I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.
The more closely the author thinks of why he wrote, the more he comes to regard his imagination as a kind of self-generating cement which glued his facts together, and his emotions as a kind of dark and obscure designer of those facts.
But the moment he makes the attempt his words falter, for he is confronted and defied by the inexplicable array of his own emotions. Emotions are subjective and he can communicate them only when he clothes them in objective guise; and how can he ever be so arrogant as to know when he is dressing up the right emotion in the right Sunday suit?
But, because the blacks were so close to the very civilization which sought to keep them out, because they could not help but react in some way to its incentives and prizes, and because the very tissue of their consciousness received its tone and timbre from the strivings of that dominant civilization, oppression spawned among them a myriad variety of reactions, reaching from outright blind rebellion to sweet, other-worldly submissiveness.
I sensed, too, that the Southern scheme of oppression was but an appendage of a far vaster and in many respects more ruthless and impersonal commodity-profit machine.
It was this intolerable sense of feeling and understanding so much, and yet living on a plane of social reality where the look of a world which one did not make or own struck one with a blinding objectivity and tangibility, that made me grasp the revolutionary impulse in my life and the lives of those about me and far away.
But he is product of a dislocated society; he is a dispossessed and disinherited man; he is all of this, and he lives amid the greatest possible plenty on earth and he is looking and feeling for a way out.
And in a boy like Bigger, young, unschooled, whose subjective life was clothed in the tattered rags of American "culture," this primitive fear and ecstasy were naked, exposed, unprotected by religion or a framework of government or a scheme of society whose final faiths would gain his love and trust; unprotected by trade or profession, faith or belief; opened to every trivial blast of daily or hourly circumstance.
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 every 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.
And then, while writing, a new and thrilling relationship would spring up under the drive emotion, coalescing and telescoping alien facts into a known and felt truth. That was the deep fun of the job; to feel within my body that I was pushing out to new areas of feeling, strange landmarks of emotion, tramping upon foreign soil, compounding new relationships of perceptions, making new and - until that very split second of time! - unheard-of and unfelt effects with words.
I don't know if Native Son is a good book or a bad book. And I don't know if the book I'm working on now will be a good book or a bad book. And I really don't care. The mere writing of it will be more fun and a deeper satisfaction than any praise or blame from anybody. I feel that I'm lucky to be alive to write novels today, when the whole world is caught in the pangs of war and change.
"And still when the delicate and unconscious machinery of race relations slips, there will be murder again. How can law contradict the lives of millions of people and hope to be administered successfully?"
"Injustice which lasts for three long centuries and which exists among millions of people over thousands of square miles of territory, is injustice no longer; it is an accomplished fact of life. Men adjust themselves to their land; they create their own laws of being; their notions of right and wrong.
'If laying down my life could stop the suffering in the world I'd do it. But I don't believe anything can stop it,' I told him. He heard me but he did not speak. I wanted to say more to him, but I knew that it would have been useless. Though older than I, he had neither known nor felt anything of life for himself; he had been carefully reared by his mother and father and he had always been told what to feel.
All my life I have done nothing but feel and cultivate my feelings; all their lives they had done nothing but strive for petty goals, the trivial material prizes of American life. We shared a common tongue, but my language was a different language from theirs.
This business of saving souls had not ethics; every human relationship was shamelessly exploited. In essence, the tribe was asking us whether we shared its feelings; if we refused to join the church, it was equivalent to saying no, to placing ourselves in the position of moral monsters.
Watching the white people eat would make my empty stomach churn and I would grow vaguely angry. Why could I not eat when I was hungry? Why did I always have to wait until others were through? I could not understand why some people had enough food and others did not.
To beg drinks in the saloon became an obsession. Many evenings my mother would find me wandering in a daze and take me home and beat me; but the next morning, no sooner had she gone to her job than I would run to the saloon and wait for someone to take me in and buy me a drink. My mother protested tearfully to the proprietor of the saloon, who ordered me to keep out of his place. But the men—reluctant to surrender their sport—would buy me drinks anyway, letting me drink out of their flasks on the streets, urging me to repeat obscenities. I was a drunkard in my sixth year, before I had begun school.
I soon made myself a nuisance by asking far too many questions of everybody. Every happening in the neighborhood, no matter how trivial, became my business.
I sat listening to pupils recite, knowing and understanding what was being said and done, but utterly incapable of opening my mouth when called upon. The students around me seemed so sure of themselves that I despaired of ever being able to conduct myself as they did.
I memorized it word for word after having heard it but once. Yet, despite my retentive memory, I found it impossible to recite when I went back into the classroom.
A quarter of a century was to elapse between the time when I saw my father sitting with the strange woman and the time when I was to see him again, standing alone upon the red clay of a Mississippi plantation, a sharecropper, clad in ragged overalls, holding a muddy hoe in his gnarled, veined hands—a quarter of a century during which my mind and consciousness had become so greatly and violently altered that when I tried to talk to him I realized that, though ties of blood made us kin, though I could see a shadow of my face in his face, though there was an echo of my voice in his voice, we were forever strangers, speaking a different language, living on vastly distant planes of reality.
I was overwhelmed to realize that he could never understand me or the scalding experiences that had swept me beyond his life and into an area of living that he could never know.
From far beyond the horizons that bound this bleak plantation there had come to me through my living the knowledge that my father was a black peasant who had gone to the city seeking life, but who had failed in the city; a black peasant whose life had been hopelessly snarled in the city, and who had at last fled the city—that same city which had lifted me in its burning arms and borne me toward alien and undreamed of shores of knowing.
(After I had outlived the shocks of childhood, after the habit of reflection had been born in me, I used to mull over the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes, how unstable was our tenderness, how lacking in genuine passion we were, how void of great hope, how timid our joy, how bare our traditions, how hollow our memories, how lacking we were in those intangible sentiments that bind man to man, and how shallow was even our despair. After I had learned other ways of life I used to brood upon the unconscious irony of those who felt that Negroes led so passional an existence! I saw that what had been taken for our emotional strength was our negative confusions, our flights, our fears, our frenzy under pressure
Not to know the end of the tale filled me with a sense of emptiness, loss. I hungered for the sharp, frightening, breathtaking, almost painful excitement that the story had given me, and I vowed that as soon as I was old enough I would buy all the novels there were and read them to feed that thirst for violence that was in me, for intrigue, for plotting, for secrecy, for bloody murders.
They could not have known that Ella’s whispered story of deception and murder had been the first experience in my life that had elicited from me a total emotional response. No words or punishment could have possibly made me doubt. I had tasted what to me was life, and I would have more of it, somehow, someway.
To hold an attitude of antagonism or distrust toward Jews was bred in us from childhood; it was not merely racial prejudice, it was a part of our cultural heritage.
I was puzzled. Was there something happening next door to where I lived that I did not know? I thought I had poked my nose into every bit of conceivable business in the neighborhood; if something was being sold next door, then I certainly wanted to know about it.
If the stars twinkled more than usual on any given night, it meant that the angels in heaven were happy and were flitting across the doors of heaven; and since stars were merely holes ventilating heaven, the twinkling came from the angels flitting past the holes that admitted air into the holy home of God.
Anything seemed possible, likely, feasible, because I wanted everything to be possible…Because I had no power to make things happen outside of me in the objective world, I made things happen within. Because my environment was bare and bleak, I endowed it with unlimited potentialities, redeemed it for the sake of my own hungry and cloudy yearning.
But I was still shy and half paralyzed when in the presence of a crowd, and my first day at the new school made me the laughingstock of the classroom. I was sent to the blackboard to write my name and address; I knew my name and address, knew how to write it, knew how to spell it; but standing at the blackboard with the eyes of the many girls and boys looking at my back made me freeze inside and I was unable to write a single letter.
