From No Man's Land to Mother-land: Emasculation and Nationalism in Richard Wright's Depression Era Urban Novels.
... anything that is felt to give out goodness and beauty, and that calls forth pleasure and satisfaction, in the physical or in the wider sense, can in the unconscious mind take the place of [the infant's perception of the mother's] ever-bountiful breast, and of the whole mother. Thus we speak of our own country as the "motherland" because in the unconscious mind our country may come to stand for our mother, and then it can be loved with feelings which borrow their nature from the relation to her. (Melanie Klein, "Love, Guilt and Reparation" 103)
While serving as Director of the Harlem Bureau of the Daily Worker between 1937 and 1938, Richard Wright wrote an article for the newspaper praising the launching of New Challenge, a black American literary quarterly that published first-rate black writers such as Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, and Langston Hughes. Wright was particularly excited about the quarterly because "for the first time in Negro history problems such as nationalism in literature, perspective, the relation of the Negro to politics and social movements were formulated and discussed" ("Negro Writers" 7). For those familiar with Wright's "A Blueprint for Negro Writing," first published in New Challenge in 1937, it is obvious that he was applauding his own planned contribution to the quarterly, as "Blueprint" deals first and foremost with the problem of nationalism for black writers. Moreover, since the Daily Worker article and the New Challenge essay were written in the middle of 1937, it is safe to say that Wright, then twenty-eight years old, was beginning to formulate just what sort of contribution to black American writing he would make during the next few years. The literary works Wright wrote between 1937 and 1941 focus explicitly on issues related to nationalism, although scholars have yet to explore this fact in depth.
Remarkably, Wright's literary treatment of nationalism remains avant-garde since he reveals what many contemporary theorists have yet to disclose: a complex insight into the deep psychology of nationalism. Like many contemporary theorists, Wright viewed nationalism as an historical phenomenon that constructs what Benedict Anderson has termed "imagined communities" for people who in fact are anonymous to each other but wish for social communion. Wright also perceived nationalism as a divisive political ideology that must be supplanted with a Communist ideology he believed necessary for the emancipation of the working class. But Wright's most significant contribution is his synthesis of Marxist and psychoanalytic concepts in his effort to portray critically the insidious appeal of nationalistic ideas to the infantile desires of working-class men. For Wright, the danger posed by nationalism was its unconscious appeal to the psyches of male workers. His Depression Era works suggests that, since all male workers are raised in a patriarchal society, their feelings of powerlessness can evoke feelings of emasculation. Wright shows how these feelings of emasculation can be intensified for black men, since they are extra-oppressed by racism and are symbolically emasculated as "boys" in a racist discourse. In somewhat Oedipal terms, the black man is put in the position of having "to kill" the white man/father in order to cancel his "boy" status. Wright's concern is that black working-class men are apt to heed the call of black nationalists, precisely because they promise a reclamation of manhood and the goal of disposing of the white father - namely, the acquisition of the mother-land.
In Lawd Today! (completed in 1938 and posthumously published in 1963) and Native Son (1940), Wright represents urban black men in the grip of such a racialized Oedipal struggle. His urban protagonists internalize the racist dynamic of the black boy-white father dialectic and are thus psychologically caught between an impulse to act the black "boy" who submits (in various ways) to whites and a desire to be the "man," which involves behaviors associated with the powerful white father. In other words, his protagonists seek to compensate for their socially conditioned feelings of impotence through fantasies of omnipotence, which are fed and formed by the "logic" of American racism, as well as the nationalistic and fascistic ideologies that flourished internationally in the 1930s. Both social-psychological and political factors contribute to a complex ethnic/nationalistic psychology for his protagonists, who unconsciously associate the attainment of manhood with the possession of a black "motherland." However, while Wright represents the appeal of nationalism, he considers such an ideology incapable of self-reflexively addressing the very precondition for its being - i.e., a racist class society. As the above epigraph suggests, Wright believed it vital to disclose and, therefore, to lessen the subconscious appeal of nationalism in order to make possible progressive political action for working-class men that is not determined by the self-defeating logics of American racism and nationalism.
Before delving into the psychology of nationalism in Wright's Depression Era writings, we must first briefly work through his cultural history of black Americans, since only at the conclusion of a phase of that history do we find the black nationalist "resolution" of the Oedipal crisis alluded to above. It is well known that Wright was influenced by the Communist Party's (CP's) understanding of nationalism, which was largely based on Stalin's popular book Marxism and the National and Colonial Question (1912). As Wright asserts in "A Blueprint for Negro Writing," he too believed that blacks had a common "national" culture that originally arose from a "plantation-feudal economy" and persisted in the Jim Crow political system of the South.(1) The foundation of this modern black culture lies in the African American folk tradition of the blues, spirituals, work songs, and folk tales (99). Black social institutions, such as the black church, black sports, black business, black schools, and a black press, represent "a Negro way of life in America" (100).
