Analysis | Black Radicalism: Language, Literature, and the Real World
Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945), an engaging autobiographical examination of Wright’s community and a powerful testament of his life, illustrates the racial injustice of America and calls attention to the plight of the African American. Alongside Native Son (1940), a powerful proletarian novel which launched Wright’s literary career, Black Boy contributes to the literary prominence of Wright, who remains one of the most influential and eloquent writers of his time.
Wright is notably known for his fiction works, while his works in leftist magazines remain much less widely read. However, Wright’s articles found within the Daily Worker and The New Masses are powerful in prose and historical content and remain “portraits of a time and a place that will forever exert a grip on the national consciousness” (Bylinexi). Wright’s articles do more than account for historical facts; Wright, a literary artist, brings these accounts to life and portrays the horrors of his time with vivid preservation. Black Boy reflects Wright’s radical works in Daily Worker and The New Masses in drawing attention toward racial inequality. Wright’s Black Boy is only one example of African American radicalism; such radicalism is illustrated by Daily Worker and The New Masses, from their ideas and efforts to the articles they publish, including Wright’s works which are strongly rooted in radicalism, sharing parallels with his work in Black Boy.
Wright published many articles for Daily Worker, a newspaper established by the American Communist Party and possibly the best known Communist paper, which also published sports articles, comic strips, and populist commentary. Wright also published in The New Masses, a Marxist journal involved in the discussion of radical politics, which became connected to the Communist Party around five years after the journal was founded in May 1926. Journals like Daily Worker, The New Masses, and the short-lived magazine The New Challenge, which published Wright’s famous literary manifesto in the late 1930s, “Blueprint for Negro Writing” (1937), all shared the purpose of illustrating African American radicalism which much of Wright’s works, including but not limited to Black Boy, contribute to.
Black radicalism can be characterized by a black-centered approach to systematic change regarding politics, economics, social rights, and culture. Radicals focus on equality, the working class, and often women, but race remains at the core of their arguments for fundamental changes. Black radicalism can be traced in many methods, taking forms such as populism, socialism, and communism. Notable radicals include groups such as The African Blood Brotherhood; black communists active in protests, writings, and politics; Malcolm X; as well as the Black Panther Party. Wright became involved with the Communist Party through the John Reed Club around 1933, where he found people other than himself involved in the fight of rebellion and liberation of the oppressed. The Party focused on creating cultural and intellectual content and beneath and within the Party’s discourse was a heavy radical ideology, supporting the purposes of Wright’s desires for equality, until the Party shifts focus years later. Wright, maintaining a complicated on-again-off-again relationship with the Party until officially terminating his relationship in 1944, the year prior to the publication of Black Boy, doesn’t take an active social organizing method to radicalism, but instead is highly radical within his literary and journalistic works, advocating for equality through his power of language.
While Wright has been clearly identified as a notable ex-Communist after 1945, much of Black Boy was written while he was involved with the Party, as well as much of his earlier works, and his works post-1945 share the same radical ideology as well. Wright’s works sought to detail the dehumanizing effects of oppression on African Americans’ psychological reality, and exposing their reality to white America. His departure with the Party corresponds with the erasure of the spirit of radicalism within the Party, no longer meeting the needs of Wright or allowing a success in tackling racial discrimination in America, around the time the Party adapted to a Russian-controlled Communism and the involvement of America in WWII.
While much information on Wright’s life can be traced within his autobiography, what the novel fails to account for is Wright’s publishing experience, aside from the autobiography itself and the mention of the first short story he wrote and published in three installments, “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre”, at age 15. In 1937, Wright moves to New York to write for the Daily Worker, while continuing to work with the Writer’s Project. Before his move, Wright published his first article in The New Masses in 1935, the first of many. David Peck, author of the article “The Tradition of American Revolutionary Literature”, brings attention to the rediscovering of 1930s literature and its importance, but also highlights the lack of discussion over the twenty-two year history of The New Masses, asking why “are we still unable to talk about this one chapter in our radical literary past?” (Peck 386). Jack Salzman, author of Years of Protest (1967) declares “some of the worst writing in the thirties was done under the aegis of The New Masses…Art was a weapon; art was propaganda. Art was not art” (Peck 386).
In Black Boy, Wright details the emergence of his literary interactions. His early exposure to the works of H. L. Mencken shows him the power of language and provides inspiration for him in using words as weapons, paving the way for his future writing. Wright was in awe of Mencken’s words: “What was this? I stood up trying to realize what reality lay behind the meaning of the words… Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club” (Black Boy 248). Human beings read and tell stories to inform and understand something of the human nature; protest literature provides a conscious conception of reality, an opposition of the main order, a true form of human expression in the world around them. To claim protest literature as “unqualified art” seems a misjudgment on the purpose of literature within the world.
