Richard Wright's Social and Literary Education Continues As He Matures As a Writer in the North
During the Great Depression Richard Wright changed several other jobs. For following the Wall Street crash which ushered in the depression, the volume of mails dropped, Wright's working hours were thus cut back considerably before he finally lost his postal job. He then began work, in 1930, on a novel, Cesspool, about black life in Chicago that was published posthumously as Lawd Today! reflecting his experience in the post office.
In 1931 Wright published a short story, "Superstition," in Abbott's Monthly Magazine, a black journal. But unfortunately the journal fails before Wright collects any money from them. He was also given the opportunity to write through the Federal Writers' Project. so that by the time he moved to New York City, he had written most of the novel Lawd Today, which was published posthumously in 1963.
Christmas comes and Richard works at the post office temporarily, where he again talks to his Irish friend about current events.
When his postal job ends he digs ditches at the Cook County Forest Preserves after which he gets employed in a medical research institute at one of the largest and wealthiest hospitals in Chicago, The Michael Reese Hospital. There he is responsible for caring for the animals used in medical research. He is immediately struck by the racial division set by the hospital authorities. Along with three other black men, Richard is restricted to the basement corridors so as not to allow them to mingle with the white workers. He cleans the operating rooms and the animal cages.
Richard is shocked at the extremely simple and brutalized mind of Bill, a boy of his age, with whom he, worked and who was usually sleepy or drunk.. Unlike the others, including two Brand and Cooke who had been employed at the institute for a longer period of time, Richard takes an interest in what the doctors are doing. One day, one of the doctors leaves a bottle of Nembutal an anesthetic out. Out of his usual curiosity, Richard opens the bottle and smells it. Brand pretends that the Nembutal is poisonous and scares Richard by telling him to run or he'll fall dead.
Once, the authorities sent a young Jewish boy to time Richard as he cleans a room. After timing him, the boys calculate how long it will take Richard to clean all the rooms and five flights of steps. From then on, Richard begins to feel like a slave,always trying to work against time.
At the hospital, Brand and Cooke do nothing but feud with each other. One day, the two begin to argue over what year has the last coldest day in Chicago. Cooke pulls a long knife from his pocket and Brand seizes an ice pick to defend himself. A physical battle then ensues between them. Although no one is hurt, the animal cages topple over, letting dogs, mice, guinea pigs and rats run loose everywhere. The four black workers spend the rest of their lunch break trying to sort the animals out, randomly placing mice and rats in their cages, not knowing whether they were the cancerous rats or the ones injected with tuberculosis. None of the doctors notice anything wrong and neither of the workers tells the director about the disaster. Richard notes that because of the way in which the black workers are treated, they have learnt to form their own code of ethics, values, and loyalty.
Meanwhile, the depression grows worse and Richard is forced to move his family into a small dingy rented apartment. There one morning, his mother tells him there is no food for breakfast, and he must go to the Cook County Bureau of Public Welfare to beg for bread. At the welfare station, Richard is embarrassed at first, but becomes aware of the bonding experience happening around him with: individuals sharing their experiences, thus unifying themselves. He leaves the relief station with a new kind of hope: the possibility that a new understanding of life could be given to those he had met there. Richard sheds some of his cynicism with a desire to understand the common black man.
Richard and his family are still plagued by hunger. With the depression in full swing, hunger plagues the entire community as well. But for Richard, the hunger again manifests itself in a hunger for knowledge, not just food. In the medical institute, Richard longs for the education that he sees other white young men receiving. But his questions are ignored with the doctor even scaring him off learning by telling him that his "brains might explode" should he "know too much." Even in Chicago, he is still being denied access to education.
Richard also begins to sense that he is not alone in his loneliness and poverty. At the relief station, he begins to see that there is an entire society that has been rejected by society itself like him. There is strength in numbers, Richard begins to realize. This he realizes when the black workers are trying to fix the mess they have made in the medical institute; Richard realizes that within the black community among his fellow workers there existed a separate moral code.
One Thursday night, Richard is invited to join a group of white boys whom he had met at the post office to talk about politics, argue, eat and drink. Many of the boys have joined the Communist Party. Then one named Sol announces that one of his short stories is going to be published in a Communist journal. Sol, a member of the John Reed Club a Communist literary organization tries to convince Richard to attend one of their meetings. Richard is doubtful whether the Communist Party has any sincere interest in the black community, but finally attends one of their meetings to ease boredom. He is given a handful of Communist magazines and encouraged to participate in Left Front, one of their journals. Richard decides that he will try to humanize Communism to the common man through his writing, and composes a few verses that are accepted by some of the Communist publications.
Richard attends more of the meetings, and realizes that the club has factional disputes between its members. The disputes are between the writers (those mainly in charge of Left Front) and the painters.
Welcomed and encouraged by the almost entirely white membership, Wright begins to read and study New Masses and International Literature, the organ of the International League of Revolutionary Writers. He writes and submits the revolutionary poems "I Have Seen Black Hands." "A Red Love Note" to Left Front the magazine of the Midwestern John Reed Clubs. Richard is then elected as executive secretary of the Chicago John Reed Club to satisfy both of the feuding factions. He tries to satisfy everybody on top of trying to keep Left Front published, though the Communist Party members saw the publication as useless. He organizes a successful lecture series which allows him to meet a variety of intellectuals. He goes on even to give a lecture at an open forum on "The Literature of the Negro."
