Thursday, March 21, 2013


This literature is universal against oppression


This author is a myth in Black literature and in American literature and I insist on the fact that he is part of the American literary heritage, not just Black, far from it. I must say fifty years ago or so I read most of the books by the Black writers of the 1930s and later decades as Black literature. I studied them at the university as Black literature, but in 1972-73 I taught Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” as part of my syllabus of English literature at the University of California at Davis (UCD) and for me then and since then these writers were and have been part of the American heritage, and even part of the English literary heritage.

The second remark is that I read many of these books in the late 1960 in North Carolina. I read them as Black literature and my first reaction was the horror and horrible treatments they were telling about and whose victims were the Blacks. Such way to treat other human beings was just nauseating and there was no other possible reaction but to condemn as inhumane and inhuman the whites who dared treat other people like that; and there was no acceptable reason to submit these human beings to that violence and that obnoxious torture. It was a time when I was supporting Angela Davis in her underground fight against the FBI. It was a time when I just could not consider as human the people who pretended to be the KKK and they could only “pretend” for me because to be KKK was just to proclaim you were nothing, nothing but a mask, nothing but a puppet, nothing but a vacuous non-entity. My attitude was rejection and I was following their demise by American society and their being outlawed little by little, and by far too slowly to my taste.

That was then and that vision of mine prevented me from understanding the power of this literature as literature. I started understanding when I decided to teach Ralph Ellison as English literature, between Shakespeare and Walt Whitman. Obviously today I am looking at this literature with a completely different orientation, not that I would have moved to the anti-Black side, but because I have moved to the wider side of the rejection of all rejections, no matter what it may be, including the economic rejection some people are the victims of because they dare blow whistles that are supposed to keep silent. And I must admit the present book is so much more powerful seen as a perennial literary heritage of the human beings on this earth who are trying to dream a world of justice into existence than just the testimony of extreme mistreatment of one category of people discriminated out of the mass because of their color. There is so much more than that.

The very first level at which we can capture this literature is the historical testimony it represents about the fate of Black people and Communists in the 1930s. The Blacks are submitted to extreme violence not only physical direct violence from one person to another but the inescapable violence produced and procured for them by the society at large, which implies it is done on purpose, the hunger, the lack of everything decent from lodging to clothing, the systematic discrimination and rejection, the use of weapons and blows to menace and impose what the whites want, etc. The education of the young along that line. This is not even criminal. It is basically genocidal. The objective is to eliminate the Blacks though they cannot be eliminated, so they are reduced to some kind of chattel that can maybe walk around provided they remain within some limits of submission and scope. This testimony is important to show how the Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome is reproduced in the younger generations. The Blacks were educated, though tamed or trained or domesticated would be better, into a certain type of behavior that is founded on the acceptance and the belief that they are nothing more than nothing.

But that would be a lot too short as compared to the literature we are talking of. These Blacks are human beings, so they have another dimension that is systematically shown in these novellas. When a human being is confronted to a difficulty, first he goes to other human beings to face the difficulty together and then they stand against it and try to fight it; negotiate it, get rid of it or solve it. The Blacks are not different and systematically the novellas show how some will necessarily fight back and manage to escape in a way or another and this book shows us quite a few ways.

First, apparent submission and move on to a better place.

Second, though unarmed, resist the aggression and turn the white weapon onto the white aggressor, and then escape if you can: two killed by the white man, who is killed in his turn with his own weapon, one more caught before escape and tarred, feathered and burnt alive, and the fourth one will manage to escape with the help of the Black community. 25% success rate. But the fate is not total and irreversible, and one survives the horror.

Third, you fight back against a natural catastrophe, here a flood. You use a stolen boat to bring your wife to the hospital since she is in birth and cannot deliver. On the way in the hellish conditions of a flood, you are confronted to the owner of the boat who tries to kill you, but the Black man has a gun too, a new thing now, and he kills the white man. Then he can do what he want, save dozens of lives, including that of the wife and two children of the white man he has killed, he will be nearly lynched, then convicted and sentenced to death, but even so he will fight back and run and be killed still free on his legs and not tied up to a tree.

Fourth, the Black man works like hell to buy his farm, his land, and yet a white man will come and will rape his wife, which he cannot accept. He will kill the white man when he comes back to pick up the machine he had tried to sell to the wife, and then he will wait for the lynching squad and he will kill a few before they set his farm on fire and he dies without a sound in the middle of it.

Fifth, we come to the recession and after the recession. A Black preacher is trying to be the intercessor between the white community and the Black community. The Black are hungry and some whites are too. The reds try to organize some demonstration against poverty and hunger. The preacher will refuse to call back the demonstration called up by the reds. He will be beaten up by a band of white vigilantes. Many others, the deacons of his church, will suffer the same  treatment and in the morning he will walk tall at the head of the demonstration and refuse to go up to the mayor for negotiation, forcing the Mayor to come down to the crowd to speak to them. “Freedom belongs to the strong.”

Sixth and last, the Blacks are trying to organize with some whites a red party to fight back against the rich. The whites, sheriff at their head, are catching all those they know and torturing them to know who the others are. This time the story is centered on a mother who has already lost one son and his going to lose her second son in horrifying torture. But she will use the weapon in her house to go kill the white stool pigeon who had managed to get some names out of her. And she and her son, after being shot dead, become “the dead that never dies.”

Hence this book is a tremendous literary piece because it describes in great detail what the human reaction has to be in front of being rejected, excluded, segregated out. It becomes a general and universal testimony of the resilience and resistance and undefeatable courage of human beings in any negative situation. Submission is never the answer. They always reach in their own minds and souls to find the other human dimension that makes them stand and speak and refuse and change the world, even if it takes time and generations of volunteers to sacrifice their lives for the human fire to go on burning. Richard Wright is a tremendous optimist, though he is a realist first and foremost.

And this literature still has two qualities that have to be mentioned. The first one is that religion is directly rooted in that desire to be what they are refused to be. They push their desires into Moses and his crossing if the Red Sea and his taking his people to the promised Land. They are pushing their roots in any other religious character that can show them the way, and of course first of all Jesus. They are ready to die on their crosses under the blows of the whites because they know from Jesus that the future is theirs since their death is the salvation of their people of humanity.

The second tremendous quality of this book is the fact it talks the language of the Blacks mostly and that Black American English is a treasure of philological knowledge and observation that should be studied by linguists as the pure creativity of enslaved people. It is in a way the result of two contradictory movements. On one side the fact that they are denied proper education by the whites, and on the other side that they do not want to speak like the whites because they are not, so they create their own language which is some kind of creolized English. They are creators because they are creolizers.

So don’t cry on the characters and don’t make people cry on them. They are the star that can lead us to the liberation of all oppressed people in this world. They stand and speak for the Jews (p. 260), the socially, economically, religiously, sexually, culturally or ethnically oppressed by some superior entity. It is not revolutionary in the communist meaning. It is evolutionary in the human meaning: always one step forward for the whole humanity and not one step forward for a few and two steps backward for the many.


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