An Impermanent Disquiet
The Literary critic and theorist Kenneth Burke memorably likened artworks to "meter readings" critic Jay Garcia suggests. "They could be studied to "discern what forms 'alienation' takes as a factor in human experience, and what forms likewise arise in the attempt to combat alienation...to 'repossess' one's world." "Attentiveness to forms of alienation and strategies that would forestall its emergence or limit its impact were in Burke's view among the chief tasks of the literary critic." ('Richard Wright and the Americanism of Lawd Today!') The final story in Eight Men, 'The Man Who Went to Chicago', can be seen as an autobiographical account of Wright's life during a particular period (the first person story reveals his name as Richard when someone calls him by that name), but it is even more pertinent as an exploration of the alienating forces upon a man's life, and of course most especially a person of colour. The narrator says "like any other American I dreamed of going into business and making money; I dreamed of working for a firm that would allow me to advance until I reached an important position; I even dreamed of organising secret groups of blacks to fight all whites...And if the blacks would not agree to organise, then they would have to be fought. I would end up again with self-hate, but it was a self-hate that was projected outwards upon other blacks." Wright adds, "yet I knew with that part of my mind the whites had given me that none of my dreams were possible. Then I would hate myself for allowing my mind to dwell upon the unattainable, Thus the circle would complete itself." Such a statement illustrates well the 'meter reading' of alienation and the very writing an attempt to combat it.
Born in 1908, Wright remains, perhaps alongside James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, the most significant of black American novelists. Baldwin was born in 1924 and Morrison in 1931, with Baldwin a vital figure in sixties black consciousness, alongside but not always in sympathy, with Mohammed Ali, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver and Angela Walker. Baldwin's generation could assume an authority that Morrison later personified and that Wright, like Ralph Ellison (who published The Invisible Man in 1952), could only anticipate. When Wright wonders if the escape from self-hatred might manifest itself as socio-political organisation, that is exactly what black America managed to do in the sixties but in the story, as in Native Son, it remains not just a distant hope but even a forlorn one. In Native Son, the narrator thinking central character Bigger Thomas's thoughts says "he felt there should be one direction in which he and all other black people could go wholeheartedly; that there should be a way in which gnawing hunger and restless aspiration could be fused; that there should be a manner of acting that caught the mind and body in certainty and faith..." This could take the more radical approach suggested by Malcolm X and Carmichael who wished for black nationalism, or the ameliorative position espoused by Martin Luther King and Poitier, the former winning the Nobel peace prize in 1964 and Poitier winning the best actor Oscar the same year, the very year of the Civil Rights Act. A year earlier in March 1963, there had been the famous March on Washington. Wright missed all this dying in 1960 and spending years abroad, becoming a permanent American expatriate in 1946. The stories in Wright's collection, like his most famous novel Native Son, and one of his most highly regarded stories, 'Big Boy Leaves Home', shows characters trying to protect a psychic space more than demanding an emancipatory one, evident when in Native Son the lawyer helps central character Bigger Thomas comprehend how much he has lived in fear trying to survive with no sense of freedom and a constant sense of emotional limitation. As the lawyer says, I beg you to recognize human life draped in a form and guise alien to ours, but springing from a soil plowed and sown by all our hands. I ask you to recognize the laws and processes flowing from such a condition, understand them, seek to change them. If we do none of these then we should not pretend horror or surprise when thwarted life expresses itself in fear and hate and crime.