The power struggle within the John Reed Club led to the dissolution of the club's leadership. Wright was assured of the support of the club's party members if he was willing to join the party. Richard loses some of his cynicism and gains a little hope that the black community can unite to overcome their obstacles. His hope becomes manifested in his involvement with the Communist Party which he now joins having been impressed by their opposition to racial discrimination. He also got disabused of his expectation that life in the North could be lived with dignity. Richard believes that he can single-handedly unify the political and cultural needs of black society through his words. Richard is fully entrenched in the Communist Party, strengthened by the idea that he will be able to humanize the goals of the Communist movement by injecting their cause with black culture. He became a member of the Communist Party and published poetry and short stories in many of their magazines such as Left Front and Anvil.
One day, a young Jewish man who introduces himself as Comrade Young attends one of the Chicago meetings, stating that he has just moved from Detroit. Being without money, Young asks Richard if he can use the John Reed Club headquarters for lodging. Thinking that Young is sincere and loyal, Richard agrees. He wins the trust of the elder members. Young impresses the best painters in the club with his artwork and becomes admired by all. Richard tries to contact the Detroit chapter to ask for information of Young, but gets no reply. At one meeting, Young accuses Swann one of the club's best young artists of being a Trotskyite traitor to the workers. Chaos and verbal battles ensue within the club.
Then Comrade Young disappears mysteriously. One afternoon, Richard and Comrade Grimm search the luggage that Young had left behind at the club and find a Detroit address, to which Richard writes and asks for him. A few days later, he receives a reply from a mental institution saying that Young had previously escaped but was apprehended and back in custody. All charges against Swann were then dropped and Richard, along with some other trusted members of the club, kept the information about Young a secret from the others.
Meanwhile, the Party decides to disband the John Reed Clubs. At the national meeting in New York, to discuss dissolving the clubs, Richard is unable to find a room to stay in because he is black.
Now a full-fledged member of the Communist Party, Richard attends a secret unit the party's basic form of organization meeting and proposes his idea to humanize the Communist Party to the common black man, by his writing a book of biographical sketches for which. he interviews a member named Ross. Ross, however, has been charged with inciting to riot and is also accused later of being a traitor. Higher-ranking members, such as Ed Green and Buddy Nealson, begin to suspect Richard of the same crimes. Richard soon becomes disillusioned with the Party's goals, and tries to sever all relations with it. He is invited back to witness Ross's trial for his crimes, where Ross breaks down into tears and begs for the Party's forgiveness. Richard is disgusted with the political organization and decides that the only way to reach the common man and evoke a reaction from society is through his writing. The members, despite Richard's background, label him an "intellectual" because of his proper speech and dress. Richard also learns that the unit does not approve of him reading materials outside of Party literature, claiming that other literatures are bourgeois, and not for the masses. Richard begins to fear their militant ignorance. Richard had joined the party because he considered them as blind to race, but he is shocked to realize that they are biased against those favored by other socioeconomic factors, such as education. Wright, is astounded that they can label someone who has grown up in poverty as he has as bourgeois. Their ignorance toward Richard's background serves to isolate him from the party and the Communist vision.
Richard begins to interview Ross, a communist who had been charged with "inciting to riot," for his biographical book. But he begins to receive threats from party leaders with messages such as: "Intellectuals don't fit well into the party, Wright." One morning in Ross's home, a black Communist named Ed Green arrives and begins to question him. Richard. Green is a member of the Party's Central Committee a man with power and is suspicious of Richard's work. As days pass, Ross begins to speak less and less to Richard. Soon afterwards, Ross is charged with anti-leadership tendencies.
Richard' now begins to view their propaganda and tactics as embellished lies and impossible promises. He compares the Communist speaker and the black preacher which suggests that, like the church, Communism is nothing but blind faith. He blatantly questions the success of the Communist Party, asking if "the Negros could possibly cast off his fear and corruption and rise to the task." By the word "task," Wright means overcoming racial oppression and achieving unity.
Richard drops his idea of making a book of biographical sketches and instead, uses his material from Ross to write short stories. As he begins to find a literary voice and ideological affinity in the leftist political ferment of the 1930's, he started writing and publishing widely. He wrote stories, articles and poems for the Daily Worker, New Masses, Midland Left, Anvil and Partisan Review. In April 1931 he published his first major story "Superstition" in Abbot's Monthly. "Big Boy Leaves Home." telling about the shocking end of the childhood of a young black boy was first published in The New Caravan and greeted as the best piece in the anthology in the mainstream newspapers and journals. He enjoys literary and social friendships with Bill Jordan, Abraham Chapman, Howard Nutty and Jane Newton.
Arthur Smith was born and was schooled in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He has taught English since 1977 at Prince of Wales School and, Milton Margai College of Education. He is now a Senior Lecturer at Fourah Bay College where he has been lecturing English language and Literature for the past eight years.
Mr Smith's writings have been appearing in local newspapers as well as in various international media like West Africa Magazine, Index on Censorship, Focus on Library and Information Work. He was one of 17 international visitors who participated in a seminar on contemporary American Literature sponsored by the U.S.State Department in 2006. His growing thoughts and reflections on this trip which took him to various US sights and sounds could be read at lisnews.org.
His other publications include Folktales from Freetown, Langston Hughes Life and Works Celebrating Black Dignity, and 'The Struggle of the Book' He holds a PhD and a professorship in English from the National Open University, Republic of Benin.
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