Printer Friendly

Black is a region: segregation and American literary regionalism in Richard Wright's: The Color Curtain.

What has my geographical position on earth have to do with the faults or merits of a book?--Richard Wright

"I am a rootless man," Richard Wright declares very early in White Man, Listen! (1957). The simple utterance captures the tie between his statelessness and his humanity: "I declare unabashedly that I like and even cherish the state of abandonment, of aloneness; it does not bother me; indeed, to me it seems the natural, inevitable condition of man, and I welcome it," says Wright (White Man 17). While Wright's statement is colored by his acquaintance with French existentialism, if we consider that his personal and literary roots are grounded in Jim Crow America--roots publicly solidified with the publication of his autobiographical novel Black Boy (1945)--the statement illuminates the complex relationship among geography, blackness, and humanity in Wright's work. The connectivity between these subjects is what Paul Gilroy challenges us to explore more deeply in his foundational The Black Atlantic (1993). For Gilroy, Wright's work while living in Paris symbolized black writing that contradicted the "ethnic absolutism" that has historically characterized black political culture (Gilroy 5). Gilroy understands Wright's movement away from the particularity of African American life and society in the United States to topics as far ranging as Spanish religion and Asian identity as a move toward anti-essentialism.

Yet, paying close attention to tension among race, roots, and humanity in Wright's travel writing, I encourage a reconsideration of the uneasy literary ties that bound Wright to American racial segregation, even in his most global writing. What follows is an exploration of how "Rootless" Wright remained tethered to the US racial constructs by the conventions of American literary regionalism and, by extension, racial segregation's role on black American writing. Moving past common criticism of Wright's expatriation as either time spent alienated from African American concerns or as maturation beyond a provincial focus on African American cultures, I argue that Wright's attachment to African Americans exhibits something much deeper than alienation. When we consider the relationship between books like Black Boy/ American Hunger and The Color Curtain (1956), Wright's struggle with American literary regionalism--which I conceive in this essay as a type of literary segregation--informs his struggle to understand black Americans in a global context. This essay takes seriously Gilroy's call for an increased focus on Wright's travel writing, but concentrates on the role US racial segregation played in one of his most geographically alien texts, The Color Curtain.

To state my aims more clearly, I argue that Wright is not the complete "anti-essentialist" that Gilroy contends. Rather, Wright remained deeply attached to an essentializing notion of African Americanness into the mid-1950s, while simultaneously positing the necessity of racial-political non-alignment. The conflicting impulses to essentialize black Americans while calling for their political non-alignment produced a fractured narrative around African Americanness that Wright found impossible to remediate, but necessary to represent.

Black Boy solidified Wright's standing as one of the most important African American voices of mid-twentieth century regarding US race relations. As a coming of age story about racial segregation, Black Boy places Wright in step with a black literary tradition dating back to slave narratives, one that often underscores freedom's dependence on literacy and northern migration. Interestingly, however, as early as Black Boy, Wright prophesied not only his inability to escape the US South, but also the possibility that sentiments born in southern soil might bloom elsewhere. "Yet, deep down, I knew that I could never really leave the South, for my feelings had already been formed by the South, for there had been slowly instilled into my personality and consciousness, black though I was, the culture of the South," Wright writes in the final pages Black Boy. "So, in leaving, I was taking 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" (228). His quest to transplant in alien soil, not northern, points to Wright's early understanding that uprooting would be necessary to achieve a human dignity for blacks unheard of in the US.

Wright's decision to characterize his final travel destination as "alien soil" is also interesting in light of Black Boy's notorious publishing history. Black Boy is the truncated version of Wright's original but posthumously published novel, American Hunger. If it had been published as Wright intended, with its deleted second section titled "The Horror and the Glory," then Black Boy would have recounted his struggles as a black man in the US South and North. Because unlike Black Boy, American Hunger ends not with Wright being delivered into the optional-laden North, but with literature/writing as his only true redeemer. Wright asks and answers,
   What had I got of out living in the south? What had I got out of
   living in America? I paced the floor, knowing that all I possessed
   were words and dim knowledge that my country had shown me no
   examples of how to live a human life .... I wanted to try to build
   a bridge of words between me and that world outside, that world
   that was so distant and elusive that it seemed unreal. 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 the hunger for life that
   gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the
   inexpressibly human. (452-53)

With these final words, he seeks to use writing to catapult himself outside of segregated America, which places his blackness at the center of his identity, not his humanness. Wright articulates a critical humanist agenda that would become the foundation of his future writings. And as the ending of American Hunger makes clear, Wright perceives his humanist agenda as incompatible with American reality.

