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Sunday, 22 July 2012





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Richard Wright and the Third World

[Part 2]

In Richard Wright’s work pertaining to the problems and experiences of the Third World, we find an interesting interplay of attitudes and viewpoints. On the one hand, he was deeply aware of the wounds that colonialism had inflicted, at times permanently, on the psyches of the subjugated peoples, twisting their lives in unhappy ways. On the other hand, he was equally convinced that these countries had to emancipate themselves from the constricting and self-destructive imperatives of the past and tradition.

As he remarked in a tone of unconcealed anger, ’teeming religious gripping the mind and consciousness of Asians and Africans offend me. I can conceive of no identification with such mystical visions of the life that freeze million in static degradation, no matter how emotionally satisfying such degradation seems to those who wallow in it.’

There is no doubt that these strictures were made with the best of intentions keeping the progress of Asian and African societies in mind. It is evident that Wright was examining his own personal experience and making certain suggestions to the people of the Third World whom he saw as confronting an experience analogous to his own.


As one reads his compelling autobiography, Black Boy, one observes that he achieved the measure of success he did by patiently exploring his society, rejecting the limited traditions that it had inherited, and, through reason commitment, transcending the disabling misery that he was born into. He recommends the same course of action for Third World countries stuck deep in the mire of tradition and superstition.

Again, we see Wright’s concept of power as a fundamentally animating force in his reflections and agendas for action. In a word, he is pointing a way out of the imprisoning discourse in which Third World countries are hamstrung.

Ralph Ellison makes the point that Wright’s Black Boy recalls the dialectic between acceptance and repudiation of Western culture found in Jawaharlal Nehru’s autobiography, Toward Freedom.

There is indeed much substance to this observation. Nehru may not have displayed the same sense of moral courage and ferocity that Richard Wright did, but the basic emotional and moral topography is the same, as is evidenced by the following paragraph.

‘During the long midnight drive I mused over the relations of Englishmen and Indians, of ruler and ruled, of official and non-official, of those in authority and those who have to obey.

What a great gulf divided the two races, and how they distrusted and disliked each other! But more than that distrust and dislike was the ignorance of each other, and, because of this, each side was a little afraid of the other and was constantly on its guard in the others presence. to each, the other appeared as a sour-looking, unamiable creature, and neither realized that there was decency and kindliness behind the mask.


As the rulers of the land, with enormous patronage at their command, the English had attracted to themselves crowds of cringing place hunters and opportunists and they judged India from the unsavoury specimens. The Indians saw the Englishmen function only as an official with all the inhumanity of the machine and with all the passions of a vested interest trying to preserve itself.’

The point that I am seeking to make here is that Richard Wright’s novels and discursive writings have appealed to many of the literary intellectuals of the Third World largely because he was addressing issues that were of deep significance and relevance to their lives.

The concept of power as a relationship, how it permeates in society, and how it is inscribed in certain discursive practices, the way in which these discursive practices can usefully be overturned are the set of commonly shared issues that make Wright such an interesting and thought-provoking writer to literary intellectuals in the Third World.

In the latter part of his life, Richard Wright was more and more concerned with the plight of the people living in the Third World. He travelled to Africa and Indonesia and expressed deep faith in leaders like Nehru, Sukarno, Nasser, and Nkrumah. He believed in the dedication and ability to modernise their countries, free them from the shackles of superstition and irrationality and transform their societies in meaningful ways. He saw in these Third World countries a clash between tradition and modernity, and he hoped, with the best intention in the world, that the forces of modernity would win out.

That Richard Wright, who was enamored of the enlightenment and influenced by the thinking of social scientists such as Robert Park, Robert Redfield, Louis worth, and Horace Clayton, should espouse such a cause should come as no surprise.

However, it seems to me, Richard Wright failed to comprehend the full complexity of the dialectic between tradition and modernity, and the mediating role that culture could usefully play in this interaction. Wright hoped that these countries in the Third World would repudiate their traditions and develop more rapidly so that they could hold their own in the contemporary world, just as the black boy from Mississippi had had to reject his past and his future in order to realise his identity.


The concluding paragraphs of Black Boy present in poignantly his dilemma as well as what he emblematically thought was the dilemma of the emerging nations of the Third World.

‘Not only had the southern whites not known me, but, more important still, as I had lived in the South I had not had the chance to learn who I was. The reassure of southern living kept me from being the kid of person that I might have been.

I had been what my surroundings had demanded, what my family – conforming to the dictates of the whites above them – had exacted of me, and what the whites had said that I must be. Never being fully able to be myself, I had slowly learned that the South could recognise but a part of a man, could accept but a fragment of his personality, and all the rest – the best and deepest things of heart and mind – were tossed away in blind ignorance and hate. I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown, to meet other situations that would perhaps elicit from me other responses.

