Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration
February 24, 2012
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
Richard Wright’s Spinning of Tales
Spiders and writers intrigue us with their spinning of artful designs. The spiders, of course, often get more immediate rewards than writers or storytellers for their labors. What they may happily catch can be consumed and transformed into more material for spinning. Storytellers and writers, no matter how great the attention they capture, must often wait much longer for rewards to come. The spider’s delicate art is easily destroyed; the storyteller’s or writer’s, gets preserved in memory, in print, or in this new century on disks and websites. The question that interests me is at once simple and difficult to answer: what drives the storyteller’s imagination that creates the design?
The wording and syntax of that question is slightly askew, because the ambiguity is necessary to keep in motion a long-range project on the mind of Richard Wright, an extensive inspection of the ebb and flow of his imagination as it spun tales (his fictions) and negations or razor-sharp critiques of realities in the twentieth century (his non-fictions). My work and meditations on the continuing significance of his stories have benefited greatly from the pioneering work of E. Eugene Miller in Voice of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright (1990) and from thousands of pages devoted to the life and artistry of Mississippi’s native son. Nevertheless, I am quite some distance from hitting the target, and the reason is not far to seek. To some extent, Wright was amazingly transparent about his aesthetic and his poetics. The Marxist parameters of his 1937 “Blueprint for Negro Writing” are indeed useful frames of reference for the stories in Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) and for “The Man Who Was Almos’ A Man” and “The Man Who Saw the Flood,” two stories included in Eight Men (1961). The “Blueprint” is a defiant manifesto akin to the famous 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” by Langston Hughes, but Wright brought to his essay a remarkable clarity and discipline regarding the craft of writing and the choices a writer must make about mimesis (showing) and diegesis (telling). It was very clear to Wright that the cultural consciousness that informs the spinning of the black tale emerges from the black church and its “archaic morphology of Christian salvation” and from the folklore of black people (blues, spirituals, and folk tales). For him, folklore was as much a process as a product, involving as it does racial wisdom and “the fluid state of daily speech.” The storyteller must have perspective, “that fixed point in intellectual space where a writer stands to the view the struggles, hopes, and sufferings of his people.” In a nice turn of phrase with reference to theme, Wright claimed “the social units in which [storytellers] are bound have a story, a record.” And he certainly thought that craft or artistic skill had “functional autonomy.” The rhetorical transparency of Wright’s ideas does conceal something, because Wright had a wicked sense of humor and his powerful webs might catch and entrap us.
Giving notice to the oddity of Wright’s including “The Man Who Went to Chicago” in Eight Men, which one initially assumes is a collection of fiction, makes one aware that in the spinning of tales the boundary between fiction and non-fiction is not stable; it shifts in relation to the teller’s purposes. Reading the delightful, unpublished short story “The Colored Angel,” which begins
“Once upon a time there lived in the heart of the deep South a poor black Negro. All his life he had had a hard time. He had worked under hot suns and in cold rains. Always he could never get enough to eat. And the whites held a high hand over him which he feared. So this poor black Negro served God and prayed that he might go to Heaven when he died. If he could not get the good things of life in this world, then he would concentrate all of his energies upon getting them in the next.”
One knows from the very beginning that Wright is using a stock convention of the fairytale to elaborate a very familiar item from the barrel of African American folklore : “Lady, when I was flying, I was one more flying fool.” But it is the very ending of this tale which betrays Wright’s indebtedness to something beyond the humor of folklore, something that is identifiable as an item of highbrow culture.
“And to this day, on a snowwhite stone in a shaded corner of Heaven, sits a poor black angel with his hand on his jaw, speaking to no one, and dreaming of his past glory.”
Wright is indebted here to Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture “The Thinker (1879-1889).” He has spun an amusing tale out of what he has heard in oral tradition and has seen as part of his aesthetic education. What is not especially amusing about “The Colored Angel” is that the “poor black Negro” suffers eternally in Heaven as much as he suffered temporarily on earth. This, of course, is vintage Richard Wright, the satisfaction of his materialist penchant for depicting the shortcomings of “archaic morphology of Christian salvation.” Ultimately, his readers get the impression that the morphology is both archaic and malicious, reiterating as it does a punishment for being black and wrong. Thus, noticing the oddity of Wright’s recycling segments of Chapters 15 and 16 from his autobiography Black Boy (1945) under the title “The Man Who Went to Chicago” and presenting them as a short story sends up a red flag. There is more to this spinning than greets the ear or the eye.
The more that is crucial for understanding what drives the storyteller’s imagination and creates the design is wonderfully revealed in Wright’s undated and unpublished 26 page typescript “Memories of My Grandmother” [Beinecke Library, JWJ MSS 3: Box 6, folder 119], an elaborate explanation of what enflamed his imagination as he wrote “The Man Who Lived Underground.” That story had its germ in Wright’s reading of a story in the pulp magazine True Detective in 1941, and we know it best from the version published in 1944 in Cross Section and later in Eight Men. The story is a stunning tale of Fred Daniel’s bringing truth from the underground, the perspective of the sewers in an urban setting; his reward, the reward of the messenger , is being shot to death by a policeman who coldly remarks “You’ve got to shoot his kind. They’d wreck things” (EM 84) Yes, they’d wreck things like the colored angel who had his wings clipped for causing exuberant havoc in Heaven with his two left-wings.
The version we read now is not the one Wright had in mind as he wrote “Memories of My Grandmother.” He was thinking of a much longer manuscript entitled “The Man Who Lived Underground,” the one that served as a structural prototype for how Ralph Ellison’s nameless narrator spun his own tale in that classic novel Invisible Man. “Memories of My Grandmother” is as important for understanding Wright’s storytelling imagination as his essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born” is for understanding the complex simplicity of Native Son. This seminal essay about the creative origins of Fred Daniels’ story has been noted so frequently by Wright scholars that it begs for publication and sharing with Wright’s readers.
E. Eugene Miller’s situating the essay in his commentary on Wright’s poetics warrants specialized quoting.
Most critics might agree that Wright came as close as he ever would to achieving [ a marriage between modernism and traditional African American folk expression] in his three most acclaimed works: Native Son, Black Boy, and some of the stories in Uncle Tom’s Children, but Wright, at least at one time, felt that the original manuscript of his eventually much abused novella, The Man Who Lived Underground, best captured this “something” ---the quintessential element in Afro-Americans that so characterized their sense of what is real ---and best expressed in the story’s “contour” his most successful rendering of his own blueprint. In addition to Stein’s prose and Surrealism, other experiences ----his discovery of Freudian dream theory (closely connected in time as well as in content with his discovery of Surrealism), of Twain’s iconoclastic “What is Man?”, and childhood viewings of movies based on Wells’ The Invisible Man ----also have bearing on the novella’s construction and content. Wright’s own special emphasis on the story as symbolic enactment of the action of his grandmother’s and all Afro-American folks’ psychosis (Kenneth Burke’s sense of the word, not exactly meaning a disease) focuses primary attention on the center and shape of his novella. Looking at it in Wright’s own terms, it furthers an understanding and appreciation of Wright’s abiding interest in the problems of literary creation. (Voice of a Native Son 95-96).
In the space of less than a single paragraph (albeit a lengthy one), Miller leads us into the vortex of spinning, the spiraling adoption of influences and techniques, “the result of nonmystical yet mysterious unconscious dynamisms moving the writer to produce inexplicable, wondrous combinations of personally and objectively derived phenomena into what come to be seen as ‘story.’ “(Voice of Native Son 97)
As I said at the beginning the question that interests me is at once simple and difficult to answer: what drives the storyteller’s imagination that creates the design? The provisional answer can only be achieved by exploring the territory of “Memories of My Grandmother” with Wright serving as the Virgil for our Dante and then reexploring the territory from which we all come ----the memories of our grandparents who spun the tales. Ah, the magic of spiders, the magic of story, the magic of our ancestors.
Wright indicated in “Memories of My Grandmother” that he was “no exponent of the so-called Freudian view of personality,” but he did feel obligated to “to indicate the seeming relationship between the blues and jazz and swing, my grandmother’s world view, surrealism, and Freud’s description of the dream process” (25). The magic of Wright’s spinning, then, is the magic of his combinations, the designs of his stories that we may fail to see because we are looking much too hard to find what we want rather than accepting what Wright felt compelled, for whatever reason, to impose upon our consciousness. Given our situational distance from the human conditions to which Wright was responding, we must expect to find blurring of vision. So much has changed. Time and the nature of perspectives that we have on things in the twenty-first century increase the probability of our misreading Wright and misinterpreting his texts, the tales he spun.
One strategy for limiting misunderstanding is to become receptive listeners rather than jaded readers. We can embrace orality. We might ask of the five stories in Uncle Tom’s Children, for example, what makes a good tale. Here good simply means what captivates the audience.
We may be surprised how different our listening might be from our reading.
