Literary Tricks and Politics
Giving more attention to James Baldwin than Richard Wright in 2017 is a strategy in literary politics, the neat trick of asking Baldwin for a cool drink of water because the heat in Wright's kitchen threatens to suffocate American readers. One noteworthy instance of such strategy was the publication in the March 1, 2015 issue of the New York Times Sunday Book Review of "James Baldwin Denounced Richard Wright's 'Native Son' as a 'Protest Novel.' Was He Right?" by Ayana Mathis and Pankaj Mishra. Two months later (May 25, 2015), Benjamin Anastas reported on his teaching a course on Wright and Baldwin at Bennington College in The New Republic, using the striking title "James Baldwin and Richard Wright in the Ferguson Era." There never was, of course, a Ferguson Era; perhaps Anastas needed this legerdemain to refer to the era of American domestic terrorism that began in 1619, to justify planning his course "as a chance to revisit the work of two writers who loomed large in African American literature of the twentieth century but who had fallen, in recent years, our of favor and off of syllabi." One can only guess what era he might have chosen had he revisited the work of Lillian Hellman and Eudora Welty.
Wright and Baldwin may not appear as frequently in American literature syllabi as Toni Morrison and William Faulkner, but that is not proof they have fallen out of favor. It is proof that pedagogy is not immune to ideology or political choices. Do not dance under the influence of fibs and fairytales.
Mathis, author of the novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (2012), believes that Wright's Native Son "is limited by a curious cribbed vision that fails to extend much beyond the novel's moment in 1940. Certainly the racism that made Bigger Thomas still exists, but, thank God, Bigger Thomas himself does not ---he never did." Speaking as a disciple of Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison, Mathis challenges us with a near paradox. Native Son has extended indirectly into the lives of a few twenty-first century males who are targets of selective profiling, and Wright's social construction lives in their psyches without losing its properties as words on a page. Bigger Thomas never lived in the sense that all of us who are breathing do, but the name of the character lives in and disturbs our cultural literacy, especially if we happen to be black males of a certain age. Mathis, of course, has no obligation to catch all the nuances of being male and black in America.
Mishra, on the other hand, does have an obligation that is complexly raced and gendered. Where he fails to act in good faith is in a reluctance to say that the protest novel in English is not the unique property of African Americans. It is a legacy extending from Henry Fielding to Joyce Carol Oates. Thus, it is truly fascinating that Mishra should embrace Baldwin for unmasking "treacherous clichés in ostensibly noble programs of protest and emancipation" in the very moment he reifies a treacherous cliché by locating Wright in a battle royal with Baldwin. His embrace is very white.
Anastas admits to being a Baldwinite, but he is capable of recognizing that Wright's subtext of "police-induced terror" in Native Son remains in a nightmare relationship with "the United States of Trayvon Martin and 'Stand Your Ground'." That recognition doesn't get him off the hook. He is complicit in what Baldwin identified as the crime of innocence. Let us hope that two or three of his students in Vermont were able to recognize a literary trick in the New England heart of whiteness.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. May 27, 2017