Recently, critic Jeff Karem tracked the revision process that turned American Hunger into Black Boy to uncover the story of how a few Book-of-the-Month Club judges coerced the construction of a positive US national image. In the midst of WWII, two judges deemed it best not to offer as damning a critique of US race relations as Wright offered in the last pages of American Hunger. Instead they encouraged him to stop the text at the moment before protagonist Wright leaves the South for Chicago to "curtail his 'questing adventure' and confine his work to his 'roots'" (701). Karem contends, "Confining Wright's autobiography to his Southern childhood ... served to blunt the political impact of his work" (701), and thereby confined Wright's "criticism exclusively to the South," producing a text that could "pay tribute to American ideals as a whole," and be "a national affirmation, not a national indictment" (704). Wright made the revisions the Book-of-the-Month Club suggested, and Black Boy garnered the club prize and the inevitable commercial and critical success (the royalties from Black Boy would sustain Wright up until the last years of his life). But Karem also argues that, as a result, Wright emerged "less an artist and more a conduit of factual and folkloric knowledge," and his text, once made regional, "ascribed authority to Wright based on the truths of his Southern past," thereby lessening his "threatening potential for the American present" (708). As a regionalist text Black Boy offers Wright no narrative access to the future. Instead, Wright creates the "literature of memory."

Generic restrictions risk undermining Wright's power and potential, and rendering impotent the closing of American Hunger: "I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life" (384). Wright wants his words to change the future, but some of his critics deaden them--even after praising his gritty, naturalist novel, Native Son (1940). But if we consider blackness the ultimate segregated region in the US, to write from that position is to always be creating regional literature. This perspective proved especially valid during the 1940s, when the legal economic, and psychic conditions of segregation shaped life in both the US North and South. Blacks literally and literarily occupied a space outside the confines of mainstream, white America. Unable to escape the critical expectation to produce regionalist writing (with texts like Uncle Tom's Children, Native Son, and Black Boy under his belt), Wright spent the rest of his career attempting to get out of regionalism's shadow, as The Color Curtain illustrates. First, he leaves the United States to assume a rootless, exilic stance. And second, he treats African Americans as regional characters within his own texts.

"A Basic Southern Occasion": Establishing Black as a Region

American literary regionalism is the genre of the alienated. It is constituted by narratives about alien places and the people who inhabit them. Growing out of the late 19th and early 20th-century American realist tradition, regionalism has historically been a literature defined by where and who it is not: urban, white, middle-class and male. (1) In the imagined community of the US, regionalist texts bring the margins to the center, allowing an anxious (urban, white, middle-class male) readership to take stock of its national cultural holdings with the hope of allaying concerns regarding its own fragmentation. Ann Kaplan argues that the differences implied by US regionalism, with its attention to vernacular language and "alien" landscapes, allowed the nation to imagine a controlled reconstitution in the midst of societal upheavals like war, urbanization, and immigrant influx. Additionally, regionalist texts allowed "mainstream" readers the opportunity to solidify their sense of modernity and progress through fiction produced at the margins, in places and by people who exist outside of time and troubles of "cosmopolitan development" (Kaplan 251). To that same end, Eric Sundquist characterizes regionalism as the "literature of memory" (508), which confines it as the hegemonic cultural work of centralizing a reader's subject position and solidifying the temporal distance of the region and its inhabitants from the reader.