In 'The Man Who Killed a Shadow', Wright registers that difficulty in a story about a young man who gets a job as a janitor in the National Cathedral. Working in the library, he comes across what he calls a shadow (white) woman who looks at him strangely indeed. In time she tells his boss that she isn't happy with him, that he never cleans under her desk. One day he does so while she sits there and sees her legs spread wide and her panties showing. The temptation is great but reality harsh. He knows that "if you were alone with a white woman and she screamed, it was as good as hearing your death sentence." It hadn't previously bothered him: the narrator reckons as long as he minds his own business, drinks to forget all the shadows around him and the threats they might pose for him, he will survive. But there she is, sitting there as he cleans. One can see desire on her part but also contempt and when the narrator indicates he has cleaned under the desk she says: "why don't you do your work?...that's what you're being paid to do, you black nigger!" There are insults that he can take and others that work a little like an inverted desire, just as the woman moves between a longing it would seem for his body, and hatred too in that he has invoked such sexual yearning in her. Never before he thinks as he been called a "black nigger": in the tautological lies the irremediably insulting. He slaps her, she screams and he is a dead man .It is an inexorable logic that suggests freedom doesn't lie in expression but only in caution that as long as he keeps the lowest of profiles he can show his face. But the moment the face of a white woman shows shock, the moment she screams in fright or anguish, even the lowest of freedoms will be removed. He runs away from her screaming, but she keeps yelling and he turns back with a heavy piece of wood he finds. "He lifted the stick of wood as he confronted her, then paused. He wanted her to stop screaming. If she had stopped, he would have fled, but while she screamed all he could feel was a hotness bubbling in him and urging him to do something." He hits her with the stick and still she screams. Finally, he silences her by putting his hands on her throat; he doesn't let go until she stops screaming
The story makes clear that a black man is always guilty until proven innocent, as though his entire existence is a means by which to defend himself against the assumption of inevitable wrong-doing. While a white man in the company of a woman who screams might be merely deemed under suspicion, a black man is someone presumed automatically culpable. The difference resides in one between a judge and jury and a summary execution explored in Wright's aforementioned short story 'Big Boy Leaves Home', where Wright shows a lynch mob tarring, feathering and burning Big Boy's friend. But we can see here a twofold terror. On the one hand, there is the immediacy of being carted off and summarily killed; on the other there is the lifelong feeling from the day you become conscious to the day that you die that punishment is merely something which is staved off. As the story opens ('The Man Who Killed a Shadow'?) "it all began long ago when he was a tiny boy who was always used, in a fearful sort of way, to living with shadows. But what were these shadows that made him afraid? Surely they were not those beautiful silhouettes of objects cast upon the earth by the sun." Here we have a boy brought up an environment that he can never claim as his own: however astute he might observe the world. "There were subtler shadows that he saw and which others could not see." Saul, born black, could see very early "a world that was split in two, a white world and a black one, the white one being separated from the black by a million psychological miles." All Saul can do is look cautiously and timidly out from his black world and at the "shadowy outlines of a white world that was unreal to him and not his own." Saul will be tried for the librarian's murder and inevitably found guilty justice has in a strict sense been done. But the injustice of a man who always feels that he can do little more than avoid guilt frames the murder itself. Whether a man is lynched or tried, he is a figure of original sin, and that sin is being born black. The story may have numerous horrible ironies (that it isn't until the trial and the dead woman's name is read out that he discovers her what she was called, and not until the coroner's report that he finds out that she was a virgin) but there is nothing more strongly acerbic than the story resting on a criminal self-perception that can never be eradicated; the best one can do is hope that it is never activated. Saul, for all his attempts to lay low, keep quiet and mind his own business, meets his maker in the form of a forty-year-old virgin who can't countenance her desires, who will lose her life and be responsible too for taking Saul's. It is a tragic story for various reasons but the most obvious one is that a country that didn't have any problem with mixed race relationships wouldn't have two deaths on its hands: a killing and an execution.
When Burke believes literature can both acknowledge and combat alienation, one might see this as especially pressing in the context of a person for whom the alienating experience is a given of their racial background. A white person might be alienated of course but not genetically so, and it is this aspect Wright so consistently appeared to focus on. Almost all Wright's work is seen from a black perspective, and Michael D. West reckons Wright can get himself into problems when that perspective is extended to a white one. Speaking of the story 'Big Black Good Man', viewed from the angle of a Danish porter Olaf in Copenhagen fearful of an enormous black man staying in the hotel, West reckons, Wright's "inconsistency in the point of view becomes doubly significant when one realizes that this story represents a rare fictional attempt on Wright's part to explore the consciousness of a white person from inside. With the exception of Savage Holiday (1954), his grotesquely implausible novel about a white wife-murderer, a cardboard compound of Freudian cliches that Chester Himes like many found simply laughable in its characterizations, his stories and novels are limited to the viewpoints of black characters and their observations of whites' behavior." ('The Purported and Actual Meanings of Richard Wright's Big Black Good Man') West sees that the presentation of Olaf in the story lacks verisimilitude and suggests inconsistency. West wonders how come Olaf's muscles are so tired when he is just starting his shift in a sedentary job as night porter, how plausible it might be in the racially more benign environment of Scandinavia that Olaf would be so terrified by the albeit 'black giant's' presence. While he notes many have read the story as an account of Olaf's misguided racial stereotyping as the giant turns out to be generous and affable when he gives Olaf six new shirts in return for Olaf's earlier efforts in finding the man a woman he can sleep with over six nights, West sees that it can also be read as a story about a black man getting one up on the short, white man in his midst. Olaf is 5 feet 7; Jim six and a half feet tall and West sees in the story Jim enjoying more than a little his power over the much smaller man. There he is a big, black American in a liberal country having a bit of fun. is he such a good man?
