Richard Wright as a Cold War Literary Journalist.
How should one then think of Wright's (re)turn to elements of journalism in his later writings? To what extent is that (re)turn enabling or enervating of Wright's post-racial vision; that is, linked to his efforts to rethink race in his later writings? More clearly, do Wright's journalistic forms--which he describes as objective, claiming that, "I'm not partisan. I'm objective" (Black Power 249)--help him to challenge or reproduce the set of beliefs that he purports to call into question (race, tradition, religion, totalitarianism, etc.)? Specifically, how should one read those journalistic forms against the backdrop of the Cold War?
These are the questions that this article aims to address through a close analysis of Wright's last four nonfictional texts. More specifically, I argue that one can better understand and call into question Wright's claim to objectivity by locating it within the Cold War context. While hounded by American government officials for his past communist experience, Wright continued to support Americanism in opposition to Stalinist socialism. For despite his claim that he has a "third ear" (White Man, Listen! 7) and "another and third point of view" (49)--objective and nonpartisan during the Cold War--Wright's attitude towards the "Other" from the "third" world, which manifests itself in an ostensibly objective aesthetic form, resonates with the discourses of American exceptionalism and Orientalism.
Anticipating the "New Journalism" of the 1960s and 1970s (Rowley 476), Wright's ostensibly objective aesthetic combines a conglomeration of styles (journalism and human sciences, especially sociology; all of which are embodied by the feature that would later be called literary journalism). Wright's "objective" aesthetic, I suggest, is predicated upon his retrieval of journalistic forms which he employed during his stint as a contributor to the Daily Worker and New Masses, during which time he exerted his "narrative authority"--to use William Dow's phrase (78)--over his African-American "subjects" or "masses." To enforce that narrative or interpretative authority, Wright employed pronominal strategies, dramatic forms, and the interview--the last of which he used as an interrogating technique.
Wright retrieved that authority and hegemony in his last-decade literary journalistic writings, where the "masses" were Asians and Africans substituting for the African-American residents of Harlem and Chicago. That hegemonic attitude was accompanied by a great cost and a compromise. While Wright jettisoned the Communist Party, he continued to resort to its mobilization tactics, namely, the earlier forms of literary journalism of his career. As a result, he unwittingly helped anticipate and lay the ground for the dominance of apparently objective literary journalism in the cultural Cold War, a contribution which consolidated US global ascendancy but which Wright regretted making towards the end of his life.
Excavating Wright's Literary Journalism
Most of Wright's critics, including African-American novelists like James Baldwin and Chester Himes, saw the four texts in question as evidence of his apparently declining talent. (4) They argued that his later writings proved that Wright's interest in other nations and peoples was accompanied by lower aesthetic standards. Thus, his "creative non-fiction"--along with any other fiction (The Outsider, The Long Dream, etc.)--that Wright wrote outside of the United States was dismissed as too polemical or beyond Wright's capacity as a fiction writer, primarily, they claimed, because of his turning to such philosophical schools as existentialism and to "races" other than his own. For example, Michel Fabre, an expert on, and biographer of, Wright, described his "creative non-fiction," "travelogues," or literary journalism, (5) as "merely good journalism" (415).
More recently, the aesthetic value of Wright's literary journalism began to be recognized. Paul Gilroy, who helped revive interest in Wright's later works, highlights the significance of his last-decade writings by suggesting that they constitute "an extended exercise in intercultural hermeneutics which has important effects upon Wright's theories of 'race,' modernity, identity, and their interrelation" (150). In other words, Gilroy sees in Wright's four books an opportunity through which one can observe his growing consciousness at work, a consciousness that revisits concepts such as race and modernity from a worldlier perspective. Another enthusiastic reader is Cedric Robinson, who wrote about Wright in his magisterial Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. In his Introduction to the Harper Perennial Edition of White Man, Listen!, Robinson writes that White Man, Listen!, as well as Wright's other literary journalistic texts
attest[s] to Wright's mastery of literary form and cultural substance--they [the essays in White Man, Listen!] are the appropriate rejoinder to those who have maintained that Wright's creative imagination, command of his craft, and discernment as a social interpreter dissipated with his exile from America, (xxiv)
According to Robinson, Wright was able to propose an alternative to a bipolar Cold War world (xxv).
While I am in agreement with Gilroy's and Robinson's positions on the aesthetic value of Wright's "creative non-fiction" books, their analyses do not touch upon the significance of Wright's turn to the form of literary journalism nor how that specific form impacted or shaped his "alternative" and "intercultural hermeneutics." More recently, two critics have helped fill that lacuna, namely, Earle V. Bryant and William Dow. Through invaluable archival work, Bryant compiled and edited most of Wright's articles that appeared in the Daily Worker--where he worked for seven months in Harlem in 1937--and New Masses (Bryant ix). Bryant rightly places emphasis on "Richard Wright the journalist, the cub reporter who conducted interviews, researched stories, edited copy, wrote articles, and even served as his newspaper's bureau chief' (ix). Wright produced numerous articles (amounting to two hundred) that ran the gamut from commentaries on Harlem (aspects of racism, gouging, chiseling, housing, milk hikes, the cultural scene, the theater in particular), the Spanish Civil War, African-American veterans, African-American heroes such as Joe Louis, to boycotts targeting Japanese products. It is no wonder that Wright described that profuse production--in a letter to Ralph Ellison--as "a hard, hard grind" (qtd. in Bryant 8). While Bryant brings to the fore Wright's early journalism, he dismisses its effect on his creative ability: "Wright's time as a newspaperman did not teach him anything about the nuts and bolts of fiction writing, it certainly gave him grist for the mill"; it was merely a "memory bank" (9).