Many contemporary revisionists have worked to redeem regional writing from its pejorative status, especially by tracking the reception of such writings. (2) While such redemption is important and valid, it does not necessarily account for the sense of burden that US minority or female writers often experienced when associated with the genre. The burden of the particular has long been associated with African American writers. Regionalism, with its attention to representing the margins to the center, allowed numerous African American writers access to the publishing world, while at the same time keeping their representations segregated from the national narrative. According to Richard Brodhead, "Regionalism made the experience of the socially marginalized into a literary asset, and so made marginality itself a positive authorial advantage" (117). In the late nineteenth century Charles Chesnutt earned early success for his dialect stories, but his later attempts at selling novels that tackled seriously the problems of the color line exposed a US readership uninterested in African American commentary on national issues. The problem of a dual audience, one black and one white, plagued James Weldon Johnson's ability to render racial protest into the novel form while being commercially viable and pleasing to a white audience that expected a "pleasant excursion into black life as local color" (Andrews xvi). (3) So while many postbellum US writers entered the literary fold through regionalism, unlike their white, male contemporaries, most African American writers were later unable to orchestrate an easy escape from the genre (Brodhead 116).

In his essay "Regional Particulars and Universal Statement in Southern Writing," writer Albert Murray senses the continued dangers of regionalism for the southern writer. Murray states that the Southern writer must "[process] into artistic statement, [stylize] into significance" the "regional particulars-the idiomatic details, the down home conventions, the provincial customs and folkways" (3). Murray is pushing black writing out of the regional and into the universal to facilitate an escape from regionalist othering. If the writer does not create a work of art with "broad applicability," Murray argues, "time and again ... it has to be rejected as too exclusive, too narrow, or ... too provincial. Too Southern. Of some down home significance, perhaps; if you like that sort of thing. But not of very much immediate use elsewhere" (4). Still more direct, Murray says writers must "[treat] a basic Southern occasion as a basic American occasion which is in turn a basic contemporary occasion, and thus a basic human occasion" (4). Murray's statement encourages a move away from the particular to themes that will not alienate readers.

Because he addresses the particular, geographically-specific situation of being a southern writer and writing about the South, Murray's statement resists the easy replacement of "southern" with "black." However, we might be able expand his concerns to African American writers, since African American literary (cultural) production has historically had the American South at its core. As Houston Baker notes, "black modernism is not only framed by the American south, but also is inextricable--as cognitive and somatic process of performing blackness out of or within tight spaces--from specific institutionalizations of human life below the Mason-Dixon" (26). So when Murray writes "southern," he is referring primarily to a black southern writer. The parallel becomes more pronounced if we consider the drastic difference in issues raised between his statement on southern writing and the issues raised by a white southern writer like Flannery O'Connor. O'Connor makes it clear that the burden of being a southern, regional writer is no burden at all: "To call yourself a Georgia writer is certainly to declare a limitation, but one which, like all limitations, is a gateway to reality. It is a great blessing, perhaps the greatest blessing a writer can have, to find at home what others have to go elsewhere seeking.... [A]nd most of you and myself and many others are sustained in our writing by the local and the particular and the familiar without loss to our principles or our reason" (54). More important, however, is O'Connor's understanding that the South especially needs no translation by or for northerners and is best when appreciated by locals. While white southern writers may face the task of having their stories considered integral to the national narrative, black writers face the task of creating black humanity. (4)

Unlike Murray, who strives for a human story over a southern (black) story, O'Connor never questions the humanness of the art she produces. Since the burden of having once been property, or having descended from it, is not easily shaken off, Murray's striving for humanness is part and parcel of the African American literary tradition, which began with Phyllis Wheatley's poetry, found itself articulated in Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, and continues to serve as motivation for many African American writers. (5) In this monumental way, Murray's view of regional writing differs from such southern peers as O'Connor, Faulkner, and Twain, all of whom found their way to literary production through forms of regional writing, but for whom the need to transcend the region to achieve humanity was not so pressing. Murray's statement exposes the deep-seated quest for humanness, which also is part of a quest for perceived universal themes and characterizations. Such humanity and universality are achievements that hold the promise of desegregating the US literary canon. Yet the quest for universalism at the expense of African American particularism does very little to deconstruct the literary racial hierarchy; it merely condemns those black texts that are perceived as aligning themselves with local articulations of blackness. That is, universalism frames "blackness" as a pejorative region without recognizing its complexity as a counterpublic sphere. (6)

