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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Spin, Specificity and a Man from Mississippi

Mississippi Writers Guild                                                                                 Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

November 2, 2013

Natchez, Mississippi




Spin, Specificity, and a Man from Mississippi


                Given my admiration for Richard Wright, it was a “done deal” that I would say “Yes” to the generous invitation from Mark LaFrancis and the Mississippi Writers Guild to address the symposium Richard Wright: The Man and His Legacy. The theme of the symposium echoed so much that I had talked about for many years.  Therein lay a difficulty.  Could I say, especially to fellow writers, anything fresh and stimulating?  Could I formulate new ideas and articulate them?  Surprisingly, the answers came from the sciences and not directly from literature.  They came from thinking about Cornel West’s critique of a lack of specificity in certain Marxist discourses about the affairs of the world.  They came from some reflection on what many writers from Mississippi donate to that world.

                When a writer is in doubt about what to say, she or he should spin.  Spiders and writers intrigue us with their spinning of artful designs.  The spiders, of course, often get rewards for their labor which are more immediate than those earned by writers.  What spiders may happily catch can be consumed and transformed into more material for spinning.  Writers, no matter how great the attention they capture, must often wait much longer for rewards to come.  And many of them are dead when the rewards arrive.  We have to take comfort in the fact that the spider’s delicate art is easily destroyed.  The writer’s art gets preserved in memory, however dim memory becomes; it becomes semi-permanent in print, or in the 21st century in audio forms and website archives.  The question that interests me is at once simple and difficult to answer: what drives a writer’s imagination to create a piece of writing that can simultaneously delight and entrap?

                Part of the answer resides in concept of “spin” as that word is used in the discipline of physics. In quantum theory, spin refers to the angular momentum of a subatomic particle ---electron, proton, neutron ----which continues to exist even when the particle comes to rest.  According to theory, a particle in a specific energy state has a particular spin.  That is the work of Nature.  In the realm of writing, on the other hand, the particles are at once pieces of writing and the people who read, make sense of, evaluate, and reject or ingest what the other particles engender.  The governing principle is how writers endow thought and ideas with possible spins or angles of interpretation.  The analogies are promising, to the extent it makes any sense for writers and writing to exist under the influence of laws of thermodynamics.

                One can say something new about Richard Wright and his readers from that vantage. Wright’s legacy is more than his works that are in-print and the unpublished works that are at rest in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Legacy has an active dimension, the diverse negotiations we have with materials that constitute a legacy.  From time to time we read portions of the legacy.  These interactions quicken curiosity about why Wright chose to write and the life experiences that informed and gave shape to his writing. The interactions provoke questions and speculations.  Our lack of sufficient evidence to answer all of our questions does not hinder our endless  speculating, our ongoing wondering about the role of his legacy in our history and culture-bound lives. Despite what we may have been taught about “correct” responses to writing (the writing identified as literature) and the transcendent  values of “correct” aesthetic responses, most of us are not paralyzed or imprisoned by correctness, nor is the value of our engagements with the work of any writer negated by what literary and cultural critics tell us we are supposed to think.  Reason and common sense, I admit, can persuade us that certain interpretations are less erroneous than others.  Yet, once writing enters the public domain, the writer can’t control misinterpretations.  That is one reason Wright published his manifesto “Blueprint for Negro Writing” in 1937;* it was a guide for his practice as a writer. It is now very useful as  a guide for how his readers, especially those who themselves write, can deal with his legacy and their own angles of interpretation, their own spins.

 *All quotations from “Blueprint for Negro Writing” are from The Richard Wright Reader (New York: Harper & Row, 1978): 36-49.


Although Wright does not use the word “specificity” in his manifesto, it is obvious that when he gave us a description of perspective, he had attention to details and avoidance of sloppy generalizations in mind. Indeed, it is the specificity that comes from exacting calibration that is important.  In item 7, “The Problem of Perspective,” in the blueprint, Wright suggested:

Perspective is that part of a poem, novel, or play which a writer never puts directly upon paper.  It is that fixed point in intellectual space where a writer stands to view the struggles, hopes, and sufferings of his people.  There are times when he may stand too close and the result is a blurred vision.  Or he may stand too far away and the result is a neglect of important things.

