Richard Wright, Haiku Poet

Typecast as the voice of blackness, he found freedom in 17 syllables

| March-April 2000

As a black writer, I have at times found it difficult to navigate the space between what I am expected to say as a black man, a black American, and what I truly feel. I possess what in literary theory would be called a “subject position,” from which extend certain attitudes and opinions that I’m asked to adopt without examining their intellectual soundness. Although I’m more small town than inner city, more L.L.Bean than Tommy Hilfiger, more Sonny Rollins than Jay-Z, I am regularly pushed into thinking of myself as the latter half of those pairings and all they signify. Perhaps I push myself, but the pressure remains the same.

A “young brother” should be “down” with rap even if he sees its negative aspects; down with the community, even if he thinks some of the community’s leaders are bigger obstacles to change than white racism; down with the ill-educated and criminally minded rappers, actors, and athletes who embarrass the community but who are tolerated simply because they’re black.

It’s hard to escape this kind of thinking, and the expectations it creates can be crippling, even destructive, for black artists. I’ve often suspected that Spike Lee, for example, understands much more about American life than he has heretofore revealed. This putative failure of imagination has come about, at least in part, because Lee has been cast in the role of the “voice of black America,” a role that limits not only his stories but also the sorts of cultural criticism he is allowed to state or imply. This is not to say that films with black subject matter shouldn’t be made; quite the contrary. The films that should not be made are those that have no qualification other than being “black.”

In Lee’s career thus far, in film after film, the dramatic arc is distorted as characters are forced to make decisions based on racial solidarity rather than the impulses of their hearts (think of the Wesley Snipes character in Jungle Fever or the Wendell Pierce character in Get on the Bus). Being freed from the role of spokesman or “black hope” might enable Lee to develop as an artist. We can only hope that 1999’s Summer of Sam, flawed as it was, marked a first step toward true artistic freedom for so talented a filmmaker.

In light of black and white societal expectations of black artists, Richard Wright has seemed the easiest of American writers to understand. He was one of the first gangsta rappers, spreading the news about the bad brothers in the inner city and what they were prepared to do-to black folks, to white folks, to anyone who got in their way-in their search for personal liberation or, if not that, then nihilistic self-assertion. With the publication of Native Son in 1940, Wright changed not just the publishing and media businesses, but the culture itself. Blacks were suddenly, terribly on the psychic map of America, and Native Son heralded many of the stunning changes to the racial status quo over the next 50 years. Given the inner cities we know today, the book was prophetic.

I couldn’t understand how two Chicago boys, ages 10 and 11, could throw a 5-year-old from the 14th-floor window of an abandoned high-rise until I thought about the bleakness with which Wright had portrayed South Side Chicago. In contemplating the brutality of the Bloods and the Crips and the Gangster Disciples (and the Black Panthers as well), I’ve often thought about Wright’s essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” a personal and sociological recounting of the creation of Bigger Thomas, Native Son’s antihero and Wright’s most famous character. I wonder what it must have cost Wright to watch the city’s soul-killing carnage, to understand its inevitability and write it down.

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