In his groundbreaking "Unreading Modernism: Richard Wright's Literary Journalism," Dow discusses 12 Million Black Voices, Black Power, The Color Curtain, and Pagan Spain as works of literary journalism. Dow argues, "Wright's literary journalism employs ethnographic and scholarly research for polemical purposes in order to change existing social beliefs and perceptions" (75). Thus, Wright "repurposed traditional journalism," utilizing his "transnational modernism" and promoting change nationally and transnationally. Although Dow suggests that that early journalism "underlies" (76) much of Wright's later work, it remains--for him--a "vehicle" rather than a constitutive aspect of his literary journalism (82).
Bryant's and Dow's insights are helpful and generative. However, they both perceive Wright's early, or even late, journalism as a vehicle rather than a constitutive element of his repertory. In this article, I build on their work but extend it in two ways. First, I use a concrete historical frame, namely, the Cold War. Second, I bring journalistic forms front and center in my analysis. I suggest that Wright's use of literary journalism helps consolidate the genre as a Cold War cultural apparatus.
Literary journalism--according to Norman Sims, one of the first who studied the form--requires "immersion reporting, narrative techniques that free the voice of the writer, and high standards of accuracy," employing tools "shared with both fiction and ethnography" ("Introduction" 5) and crossing the borders of "overlapping cousin-genres--travel writing, memoir, ethnographic and historical essays, some fiction and even ambiguous semifiction stemming from real events" (Kramer 22). Mark Kramer claims that literary journalism "shoulders right on past official or bureaucratic explanations for things. It leaves quirks and self-deceptions, hypocrisies and graces intact and exposed; in fact, it uses them to deepen understanding" (23). Both Sims and Kramer emphasize the objectivity of the genre and its practitioners. Sims writes: "[LJiterary journalists [such as Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion] write narratives focused on everyday events that bring out the hidden patterns of community life as tellingly as the spectacular stories that make newspaper headlines" ("Introduction" 3). Kramer agrees: "Literary journalists write from a disengaged and mobile stance, from which they tell stories and also turn and address others directly" (31). It is clear that Sims and Kramer bring into focus the claim that literary journalism is objective. Notice the descriptive words employed to describe the genre: "high standards of accuracy," beyond "official or bureaucratic explanations for things," exposing "quirks and self-deceptions, hypocrisies and graces." The practitioners are "disengaged and mobile" and are able to "bring out the hidden patterns of community life."
Wright's and others' descriptions of his literary journalism fall in line with, or rather resemble, those of Sims and Kramer. For example, Ngwarsungu Chiwengo refers to Black Power as an "immersion narrative," a term that Sims describes as a key element of literary journalism (Chiwengo 44). Moreover, Wright presents the four books under the guise of objectivity. As previously cited, Wright asserts, "I'm not partisan. I'm objective" (Black Power 249). In his foreword to The Color Curtain, Gunnar Myrdal, (6) whom Wright describes as a man "gifted with a superb imagination" in White Man, Listen! (18), explains that the book is based on Wright's experiences as "a visiting stranger and a good reporter" (Black Power 433). Myrdal's description of Wright as "a good reporter" further establishes his ostensible objectivity, perhaps because Wright uses similar sociological methods as Myrdal's. In fact, Wright developed a questionnaire that he used in writing The Color Curtain. In the acknowledgements to White Man, Listen!, Wright thanks Dr. Otto Klineberg who "help[ed] me to devise a questionnaire with which I armed myself upon my first foray to grapple with the Asian personality. Needless to say, the interpretations which I drew from the results of that questionnaire are mine and are not to be laid at his door" (x).
Wright's approach is, as a result, undeniably a combination of journalism, anthropology, sociology, and literature--or what Sims calls "overlapping cousin-genres"--all of which fields reinforce his self-proclaimed objectivity and scientific attitude. (7) It will be recalled that that combination--Wright's and literary journalists' approaches--however, did not emerge in a vacuum. On the contrary, the genre's temporal location within the Cold War had to do with its emergence, dominance, and perhaps survival until this day.
The Cold War and the Myth of Objective Reporting
The Cold War was a definitive moment in the formation of the US as a dominant global power. As Mary L. Dudziak suggests, the Cold War was not only a context, but "a historical agent" in the history of the US (xviii). The political, diplomatic, and military aspects of that agent are very well documented and known. The magnitude of the cultural aspect of the war is not however as well documented and known. Nevertheless, archival work done recently has revealed some layers of that cultural aspect. In general, the cultural Cold War was painted by American Cold Warriors as a war between a superior, freedom-loving culture (the US) in opposition to an inferior, authoritarian one (the Soviet Union). To accord coherency to that juxtaposition, "Cold War discourse," as Nikhil Pal Singh puts it, "celebrated America's pluralism and political exceptionalism at home and tied them to a defense of 'West' and the 'free world' in the international arena" (163), promoting "a story of progress ... the triumph of good over evil, [and] ... US moral superiority" (Dudziak 13). That attempt at coherence swept under the carpet the connections between American hegemony and the production of racialized and colonized subjects and, in so doing, "subordinated [them] to a generalized anticommunism" (Singh 163), with "a very narrow space for criticism of the status quo" (Dudziak 13).
Journalism was a key component of the reinforcement of the underlying principles of the cultural Cold War. Objective reporting implicitly meant promoting American triumphalism and denigrating Soviet communism. News pieces that came from the Soviet Union were marked as "censored" by American diplomats (Fainberg 155). According to Piotr M. Szpunar, unlike American journalists, "the journalist in the Soviet system is [seen as]: a conduit for the state, one who cannot speak with any authority as an individual" (7). At the same time, there was a rise in a new form of reports: apparently unbiased reports that focused on the ordinary lives of Russians, underpinned ideologically by veiled criticisms of communism and the Soviet Union. Such reports were promoted as "historical-cultural analys[e]s ..., [and] anticommunism came to be equated with journalistic objectivity" (Fainberg 154). Dina Fainberg cites the example of Harrison E. Salisbury, who was a New York Times correspondent in Moscow. Using an "accessible style," Salisbury turned "to the cultural sphere, focusing on 'natural' factors such as history, psychology, and the national character" (163).
