Uncle Tom's Children
By Richard Wright
Library of America. 936 pp. $35
Black Boy (American Hunger)
By Richard Wright
Library of America. 887 pp. $35
WHEN Native Son, Richard Wright's most famous novel, was published in March 1940, reviewer Peter Monroe Jack wrote that he believed the book could just as well have been called "the Negro American tragedy" because of its rough comparison to Dreiser's novel -- though Jack noted that Wright's "injustice is a racial, not merely a social, one." More than a half-century later, Native Son, now republished with four other works by Wright in a new, two-volume Library of America edition, remains a powerfully blunt novel. This new edition does not include the Dorothy Canfield Fisher introduction, which helped to prepare readers for the shock awaiting them at the novel's opening; now there is no ushering in, no cushion to soften the impact of that first, allegorical scene when Bigger awakens and flattens a big black rat with a skillet. Here he is, with a name to chew hard on, Bigger Thomas.
And Bigger restored. Not far past the opening scene are the three-and-a-half pages that Wright's publishers, Harper & Brothers, suggested he excise so Native Son would be more seriously considered for adoption by the Book-of-the-Mouth Club. (The BOMC did buy it and, later, Black Boy as well.) These pages, which include an account of masturbation in a movie theater and a discussion of interracial sex, tend to minimize whatever sympathy the reader feels for Bigger at this early point in the novel.
There are seven other restorations in this definitive edition. The gate-keepers of earlier days, at least as far as Wright's works were concerned, were circumspect, maybe even fearful, about politics, race and sex. Some of these concerns, however, now reflect more awkwardly upon the gate-keepers than upon Wright's forays into "street language," his discussions of communism, a character's thoughts or statements about sex.
What I remember most when I first read Native Son at 14 or 15 was its relentless power. It was undoubtedly the most powerful book I had read up to that time. It prepared me for Chicago, near which I was to be stationed for Navy boot camp and Hospital Corps training early in 1943. I had relatives, Mississippians too, who lived in the neighborhoods and on the streets Wright describes in the novel.
Native Son and Black Boy are now required reading in grades 7-12 in many public schools and some colleges, but many African-American parents object because they feel the books lack positive characters. Nonetheless, whatever a parent-reader may think of Wright's work, it is clear to me that he was positive beyond any doubt whatsoever about the negative effects of racism on black men, women and children. Only in The Long Dream (1958), the last of Wright's novels to be published in the U.S. -- Island of Hallucinations, finished in 1959, has been brought out only in sections here -- is there physical escape from racism by the character Fishbelly. Wright's view that racism is almost universal, though somewhat modified by his opinion that colonized and neo-colonized peoples should depend less on their traditional pasts and ought to model themselves after Western democracies, is clearly stated in his nonfiction political works, Black Power (1954), The Color Curtain (1956) and White Man, Listen! (1957). Thus Wright would be amazed to see how "colored" Europe has become since his death, but not at the concurrent rise of racism there.
The power in Native Son is, paradoxically, vested in Bigger Thomas's absolute powerlessness: He is the minus end of a battery that, when improperly connected, cannot carry anything but negative and sometimes explosive current. Through him, Wright is so intent on examining every impact of racism, that he creates a character multitudes of white people instantly recognize as the black man of their imagination, the figure that they know in their hearts was formed by a system whose inherent inequities they never truly opposed. This power is also present in Wright's earlier short fiction, "Uncle Tom's Children," and in the first novel he wrote, Lawd Today! (The exclamation point has been restored, as have been the excised portions in other works by Wright included in these two volumes.)
Originally called "Cesspool," Lawd Today! was rejected by eight publishers. After Native Son was published with great success, Wright, according to some of his biographers, ceased offering the earlier book for publication.
Black Boy, Wright's autobiography, met with even more success in 1945. William Faulkner, who considered Wright to be "potentially an artist," wrote to him that Black Boy "will accomplish little of what it should accomplish, since only they will be moved and grieved by it who already know and grieve over this situation." In short, the autobiography overwhelmingly verified that the system of oppression worked. American Hunger was originally part two of Black Boy. It deals with Wright's life in the North and is a dissection of the Communist Party's failure to engage the black community. The BOMC editors may have felt sensitive about this section, which Wright had titled "The Horror and the Glory." Like Lawd Today!, American Hunger would be published posthumously.
Lawd Today! came out in 1963, three years after Wright died. Its portrait of one catastrophic day in the life of Jake Jackson seems a trial run for the creation of Bigger Thomas. Though Jake is Bigger alive and grown up, both are at once filled with a fear and rage they are unable to articulate. Their exercise of violence is shaped by their fear. Bigger feels confident when he is violent. So does Jake. They are black man and black boy lunging through the low Chicago skyline during the crushing days of the late 1930s.
The power evoked in that single day in Jake's life is so overwhelming that we do not need another one; we do not want another day of such destruction and self-destruction. Bigger Thomas in Native Son heads to his death knowing that something in the universe changed when he killed. Jake knows no such thing. At the end of his day, drunk again, he beats up his wife just as he did in the morning and is just as broke as he was then. All he knows when he awakes from his stupor is that he will do that day exactly what he did the day before.
Attach Jake Jackson and every protagonist in the collection Uncle Tom's Children to the list of Bigger's antecedents and Bigger more clearly embodies Wright's conviction that the first step toward the positive is being unerringly certain about the absolutely corrosive effect of the negative -- "bigotry" or "prejudice" in Wright's time, racism today. Then Uncle Tom's Children, Lawd Today! and Native Son become sections of the same curriculum and Cross Damon in The Outsider can be the only, chilling, option if all these Biggers survive. Damon, who like Jake works in the Central Post Office, exists outside a society that has been unresponsive to his needs, which are more complex than those of Wright's other characters. He is a manipulator, a conscienceless killer beyond the bounds of rationalism. AS A BLACK male writer, like Chester Himes and many others, there is the natural assumption that I was influenced by Wright. I may well have been by his work and vision, but I do not know. Certainly his power with language had an impact. And though I was born in Mississippi, I grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., my father's home since 1803. There, a black boy could pop a white boy without being lynched, and a black man could answer a racial insult with a solid punch and have little fear (not none) that he'd be torn apart by a mob; and black women could tell white women they were doing too much work for too little money. There, my boyhood neighborhood was an astounding ethnic mix. There, schools and teams were integrated from kindergarten through high school. But though there may have been differences in our particular situations, we shared a common experience as black men in America.
Wright and several others became expatriates, but I never considered a permanent life outside the U.S. I don't believe Wright (like his compatriot, Himes) was ever out of touch with what was happening here. The critics are wrong. Wright is still being rediscovered because new aspects and new subtleties of American racism, thus new negatives, are being revealed on levels he might have imagined but never got to write about. For parents, the positive remains somewhere between mirage and the reality that continues to be still horrendous to contemplate let alone expose our children to, though we know we must. For all this, Americans are indebted to Richard Wright for his attempt to "keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human."
John A. Williams, Paul Robeson Professor of English at Rutgers University, is the author of many books, including the novels "Jacob's Ladder," "!Click Song" and "The Man Who Cried I Am"; and three biographies, most recently "If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor," co-written with Dennis A. Williams.