Typecast as the voice of blackness, he found freedom in 17 syllables
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.
And yet, in all the violence and outrage and truth of Wright’s vision of black life in North America, some human elements are missing. Wright drew “large and startling figures” (Flannery O’Connor’s phrase) because he felt the urgent need and responsibility to convey the previously unacknowledged psychic suffering and limitations imposed on American blacks. But the question remains: In the aggressive facade Wright presented to the world, where are tenderness and humor and stillness?
Born into extreme poverty in 1908 on a plantation outside Natchez, Mississippi, Wright learned the value of craft and secrecy, using stealth and the aid of a friendly white man to gain access to the then-forbidden world of books. Escaping to Chicago as a young man, he went on to write such American classics as 12 Million Black Voices (1941) and Black Boy (1945) as well as Native Son. A literary and cultural hero, Wright also became a threat to national security—or so said the FBI, the CIA, and others who saw him as a communist and rabble-rouser. Wright spent much of his life in conflict with these groups, and there were rumors that his death in 1960 may have been an assassination.
Did Wright risk too much in his work? Did he become the facade he presented to the world?
Such questions were recently brought to the fore with the appearance of a compelling, previously unpublished collection of Wright’s poetry called Haiku: This Other World (Arcade, 1998). The thought of Wright scribbling thousands of these short poems, the Japanese mode of high contemplation, while also throwing brick after brick, in the form of his books and essays, at the plate-glass window of American racism, is astonishing. Wright organized 817 of his 17-syllable haiku into a manuscript he was unable to publish before his death. The poems are uneven: Many could be student work, and some are utter failures. But then the reader encounters something like this:
The children walk timidly,
Respecting the snow.
A soft wind at dawn
Lifts one dry leaf and lays it
Even my old friends
Seem like newly met strangers
In this first snowfall.
Wright’s haiku begin to fill in the missing part of his legacy. Com-posed with near-manic intensity in the last 18 months of his life, when he was ill and living in Paris, they reveal a side of Wright that the public never saw. We see his soul struggling to hang onto itself, to remember what it feels like to be a person, not a spokesman. The poems reflect his emotions, not what the publishing world, with its predigested categories of what a black man is capable of thinking and writing, would allow him to portray. It was a struggle that both Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin also faced, a struggle that most black artists and perhaps all artists face. So what of the man who wrote this:
That frozen star there,
Or this one on the water,—
Which is more distant?
This autumn evening
Is full of an empty sky
And one empty road.
Who was he? I’d like to imagine a way of understanding him that doesn’t begin and end with “black”: poet, patriot, brave heart, brave soul, a hungry pilgrim, like the rest of us, on the road and lonely for something he could call home.
Anthony Walton is the author of Mississippi: An American Journey (Vintage, 1997). From The Oxford American (Nov.-Dec. 1999). Subscriptions: $19.95/yr. (6 issues) from Box 1963, Marion, OH 43306.