In such a polarized cultural--journalistic, in particular--sphere, "black leaders found themselves on the defensive" (Singh 165). Consequently, African-American writers and activists found it more and more difficult to see their plight using transnational terms, as they were afraid of being red-baited. They highlighted the alleged superiority of African-Americans to Africans and disconnected themselves from Africa (von Eschen 145). Penny von Eschen explains that the African-American coverage of the news that had to do with race, class, and colonialism was mostly presented through the prism of anti-Communism (145). In African-American journalistic accounts, "Racism at home was presented as fundamentally at odds with the 'American Creed'" (146).
Wright's writings mostly endorse both the form and, sometimes, the content of such an African-American conventional journalistic tradition during the Cold War. However, Wright adds his unique voice--which characterizes his literary journalism and enables him to establish an imagined community. (8) It is not difficult to recognize the constituents of that community. Wright obviously identifies himself as an American citizen, and as belonging to American culture in particular, and to the West more broadly. Given the context of the Cold War, Wright is more precisely anti-Soviet Union--despite his criticism of Western colonialism and slavery--rendering the West and the US the benchmarks of his imagined community. Wright's imagined group embraces the values of the West, to which he attaches the following attributes: rational, individualistic, civilized, progress-oriented, masculine, secular, citizen-based, Protestant, and seeing (or observing).
Imperial Pronominal Benchmarks: Double or Cold War Vision
Wright constructs his value-laden community through asserting his knowledge. He claims that he already knows much of what he needs to know, ignoring at times even what he sees. Such an attitude exemplifies Edward Said's conception of the textual attitude, which implies the creation of an "us"-vs.-"them" dichotomy--Dow calls it the "creation of 'we'" (64). Wright imbues the "us" group that he creates with the characteristics of his imagined community. More pertinently, he creates an all-seeing "we" endowed with power over masses of people in his literary journalism.
As might be expected, Wright's later literary journalism--the seeds of which can be found in his early journalistic pieces--and fiction thematically retrieve his early journalistic writings, and that is why Bryant calls them Wright's "memory bank." During his journalistic career, Wright finessed his early sociological methods, especially those of St. Clair Drake ("The Shame of Chicago" 28), as the Daily Worker "Shame Spot" piece attests, in which he claims that "Harlem is New York's shame spot" ("Opening of Harlem" 53). Using similar methods, Wright would refer to Chicago as "The Shame of Chicago" in his Ebony literary journalistic piece. He would even describe his own work on Pagan Spain in almost the same way that he described his journalism to Ellison: an "awful grind" (Rowley 475). (9)
What is less expected, or perhaps less visible, is Wright's reliance on his early journalistic pieces formally; that is, in a more constitutive manner. That reliance is clear in the strong presence of pronominal strategies that demarcate his group from any other group in his literary journalism. Wright uses "we" or other forms of it to form his community in his Daily Worker and New Masses pieces. On more than one occasion, he begins his sentences with, "Let's talk." Wright obviously wants the masses of his readers to embrace, or at least have access to, his ideological leanings.
In his literary journalism, Wright similarly employs the "we" purposefully to highlight his alliances and imagined community. In Spain, Wright meets Carlos, a secular Spaniard whom he describes as "a kind of scientist, using empirical methods to control the causes and effects of the external world" (Pagan Spain 37). Commenting on his first journey with Carlos, Wright tells us, "We stopped amidst a sea of dark-green trees between two and three feet high. We got out of the car" (36). One wonders why Wright insists on repeating the pronoun "we." It is apt to suggest that the repetition serves to include Carlos in Wright's constructed community.
Another pronominal form that Wright recovers from his 1930s journalism is "you." Generally, Wright uses it in his early features and news stories to involve and direct his readers--that is, his "masses." In "Opening of Harlem Project Homes Shows How Slums Can Be Wiped Out in New York," Wright tells readers, "If you want to go to the kitchen or bathroom, you have to walk through every other room in the house to get there" ("Opening of Harlem" 51). In a New Masses piece titled "High Tide in Harlem: Joe Louis as a Symbol of Freedom," Wright even addresses readers more directly: "Carry the dream on for yourself' (161). He also employs the same technique in a piece on the rise in milk prices ("A. L. P." 34).
In his later literary journalism, Wright puts the "you" to the same use: "Yes, you had to see it to believe it" (Pagan Spain 85) and "if you suspect that there is sin somewhere, you certainly have the right to seek it out" (121). The pronoun "you" in these examples is inviting and encompassing. However, the pronoun "you" assumes additional functions. It functions as a sort of warning--"Now, I say to you: Men of Europe, give that elite the tools and let it finish that job" (White Man, Listen! 69)--and as a rebuke--"Why don't you publicize your problem?" he asks Carlos (Pagan Spain 35). In his letter to Nkrumah, he uses "you" implicitly and explicitly to emphasize his narrative authority.
Another implication of his use of the vocative pronoun is that Wright produces himself as a direct persona but others as evasive and censoring. Hazel Rowley explains that he condemns "African evasiveness" in Black Power. (10) But that condemnation hinges upon his imposition of his "we" upon "them," Africans. She further explains:
He would ask questions--rather hostile questions that were the product of his Western assumptions--and the African would not be able to find the words to explain an entirely different reality, and would finally become impatient with the trap Wright seemed to be setting. Wright, irritated, would record the dialogue as yet another example of the African's "chronic distrust." (433)
Wright unquestionably espouses this pronominal frame of reference, which coincides with US imperial benchmarks. In so doing, he renders himself all-seeing, objective, and thus truth-telling.
