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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

13. Southern Renaissance

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Activities: Author Activities

Richard Wright - Author Questions

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  1. Comprehension: Dave thinks owning a gun will show those around him that he's a "man." What does being a man seem to mean to Dave? What are a few of the specific things Dave thinks a gun will change about his life?

  2. Comprehension: Discuss the possible reasons Wright chose to have Dave kill the mule, Jenny. Why does Dave talk to Jenny like she can understand him? Why does he refer to her by name? Is Jenny more than a mule to Dave (at least for purposes of this story)? What kinds of things might a mule symbolize? How might such symbolism relate to Dave's situation in life or to the history of African Americans in the United States more generally?

  3. Context: "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" is set in the midst of the Great Depression, a time of economic hardship for the vast majority of Americans. During this time (in what later came to be called the Great Migration), hundreds of thousands of southerners headed north in search of better lives, despite the fact that economic conditions were often no better there. At the end of Wright's story, Dave has hopped aboard the Illinois Central and is heading "away, away to somewhere, somewhere where he could be a man. . . ." The story does not tell us whether Dave is heading north or south. Do you think that "somewhere" exists? If so, what kind of future does this story suggest Dave is going to have?

  4. Context: Like Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright saw himself as an outsider in the literary world, largely writing against the grain of what his critics thought he should be doing. But while Hurston wrote about African Americans who sometimes seem untouched, or at least "undiminished," by racism, poverty, and segregation, Wright created characters who are complete opposites of hers. For example, in "The Man Who Was Almost a Man," Dave's life seems greatly determined by his poverty and by his social position relative to the people around him--both black and white. If both writers hoped to improve the lives of African Americans through their work, what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of their different approaches to achieving this goal?

  5. Context: In its coverage of the Scopes evolution trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, the national press, led by H. L. Mencken, ridiculed the South as backward, bigoted, and intellectually empty. But while Mencken's attacks on the South inspired Wright to begin writing about his own experiences of southern racial oppression, the Southern Agrarians responded very differently to Mencken's characterization of the South. Compare Wright's response to that of the Southern Agrarians. How do you account for the difference? What does this difference suggest about the Southern Agrarians? What does it suggest about Wright?

  6. Exploration: In his 1949 essay "Everybody's Protest Novel," James Baldwin (Unit 14) attacked the way African Americans were portrayed in works ranging from Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (Unit 7) to Native Son by Richard Wright. According to Baldwin, although the goal of these "protest novels" might have been to call attention to African American suffering as a way of improving the lives of blacks in America, the characters in these novels merely perpetuated stereotypes because they were flat, one-dimensional, and seemed trapped by their social conditions. After reading Stowe, Wright, and Baldwin, think about how the portrayal of African Americans changed in the century between Stowe and Baldwin. Do you agree or disagree with Baldwin's attack on his predecessors?

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