And if I could meet enough of a different life, then, perhaps, gradually and slowly I might learn who I was, what I might be. I was not leaving the South to forget the South, but so that some day I might understand it, might come to know that its rigors had done to me, to its children. I fled so that the numbness of my defensive living might thaw out and let me feel the pain – years later and far away – of what living in the South had meant.

Yet, deep down, I knew that I could never really leave the South, for my feelings had already been formed by the South, for there had been slowly instilled into my personality and consciousness, black though I was, the culture of the South. So, in leaving, I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend its strange winds, respond to the warmth if other suns, and, perhaps to bloom……

And if that miracle ever happened, then, I would know that there was yet hope in that southern swamp of despair and violence, that light could emerge even put of the bleakest of the southern night. I would know that the South too could overcome its fear, its hate, its cowardice, its heritage of guilt, and blood, its burden of anxiety and compulsive cruelty.

Hazy notion

With ever watchful eyes and beaming scars, visible and invisible, I headed North, full of a hazy notion that life could be lived with dignity, that the personalities of others should not be violated, that men should be able to confront other men without fear or shame, and that if men were lucky in their living on earth they might win some redeeming meaning for their having struggled and suffered here beneath the stars.’

I have chosen to quote the concluding paragraphs of Black Boy in full because they demonstrate the nature and power of his vision as well the rhetoric that underwrote it. What he says about his own distinctive experience bears interesting parallels to the movements of Third World societies as the grapple with issues of imperialism, colonialism, post-colonialism and cultural modernity. Questions of identity and vision are central t the argument of Richard Wright.

The close affinity between identity and vision is one that holds a deep interest to many thinkers in Third World countries. In several Asian religious and intellectual traditions, for example, the realisation of identity is seen in terms of attaining vision. In the Hindu tradition, to take one example, it is said that to realise one’s true identity one has to pierce the veil of illusion that obstructs one’s vision. It is indeed true that the Asian intellectual traditions are talking of a spiritual vision. Richard Wright, on the other hand, is exploring the relationship that exists between identity and social vision.

What is interesting, though, is the affinity of interest and inter-linkage that has been established between identity and vision. In the final analysis, as Wright sees it, this is centrally connected to the question of power. The discourse that serves to legitimise power in the society in which Wright lived saw t it that the blacks, by and large, were rendered invisible. Hence, in order to subvert existing dominant discourses and alter the power relations and rearrange them, it was imperative that blacks gained a measure of visibility.

The way that Bigger Thomas attained that visibility may not have been the ideal way of doing things; however, given the prevailing constrictions and harsh oppression, there was not much choice left t him. It is evident that at a social level, Wright was able to clear a pathway towards the undermining of the ruling discourses by focusing on the predicament of Bigger Thomas.

However, as I pointed out earlier, at the level of willed literary art he was not successful in subverting the ruling discourse. It has to be conceded that this is, in many ways, a more exacting task. He could have achieved this ambition only if he was able to come up with a body of rhetorical and grammatical tropes that would serve to undermine the power of privileged subject, objects, events and valuations of life. Richard Wright could have achieved this only by producing a figural language that was at odds with, and had the power to unsettle, prevalent discourses. If Wright was able to address this issue adequately and cogently, there is no doubt that his novel would have gained in power and persuasiveness.

Richard Wright’s works of fiction as well as his social commentaries hold a deep interest for intellectuals in the Third World for obvious reasons. He was preoccupied with some of the same issues that engaged the interest of Third World intellectuals. One such issue was the need to achieve a sense of dignity, of self-worth that has been denied to both blacks in the United States and the vast majority of people living in developing countries.

Here Richard Wright and the intellectual leaders in Third World countries shared a common field of interest. Another was the complexities of navigation tradition and modernity and arriving at a modern society that had not totally abandoned the past and cultural legacies. When Wright addressed the readers of developing countries this is an issue that he frequently raised because he felt in his bones its compelling significance and power.

Richard Wright had the best interests of African and Asian societies at heart; he wanted them to modernise and prosper. It was his considered judgment that many of these societies were imprisoned in the past, thereby impeding the march towards modernity and progress. Wright’s approach to modernity raises a number of important issues.

Many see tradition and modernity as self contained entities and polar opposites; thereby they fail to comprehend the fact that tradition and modernity can be mutually constitutive. Wright recognised the value of tradition; however the weight of his emphasis was clearly on social modernisation. It is almost as if he was unable to find the perfect balance between these two competing claims.