On his last trip, Wright exercises his all-seeing power and establishes a triad, conflating Africa, Asia, and Spain by dint of rendering them the same and differentiating very little between countries and continents (Pagan Spain 165 and 187; Black Power 437). While being driven to the Bandung Conference, Wright observes--in The Color Curtain--the Indonesian landscape and tells us:
In many respects the Javanese countryside reminded me of Africa; there were those same stolid peasants squatting by the side of the roads and staring off into space; there were those same bare-breasted young women with somber-colored cloths--sarongs-rolled and tucked about their waists. (533) (11)
The whole passage can be summarized by the word "same." Wright lumps Asians, Africans, and Spaniards together. There are very few differences between them; one statement or paragraph can explain them all away. In their groundbreaking work on the Indonesian archives of Wright's attendance of Bandung, Brian Russell Roberts and Keith Foulcher point out the "bare-breasted young women" scene as one of a number of inaccuracies in Wright's text. They write that Wright "would not have seen" women dressed that way in Muslim Java (26), with its "mores of modesty" (12). (12)
Wright's vision, then, is blurry at best. Although he claims that he has a "double vision," (13) it is not very distinct from the American Cold War vision. His literary journalistic practice shows that he only saw the world in bipolar terms. Countries that are not in an alliance with the US are communistic and backward. Wright further essentializes the peoples of the latter groups, his new masses, in such phrases as "the African," "the Asian," "the African mentality," "the African personality," "the African mind," "the Asian personality," "the Asian mind," and so on; the peoples of those countries are all the same, and they should be conquered and civilized. Addressing Nkrumah in the last part of Black Power, Wright writes, "[T]here is too much cloudiness in the African's mentality" (410-11).
It is evident that Wright accepts the discourse of development circulated by the United States, which manifests itself in the Marshall Plan and President Harry S. Truman's 1947 speech to the Congress during the Cold War (Truman n. pag.). The implication is that those underdeveloped countries need to be transformed from "underdevelopment" (read lack of civilization, immaturity, childishness, ignorance, despotism, exoticism) into a state of "development" (civilization, maturity, adulthood, knowledge, democracy, familiarity).
Dialogue or Monologue: Wright's Interviews and Dramatizations
The transformational trope underpinning Wright's literary journalism again manifests itself in his use of pronominal strategies, especially in his "dialogues." When one looks at the evolution of Wright's pronominal forms and finds the two forms, "we" and "you" combined in a number of pieces--a combination, or rather play, that is evident in 12 Million Black Voices--one might get the impression that he is generating a kind of democratic experience through providing many dialogues. (14) To dramatize that democratic display, Wright proffers a dramatic form, which he again recycles from his newspaper articles.
Wright retrieves that dramatic form from two of his Daily Worker features. He begins the feature entitled "Mrs. Holmes and Daughters Drink from the Fountain of Communism" (194) with a list of the time, place, and a short dialogue between a mother and her daughter about a picture of Angelo Herndon, an African-American Communist organizer. Wright uses the same technique in a piece on Joe Louis's win over Max Schmeling. "How He Did It, and Oh--Where Were Hitler's Pagan Gods?" (164) is fronted by the time, scene, place, and characters involved in the bout. This technique resurfaces in White Man, Listen! (15) The fourth part of the book, "The Miracle of Nationalism in the African Gold Coast," starts with the scene as well as the characters, with quotations from the six people who played a key role in the decolonization of the Gold Coast/Ghana. Wright vividly stages a secular mass that reinforces freedom and democracy, as it were.
Nevertheless, the "interviews" that Wright conducts submerge that impression and transmute the dramatic display into monologic "interviews" whose tactics he derives from his early writings. In most of the pieces that he published in the Daily Worker, readers find the phrase "in an interview with the Daily Worker." Wright, a big believer in sociological methods, understood the interview as an empirical method through which to see and direct the masses. He would repeat the same questions again and again in order to extrapolate about his masses. For instance, he asks almost the same question to Harlem residents about the absence of turkey from their Thanksgiving tables ("Few Harlem Tables" 41-42).
Thus, at the same time that Wright apparently provides a stage for an interplay of voices, his voice prevails and his Cold War vision comes to the fore in his later literary journalism. His vision is mostly predicated on a discourse of Euro-American certainty, pseudo-privilege, and objectivity. Wright attributes objectivity to his form of interviewing to the extent that Pagan Spain itself juxtaposes other journalistic conventions with his own, quoting large portions from the Falangist catechism to highlight the differences. In his interviews, he usually comes across as a person endowed with knowledge. Wright's questions are transmuted into answers which are in turn culled from a hegemonic tradition. In those interviews, he leaves very little space for non-Westerners so that they can speak. Their voices are silenced, even when they try to describe their own reality. John M. Reilly rightly suggests that Wright "renders them flat" ("Richard Wright and the Art of Non-Fiction" 512).
In keeping with his Cold War vision, Wright lets books substitute for reality and the voices of people of color. Commenting on the relationships that organize the state for the Akan, that is, "the family and the universe," Wright explains:
The symbolic nature of these relationships have [sic] been rather well worked out in a book entitled The Sacred State of the Akan, by Eva L. R. Meyerowitz. ... Though some Ashanti intellectuals sneer at what this book has to say, it does fill a void when one tries to explain what meets the eye in the Gold Coast. (Black Power 401)
Wright thus privileges the book as an authentic witness over the voices of Ashanti intellectuals, whom he dismisses in a clause.
