Friday, August 13, 2010

Wright and the Figures of Slave Narrative

From a seminar on the three largest post-Harlem Renaissance figures, Wright, Baldwin, and Ellison, this is a fairly pedantic, unexciting piece that just cobbles together some continuities between the slave narrative tradition and the African-American literary tradition that succeeded it. There's no real motivation for it into a thesis, however. The precursor to this, from which I think I borrow a few lines about Douglass, is "Literacy as Symbol and Material Means in Douglass." Like that piece, I was still caught in an overbearing fascination with the orality/literacy thematic, an understanding still largely conditioned at this point by Ong's Orality and Literacy and Havelock's Preface to Plato.

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Eds. John W. Blassingame, John R. McKivigan, and Peter P. Hinks. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


I propose to trace out the functioning of three different figures inherited by Wright from the tradition of slave narrative, taking as emblematic Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: curiosity, literacy, and leisure. I will in each case briefly discuss how they work in Douglass before showing how Wright continues, extends, or alters each figure in the changed cultural landscape some 100 years after Douglass’ escape, though I shall spend most of my time on literacy.

An important theme struck by both Douglass and Wright is the repression of curiosity. In Douglass, this occurs frequently, usually in relation to literacy. Curiosity leads you out of your current nest of experience and into a new experience, thus leading to learning. Douglass, who didn’t even realize that literacy was a forbidden object (much as Wright had to learn his lessons the hard way), was taught the basics by his mistress, Mrs. Auld, before her husband corrected her: “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. … He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master” (Douglass 31). This is a “new and special revelation” (ibid.) for the young Douglass and it opens up the “pathway from slavery to freedom” (32). Likewise for Wright, in his own first pass at autobiography in “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” when he shows curiosity to learn how to grind lenses, Morrie immediately “grew red.” “Whut yuh tryin’ t’ do, nigger, git smart?” (Wright 228) The notion that blacks might be “uppity” immediately changes the whites’ attitudes to them, as the first hint of it sours situations for both Douglass and Wright repeatedly.

The figure of literacy might be the most important figure in Douglass’ Narrative, functioning as both a symbol for freedom and an actual, material precondition for freedom. Literacy for Douglass is a skill that allows for the free acquisition of knowledge and the ability to negotiate the white man’s world. It is also a precious commodity carefully protected by slave masters, as illustrated before. The pathway of literacy consists in the attainment of “the more valuable bread of knowledge” (Douglass 34), which functions in two ways for Douglass: 1) knowing how to read and write aids materially in his ability to escape from captivity and 2) Douglass learns that slavery is a contingent institution and that one of its main means of enforcement is the stripping of the slave of his humanity.

The first echo we might point to is again in “Ethics.” Wright says, “it was almost impossible to get a book to read. It was assumed that after a Negro had imbibed what scanty schooling the state furnished he had no further need for books” (Wright 235). Wright here, however, doesn’t go into depth about the meaning of literacy, nor play it out much—all we see is that though African-Americans can read, they aren’t allowed access by white-run libraries. We get a much stronger look at how Wright uses the symbol of literacy in Lawd, Today! (his first significant piece of fiction, though only published posthumously). When the protagonist, Jake, goes by the Chicago Library on his way to his friend Bob’s, Jake says to himself, “That’s right. I ain’t never looked around in one of them joints” (69). What is striking is not that he hasn’t been in a library, or thinks there’s a cover charge, but that if he did go into a library, he muses, he could “tell old Bob and Al and Slim all about the big books I seen…” (ibid.). Seen—not read, or even opened.

What’s worse, upon seeing a black boy reading in the library, Jake immediately thinks, right on the heels of his reverie of setting his friends aflame with jealousy at all the books he had seen, that “too much reading’s bad” (ibid.). This is one of a series of stunning reversals of thought that happen within moments of each other, another being the rapid switch in the group’s opinion of the International Negro Uplift Association, from “Yeah, they’s smart” to nine lines later “Aw … They nuts as hell” (109). Jake says of reading that “it was all right to read the newspapers … but reading a lot of books … would drive you crazy.” “It addles your brains, and if you addle your brains you’ll sure have bookworms in the brain” (69). He then recalls, as justification and evidence for his view, that “his poor old grandmother had told him that when he was a child, and he had never forgotten it, and had never had bookworms” (ibid.).

Wright seems to be, at least in part, displaying literacy as a forgotten means of freedom. The psychology of oral vs. literate culture is such that remembered words and phrases, in an oral culture, function as thought-gatekeepers far more than in a literate culture. Words in the mind tumble over each other in sometimes quite odd associations, but the better and easier remembered (like in proverbs, rhymed aphorisms, or bits of wisdom from authoritative sources, like grandmothers), the more likely these bits will be recalled in connection with current experience. For instance, Jake assigns some prestige to books and being in the library, but then Jake sees the black boy, and thinks, “reading’s bad.” Why? Because “his mind went back to his boyhood; he remembered a schoolmate of his who had become queer from trying to memorize the Bible” (ibid.). When Jake saw the boy, he saw his queer schoolmate, and reacted to himself turning queer—his earlier thought (books good, maybe I should go into the library) was derailed by this fragment of memory. And then his mind immediately reinforced this new thought with a further stock association, the wisdom of his grandmother. His brain doesn’t quit, though, and Wright adds a further illustrative crinkle, as Jake then thinks, “But it was all right if you were studying for the pulpit” (ibid.), because God will protect you from going crazy—but then what happened to the kid memorizing the Bible? Jake’s mind has already moved on, however, and such reversals are never brought to account. A mind brought up in a literate culture, however, because of the opportunity to reinforce the ephemeral spoken word with the unchanging written word, has better opportunity to not be led down mental avenues with no hope of returning and asking, “Did anything I just think (say) make sense?” And when you write it down, you can look it over.

