From The London Review of Books:
The Man Who Lived Underground
by Richard Wright.
When Richard Wright sailed to France in 1946, he was 38 years old and already a legend. He was America’s most famous black writer, the author of two books hailed as classics the moment they were published: the 1940 novel Native Son and the 1945 memoir Black Boy. By ‘choosing exile’, as he put it, he hoped both to free himself from American racism and to put an ocean between himself and the Communist Party of the United States, in which he’d first come to prominence as a writer of proletarian fiction only to find himself accused of subversive, Trotskyist tendencies. In Paris he was a celebrity. French writers and American expatriates flocked to the Café Monaco, where he held court a short walk from his Left Bank flat. ‘Dick greeted everyone with boisterous condescension,’ Chester Himes remembered. ‘It was obvious he was the king thereabouts.’
His place on the throne was shakier than he imagined. The novels he wrote in Paris, where he would spend the rest of his life, failed to deliver on the promise of Native Son, the incendiary tale of a poor black chauffeur in Chicago, Bigger Thomas, who achieves a grisly sense of selfhood after killing two women: his black girlfriend and the daughter of his wealthy white employer. But even that novel’s reputation declined, thanks in large part to another black American in Paris. In 1949 James Baldwin described Native Son as a modern-day Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ‘a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy’, arguing that Bigger Thomas ‘admits the possibility of his being subhuman’ and that Wright was no less guilty than Harriet Beecher Stowe of insisting that a person’s ‘categorisation … cannot be transcended.’ Baldwin, whose success Wright had done much to promote, wasn’t the only protégé to turn against him. In 1963 Ralph Ellison wrote that, in Bigger Thomas, Wright had created not a black character other black people would recognise, but ‘a near subhuman indictment of white oppression’ crudely ‘designed to shock whites out of their apathy’. Ellison’s hyper-cerebral protagonist in Invisible Man, who is able to see far beyond his own condition, was a pointed rejoinder to Bigger’s inarticulate and explosive rage.
That rage had once been important to Ellison too. During their days in the CPUSA, he had sent a letter to Wright commending Bigger’s ‘revolutionary significance’. Readers horrified by Bigger’s violence, Ellison insisted, ‘fail to see that what’s bad in Bigger from the point of view of bourgeois society is good from our point of view … Would that all Negroes were as psychologically free as Bigger and as capable of positive action!’ This argument was echoed in 1966 by the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, who called Bigger ‘the black rebel of the ghetto’, with ‘no trace … of the Martin Luther King-type self-effacing love for his oppressors’. For Cleaver, who wrote in his memoir that he had practised raping black women before graduating to white women, Bigger embodied an authentic, revolutionary black masculinity that Baldwin, a gay man, naturally despised.
The Black Power movement’s patriarchal and homophobic embrace of Wright did little to salvage his reputation, especially after the rise of black feminism in the 1970s. In Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1978), Michele Wallace traced the movement’s ‘love affair with Black Macho’ back to Native Son. Black women writers never forgave Wright for having once accused Zora Neale Hurston of writing ‘in the safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live’. It didn’t matter that he had denounced the absence of female speakers at the 1956 Conference of Black Writers and Artists in Paris, insisting that black men could only be free if black women were too. Or that in a 1957 book of reportage he had catalogued the forms of oppression suffered by women in contemporary Spain, comparing the Catholic cult of ‘female purity’ to the Ku Klux Klan’s defence of white womanhood. Thanks to Native Son, he continued to be associated with the idea that, in Darryl Pinckney’s words, ‘the black man can only come to life as the white man’s nightmare, the defiler of white women.’
Black feminists weren’t the only ones to take offence. In 1986 the novelist David Bradley confessed that the first time he read Native Son,
I shed no tears for Bigger. I wanted him dead; by legal means if possible, by lynching if necessary … I did not see Bigger Thomas as a symbol of any kind of black man. To me he was a sociopath, pure and simple … If the price of becoming a black writer was following the model of Native Son, I would just have to write like a honky.
Novelists never completely shake off an association with the murderers they invent: Dostoevsky is still remembered for Raskolnikov, Camus for Meursault. The difference in Wright’s case is that Bigger Thomas is practically all he is remembered for. Wright is not just blamed for Bigger but almost mistaken for him.
On the surface, Wright’s life bore little resemblance to Bigger’s: he was a child of the rural South not the northern ghetto, a self-made intellectual and writer. But as a young man in Chicago he had had a series of menial jobs in hospitals and the postal service and could identify all too easily with Bigger’s anger at the white world. He had known Bigger’s fear of white people’s arbitrary power – in his view, this was the ‘fundamental emotion guiding black personality and behaviour’, even if it sometimes appeared in the ‘disguise that is called Negro laughter’. It wasn’t only whites he wanted to provoke with Native Son, but members of the decorous black middle class, who felt that a figure like Bigger Thomas was a threat to their precarious status on the margins of white America.
Native Son was a work of shocking intransigence in its portrayal of black rage, in its treatment of liberal whites and, above all, in its violence. After suffocating his employer’s daughter, Mary Dalton, with a pillow – he’s terrified that she might alert her blind mother to his presence in her bedroom, and that he might be accused of rape – Bigger slices up her corpse and burns it in a furnace. His violence is recounted as if it were the concentrated payback for hundreds of years of anti-black violence and humiliation, and described with graphic relish. When he murders his girlfriend, Bess, to prevent her from revealing his crime, he feels a rush of exhilaration: at last he has accomplished ‘something that was all his own’, an act no one would have imagined him daring enough to execute. ‘Elation filled him.’ No longer emasculated by fear, no longer ‘a black timid Negro boy’ in a white man’s world, he has ‘a sense of wholeness’, of power over his oppressors. He is a man who has ‘evened the score’.
Link to the rest at The London Review of Books