Wright silences African voices in clearer and stronger ways through ridiculing the way some Ghanaians speak English. He unabashedly describes the pidgin English spoken in Ghana as "a frightful kind of baby talk" (Black Power 234). Wright allocates another two pages to dissecting pidgin and easily dismisses it, simply because he does not understand it. He does not know whether this form of language is a pidgin or a Creole; nor does he show the complexities of its formation. He only provides us with those two pages without letting us know the class dynamics involved; he also thinks of that encounter as an opportunity for reinforcing his Cold War vision through emphasizing the discourse of development. Wright, we assume, does not even need to learn the language.
Neither does Wright feel the need to know Spanish. Yet he does not find any problem with describing Spanish culture. Compare that to his description of the French language, a language that he speaks. Wright explains: "French was spoken by some of the delegates from North Africa, but that precise and logical tongue, which was once the lingua franca of all such international conferences, was all but dead here" (Black Power 591). Unlike Pidgin, French is described as "precise and logical." In the quotation above, Wright expresses dismay at the declining power of French. Although he blames it on French policies in the colonies, he does not recognize its alternatives.
Wright does not see any alternative cultures either. Islam, for instance, is the religion of "Mohammedans," who are "the most backward elements of the population" (Black Power 365). He does not even go to the places where they live, and he meets one Muslim, a tour guide, to whom he does not talk about the religion. After talking to the tour guide, who speaks pidgin, Wright asks him if he is Christian. "He answers, 'I'se Moslem.'" Wright presses him further: '"And what about the Christian's God?' 'He all right, Massa,' the guard said, laughing. I 'dashed' him a few shillings and left. Outside, I gazed at the grim stone walls" (Black Power 407). Wright does not show any curiosity to know more about the religion, of which he has little, if any, knowledge. Wright has already made his judgment on Islam and Muslims, and the tour guide is not a subject worth engaging.
Even when he directly engages Muslims at Bandung, his engagement is dismissive at best. Despite his direct experience with Indonesians, most of whom are Muslims, he includes exchanges with very few ordinary Indonesians. His encounters with Indonesians mainly focus on leaders and the "subjects" of his questionnaire. The fourth "subject" that he interviews is a university student of political science. Wright insists on adding the following pieces of information about him. First, he is "a more typical and basic Asian" than the previous subjects. Second, he is a "full-blooded Indonesian" (Black Power 472). The two descriptive details reek of accusation. Wright uses the word "typical" to justify the sweeping generalizations that he makes after he reports on the interview. He also makes sure to distinguish that Indonesian by suggesting that he does not have any connection with the West. After interrogating him, for this is actually the apt term to describe the encounter, Wright tells us that the books and the encounter match. Wright claims: "What I had read in books, what I'd seen in the daily press told me that I had touched the real, contemporary Asian" (476).
But what Wright mentions after that statement provides the "context" that is consistent with anti-Soviet Union sentiment. He suggests: "He was totalitarian-minded, but without the buttress of modern Communist or Fascist ideology; he did not need any, for his totalitarian outlook was born of his religious convictions" (Black Power All). Wright's position is that of an arch-Orientalist. Wright does not seem to know the religion, and he measures any statements made about it against his prejudices. Islam--which he dismisses as an irrationalism--is not democratic, and anybody who embraces it is totalitarian by default. It is evident that his understanding of Islam stems from his Cold War vision, which assumes that any nation that is not a US ally is likely to be a totalitarian and communist one.
That vision enables Wright to use summaries, reported speech, and paraphrase. In White Man, Listen!, he writes: "[S]ince I've talked to all of the men and feel I know them, I think I can paraphrase what they said" (White Man, Listen! 114). Wright grants himself the right to talk on behalf of the Ghanaian leaders through paraphrase. Utilizing the same method, Wright describes a Protestant woman who has told him about her suffering: "The woman who told me that story was no violent person.... Hers was a life of chronic fear; she begged me, speaking through her two interpreters, to disguise her story so that, when and if she had to face the authorities again, they would not be too hard on her" (Pagan Spain 143).
Commenting on Wright's representation of his interlocutors, Reilly persuasively suggests that Wright never tries to "preserve a sense of natural verbal exchange or to create verisimilitude. Instead, he emphasizes the content as though it were delivered without inflection, tone, or the dynamics of dialogue that provide 'color' and reveal animation." For Wright, they are merely "informants, vessels without character" and "spokespeople without voice" ("Richard Wright and the Art of Non-Fiction" 512). He adds: "[T]he statements by native Indonesians are always subordinate to Wright's questions" (513). Dow explains that the interplay between the "you" and the "I" is strategic on the part of Wright, who "hopes to make the bridge between the 'we' and 'you' a most conscious relationship, wishing to inspire actual readers with the 'you' in the text" (66). But the absences of the "we" and the "you" are also significant (71). Dow himself points out the fact that "the narrator's interpretive prose buries the reported speech" (75). Wright does not think of the interview as an information-giving source; on the contrary, it is a sociological method that establishes his narrative authority and creates a new group of masses. Indeed, Wright's retrieval of such pronominal strategies and journalistic conventions facilitates his addressing those masses in a more literary and dramatic fashion.
Wright's use of dramatization and pronominalization strategies is best emblematized through his image of the curtain, an image that reinforces the ideological differences between the opposing forces of the Cold War. The curtain cements a cultural dichotomy between different groups of people through polarization. Hence, the emergence of such phrases as "a cultural curtain" by George F. Kennan, ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1951 (see Kennan), or a cultural Marshall Plan (Johnston 298). (16) The curtain then becomes a defining moment or border between the rational, civilized and the irrational, uncivilized, according to Wright. The "mysterious curtain," as he calls it, hides barriers that separate Asians and Africans from progress and industrialization (White Man, Listen! 118). Those barriers are "the curtains of race, color, religion, and tradition" (White Man, Listen! 64). His mission is to remove that curtain.