Understanding the fear of literary segregation is central to understanding many black authors' quest for perceived literary universalism, and is especially telling in the case of Richard Wright. As early as 1937 Wright understood and articulated the stakes involved in the creation of African American letters in his essay "Blueprint for Negro Writing." He understood that there was an entire counterlife created by American racial segregation that shaped black writing. In "Blueprint" Wright argues that this counterlife, though in many ways disabling, could also create a black social consciousness that exposed and changed black life in the US. Because he was still living in the US and was still a member of the Communist Party, Wright saw black writing as part of a nationalist enterprise. In "Blueprint" he notes that "Negro writers must accept the nationalist implications of their lives," since these implications form the foundation of the reality of black life in the US. Nationalism is double veiled in Wright's essay; first, he uses it to signify the black counterpublic created by racial segregation, and second, it signifies African American experience that is particular to living as a second-class member of the US nation-state. As when Du Bois writes of "double consciousness," Wright dictates that black writing must represent the particular lived experience of Negroes in the United States. Yet similar to his desertion of the Communist party due to the limitations it placed on black-centered progressive politics, Wright found the US unfruitful soil for his psychological, physical, and artistic development, so in 1947 he emigrated to Paris. Thereafter, Wright visited the States so infrequently before his death in 1960 that it would be easy to argue that he abdicated any personal responsibility to resolving US race relations. But such a characterization of Wright would fail to understand his post-1947 artistic vision. Biographer and critic Michel Fabre suggests that Wright believed that to save America, he had to save the world (320). From 1947 onward, Wright's creative and political blueprints--which were never separate for him--ceased to be confined to the provincial landscape that he articulated in "Blueprint for Negro Writing." Instead, his time in France offered him access to an international human enterprise, but he continued to struggle with how and when to represent African American particularity and whether or not its particularity could ever achieve humanity on US soil.

Wright, Regionalism, and Segregation Transplanted to Alien Soil

In the spring of 1955, Richard Wright, US emigre in Paris, flew to Bandung, Indonesia, to attend the Bandung Asian-African Conference. Bandung participants represented 29 free and independent nations--among them, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Burma, Egypt, Turkey, the Philippines, and Ethiopia and for whom the discussion of both non-alignment and Afro-Asian solidarity was critical. With the Cold War in full swing, and in the aftermath of the Korean War, Vietnam's struggle for independence, and the general push for decolonization by various African and Asian countries underway, the world of color was ripe for a conference promising change through solidarity. Wright was drawn to Bandung by his status as a person of color, and he attended the conference to witness something momentous: the human race gathering to develop community, as his wife put it. Bandung was part of a larger transnational political trend in Wright's life. From his involvement with Alioune Diop in the 1946 inauguration of Presence Africaine to the 1956 First International Congress of Black Writers and Artists, Wright was deeply involved and invested in creating and honing what was to become the archive of negritude. With Leopold Senghor, Aime Cesaire, Alioune Diop, George Padmore, C. L. R. James, George Lamming, a young Frantz Fanon, and various other black artist and thinkers, "the need to disseminate African culture was a priority for Wright" (Fabre 319). The company he kept influenced his work by providing him another portal through which to address modernity's dehumanization. Thus, his time at the Bandung Conference marked Wright's continued commitment to an international activism that gave voice to not only members of the African diaspora but also to disenfranchised people of color across the globe.

The Color Curtain is Wright's homage to Bandung's vision of Third World solidarity. It reads like an ethnographic document and centers on Wright's recounting of interviews he conducted with a few self-selected Asians and Euro-Asians, all of whom he describes by their representative types: colonial subject, westernized Asian educator, full-blooded Indonesian, and so on. The text is part of the body of work known as Wright's "travel writings," which includes Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos (1953), The Color Curtain, Pagan Spain (1957), and White Man, Listen! (1957) (Smith, Introduction xi). Consistent with his other travel writing, The Color Curtain illustrates Wright's skill as ethnographer and journalist. I am most fascinated by the lack of inflection in the interviews that Wright conducted for the text. As John Reilly points out, "in none of his reported conversations does Wright make an attempt to preserve a sense of natural verbal exchange or to create verisimilitude. Instead he emphasizes the content of informal talk as though it were delivered without inflection, tone, or the dynamics of dialogue that provide 'color' and reveal animation.... They are spokespeople without unique voice" (512). This lack of inflection might be used to mark and maintain distinctions between Wright's provincially (regional) African American texts, which always feature some element of dialect or highlight the black counterlife created by racial segregation. Moreover, Reilly's critique of Wright's character renderings in The Color Curtain for their lack of color and uniqueness--qualities privileged within regionalist literature--can be best understood as symptomatic of Wright's departure from American regionalism.

