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Racial oppression and alienation in Richard Wright's "Down by the Riverside" and "Long Black Song."

Much of Wright's fiction has generally been regarded as existential rather than naturalistic. It is a well-established fact that Wright lived and wrote The Outsider, the most existential of his novels, in France, where he maintained close contact with such influential writers as Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir.(1) More recently, critics have demonstrated Camus's influences on Wright in his conception of Cross Damon. Upon closer examination of Wright's The Outsider and Camus's The Stranger, however, one would recognize some of the fundamental differences between them in the treatment of the metaphysical rebel.(2) Moreover, "Down by the Riverside" and "Long Black Song," the two earliest stories Wright had written before he came in contact with French existentialist writers, suggest that his treatment of the protagonist in each of the stories is indeed existential. But the two stories also show that the protagonist's philosophy has directly resulted from the racial oppression rampant in the South, a social phenomenon which Wright treats quite uniquely.

"Down by the Riverside" (previously unpublished), the second short story in the 1938 and 1940 editions of Uncle Tom's Children, dramatizes the tragic death of a black man, Brother Mann, who uses a stolen boat during a Mississippi flood to take his pregnant wife to a hospital for the child's delivery. On the way to the hospital, Mann is discovered by the owner of the boat, a white man, who tries to shoot him, but Mann, in self-defense, kills the owner. When Mann reaches the hospital, he finds his wife dead. Later he is drafted by the military men in charge of rescuing flood victims. The first house to which he is sent, with a black companion, both of them on another boat, happens to be that of the owner of the stolen boat, whose family recognizes Mann. Although he considers killing them, their house suddenly tilts, the axe in his hand does not fall over their heads, and he ends up rescuing them. Once the boat safely reaches the hill, they tell the authorities that Mann is a murderer. As he flees down the riverside, he is shot to death.

Like "The Man Who Saw the Flood,"(3) "Down by the Riverside" is a flood story based on Wright's experiences with floods in Mississippi. Both stories, written in the thirties, reflect the hard times black farmers faced in the South. "The Man Who Saw the Flood" portrays a family of three stranded by a flood and then threatened by a white store owner because of their overdue debt. Although "Down by the Riverside, like "The Man Who Saw the Flood," is concerned with an economic issue, Wright's main focus is on the racial oppression black people faced in a Southern community dominated by white people. From one point of view, "Down by the Riverside," in contrast to "Big Boy Leaves Home," seems to suggest the futility of a man's struggling against chance and fate, which undermine his perseverance and will to survive. From another point of view, however, this story serves as an indictment against Southern racism: man is not merely a victim of chance and fate; man is a victim of racial prejudice. On the surface, the story seems to indicate that Brother Mann, his wife, Lulu, and the unborn child all die because of the flood, a natural disaster. But the plot, as structured, ironically suggests that, were Brother Mann treated as one's brother and as a man, they all would not have died.

White racism in the South, the culprit in their tragedy, is sketched out in "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow." In an episode of the sketch, Wright tells of an incident in which, while delivering packages, he had a flat tire on his bicycle. White men drove by and offered to take him and the bicycle along by his clutching it with one hand and clinging to the side of the car with the other. The men were drinking and offered him the flask, but he declined, saying, "Oh, no!" He was immediately hit between the eyes with an empty whiskey bottle and "fell backwards from the speeding car into the dust of the road, my feet becoming entangled in the steel spokes of my bicycle." Quite amused, the men came out of the car and stood over him; the man who had hit him asked: "Nigger, ain' yuh learned no better sense'n tha' yet? . . . Ain' yuh learned t' say sir t' a white man yet?" Dazed, with his elbows and legs bleeding, Wright tried to stand up, but the attacker doubled his fists and kicked the bicycle out of the way. Another man said, "Aw, leave the bastard alone. He's got enough," and asked Wright with contempt, "Yuh wanna ride t' town now, nigger? Yuh reckon yuh know enough t' ride now?" In a rebellious mood, Wright said, "I wanna walk." Once again amused, they laughed and said: "Well, walk, yuh black son-of-a-bitch!" As they were leaving the scene, they "comforted" him by saying: "Nigger, yuh sho better be damn glad it wuz us yuh talked t' tha' way. Yuh're a lucky bastard, |cause if yuh'd said tha't' somebody else, yuh might've been a dead nigger now."(4) The behavior of these men replicates a slave owner's condescending attitude and mentality. A black man, still regarded as a slave, could not even decline a white man's offer; if he did, he still had to thank him and respect him for it. When the young Wright declined the offer of a drink, he was no doubt aware that it was dangerous to be intoxicated behind the wheel and that, if found out, he would lose his job. Moreover, he might have felt he had no obligation to join in evil-doing however entertaining it was to the white men. They behaved as though he were their slave and should entertain them - as if, regardless of the situation and no matter how despicable a white man might be, a black man was always inferior to a white man.