Joining in with Peck on his discussion of 1930s literature and The New Masses and opening the tabooed door of “Stalinist” literary policies, the good that did result from The New Masses should not be gone from the minds of today. The New Masses was founded in 1926 and dealt with the multiple crises within America as well as abroad. The New Masses dealt with the real world in its rawest and ugliest, just as it is, as one can see within the pieces Wright published: “Hearst Headline Blues” (1936), “We of the Streets” (1937), and “Two Million Black Voices” (1936). Each of these works reflects the radical purpose of Black Boy.
“Hearst Headline Blues”, a poem made entirely from lines published in the Hearst press, describes the ongoing racial discrimination in America. Blacks were faced with brutality white America would never know: “Lynch Negro Who Wouldn’t Say ‘Mister’”, “Broker Rapes and Murders Maid”, and “Father Butchers Son With Axe” (“Hearst” 14). Wright is compiling a concise image of the social problems African Americans face within their daily lives. In Black Boy, Wright describes a period of his childhood working for an optical shop. Wright’s boss, Olin, tells Wright that there is a boy at the competing optical shop who plans to kill Wright. The foreman turns out to be lying, telling each boy that one plans to kill the other. Olin is instigating a fight of two blacks for his amusement and the amusement of his employees. When no altercation happens, Olin tells the boys he will pay each five dollars if they box one another (Black Boy 240). Olin’s instigation and manipulation is rooted in the same senseless brutality as Wright illustrates within “Hearst Headline Blues”.
Another of Wright’s poems published in The New Masses, “We of the Streets”, glorifies the unity of the racially and socially oppressed working class: “Streets are full of the scent of us – odors of onions drifting from doorways, effluvium of baby new-born downstairs, seeping smells of warm soap-suds – the streets are lush with the ferment of our living” (“We” 14). Wright speaks of living situations that the privileged white America would not celebrate, glorify, or unite in; Wright is describing a collective isolation, finding strength among the poor and working class. The last stanza illustrates the same strength among numbers: “And there is something in the streets that made us feel immortality when we rushed along ten thousand strong…knowing that we of the streets are deathless….” (“We” 14). “We of the Streets” describes the sense of belonging Wright longed for during his childhood, as described in Black Boy: “I wanted a life in which there was a constant oneness of feeling with others, in which the basic emotions of life were shared, in which common memory formed a common past, in which collective hope reflected a national future” (Black Boy 279). The entirety of Black Boy describes Wright’s alienation and isolation from the white community and black community as well, being unable to form any solid connection at the earlier points of his life. “We of the Streets” shows the “constant oneness of feeling among others” Wright desperately wanted during his younger life. “We of the Streets” is a celebration of community, the rise of socialism, the collective empowerment from the streets. Wright is isolated throughout Black Boy, struggling with identity and with freedom, unable to reach the feeling of “immortality” that one can’t feel among a world frightened to speak – but with unity the vision is made possible.
“Two Million Black Voices”, a powerful essay by Wright, doesn’t share the same hopeful tone as in “We of the Streets”. Wright sets the stage in the very beginning: “Time: An era of lynching, Jim Crowism and an era of disfranchisement; a time when living standards of Negroes are sinking to lower and lower levels” (“Two Million” 15). Wright is constantly surrounded by violence within Black Boy. Wright is beaten by his mother until he nearly dies; he’s beaten by his grandmother, his uncle, and his aunt; he’s manipulated into fighting a young boy; he hears of the death of his uncle due to racism; and witnesses frequent beatings by policemen against protesting Communists. Both “Two Million Black Voices” and Black Boy illustrate the ever-present violence surrounding black life.
Also within “Two Million Black Voices”, Wright speaks of his awareness to the issue of the American culture and system:
But of the present-day confusion of social tendencies what road can the Negroes of America take in their struggle for national liberation? In what direction lies the richest opportunity for effective action? Where are the forces strong enough to bear the brunt of this offensive against war and fascism? Surely not through the continuance of the present modes of separate actions! (“Two Million” 15)
“Two Million Black Voices” blatantly illustrates racial and class discrimination and suggests a change to the system. Wright utilizes the same conscious awakening within Black Boy:
Our too young and too new America…insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black…It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness. (Black Boy 239)
Wright is careful and straightforward in both “Two Million Black Voices” and Black Boy in describing the issues not against or blaming white people, but against the environment in which human behavior is shaped.