Wright's empirical voice situates him as a powerful narrator, unfettered by conventions of regionalism; in fact, Wright's voice takes the tone of ethnographer. (7) Wright's decision to privilege the voice of regionalist over that of ethnographer is more complicated than substituting one genre for another, even if the genres are kin. However closely linked the two forms of writing, American literary regionalism consistently make Wright the author-subject; a writer, but a writer whose blackness and southerness are central to the perceived success of the subject matter. Conversely, through ethnographic travel writing, Wright creates othered subjects and situates his authorial voices as stemming from his astute understanding of ethnographic journalism and global perspective, rather than from his own racial identity. For example, even though The Color Curtain deploys the first person singular to recount Wright's travels and interactions, his status as a participant observer requires that he is always officially an outsider to the material conditions he names. And playing with the "insider .... outsider" role that James Clifford notes is foundational to participant observation, Wright is able to toe the line between concerned activist and disassociated ethnographer. (8) In either case, Wright's blackness grants him the "rapport" (Clifford 34) necessary for this sort of ethnography: "In my questioning of Asians I had had one tangible factor in my favor, a factor no Westerner could claim. I was 'colored' and every Asian I had spoken to had known what being 'colored' meant," contends Wright (Color Curtain 25). But rapport is merely a trick of the participant-observer, because Wright never fully assimilates his blackness into the narrative of the Bandung conference.

Moreover, this role as "outsider" is crucial to Wright's own self-creation. According to S. Shankar, "the outsider ... is the privileged possessor of an uncommon knowledge regarding power and society, as well as the agent capable of acting upon this knowledge. In Wright's consciously abstract and metaphysical argument in [The Outsider], the outsiders are agents of change, through not always for the better" (6). While Shankar is referring to Wright's novel The Outsider, this description can also be applied to Wright's more ethnographic writings. Thus, in disregarding his status as regionalist writer for that of outsider, Wright is able to exist outside of systems that seek to sever his creative agency through casting him as merely a native informant-narrator. Wright's outsider status is what Gilroy privileges, but the role of African Americans in The Color Curtain makes clear that not everyone has access to the position of "outsider."

There are three African American "characters" in The Color Curtain, all of whom are inassimilable into the milieu of Bandung in Wright's account. While they are moved by the conference's goals, they simply do not fit within the movement's framework due to their ties to US racial segregation. Additionally, unlike Wright, they have no authorial control over their characterization. For example, Wright tells the story of Mr. Jones, "a light brown, short, husky man who, according to American nomenclature, was 'colored' " (Color Curtain 176). Jones, a mechanic in Los Angeles, is so moved by the potential of the Bandung Conference that he exhausts his life's savings to get to Indonesia. A man whom Wright in one long paragraph describes as "colored" four times and as "obscure" once, Jones seems out of place at the conference. Wright notes that Jones "felt that he belonged to a 'colored' nation, that he was out of place in America ... so this brown man came thousands of miles to feel a fleeting sense of identity, of solidarity, of religious oneness with others who shared his outcast state .... And brown Mr. Jones, watching the wily moves of tan Nehru and yellow Chou En-Lai, understood absolutely nothing of what was going on about him ..." (Color Curtain 177). If we set aside the problem of our not hearing about Jones's experiences in his own voice, we do hear how Wright's closing statement hems Jones into the margins of the United States, while also disallowing him the privilege that Wright himself employs throughout the book: a necessary amount of objective removal and global perspective. For Wright, Jones is "obscure," meaningless to the larger discussion of anti-colonialism and non-alignment being discussed at Bandung. And although it happens to be a problem of language, the same problem Wright should have, Jones seems out of place precisely because he comes directly from Los Angeles and lacks the geographical distance that would separate him from American nationalism. So, geographical distance becomes key to Wright's conception of humanity and authorship.