In another episode included in "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," Wright describes an incident in which he was riding his bicycle back to the store after making some deliveries in a white neighborhood late one Saturday night. Suddenly a police car forced him to the curb and the two policemen ordered him to get down and put up his hands. Then they got out of the car, guns drawn and faces set. Ordering him to keep still, they searched his pockets and packages. Finding nothing suspicious or incriminating, one of them told him: "Boy, tell your boss not to send you out in white neighborhoods after sundown." Wright introduces this episode with this remark: "Negroes who have lived South know the dread of being caught alone upon the streets in white neighborhoods after the sun has set. In such a simple situation as this the plight of the Negro in America is graphically symbolized." While white visitors may walk through these neighborhoods unnoticed, Wright said, the color of a black man's skin makes him suspect and "converts him into a defenseless target" (pp. 10-11). A black man, still regarded as a servant, or an entertainer, may work for white people during the day, but in the evening, and on Saturday night in particular, when white people socialize among themselves, he does not belong in that world.

In "Down by the Riverside," the way the plot is constructed helps the narrative to make a point. The story contains some obvious coincidences, which are necessary for the issue it addresses, though some critics regard them as contrivances that undermine credibility.(5) The plot at the outset reveals the fact that every white man in the community who owns a boat refuses to sell or loan it to Mann. The stolen boat, as Mann and the reader later learn, happens to belong to the postmaster Heartfield. However, the white man's refusal to help Brother Mann take his pregnant wife to the hospital and the necessity and urgency for Mann's brother to steal the boat have a cause-and-effect relationship. Not only is a white man like Bowman, a plantation owner, who-declined to exchange Mann's old mule for a boat, or like another white man who wants as much as a hundred dollars for it, greedy, but also a white man like Heartfield is a confirmed bigot who, as Mann's brother Bob says, "hates niggers." Even though Grannie would have urged Bob not to commit a sin by "stealin them white folks boats in times like these," Wright's argument follows that Brother Bob was forced to "borrow" the boat because the lives of his sister-in-law and the child yet to be born were at stake (p. 59).

By the time the boat reaches the hospital, both the mother and child are dead. His grief and despair notwithstanding, Mann is sent down on another boat with another black man to rescue white citizens stranded in the flood rather than sent up the hills for his own safety. Those Mann rescues happen to be Heartfield's wife and children. Although this appears coincidental, the two events are inevitably connected. While the town authorities are hesitant to let, as the general says, "too many niggers [handle] these boats," they have to employ Mann to drive the boat (p. 83). Mann wishes to decline to handle it, but another black man, young Brinkley, who has already been working with the officials, is eager to volunteer and joins the rescue mission. In front of a fellow black man with good will, as well as under the white authorities, Mann cannot find himself shirking his duty.