However, Wright implicitly differs from other Communists on an important point: Black cultural nationalism in the U.S. was neither so stable nor so progressive as the CP black nation thesis made out. On the contrary, he views black cultural nationalism as the result of forced common experiences of slavery and segregation that produced an unwanted common black culture. Wright argues that the Negro people did not ask for [their cultural nationalism], and deep down, though they express themselves through their institutions and adhere to this special way of life, they do not want it now. This special existence was forced upon them from without by lynch rope, bayonet and mob rule. ("Blueprint" 100)
Such a nationalism is unstable for Wright because, even though he, like the CP, saw the social history of black Americans as an historical process, it was a process with a very different direction: As he writes in 12 Million Black Voices (1941), Wright perceived "a complex movement of debased feudal folk toward a twentieth-century urbanization" that has occurred at an historically rapid pace (xix; my emphasis). The more or less homogenous black consciousness and cultural community resulting from provincial, Southern material conditions was in the process of being eroded by modernization. Wright contends that
it is in industry that we encounter experiences that tend to break down the structure of our folk characters and project us toward the vortex of modern urban life.... we are gripped and influenced by the world-wide forces that shape and mold the life of Western civilization. (12 Million 115)
For Wright, the feudal black peasantry's liberation lay not in preserving or developing a black "national" culture in the South, but in an historical overcoming of "black" identity and cultural nationalism. In other words, Wright only provisionally accepts the unified cultural identity of the postwar "New Negro," since he favors a "multi-cultural" identity in the process of further socialization by modernity. Nowhere in his literary work, or in his more than 200 articles written for the Daily Worker, do we find an endorsement for the CP's desire for a black republic in the Southern Black Belt. On the contrary, Wright lauded the historical movement toward modernity wherever he saw it. For example, one of his Daily Worker articles written in 1937 celebrates a former slave woman who became an active Communist in Harlem. "This woman," he writes, "has seen the face of her country changed more than once during her 71 years, and she has the strength, the courage, and the faith to fight and wait for still another change." He ends this short article by quoting her, saying for a second time, that "I live in the 20th Century" ("Born A Slave" 3), as if to underscore her own recognition that the movement from Southern slave to urban Communist is part and parcel of the progressive movement of history itself.(2)
While Wright identifies a cultural nationalism in decline, he nonetheless believed that writers should acknowledge and strategically appropriate the varying degrees of cultural nationalism among black Americans. "Negro writers who seek to mold or influence the consciousness of the Negro people," asserts Wright, "must address their messages to them through the ideologies and attitudes fostered in this warping way of life" ("Blueprint" 101). It is important to note that "their messages" for Wright were (or should have been) derived from "a Marxist conception of reality" (102). And, in this sense, he was consistent with the dominant thinking by Communist intellectuals of the time on "minority" literature. According to one Soviet intellectual of the period who published an article on Langston Hughes in International Literature, minority literature should be "socialist in content and national in form" (Filatova 107). In short, black writers should represent the cultural nationalism of blacks from a socialist perspective by depicting "national" difference, inter-nationalist identity, and - echoing Georg Lukacs's influential essay" 'Tendency' or Partisanship?" published in the Partisan Review in the 1930s - "society as something becoming rather than as something fixed and admired" ("Blueprint" 98-99; my emphasis). As a reading of Uncle Tom's Children (1940) attests, Wright was careful to represent contextually degrees of cultural nationalism in his characters, depicting virtually all of his Southern characters as cultural nationalists.(3)
One therefore finds cultural nationalist identifications most eroded in his male urban protagonists from the 1930s, namely Jake Jackson from Lawd Today! and Bigger Thomas from Native Son. Jake and Bigger represent Wright's view of what happens when a first generation of "debased," male feudal folk are subjected to the modern ideologies and practices prevalent in Northern urban centers (specifically Chicago): They become, as Wright explains of Bigger, "vague" cultural nationalists because, even though they are forced to identify as black, they do not identify with the black culture of their parents ("How 'Bigger' Was Born" 527); Bigger, Wright tells us, "had become estranged from the religion and the folk culture of his race" (513). Bigger and Jake are "Negro nationalist[s] in a vague sense" only because of their "intense hatred of white people" (527), which serves (in place of a strong folk identity) to strengthen their identification as "black."
Wright refunctions the war-time notion of a "No Man's Land" to designate the experience his urban male characters have of being in the interstice of two cultures or, as Houston Baker argues, of having "black placelessness" (201). Only Wright's male urban protagonists are caught in the "No Man's Land," because they are "granted" by the patriarchal organization of American society more social intercourse with urban culture than his female characters. Most of the representations of Bigger and Jake (both of whom, significantly, grew up in the South) center on their being not at home but on the streets or at work in "civilization," thus alienating them further from their Southern origins.(4)
Interestingly, black nationalism proper is only an issue for Wright's male urban characters: Both Jake and Bigger have visions of a black state that they would like to rule. While undeveloped, their black nationalism equates freedom with national self-determination. Thus, the reflexive, weak cultural nationalism of most of his urban protagonists is supplemented by a black nationalism that imagines the creation of a black national state as a solution to U.S. racism. Ironically, this black nationalism arises in the very place where cultural nationalist "folk" identities have been most dissolved by modern, urban conditions. This in part explains why the black nationalism Wright represents doesn't take root with his characters: The protonationalist soil of nationalism proper has been eroded by urban culture and society. The "double-consciousness" these characters possess prevents them from simply identifying as black "nationals" and from being chauvinist. Bigger, for example, so strongly identifies with "white" civilization that he cajoles Gus into "playing white" (18-20), one of their pastimes.
There are two important causes that explain why Jake and Bigger are attracted to black nationalist visions: the psychological consequences of American racism and the predominance of post-war nationalisms in the 1930s.
In a number of his works, Wright suggests that black men have a particular psychic economy historically conditioned by a complex racist discourse and practice that, as we shall later see, lends itself to nationalists' appeals. He makes perfectly clear that the "Jim Crow education" of blacks in the South and the multiple, somewhat more subtle forms of racism in the North worked together in an attempt to arrest the psychological development of black American men. Black men/"boys" are infantilized by white society, making American racism conterminous with sexism, since the infantilization of black men symbolically aligns them with "women," that other figure long associated with weakness and dependency in patriarchal society.(5) Within the racist, patriarchal logic of American racism, the "father"/"man" is none other than the white male, who exercises authority over the movements of the supposedly helpless, dependent, and ignorant black "boy." The purpose of the psychological arrest is to stop autonomous actions that transgress "place" as defined by the racist structure and ideology of American society. Although indispensable to white oppression, the legal arrest of black men signifies the failure of the ideology of racism.
Furthermore, Wright's texts suggest that the desire male children have to become men (usually like their fathers) is co-opted by white racist ideology in an important way: Black males could become "men" by displacing and/or emulating the white father; the good "boy" obeys the white father's example and becomes like him. The internalization of the racist developmental logic constitutes the unconscious of his male characters and is characterized by a racialized Oedipal struggle against the white "father"/boss. As Abdul JanMohamed writes, "In order for subservience to be automatic it cannot be conscious; it has to become part of one's pre-conscious behavior pattern: precisely at the point where one's behavior is unconsciously controlled by a prevailing ideology, one has succumbed to a cultural hegemony" (117). In other words, the dynamics of psychological development are subconsciously mediated by racist ideology, and the super-ego itself contains the white "father's" judgment. In this way one can say that the "American" part of "double-consciousness" is expressive of the super-white ego that views the black ego as despised and pitiable and yet represents cultural value, here coded as "white male." White folk, as Bigger says, live "right down here in my stomach" (22).
In many ways, Wright's depiction of the psychology of black working-class men also applies to white working-class men, since both are made to feel helpless under capitalism and can seek modes of escape that are infantile and nationalistic. For example, we can situate the masculinist iconography of a lot of proletarian art and literature within this framework: Those images of hulky white workers underscore how powerless they feel. However, it is essential to theorize the historicity of Wright's psychological understanding of urban black men; that is, how racism further belittles the black working class.
The material conditions from which his black male protagonists want to flee are those of racism and wage-labor in a capitalist society. Racist society is the painful, humiliating, and self-negating space that calls forth utopian spaces, including black nationalist ones. Such utopian spaces are shot through with the developmental conflicts of males as mediated by American racism and inter-war nationalism. In short, Wright's texts address the question of what happens when black working-class men who subjectively feel socially emasculated or socially disempowered are also assigned a "boy" status within the particular discursive formation of American racism.
The first point to be made here is that Wright's urban black protagonists have internalized the forced "boy" status, and therefore seek ways to take control of their lives, which are likewise mediated by a racist logic. That is, the options to act the "boy" or to become a "man" - certainly a major theme for many of Wright's stories - are not mutually exclusive. We find the twin impulses to be a "boy" and to be a "man" in the character of Jake from Lawd Today!. Jake is unhappily married, reluctantly works as a postal clerk, and seeks gratification with a few co-workers during the off-hours. A typical Wright character, Jake is full of anger and cannot quite articulate the sources of or solutions to his feelings. Jake's basic problem is that circumstances are so set against his being black and working class that the novel is easily classified as naturalistic. Jake's infantile response to his oppression is most evident in his desire to leave the harsh realities of America and return to some imagined, blissful, child-like state. He conceives of one of these blissful states as being in the possession of an idealized mother figure who takes care of him. In one passage, for example, he fantasizes about a woman with whom he feels like a "child nestling. . . into a mother's bosom" (36). In another passage he identifies with the "little boy blue" from a popular song who has helplessly lost but still desires a maternal woman who is "so beautiful," "so wonderful," and "so divine" (23). In short, he imagines a gratification that he lacks in the form of a regressive fantasy of being secure at the mother's breast. The breast is a symbol of a lost place of love, security, pleasure, and self-preservation for Jake. As Du Bois wrote, only in "babyhood and in Europe" has the black man not experienced racism (37), potentially making the infantile fantasy all the more attractive.
Jake's desire to be taken care of is a sign of the larger problem he has: not taking responsibility for his response to the painful feelings (such as anger, jealousy, resentment, envy, and hatred) caused by his oppressive circumstances. His infantilism explains his attraction to the quick fix for his life, whether through maternal fantasies, gambling, medical cure-alls, or alcohol abuse. One could say that he has modes of "magical" thinking that are fed by the irrational culture that promises instant happiness, satisfaction, success, etc. that Wright so thoroughly depicts.
Moreover, because he doesn't take responsibility for his feelings, thoughts, or actions, he tends to play the role of the helpless victim. He irresponsibly projects and disowns his own thoughts and actions, which exacerbate an already bad situation. Aside from the absurdity of blaming Lil, his wife, for her tumor, he blames her for the entire condition of his life: "His eyes grew misty with tears, tears of hatred for Lil and tears of pity for himself. My life is just all shot to hell. I wouldn't be in all this mess if it wasn't for her" (20). Significantly, he verbally and physically abuses his wife because she depends upon him. In other words, he depreciates his wife - aptly named "Lil" - since she falls far short of his infantile desire for an idealized mother figure who gratifies his needs and removes the pains and frustrations he feels from his oppression. One can further argue that he attacks and threatens to kill her because he projects onto her and, ultimately, wants to destroy what he sees as his own weakness, his own sense of social and political helplessness, dependency, and, in a word, emasculation - all socially gendered as feminine. Thus, at the novel's end, after a series of defeats in and out of work, he returns home telling himself, "I'm going up and pay her off tonight! By Gawd, I'll teach her who's boss, who wears the pants . . ." (216). The sign of power for the emasculated Jake is the seemingly omnipotent boss who "wears . . . pants" that reveal by concealing the desired phallus. Jake has internalized his feminized "boy" status in a racist and patriarchal society, which explains why he despises himself and Lil.
Wright's portrayal of Jake is dialectical, integrating the truth and falsity of Jake's position into a fuller analytical representation of his problem. Clearly Jake is a victim of racism and class oppression. Yet Wright also makes clear that his infantile behavior is nonetheless damaging to Lil and to himself. That is, Jake's response to his unjust circumstances (debt, discrimination, poverty) is one that Wright does not present as justified. The scene that brings the complexity of this issue to the fore is Jake's meeting with the postal Board of Review for his ill-treatment of his wife. The members of the Board, two white men and one black man, are presented as sadistic individuals who take pleasure in their bureaucratic power over Jake. Nevertheless, Jake's string of lies to save his job seems absurdly defensive. He claims that Lil, who complained to the Board, lied about being beaten. He pleads, "'Youall can't hold me responsible for a crackbrained woman! She told youall them lies for pure evil black spite . . .'" (124). He even goes so far as to say that, since he is proud to be black, he "'wouldn't do nothing on earth to drag down' "his race (125) - even though he demonstrates hatred for his "race" and his black body (by subduing, for example, the "alien army" of kinks in his hair ) throughout the novel. Consequently, neither Jake nor the Board is depicted as simply "good" or "right," which makes the truth of the black member of the Board's response to Jake's prevarication a hard pill for Jake or the reader to swallow: "'You should handle your affairs so they won't come into this office. This isn't a nursery'" (125). Ironically, the post office is a kind of nursery, as defined by the paternalistic class relations that position Jake as the helpless, bad boy to be judged by primarily white fathers/bosses (and one of their black lackeys or "Uncle Toms") who hold a certain amount of power over him. They in large part produce and then punish Jake's baby-like behavior.
Again, this is not to say that Jake himself has not opted out by his continual flight from reality into the pleasure principle, a move, as Freud tells us, always tied to the desire to forget one's own pain (12-14). From this perspective, the mere fact of Jake's move to Chicago can be viewed as a false flight not only from oppression (for, as the text tells us, there is not much difference for the black man between the North and South ), but also from the psychological pain resulting from the stronger social controls of black men in the South:
When he went to the movies he always wanted to see Negroes, if there were any in the play, shown against the background of urban conditions, not rural ones. Anything which smacked of farms, chaingangs, lynchings, hunger, or the South in general was repugnant to him. These things had so hurt him once that he wanted to forget then forever; to see them again merely served to bring back the deep pain for which he knew no sane. (138)
As long as he tries to forget his emasculated "boy" status in a patriarchal white society, he is condemned to act the part. Indeed, throughout the day Jake continually wants to sleep, the sure way of forgetting and slipping into unconsciousness.
Bigger is a more fully developed character than Jake, and he therefore presents us with a more refined psychological presentation of Wright's urban black male. Like Jake, Bigger is a character on the verge of losing control of his actions. He is about to "snap," and the only thing that keeps him from being torn asunder is his "dogged strength" (5), to use a phrase from Du Bois. The causes of his "tensity" are multiple, the most obvious being the abject racist conditions of his life on the South Side of Chicago, which include the rat-infested room he must call his home and a lack of meaningful employment - in a phrase, a life of ghettoization. Wright's portrayal of Bigger's tension is itself remarkable for the times, since until then blacks had rarely been represented with such psychological depth and complexity.
What is more remarkable, however, is the way Wright portrays Bigger's response to the tension, and it is here that we find a psychological state similar to Jake's. Like Jake, Bigger wants to be immediately free from his emotional tumult, and so his methods are essentially regressive. He, too, seeks forms of escape that are infantile. The conclusive sign of this desire to regress is his masturbatory response to tension. Max, the mouthpiece of Wright's political understanding of Bigger, expresses the fundamental psychological truth of Bigger's character. As he tells the court in "defense" of Bigger's masturbating in a movie theater:" 'Was not Bigger Thomas' relationship to his girl a masturbatory one? Was not his entire relationship to the whole world on the same plane?'" (468). The significance of these two lines should not be underestimated, for they succinctly encapsulate what Wright spent so much time disclosing in his novel. Masturbation, as depicted here, is regressive because it allows for a narcissistic and sadistic way out of painful emotions. That is, instead of working to change the circumstances that gave rise to these emotions, Bigger tries to discharge his emotions in ways that only create momentary relief for himself and pain or death for others. As Max suggests, Bigger sort of "masturbates" through Bessie, thus dehumanizing her by turning her into an object useful only for his satisfaction. Indeed, not much separates sex and murder for Bigger, since both "blot out" the other as a way to escape pain and/or to experience a narcissistic pleasure." 'All you care about is your own pleasure!' "exclaims his mother (7). Thus, when he has sex with Bessie before he kills her, we learn that she tells him not to force her to have sex, but that the "loud demand of the tensity of his own body was a voice that drowned out hers" (270).
Masturbation here also signifies an idealized response to tension, since he fantasizes that he has control of his life where he has virtually none. Of course, his reference to his penis as a "nightstick" - an emblem of violence and power - in the masturbation scene is instructive (32), but perhaps more instructive is the fact that he also turns Bessie into an idealized mother figure who should exist only for him. Thus, once the "lessening of tension in his muscles" fades after murdering Mary (129), he decides to release the new quantity of tension that had accumulated while he was being questioned by the racist Mrs. Dalton. We read: "To go out now would be the answer to the feeling of strain that had come over him while talking to Mrs. Dalton. He would go and see Bessie. That's it!" (146). He immediately thinks of discharging his pain into Bessie, whom he turns into an idealized womb he can occupy:
He felt two soft palms holding his face tenderly and the thought and image of the whole blind world which had made him ashamed and afraid fell away as he felt her as a fallow field beneath him stretching out under a cloudy sky waiting for rain, and he slept in her body, rising and sinking with the ebb and flow of her blood, being willingly dragged into a warm night sea to rise renewed to the surface to face a world he hated and wanted to blot out of existence . . . . (153)
The passage abounds with images of the womb (fallow field, warm night sea) and images of penetration (the rain, rising and sinking). He wants "a wholeness, a oneness" (490) akin to what Freud refers to as the "oceanic feeling" one experiences as an infant in the womb or at the breast before the ego has learned to differentiate itself from the mother and to relate to people in other ways. Like a fetus, he wants to be "inside" Bessie, "rising and sinking with the ebb and flow of her blood." As Joseph Skerrett writes, "Bessie is an oasis of motherly comfort in Bigger's world" (34). But Bigger can maintain this fantasy of Bessie only by depreciating and ultimately killing the Bessie that resists him and questions his confused thinking and harmful actions:
He wished he could clench his fist and swing his arm and blot out, kill, sweep away the Bessie on Bessie's face and leave the other helpless and yielding before him. He would then gather her up and put her in his chest, his stomach, some place deep inside him, always keeping her there even when he slept, ate, talked; keeping her there just to feel and know that she was his to have and hold whenever he wanted to. (159-60)
Like Jake, he wants to cling only to his fantasy of an idealized mother who never frustrates him by always doing what he wishes; i.e., by making the painful emotions of racism go away. This necessarily causes him to split Bessie (in fantasy) into a "good" mother and a "bad" mother (who withholds infantile gratification), and later to kill Bessie since she refuses to conform to his infantile fantasies.(6)
Yet Jake and Bigger are struggling to be in control of their lives, which brings us to the issue of nationalism and, in particular, the second cause in Wright's black male protagonists' attraction to black nationalism - namely, the cultures of nationalism of the 1930s that Wright depicts in his novels. In essence, to quote Eric Hobsbawm, post-World War I nationalism "filled the void left by failure, impotence, and the apparent inabilities of other ideologies, political projects and programmes to realize men's hopes. It was the utopia of those who had lost the old utopias of the age of Enlightenment, the programme of those who had lost faith in other programmes . . ." (Nations 144). Of course, we should add that nationalism was also the utopia for those who never were truly included in or believed in "the old utopias of the Enlightenment"! In any case, Hobsbawm's linking of a sense of impotence, ideological confusion, and, in this context, the failure of bourgeois-democratic political ideals in America with an embrace of nationalism is compelling, since Wright's urban male protagonists are caught in a "No Man's Land" of disbelief, somewhere between their parents' Southern "folk" beliefs and urban, mass-cultural ideologies. In particular, it is the patriarchal, nationalistic cultural density of Jake's and Bigger's Chicago that shapes the nationalist fantasies that function to compensate for their sense of emasculation.
In fact, from the intrusive radio program commemorating Lincoln's birthday to newspaper headlines reporting Nazi nationalism and anti-Semitism, Lawd Today! is truly a study of cultures of nationalism in America circa 1935 and their effects on identity formation. Mass culture is less an explicit subject in Native Son but nonetheless an important one. Bigger, Wright tells us, "was trying to react to and answer the call of the dominant civilization whose glitter came to him through the newspapers, magazines, radios, movies, and the mere imposing sight and sound of daily American life" ("How 'Bigger' "513). This dominant civilization in the 1930s, as Hobsbawm notes in The Age of Extremes, was becoming increasingly militaristic, fascistic, and nationalistic: "Taking the world as a whole, there had been perhaps thirty-five or more constitutional and elected governments in 1920. . . . Until 1938 there were perhaps seventeen such states, in 1944 perhaps twelve out of the global total of sixty-four. The world trend seemed clear" (112). Moreover, he adds, Hitler's ascension to power in 1933 greatly accelerated the trend of fascism since, "without Hitler's triumph in Germany, the idea of fascism as a universal movement . . . would not have developed," nor would it have had "serious impact outside of Europe" (116-17). Bigger and Jake come of age during this fascisization of "civilization," and both characters are politically reactionary.
Within this context, Wright's male urban protagonists compensate for their sense of being children, arrested, or in a "cesspool" - the original title of Lawd Today! - by identifying with patriarchal, nationalist figures. At several points in Lawd Today! Jake has black nationalist fantasies. In one scene Jake and his friends witness a Garveyite parade whose banner reads, "ONWARD TO AFRICA" (105). Wright's depiction of the parade is highly satirical. The black nationalists come off as comical, deluded, and ironically influenced by the very white imperialists they theoretically reject. For instance, their leader is named the "Supreme Undisputed Exalted Commander of the Allied Imperial African War Councils unto the Fourth and Last Generations" (106). Nonetheless, on hearing the leader's title, Jake exclaims in awe," 'Jeeesus!'" Interestingly, after criticizing the nationalists on their program to go back to Africa, Jake and his friends "agree with the music" of the parade, which recalls "memories of those Sunday mornings in the South when they had attended church." Immediately following this protonational identification, Jake, "out of the depths of a confused mood," says "'You know . . . maybe them folks is right, who knows?'" (110). The parade continues to work on Jake's mind and finally develops into an elaborate fantasy, immediately following his being harassed by the white patriarchal postal inspector. Here we read:
If only there was something he could do to pay the white folks back for all they had ever done! . . . He felt the loneliness of his black skin. Yeah, some foreign country ought to whip this Gawddamn country! Some black country ought to do it! He remembered the parade . . . Yeah, maybe they's right. Who knows? He saw millions of black soldiers marching in black armies; he saw a black battleship flying a black flag; he himself was standing on the deck of that black battleship surrounded by black generals; he heard a voice commanding: "FIRE!" Boooooom! A black shell screamed through black smoke and he saw the white head of the Statue of Liberty topple, explode, and tumble into the Atlantic Ocean . . . Gawddamn right! (143-44)
Jake continues to build "dreams of a black empire" and imagines an "epic where black troops were about to conquer the whole world" (144). His imperialistic fantasy is clearly informed by news of Hitler's war against Jews and the start of his European conquest. The "Exalted Commander" is cast as a sort of Hitler who will unify people.