The fear on Olaf's face could be seen as anticipating the fears on those of many white Americans who saw in the wake of the Civil Rights Act a proper sense of black power. Mohammed Ali wasn't just another black boxer: he was someone who changed his slave name to an Islamic one, who refused to fight in Vietnam, and could think more quickly on his feet than most of those who interviewed him. James Baldwin involved himself in numerous debates including very famously with the conservative William F. Buckley Jr. Few in the room thought Buckley came close to landing blows on the much more nimble Baldwin. There was a sense in the sixties, and well-explored in Raoul Peck's recent documentary film I am Not Your Negro, based on Baldwin's unfinished work, Remember This House, that black alienation had become black affirmation. In the film, Peck shows us footage of Belafonte, Baldwin and Poitier, along with Charlton Heston, Marion Brando and Joseph L. Mankiewicz discussing black rights, suggesting that not only were black rights becoming important but that a black consciousness happened to be too. By the late sixties, Ali made clear he wouldn't fight in Vietnam and black athletes on the podium in the 1968 Mexico Olympic raised their arms in Black Power salutes. Blacks were no longer finding in sport an escape from miserable lives but using it as means by which they could help improve the lives of others.
West quotes another writer, Edward Margolies, saying, in the context of 'Big Black Good Man' that 'it is not quite racial revenge'', as he nevertheless senses ''a new element of race pride in Wright's portrayal; the note of proud defiance has somehow been stilled and replaced by a note of contained racial triumph.'' West doesn't entirely agree but we might wonder if this final work anticipates a feeling that the black person needn't constantly fear the white man (as we find in so many of Wright's other stories, from 'The Man Who Lived Underground' to 'The Man Who Killed a Shadow', from 'The Man Who Went to Chicago' to 'Big Boy Leaves Home' and brilliantly so in 'Native Son') but can play up the white man's prejudices and enjoy a sense of empowerment out of that stereotype. If in 'The Man Who Killed a Shadow' the central character has to try and shrink into himself aware that he will be perceived as a constant threat, in 'Big Black Good Man', Wright suggests that Jim's threatening presence needn't be something he needs to be worried about but can actually play with. It is for others to worry about. West takes such an approach to the story even if he might wonder just how agreeable Jim happens to be if he leaves Olaf in such a state of dread, the sort of inverse fear a figure like Jim would be living with in the States prior to the sixties, and far from over despite the Civil Rights Act. As the Encyclopaedia Brittanica notes, speaking of Attica, famous for its prison riot in 1971: "The prison's population in the 1960s and '70s mainly consisted of poor men from New York cities. An estimated two-thirds of the 1,200-plus Attica inmates were Hispanic or African Americans. The corrections officers, drawn from the local community, were mostly white men who had been raised in rural New York; only one of them was Hispanic. Prison authorities banned political organizations and were particularly hostile to Black Muslims, forbidding them to hold religious services." The riot was just two weeks after the black political activist and writer George Jackson had been killed in San Quentin prison, an apparent "cold-blooded" series of killings, in Governor Nelson Rockefeller's words, was far from senseless. Here were blacks who though incarcerated could play up their prowess rather than play down their force, whether it took the form of violent insurrectionists or the role models in the late sixties and seventies found in sport and entertainment.
