endeavour of Richard Wright that hashed the deepest fascination for the literary intellectuals of developing countries, whom at the time this novel was published, were suffering under life-denying pressures of foreign subjugation. Bigger Thomas thought in a way that many of the opinion-makers of the developing countries wanted to think. The name Bigger Thomas is well chosen – it calls to mind the slanderous word ‘nigger’ as well as the dreams of a man who sought bigger things by denying the rules and conventions of behaviour laid down by society which he found so oppressive.

Black Boy, written five years later, is another book that has attracted the attention of many intellectuals in the Third World, not only because it is a powerful document I its own right, dissecting with razor-sharp imagination the society in which the young black boy grew up, but also because it serves to illuminate, especially to these living outside the United States the full plenitude of meaning of Native Son.

Black Boy is an autobiographical account of Richard Wright’s childhood in the South, before he chose to leave for Chicago, in the hope that his personality would ‘drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other sons.’ In Black Boy, one observes how the author has chosen to wage a battle in two fronts.

On the one hand, he is infuriated by the pervasive oppressiveness of the white world and wishes to change the situation; on the other hand, he is also rebelling against his own inherited southern black culture, which does not allow him adequate scope for the flowering of his personality. In both cases, it is the realisation of his identity that matters most to him, and this cannot be achieved without challenging the cruelty and irrationality of the white world as well as rebelling against the aridity and limitations of his own lack world.

This, again can be connected to the concept of power that runs deep in Wright’s works. Michel Foucault says that ‘in any society the production if discourse is at once controlled, selected, organised, and redistributed according to a number of procedures whose role is to avert its power and its dangers, to master the unpredictable event.’

There are several ‘procedures of exclusion’ operating in discourse. Discourse empowers some to define the terms in which experience is structured and is to be comprehended. What Wright ought to emphasize was the fact tat unless blacks were prepared to scrutinise and reject those aspects of their culture and personality which conformed to the terms defined by the ruling discourse and thereby clear the way for the assertion of their identity, they would be eternally condemned to a role of pitiful servility.

This idea reverberates powerfully in the imagination of many Third World literary intellectuals. Wright was deeply perturbed by the way in which southern blacks were being untrue to their deepest selves, thwarting their natural inclinations, twisting their dreams, and aspirations so as to fall in line with the prevailing discourse.

This he saw as a form of collective self-annihilation; to him, it was the most degrading form of destruction.

In Native Son, the realisation of Bigger’s identity and his gaining of a sense of visibility and vision are inextricably linked. The central image, with various modifications, that pervade the novel is one of blindness and seeing. Just as much as in the autobiographical Black Boy, the controlling image is that of imprisonment and entrapment. Native sin opens with some f the characters waking up to and seeing their miserable world.

It closes with our seeing the social and psychological roots of that harshly oppressive world which was captured fir us in physical terms at the beginning of the novel. Mrs. Dalton is blind and her inability to see precipitates the murder of her daughter at Bigger’s hands. In addition, many of the characters in the novel are partially blind in a figurative sense.

The newspapers see Bigger as a cruel ‘ape’, and the police see him in sub-human terms. Images pertaining to eyes, seeing, vision abound in the novel. At one point, Britten tells Dalton, ‘well, you see’em one way and I see’em another. To me a nigger is a nigger.’ Similarly, when bigger Thomas encounters Dalton, he observes the strangeness of his eyes.’ The white man at Mr. Dalton’s side was squinting at him, he felt that tight, hot, choking fear returning. The white man clicked on the light.

He had a cold, impersonal manner that told Bigger to be on his guard. In the very look of the man’s eyes Bigger saw his own personality reflected in narrow, restricted terms.’

Tropes pertaining to blindness and vision pervade the novel and reinforce the point that a deeper understanding which transcends blind stereotypes is needed if there is to be a harmonious and mutually satisfying relationship between blacks and whites. It is interesting to observe that Bigger Thomas’ crime, committed under the influence of blind fury, give him, a vision which helps him to perceive his true self in relation to the wider society.

The close affinity between identity and vision is one that holds a deep interest to many third world countries. In many Asian religious and intellectual traditions, the realisation of identity is seen in terms of attaining vision, In the Hindu tradition, for example, it is admonished that in order to realise one’s true identity one has to pierce the veil of illusion that obstructs one’s vision. In India the commonly used term for philosophy is ‘darshana ‘which means vision.

It is indeed true that Asian intellectual traditions are talking at a metaphysical level and that they are highlighting spiritual vision. Richard Wright, on the other hand, is exploring the fraught relationship that exists between social identity and social vision. In the final analysis, as Wright says, this is a matter of power. The discourse which legitimised power in the society that he inhabited, saw to it that blacks, by and large, were rendered invisible.

Therefore, to subvert the existing dominant discourse and rearrange power relations, the blacks had of necessity to gain visibility. The way that Bigger Thomas won that visibility may not have been the ideal way of doing things; however, given the prevalent restrictions and harsh oppression, there was not much choice left to him.

At a social level, Richard Wright succeeded in paving the way for the subversion of the existing discourse by calling attention to the plight of Bigger Thomas.

However, in terms of conscious literary art, he failed to dislodge the existing discourse. This is, ti be sure, a more difficult thing to accomplish. To achieve this end at a literary level, Wright had to produce in his writings rhetorical and grammatical tropes that would serve to dislodge the ruling privileged subjects, objects, events, and forms of behaviour and attitudes to life. He could accomplish this only be deploying a figural language - one that was wholly antipathetic to the existing discourse which regulated power. This, it is quite evident, Wright was unable to achieve.

As a commentator has perceptively pointed out, ‘Foucault’s writings, in short serves to disinherit the powers that enjoy an abundance bequeathed in prevailing discursive practices.’ Had Wright addressed his mind to this aspect of the question of discourse and power as well, he would have achieved an unparalleled measure of success.

Richard Wright also addressed many other issues that were and continue to be of compelling significance to intellectuals in developing countries. I am referring in particular to the ideas and sentiments expressed in such works as Black Power, The Color Curtain, and White Man, Listen!. This works contain many of his ideas regarding the future development of Third World countries.

It is interesting to note that on the one hand, Richard Wright was a nationalist who was genuinely interested in the national identity and sovereignty of newly independent countries, particularly in Africa.

On the other hand, he did not subscribe to the rather simplistic notion entertained by many Third World leaders and policy-makers that modernisation was intrinsically inimical to the growth of developing societies and that they had to resist the process if they were to retain their cultural identity.

In his writings on this subject, one perceives an interesting dialectic between culture and development. Wright recognised the value of cultural resurgence as a positive and creative force. At the same time, he also upheld the importance of modernisation as an inescapably important and positive force.

Wright was of the opinion that the only way in which the countries of the third world could assert their individuality and establish new power relations was by discarding much of the past, which was closely linked to superstition, calcified traditions, and self-defeating inwardness, and thereby embracing the forces of modernisation.

He was, to be sure, making his observations and offering his suggestions largely in relation to the African countries, but the essence if what he said has an equally compelling relevance to other third world countries as well.

Wright expressed the view that indigenous customs and traditions, if they in any way impede the progress of society, straining towards modernisation, should be done away with – a view that was hardly likely to win the enthusiastic applause of most third world leaders. It was as id Wright at times, under estimated the role of culture in social modernisation.

Richard Wright, pointing out to Nkrumah the need for militarisation ‘to be able to leap into the twentieth century’, said, ‘A military form of African society will atomise the fetish ridden past, abolish the mystical and nonsensical family relations that freeze the African in his static degradation: it will render the continued existence of those parasitic chiefs who have too long-bled and misled a native people.’

This is, no doubt, a sharp rebuke, and this denunciation, while it contains a large measure of truth also betrays an ignorance about the dynamics of indigenous cultures and how most they could be mobilised for social advancement.

It was Wright’s considered judgment hat the greatest harm that imperialism and colonialism did to the colonised peoples was not in the spheres of economics, important as it undoubtedly was, but in that of psychology – the creation of a personality that was unnecessarily submissive often servile.

This indeed is a sentiment shared by many Third World writers and public intellectuals. Commenting on the disaster brought on the African communal self by colonialism, the celebrated Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe made the following comment.

‘Here there is an adequate revolution for me to espouse –to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement.

And it is essentially a question of education in the best sense of the word. Here, I think my aim and the deepest aspirations of my society meet. For no thinking African can escape the pain of the wound on our soul.’

 

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