I sat and cursed myself. Why did I always appear so dumb when I was called upon to perform something in a crowd? I knew how to write as well as any pupil in the classroom, and no doubt I could read better than any of them, and I could talk fluently and expressively when I was sure of myself. Then why did strange faces make me freeze? I sat with my ears and neck burning, hearing the pupils whisper about me, hating myself, hating them; I sat still as stone and a storm of emotion surged through me
Once, in the night, my mother called me to her bed and told me that she could not endure the pain, that she wanted to die. I held her hand and begged her to be quiet. That night I ceased to react to my mother; my feelings were frozen. I merely waited upon her, knowing that she was suffering. She remained abed ten years, gradually growing better, but never completely recovering, relapsing periodically into her paralytic state. The family had stripped itself of money to fight my mother’s illness and there was no more forthcoming. Her illness gradually became an accepted thing in the house, something that could not be stopped or helped. My mother’s suffering grew into a symbol in my mind, gathering to itself all the poverty, the ignorance, the helplessness; the painful, baffling, hunger-ridden days and hours; the restless moving, the futile seeking, the uncertainty, the fear, the dread; the meaningless pain and the endless suffering. Her life set the emotional tone of my life, colored the men and women I was to meet in the future, conditioned my relation to events that had not yet happened, determined my attitude to situations and circumstances I had yet to face. A somberness of spirit that I was never to lose settled over me during the slow years of my mother’s unrelieved suffering, a somberness that was to make me stand apart and look upon excessive joy with suspicion, that was to make me self-conscious, that was to make me keep forever on the move, as though to escape a nameless fate seeking to overtake me. At the age of twelve, before I had had one full year of formal schooling, I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.
Granny intimated boldly, basing her logic on God’s justice, that one sinful person in a household could bring down the wrath of God upon the entire establishment, damning both the innocent and the guilty, and on more than one occasion she interpreted my mother’s long illness as the result of my faithlessness.
Many of the religious symbols appealed to my sensibilities and I responded to the dramatic vision of life held by the church, feeling that to live day by day with death as one’s sole thought was to be so compassionately sensitive toward all life as to view all men as slowly dying, and the trembling sense of fate that welled up, sweet and melancholy, from the hymns blended with the sense of fate that I had already caught from life.
But full emotional and intellectual belief never came. Perhaps if I had caught my first sense of life from the church I would have been moved to complete acceptance, but the hymns and sermons of God came into my heart only long after my personality had been shaped and formed by uncharted conditions of life. I felt that I had in me a sense of living as deep as that which the church was trying to give me, and in the end I remained basically unaffected.
On our way home she would not utter a single word. I walked anxiously beside her, looking at her tired old white face, the wrinkles that lined her neck, the deep, waiting black eyes, and the frail body, and I knew more than she thought I knew about the meaning of religion, the hunger of the human heart for that which is not and can never be, the thirst of the human spirit to conquer and transcend the implacable limitations of human life.
“And at last the darkness of the night descended and softly-kissed the surface of the watery grave and the only sound was the lonely rustle of the ancient trees,” I wrote as I penned the final line. I was excited; I read it over and saw that there was a yawning void in it. There was no plot, no action, nothing save atmosphere and longing and death. But I had never in my life done anything like it; I had made something, no matter how bad it was; and it was mine…Now, to whom could I show it?
God only knows what she thought. My environment contained nothing more alien than writing or the desire to express one’s self in writing. But I never forgot the look of astonishment and bewilderment on the young woman’s face when I had finished reading and glanced at her. Her inability to grasp what I had done or was trying to do somehow gratified me. Afterwards whenever I thought of her reaction I smiled happily for some unaccountable reason.
There were more violent quarrels in our deeply religious home than in the home of a gangster, a burglar, or a prostitute, a fact which I used to hint gently to Granny and which did my cause no good. Granny bore the standard for God, but she was always fighting. The peace that passes understanding never dwelt with us. I, too, fought; but I fought because I felt I had to keep from being crushed, to fend off continuous attack. But Granny and Aunt Addie quarreled and fought not only with me, but with each other over minor points of religious doctrine, or over some imagined infraction of what they chose to call their moral code.
As summer neared, my mother suffered yet another stroke of paralysis and again I had to watch her suffer, listen to her groans, powerless to help. I used to lie awake nights and think back to the early days in Arkansas, tracing my mother’s life, reliving events, wondering why she had apparently been singled out for so much suffering, meaningless suffering, and I would feel more awe than I had ever felt in church. My mind could find no answer and I would feel rebellious against all life. But I never felt humble.