Likewise, Wright recounts Adam Clayton Powell's experience at the conference. Powell, a well-known black pastor and a Congressman for New York, made his way to Bandung as the US government's only official conference observer. Wright notes that Powell, a light-skinned black man, had to be introduced to conference participants as black because he was taken to be white. Whether or not Wright is attempting to slight Powell or merely "report the facts," Wright attributes some of the half-hearted response to Powell to his perceived "whiteness." Wright goes on to report that Powell's address "stressed the colored population of the United States..." and that it "is to be recalled that, with the exception of Congressman Powell, no delegate or observer at Bandung raised the Negro problem in the United States" (Color Curtain 178). While the content of Powell's speech, which stressed the importance and improvement of African Americans within the United States, might have prompted Wright and the other conference goers' dismissal, Wright omits a description of Powell's speech in The Color Curtain. Instead, Wright opts to describe the Negro problem as "child's play compared to the naked racial tensions gripping Asia and Africa" (Color Curtain 178). In short, not only does Wright's narration locate Powell's rhetorical failure in his visibly miscegenated and nationally segregated body--a particular marker of US slavery and segregation in this narrative--but Wright also determines that the concerns of African Americans have little global worth. Within this anti-colonial space, Wright's dismissal of Powell represents the dismissal of the sort of African American counterpublic articulations that Gilroy finds counterproductive to an anti-essentialist agenda (passim).

The final example of Wright's segregated inclusion of African Americans and their concerns centers on a conversation Wright has with a white American reporter about her roommate, whom she describes as being a "black, real black [woman]" (Color Curtain 184; italics added). Wright hears a knock on his hotel door and finds an unknown white woman standing outside. In a move that I have come to read as necessary for Wright to punctuate his own racial liberation--but one that feels potentially threatening, especially if one had read Native Son--Wright lets this white woman into his private room. Soon after she meets Wright, the white journalist reveals that she is seeking his advice because she believes her black roommate might be practicing voodoo. She describes the black woman's nightly ritual as involving a blue light and a striking scent. After a few questions, Wright determines what the black roommate does not want her white roommate to know: that she is straightening her hair with a hot comb and a Bunsen burner once the lights go out. The white roommate's is a simple misunderstanding that has grave ramifications for Wright's textual representation of black Americanness. Because the exchange continues with Wright informing the white journalist that her black roommate straightens her hair simply because she is self-loathing (Color Curtain 187), the interaction could be read as Wright's attempt to represent the American racial allegory, which highlights white American benightedness with respect to black Americans. Wright offers this black woman's "shame" to the white journalist (and to his readers) as an object lesson in the international colored population's inferiority complex, a topic with which he feels the conference is reckoning. Yet when the white woman asks what she can do to ameliorate this shame, the narrator responds by saying, "Nothing. It's much bigger than you or I. Your father and your father's father started all this evil. Now it lives with us. First of all, just try to understand it. And get all that rot about voodoo out of your mind" (Color Curtain 188). Wright offers this female journalist, Mr. Jones, and Powell the response offered him by the Book-of-the-Month judges a decade earlier: he regionalizes them by confining their concerns to a temporal past, thereby blunting the force of African American (and progressive white) resistance to US racial segregation.

How does one make sense of the faith Wright has in the power of an event like Bandung alongside his seeming lack of active engagement with US racial segregation, which seems so out of place in The Color Curtain? Considering Wright's Pan-African work in Paris and his investment in international activism, his decision to narrate the interaction with the journalist is complicated by his apathy regarding the potential of his object lesson. Because Wright and this white woman talk in his hotel room, the conversation is removed from the primary conference space. As with Wright's critique of Powell's speech to the Bandung attendees, American racism is too specific to be explored on the international public stage, and possibly the Bandung participants. Instead, Wright recreates the intimacy of American racial segregation in his hotel room. Possibly due to these other African Americans' continued geographical and intellectual association with the US, Wright seems to find it difficult to integrate their narratives into the framework of global solidarity and non-alignment.