Of all the problems faced by writers who as a whole have never allied themselves with world movements, perspective is the most difficult of achievement.  At its best, perspective is a pre-conscious assumption, something which a writer takes for granted, something which he wins through his living.

Specificity demands upon management of the spin. Wright had much to say in a few well-chosen words to writers of a future, to writers of the 21st century, to us.  With my fellow writers, I often have discussions of perspective or what might increase our managing our visions.  I have such conversations weekly with Kalamu ya Salaam in New Orleans.  He is convinced (and has almost convinced me) that unless a writer has a few palpable or figurative scars to show from having been allied with a movement or struggle, he has little to say that the world should notice. Wright might certainly have written  his magnificent poem “Between the World and Me” without having been allied with left-wing movements of the 1930s. Lynching was part of his inheritance as a Mississippian.  Margaret Walker wrote her signature poem “For My People” without having been allied as much as Richard Wright with Marxism.  Nevertheless, these two poems grip us because the perspectives they give us were influenced by the engagement Wright and Walker had in Chicago with the New Deal and the Federal Writers’ Project (Illinois subsection) as part of the WPA, the Works Projects Administration.  That program was very much about documenting details of American life. Read Ira Katznelson’s recently published Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. That book illuminates the early context for appreciating Wright’s legacy.


There are ten items in Wright’s blueprint.  Like item 7, the other nine can assist us in reading Wright’s legacy and writing our own.

Item 1. The Role of Negro Writing: Two Definitions

For Wright, Negro writing was either (1) “a sort of conspicuous ornamentation, the hallmark of achievement” or (2) “the voice of the educated Negro pleading with white America for justice.”  If one merely samples Wright’s early proletarian poetry, Uncle Tom’s Children, and Native Son, one is mislead into thinking he was only pleading with the American numerical majority for justice.  Properly read, Native Son is less a plea than a scathing critique of what was pathological in America’s majority cultures. Native Son is iconic.  It is not a stereotyped “protest” novel but a thesis novel .  If you think William Faulkner’s trilogy The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion is devoid of protest and propagation, your reading spin is entropic, a measure of perceptual disintegration.

Wright believed the best African American writing should have been “addressed to the Negro himself, his needs, his sufferings, his aspirations.”  Under the rubric of science, we writers produce our best writing by addressing the needs, sufferings, and aspirations of people. When Tan Huijuan writes from Hangzhou  that “China is undergoing such radical social changes and reforms that some tragic events are definitely inevitable , since Chinese institutions are much less perfect than that [those] of the United States, and the high population density in some Chinese cities is also the social problem that drive[s] some people into despair. There is Thomas Bigger everywhere, in American and in China,” (Email to Ward, dated October 30, 2013)  I conclude that Native Son’s value, like that of its specific companion Rite of Passage (1994), is transnational.

Item  2. The Minority Outlook

Wright worried about “the enervating effects” of a split between black writers and the social and economic consciousness of workers, those who kept the machinery of capitalism running. A cataloging of past achievements was not productive. “An emphasis upon tendency and experiment,” Wright argued,” a view of society as something becoming rather than as something fixed and admired is the one which point the way for Negro writers to stand shoulder to shoulder with Negro workers in mood and outlook.”  Wright is quite specific about labor in his photo-documentary folk history 12 Million Black Voices (1941) and his autobiography Black Boy (1945) and in the Mississippi-grounded novel The Long Dream (1958).

Contemporary writers in America constitute a minority within our nation’s total population; we do not go astray if we narrow the gap between ourselves and everyone else by using our own “minority” outlook to explore the hidden dimensions of what counts as “work” in an age of excessive data.


Item  9. Autonomy of Craft

Wright was adamant in claiming “the relationship between reality and the artistic image” is complex, that artistry must not be submerged by didactic sloganizing.  For him, “image and emotion possess a logic of their own.”  His first novel Lawd Today! (written circa 1934/1935 and published in 1963) wove together American naturalism with some avant garde techniques from James Joyce Ulysses; in his novels  and short fiction after 1947, The Outsider (1953), Savage Holiday (1954), The Long Dream (1958), and Eight Men (1961) and A Father’s Law (2008), the aesthetic and the didactic are something of a double helix, an entanglement that tests our powers of interpretive unraveling. And in his travel writings –Black Power (1954), Pagan Spain (1957), The Color Curtain (1956) –the persona or Wright’s creation of a narrative voice of Richard Wright ensures the complexity of relationship between image and the mediation of reality.