Many modernisation theorists envisaged the process of modernity as neo-evolutionary in character; it posited a narrative which emphasized a universal pathway towards development. It was their belief that there existed only one road to modernity and progress and that indeed was the one travelled by the Europeans. However, the experience of many of the countries of Asia and Africa during the past few decades has proved otherwise.

What has now been decisively established is that there are many modernities, and the velocity of the modernisation process and the mix of the past and the present that goes into it varies according to the nature of the specific cultures in question.

The cultural modernities that characterised Japan, India and Korea are different from one another. At times, one gets the impression that Richard Wright did not fully grasp the significance of this fact.

As we examine Richard Wright’s fiction as well as his social and political commentaries related to the Third World it becomes increasingly clear that the concept of ideology can be pressed into service most productively. It serves to frame the discussion in a usefully focused way.

The concept of ideology, as many social thinkers have pointed out, is notoriously elusive; it lends itself to a diversity of interpretations. Despite its elusiveness, it is indeed a concept that figures prominently in current social analysis and re-description.

To highlight the concept of ideology is to raise questions such as the following: What are the points of origin of our notions of society and politics? Do such ideas bear the imprint of social determination? If they are socially determined what legitimacy do they carry? Is there a position that can be described as non-ideological? Is non-ideological itself an ideological position? Such questions merit careful consideration.


The concept of ideology, useful and significant as it is, has given rise to much controversy and debate, and to endless speculative expositions. As John Thompson pointed out, if the theory of ideology has been characterised since its inception by controversy and dispute, it is only I recent years that the theory has been enriched through a careful reflection on language. Increasingly it has been realised that ideas do not drift through the social world occasionally displaying their contents; but rather they circulate in the social world as utterances, as words which are spoken or written.

Hence, to examine ideology is in many ways, to study the operation of language in the social world. Such a perspective has deep implications for literature. The writings of Richard Wright that we have been discussing, both fictional and non-fictional can be usefully understood in terms of ideology.

Of the various interpretations of ideology advanced by modern theorists, that of the French structuralist thinker Louis Althusser seems to be of great analytical value in exploring literary issues.

Indeed, critics as diverse as Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton and Stuart Hall have said so. Althusser has said that,’ an ideology is a system (with its own logic and rigor) of representations (images, myths, ideas, or concepts, depending on the case) endowed with a historical existence and role within a given society. ’here we find Althusser stressing both dominant and non-dominant ideologies and the historicity as well as the culturally constitutive role.

Ideology, usually, has been discussed in terms of true or false consciousness; Marx’s writings did much to promote this distinction. It is apparent that in the following description of ideology by Althusser, he is seeking to do away with such simplistic formulations.


‘Ideology, then, is the expression of the relation between men and their world, that is, over-determined, unity of the real relation and the imaginary relation between them and their real conditions of existence. In ideology the real relation is inevitably invested in the imaginary relation, a relation that expresses a will (conservative, conformist, reformist or revolutionary) a hope or nostalgia, rather than describing a reality.’

When one is involved in discussing works of literature, for example the writings of Richard Wright, it is evident that ideology assumes a very great significance because it is closely linked to literary creation and literary appreciation.

One of the functions of socially-informed literary criticism is to bring out the concealed, and often repressed, layers of social reality from the pages of a literary text. This effort is vitally connected to issues of ideology; in others it involves an ideological reading or what others prefer to term a symptomatic reading.

We need to bear in mind the fact that literary texts are essentially socially symbolic acts, and any purposeful criticism has this in its sights. I have chosen to focus on the concept of ideology in reading Richard Wright’s works of fiction as well as his social commentaries because it serves to shine an important light on the ambitions and achievements as well as limitations of Wright.

An important aspect of Richard Wright’s effort as a writer was his relationship to his potential audience. He was unafraid to speak his mind whether the potential audience was American readers or Asian readers as in the case of his social commentaries. He never sought to pander to them to win easy popularity. He took the role of the writer very seriously, and remaining true to his conscience was one facet of this.

For example, he did not hesitate to tell his Asian and African reads that they should make a concerted effort to move into contemporary society by turning their backs on less creative aspects if tradition and cultural legacy. This complex relationship with his potential audiences grew out of his deep commit to his vocation as a writer as well as his confidence in shaping public opinion.

Edward Said, in his famous Reith lectures on representations of the intellectual remarked that, every intellectual has an audience and constituency. The point is whether the audience is there to be satisfied, to be pandered to, and therefore a client o be kept happy, or whether it is there to be provoked, challenged, and hence instigated into open opposition or mobilised into greater participation in the democratic processes of society.

Whatever the chosen path, one cannot ignore the sense of authority and power involved and the intellectual relationship to them.

These thoughts of Edward Said can prove to be useful in our explorations into the work of the distinguished African-American writer Richard Wright.



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