There are two other examples with Jake we might recur to for reinforcement. One is the scene in which he reads the newspaper, as he has said is okay to do. The joke of the chapter is that, when Jake reads the newspaper, all he does is read the headline out loud and then run off at the mouth about whatever he thinks about what he thinks the headline means. But there are several telling moments for my purposes. When Jake goes off on FDR and the Democrats, he closes by saying, “I’m going to stick with the Republicans. Old Abe Lincoln is the ship and all else is the sea . . . Now, who said that?” (29) That old chestnut for black electoral politics tells Jake who to vote for, but it is not an actual evaluation of who would be best for him.[fn.1] When Jake attempts to engage with Lil, she says “I wasn’t listening to you reading” (31)—by which she really means, listening to him spout—and Jake replies, “You could learn something if you didn’t keep that empty head of yours stuck into them Gawddamn Unity books all the time” (ibid.). The irony is, of course, that Lil is actually reading, whereas Jake does not (except for advertisements, which he spends much more time reading the entirety of as we see in the following chapter). But what’s more is what Jake says about God: “Gawd’s hooey! It’s a gyp game, that’s all!” It isn’t apparent that Jake is just saying this eristically, but that he truly believes it—at the time, for compare his relative reverence and respect for God in the Library scene discussed above. And finally, there’s the dialectical series between Jake and Lil beginning with his rant about the Communists. Lil counters him on every response, actually challenging him, recurring to the newspaper as a source of her views. Jake, possibly recalling the moment before she interceded having said, “That’s no lie, I was reading it just the other day in the Tribune…” (33), eventually finds himself backed into a corner and says, “Woman, is you a Red?” (ibid.) There are several fascinating points to this exchange: 1) he appears entirely sincere in his thought process and in thinking that Lil must be a Red for challenging him as she does; 2) it isn’t clear at all that Jake is cognizant of having just lost the debate or the jagged shifts in thought; 3) it isn’t clear why he didn’t recur to his response to Einstein, that “these old newspapers sure tries hard to fool folks” (32), when Lil challenged him, and since that is clearly a legitimately open mental avenue for Jake, it just punches up how rough and random any particular turn his mind seems to take.

Possibly the most illustrative example of the oral cast of mind in Jake, and therefore the importance of literacy to the idea of freedom, occurs when Jake is raging about the inspector at work: “You sonofabitch! It ain’t always going to be this way! His mind went abruptly blank. He could not keep on with that thought, because he did not know where that thought led. He did not know of any other way things could be, if not this way. Yet he longed for them not to be this way” (142). Literacy is the key to other worlds, the key to seeing how things might be another way. An imagination that cannot stretch beyond the things told to it by its immediates is an impaired imagination. Reading is what did it for Douglass and for Wright. Reading allows one to escape immediate surroundings and take flight, either to other actual realities (like in nonfiction, history, etc.) or to made-up realities—the effect is the same, as the circle of possibilities expands outwards, thus increasing the flex of mind that allows you to imagine more for yourself.

The last figure of leisure leads directly from here and shows Wright exerting a tremendous alteration over it. For Douglass, leisure time meant time to strategize and to think. The path to freedom lay open, but obscured, and at one point he says, amidst the “perpetual whirl of excitement” of working at the docks in Baltimore, that “I could think of nothing, scarcely, but my life; and in thinking of my life, I almost forgot my liberty” (Douglass 70) The most obvious shift from slave narratives to neo-slave narratives, of course, is that people like Douglass were escaping a fairly literal slavery, while that which holds Wright and his contemporaries is the more intangible cultural slavery left from continued racism. So, in Wright the figure of leisure plays differently. The image of the “lazy” black man is created. But why? Wright tells us—as the group watches some white students get off work, Jakes thinks, “Them white boys always in a hurry to get somewhere. And soon’s they get out of school they’s going to be bigshots. But a nigger just stays a nigger” (117). “Yeah, but ain’t no use of a black man rushing.” “Naw, ‘cause we ain’t going nowhere” (118). Douglass could imagine that slavery could be ended, and that eventually people could co-exist peacefully. Wright, 100 years later, is displaying the crushing, felt defeat at the hands of whites that debilitates the common black imagination and that begins to repeat itself—like Jake’s grandmother telling him that reading is bad.


[1] It was, in fact, Frederick Douglass about the Republican Party. I suspect this was a veiled slap at Douglass by Wright, with regards to the changed landscape of politics and how Douglass stuck by the Republican Party even after its disastrous effort at Reconstruction and subsequent takeover by the rich, of whom Jake says, “them men owns and runs the country!” (29)

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