Even after Bandung, it is difficult for Wright rhetorically to fuse the particular concerns of African Americans with his growing interests in a more "universal" theme of the human struggle for dignity. His tendency to marginalize African Americans in The Color Curtain is indicative of his continued negotiation of the textual "value" inherent in African American cultural productions. Concerned with the "discursive economy of Wright's text," Shankar imagines a metaphorical economic system where the "value-coding" of a text originates from outside the text (5). Shankar contends that in Black Power, Wright, unable to make sense of his own blackness while in his ancestral home of Africa, oscillated between relegating colonial Africa to pre-history and embracing the continent's potential for anti-colonial revolution (18). So, Wright is caught in the trap of privileging western rationalism and textual production, while also wanting to rearticulate such coding. For Shankar the resulting tension between the West and Non-West is palpable in Wright's Black Power.

It stands to reason that this tension continues beyond Black Power. In fact, Wright's relationship to African Americans and regionalism in the international context typifies the vexed position that black American writers must often occupy to make their writing matter in the present and, more importantly, in the future. Wright's years in Europe were dogged by accusations that ranged from his having an outdated sense of US race relations because his post-Black Boy writings failed to capture the racial nuance created by the burgeoning Civil Rights movement in the United States, to his internationalism having taken him too far from his expertise in African American life. Torn between two creative worlds--African American regionalism and pan-African, humanist solidarity-Wright would find very little solace in his attempts to bridge them. From his imagined magnum opus "Celebration," which he envisioned would tie his novel Savage Holiday (1954) and two unwritten novels that explored the lives of Montezuma and a pathological New York teenaged girl, to his travel writings, Wright met constant critical disinterest in the US. (9) Publishers, editors, and his own literary agent spent the last years of Wright's life trying to get him to return "home" creatively. Confounded by negative reviews and the general push to move back into the black region, Wright asked his agent, "What has my geographical position on earth got to do with the faults or merits of a book?" (Fabre 468). The answer: everything. Wright's looming financial instability gave critics' concerns more weight then they might have, and Wright continued until his death to try to make the regional mesh with his global perspective.

Gilroy commends Wright's ability to resist ethnocentrism and his willingness to live between insider and outsider status. Still, such resistance on Wright's part was not without its share of racial essentialism, in the form of regionalizing and political segregation of African Americans in The Color Curtain. Likewise, Wright's work was marred by the author's attempts to desegregate his creative vision, as is evident from a warning he received from his agent Paul Reynolds just two months before the Color Curtain was published in the US: "It seems to me--and of course I'm only guessing now--that as you have found greater peace as a human being, living in France, and not being made incessantly aware that the pigmentation in your skin sets you apart from other men, you have at the same time lost something as a writer. To put it another way, the human gain has been offset by a creative loss" (Fabre 432; italics added). Obviously, the exchange rate between the particular and the anti-essential for African Americans is a complex transaction. Wright might have transplanted but was never fully able to cultivate African American concerns in the alien soil, so his example begs us to think more about ways to value African American regional particularism without forgoing the possibility of African American global agency favored by Gilroy. We must know that Mr. Jones's and the unnamed black journalist's African American identity and humanness do not make them segregated outcasts, but actually facilitate their relevance to both global and local counterpublic articulations.

Works Cited

Andrews, William L. Introduction. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Ed. William L. Andrews. New York: Penguin, 1990. vii-xxviii.

Baker, Houston A., Jr. Turning South Again: Re-thinking Modernism/Re-reading Booker T. Durham: Duke UP, 2001.

Brodhead, Richard. Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Clifford, James. Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

Dawson, Michael. Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001.

Elliott, Emory, ed. The Columbia History of the American Novel New York: Columbia UP, 1991.

Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. New York: William Morrow, 1973.

Fetterley, Judith. "'Not in the Least American': Nineteenth-century Literary Regionalism." College English 56.8 (December 1994): 877-95.

--, and Marjorie Pryse. Writing Out of Place: Regionalism, Women and American Literary Culture. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2003.

Gilroy, Paul The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993. Howells, William Dean. Criticism and Fiction. 1891. Lenox, MA: Hard P, 2006. Kaplan, Ann. "Nation, Region, and Empire." Elliott 240-66.

Karem, Jeff. "'I Could Never Really Leave the South': Regionalism and the Transformation of Richard Wright's American Hunger." American Literary History 13.4 (Winter 2001): 694-715.

LeClair, Thomas. "The Language Must Not Sweat: A Conversation with Toni Morrison." 1981. Conversations with Toni Morrison. Ed. Danille Taylor-Guthrie. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994. 119-28.