In this sense, Jim anticipates numerous sport and film personalities of post-Civil Rights America, including Ali, Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree, Fred Williamson and Joe Frazier. West is right to see in Jim much more than the rejection of a stereotype seeing that others have read into the story a rejection of cliche as Jim turns out not to be the horrifying figure Olaf fears but an amiable bloke who has gone and bought him half a dozen shirts. But as West notes, putting your hand round someone's neck to measure them up hardly passes for an innocent gesture. West is surely correct in seeing in Jim someone who isn't quite the affable, innocent figure other critics have perceived, that Jim hardly has his hand round Olaf's neck for no other reason than to measure him up for shirts. It seems instead that it gives Jim the opportunity to play with the stereotype. Where others see Jim used by Wright as a means by which to counter the cliche, West sees in Jim not so much a figure of authority but at least an authoritative figure in liberal Denmark..
When Burke addresses alienation and literature as a means by which to reflect it or to combat it, a great deal of Wright's work is reflective rather than combative. There may so often be violence in the writer's fiction, so many moments where characters take the law into their own hands because the law is not remotely in their hands, but if 'The Man Who Killed a Shadow' shows a desperate man who sees no other way of silencing the woman whose accusatory streak can lead him to the gallows or the chair, Jim sees that a hand round somebody's neck can now be cause for light humour, however terrified Olaf happens to be. Yet if the story feels less achieved than either 'The Man Who Killed A Shadow' and 'The Man Who Went to Chicago', then perhaps it rests on Wright as a great writer of reflective rather than combative alienation: as a figure who captures even in these late stories the inner life of men who must exist themselves in the shadows, in a nether world that Ellison also captured in Invisible Man. The first person narrrator in 'The Man Who Went to Chicago' says, "while working as a porter in Memphis I had often stood aghast as a friend of mine had offered himself to be kicked by the white men; but now, while working in Chicago, I was learning that perhaps even a kick was better than uncertainty..." The narrator adds, "I had elected in my fevered search for honorable adjustment to the American scene, not to submit and in doing so I had embraced the daily horror of anxiety, of tension, of eternal disquiet."
From an empowered African-American perspective one might see this as cowardice, but what Wright shows well is that this empowerment might have to come first of all from reflecting on one's alienated state; it is another stage again to combat it. As the narrator notes in 'The Man Who Went to Chicago', even when treated well and fairly it wasn't easy to be fair and honest in return. As the narrator gets the chance to sit an exam as a postal clerk he doesn't know whether he should tell his employees and instead takes the day off, lying about why he did so, saying his mother died and he had to go to Memphis. The deli owner, the Jewish immigrant Mr Hoffman, doesn't believe him, but is more disappointed than enraged, and the central character is disappointed too, feeling terrible that he has lied to people who treated him well. As Hoffman and his wife say in their thick accents, "Ve treat you nice, don't ve?", insisting they have no interest in treating back people as many do in the South. They have presumably felt persecution and see no benefit in doling it out to others. But still Richard cannot tell them the truth, as though the prejudices so often applied to him must apply that prejudice back on others: that no white person is to be trusted, even immigrant Jews who have been showing him respect. Wright early on in the story explains through his character why this was so: "I had learned that my entire personality, my aspirations, had long ago been discounted, that, in a measure the very meaning of the words I spoke could not be fully understood." Reading the story gives us something of that measure, the feeling that Wright's characters are not strong people who can serve as role models or empowering figures, but who nevertheless show the nature of their disempowerment.
It is out of this acknowledged disempowerment that a proper empowerment can come, and Wright isn't shy in the stories of providing essayistic asides that suggest this. "I would make it known that the real danger does not stem from those who seek to grab their share of wealth through force, or from those who try to defend their property through violence, for both of these groups, by their affirmative acts, support the values of the system under which they live." The narrator adds, "The millions I would fear are those who do not dream of the prizes that the nation holds forth, for it is in them, though they may not know it, that a revolution has taken place and is biding its time to translate itself into a new and strange way of life." It happens to be an aside in 'The Man Who Went to Chicago' but it has the force of a speech that would be given by some of the major spokesmen for the black movements of the sixties. Buried inside a short story about a man who is trying to get by, moving from job to job, it suggests an emancipatory force, one that indicates while exploring that alienation, Wright also frequently wondered what could be done about it. However, if he remains one of the key figures in African-American 20th-century literature it rests on the nuance of that alienation, a writer to put alongside others who try and register a hint of interiority against the bleak aridity of their external world.
© Tony McKibbin