Another coincidence, which leads to Mann's capture and execution, occurs in Mann's encounter with Mrs. Heartfield and her children when the sudden tilting of the house leads to his rescuing them as he is about to hack them with an axe. But Wright has been at pains to show, ever since Mann's murder of Heartfield in self-defense, that Mann has willfully avoided a chance to encounter Heartfield's wife and children. Tracy Webb interprets this added burden of the deaths as what covers Mann "with a cold numbness. This lack of emotion enables Mann to do as the Whites demand, even to the extent of rescuing, not killing, the remaining Heartfields."(6) In any event, his will to survive is negated by the white authorities who reject his testimony that Heartfield attempted to kill Mann before Mann killed him. The trial in this story is a parody of swift military justice, and at no point does Wright indicate that the procedures of providing a defense lawyer and witnesses for the accused were operative. Despite the social forces that deny his existence, Mann refuses to succumb till the end: "Ahll die fo they kill me! Ahll die . . ." (p. 102). In defiance of death, Mann has achieved his manhood as a free man.

The plot of "Long Black Song" is less complicated than that of "Down by the Riverside."(7) A white phonograph salesman seduces a black farmer's wife, Sarah, while her husband, Silas, is away during the day. When Silas returns home, he discovers her infidelity and fumes over it. Next day the salesman comes back, with another white man waiting in the car. Sarah leaves the house because she does not want Silas to "whip her as she had seen him whip a horse" (p. 119). Silas then exchanges gunfire with the men, killing one of them. Later white lynchers arrive and set fire to the house with Silas inside. The narrative is told from Sarah's point of view. On the one hand, Sarah, unconcerned with the materialistic strivings of men, is trying to recapture the memories of a past love; on the other, Silas is trying to realize his dream of owning a farm like a white man. Both dreams, however, come to naught in the face of a caste system that allows for the exploitation of others. The success of the story lies in the noble victory of Silas, who realizes at his death that his wife's disloyalty to him has been permitted by the white bourgeois code to which he had so easily acquiesced. When white men sexually exploited black women other than his own wife, Silas did not think about it seriously.

The success of the narrative also stems from the way in which Wright contrasts and compares two seemingly different points of view. From Silas's point of view at death, a black farmer falls victim to white racism as much as Brother Mann becomes the object of racial hatred and prejudice. Even though Silas has diligently worked all these years in competition with white farmers, he has been unaware until his death that he has merely imitated the white farmer who believes in the system of exploiting the poor and the oppressed.(8) Only after his wife commits adultery does Wright make Silas return home and proudly tell her the good news that he has succeeded in selling cotton for $250, with which he now can buy more land and hire a farm hand like a white farmer: "Ah bought ten mo acres o lan. Got em from ol man Burgess. Paid im a hundred n fifty dollars down" (p. 115).(9)

Silas's rage over Sarah's infidelity, which is understandable, now arouses his pent-up feelings against the white world. After killing one of the white men in revenge, Silas stands over the dead body and talks, as Wright says, "out of his life": "The white folks ain never gimme a chance! They ain never give no black man a chance! There ain nothin in yo whole life yuh kin keep from em! They take yo lan! They take yo freedom! They take yo women! N then they take yo life!" Silas then turns to Sarah and screams: "N then Ah gits stabbed in the back by mah own blood! When mah eyes is on the white folks to keep em from killin me, mah own blood trips me up!"(10) By narrating the tragedy from Silas's point of view, Wright succeeds in making the two themes, socio-economic oppression and sexual exploitation, intensify each other. This double vision, in turn, makes Silas as defiant at his death as it does Mann. Silas cries out in despair as though he has become a nihilist: "But, Lawd, Ah don wanna be this way! I don mean nothin! Yuh die ef yuh fight! Yuh die ef yuh don fight! Either way yuh die n it don mean nothin . . ." (p. 125).

