Richard Wright and Jews: Brief Notes for Full Disclosure
Although the topic of Richard Wright and Jews has rarely been rigorously addressed in studies of the man and his works, Wright scholars do think about it. Their silence is, in part, a result of not wanting to engage in time-consuming, emotion-draining disputes with those American Jews who seem to believe themselves beyond reproach, who in responding to the death of Amiri Baraka immediately highlighted that he was anti-Semitic, and who miss no occasion to play the anti-Semite card with or without provocation. And Wright himself, with the notable exception of responding to David Cohn’s review of Native Son, was careful not to draw overmuch attention to his personal and “literary” relations with Jewish people as Jewish people.
It may cause those Jews who wish to be more American “white” than Jewish American great emotional pain to think that Wright’s first and second wives (Dhima Rose Meadman and Ellen Poplar) were Jewish women and that the two daughters (Julia and Rachel) he and Ellen Wright had are Jewish women under the color of Hebrew law, with the possibility of getting contradictory answers depending on who is answering the question mihu jehu di. That same vexed law of descent identifies LeRoi Jones’/Amiri Baraka’s two daughters (Lisa and Kellie Jones) with Hettie Cohen as Jewish women. By the same token, Black Americans who hold fast to Afrocentric beliefs suffer emotional pain that Wright and Baraka married Jewish women, who are more usually described as “white women” in American sociopolitical discourses. Contemplating those facts too much requires admission that it is hard to be Jewish and “white” and devoid of racism, or that it is just as hard to be African American and “black” and anti-white supremacist but not anti-Semitic. American English does not contain the words that would afford us semantic clarity. We are trapped in the cleverness of our languages, double-trapped in connotations when we speak of Wright and Jews, and trapped ultimately by a long, uneven history of contacts and social contracts between African Americans and Jewish Americans.
Thus, it is acceptable to speak of Wright’s friendship with Nelson Algren (Nelson Ahlgren Abraham), whose Swedish grandfather converted to Judaism and with the French Jewish philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre; of Wright’s being awarded in 1939 the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, which was founded in 1914 by the Jewish educator and literary critic Joel Elias Spingarn; of Wright’s public testimonial of his indebtedness to Three Lives by Gertrude Stein. One will not likely hear the shrill scream ANTI-SEMITIC. But do not say too much, however, about Wright’s being entwined with Jewish radicals during the period when he tried to be a Communist, and do not inspect too carefully the Jewish motives of Irving Howe’s famous essay “Black Boys and Native Sons” (Dissent, Autumn 1963), which provoked Ralph Ellison to write a signifying retort to Howe’s “Olympian authority.”
Silence and fear of offending Jews can lead to reprehensible dishonesty, and if the nuanced investigations Wright scholars will make in the 21st century as they discover more “facts” about Wright and Jews give offense, they will give offense. The new rule regarding discussion of Wright and Jews in literary and cultural criticism will eventually be do unto others as they have done unto you.
David L. Cohn’s stinging review “The Negro Novel: Richard Wright” appeared in the May 1940 issue of Atlantic Monthly, and Wright’s stinging reply “I Bite the Hand That Feeds Me” was printed in the June 1940 issue of the same magazine. The call and response are published together in Richard Wright Reader (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), pages 57-67. This sliver of American literary history is a paragon of major tensions which have obtained individually and collectively between African Americans and Jewish Americans. We profit more from direct reading of the rhetorical battle than from a secondary report of the clashing, gain more from trying to re-enact the ritual in which Cohn and Wright were engaged as a prelude to full disclosure and the destruction of silence. The existential state of being simultaneously enemies and comrades is the most severe test for Gentiles and Jews.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
March 10, 2014