How long was this going to last? How long was I going to be beaten for trifles and less than trifles? I was already so conditioned toward my relatives that when I passed them I actually had a nervous tic in my muscles, and now I was going to be beaten by someone who did not like the tone of voice in which I spoke.
My schoolmates could not understand why anyone would want to write a story; and, above all, they could not understand why I had called it The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre. The mood out of which a story was written was the most alien thing conceivable to them.
In the end I was so angry that I refused to talk about the story. From no quarter, with the exception of the Negro newspaper editor, had there come a single encouraging word. It was rumored that the principal wanted to know why I had used the word “hell.” I felt that I had committed a crime. Had I been conscious of the full extent to which I was pushing against the current of my environment, I would have been frightened altogether out of my attempts at writing.
The southern whites would rather have had Negroes who stole, work for them than Negroes who knew, however dimly, the worth of their own humanity. Hence, whites placed a premium upon black deceit; they encouraged irresponsibility; and their rewards were bestowed upon us blacks in the degree that we could make them feel safe and superior.
Often, when perplexed, I longed to be like the smiling, lazy, forgetful black boys in the noisy hotel locker rooms, with no torrential conflicts to resolve. Many times I grew weary of the secret burden I carried and longed to cast it down, either in action or in resignation. But I was not made to be a resigned man and I had only a limited choice of actions, and I was afraid of all of them.
I sat on the edge of the bed and stared at her in amazement. It was on reputedly disreputable Beale Street in Memphis that I had met the warmest, friendliest person I had ever known, that I discovered that all human beings were not mean and driving, were not bigots like the members of my family.
Later I came awake with a sudden start, remembering the fright and tension that had accompanied my foray into crime. Well, all that was gone now. I could start anew. I did not like to feel tension and fear. I wanted something else, to be human, to be caught up in something meaningful.
Later, after I had grown to understand the peasant mentality of Bess and her mother, I learned the full degree to which my life at home had cut me off, not only from white people but from Negroes as well. To Bess and her mother, money was important, but they did not strive for it too hard. They had no tensions, unappeasable longings, no desire to do something to redeem themselves. The main value in their lives was simple, clean, good living and when they thought they had found those same qualities in one of their race, they instinctively embraced him, liked him, and asked no questions.
“That’s all right,” he said. “But when you’re through reading those books, I want you to tell me what you get out of them.” That night in my rented room, while letting the hot water run over my can of pork and beans in the sink, I opened A Book of Prefaces and began to read. I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? And how did one write like that? I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen, consumed with hate, denouncing everything American, extolling everything European or German, laughing at the weaknesses of people, mocking God, authority. What was this?
The plots and stories in the novels did not interest me so much as the point of view revealed.
Reading was like a drug, a dope. The novels created moods in which I lived for days. But I could not conquer my sense of guilt, my feeling that the white men around me knew that I was changing, that I had begun to regard them differently.
It would have been impossible for me to have told anyone what I derived from these novels, for it was nothing less than a sense of life itself. All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel, and I could not read enough of them.
In buoying me up, reading also cast me down, made me see what was possible, what I had missed.
I had no hope whatever of being a professional man. Not only had I been so conditioned that I did not desire it, but the fulfillment of such an ambition was beyond my capabilities. Well-to-do Negroes lived in a world that was almost as alien to me as the world inhabited by whites.
A dim notion of what life meant to a Negro in America was coming to consciousness in me, not in terms of external events, lynchings, Jim Crowism, and the endless brutalities, but in terms of crossed-up feeling, of psyche pain. I sensed that Negro life was a sprawling land of unconscious suffering, and there were but few Negroes who knew the meaning of their lives, who could tell their story.
(The essence of the irony of the plight of the Negro in America, to me, is that he is doomed to live in isolation while those who condemn him seek the basest goals of any people on the face of the earth. Perhaps it would be possible for the Negro to become reconciled to his plight if he could be made to believe that his sufferings were for some remote, high, sacrificial end; but sharing the culture that condemns him, and seeing that a lust for trash is what blinds the nation to his claims, is what sets storms to rolling in his soul.)
I read Stein’s Three Lives, Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, and Dostoevski’s The Possessed, all of which revealed new realms of feeling. But the most important discoveries came when I veered from fiction proper into the field of psychology and sociology. I ran through volumes that bore upon the causes of my conduct and the conduct of my family. I studied tables of figures relating population density to insanity, relating housing to disease, relating school and recreational opportunities to crime, relating various forms of neurotic behavior to environment, relating racial insecurities to the conflicts between whites and blacks… I still had no friends, casual or intimate, and felt the need for none. I had developed a self-sufficiency that kept me distant from others, emotionally and psychologically.
I did not act in this fashion deliberately; I did not prefer this kind of relationship with people. I wanted a life in which there was a constant oneness of feeling with others, in which the basic emotions of life were shared, in which common memory formed a common past, in which collective hope reflected a national future.
The most valued pleasure of the people I knew was a car, the most cherished experience a bottle of whisky, the most sought-after prize somebody else’s wife. I had no sense of being inferior or superior to the people about me; I merely felt that they had had no chance to learn to live differently. I never criticized them or praised them, yet they felt in my neutrality a deeper rejection of them than if I had cursed them.
Repeatedly I took stabs at writing, but the results were so poor that I would tear up the sheets. I was striving for a level of expression that matched those of the novels I read. But I always somehow failed to get onto the page what I thought and felt. Failing at sustained narrative, I compromised by playing with single sentences and phrases. Under the influence of Stein’s Three Lives, I spent hours and days pounding out disconnected sentences for the sheer love of words. I would write: “The soft melting hunk of butter trickled in gold down the stringy grooves of the split yam.” Or: “The child’s clumsy fingers fumbled in sleep, feeling vainly for the wish of its dream.” “The old man huddled in the dark doorway, his bony face lit by the burning yellow in the windows of distant skyscrapers.” My purpose was to capture a physical state or movement that carried a strong subjective impression, an accomplishment which seemed supremely worth struggling for. If I could fasten the mind of the reader upon words so firmly that he would forget words and be conscious only of his response, I felt that I would be in sight of knowing how to write narrative. I strove to master words, to make them disappear, to make them important by making them new, to make them melt into a rising spiral of emotional stimuli, each greater than the other, each feeding and reinforcing the other, and all ending in an emotional climax that would drench the reader with a sense of a new world. That was the single aim of my living.
I spent my nights reading Proust’s A Remembrance of Things Past, admiring the lucid, subtle but strong prose, stupefied by its dazzling magic, awed by the vast, delicate, intricate, and psychological structure of the Frenchman’s epic of death and decadence. But it crushed me with hopelessness, for I wanted to write of the people in my environment with an equal thoroughness, and the burning example before my eyes made me feel that I never could.
Though I had never had any assignments from a college professor, I had made much harder and more prolonged attempts at self-expression than any of them. Swearing love for art, they hovered on the edge of Bohemian life. Always friendly, they could never be anybody’s friend; always reading, they could really never learn; always boasting of their passions, they could never really feel and were afraid to live.
Communism, instead of making them leap forward with fire in their hearts to become masters of ideas and life, had frozen them at an even lower level of ignorance than had been theirs before they met Communism.
They had rejected the state of things as they were, and that seemed to me to be the first step toward embracing a creative attitude toward life. I felt that it was not until one wanted the world to be different that one could look at the world with will and emotion. But these men had rejected what was before their eyes without quite knowing what they had rejected and why.
(If I were a member of the class that rules, I would post men in all the neighborhoods of the nation, not to spy upon or club rebellious workers, not to break strikes or disrupt unions; but to ferret out those who no longer respond to the system in which they live. I would make it known that the real danger does not stem from those who seek to grab their share of wealth through force, or from those who try to defend their property through violence, for both of these groups, by their affirmative acts, support the values of the system in which they live. The millions that I would fear are those who do not dream of the prizes that the nation holds forth, for it is in them, though they may not know it, that a revolution has taken place and is biding its time to translate itself into a new and strange way of life.)