From Silas's point of view "Long Black Song" has a thematic resemblance to "Down by the Riverside," but from Sarah's this story is structurally quite different from the other. "Long Black Song" opens with a lullaby Sarah is singing to her baby, an action that induces her to dream of Tom, her lover, whom she might have married had he not gone to war. She blames the war for her plight, a sentiment that characterizes her nature as the story unfolds: "Nothing good could come from men going miles across the sea to fight. N how come they wanna kill each other? How come they wanna make blood? Killing was not what men ought to do." In the dream Tom appears with "his big black smiling face." She remembers how he used to make love to her: "Against the plush sky she saw . . . Tom walking in his overalls and she was with Tom and he had his arm about her waist. She remembered how weak she had felt feeling his fingers sinking into the flesh of her hips. Her knees had trembled and she had had a hard time trying to stand up and not just sink right there to the ground" (p. 105).

Transported with such a fantasy, she finds it impossible to separate the image of Tom from the sudden appearance of the white salesman who tries to sell a phonograph at a discount and asks for a drink of water. Still remaining in her dream and now listening to the music played by the phonograph, she is willingly seduced by the salesman. During their love-making she continues to stay in the dream: "A liquid metal covered her and she rode on the curve of white bright days and dark black nights and the surge of the long gladness of summer and the ebb of the deep dream of sleep in winter till a high red wave of hotness drowned her in a deluge of silver and blue and boiled her blood and blistered her flesh bangbangbang . . ." (p. I 1 3). "Long Black Song" indeed has one of the most lyrical passages in American literature, and Wright's portrayal of Sarah's longing for love is reminiscent of the undulant prose in which Gertrude Stein delineates Melanctha's highly abstract emotions in Three Lives.

Such imagery and rhythm as Wright creates for his heroine account for her vision of the world and her concept of life. From her point of view, people should spend their lives in peace and harmony as in nature. When she waited for Silas, who had gone to work in the white world, she only saw "green fields wrapped in the thickening gloom. It was as if they had left the earth, those fields, and were floating slowly skyward . . . And far away, in front of her, earth and sky met in a soft smooth shadow." This world is not meant for the social and economic battle in which Silas is involved. When she dreamed of Tom, who had gone to war, she also saw only "a white bright day and a green cornfield" against the plush sky (p. 105). This world is not meant for men like Tom to kill, and be killed by, other men. To Silas she is an adulteress as, to Chillingworth, Hester was an adulteress, but Sarah has long been neglected and unloved by her husband just as Hester had been. Observing nature, Sarah instinctively realizes that materialism and racism have no roles in love. As she sees harmony between "white bright days and the desire of dark black nights," she can only envision tenderness and love between man and woman, peace and cooperation between black and white people. She felt that "men, black men and white men, land and houses, green cornfields and grey skies, gladness and dreams, were all a part of that which made life good. Yes, somehow, they were linked, like the spokes in a spinning wheel" (p. 126).

The success of this story also comes from the tensions created between the two points of view in opposition. Silas's world view is pessimistic and akin to a kind of nihilism which was in vogue among French existentialists such as Camus and Sartre. Sarah's, on the other hand, is optimistic and reminiscent of a version of transcendentalism and pantheism expressed in Whitman's "Song of Myself." However divergent the two points of view may appear as the story is told, there emerges an area of vision shared by both points of view. The plot reveals that while Silas gains property in the fields, he loses his wife, what he considers his most important property, at home. Ironically, his wife's infidelity makes him see that what is most important in life is not money but love, a view both characters come to share. Even though Silas chooses to die in protest against racism, whether it is in social or sexual relationships, the stand against racism becomes a vision both share.

In sum, both Mann and Silas are uneducated and unread individuals, unlike Cross Damon, an existential hero in The Outsider. But both, unlike Big Boy, a naive and innocent protagonist in "Big Boy Leaves Home," are keenly aware that the Jim Crow conditions in the deep South have been the cause of their alienation. Mann and Silas, therefore, revolt against this racial oppression in their fight for survival. In each story, only his final act, a defiant suicide, similar in form and purpose, enables the hero to define his own existence and achieve a personal sense of justice and freedom.

