Some Ends of an Endless Quest
Richard Wright (1908-1960), whom I have long championed as one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century, is to be valued more for the surgical qualities of his mind than for the lapidary qualities of his imagination. My argument pivots on a belief that Wright asked better questions of the world he knew for fifty-two years than did many of his contemporaries and that the questions were better in the sense that they possessed, to use Wright’s phrasing from “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” a complex simplicity. The paradoxical wording alerts us to mankind’s endless quest to make sense of the absurdity which assumes palpable forms in our experiences of living. Wright was not always right in his analyses of literature, cultures, and political history. Nevertheless, he was defiant, relentless in his critical judgments regarding systems of explanation and determined to be an independent thinker to the extent that use of language permits relative independence. His quest was an epic quarrel with the limits of his world. Examined closely, his unfinished questioning, quest to secure meaning or a facsimile of meaning, and quarrels with dystopian time and space serve as a model for how a few of us who work as scholars and teachers might justify what we do with language. He is a mentor for those who give more than casual attention to their lives and the lives of others. Recognition of his intellectual value for his time and the present is a determining factor in my research projects, the choices I have made in writing against the academic grain, and the risks I have taken during more than four decades of teaching.
Unlike some of his better-known modernist contemporaries ---William Faulkner, Zora Neal Hurston, Eudora Welty, Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright overtly rejected some aspects of Western aesthetics while he covertly used other aspects to accomplish his didactic purposes. It might be argued that some of his contemporaries used artful strategies to accommodate the dominant trends of modernism as they explored the imaginary geographies of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. That aesthetic trinity did not satisfy Wright’s penchant for exploring traces of nationalism in African American expressive cultures and locating himself in the dread-marked territories of pre-and post World War II global realignments. If the aesthetic trinity was yin, Wright invested his creative energies in the yang constituted by the Evil, the False, and the Ugly. By fashioning himself as one representative voice for all the peoples of the world who were the objects of injustice and inevitable wretchedness, Wright established a strong claim on living and writing as a world citizen who interrogated both the process and the narratives of human history and influenced thinking among diverse audiences. How Wright taught non-academic audiences to think with fierce independence is not alien in discourses focused on scholarship and transmitting knowledge. The Academy has no monopoly on the questions he encouraged people to ponder. There may be some gradual recognition of that fact in the ongoing shifting of literary studies to cultural studies, a shifting that is sped up and altered by the emergence of new technologies as tools for investigating, discovering, and packaging information as knowledge. As we move toward possible futures, it is obvious that the good and the evil, the true and the false, and the beautiful and the ugly as aesthetic abstractions are not mutually exclusive but complementary. Wright’s works continue to be excellent guides for questing and questioning.
I. Region and Race
II. Urban spaces –from lecture two
III. International Concerns
The ends or purposes of my continuing quest to understand Wright’s life, the surgical qualities of his mind, and his works do to a great extent define and give meaning to my efforts to be a productive citizen of the world and of the United States of America. I send forth words. If people, especially students, listen to them and empower themselves through their own forms of resistance, that is good. Whatever the outcomes ultimately are, no one can honestly say that I did not try to be clear and open about my motives. The genuine pleasure I find in my work is asking questions of a world that replies with its own open-ended answers.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
October 30, 2014