In "Tradition and Industrialization," Wright maintains:
[M]y position is a split one. I'm black. I'm a man of the West.... I see and understand the West; but I also see and understand the non- or anti-Western point of view.... This double vision of mine stems from being a product of Western civilization and from my racial identity.... I see both worlds from another and third point of view. (White Man, Listen! 48-49)
Wright argues that his "double vision" and "third point of view" enable him to be a privileged and objective subject. He further highlights his ethical and intellectual "superiority" by claiming that he is beyond categorization: "I have no religion in the formal sense of the word.... I have no race except that which is forced upon me. I have no country except that to which I'm obliged to belong. I have no traditions. I'm free" (Pagan Spain 23). Portraying himself as having no attachments, Wright sees himself above and beyond both worlds. Indeed, he believes that his knowledge is "ahead of the West" (White Man, Listen! 55). Joseph Keith argues that Wright offers an example of an overdeveloped individual, or rather a "cosmopolitan subject position" (109). Accordingly, his experiences and attitudes should set an example for everybody else.
The clearest rendering of Wright's double vision is his dedication of White Man, Listen!:
... The Westernized and tragic elite Of Asia, Africa, and the West Indies--... Men who carry ... The best of two worlds--and who,... Seek desperately for a home for their hearts ... a home for the hearts of all men
It bears remembering that Wright welcomes the "elite" provisionally: any acceptance of traditions or religion is regressive. (17)
For him, Africa and Asia cannot be liberated without leaders who are educated in the West and still cling to the practical interests of the East. Such leaders include Nkrumah, Nehru, Sukarno, Nasser, Romulo, and a few others. Wright describes Romulo's remarks at the Bandung Conference as representative of "a secular and rational base of thought and feeling." He adds,: "After all, the elite of Asia and Africa, for the most part educated in the West ... [are] more Western than the West in most cases" (Black Power 607). Wright here implicitly promotes interventionism by deploying the discourse of development. What is even more serious is that for Wright the elite are indirectly agents of Western progress.
In fact, Wright sometimes rationalizes foreign intervention. In White Man, Listen!, he confesses:
I agree that some of the work of the missionary was good: I agree that his boiling down four hundred gods and six hundred devils into one God and one devil was an advance. But I don't think that the missionaries' efforts went far enough; they should have reduced the whole problem to a psychological project. (23)
Wright in a sense justifies and commends the missionaries' intervention into Africa despite his acknowledgment of the destruction caused by them to Africa and Africans. Such an attitude leads him to accept dictatorship. In his concluding letter to Nkrumah, Wright writes: "AFRICAN LIFE MUST BE MILITARIZED." He goes on to assert: "I'm speaking of a temporary discipline that will unite the nation, sweep out the tribal cobwebs, and place the rest of the feet of the masses upon a basis of reality" (Black Power 415; emphasis in original). Africans, and Asians for that matter, are soldiers, or rather instruments, that implement Wright's apparently noble vision: finding "[a] home which, if found, could be a home for the hearts of all men."
Curtains of Closure
I have argued that Wright does not provide an alternative vision but one that is complicit with the Cold War vision. However, it would be erroneous to say that he is in and of the West, as he levels trenchant critiques against Western imperialism and slavery. Nevertheless, these critiques do not allow him to see in the East any viable alternative: neither in religion nor culture--his understanding of both of which is lacking. In the Black Power letter, he tells Nkrumah: "The content determines the form" (418). It seems that Wright does not heed his own advice. For his standard--that is, his form--is Western culture, against which everything should be measured. Wright, then, leans much more towards Western culture. He perceives the West as the end of history, to use Francis Fukuyama's phrase. His "third point of view" verges on being a variation on "first-world," "well-established" points of view.
I have also argued that Wright's literary journalism succeeds in obfuscating his ideological leanings. In "International Literary Journalism in Three Dimensions," Norman Sims--who celebrates the US as the "originator" of literary journalism--suggests:
Literary journalists always tell stories. All three dimensions of border crossing can play a role in narrative: geography, language, and culture; gender, race, and class; and time. They share a narrative impulse. All these forms of cross-borderland literary journalism depend on narrative, and on a well-told story. (36)
Apart from legitimizing imperial crossing and Americanism, Sims constructs literary journalism as being objective and innocent of ideological undertones.
Wright's later writings give legitimacy to such attitudes, particularly if we bear in mind his modernist aesthetic--which he adopts in his literary journalism--as well as the funding that he received because of his literary journalism. As Dow puts it, there is a clear "modernist self-consciousness" in his literary journalism (63). In the context of the Cold War, modernism was generally perceived as a US cultural phenomenon and associated with freedom of expression, whereas socialist realism was associated with the Soviet Union and with lack of freedom (Johnston 305). (18) In fact, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), with its avowed "intellectual freedom" and opposition to Soviet totalitarianism, promoted Modernism, creating confined spaces. Gordon Johnston calls that "creative confinement" (292).
That creative confinement is indissolubly linked to financial confinement. Part of Wright's later literary journalism was funded and promoted by the CCF (Rowley 459), an organization that was run by the US State Department and whose chair was a CIA agent. Wright had his suspicions, but he continued to work with them. When he went to Bandung, his trip was not only funded but also organized by the CCF. The cultural group which the CCF helped him meet in Indonesia endorsed Universal Humanism, a form of modernism. In fact, the group itself was funded by the CCF. By no means did that group represent the array of intellectual views in Indonesia (Roberts and Foulcher 16-18). Moreover, "[e]xtracts from Black Power were published in Encounter, Preuves, and Cuadernos," magazines that were funded by the CCF (Rowley 452).