He took me to an office and introduced me to a Jewish boy who was to become one of the nation’s leading painters, to a chap who was to become one of the eminent composers of his day, to a writer who was to create some of the best novels of his generation, to a young Jewish boy who was destined to film the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. I was meeting men and women whom I would know for decades to come, who were to form the first sustained relationships in my life.
During the following days I learned through discreet questioning that I had seemed a fantastic element to the black Communists. I was shocked to hear that I, who had been only to grammar school, had been classified as an intellectual. What was an intellectual? I had never heard the word used in the sense in which it was applied to me.
I found that when I talked to them in abstract terms, my ideas were not understood. The irony of it was that I, who had all but to steal books to read, had been branded as an intellectual by the one group that claimed it was dedicated to educating the oppressed and informing them with a vision of life.
What a weird experience I had had! At no time had I felt at home in the Communist party. I had always felt that the possibility was there, but always I was not quite sure of the motives of the people with whom I worked and they never seemed quite sure of mine. My comrades had known me, my family, my friends; they, God knows, had known my aching poverty. But they had never been able to conquer their fear of the individual way in which I acted and lived, an individuality which life had seared into my blood and bones.
This presentation had lasted for more than three hours, but it had enthroned a new sense of reality in the hearts of those present, a sense of man on earth. With the exception of the church and its myths and legends, there was no agency in the world so capable of making men feel the earth and the people upon it as the Communist party.
I headed toward home alone, really alone now, telling myself that in all the sprawling immensity of our mighty continent the least-known factor of living was the human heart, the least-sought goal of being was a way to live a human life. Perhaps, I thought, out of my tortured feelings I could fling a spark into this darkness. I would try, not because I wanted to but because I felt that I had to if I were to live at all.
I paced the floor, knowing that all I possessed were words and dim knowledge that my country had shown me no examples of how to live a human life.
I'm a rootless man, but I'm neither psychologically distraught nor in any wise particularly perturbed because of it. Personally, I do not hanker after, and seem not to need, as many emotional attachments, sustaining roots, or idealistic allegiances as most people. I declare unabashedly that I like and even cherish the state of abandonment, of aloneness; it does not bother me; indeed, to me it seems the natural, inevitable condition of man, and I welcome it. I can make myself at home almost anywhere on this earth and can, if I've a mind to and when I'm attracted to a landscape or a mood of life, easily sink myself into the most alien and widely differing environments.
I declare unabashedly that I like and even cherish the state of abandonment, of aloneness; ... it seems the natural, inevitable condition of man, and I welcome it ... I've been shaped to this mental stance by the kind of experience I have fallen heir to.
How can the spirit of the Enlightenment and the Reformation be extended now to all men?
[As] the tide of white domination of the land mass of Asia and Africa recedes, there lies exposed to view a procession of shattered cultures, disintegrated societies, and a writhing sweep of more aggressive, irrational religion than the world has known for centuries.
What vision must Negro writers have before their eyes in order to feel the impelling necessity for an about face? What angle of vision can show them all the forces of modern society in process, all the lines of economic development converging toward a distant point of hope? Must they believe in some `ism'? ("Blueprint" 45)
Perspective is that part of a poem, novel, or play which a writer never puts directly upon paper. It is that fixed point in intellectual space where a writer stands to view the struggles, hopes, and sufferings of his people. There are times when he may stand too close and the result is a blurred vision. Or he may stand too far away and the result is a neglect of important things.
I must confess that this is no personal achievement of mine; this attitude was never striven for. . . . [ellipsis is in original, unabridged text] I've been shaped to this mental stance by the kind of experiences that I have fallen heir to. I say this neither in a tone of apology nor to persuade the reader in my ideological direction, but to give him a hinting clue as to why certain ideas and values appeal to me more than others, and why certain perspectives are stressed in these speeches.
I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.
A republication of both Black Boy (1945) and American Hunger (1977) by Perennial Classics
As a protective mechanism, I developed a terse, cynical mode of speech that rebuffed those who sought to get too close to me. Conversation was my way of avoiding expression; my words were reserved for those times when I sat down alone to write. My face was always a deadpan or a mask of general friendliness; no word or event could jar me into a gesture of enthusiasm or despair.