- “Big Boy Leaves Home”----If we know a little bit about Richard Wright’s childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, the pond in the tale has autobiographical resonance just as the name Dalton in Native Son has geographic resonance, echoing Dalton Street that was near Wright’s maternal grandmother’s home on Lynch Street. The tale is about leaving home, but it is also about being expelled from Eden (the Mississippi analogue for the biblical Eden of Genesis) and about the loss of innocence. Big Boy Morrison must swiftly transform himself from being a boy to being a self-reliant man in order to ensure his salvation. The break with home is the transformation we must all experience in moving from innocence to knowledge.
- “Down by the Riverside” ---The tale anchors consciousness on the moral dilemmas of everyday life. Mann, the protagonist, forces each of us to say what we would do or not do in the circumstances of natural disaster, especially the flooding of the Mississippi River in 1927 and 2011. The dilemmas may be compounded as in the case of New Orleans in 2005; the city and those who stayed were the victims of Hurricane Katrina (the natural) and the breaking of the levees (the man-made). “Down by the Riverside” can be contrasted with the sketch “Silt,” which was published in Eight Men under the title “The Man Who Saw the Flood.” That sketch focuses on witnessing and starting from scratch. Mann’s tale, on the other hand, focuses on participation, theft and murder to save one’s family, and choosing to die. This tale is an ethical web.
- “Long Black Song” ---One might argue that this story is psychologically exquisite. Sarah, a farmer’ wife left isolated in the countryside near Coldwater, Mississippi, yields to her biological urges and permits herself to be seduced by a salesman. Sarah is black. The salesman is white. It is not that Sarah is caught in an abusive marriage; she is caught in marriage to an older man, and she dreams of a younger man whom she loves. When her husband Silas discovers the total violation of his trust and his honor, he does what any red-blooded American husband might: he kills the salesman. He knows it is inevitable that he will be lynched by a white mob. He chooses to fight back and die in his burning house rather than to live in dishonor.
- “Fire and Cloud” ---Reverend Taylor must choose between two masters, between the needs of man and the will of God. His poor congregation needs his leadership in securing relief during the Depression from a system marked by racial discrimination. Is his secular obligation to be fulfilled at the spiritual cost of associating with Communists and compromising his belief in Providence? His moment of choice is marked by a baptism of fire, because he is forced to pray to his God while he is brutally beaten by whites. He learns very well from this lesson. He does the right thing. He leads his flock in a protest march against the authorities who would withhold relief.
- “Bright and Morning Star” ---The final story in Uncle Tom’s Children is an elaboration of an African American folk story about a brave woman who conceals a gun in a shroud that she takes to the site where her husband is being lynched. Wright gives the folktale a sharp political spin and illuminates what might be done when faith in God loses it efficacy. As her son, a Communist activist in the Deep South of the 1930s, is being lynched, the good Christian Aunt Sue uses a shroud-concealed rifle to kill the Judas who would betray her son’s comrades.
Wright combines tragic threads to secure our attention and to capture our eyes, our ears, and our hearts. The surrealism of his grandmother’s religious vision of life is central in Wright’s spinning of tales, for as he contends, surrealism is “a way of seeing relations between things” and to achieve “the greater understanding of the function of the creative process” (Memories….22-23). Thus, the artist, the spinner of tales, must be aware of the dynamics that inform jazz improvisation, “the profuse improvisation of tense tonal-melody-rhythms” (Memories...24).. She or he must understand psychological distance, enforced severance, and the tendency of story to satisfy human needs.
My need for Wright’s stories was expressed in a passage from my book THE KATRINA PAPERS: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (33).
Wright’s story “Down by the Riverside” makes us aware that natural disaster and its subsequent traumas do not necessarily lead to any transcending of racial differentiation and skin privilege, as can be seen in the way our mass media used various kinds of print and visual narratives to report on New Orleans, a regressive process of demonizing one portion of the city’s population and of erasing the existence of other portions. The classic binary of black and white was showcased with a vengeance. It is now very easy to believe that no Latinas/Latinos, no Haitians, no Vietnamese, no Japanese, no Chinese, no people of Asian descent inhabited the city. They are a significant absence in the ongoing discourse.
So, what is the fallout that might be anticipated? Listen to this small excerpt from the screenplay of Hotel Rwanda.
Paul [Ruseabagina]: I am glad that you have shot this footage -- and that the world will see it. It is the only way we have a chance that people might intervene.
Jack glances down. Jack: Yeah, and if no one intervenes, is it still a good thing to show?
Paul: How can they not intervene ---when they witness such atrocities?
Jack: (sighs) I think if people see this footage they’ll say “Oh my God, that’s horrible,” and then go on eating their dinners.
The power of Richard Wright’s spinning of tales is such that we do not have the option of not intervening.