Later in the text the nameless black voices that compose Part Two, Chapter IV confirm the importance of German and Italian nationalism to Wright's characters' thinking when we read, "'. . . it'd take a strong guy to make all these [multi-ethnic American] folks come under one command.' 'You telling me?' 'Like old Hitler . . .' '. . . and Mussellinni'" (183-84). The key point here is that Jake's "vague" cultural nationalism - forced blackness and hatred of whites - is transformed into black nationalism by the urban mass culture dominated by the ideologies of post-war nationalism at that time. In the above scenes, the various inter-war nationalisms - American nationalism, German nationalism, Italian nationalism, and black nationalism - bombard Jake and his friends, and, in their minds, all nationalisms are the same, since all nationalists appeal to their desires for power and control over their lives. On reading the Garveyites' Preamble that speaks of "One God! One Aim! One Destiny!" one of the characters says," 'Boy, that sounds like the Constitootion!'" (109). From his xenophobia, to his Republicanism, to the military metaphors he uses to describe the subduing of his hair, Jake proves himself to be a fine product of the nationalistic fascisization of the world.
In Native Son as well there are numerous passages that exemplify Wright's understanding of the psychological and cultural underpinnings of black nationalism. As suggested above, Bigger is a man who rejects his mother's black folk culture and is dazzled by American popular culture (Native Son 278) and, like Jake, identifies with the rabid nationalist projects of the 1930s:
Dimly, he felt that there should be one direction in which he and all other black people could go wholeheartedly. . . . He liked to hear of how Japan was conquering China; of how Hitler was running the Jew to the ground; of how Mussolini was invading Spain. . . . He felt that some day there would be a black man who would whip the black people into a tight band and together they would act and end fear and shame. (130)
Bigger identifies with these supposedly nationalist leaders because they are father figures or fuhrers who "whip" the imagined helpless black masses into shape for their own good. Both Jake and Bigger identify with nationalists precisely because they are authoritarian, supposedly omnipotent, and historically have been patriarchal to the core.
A supreme irony resides here, because Wright's male urban protagonists' displacement from the South (and its white father-black boy dialectic that narrowly defines place) results in the reemergence of the super-white ego in blackface. That is, displacement to a contradictory urban environment that promises all but grants little - and the desires, anxieties, and tensions which accompany it - has produced a counter-desire for placement structurally akin to that from which the characters originally fled. The discourse of American racism has worked so effectively that the original desired usurpation of the (Southern) master and desire for freedom have produced (within the racist wage-slavery of the urban society) a desire for a black master, motivated by the characters' infantile "reflex urge towards ecstasy, complete submission, and trust" ("How 'Bigger' "528). Wright's texts suggest that the frustrations of the No Man's Land and the appeal of nationalism are symptomatic of the failure of American capitalism to provide political, economic, and psychological stability conducive to his characters' desires for happiness and an enduring fulfillment.
The black master, then, functions as the father figure for these socially emasculated men without fathers. (In Lawd Today! there is no mention of Jake's parents, and in Native Son we learn that Bigger's father was killed in a riot in the South , the ultimate act of social emasculation for a black man and Jim Crow lesson for a black son.) Bigger, in particular, is represented as a man in search of a father figure; hence, the black fuhrer is a suitable compensatory image, and the various Depression Era fascisms "simply appealed to him as possible avenues of escape" (130). He identifies with Hitler and Mussolini because he desires the control and power that have been culturally gendered as masculine. As he tells Max," '. . . a guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can't do. You get a little job here and a little job there. . . . You don't know when you going to get fired. . . . You just keep moving all the time, doing what other folks say. You ain't a man no more'" (408; my emphasis). To be a "man" is finally to be free from the displacement - the "moving all the time."
The fascist father figure is the one who defines place for all. As Slavoj Zizek argues, "The fascist dream is simply to have capitalism without its 'excess,' without the antagonism that causes its structural imbalance . . . [which] would enable us to obtain a stable social organism whose parts form a harmonious corporate body, where, in contrast to capitalism's constant social displacement, everybody would again occupy his own place" (210). Likewise, both Zizek and Wright suggest that the fascist dream of omnipotence appeals to the desire to control what Wright calls "a hot and whirling vortex of undisciplined and unchannelized impulses" produced by modernity ("How 'Bigger' "520). The fascistic, nationalistic projects of Jake and Bigger are another way they imagine a freedom from their emotional tumult. And it is important to note that, in truth, their fantasies of a black master are mediated by a desire to be "white," which they equate with being a desired and powerful object. In essence, as the Garveyite parade and Bigger's and Gus's game of mimicry suggest, to be a political leader is to "play white." The "dual narcissism" about which Franz Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks - that white is right and black is beautiful - merges here: By indulging their fantasies, the two characters display their ego-ideal of the white man who looks black or the black man who acts white. Conflated are the concepts of white father-nationalist/fascist man as opposed, in the final analysis, to the concept of "black boy."
The black nation (ruled by the black father) thus functions as a wishful political and psychic economy: The white father is dethroned, and the black "boy" becomes the (white) "father," creating a (home) place that, because the white father is usurped, "end[s] fear and shame" (Native Son 131). The psychological goal of nationhood in these novels is a type of unity that, based on male fantasies, is infantile, since the object is to reclaim "a wholeness, a oneness" (Native Son 490) associated with an idealized infantile state that views the nation as a womb mother or an originary site of pleasure. The internal torment and desires these characters display, generated in large part by the super-white ego, is projected out and solved in fantasy as if it were solely an external problem.
A dialogue immediately following the passage from Lawd Today! on the necessity of a Hitler or Mussolini for national unification cited earlier establishes the link among nationalism, maternity, and masculinity in the unconscious of the text:
"Well, I reckon the best thing for a guy to do is get together with a woman."
"State Street Mama!"
My name is Jim Taylor
My John is a whaler
And my balls weigh ninety nine pounds
If you know any ladies
Who want to have babies
Just tell 'em Jim Taylor's in town . . ."
The maternal woman or the imagined black state (whose shorthand here reads: black "State [Street] Mama" land) provides an escape from the pain caused by racism to a place without the "fear and shame" of the internalized white father's gaze and a reclaimed (and exaggerated) sense of masculine potency ("balls"). In the imagination of these characters, the mama-land lies the greatest distance from no-man's land. The patriarchal core of the nationalist fantasy is also exposed here, since these characters have recourse to sexist ideas precisely when the nationalist fantasy fails them. And, as with the threatened child in the Oedipal situation who clings desperately to the mother, Wright's urban male protagonists demonstrate a tyrannical possessiveness over the imaginary motherland (recall Lil and Bessie), which is simultaneously expressive of both the desire to regress and a desire to advance to the position of the father (who appears to possess the mother).(7) The black nation is the Oedipal fantasy writ large in political terms, where the infantile desires for a womb/breast-like "oneness" and paternity are simultaneously met.
Clearly, Wright does not advocate such a political and psychic economy. His representation of a highly patriarchal black nationalism as just one more illusion of freedom for his characters should make us pause at the unfair criticisms of his work that mistakenly conflate the sexism of Jake and Bigger with Wright's own stance. On the contrary, it is one of Wright's major achievements to write incisively (whether wholly consciously or not) of the social and psychological disorder of (black) working-class men, of his own experience as a Southern-raised boy who reaches manhood in Chicago. In this way he was able to explore why the impossible, "childish" politics of the black nationalists ("How 'Bigger'" 520; Black Boy 337) appeals to otherwise grown men. Indeed, Wright's Depression Era work shows that there is no going back to a "folk" way of life. More importantly, there is no going forward to a black nation-state for these twentieth-century black men: In spite of socio-psychological neurotic desires created by American racism, black male identities are too complex for any kind of exclusive "black" identity/nation.
The question we are left with is this: Why do the novels not represent Wright's alternative to the neurotic and reactionary protagonists - e.g., black Communists?(8) Instead of assuming some grand anti-Communist narrative that informs his urban fiction years before his actual break with the CP, I think it is more instructive to see how Wright's urban fiction (particularly Native Son) is concerned with representing the "working through" of infantile desires and black nationalist fantasies. In this sense, Max can be read as a figure for the analyst, who provides the opportunity for Bigger to talk and to think his way through the feelings that he had previously and murderously discharged. Through his exchanges with Max, Bigger comes a long way, for he finally is able to see others as human beings; that is, he projects less by the novel's end. Certainly, by perceiving Max as a father figure (which Max encourages by constantly referring to Bigger as "son"), Bigger's transference continues through to the last page. But even here Max as father figure suggests Bigger's psychological and political development: Unlike the punishing father/fuhrer figure who contributes to his omnipotent fantasies, the nurturing Max teaches Bigger how to think about his feelings and actions; and, more importantly, he teaches the hard lesson of the reality principle concerning the slow process of collective social change. The premature termination of the "therapy" for Bigger - the death sentence - does not affect the social work of the novel, since, in the last analysis, what is at stake is that the reader continues thinking through his own potentially destructive emotions and ideas - presuming that Bigger's psyche is not all that unique, as Wright claimed in "How 'Bigger' Was Born." Or to presume a female reader or one without such psychological issues, the end of the novel would prompt further reflection on how an unresolved social and (racialized) Oedipal struggle for men contributes to sexism and makes working-class men susceptible to the call of nationalism. In either case, the reader comes away with a better sense of the interrelatedness of the oppressive social system and neurosis. Ironically, then, in Wright's urban fiction, the path to socialism involves retracing the hazardous, regressive road that leads to fascism. The novel ends where revolutionary action may begin.
The central place where Wright reserved his depictions of a desirable alternative to Jake and Bigger are the articles he published in the Daily Worker between 1937 and 1938. One could cite the many articles he wrote on progressive black leaders such as James Ford, A. Philip Randolph, and Louise Thompson; the unknown black working-class people who fought for better lives in their neighborhoods and communities (most of whom, Wright reports, were women!); or those who fought in Spain with the Loyalists against the fascists. These articles compose part of a larger panorama of black leaders to be emulated in various ways (including Frederick Douglas, Nat Turner, and Angelo Herndon) written about by contributors to the Daily Worker. Lawd Today! and Native Son need to be (re)placed next to these articles, for in them we find black men and women who have subjectively beat racism enough to struggle for an end to the racist society. Wright reports about black workers and leaders who have overcome the racist "Manichean concept of the world" (Fanon 44-45) and do not conceptualize liberation in terms of color: Present struggles and the desired future society of socialism are not driven by the desires to be white, or black slave or boss, or boy or father. For Wright, the thirties' Communists' ideal of socialism, as well as the very struggle for the ideal - a social order without sexism, classes, and racism - provides a channel for, and ultimate solution to, the kinds of emotions and desires of Jake and Bigger. He reports of black men and women who, in conjunction with white workers and Communists, actively worked to change themselves by changing their circumstances. As many events of the 1930s suggest, through multi-racial praxis, workers were able substantially to defeat the debilitating racist preconceptions that function to keep people separate and unequal.
Native Son illustrates this point somewhat, since both Bigger and Jan are forced to give up their faulty perceptions of each other only by struggling together. After having met with Jan and directly after one of his "sessions" with Max, Bigger reflects that, "if that white looming mountain of hate were not a mountain at all, but people, people like himself, and like Jan - then he was faced with a high hope the like of which he had never thought could be . . ." (418). The hypothesis about the "white looming mountain" seems borne out, since Bigger's last request in the novel divests Jan of his putative "master" status: "'Tell Mister . . . Tell Jan hello . . .'" (502). Bigger has learned to work through his fantasy only by confronting reality or, rather, by having reality confront him when flight is no longer an option.