Wright, however, it should be recalled, was not a passive recipient of funds. He did act in a way that privileges the US in its Cold War. Wright contributed an essay to the anti-Communist anthology, The God That Failed, "a collection of essays testifying to the failure of the Communist idea" (Saunders 63). When he was in Ghana, he went to the American consul William E. Cole and talked to him about Nkrumah and Ghana. He then submitted a four-page report, in which he writes, "[T]he leading members of the Party openly admit that they have conscientiously modeled their organization upon the Russian Communist Party" (Rowley 437). Three years later, Wright would visit the American embassy in Paris to distance himself from The First International Congress of Negro Writers and Artists Conference (1956), "express[ing] certain concerns over [the executive committee's] leftist tendencies" (Rowley 474).
Rowley calls such actions "act[s] of betrayal" (437), and Carla Cappetti describes Wright as a "sociological informant" (qtd. in Dow 62). But it is fair to remember that Wright was trying to survive in a hostile environment and his realization of his errors of judgment and complicity would grow--albeit at a too-late stage. A lecture of his "at the University of Nancy was cancelled" (Rowley 514), and his attempt to move to Britain failed. As Frances Stonor Saunders asserts: "For the next decade, his life and activities in Paris were monitored by the CIA and the FBI, until he died in mysterious circumstances in 1960" (69). Wright would come to this definitive conclusion towards the end of his life: "So far as the Americans are concerned, I'm worse than a Communist, for my work falls like a shadow across their policy in Asia and Africa" (Rowley 511).
But he was unable to realize that his literary journalism in and of itself was part of a cultural Cold War apparatus, as he urged his daughter to take up journalism shortly before his death: "He worried that the academic path was throttling her imagination and curiosity. He wanted her to remain open-minded. He hoped she would become a journalist" (Rowley 518). Wright saw in literary journalism an inherent possibility for open-mindedness.
In Wright's case, that open-mindedness was only a facade, as he made use of his Cold War-framed literary journalistic skills--which he retrieved from his communist stage--to exert his control over Asian and African masses. If "[a]ll art is propaganda," as Wright suggests (qtd. in Bryant 215), it behooves us to see behind his literary journalistic curtains. Only in this way can we learn something constructive from Wright's legacy without perpetuating its flaws.
* This article would not have been possible without the help of many generous experts and scholars. I wish to extend my gratitude to the two anonymous reviewers who gave me very helpful feedback that reshaped the argument and the entire article. I would also like to thank Professor Norman Sims, who--on my asking him about literary journalism--connected me with Professor David Abrahamson and Professor John Bak, both of whom suggested that I contact Professor Roberta Maguire, who was unstintingly helpful and recommended that I read the work of Professor William Dow, whose article on Wright's literary journalism was crucial to the development of my argument. I am grateful to my mentor, Professor Joseph Keith, who read an earlier version of the article and provided me, as always, with invaluable comments. I am also grateful to Professor Ferial Ghazoul, who recommended that I "touch on the writing of Wright in the Daily Worker." The staff of Alif were incredibly generous, as they provided me with materials that I was unable to access. I cannot thank enough the Guest Editor of this issue Professor Hala Halim, who was tremendously patient, generous, and professional. Nevertheless, I am solely responsible for any oversights.
(1) Nancy Dixon writes: "[T]he jacket blurb of the Harper and Brothers 1957 first edition refers to ... [Pagan Spain] as a 'masterful piece of vigorous journalism'" (582).
(2) Wright refers to some of those articles in Pagan Spain, particularly the ones in which he discusses the Franco regime. Earle V. Bryant edited and collected a number of articles that appeared in the Daily Worker and New Masses in Byline, Richard Wright: Articles from the Daily Worker and New Masses.
(3) The project did not materialize because of lack of funds. Virginia Whatley Smith discusses Wright's notes and preliminary drafts in '"French West Africa:' Behind the Scenes."
(4) Edward Aswell, the editor of Native Son, in a letter to Wright, asks, "Why was that the most creative period in your life up till now, and why, since then, have the sources of your creativeness seemed to dwindle?" With an attitude that smacks of racism (Wright can only write well about African-American suffering), Aswell goes on to suggest by way of answer: "[Y]ou have found greater peace as a hu man being, living in France and not made incessantly aware that the pigmentation of your skin sets you apart from other men, you have at the same time lost something as a writer" (qtd. in Rowley 472).
(5) Edward Said discusses Western travelogues in Orientalism. He argues that those texts construct the East by virtue of what he calls "the textual attitude." According to Said, hegemonic Western observers, Orientalists, experts, journalists, and so on "prefer the schematic authority of a text to the disorientation of direct encounters with the human" (93). Said provides further examples of this process in Covering Islam, in which he argues that Western media coverage of Islam mainly covers it up and feeds into a long tradition of demonization. William Spanos suggests that such an attitude is the product of the Western gaze that spacializes temporality (Shock and Awe 113-14). As an alternative to the hegemonic form of travel writing, Mary Louise Pratt suggests "autoethnography," which can be defined as "instances in which colonized subjects undertake to represent themselves in ways that engage with the colonizer's terms" (9). While Wright's literary journalism might be akin to travel writing, it hovers between being complicit with imperial discourses and resistant to them. I am following here William Dow's designation; that is, literary journalism. Dow suggests that using "creative non-fiction" or "travelogues" to refer to Wright's literary journalism is problematic. For instance, travel-writing as a genre suggests a high and privileged degree of mobility and stable sense of home, both of which hardly exist in the case of Wright as an exile (68-69; see also Spanos, Heidegger and Criticism; Smith, Introduction xii; Pratt 3; Chiwengo 21).
(6) Myrdal, in his magnum opus An American Dilemma, reduces the entire racial problem in the US to an economic problem, a problem of development. See Wright's quotation of Myrdal's thesis on development and the fact that it is very similar to his solution to the color problem (White Man, Listen! 32).
