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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Richard Wright

For Shandong Journal of Foreign Language Teaching

“Directions in the Study of Richard Wright”

            Contemporary studies in languages and literatures are marked by varying degrees of anxiety.  The impact of new technologies on the uses of language can be noted in the alacrity with which many people engage one another in social networks.  Users, particularly in the United States, instant message, tweet, text-message, or post items on Facebook in forms that contrast dramatically with tradition uses of standard American English.  People who have been trained to attend carefully to spelling, grammar, syntax, coherence, and unity of ideas may find themselves either amused or dismayed or confused by the new forms of communicating.  On the other hand, people who little regard for accuracy or nuances in communication willingly embrace what might be called a “rhetoric of carelessness.” They seem to be convinced that playful inventiveness is the future,  that linguistic conventions are arbitrary, and that minimal representation of thought is the ideal.  Thus, it is to be expected that some scholars and teachers fear that new habits of writing and reading will undermine the desire or ability of younger generations to make critical judgments about literature.  These new habits eschew the discipline and patience necessary for analysis and interpretation of literature. They can not be dismissed as trivial, because they are fundamental in changing what counts as knowledge.

            Anxiety about literature and language is intensified by ambivalence regarding the changes that accompany the progress of globalization.  Those changes influence how we speak of a large range of topics: emerging world orders, ecology, biocultural transformations (including shifts in the cognitive functions of the brain), and the cultural studies that have displaced or subsumed what was once called literary theory and criticism. Even if we try to be empirical and scientific in our approaches to the study of literature, we still have the onus of being uncertain in efforts to generate appropriate questions for our investigations of twentieth-century American writers.  We are overwhelmed by our options; we choke on our wealth of information. We are frustrated by global theories that dismiss the importance of nations and national boundaries (which are also cultural boundaries) that have been so critical in the growth of American, or to be more accurate, United States literature.  Much depends on how one conceptualizes globalization in the study of literature, or answers the question: what is globalization?[i]

            Is globalization primarily a way of thinking about historical processes, or is it a conviction that post-modernity has succeeded in compromising our ability to locate ourselves and our cultural expressions in a history that can be verified?   These questions do not have simple answers.  Theory notwithstanding, we can be sure that twentieth-century literature is indelibly marked by national origins.  It is unethical to pretend that older works can or should be read as if they were written under the conditions of electronic revolutions.  Globalization may make us sensitive to the metaphor of the uncertainty principle, but it neither can nor should erase historical consciousness in literary and cultural studies. Historical consciousness existed prior any newfangled global consciousness. Cautionary hypotheses ought to govern directions in the study of the literature of the United States or of any nation-state. Awareness of the limits of knowledge are crucial, for example, in the study of Richard Wright (1908-1960).

            It is remarkable that many contemporary studies of Wright’s works tend to recycle old ideas about “universal” themes, naturalism, modernism, the writer’s ideology and political intentions, and the much overworked notion of “double consciousness” as an innate feature of African American thought. The more progressive or future-oriented studies, however, attempt to be interdisciplinary.  They may adapt some version of intersectionality research, which “is defined principally by its focus on the simultaneous and interactive effects of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and national origin as categories of difference in the United States and beyond”(185).[ii]  Studies that borrow from intersectionality theory have the potential of making us more discriminating in our investigations of Wright’s works.  They can assist us in distinguishing between which of his works have immediate productive relevance (the potential to provoke synchronic thinking about contemporary human issues) and those which have reflective relevance (the potential to invite diachronic thinking about change).  For example, Wright’s novella “Down by the Riverside” provokes thought about human behavior in the aftermath of natural or man-made disasters; in contrast, Native Son and 12 Million Black Voices may invite thought about the historical consequences of migration and urbanization, whereas Black Power may urge us to ponder the vexed outcomes of twentieth-century liberation struggles in the post-colonial African nation of Ghana. It is reasonable to argue that future studies of Richard Wright and other American writers of his generation should examine both the writer’s and the reader’s  assumptions about the function of literature in his or her own time.  It is illuminating to know whether harmony or discord is more prominent. Otherwise, we shall only compound anxiety and confusion what makes literature relevant in the contexts of globalization.