In the end it is a young black man named Edward Strong Wright had in mind when he did "fictionally" write of a black Communist in "Bright and Morning Star." Strong, who Wright interviewed for one of his Daily Worker articles, was the executive secretary of the Communist-organized Southern Negro Youth Congress, which fought for jobs for black youth and civil rights, and against war and fascism ("Negro Youth" 3). Both a consequence and a cause of a new progressive and militant subjectivity in the Southern heartland of racism during the Great Depression, Strong beat one of the greatest odds in America, by fighting actively with black and white workers against racist oppression internationally. We know that Wright was so impressed with Strong that not only did he write an article on him, but he also used his words for his epigraph to Uncle Tom's Children. "Uncle Torn is dead," declared Strong, precisely because black men and women have taken "their destiny into their own hands" and, more importantly, "are breaking down the wall between the two races" (3). Thus, one of the greatest but least discussed truths of Wright's Depression Era work - a truth perhaps worth more than scores of tracts against racism - is that the dialectical overcoming of racism (and its complex psychological consequences) occurs through the repetition of multi-racial action against the social system founded on racism and slavery.
1. Stalin defined a nation as "a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture" (8). The CP's Black Nation Thesis maintained that black Americans in the Black Belt constituted an oppressed nation within the American nation and had the right to national self-determination. For discussions of the Communists' position on the "Negro Question" and the Black Nation Thesis, see Allen, Foley, and Haywood. Also, when Wright wrote of black nationalism in "A Blueprint for Negro Writing," he was, strictly speaking, referring to cultural nationalism, since, among other things, cultural nationalism is without a political program or the ultimate goal of creating a national state.
2. Another Daily Worker article of Wright's particularly notable in this regard is one he wrote about Spanish Harlem women who actively belonged to the La Pasionaria Branch of the CPUSA. He writes approvingly that "these women, descendants and relatives of forebears who kept them firmly relegated to the home, have leapt in the span of one short year from the kitchen into the arena of international politics" ("Harlem Spanish Women" 5).
3. Big Boy from "Big Boy Leaves Home," Mann from "Down By the Riverside," Silas from "Long Black Song," and Aunt Sue from "Bright and Morning Star" are cultural nationalists by definition, although the events surrounding Johnny-Boy's political work and "arrest" move Aunt Sue Left. Those characters in Uncle Tom's Children whose cultural nationalism is weakest are precisely those who have been most influenced by modernity and the ideologies of modernity, such as Marxism. The Communist-influenced Taylor from "Fire and Cloud" and (of course) Johnny-Boy from "Bright and Morning Star" are not purely cultural nationalists. Certainly Reverend Taylor and his followers are situated in a highly religious folk tradition, yet Taylor is able to unite and fight with white workers for economic relief. At one point Taylor exclaims, "'Lawd knows, mabbe them Reds is right!'" (157).
4. While Wright really doesn't explore black female urban subjectivity in any depth, the women he does create tend to be conservative or "traditional" believers in the system of religious values they inherited from the South or their Southern mothers. In fact, black women, and particularly black mothers, tend to be the repositories for cultural nationalism in Wright's mind. He writes in 12 Million Black Voices that black mothers are receptacles of "folk wisdom" (37) and that their consciousness "lies beyond the boundaries of the modern world" (135). As Baker suggests, the black woman in Wright's vision uncritically "remains an ahistorical remnant of folk culture" (213). Bigger's mother is an icon for the cultural nationalist woman who is closely tied to the "old-time" religion of Reverend Hammond. While Vera and Bessie from Native Son and Lil from Lawd Today! are not so steeped in religion as is Bigger's mother, they are not represented as being in ideological crisis. Bessie, we read, is like Bigger's mother because (as far as Bigger is concerned) she passively accepts her oppression (278).
5. Of course, the desire to project "weakness" onto black men truly betrays the white-male working-class racist's own sense of social powerlessness under capitalism; the sense of powerlessness is disowned and often destroyed in an attempt to feel more strong - gendered as "manly" - than one feels.
6. For an extended analysis of the kinds of infantile mental processes found in Bigger, see Klein's "Our Adult World and Its Roots in Infancy."
7. The desire to dominate women in Lawd Today! is also apparent in the scene in which Jake and his friends are stimulated by looking at pornography depicting a woman subjected to a man who "rid[es] her like a stallion" (186). Jake also tells his friends: "'I'd like to horsewhip every black cunt who so much as looks at a white man'" (140).
8. The minor character of the Communist Duke in Lawd Today! only functions as another occasion for the reader to witness Jake's conservatism.
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Haywood, Harry. "The Theoretical Defenders of White Chauvinism in the Labor Movement." The Communist Position on the Negro Question. New York: Workers Library, ca. 1935. 29-40.
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Klein, Melanie. "Love, Guilt and Reparation." 1937. Love, Hate and Reparation. New York: Norton, 1964. 57-119.
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-----. "Born A Slave, She Recruits 5 Members For Communist Party." Daily Worker 30 Aug. 1937: 3.
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-----. "Negro Writers Launch Literary Quarterly." Daily Worker 8 June 1937: 7.
-----. "Negro Youth On March, Says Leader." Daily Worker 7 Oct. 1937: 3.
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Anthony Dawahare is Assistant Professor of English at California State University, Northridge, and has published articles on the Depression Era writings of Langston Hughes, Tillie Olsen, and Meridel Le Sueur. Currently, he is writing a book on the impact of nationalism and internationalism on interwar African American literature.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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