Black Boy is a social protest, Wright’s attempt to bring to light a society that needs changing; today, a society that needs to remember. Wright’s work in Black Boy most clearly reflects his works published in literary journals, such as The New Masses. Wright strove to rebel against the racial discrimination surrounding his every day. Moreover, radical efforts went beyond the radical works that Wright and leftist journals published, but brought efforts into the real world. Wright was strongly involved with the Daily Worker, which was itself involved in ending discrimination.
Beginning in August 1936 and spanning over the next decade, the Daily Worker challenged the Jim Crow baseball establishment. Daily Worker was involved in the organization of petitions and the distribution of anti-discrimination pamphlets as well as illustrating their stance in the press against discrimination (Lamb and Rusinack). The Communist Party also contributed to criticizing the establishment, a national symbol of segregation. For ten years, this newspaper and this political party fought the racial segregation in the nation’s pastime. Wright, as well as many prominent writers, were involved with journals responsible for bringing real radical power into the world. Wright published in the only daily paper which chose to cover the grand issue of segregation in baseball. Jim Crow baseball is the context surrounding Black Boy – the ongoing fight for blacks’ freedom and rights. Lester Rodney, the Daily Worker sportswriter who began the campaign for integration, stated his plan for tackling the issue:
First was to simply raise hell about the color ban and get it into the public consciousness. Second, we set out to popularize the Black stars and document that they could compete on the Big League level. Third, shoot down the notion that the white players and managers wouldn’t stand for it by directly putting the question to them. Fourth, we immediately put the league presidents and the commissioner on the spot by challenging then to say whether there was an official ban, which they denied, of course. (Bechtel)
Rodney’s strategy for fighting the system resembles the efforts of Wright in appealing to the public consciousness, whether through writing essays, poems, or novels. Wright also participated in popularizing black stars, such as in his essay, “Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite” (1935). Through Wright’s on-again-off-again relationship with the Party, his rebellious nature easily put him in position of questioning those around him in their beliefs. The radical fight for equality lies within many outlets and owes much credit to famous writers and journals, like Wright and the Daily Worker.
Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Wright’s racially oppressive environment aided him in becoming a writer and an intellectual. Wright’s ability to create, to write Black Boy, allows him to speak up for the voiceless blacks of his time, communicating the dehumanization placed upon his race. Black Boy is more than deserving of its reception and appreciation, but readers may gain an even deeper appreciation and understanding of Wright’s life through understanding the greater historical context. Wright is speaking for an entire generation, so a read on one man’s life is significantly commendable, but readers must keep in mind that this story is multiplied for the whole of his generation. Wright lived during an era of economic depression, a working-class movement, political struggles between the left and the right, the rise of Fascism, and war. He experienced racial oppression, class oppression, educational confinement, and confinement of individuality. While Black Boy can stand alone as a novel, it should be considered in light of all its historical context; Back Boy is a radical attempt to advocate for social change, to advocate for a better life for Wright, for blacks, for whites, for the American people.
The actions taken by Wright, the Daily Worker, The New Masses, and radicals of the 1930s were profound for the lives of African Americans. Radicalism is deeply rooted within Black Boy, within Wright’s journalistic works, within articles found in The New Masses, and in active efforts as exemplified by the Daily Worker and “The Fight Against White Baseball”. Black Boy deserves to be considered in light of Wright’s political and social influences to fully understand the lives, the hearts, the history surrounding this time of revolution.
Bechtel, Marilyn. Lester Rodney: Daily Worker sports editor led struggle to integrate baseball . 6 January 2016. December 2016.
Bechtel, Marilyn. Lester Rodney: Daily Worker sports editor led struggle to integrate baseball . 6 January 2016. December 2016.
Lamb, Chris and Kelly Rusinack. “A Sickening Red Tinge” The Daily Worker's Fight Against White Baseball. 1999. http://richgibson.com/whitebaseball.html. 2016.
Peck, David. “‘The Tradition of American Revolutionary Literature’: The Monthly ‘New Masses’, 1926-1933.” Science &Amp Society, vol. 42, no. 4, 1978, pp. 385–409. www.jstor.org/stable/40402129.
Wright, Richard. Black Boy. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007.
—. Wright, Richard,Bryant, Earle V.,Byline, Richard Wright: Articles From The Daily Worker And New Masses. : . Print
—. Wright, Richard. "Hearst Headline Blues." The New Masses (1936): 14.
—. Wright, Richard. "We of the Streets." The New Masses (1937): 14-15.
—. Wright, Richard. "Two Million Black Voices." The New Masses (1936): 15.