Thursday, December 29, 2016

Uncle Tom's Children, by Richard Wright

Uncle Tom's Children (1938, 1940) was Richard Wright's first major publication. Its final version included five stories and an essay entitled “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow."  The stories are almost minimalist in style. They rely more on dialogue than exposition, and in this sense they’re reminiscent of Hemingway. Wright uses a lot of dialect, and for some readers this may make the stories difficult, though reading the dialect aloud makes the meaning clear. In three of the five stories the main character is an African-American man struggling in one way or the other against the oppression of a white supremacist society. In the other two stories a woman is the central character, though in one of them, she is more ancillary to a male character—her husband—than she is the main agent.  Only in the final story does a woman function as a true protagonist. The last two stories of the volume are clearly a product of Richard Wright’s interest in Communism. They suggest that the Party can effectively organize people in pursuit of a common cause, though one of them has a dark, pessimistic conclusion. In the fourth story, “Fire and Cloud,” a minister named Taylor, who is timid about allying himself with his black parishioners or with communist organizers or with the white power structure of the city, comes to realize that only group action that brings together both white and black victims of the oppressive power structure will bring about social change. In the final story, “Bright and Morning Star,” a mother who has lost her two sons to the struggle for equal rights and the Communist Party in turn sacrifices herself by shooting to death an informer who threatens to give the names of key members of the Party to local police. The story’s dark ending suggests that Wright had begun to lose faith in Communist ideology. This final story marks an advance in Wright's ability to construct a narrative and describe characters convincingly. It relies less on dialogue than the first four stories. At the same time its use of Communist Party rhetoric and advocacy of goals and methods of the Party denies the story a certain spontaneity: events seem predetermined and forced.

One can identify in some of the stories foreshadowing of the style Wright employs in his great novel Native Son (1940). The use of images of whiteness, for instance, look forward to Wright's use of the white water tower at the end of Native Son as a symbol of the oppressive white world that Bigger Thomas lives in.

These stories are interesting for what they show about Wright's developing artistry, but they are not largely successful. Many scenes could have been better shaped and shortened. The stories are often flat. In dramatic power, the second story "Down by the Riverside" is the most effective in the volume. This account of a man struggling to protect his family in the midst of the great Mississippi flood of 1928 is sad and powerful. His wife has been in labor for three days, his mother doesn't want to leave the house that is surrounded by water, a friend brings a stolen boat in which he takes his family across the river to the town in search of a doctor to help his wife, he is forced to shoot the white man who shoots at him: all of these factors play into the overall meaning of the story and the hopelessness of the main character’s situation.

There is a naturalistic purity to these stories. Wright’s characters struggle against impossible circumstances, and what makes the circumstances impossible is the white racism of the world in which they live. Happy endings, with one notable exception ("Fire and Cloud"), don't occur.

I'm unaware of group demonstrations in the 1930s that ended as happily for African Americans as the march in “Fire and Cloud."  Although Wright may have intentionally sacrificed realism for the sake of suggesting that mass actions are the only way to bring social change, the story still doesn’t seem plausible for the 1930s. However, it does look forward to the demonstrations of the 1950s and 1960s that finally began to bring about civil rights for African Americans in the United States.

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