Richard Wright and the Persistence of Racism

Two documents on my desk. A cross-country phone call from an enthusiastic young woman, and now a letter: “We would like an article about how the old order has changed. The old problems have, more or less, dissipated. Race is less and less becoming a reason for inclusion or rejection. We do not want anything about whether the New Negro is real or a myth. (We say we are here by showing it.) Nor do we wish the article addressed to Negroes.” The other document — the morning newspaper story that Dick Wright is dead of a heart attack in Paris.

It has been a long time since I first met Dick at the Left Ball of the Chicago John Reed Club. The old order has changed, not once, but several times, and in many ways. Richard Wright knew it, and he knew that he had not changed with the times, at least as a writer of fiction. He knew he had stayed away too long, from his country first, and finally he realized he had stayed away too long from his race as well. He was a great writer, first because he was a brave man, second, because he told the truth. He never fell for any part of the Social Lie.

He accepted no part of the sticky web of compromises — the tangle of contradictory and contrary compromises — that make up the hoax of “race relations.” He didn’t just reject the various levels of sophistication of Uncle Tomism. He knew that the Left and Liberal solutions were just elaborate psychodramas for the civilized misfits of both races.

Curiously enough, though, he never saw through the fraud of French racial equality until the last years of his life. It is so easy to sit on the terrasse of the Deux Magots with Sédar Senghor and Françoise Sagan, while the waiter bows and scrapes and the women come and go, talking of Ionesco.

It slips your mind that it’s still “Boy!” in Brazzaville, except for world-famous writers, and the new kasbahs of Paris are worse than the old slums of Natchez and Mobile.

Even after you learn — it’s like back home, where, of course, you despise the Crow-Jimism of the Negrophiles — but, after all, you are treated very well indeed in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, and you certainly are not in New Orleans.

The last few times I met Wright we didn’t quarrel, but we had some pretty hot arguments — nobody enjoys being told he is living in the past. I think the Bandung Conference brought Dick up to date with a jerk. The book he wrote on it is the best piece of reportage he ever did.

Bandung had a curious effect on him. Talking to all those hundreds of colored people, from all over the southern half of the world, he realized that he was, in a sense, a “White Man” himself. Their job was to throw off the burden of totally foreign exploiters and to revivify old civilizations, or to raise still barbaric ones to new levels of civilization, differing in essence from that of Western Europe.

His struggle, and the struggle of the American Negro, had been for full participation in Western Civilization. His colleagues at Bandung expected that he would hate the white imperialist for the same reasons they did, and they were puzzled and disoriented when they found out that the two emotional areas didn’t overlap at all.

Marcus Garvey to the contrary, “museum reproductions” of African sculpture on the over-mantel to the contrary, all of their goals and solutions lay in quite different regions from Wright’s.

Richard Wright told the truth about “living Jim Crow,” a truth most of the well-bred Negroes of his day were unwilling to admit, not just publicly or to white people, but even to themselves. His first books were greeted with paeans of adulatory masochism by white critics. They thoroughly dismayed the hincty “upper classes” whose doings fill the Society columns of the Negro press.

Today the goals of Wright’s protest have all been won — in principle — but in principle only. Today the struggle is no longer against the lynch rope, the blowtorch, tar and feathers; those victories lie behind us, morally — but morally only. If you are being raped in the kitchen or burned alive in the woods, it is small consolation to know that all the world condemns your persecutors as evil men.

If the problems of the Negro in America are defined in terms of the melodramatic climaxes of Richard Wright’s stories, perhaps they have, more or less, but mostly less, dissipated. But have these ever been the major problems facing the average individual? As I write this, all you have to do is switch on the television; there, coming from the streets of New Orleans, are “the old problems.” Saying they are gone won’t dissipate them.

Where is race becoming less and less a reason for inclusion or rejection? Greenwich Village? The New School for Social Research? The United Nations? Unfortunately, the average Negro, and even the average professional and middle-class Negro, in America is not so situated that he can take advantage of the tolerant atmosphere of those enlightened environments.

How about an upper-middle-class subdivision in Putnam or Marin Counties? New York, San Francisco and Chicago are looked on as the least Jim Crow cities in the country. How many Negroes are there in the Symphony or the Ballet in those cities? How many Negroes take part freely in the scientific and social life of the professional associations? How many Negro television shows are there? How many reporters on daily papers?

Sure, Negroes will be served in most of the hotel dining rooms. How many are you actually likely to see any night, dining at the Drake, the St. Francis or the Waldorf?

Don’t address the article to Negroes. Hmmmm. Sure, the New Negro is real. He has been real since before Frederick Douglass. But don’t think that just because you can go visit friends in a loft off Second Avenue and drink wine and talk about Sartre and de Kooning’s return to figurative painting, you have won social acceptance.

Sure, you can have an affair with a fashionable wild man and get written up in a novel. Read the novel [Kerouac’s The Subterraneans] — if this is miscegenation, give me celibacy. Unless you prefer to live in a world of make-believe, the problems are just beginning.

There is nothing problematic about lynching, it is simply evil. More subtly, the same is true of any degree of racial chauvinism. The problems begin as the crippling evils die away. Aristotle, beginning his Ethics, says that the first requirement for ethical action is freedom — a slave is not capable of ethics.

This is not altogether true, but it is true enough. Once the crippling bondage of race caste has been broken; once the actual manacles are gone, then the step by step conquest of complete social viability will go on for a long time raising more problems, even if “better” problems, than it solves.

Don’t forget. The end of the road is total social indifference as to race, not in the Five Spot or the Blue Note; not in City College; not in a political rally — and least of all, not for intellectuals, entertainers and celebrities. It means that race won’t make any difference if you’re a plumber and go to the Plumbers’ Convention. It won’t make a particle of difference with your neighbors in your apartment house or suburb. It won’t make any difference to the kids your kids play with, or to the young men and women your sons and daughters choose to marry.

Who in the name of God believes that we are anywhere near that state of affairs? You can’t even start. You can’t get to be a plumber.

No. The ghettos are still there, although lately the big cities have taken to flattening them and building $100 a room a month apartments in their places. Integrated of course — at $100 a room a month. The ghettos just move over a few blocks and are worse than they were before.

My friends are the most liberal and enlightened set of the city that prides itself on being the most liberal and enlightened in the country. I almost never meet Negroes at their homes. There are no Negroes whatever in the Ballet or the Symphony — none up front, and damn few in the audience. If there are any Negroes playing a socially active role in the scientific and professional life of the city, I haven’t heard of them, although there are certainly plenty who are qualified to do so.

California is full of National and State Parks. I have never seen a single Negro camping, mountaineering, hiking, riding, or fishing in the back country. And, in the course of many years, only perhaps a dozen families camping in the auto camps in the centers of the more popular parks.

Legal segregation is going. Jim Crow is dying. But he isn’t dead yet. The struggle against discrimination is just beginning. The conflicts and problems of that struggle, both social and personal, will not be as dramatic as the searing climaxes of the novels of Richard Wright and Chester Himes. The important ones will be so quiet it will be easy for a few favorably situated people to pretend they aren’t there at all. They will even come to believe it. But they will be there just the same, and it will take more than ignoring them to make them go away.



This article originally appeared in The Urbanite (March 1961) and was reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961). Copyright 1961. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays