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Richard Wright and Racial Discourse.

Yoshinobu Hakutani. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1996. 334 pp. $34.95.

Universita di Roma "La Sapienza"

Yoshinobu Hakutani's Richard Wright and Racial Discourse is a new swing of the pendulum in Richard Wright criticism. For several decades, Wright's work was evaluated mainly in terms of its message and of its sociological credibility. Only since the 1980s, as Hakutani documents in his "Introduction," has there been a recognition of Wright's artistry, as well as a re-reading of his message in less pessimistic, more life-affirming terms. On the basis of this renewed background, Hakutani goes back to the texts in terms of thematic criticism, the history of ideas, and genre analysis in order to reconstruct what he calls Wright's "racial discourse."

Genre analysis is the key that opens the reading of the first part of the Richard Wright canon. Through comparative readings with Dreiser, Mark Twain, Dostoyevski, and Camus, Hakutani outlines Wright's originality, showing that his work can at no point be subsumed entirely under the categories of naturalism first and existentialism later (let alone Marxism, an influence all along but never a uniform). Wright's handling of symbolism and his affirmation of the individual distinguished his work from the more deterministic aspects of naturalism, while his concern with the meaning of historical forces and developments sets him apart from the more radical forms of existentialism.

This approach frames the second part of the book, which is perhaps the most extended analysis of Wright's non-fictional work, from his travel books on Africa, Asia, and Spain to his discovery of haiku and a new attitude toward nature in his final years. The chapter on haiku, buttressed by a first-hand knowledge of Wright's Japanese models, is one of the book's more original contributions.

While in many ways illuminating, this approach does tend once again to leave Wright's work on language somewhat in the background. For instance, the discussion of Lawd Today is a significant contribution that restores this text to its foundational role in the chronological order of Wright's work; as such, it would have been further enriched by a consideration of Wright's representation of Black English in the context of a modernistic literary experiment. (While I am at it, the re-inclusion of Lawd Today is ironically compensated for by the continuing exclusion of another of Wright's experiments, Savage Holiday, no less relevant to racial discourse for being about another race.)

The gist of the book, however, remains the analysis of Wright's "racial discourse." While Hakutani does not define this concept explicitly, his meaning is clear: the exploration of the ways in which the specific experience of black people in America, both in the rural South and the urban North, impinges on the possibility and on the form of the construction of individual identity. In other words, racial discourse is the exploration of the weight of collective oppression on individual freedom, external and - more importantly - internal.

In a key passage of the book, discussing Baldwin's criticism of Wright, Hakutani writes: "The central issue, however, is whether such human traits as tenderness, love, honor, and loyalty are innate in the African American tradition, as Baldwin believed, or are fostered, won, struggled, and suffered for, as Wright believed." It is a brilliant formulation, because it allows us to perceive the search that unifies Wright's early statement of the "bleakness" of Southern black life with his later interrogation of the dialectics of tradition and liberation in Africa where, as Hakutani notes, "while [Wright] admired close relationships that buttressed the Ashanti family and tribe, he was troubled by the denial of individualism."

This, of course, is the problematic crux of Wright's work: the attempt, and ultimate failure, to envisage an individual freedom in terms other than the ideology of individualism. We ought perhaps to make a distinction between individualism and individuality - the former leading to the values of a self-centered competitiveness (which, ultimately, was the rationale of Du Bois's excessive but symptomatic criticism of Black Boy), the latter to the values of difference and critical self-awareness. By adding that "all his life he believed in the twin values of American life: individualism and freedom," Hakutani underlines the association of individual freedom with liberal capitalism that, no matter how much he tried to turn away, was to haunt Wright's thinking after his break with Marxism.

Indeed, perhaps unwittingly, The Outsider - Wright's most extended interrogation of this dilemma - winds up reading very much like an allegory of a contemporary history in which American individualism defeats first the Fascists (in World War II) and then the Communists (in the Cold War, at the height of which the novel was written). In fact, while Cross Damon asserts his individualism by killing a Fascist and two Communists, he never feels that he has to kill a liberal - Democrat or Republican - in order to create himself; and yet, it was not the Fascists or the Communists who held power in the America from which Richard Wright had exiled himself.

Hakutani's extended and accurate comparison between Camus's The Stranger and Wright's The Outsider might thus be supplemented by placing them in historical, as well as philosophical, context. Hakutani skillfully shows how Wright's novel could not be entirely subsumed under the philosophy of existentialism, both because of the persistence of Wright's naturalistic approach to storytelling and because of his character's striving toward meaning, as opposed to Mersault's vision of the absurd. The fact is that, as a Western, European man, Mersault has already been through the individualism that Wright's character is trying to achieve; and has found it wanting.

Hakutani's insight - for Wright, human values had to be fought for, could not be taken for granted - describes what is both an historical and an existential experience. As the Italian ethnologist Ernesto de Martino (himself influenced by existentialism) was writing in those very years, the Western individual's assurance of being-in-the-world as a personal subject is the result of a specifically Western history, grafted on the background of a human sense of precariousness (Ellison's "invisibility" also comes to mind), the risk of losing one's "presence" in the face of what in "primitive" societies may be natural or supernatural forces, but which De Martino increasingly saw as the result of power relationships both in the colonial setting and in the heart of the West itself.

Hakutani's analysis indicates that the latter is the case in Wright's racial discourse: Racial and colonial oppression flattens black individual presence, and induces the black communities to suppress the individuality of their own members; individuality, therefore, must be wrested both from white oppression and from black subjugation. Mersault, on the other hand, is a citizen of a French state in which his individuality has been taken for granted at least since the time of Descartes; and yet, this historical privilege of Western man is finally revealed to be meaningless. One may find Cross Damon's "unfinished quest" more hopeful than Mersault's "indifference." The palpable confusion of The Outsider (revealed also in its linguistic and stylistic inconsistencies) is perhaps the result of Wright's (and Cross's) awareness that the individuality/individualism that has been denied them and must be striven for is already meaningless, and all the alternatives are denied. Thus, we cannot dismiss the fact that Cross's quest, like Bigger's process of self-discovery (and like the Invisible Man's deferred project to affirm the liberal principles on which America was founded), remains unfinished.

Echoing the consensus of recent Wright criticism and quoting from Wright's own journal, Hakutani concludes his chapter on "The City: Quest for Freedom" by saying: "Bigger and Cross have walked different avenues in the city, but in the end they have both been able to 'uphold the concept of what it means to be human' in America." Bigger is killed on the electric chair. Cross dies in confusion. Is that what it means?
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Portelli, Alessandro
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1999
Words:1299
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