Remembering a Native Son

By Russell Warren Howe
Sunday, August 10, 2008

Richard Wright, "the first great Negro novelist" in the language of the day, died on Nov. 28, 1960, of a heart attack, in the Paris clinic he had entered a few days before. He was 52. Since 1959, he and his wife, Ellen, and their two daughters had been living in England, where Ellen had resumed her career as a literary agent and where the girls were in school. Dick had returned temporarily to France.

Dick and I were brought together by George Whitman, a grand-nephew of Walt's, in George's English-language bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, on the bank of the Seine opposite Notre Dame. For a decade after 1948, Dick and Ellen had been my first wife's and my closest American friends in Paris. I would lunch with Dick at his favorite café, the Tournon, at the corner of his street and the Boulevard Saint-Germain, or introduce him to African politicians on the terrace of the Deux Magots, the literary café made famous by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. We discussed life and literature. A Reuter correspondent, I filled him in on French politics; he talked about the worldwide problem of not being white.

In 1954, after a trek through the rough heart of French Equatorial Africa, I wrote Theirs the Darkness, which appeared in 1955 and which Dick liked so much he decided to go to Africa himself. He went to the Gold Coast in 1956, thinking himself an African American. He soon discovered that Gold Coasters saw in him a descendant of West African slaves with a strange pronunciation of English -- a dubious visitor. Dick realized that they were British-educated Africans whereas he was an American-educated American. He returned to Paris accepting that Negroes (the polite term then) were what his friend Gunnar Myrdal had called in his book An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy,"exaggerated Americans."

As his novels showed, Dick had grown up thinking of blacks as a race apart -- even if they were, like Ralph Ellison or the U.N.'s number two, Ralph Bunche, more than half white. Free-thinking outsiders like Myrdal, a Swede, found blacks to be less aware of their overseas histories than European Americans, Englishly monolingual and more familiar with Old Testament mythologies than African legends.

In my diary, I recorded him telling me: "I'm a Negro. I'm a former communist. I'm married to a woman who's not only white but a Jewess. I'm trying to live in a country whose language I'll never really learn. Small wonder I have enemies!" I also recorded my response: "Your neighbors probably find you odd. Don't you think they regard Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso as odd? Don't you? Would you want your daughters to marry anyone like them?"

In late 1957, I returned to Africa as a freelance correspondent; in 1960, I was in the strife-torn ex-Belgian Congo. Eventually, I was made The Washington Post's first staff correspondent in Africa. Traveling ceaselessly, I was out of touch with Dick for months. As a consequence, I did not know that he had finished his last novel, or its nature. Its title was A Father's Law, published only this year.

Dick had always been hesitant to accept my belief that whether one was black, white or yellow was an accident of birth. What helped bring our thinking together was the non-racial similarity of our backgrounds. His father had been a sharecropper, the semi-literate son of freedmen. My grandfathers -- the same generation as his father -- had been a semi-literate tombstone carver and a semi-literate carpenter. Dick had had only a modicum of formal education. My parents, only a few years older, had attended school from ages 8 to 12. Dad had been good at arithmetic and had done night courses in accounting and advertising. He had parlayed his job as bookkeeper for a small British movie-theater chain, Metro Cinemas, into becoming the first London advertising manager of MGM. Dick had parlayed some courses in creative writing into becoming a world-famous novelist. I had graduated from the Sorbonne with the equivalent of a summa cum laude -- and Dick hoped for similar success for his daughters. When we last spoke in early 1960, he said he now realized that either of us could have been the son of a semi-literate sharecropper or the grandson of a semi-literate Scottish tombstone carver. His father and my grandfathers had been similar souls.

On the Gold Coast, Dick had learned that -- "way back when" -- some West African chieftain had won a local conflict and marched his prisoners of war to the coast in chains, selling them to a middleman chief, who in turn sold them to trading ships, whose owners auctioned them to plantation owners in the West Indies, Brazil or America, where the racial prejudice under which Dick lived had persisted. I joked that if his ancestor had not been a prisoner of war, he would not have to sweat for months writing a novel in Paris but could tramp around barefoot in Ashanti simply growing yams.

Writing courses had taught Dick to avoid misplaced qualifiers and unrelated tenses, but they had also taught him that novels should be based on plots, like plays. As Graham Greene, the creator of so many memorable characters, put it to me in 1988 in Antibes, "If a novel is based on plot, the characters will rigorously refuse to come to life." Dick created his principal characters, often basing them on himself; but his secondary characters became little more than symbols -- good, bad, strong, weak and so on -- fulfilling roles. Only his central characters would really come to life. Bigger Thomas was the southern Negro juvenile Dick had been. Police commander Ruddy Turner, in A Father's Law, was a successful officer admired by his white colleagues, just as Dick was a successful writer admired by his white contemporaries. Interestingly, Dick makes readers wait for several pages before revealing whether Ruddy's chosen deputy, Capt. Snell, is black, white, male or female.

Dick also drew from his own more personal experience in A Father's Law. In 1938, when Dick was 30, he was about to marry a daughter of the local black bourgeoisie. At the legally required premarital medical examination, the young woman was found to have syphilis. Since she was a virgin, it had to have been congenital. Her doctor said her condition was curable, but Dick refused to marry her, shocking her parents and his own and devastating the intended bride. When the reason Dick jilted her became known, the poor girl must have become unmarriageable. Dick, of course, had long planned to go North, where a semi-literate Mississippi Negro wife didn't really fit into his plans. He had used her syphilis to avoid the marriage their parents wanted. In A Father's Law, Ruddy's son Tommie learns that his fiancée has congenital "syph" and refuses to marry her. Dick gives Ruddy his own father's attitude, scolding his son and apologizing to the girl for his son's behavior. One sees where the book's title comes from.

Ron Powers, in his review of the book in the New York Times, was puzzled by the abrupt change in Wright's style, and his biting review was headed "Ambiguities." Had Dick seen it, I think he would have exclaimed: "At least he got the headline right!" The only critic who saw new virtues in A Father's Law was probably W. Ralph Eubanks in Book World, who said the novel had been written a half-century before its time. He deftly pointed out that making Ruddy the police chief in an affluent white district was "a bit of a stretch" for 1960.

Dick would have been fascinated to learn that in Washington, the capital of the world's most powerful country, a black mayor has replaced a black police chief with a hazel-eyed blonde, and a black education chief with a tough second-generation Korean American. It's a shame he didn't survive to write more novels to puzzle the reviewers. ·

Russell Warren Howe's 23 books include six about Africa as well as biographies of Mata Hari, Tokyo Rose, Richard Miller, and the prize-winning novel "False Flags."

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