(1) In "Richard Wright, French Existentialism, and The Outsider" (in Critical Essays on Richard Wright, ed. Yoshinobu Hakutani [Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982]), Michel Fabre specifically indicates that Wright's composition of The Outsider" was influenced in subtle ways by his reading of The Stranger in August 1947. He read the book in the American edition at a very slow pace, |weighing each sentence,' admiring |its damn good narrative prose,' and remarked:

It is a neat job but devoid of passion. He makes his point with dispatch and his prose is solid and good. In America a book like this would not attract much attention for it would be said that he lacks feeling. He does however draw his character very well. What is of course really interesting in this book is the use of fiction to express a philosophical point of view. That he does with case. I now want to read his other stuff. (p. 191) (2) I have argued, for instance, that although "Damon professes to be a nihilist, as does Meursault, he is never indifferent to human existence as is Meursault. Camus's hero is called a stranger to society as well as to himself; he is indifferent to friendship, marriage, love, success, freedom" (p. 378). See Yoshinobu Hakutani, "Richard Wright's The Outsider and Albert Camus's The Stranger," Mississippi Quarterly, 42 (1989), 365-378. (3) Richard Wright, "The Man Who Saw the Flood, "Eight Men (Cleveland & New York: World, 1961), pp. 110-116. The original version of this short story first appeared as "Silt" in New Masses, No. 24 (August 24, 1937), 19-20. (4) Richard Wright, "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," in Uncle Tom's Children (New York: Harper & Row, 1940), pp. 9-10. (5) Edward Margolies does not consider "Down by the Riverside" as nearly successful as "Big Boy Leaves Home," for "the plot becomes too contrived; coincidence is piled upon coincidence, and the inevitability of his protagonist's doom does not ring quite true" ("The Short Stories: Uncle Tom's Children; Eight Men," in Critical Essays on Richard Wright, ed. Yoshinobu Hakutani [Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982], p. 132). Margolies's essay was first published in his book, The Art of Richard Wright (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), pp. 57-89. Robert Felgar also notes: "All readers of |Down by the Riverside' have noticed a most conspicuous coincidence in Wright's arrangement of the narrative" (Richard Wright [Boston: Twayne, 19801, p. 68). (6) "The Role of Water Imagery in Uncle Tom's Children," Modern Fiction Studies, 34 (1988), 10. (7) "Long Black Song," like "Down by the Riverside," was also previously unpublished. (8) P. Jay Delmar, comparing "Long Black Song" to Charles W. Chesnutt's "The Web of Circumstance," notes: both stories "share the view that a Black man's attempt to participate fully in the white economic system might very well lead to tragedy." Both Wright and Chesnutt, Delmar believes, are suggesting that "political power must precede economic power if either is to be secure against the jealousies of those already entrenched in society. Wright, for a time at least, believed that Marxist unity would provide the necessary ingredient for Black success, that |lan' is not so important as organization" ("Charles W. Chesnutt's |The Web of Circumstance' and Richard Wright's "Long Black Song'," Studies in Short Fiction, 17 [1980], 178-179). In "Long Black Song," however, Wright is not concerned with what Delmar calls "Marxist unity," with which Wright does deal in the last two stories in Uncle Tom's Children, "Fire and Cloud" and "Bright and Morning Star." (9) Burgess, the white landowner Silas refers to, is also the name of the store owner in "The Man Who Saw the Food." (10) In Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius (New York: Warner, 1988), Margaret Walker observes: "Not only is the story a violent and tragic piece, as the first two are, rooted in southern race hatred and sexual warfare, it foreshadows Wright's negative treatment of all women, particularly black women" (pp. 117-118). I agree with Walker that Wright disparages black women characters elsewhere in his fiction. Sarah's infidelity, however, does not result from her weakness of character, but serves in this story as a reminder that white men's sexual exploitation of black women is condoned in white society.
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Author:Hakutani, Yoshinobu
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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