Craft was autonomous for Wright, but it carried an odd stipulation: “Writing has its professional autonomy; it should complement other professions, but it should not supplant them or be swamped by them.”  The permanent challenge of his legacy for 21st century writers is how to configure the demands of engagement with the demands of technique.

Item  10. The Necessity for Collective Work

Wright inevitably wrote about collective work within the operative boundaries of race in the 1930s.  “On the shoulders of white writers and Negro writers alike,” he asserted with optimism, “rest the responsibility of ending …mistrust and isolation” among all writers. “These tasks are imperative in light of the fact that we live in a time when the majority of the most basic assumptions of life can no longer be taken for granted.  Tradition is no longer a guide.  The world has grown huge and cold. Surely this is the moment to ask questions, to theorize, to speculate, to wonder out of what materials can a human  world be built.”  Is he speaking of 1937 or 2013? The imperatives for writing are fairly constant, but the community of writers now is larger, dramatically diverse, somewhat beyond the boiling point of contention.

The unmistakably Marxist items --- Item  3. A Whole Culture; Item 4. The Problem of Nationalism in Negro Writing; Item 5. The Basis and Meaning of Nationalism in Negro Writing;  Item 6. Social Consciousness and Responsibility; Item 8. The Problem of Theme---constitute the most problematic portion of “Blueprint for Negro Writing.” They are excellent for orienting the spins involved with interpretation of Wright’s works.  The temporal specificity of the items, however, is a field saturated with explosive devices, because Marxism is ill-equipped to deal with the material specificity of African American oppression.*  In item 6, for example, Wright noted that Marxist analysis produced the skeleton to which the writer must add flesh (language), and he echoed that point in Black Boy when he told his mother that the Marxists had ideas but he had the language.

*I am indebted for this idea to Cornel West’s essay “Marxist Theory and the Specificity of Afro-American Oppression” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. 17-29.


Wright’s works, including the outpouring of haiku during the last two years of his life (Haiku: This Other World, 1998), contains his ideas about intra-ethnic class struggles  (divisions between masses of black people and the always “rising” black bourgeoisie) that magnify the divisiveness of American culture; his reasons for relegating political and cultural nationalism to the realm of folklore, that vast body of transmitted wisdom which has “[the] vital beginnings of a recognition of value in life as it is lived, a recognition that marks the emergence of a new culture in the shell of the old.”  African American writers and all writers work in bad faith if they ignore the numerous disruptions of society and history.  But Wright was so specific that he offered a “mission impossible” to black writers.

Wright used the word “theme” in a way that refers simultaneously to our traditional meaning of “theme” as the main idea in a piece of writing and to what in classical rhetoric might have been called “special topics,” the subjects distributed among deliberative, judicial, and ceremonial discourses.  Wright created a symbolic “black hole” by proposing

Theme for Negro writers will emerge when they have begun to feel the meaning of the history of their race as though they in one life time had lived it themselves throughout all the long centuries.

Wright spoke of theme as if it had a single manifestation rather than many manifestations in texts.  While he gave the appearance of possessing or feeling the whole by projecting his ideas through the narrative device of the collective “we” in 12 Million Black Voices, the appearance was very clearly an appearance.  As he evolved as a writer in his later works, he often positioned himself as the representative voice of the oppressed of this earth.  Yet, in Black Power, Wright had to confess that he was a man of the West, forged on the smithy of Western presuppositions.  This confession prevented his being sucked into the black hole of insane longing for the impossible.  To be sure, he was a world citizen, but he did not have the lived and specific experiences of all citizens of the world.

Contemporary writers who would hazard speaking for others should take note of Wright’s retreat in 1953/54 from the brash proposal he made in 1937.  Writers do learn from their errors and can correct or adjust their spins. Despite conflicts, writers can spin like a guild of textile workers.  The legacy of a man from Mississippi still affirms that the effort to collaborate with civility is a good thing. I have punned on the words “spin” and “specificity” with a purpose.  Writers can learn from Richard Wright that the most difficult thing in the world is to tell the truth.  As Huckleberry Finn said about Mr. Mark Twain, he told the truth mainly.


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