Richard Wright and the Third World
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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