My ability to endure tension had now grown amazingly. From the accidental pain of southern years, from anxiety that I had sought to avoid, from fear that had been too painful to bear, I had learned to like my unintermittent burden of feeling, had become habituated to acting with all of my being, had learned to seek those areas of life, those situations, where I knew that events would complement my own inner mood. I was conscious of what was happening to me; I knew that my attitude of watchful wonder had usurped all other feelings, had become the meaning of my life, an integral part of my personality; that I was striving to live and measure all things by it. Having no claims upon others, I bent the way the wind blew, rendering unto my environment that which was my environment's, and rendering unto myself that which I felt was mine. It was a dangerous way to live, far more dangerous than violating laws or ethical codes of conduct; but the danger was for me and me alone.
"And, curiously, he felt that he was something, somebody, precisely and simply because of that cold threat of death. The terror of the white world had left no doubt in him about his worth; in fact, that white world had guaranteed his worth in the most brutal and dramatic manner. Most surely he was was something, in the eyes of the white world, or it would not have threatened him as it had. That white world, then, threatened as much as it beckoned. Though he did not know it, he was fatally in love with that white world, in love in a way that could never be cured. That white world's attempt to curb him dangerously and irresponsibly claimed him for its own."
“He had fled a world that he had known and that had emotionally crucified him, but what was he here in this world whose impact loosed storms in his blood? Could he ever make the white faces around him understand how they had charged his world with images of beckoning desire and dread? Naw, naw…No one could believe the kind of life he had lived and was living.
.... Above all, he was ashamed of his world, for the world about him had branded his world as bad, inferior. Moreover, he felt no moral strength or compulsion to defend his world. That in him which had always made him self-conscious was now the bud of a new possible life that was pressing ardently but timidly against the shell of the old to shatter it and be free."
"I'm an American Negro; as such, I've had a burden of race consciousness. So have these people. I worked in my youth as a common laborer, and I've had a class consciousness. So have these people. I grew up in the Methodist and Seventh Day Adventist churches and I saw and observed religion in my childhood; and these people are religious. I was a member of the Communist Party for twelve years and I know something of the politics and psychology of rebellion.... These emotions are my instruments.... I want to try to use these emotions to try to find out what these people feel and think and why."
"The despised, the insulted, the hurt, the dispossessed—in short, the underdogs of the human race were meeting. Here were class and racial and religious consciousness on a global scale. Who had thought of organizing such a meeting? And what had these nations in common? Nothing, it seemed to me, but what their past relationship to the Western world had made them feel. This meeting of the rejected was in itself a kind of judgment upon the Western world!"
A man who worships in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church lives,psychologically, in a burning and continuous moment that never ends: the present is ever-lasting; the past is telescoped into the now; there is no future and at any moment Christ may come again and then the anxious tension of time will be no more.... [My grandmother] lived with all of us, yet, psychologically, she hovered somewhere off in space.... Always she seemed to be peeping out of Heaven into the world while living in the world.
He did not feel that he was stealing, for the cleaver, the radio, the money, and the typewriter were all on the same level of value, all meant the same thing to him. They were the serious toys of the men who lived in the dead world of sunshine and rain he had left, the world that had condemned him, branded him guilty.
Maybe anything's right, he mumbled. Yes, if the world as men had made it was right, then anything else was right, any act a man took to satisfy himself, murder, theft, torture.He straightened with a start. What was happening to him? ... He was going to do something, but what? Yes, he was afraid of himself, afraid of doing some nameless thing.
He would go there and clear up everything, make a statement. What statement? He did not know. He was the statement, and since it was all so clear to him, surely he would be able to make it clear to others.
“Where could he find such experiences, such spheres of existence? In the main, he accepted the kind of world that the Bible claimed existed; but, for the sufferings, terrors, accidental births, and meaningless deaths of that world, he rejected the Biblical prescriptions of repentance, prayer, faith and grace. He was persuaded that what started on this earth had to be rounded off and somehow finished here.”
"The moment we act as if it's true, then it's true."