            Directions in the study of Wright are most valuable when they are aligned with questions about what his works reveal or seem to predict about human beings and change. For what revolutions in human thought do Wright’s works continue to be germane? Does the impact Wright wanted his fiction and nonfiction to have still affect us?  Will continuing study keep interest alive?

            Explorations associated with the 2008 Richard Wright Centennial allow us to sketch how Wright scholars have begun to reposition their engagements with his published and unpublished works and  how those works may assume new significance for readers and thinkers. The celebration of Richard Wright as an internationally honored citizen of the republic of American letters and culture did not officially conclude, at least for those who respected the wishes of the Richard Wright Estate, until November 28, 2010, the fiftieth anniversary of his death.  This conclusion, however, was a resumption of efforts to secure memory of Wright’s significance beyond his writing the classic texts Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), staples of American cultural literacy in schools where censorship is not tolerated. New directions point to Wright’s presence or absence in the reorientations of the Barack Obama Era, which is especially marked by post-racial claims that paradoxically co-exist with an increasing significance of race.

  It is noteworthy, for example, that Mark Bracher’s “How to Teach for Social Justice: Lessons from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Cognitive Science”[iii] provides a remarkable footnote on the philosophical and psychological qualities of Native Son which can provoke “a recognition that entails, for all white readers, the further recognition that we are ultimately responsible for all the Biggers (white and black) and their horrific and brutal actions” (384). Perhaps Bracher unintentionally reifies a black/white binary formation, forgetting that some of the Biggers among us in the second decade of the 21st century are Hispanic or Asian-Americans or as mixed-race as a Tiger Woods. In the context of the Centennial, Bracher’s idea is a red flag.  If Bigger Thomas and other characters from Wright’s fictions are used as sociological icons without rigorous qualifications, we risk intellectual impoverishment; we miss or dismiss the importance of the salient points Wright made in the essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” regarding the origins of fictions and the No Man’s Land “which the common people of America never talk of but take for granted.”[iv] One of the more valuable lessons of Centennial activities was how lack of skepticism about limits promotes blindness rather than insight. For just such a reason, new directions entail remembering.

David A. Taylor’s Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression American (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009) and Brian Dolinar’s “The Illinois Writers’ Project Essays: Introduction,” Southern Quarterly 46.2 (2009): 84-90 bid us to examine Wright’s use of ethnography more closely than did Carla Cappetti’s book Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).  Rereading of Wright’s 1930s proletarian poems (only “Between the World and Me” seems to get notice for its lynching theme) and stories (Uncle Tom’s Children) will beget re-examination of Lawd Today! and the topic of spousal abuse and fresh examination of domestic workers and organized labor in the unpublished novel Black Hope (based in part on Wright’s extensive interviewing of domestic workers in New York). James A. Miller’s excellent chapter “Richard Wright’s Scottsboro of the Imagination” in Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009) creates a fine opportunity to investigate Wright’s perspectives on the American criminal legal system in Native Son, Rite of Passage (1994), The Long Dream (1958), and A Father’s Law (2008). Indeed, Wright’s importance in critical discussions of race, law, and legal ethics has yet to be tapped.  David Taylor’s article “Literary Cubs, Canceling Out Each Other’s Reticence,” The American Scholar (Summer 2009):136-141 provides new information regarding Wright’s correspondence with Nelson Algren, and we should go to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (Yale University) to discover more about Wright’s correspondence with Joe C. Brown and others. Despite the biographical attention that has been given to Wright by Constance Webb, Michel Fabre, John A. Williams, Margaret Walker, Addison Gayle, and Hazel Rowley, much about the full extent of Wright’s intelligence and analytic imagination has not been engaged.

            We should want to learn from the applications of cutting-edge theory in W. Lawrence Hogue’s “Can the Subaltern Speak? A Postcolonial, Existential Reading of Richard Wright’s Native Son,” The Southern Quarterly 46.2 (2009): 9-39 and Mikko Tuhkanen’s “Queer Guerillas: On Richard Wright’s and Frantz Fanon’s Dissembling Revolutionaries, Mississippi Quarterly 61.4 (2008): 615-642. Both articles put Native Son and Black Power (1954), The Color Curtain (1956), and White Man, Listen! (1957) in the present space of terrorism, suggesting which kinds of international theory might enable contemporary readers to absorb and digest Wright’s 20th century perspectives. Likewise, Richard Wright: New Readings in the 21st Century (2011), edited by Alice Mikal Craven and William E. Dow, contains fresh essays that bid us to consider how the transnational qualities of Wright’s works might necessitate some use of transcultural theory.

