Reading Richard Wright
“Our Too-Young and Too-New America”
Reading “Black Boy,” Richard Wright’s memoir of his early years, Wright seems never to have patience, or room, for humor. Seriousness is his cross, because the terror he lives with—the terror every black boy lives with even in his own home, the terror every black man lives with beyond his house, which may be why he discharges it within it—neither lets up nor lets through a slice of light. It’s a wonder he hasn’t taken to drinking or drugging. By the time we read this passage reproduced below, about half-way through the book, Wright has left the South, the Mississippi of his pummeled childhood, for the subtler North: Chicago, where blacks aren’t systematically terrorized so much as made to feel less than marginal. Invisible, as Ralph Ellison would later tell us. Wright’s search has been fruitless. (He is about to discover what he’s looking for, but it’s within him, not beyond him. And isn’t it always so?) He cannot find a common humanity with the men and women he meets. Not among blacks, whose complicity in subjugation crushes him, certainly not among whites, whose conspiracies to live “on the surface of their days” keeps them “frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of necessity.” This is the only America he knows, the only country he knows, and he’s as much a stranger in it as an Aleut in Texas, although Texans haven’t bred an institutional hatred of Aleut. White Americans, of black Americans, have. And blacks of themselves. Barely nineteen at this stage, Wright is plumbing the depths of the abyss that separates white and black Americans from each other, but also blacks and whites from themselves. There is less empathy than one might like to hear. It’s a recurrent theme in “Black Boy,” this ease of condemnation that also doesn’t let up. But it’s understandable. It helps to look beyond it, or rather at the stew from which it steams. It’s just before the Great Crash. The exuberance of the late 1920s should be all around. Instead, Wright sculpts a foreboding out of air thicker than Southern thunderheads. The country’s understanding of itself is no deeper than a waitress’ horizon. It has no understanding of itself because it refuses to understand what stares it in the face, and so it “hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of self-righteousness.” The words are more than a half century old (the book was published in 1945), but they’re as fresh as yesterday’s bigotries over immigration. And they’re an ideal coda to this July 4.
The passage is reproduced below. You can hear a full audio of the same passage, read by Peter Francis James (excerpted from his full reading of the book for Recorded Books). The parentheticals, incidentally, are a stylistic tic of Wright’s.
[Peter Francis James’ audio version in mp3].
During my lunch hour, which I spent on a bench in a near-by park, the waitresses would come and sit beside me, talking at random, laughing, joking, smoking cigarettes. I learned about their tawdry dreams, their simple hopes, their home lives, their fear of feeling anything deeply, their sex problems, their husbands. They were an eager, restless, talkative, ignorant bunch, but casually kind and impersonal for all that. They knew nothing of hate and fear, and strove instinctively to avoid all passion.
I often wondered what they were trying to get out of life, but I never stumbled upon a clue, and I doubt if they themselves had any notion They lived on the surface of their days, their smiles were surface smiles, and their tears were surface tears. Negroes lived a truer and deeper life than they, but I wished that Negroes, too, could live as thoughtlessly, serenely as they. The girls never talked of their feelings; none of them possessed the insight or the emotional equipment to understand themselves or others. How far apart in culture we stood! All my life I had done nothing but feel and cultivated my feelings; all their lives they had done nothing but strive for petty goals, the trivial material prizes of American life, We shared a common tongue, but my language was a different language from theirs. It was in the psychological distance that separated the races that the deepest meaning of the problem of the Negro lay for me, For these poor, ignorant white girls to have understood my life would have meant nothing short of a vast revolution in theirs. And I was convinced that what they needed to make them complete and grown-up in their living was the inclusion in their personalities of a knowledge of lives such as I lived and suffered containedly.
(As I, in memory, think back now upon those girls and their lives I feel that for white America to understand the significance of the problem of the Negro will take a bigger and tougher America than any we have yet known. I feel that America’s past is too shal-low; her national character too superficially optimistic, her very morality too suffused with color hate for her to accomplish so vast and complex a task. Culturally the Negro represents a paradox: Though he is an organic part of the nation, he is excluded by the entire tide and direction of American culture. Frankly, it is felt to be right to exclude him, and it is felt to be wrong to admit him freely. Therefore if, within the confines of its present culture, the nation ever seeks to purge itself of its color hate, it will find itself at war with itself; convulsed by a spasm of emotional and moral confusion. If the nation ever finds itself examining its real relation to the Negro, it will find itself doing infinitely more than that; for the anti-Negro attitude of whites represents but a tiny part—though a symbolically significant one—of the moral attitude of the nation. Our too-young and too-new America, lusty because it is lonely, aggressive because it is afraid, insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low; the white and the black; our America is frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of necessity. It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness.Am I damning my native land? No; for I, too, share these faults of character! And I really do not think that America, adolescent and cocksure, a stranger to suffering and travail, an enemy of passion and sacrifice, is ready to probe into its most fundamental beliefs.
(I know that not race alone, not color alone, but the daily values that give meaning to life stood between me and those white girls with whom I worked. Their constant outward-looking, their mania for radios, cars, and a thousand other trinkets made them dream and fix their eyes upon the trash of life, made it impossible for them to learn a language which could have taught them to speak of what was in their or others’ hearts. The words of their souls were the syllables of popular songs.
(The essence of the irony of the plight of the Negro in America, to me, is that he is doomed to live in isolation while those who condemn him seek the basest goals of any people on the face of the earth. Perhaps it would be possible for the Negro to become reconciled to his plight if he could be made to believe that his sufferings were for some remote, high, sacrificial end; but sharing the culture that condemns him, and seeing that a lust for trash is what blinds the nation to his claims, is what sets storms to rolling in his soul.)
[From “Black Boy,” in the Library of America edition of Wright's later works, pp. 259-61.]