Today Classical Pursuits talks with John Riley, who is leading our upcoming seminar on two short story collections by the hugely influential Richard Wright. Largely self-taught, Wright became part of the Federal Writer’s Project in 1932. The success of Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) led to a Guggenheim Fellowship that helped him finish Native Son (1940). Its publication “changed forever” American culture, according to writer Irving Howe, in the way it depicted the deeply entrenched problem of racism. Wright chose to live in France from the mid-1940s to his untimely death in 1960, publishing novels, essays, stories, lectures and haiku. In this interview, John talks about the undiminished power and urgency of Wright’s voice.
Melanie Blake: What draws you to the work of Richard Wright, his short fiction in particular?
John Riley: In two words: brutal honesty. Wright—more than any American writer, white or Black—had the courage to recognize the horrors of violence, racism and injustice as immutable facts of existence. These evils didn’t feel temporary to him so he never depicted them that way. That doesn’t mean, however, there is nothing to write about. Wright knew there were very important stories to tell about Black people and the tragic choices they faced. In doing this, Wright never fell to peddling deliverance based on the intrinsic goodness of whites in positions of power, or on divine intervention, or on faith in solutions that were far beyond the reach of the Black race.
I also find it fascinating that Wright wanted very badly for readers to see a universal human condition in his short stories. He wanted his specific representations of dispossessed, poverty-stricken African Americans to reveal truths that even the most privileged people could appreciate on some level. This idea of speaking to everyone is a paradox since racism—by definition—is not experienced by everyone in the same way.
MB: One collection of stories in the seminar, Uncle Tom’s Children, was Wright’s first published book. He later wrote of it, “I found that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears. It was this that made me get to work in dead earnest.”
What do you make of his assessment?
JR: Wright is troubled by the fact that the “bankers’ daughters” have an emotional connection with his characters that is too superficial or misplaced. He thinks if he does his job right as an author, there will be no feel-good release. However, there should be a catharsis, and the daughters should “have to face it without the consolation of tears.” Wright does not want his readers distracted by their ability to empathize. This is incredibly ironic, but empathy means they will not get the full import of the stories. Yet, I don’t think he is asking for an emotionless response. As a matter of fact, I think with Uncle Tom’s Children he strives for an emotional reaction far more than a reaction based on either ethos or logos. It might be horror or disgust, but it isn’t empathy because that cannot be authentic and glosses over the truth.
MB: Wright was a mentor and benefactor to many Black writers, including James Baldwin. He and Baldwin ultimately had a falling-out (described by Baldwin in Nobody Knows My Name and summarized here by Milton Moskowitz) because of their differing views on the role of literature and Baldwin’s criticism of Native Son in his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” For Wright, “All literature is protest […] You can’t name a single novel that isn’t protest.” Baldwin’s answer was that “all literature might be protest but all protest was not literature,” Wright was unconvinced, saying, “Oh, here you come again with all that art-for-art’s sake crap.”
There’s a lot to take on here, but where do you stand on this debate?
JR: Baldwin’s very clever criticism seems to be that Wright has a one-dimensional imagination that sees “protest” as the all-consuming purpose for writing even though there is so much else to explore. Wright responds by suggesting that Baldwin is a snooty aesthete detached from the urgency of depicting the world as it is.
I don’t think in practice the two writers are extremely far apart. By saying “all literature might be protest,” Baldwin concedes that protest, meaning a critique of the social order, is a necessary, just not sufficient, aspect of literature. And anyone who reads Wright will see the skills of an artist at work in his grisly, realistic depictions and the emotional complexity of his characters.
There are value differences between Baldwin and Wright that show in what preoccupies each man as a writer. Baldwin had at least a deep ambivalence about his native country and the promise America held for Black people. For Wright, ambivalence about America was a ship that sailed a long time ago. The country seems completely unredeemable to him. I think these differing positions explain Baldwin’s more cerebral approach to his subjects and Wright’s reliance on extreme life-or-death circumstances to convey his message.
MB: What influence has Wright’s work had on your life?
JR: I grew up in Memphis, the setting for [Wright’s autobiography] Black Boy, and spent a lot of time in Mississippi, the setting for Uncle Tom’s Children, where relatives on my father’s side lived. I am old enough to remember seeing Klansmen in full regalia rallying in public and hearing jaw-dropping, unalloyed racist commentary from white people then unconstrained by any social norms. Richard Wright reminds me that this kind of thinking is not preposterous. We don’t need [the 2017 Unite the Right white supremacist rally in] Charlottesville to know that it has not been banished, even now. And when people with this mentality control even a small corner of the universe, they can wreak havoc on those who have the misfortune to inhabit it.
Wright’s gift to me is that he makes the unthinkable plausible. He shows me what a powerful but often unhealthy motivator fear is. And without moralizing himself, Wright displays for me the consequences of unmitigated cruelty upon its victims. He intentionally leaves it to all of us to figure out why this evil must be. His characters are devastated, body and soul, and we are too because we can’t assign this cruelty to history, or rationalize it away, or forget about it. We don’t get the luxury of hope until we accept the enormity of the problem Wright is forcing us to look at.
MB: Thank you, John. We appreciate this chance to read and discuss Richard Wright’s work together. I first came across his work in college, reading Native Son for a course on 20th-century African American literature, and encourage everyone to consider this seminar.