Remembering Richard Wright

Richard Nathaniel Wright (September 4, 1908 – November 28, 1960).

The news of Richard Wright’s death from “natural causes” in Paris, in 1960, at the age of fifty-two, was received by many of his friends, colleagues, and fans with great suspicion. Those who spent time with Wright in the months before his passing expressed doubts about his death from cardiac arrest given the fact he had no history of heart problems. Seven years later the speculation about Wright’s demise increased dramatically when African American writer John A. Williams published his brilliant novel “The Man Who Cried I Am.” Williams’ book told the story of Wright’s ex-patriot years in Europe through the life of a character named Max Reddick and offered the controversial theory that Wright was murdered by the CIA. It also presented the details of what Williams referred to as the “King Arthur Plan”—a secret U. S. government act which included legal provisions for the mass incarceration of African Americans in concentration camps by the military in the event of civil unrest. The “fictional” plan was based on the McCarran Internal Security Act, which at the time was a little-known U.S. federal law with broad provisions for the emergency detention of U.S. citizens. The law also required Communist organizations to register with the U.S. Attorney General, and is noteworthy for providing the legal basis for the revocation of Paul Robeson’s passport to prevent him from traveling abroad.

Parts of the act have since been repealed. But Williams’ treatment of this subject in his novel became the focal point of a national program for political education in the seventies conducted by “black” activists in inner cities across the U.S. The Black People’s Topographical Research Centers, of which I was a part, provided “Top Tours” (three hour lectures) that presented a comprehensive overview of the McCarran Act and other policies, programs, and plans designed to protect and maintain the infrastructure and status quo of white supremacy in the United States. Ironically, this black think tank and its mission came about in part as a result of the mysterious death of Richard Wright.

One of the most provocative articles about Wright’s death was published in Ebony Magazine in February 1989. “The Mysterious Death of Richard Wright,” written by the late poet and novelist Margaret Walker Alexander, provides a literary insider’s perspective on the controversies and rumors that followed Wright’s demise. It is definitely worth the read.

Wright Quotations

“Violence is a personal necessity for the oppressed…It is not a strategy consciously devised. It is the deep, instinctive expression of a human being denied individuality.”

“Men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread.”

“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.”

“Is not life exactly what it ought to be, in a certain sense? Isn’t it only the naive who find all of this baffling? If you’ve a notion of what man’s heart is, wouldn’t you say that maybe the whole effort of man on earth to build a civilization is simply man’s frantic and frightened attempt to hide himself from himself?”

“Our too-young and too-new America, lusty because it is lonely, aggressive because it is afraid, insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black; our America is frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of necessity. It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness”

“I was leaving the South
to fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil,
to see if it could grow differently,
if it could drink of new and cool rains,
bend in strange winds,
respond to the warmth of other suns
and, perhaps, to bloom”

“All literature is protest”

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A Negro Man Named Mary

As a fugitive from the neo-American plantation myself, I have always read with fascination advertisements for so-called runaway “slaves.” Such ads appeared regularly in American newspapers in the 18th and 19th centuries. They alerted the public to the escapades and exploits of fugitives, and provided publishers—even Benjamin Franklin and others like him who opposed slavery—with a steady source of income. In the Northern states where slavery had been abolished the advertisements offered direct financial incentives for Southern sympathizers to support the slaveocracy. They also helped to foster and maintain a hostile environment where both “free blacks” and runaways lived in constant fear of capture and extradition.

The articles of clothing worn by the targets of the ads generally received as much attention as their country marks (“tribal” scars), skin color, and other physical characteristics. I find the detailed descriptions of apparel particularly satisfying given the indications that some runaways may have “liberated” a few of the best items from their masters’ wardrobes before setting out in search of freedom. They did so knowing the better they dressed the more likely they could circumvent and fool the authorities. Such boldness and ingenuity appalled and enraged their “owners.” But my reading of the anger and anguish of the slaveocrats at the loss and betrayal of their ungrateful “property” makes my rebellious heart glad. Who can blame me for imagining good old Jupiter, elegantly attired in his former master’s finest frock coat, settling down with a cup of hot cider before a roaring fire in a cabin somewhere near the Michigan/Canada border, while five hundred miles away, Marse Beauregard, with his wife’s spare shawl wrapped tightly around his shoulders, paces haltingly back and forth before an empty hearth in the frigid parlor of his old Kentucky home.

Despite having read many such advertisements over the years, nothing prepared me for the one I posted below. In it we are confronted by the description of a suspected escape artist who redefined the notion of “dress for success.” This perhaps is a case where the Underground Railroad may have helped a runaway escape from slavery and come out of the “closet” at the same time.

Wanted by Thomas Jefferson

In the above advertisement which appeared in the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg, Virginia on September 14, 1769, Jefferson describes Sandy (a shoemaker and a jockey) as vulgar, insolent, a drunkard, a knave, and a thief (he stole himself and a horse). Those flaws notwithstanding, Jefferson deemed him worth a minimum reward of forty shillings and upwards to ten pounds if captured and returned from outside Virginia. After Jefferson got Sandy back he sold him to Col. Charles Lewis for 100 pounds on January 29, 1773. While it is not clear how long Sandy remained “free,” we can only hope he raised holy hell every moment he managed to be his own man.

Black Pete and the Dutch Obsession with Blackface

Zwarte Piet Group

Every year during the weeks leading up to Christmas the Dutch go blackface crazy. Visitors to the country unaware of this peculiar holiday tradition probably imagine they have arrived in the midst of a massive Minstrel Show revival or some other horrid festival of antiblack racist stereotypes. The Dutch proudly decorate their streets and stores with blackface imagery and adorn themselves in blackface make-up and Afro wigs to depict and celebrate the story of Sinterklass (Saint Nicolas/Santa Claus) and his helper “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete). According to the tradition, Zwarte Piet, an African, is a devil that Sinterklass has defeated and enslaved. His purpose as Sinterklass’ helper is to punish naughty children by taking them away to Spain in a burlap sack. Good children are rewarded with a gift.

This tradition—which includes street parades and celebrations in towns and cities across the Netherlands—has not gone unopposed. But protests that the images are racist have been ignored by the Dutch media or dismissed. Many folks in the Netherlands apparently don’t grasp the insulting nature of this tradition or don’t care who it offends.

Our friends over at Africa is a Country are featuring an article by Tom Devriendt that offers an excellent overview and current update of the Zwarte Piet travesty: “I Remember Black Pete.” Be sure to view the enclosed video clips.

Powerless Africa

Here’s a startling statistic: “each day the City of New York consumes the same amount of electricity as all sub-Saharan African nations combined, excluding South Africa.”

Good Magazine, in collaboration with Column Five, has put together a graphic that illustrates the massive challenges facing countries in Africa—the second largest continent on the planet with a population of one billion—in developing the energy needed to meet basic human needs.

Click the following link to view The Quest to Power Chart.