 Wright’s uncanny intelligence and imagination, we should  remember, enabled him to warn us in The Color Curtain that

It is not difficult to imagine Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, and Shintoists launching vast crusades, armed with modern weapons, to make the world safe for their mystical notions… (218)[v]

Ongoing re-examination of Wright’s works may yet reveal other warnings that have been ignored.

 “On ‘Third Consciousness’ in the Fiction of Richard Wright,” The Black Scholar 39.1-2 (2009): 40-45 is a welcomed Eastern challenge from Professor Chen Xu  (Hangzhou Dianzi University) to the adequacy of W. E. B. DuBois’s  thoroughly Western idea of double-consciousness. If we embrace the probable effectiveness of “third consciousness” in marking a certain uniqueness in African American literary traditions, we may better understand the historical silence of double-consciousness (or playing in the dark) in scholarly considerations of American literatures as multicultural.  We are enlightened by Howard Rambsy’s pioneering investigations of the visual “packaging,” [“Re-presenting Black Boy: The Evolving Packaging History of Richard Wright’s Autobiography,” The Southern Quarterly 64.2 (2009): 71-83] for these investigations open vistas on the dynamics of motive and power in marketplace politics used to manage African American literature as well as on the dominance of visual popular culture. Our interest in Wright’s use of the photograph is deepened by John Lowe’s sustained critique of Pagan Spain,[vi] [“The Transnational Vision of Richard Wright’s Pagan Spain,” The Southern Quarterly 46.3 (2009)] just as Nancy Dixon’s questioning of what Wright got wrong or right about Spanish culture in “Did Richard Wright Get It Wrong?: A Spanish Look at Pagan Spain,” Mississippi Quarterly 61.4 (2008): 581-591 reopens speculation about Wright’s readings of African and Asian cultures.  The examinations of Wright’s haiku by Toru Kiuchi, Jianqing Zheng, Meta Schettler, Lee Gurga, and Richard Iadonisi in Valley Voices: A Literary Review 8.2 (2008) and The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku (2011), edited by Jianqin Zheng, create yearning for fresh commentaries on Wright’s early poetry and the poetry of his prose. We now have stronger reasons, by virtue of the testimonials provided by Howard Rambsy, Tara Green, and Candice Love Jackson in Papers on Language & Literature 44.4 (2008) and Mark Madigan and Toru Kiuchi in The Black Scholar 39.1-2 (2009), for asking why and how we read or teach Wright’s works, for testing the outcomes of using those works in efforts to increase literacy (functional, visual, cultural, political, and rhetorical) in postmodern, technology-dependent societies. literary study.  My own anxiety begins to be replaced by optimism when I wager that new directions in the study of Richard Wright shall arm us for our battles with a future of globalization, that they will help us balance the “rhetoric of carelessness” with a “rhetoric of genuine concern.”

            The scholarship, criticism, and theorizing that is emerging call for remembering Wright’s optimism of the brilliant one-sentence paragraph that ends the 1945 edition of Black Boy.

With ever watchful eyes and bearing scars, visible and invisible, I headed North, full of a hazy notion that life could be lived with dignity, that the personalities of other should not be violated, that men should be able to confront other men without fear or shame, and that if men were lucky in their living on earth they might win some redeeming meaning for their having struggled and suffered here beneath the stars.

[i] A good starting point for answering the question is the January 2001 issue of PMLA, which dealt with the special topic: Globalizing Literary Studies.
[ii] Evelyn M. Simien and Ange-Marie Hancock, “Mini-Symposium: Intersectionality Research.” Political Research Quarterly 64.1 (2011): 185.
[iii] College English 71.4 (2009): 363-388.
[iv] Richard Wright, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Richard Wright: Early Works (New York: Library of America, 1991), 871.
[v] Richard Wright. The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference. Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Company, 1956).
[vi] It is unfortunate that difficulties in obtaining permission to reproduce Wright’s photographs for Pagan Spain precluded their use to enhance Lowe’s remarkable commentary.

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