(7) For a discussion of the influence of sociological methods on Wright, especially the Chicago Department of Sociology, see Cynthia H. Tolentino's America's Experts: Race and the Fictions of Sociology. For a discussion of the discourse of objectivity during the Cold War, see also Phyllis Frus, particularly the chapter entitled "News That Fits: The Construction of Journalistic Objectivity."
(8) In The Language of Newspapers, Danuta Reah suggests that news papers often use polarization. In so doing, news writers establish an imagined community (Benedict Anderson's phrase), a delimited community whose members constitute a homogeneous group and share those "shared values" (Reah 40). More precisely, Anderson defines an imagined community as a "political community" that is "both inherently limited and sovereign" (9). The qualities of limitedness and sovereignty necessarily result in the production of excluded bodies through othering processes.
(9) Nancy Dixon focuses on Wright's flaws in discussing Spanish culture, flaws that were mainly caused by his lack of familiarity with the culture as well as his inadequate knowledge of the Spanish language. Dixon shows us that Wright made a number of factual mistakes. Guy Reynolds similarly argues that Wright's understanding of Spanish culture is not comprehensive. However, he claims that the "travelogue" is an internationalist lens that opens up spaces of solidarity between African-Americans and Spanish Protestants. In "The Transnational Vision of Richard Wright's Pagan Spain," John W. Lowe argues that Wright's text successfully diagnoses the Spanish "malady" and that Wright bears witness to the suffering of Spaniards, particularly Protestants in Spain. In "Richard Wright as Traveler/Ethnographer," Lowe underscores the hybridity of the book and its success in laying bare Spanish "dis-ease" (144). Kinnamon discusses the parallels as well as the differences between Right's and Hemingway's portrayals of bullfighting. Evans sees Pagan Spain as a piece of evidence against his alleged misogyny.
(10) Several critics, two of the best-known of whom are Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., criticize Wright for showing his Western privilege in Black Power. West argues that Wright creates a chasm between himself and Africans, "yield[ing] moments of Western condescension and modern revulsion at African bodies and religion" (x). Gates criticizes him for his inability "to conceive of any counterhegemonic possibilities in autochthonous cultures" (195). Jack B. Moore exposes the fissures of the narrative, reading the text as a novel, the protagonist being Wright. Moore also points out Wright's insufficient linguistic skills and refers to the idea that Wright misrepresented his interlocutors' positions. In "No Street Numbers in Accra," Moore suggests that Black Power foregrounds Wright's own quest, with Ghanaians' quest for nation-building occupying the background. Ngwarsungu Chiwengo argues that Black Power portrays Africans as an absence in contrast to African-Americans. More positively, S. Shankar, Kevin Kelly Gaines, and Eve Dunbar highlight Wright's "ambivalence." Shankar argues that the text "simultaneously assimilates Africa to a colonial discourse of alterity and liberates it from such a discourse by enthusiastically applauding the cause of national liberation" (19). Gaines suggests that while Wright's text perceives modernity teleologically, he proffers a "critique of the diaspora-homeland binary" and a transnational politics (75). Dunbar stresses that Black Power is "an exercise in contradiction," yet at the heart of that contradiction lies a vision of a community that is not predicated on race but rather on colonialism (279). Mikko Tuhkanen presents the most approving account of the book, as he claims that Wright "explores" the politics of becoming; that is, of establishing a new community, that sees Africa as an example or impetus for worldwide change.
(11) Both Yoshinobu Hakutani and Virginia Whatley Smith agree that The Color Curtain is a postcolonial text. Hakutani adds that it is also postmodern and testifies to Wright's growing interest in Asian philosophy and nature. Smith perceives Wright's text--which, according to her, demonstrates the many Western roles that Wright strategically assumes--as a prophetic and anti-colonial one. She elaborates: "He integrates the fields of literature, journalism, history, sociology, psychology, and anthropology to construct a text delineating his role as the travel writer/narrator and participant/observer of the Bandung Conference" ("Richard Wright's Passage" 115). More pertinently, Smith argues that Wright uses rhetorical strategies in The Color Curtain that derive from his early journalism ("Richard Wright's Passage" 91). Brian Russell Roberts and Keith Foulcher importantly demythologize Wright's text and complicate its narrative using an "Orientalist framework of analysis" (8).
(12) Another example is the change that Wright makes to the location and time of his interview with Indonesian novelist Sultan Takdir Alisjahbana. Wright claims that he conducted it before the conference and in Europe, while he interviewed the novelist in Indonesia and after the conference (Roberts and Foulcher 11).
(13) Wright's concept of "double vision" is a reworking of W. E. B. DuBois's "double consciousness." It is not a coincidence that Wright insists on using the word "vision."
(14) Interestingly enough, Wright reproduces an extract from 12 Million Black Voices in White Man, Listen! (106-07). For an excellent discussion of 12 Million Black Voices, see Dow.
(15) Lale Demirturk argues that Wright usefully deconstructs the concept of white supremacy in White Man, Listen! Mercer Cook is more critical. While Cook commends Wright's global perspective and urgent tone, he mentions that some parts are "debatable" without dwelling on them.
(16) It is important to note that the title of The Color Curtain was not chosen by Wright, as Smith reminds us ("Richard Wright's Passage" 90).
(17) Wright even criticizes the main resolution of the first meeting of The Congress of Black Writers and Artists, which was held in Paris in 1956. He shows surprise at the fact that the "main and only resolution called for the rehabilitation of their ancient cultures and religions!" (White Man, Listen! 23). Commenting on Wright's conception of culture and religion, Gates writes: "[T]he term religion can only be used as a surrogate for culture. What Africa really needed finally to shed, in Wright's view, was African culture" (195).
(18) Johnston warns: "[T]he cultural Cold War cannot be reduced to a competition between realism and modernism as politically aligned aesthetics" (299).
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|Publication:||Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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