"Negroes, as they enter our culture, are going to inherit the problems we have, but with a difference. They are outsiders and they are going to know that they have these problems. They are going to be self‑conscious; they are going to be gifted with a double vision, for, being Negroes, they are going to be both inside and outside of our culture at the same time. Every emotional and cultural convulsion that ever shook the heart and soul of Western man will shake them. Negroes will develop unique and specially defined psychological types. They will become psychological men, like the Jews . . . They will not only be Americans or Negroes; they will be centers of knowing, so to speak . . . The political, social, and psychological consequences of this will be enormous . . ."
"Oh, Christ their disease had reached out and claimed him too. He had been subverted by the contagion of the lawless; he had been defeated by that which he had sought to destroy."
"Don't think I'm so odd and strange ... I'm not.... I'm legion ... I've lived alone, but I'm everywhere."
"Nothing.... Alone a man is nothing.....I wish I had some way to give the meaning of my life to others.... To make a bridge from man to man.... We must find some way of being good to ourselves.... Man is all we've got."
"You are your own law, so you'll be your own judge."
Richard went to Paris in 1946, when I was 22, he was 38. Now, it took me a long time; I had to get to be much older to realize something. I didn't realize it that day at all. I was not born in Mississippi; I was born in New York. And I did not leave Mississippi to go to Chicago. And endure all that. I was much too young to realize what I was looking at really. But, that's a journey. To go from Mississippi to Chicago to New York to Paris in 38 years is amazing. You might as well have walked all that distance, it's almost that remarkable.
He came like a sledgehammer, like a giant out of the mountain with a sledgehammer, writing with a sledgehammer...
Historian John Henrik Clarke
Richard Wright’s outstanding characteristics are two seemingly opposite tendencies. One is an overwhelming need for association and integration with humanity at large. The other is a tragic, highly individualized loneliness. Except that he is a Negro in 20th century America he might have been a lyric poet. Whenever he describes the life he wants for mankind he rises to great heights of lyric beauty. At the same time when he doubts that a new life can ever be achieved he writes with the same beauty but in tragic despair. Wright wants a new world; men working freely together in social relationships that not only realize a complete personality but develop every potential and result in new associations and new men altogether. He wants to share a common life, not in a regimented sense but in a free interchange of ideas and experience; a relationship which will be the blending of a common belief and a solidarity of ideals. He wants a life in which basic emotions are shared; in which common memory forms a common past; in which collective hope reflects a national future. He has a vision of life where man can reveal his destiny as man by grappling with the world and getting from it the satisfactions he feels he must have. He wants a life where man’s inmost nature and emotional capacities will be used. He has a passionate longing to belong, to be identified with the world at large; he wants the "deep satisfaction of doing a good job in common with others." He doesn’t want a society where he is separate as Negro, but one where he is just another man.
Constance Webb, "Notes preliminary to a full study of the work of Richard Wright" (privately published, 1946)
So far only Wright has positively revealed the state of mind of a people bursting with energy, untroubled by feudal remains or a feudal past, soaked to the bone in traditions of individual freedom and free association—traditions constantly held before them as the basis of their civilization, yet utterly unrealized in the face of automation and the threat of atomic annihilation.
Constance Webb, in Richard Wright: A Biography (1968)
Kierkegaard is one of the great writers of today. He is one of the men who, during the last twenty or thirty years, modern civilization has recognized as a man whose writings express the modern temperament and the modern personality. And Dick assured me that he was reading Kierkegaard because everything he read in Kierkegaard he had known before. What he was telling me was that he was a black man in the United States and that gave him an insight into what today is the universal opinion and attitude of the modern personality. I believe that is a matter that is not only black studies, but is white studies too. I believe that that is some form of study which is open to any university: Federal City College, Harvard, etc. It is not an ethnic matter. I knew Wright well enough to know that he meant it. I didn’t ask him much because I thought he meant me to understand something. And I understood it. I didn’t have to ask him about that. What there was in Dick’s life, what there was in the experience of a black man in the United States in the 1930s that made him understand everything that Kierkegaard had written before he had read it and the things that made Kierkegaard the famous writer that he is today? That is something that I believe has to be studied.
C.L.R. James, "Black Studies and the Contemporary Student" (1969)