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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Southern Renaissance Richard Wright (1908-1960)

[4013] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Richard Wright (1939), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-42502 DLC].

Richard Wright grew up during some of the darkest days of racial segregation in the American South, and the horrors that he experienced and witnessed during that time became the material on which he built his reputation as one of the most important voices in American literature in the first half of the twentieth century. The son of black sharecroppers Nathan and Ella Wright, Richard was born in rural Mississippi. Wright’s father abandoned his family when Richard was only five, and after that Wright moved around the South every few years before finally settling in Jackson, Mississippi, at the age of eleven. Forced by poverty to drop out of school, Wright went to work, first as a helper in an optical company and later as a porter in a clothing store and a “hall-boy” in a hotel. As he details in “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” each job taught Wright new lessons about the tenuousness of life for an African American in the segregated South.

Although his first story was published in an African American newspaper in Mississippi when Wright was in the eighth grade, Wright claimed to have awakened as a reader and writer during the mid-1920s, when he read H. L. Mencken’s withering attacks on the South’s social, racial, and intellectual failings. Yet it was to be more than ten years before Wright was able to find the voice that would gain him international fame, first with Uncle Tom’s Children (a collection of short stories published in 1938), followed by Native Son in 1940, and finally the autobiographical Black Boy in 1945.

With Native Son, Wright said he was determined to create a book (and character) that was difficult to face. This determination sprang from the positive reception of Uncle Tom’s Children, which did not have the effect on its readers for which Wright had hoped. “When the reviews of that book began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naíve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears. It was this that made me get to work in dead earnest.” Wright’s effort paid off; he is now known for his unflinching, realistic, and purposely anti-romantic portraits of the racial prejudice, oppression, and hypocrisy he experienced and witnessed during much of his life.

Teaching Tips

  • Richard Wright is probably best known for his aggressive portrayal of African American characters like Dave, who are unhappy and unsatisfied with their lives but seemingly unable to do much to improve their situation. If you’ve read Native Son, it might be worthwhile talking to your students about Bigger Thomas and the controversy surrounding that novel. This might be a good way to introduce them to “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” but it could also be part of a follow-up class in which you discuss Dave’s possible destination and future. Where is he going on that train? What will he find there? Does Wright suggest that it’s inevitable that Dave will become Bigger Thomas, or does the story end more ambiguously than that? Use these questions to get your students thinking about the larger implications of the story; then ask them to consider contemporary parallels for Dave. Where might Dave be found today? Instead of plowing a field, what might Dave’s job be? Have your students freewrite for ten minutes in response to these questions; then ask them to share their responses with the class.

Author Questions

  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?

Selected Archive Items

[4013] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Richard Wright (1939), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-42502 DLC].
Richard Wright’s works, including Native Son, dealt with racism and the experiences of African Americans. Journalist Van Vechten used his photographs to promote black artists and writers. Van Vechten is also known for his controversial novel, Nigger Heaven (1926), about Harlem.

[4803] Arthur Rothstein, Family of Negro Sharecropper, Little Rock, Arkansas (1937), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-006019-M4].
Photograph of African American share-cropper holding child. Sharecropping was a common occupation in the South, but often paid very little, despite the tedious and arduous nature of the work. Novelist Richard Wright was born into a Mississippi sharecropping family. His father deserted the family when Wright was five. Wright’s novel Black Boy discusses life for southern blacks during this era.

[5085] Esther Bubley, A Rest Stop for Greyhound Bus Passengers on the Way from Louisville, Kentucky, to Nashville, Tennessee, with Separate Accommodations for Colored Passengers (1943), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-62919].
The overwhelming destructiveness of segregation has been well documented in the literary realm, particularly in Richard Wright’s Native Son, a work which inspired James Baldwin, who focused on the interrelated nature of race and sexuality, and Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man portrayed the physiological terrorism of racial discrimination upon a black man’s life.

[5460] Courier Lithograph Company, Uncle Tom’s Cabin–On the Levee (1899), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Theatrical Poster Collection. 
Poster for a theater production shows happy slaves dancing. Post-Civil War “Uncle Tom Shows” were often performed by whites in blackface. By presenting blacks as subservient, without physical, intellectual, moral, or sexual power, such shows gave the term “Uncle Tom” its current derogatory meaning.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Credits

Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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