Murray, Albert. "Regional Particulars and Universal Statement in Southern Writing." Callaloo 12.1 (Winter 1989): 3-6.

O'Conner, Flannery. "The Regional Writer." Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1961.51-59.

Reilly, John. "Richard Wright and the Art of Non-Fiction: Stepping Out on the Stage of the World." Callaloo 9.3 (Summer 1986): 507-20.

Robison, Lori. "Region and Race." A Companion to the Regional Literatures of America. Ed. Charles Crow. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003. 57-73.

Shankar, S. "Richard Wright's Black Power. Colonial Politics and the Travel Narrative." Smith,

Richard Wright's Travel Writings 3-19.

Smith, Virginia Whatley. Introduction. Smith, Richard Wright's Travel Writings xi-xv.

--, ed. Richard Wright's Travel Writings: New Reflections. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001.

Sundquist, Eric. "Realism and Regionalism." Elliott 501-24.

Wright, Richard. American Hunger. 1977. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993.

--. "The American Writer in a Democratic Society." (Carl Miller 1938). Conversations with Richard

Wright. Eds. Keneth Kinnamon and Michel Fabre. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1993. 11-15.

--. Black Boy. New York: The World, 1945.

--. "Blueprint for Negro Writing." 1937. Richard Wright Reader. Eds. Ellen Wright and Michel Fabre. New York: Harper, 1978. 36-49.

--. The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference. 1956. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1995.

--. White Man, Listen! 1957. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1978.


(1.) The division between American literary realism and literary regionalism is blurry at best. Americanists generally consider American literary realism a sub-genre of US regionalism (with all the connotations of "sub" being operative); it has its roots in the late nineteenth century and coincides with the rise of technology. Realism, according to Howells, depicted "the simple, the natural, and the honest," and resisted romantic representations of humanity (7).

(2.) See for instance, Fetterley and Pryse. In College English, Fetterley argues that regionalism, which for her is nearly synonymous with 19th-century women's writing, is inherently an "un-American" genre (878) that allows "persons made silent or vacant through terror to tell stories which the dominant culture labels trivial," and "change our perspective and thus ... destabilize the meaning of margin and center" (887).

(3.) Andrews argues that Johnson was able to overcome this burden by employing autobiography because whites were more receptive to that genre than to the novel. Notably, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is also a travel narrative featuring the narrator's traversal through many remote and marginal locations.

(4.) Robison writes that the South vacillates in meaning and importance to the US. Sometimes the site of what America is not, sometimes the nostalgic site of what it wishes it could be again, according to Robison, the US South is often treated as the symbolic register of the nation's relationship to race. But even Robison's analysis of how race affects the South's national fails to consider how African Americans in the South register their own national longings and belonging.

(5.) Morrison notes that the tension between the particular and the universal is a constant concern for African American writers. Specifically, many black writers feel burdened with the task of making the particular experience of blackness readable to white people. Morrison renounces this sentiment in black writing because she sees little value in universalism and, instead, relishes in the local/regional. See LeClair 124.

(6.) See Dawson for more on the black counterpublic.

(7.) Robison contends that ethnography, like regional writing, serves the cultural function of providing mainstream readers an authoritative introduction to new cultures. Ethnography and regionalism both create an outside observer and "enact through their very form, a hierarchical relationship between observer and observed that assumes the superiority of the voice that 'looks down upon what the other is'" (64).

(8.) Clifford describes ethnographic participant observation as a method that places the ethnographer between "inside" and "outside" of the events s/he is recording. The value of this particular type of ethnography is that it allows the impression of dialectical interaction between author and subjects, but still privileges the voice of the ethnographer and her ability to make sense of the culture being described.

(9.) For more detailed description of this failed writing project, see Fabre.

Eve Dunbar is Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College. Her current research explores the influence of American literary regionalism on mid-20th century African American writers who wrote from abroad.
COPYRIGHT 2008 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Dunbar, Eve
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2008
Previous Article:Native Geography: Richard Wright's Work for the Federal Writers' Project in Chicago.
Next Article:"Somewhat like war": the aesthetics of segregation, black liberation, and A Raisin in the Sun.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters