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’.
Frantz Fanon drew on Native Son to examine the violent impulses that racism creates in its victims. ‘Bigger Thomas … is afraid, terribly afraid. But afraid of what?’ Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks in 1952. ‘Of himself. We don’t yet know who he is, but he knows that fear will haunt the world once the world finds out.’ For Fanon, Wright had shown that violence is a way to ‘put an end to the tension’, to a ‘feeling of not existing’ in white-dominated society. ‘The black man is a toy in the hands of the white man. So in order to break the vicious circle, he explodes.’ For Bigger, murder provides an irresistible glimpse of freedom. It is ‘disintoxicating’, as Fanon would write of anti-colonial violence in The Wretched of the Earth. ‘I didn’t want to kill,’ Bigger tells his lawyer, ‘but what I killed for, I am.’
It was hardly surprising that middle-class black readers had little desire to be associated with Bigger. But for Wright, Bigger Thomas was not – or not merely – a symbol of persecuted black masculinity. He was a symbol of the psychic injuries of oppression, rootlessness and dispossession under capitalism. Wright said that he had met defiant men like Bigger while growing up in segregated Mississippi, men who rebelled ‘at least for a sweet brief spell’ before they were ‘shot, hanged, maimed, lynched’. But in Chicago and New York he had ‘made the discovery that Bigger Thomas was not black all the time … and there were literally millions of him, everywhere. The extension of my sense of the personality of Bigger was the pivot of my life; it altered the complexion of my existence.’ As he became aware of ‘a vast, muddied pool of human life in America’, he began to see that segregation was ‘an appendage of a far vaster and in many respects more ruthless and impersonal commodity-profit machine’.
Wright presented Bigger Thomas as the humiliated, alienated and dangerous ‘product of a dislocated society’, seething with fear and envy, susceptible to fantasies of power, domination and revenge. ‘He liked to hear of how Japan was conquering China; of how Hitler was running the Jews to the ground; of how Mussolini was invading Spain.’ Wright obliquely alluded to Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement, with its fusion of black nationalism and militarist discipline. ‘Someday,’ Bigger muses, ‘there would be a black man who would whip the black people into a tight band and together they would act and end fear and shame.’ In linking social atomisation and fear, racism and authoritarianism, Native Son anticipated Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, and Wright suggested that Bigger ‘carried within himself the potentialities of either communism or fascism’.
Baldwin criticised Wright for overlooking the traditions, rituals and family relationships that protect and fortify black communities in even the most appalling conditions. But Wright wasn’t interested in the structures of support or mutual aid that enabled black people to survive as a collective. He was drawn to outcasts and desperados who had fallen through the cracks to find themselves adrift, naked, in mass society. He himself was a loner, never at ease in his own family, and hostile to the Church thanks to a grandmother who frowned on reading anything other than the Bible. His fiercest quarrels inside the Communist Party were with black militants who shared his working-class roots but didn’t trust him as one of them: he was too intellectual, too independent. He was unmoved by the promise of ‘another country’ where black Americans would at last be free. Unlike the young Baldwin, Wright doubted that such a country would ever exist in his homeland.
Why did Baldwin and others mistake Wright for a crude proletarian realist? His engagement with the Communist Party – he had been a leader of the Chicago John Reed Club, the CPUSA writers’ group, and published journalism in The New Masses – contributed, but Wright’s relationship with the party had always been stormy, particularly when it came to aesthetics. His 1937 manifesto, ‘Blueprint for Negro Writing’, laid out the case for a radical, politically engaged modernism, and he had no time for sentimental depictions of the lives of the poor and oppressed. The direct, sometimes coarse prose of Native Son represented a deliberate rupture with comforting modes of realism.
The demands of the publishing industry helped conceal Wright’s modernist leanings. His 1938 novel about a day in the life of a black postal worker, Lawd Today!, written under the influence of Joyce, was never published in his lifetime. But the market also had a hand in the works that did appear, ironing out complexity and rejecting anything that might be too unsettling for white readers. Under pressure from the Book of the Month club, Wright’s editors at Harper & Brothers suppressed passages in Native Son describing Bigger Thomas and Mary Dalton in bed. ‘The sharp bones of her hips move in a hard and veritable grind. Her mouth was open and her breath came slow and deep.’ This is not rape: it is the sort of encounter between a black man and a white woman that the myth of the black rapist was intended to conceal. By expurgating such passages, Wright’s publishers not only restored the image of the pure, virginal white woman, but deprived Bigger of a comprehensible motive for his panic. They magnified the brutality of his crime and turned him into a monster. The original version of the novel wasn’t published until 1992, when the Library of America brought out a restored edition of five of Wright’s books. When Baldwin and Ellison took aim at Native Son, it was the Book of the Month version of Bigger they were writing about.
Wright’s memoir also raised objections from the Book of the Month club. One member of the selection committee, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, was offended by the way Black Boy overlooked those white Americans who ‘have done what they could to lighten the dark stain of racial discrimination in our nation’. The second half of the book, about Wright’s often harrowing experiences in Chicago and New York and his struggles inside the CPUSA, was cut entirely, so that the memoir could be read as a hopeful tale of exodus from Southern terror rather than a caustic commentary on the pervasiveness of racism on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
More was suppressed too. Wright’s publishers rejected the novel he at the time considered his most important, written between Native Son and Black Boy. An abridged version of The Man Who Lived Underground appeared in the posthumous collection Eight Men (1961) and attracted some influential admirers, including Irving Howe, who declared its ‘sense of narrative rhythm’ to be ‘superior to anything in his full-length novels’. Despite this, the complete novel hasn’t appeared in print until now. It’s a short, riveting, exploratory work, begun in June 1941, after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Two weeks before the invasion, at the opening session of the fourth American Writers’ Congress, he had given a passionate speech against the war. To his fury, the CPUSA had suspended its campaign against racism in the war industries, and with the American military still segregated, he refused to support a white man’s army. (He was later drafted but declared psychologically unfit, apparently because of his views about racism.) Although he wasn’t yet ready to leave the party, he withdrew from its activities and poured all his energy into The Man Who Lived Underground.
The novel was inspired by a story Wright read in a detective magazine about a white man in California who lived for several months in a hideout. Wright’s protagonist, Fred Daniels, is black, but unlike Bigger Thomas he is also innocent. The novel begins on a Saturday evening when Daniels, a working-class, churchgoing man with a pregnant wife, is stopped by the police and accused of killing a white man in order to rape his wife. They beat him with a blackjack, and promise he can go home if he signs a confession. Although he’s innocent, he feels ‘condemned, inescapably guilty of some nameless deed’, and agrees to confess, if only to end the agony and see his wife. When the police take him to his apartment she goes into labour. They rush her to hospital, where he manages to escape. He opens a sewer and climbs inside, sensing in ‘the whispering rush of the water’ the ‘illusion of another world with other values and other laws’. As many critics have said, The Man Who Lived Underground seems startlingly contemporary in its treatment of police violence against an innocent black man. The story of the interrogation has particular resonances with the 1989 Central Park Five case, in which a group of black and Latino teenagers were manipulated into confessing to the rape of a white female jogger. Not surprisingly, The Man Who Lived Underground has been held up as a prescient indictment of the racist carceral state – a parable for the era of Black Lives Matter.
But this is another misrepresentation. In fact, the book is much less of a protest novel than Native Son, and takes even greater liberties with naturalism. Its setting and atmosphere – chases through sewers, frenzied manhunts – recall noirish films like Fritz Lang’s M and Carol Reed’s The Third Man. The writing combines the blunt rhythms of hard-boiled detective fiction with kinetic, almost phantasmagorical strokes, intensities of emotion and colour. As Howe observed of Native Son, ‘naturalism pushed to an extreme turns here into something other than itself, a kind of expressionist outburst, no longer a replica of the familiar social world but a self-contained realm of grotesque emblems.’ However much the novel may reveal about police brutality and racism, Wright thought of it as a novel of ideas rather than a book about racial injustice: as he told his agent, it was ‘the first time I’ve really tried to step beyond the straight black-white stuff’.
Daniels is a victim of police violence, but Wright’s narrative doesn’t hinge on his victimisation so much as on the mutations of his consciousness as he builds a new home for himself underground, illuminated by a single lightbulb. (Ellison, who knew all about Wright’s novella, equipped his own underground man with 1369 lightbulbs.) He steals money from a real-estate and insurance company that has ‘collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor coloured folks’ – ‘not to spend, but just to keep around and look at’. He ‘rubbed the money with his fingers, as though expecting it suddenly to reveal secret qualities’: this is money as Marx describes it in his essay on ‘the mysterious character of the commodity form’. As Daniels observes ‘with a musing smile’, it is ‘just like any other kind of paper’, and he uses it to wallpaper his underground home, a ‘mocking symbol’ of his exile from the world that rejected him. When another man is accused of the theft he has committed he can only conclude that ‘everybody’s guilty.’ The contingency and artifice of the world outside, the ‘dead world of sunshine and rain he had left’, leads him to the realisation that somehow ‘he was all people. In some utterable fashion he was all people and they were he.’ Rather than hardening his sense of individual identity, racist persecution leads him to an almost cosmic awareness of what he shares with others.
One of the novel’s first readers was the German-Jewish psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who sent a poem in response:
The Freudians talk about the id
And bury it below.
But Richard Wright took off the lid
And let us see the woe.
Wertham, a professor at Johns Hopkins who moved in left-wing circles, shared Wright’s conviction that there was ‘no other act … that so gathers together the threads of personal, social, political life of the nation as crime’. Wright had written to Wertham after reading his book Dark Legend: A Study in Murder, about a young Italian immigrant who killed his sexually adventurous mother to defend the honour of his dead father. Wertham, in turn, published a remarkable essay on Native Son, linking the bedroom scene to a repressed episode from Wright’s childhood. They later joined forces to set up the Lafargue Clinic, which provided cheap psychiatric counselling for people in Harlem. Wright’s friendship with Wertham reflected his desire to fuse the insights of Marx and Freud – he said they were two of his favourite ‘poets’ – and apply them to the lives of oppressed people, especially victims of racism. ‘I’m convinced that the next great arena of discovery in the Negro will be the dark landscape of his own mind, what living in America has done to him,’ he wrote in his diary.
Wright explored his own mental landscape in ‘Memories of My Grandmother’, a previously unpublished essay that appears as an appendix to The Man Who Lived Underground and describes the experiences that lay behind the novel. The first – an encounter with the ‘strangely familiar’ – took place in Chicago, shortly before his grandmother’s death in 1934. Wright thought he had ‘swept my life clean … of the religious influences of my grandmother’, until he read a book that ‘miraculously linked my grandmother’s life to my own in a most startling manner’: Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. Reading ‘Melanctha’, Stein’s story in black vernacular speech, at his grandmother’s flat, ‘I suddenly began to hear the English language for the first time in my life! … But more than that; suddenly I began to hear my grandmother speak for the first time.’ Later, he read the story aloud in a basement on the South Side to a ‘group of illiterate, class-conscious Negro workers … and there were such wild howls of delight, such expressions of recognition, that I could barely finish.’
Somehow Wright connects this moment to a form of music his grandmother had reviled: the blues, with their manner of ‘freely juxtaposing totally unrelated images and symbols and then tying them into some overall concept, mood, feeling’. By imposing a strange order on the fragments of a chaotic, intolerable reality, the blues mark ‘the advent of surrealism on the American scene’. Wright was familiar with surrealism from his experience of psychoanalysis, but the blues represented a surrealism born of necessity rather than theory – not unlike the surrealism of the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, whose epic Notebook of a Return to the Native Land was discovered by André Breton in a haberdashery shop in Fort-de-France. Suddenly, Wright could see parallels with his grandmother’s ‘ardent and volatile religious disposition’, which he had previously found ‘illogical if not degrading’. After reading about the white man who had lived underground, he immediately thought about his grandmother, who, in her religious life, had retreated from the world. The ‘guilt theme’ provided him with a ‘steady beat upon which I proceeded to improvise’, as in jazz, with its ‘improvised, tone-coloured melodies’. (Almost as an afterthought, he adds that this was linked, ‘in a rather muted way’, to ‘the problem of the Negro’, since ‘if you accuse a man of something that he did not do … it has the power of upsetting his entire way of life.’) Wright was always a deeply self-reflective writer. But ‘Memories of My Grandmother’ is especially revealing about the way he wanted to write: a homegrown modernism inspired by tabloids and pulp cinema, the blues and black working-class life, and a robust sense of the absurd.
The same memories, the same ‘strangely familiar’ juxtapositions of the ‘unrelated’ that Wright believed defined black experience in America, went into the writing of Black Boy. That Wright lived to tell the tale was itself a near miracle: his early life was nearly as saturated with death and misery as his fiction. The rural Mississippi he grew up in was the epicentre of American apartheid. His grandfather, who had escaped slavery and joined the Union army only to be deprived of his war pension, hated white people ‘too much to talk of them’. When Wright was three, his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where his father abandoned them. His mother worked as a cook for a white family but soon became an invalid, and he was largely raised by his austere, Seventh Day Adventist grandmother, who looked so white she could have been a ‘pretty Victorian woman’. It took him a while to learn to ‘sense white people as “white” people’, because ‘many of my relatives were “white”-looking people.’ He didn’t have to go to school to realise that race was a construct – not that any school in America would have taught him that.
To be a black male in the South was to be at constant risk of catching ‘the white death’ – especially after the First World War ended, and black soldiers returned home to face a new wave of violence. Wright’s uncle was murdered by white men envious of his success in business; a classmate’s brother was lynched and castrated for sleeping with a white prostitute. Baldwin lamented the fact that in Wright’s fiction ‘there is a great space where sex ought to be; and what usually fills this space is violence.’ But anti-black violence, from property destruction to lynching, was the overwhelming reality of Wright’s childhood, and it was often ignited by rumours of sex between black men and white women. By the time he turned twelve,
I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.
All this, he found, gave him ‘insight into the suffering of others’, drawing him to what he called the ‘drama of human feeling which is hidden by the external drama of life’. But it also intensified his sense of separation from people who didn’t see what he did.
Black Boy was denounced by Southern segregationists like the Mississippi senator Theodore Bilbo, who called it ‘the dirtiest, filthiest, lousiest, most obscene piece of writing that I have ever seen in print’, designed to ‘plant the seeds of hate in every Negro in America … against the white race anywhere’. Even in New York, Wright and his wife, Ellen, had to set up a fake corporation to buy a house, since no bank would give a black man a mortgage, especially a black man married to a white woman. They didn’t dare walk arm in arm on the street. His white leftist friends couldn’t provide much comfort: they couldn’t understand why Harlem exploded in riots in 1943 after a black soldier was killed by a white policeman. Wright’s confrontations with America left him exhausted – and desperate to flee. Although he’d quit the Communist Party, he remained under FBI surveillance, because J. Edgar Hoover saw him as even more subversive than his former allies.
In 1946, Wright accepted a formal invitation from Claude Lévi-Strauss to visit France. When he and Ellen arrived in Paris with their young daughter, a reporter asked him whether the ‘black problem’ was close to being resolved in America. ‘There is not a black problem in the United States, but a white problem,’ Wright replied. The existentialists embraced him, and he said he had more freedom on a single block in Paris than in all of the United States. Camus arranged for Black Boy to be published by Gallimard, and Sartre and Beauvoir championed him as an exemplary engagé writer, an outsider who wrote about ‘the struggle of a man against the resistance of the world’ (in Beauvoir’s words), and a victim of racism who exposed the lie of the American dream. Though Sartre and Beauvoir were fellow-travellers, they were willing to overlook his hatred of Soviet communism.
As if determined to play the role in which his French admirers had cast him, Wright sometimes spoke as though he’d made a sudden metamorphosis from black man to existential man: ‘I have no race except that which is forced upon me. I have no country except that to which I’m obliged to belong. I have no traditions. I’m free. I have only the future.’ He hadn’t come all the way to France to write sequels to Native Son and Black Boy; he wanted to expand his reach both imaginatively and geographically. His fiction became more explicitly philosophical, featuring long – sometimes tortured – disquisitions on guilt, freedom and responsibility. He also began to travel, writing essayistic, introspective works of reportage that – as Hazel Rowley pointed out in her 2001 Life of Wright – prefigured the New Journalism.
Wright’s American friends looked askance at his romance with the Parisian existentialists. ‘You see I kept saying his books were not Negro,’ Gertrude Stein confided in Carl Van Vechten. ‘That is what I liked in them so much, but now when he isn’t, do I like it so much?’ Wright resented the notion that he was obliged to represent what Stein called the ‘spirit of his race’. He considered himself a novelist, not a ‘Negro novelist’, but the fiction he published in France tended to vindicate those who believed that exile had cut him off from the world his work depended on. The Outsider (1953), his most ambitious attempt at an existentialist fiction, was a long, unwieldy novel of ideas, by turns pulpy and ponderous, with a plot so improbable – a black nihilist postal worker in Chicago, gruesome murders and a manhunt – that it would have caused a B-movie director to blush.
But it was also a brave attempt to explore the dark landscape of Cold War paranoia and fear. As a black writer who had severed his connections to everything that had anchored him – family, country and comrades – Wright was now experiencing a new form of isolation and claustrophobia. His black nihilist postal worker, Damon Cross, who moves to Harlem under a false identity after killing an acquaintance, has also severed all connections. He too is both isolated and confined, embroiled in the factional struggles of the Communist Party while failing to find common ground with a group of black men cracking jokes about whites – he can’t find ‘in this world rebels with whom he could feel at home’. ‘All writing is a secret form of autobiography,’ Wright said, and so it is with The Outsider. It was, after all, Wright’s sense of himself as an outsider – an intellectual, as well as a black pariah – that had led him into the Communist Party and out of it again. The Cold War exacerbated his feeling of homelessness, of being caught between Stalinism and the American empire.
In Paris there were new connections to be made among men and women who were forging a collective future for themselves in anti-colonial struggles. Wright co-founded Présence Africaine with Aimé Césaire, Leopold Senghor and Alioune Diop, and helped organise its Conference of Black Writers and Artists at the Sorbonne. Like most black writers in Paris, including Baldwin, he shied away from declaring support for the Algerian national liberation struggle, but he also refused to sign a statement denouncing the Soviet invasion of Hungary unless it condemned the war in Suez too. His first travel book, Black Power, came out of a trip to the Gold Coast in 1953, taken at the urging of the pan-African intellectual George Padmore. Kwame Nkrumah invited him to give a speech but otherwise ignored him, arousing Wright’s suspicion that Nkrumah saw him as an anti-communist spy. ‘My blackness did not help me,’ he noted, among Africans who didn’t see him as a brother. In his diary from the Gold Coast he described himself as ‘enervated, listless … I find myself longing to take a ship and go home.’
Yet his commitment to independence in Africa and beyond was unwavering. In 1955 he went to cover the Bandung Conference of non-aligned countries, where he found himself confronting a new, insurgent politics inspired by the two mystical illusions with which he’d wrestled back home: race and faith. The book he wrote about the trip, The Colour Curtain, begins on the flight to Indonesia, where an Arab journalist, also on his way to Bandung, shows him photographs of Palestinian refugees expelled from their villages. ‘I peered up into the face of the journalist; his eyes were unblinking, hot, fanatic. This man was religious … And the Jews had been spurred by religious dreams to build a state in Palestine … Irrationalism meeting irrationalism.’ Western imperialism’s great legacy among its former subjects, Wright argued, was an intense racial consciousness, which – with dangerous ease – could be fused with religious feeling to mobilise the masses. But he was also moved by the display of Afro-Asian unity at Bandung, ‘a decisive moment in the consciousness of 65 per cent of the human race’ that seemed to promise a ‘de-Occidentalisation of mankind’ and therefore a time when ‘there will be no East or West.’
White Man, Listen!, published in 1957, was Wright’s most confessional account of the inner drama of decolonisation. He dedicated it to Eric Williams, the prime minister of Trinidad and author of Capitalism and Slavery, and to the ‘Westernised and tragic elite of Africa, Asia and the West Indians, the lonely outsiders who exist precariously on the cliff-like margins of many cultures’. The ‘“whiteness” of the white world’, the spread of white supremacy in countries dominated by imperialism, had left native elites orphaned: they could never be fully Western but neither could they find a haven in their own traditions. Wright saw aspects of himself in the colonised elites of Africa and Asia, especially in their tendency to ‘hide their deepest reactions from those they fear would penalise them if they suspected what they really felt’. Like Wright, many had been attracted to the non-racial, secular politics of the Communist Party, which had enabled the racially oppressed to ‘meet revolutionary fragments of the hostile race on a plane of equality’. But with the rise of independence struggles, and the birth of the non-aligned movement, Africans and Asians could now collectively express their ‘racial feelings … in all their turgid passion’.
‘My position is a split one,’ Wright said. ‘I’m black. I’m a man of the West … I see and understand the West … but I also see and understand the non or anti-Western point of view. How is this possible? The double vision of mine stems from my being a product of Western civilisation and from my racial identity.’ Wright didn’t consider his ‘double vision’ to be a source of torment, as W.E.B. Du Bois had described ‘double consciousness’ in The Souls of Black Folk. It was, rather, an intellectual asset, allowing him to ‘see both worlds from another and third point of view’, and to see the colonised as both ‘victims of their own religious projections and victims of Western imperialism’. An anonymous reviewer in El Moudjahid, the French-language newspaper of the Algerian National Liberation Front, took strong exception to this claim. The author was almost certainly Fanon, who six years earlier had sent a fan letter to Wright. But by the time White Man, Listen! appeared, Fanon had joined the Algerian revolution, and lost interest in, and patience with, the private sorrows of colonised elites. ‘It is true,’ he wrote in his review, ‘that the drama of consciousness of a Westernised black, torn between his white culture and his negritude, can be very painful; but this drama, which, after all, kills no one, is too particular to be representative: the misfortune of the colonised African masses, exploited, subjugated, is first of all of a vital, material order.’ The psychic agonies of members of the elite were, he wrote, ‘a luxury that they are unable to afford’.
Wright would have accepted the difference between material necessity and the ‘luxury’ of merely being lost between one identity and another. But he understood – in part thanks to his own struggles as a black Southern refugee who had made his way north – that the obstacles on the road to freedom were as much psychological as economic. The violence and exploitation of imperialism, along with Western education and the secular styles of thought and ideology it exported to the colonies, had created forms of dislocation – patterns of dependence, hierarchy, cultural schizophrenia – that political independence couldn’t overcome overnight. Unsparing in its indictment of the West, but alert to the destructive allure of nativism and other sectarian passions, Wright’s appraisal of the post-colonial condition was full of suggestive ambiguities. As Doris Lessing recognised, this ambivalence was an expression of lucidity – and courage. Wright’s trilogy of books about decolonisation was the great achievement of his last decade, but to his contemporaries, especially his black contemporaries, his candour came across as scepticism, even disdain, towards the African motherland at the dawn of its emancipation. He seemed to have little to offer the colonised other than patronising ‘tough love’.
As a novelist, meanwhile, Wright looked more and more like a literary Sonny Liston, knocked out by not one but two Muhammad Alis: Ellison, whose rhetorical pyrotechnics threw the leaden philosophising of The Outsider into embarrassing relief; and Baldwin, whose winding, hypnotic sentences evoked the cadences of the Church from which Wright had escaped. His personal life, too, was in crisis. His marriage had fallen apart, and the novelist William Gardner Smith ran away with his mistress. He became convinced – with good reason – that the black expatriate journalist Richard Gibson was spying on him for the CIA. In his last year Wright slept with a revolver beside his bed. When friends made light of his paranoia, he said that ‘any black man who is not paranoid is in serious shape.’ He rang up friends in the middle of the night – Sartre, the black expatriate cartoonist Ollie Harrington, the anarchist Daniel Guérin – to vent his frustrations. He found solace at his country home, where he spent his time gardening and writing haikus about the sun and rain in the fields of Mississippi, children in the alleys of Chicago tenements, his dead mother’s melancholy expression. His late fiction, especially his short stories, expressed a longing for the speech, the humour and the blues sensibility of the working-class black Americans he seemed to have left behind when he crossed the Atlantic. When Baldwin read the posthumous stories in Eight Men, he could ‘not avoid feeling that Wright, as he died, was acquiring a new tone, and a less uncertain aesthetic distance, and a new depth’.
For all his proud solitude, Wright never imagined that he was fighting merely for himself. In his last public speech, ‘The Situation of the Negro Artist and Intellectual in American Society’, delivered at the American Church on the Quai d’Orsay on 8 November 1960, Wright described the world of black writers as a ‘nightmarish jungle’ controlled by a white publishing industry that was only too happy to see them tear one another apart in furies of Darwinian competition. He thundered against black churches and concert halls for shutting their doors to Paul Robeson, who had been blacklisted and stripped of his passport. As much as he despised Robeson’s communism, he hated Robeson’s racist enemies more. He was done with the protest novel but not with protesting, and he was emboldened by the knowledge that his audience included American government agents. It might have been a scene in his last novel, ‘The Island of Hallucination’, a darkly satirical portrait of black writers in Cold War Paris that has still never been published.
Shortly after his address, Wright fell ill with an infection; less than three weeks later, he was dead. (His daughter, Julia, still believes he was poisoned by the CIA; others blame the KGB.) Thomas Diop, an editor at Présence Africaine, gave the eulogy at a private ceremony at Père Lachaise on 3 December 1960. ‘Dick’s body was cremated,’ Chester Himes wrote, ‘the coffin consumed by flames as Dick’s enemies showered praise on his body.’ ‘Listen to Dick,’ Ollie Harrington whispered to him. ‘He hears what they’re saying about him.’
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