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Mr. Wright obviously does not have the long view of history. He wants not

only complete political rights for his people, but also social equality, and he wants

them now . . . “All things are lawful unto men, but all things are not expedient.”



   Books by Richard Wright

  Richard Wright: Early Works  / Black Boy  / Native Son  / Uncle Tom's Children / 12 Million Black Voices  / Richard Wright: Later Works

The Outsider  /  Pagan Spain Black Power  /  White Man Listen!  / The Color Curtain Savage Holiday / The Long Dream

Eight Men: Short Stories  / Haiku / American Hunger /  Lawd Today!

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The Negro Novel: Richard Wright

[A Review of Native Son]

By David L. Cohn


Richard Wright, a Mississippi-born Negro, has written a blinding and corrosive study in hate. It is a novel entitled Native Son. The race hatred of his hero, Bigger Thomas, is directed with equal malevolence and demoniac intensity toward all whites, whether they are Mary Dalton, the moony Negrophile whom he murdered, or the vague white men who seemed to bar his youthful ambition to become an aviator or join the navy. This book has far-reaching qualities of significance above and beyond its considerable virtues as a novel, because Mr. Wright elects to portray his hero not as an individual merely but as a symbol of twelve million American Negroes.

Bigger is very young. His exact age is not stated, but we are told he is too young to vote, and he is therefore under twenty-one. Although his life has hardly begun, his career and hopes for the future have been blasted by the Negro-hating whites of Chicago. On page 14 of Native Son, Bigger and his friend Gus are watching an airplane above the city. “I could fly a plane if I had a  chance,” Bigger says. “If you wasn’t black and if you had some money and if they’d let you go to that aviation school, you could fly a plane” Gus answers. And time after time, throughout the length of the book, bigger bitterly complains that he is denied access to the broad, glittering world which the whites monopolize for themselves to the exclusion of Negroes. Toward the end of the novel (p. 3020, Bigger, in jail for murdering a white girl and his Negro mistress, says: “I ain’t asking nobody to be sorry for me . . . I’m black. They don’t give black people a chance” (my italics). Bigger’s crimes and his fate in the electric chair, the author makes clear to us, are consequently to be laid at the door of white society.

In the speech of Bigger’s lawyer at his trial, one finds the fullest summation of Mr. Wright’s point of view toward the Negro question in America, and the most explicit statement of his use of Bigger as a symbol of the oppressed Negro. “this boy,’ says lawyer Max, “represents but a tiny aspect of the problem whose reality sprawls over a third of a nation. . . . Multiply Bigger Thomas twelve million times, allowing for environmental and temperamental variations . . . and you have the psychology of the Negro people. . . . taken collectively, they are not simply twelve million; in reality they constitute a separate nation, stunted, stripped, and held captive within this nation, devoid of political, social, economic and property rights.”

Mr. Wright might have made a more manly and certainly more convincing case for his people if he had stuck to fact. In all of the non-Southern states, Negroes have complete political rights, including the suffrage, and even in the south Negro suffrage is constantly being extended. So powerful, indeed, is the Negro vote, and so solidly is it cast en bloc in Negro-populous eastern and Midwestern states, that in closely contested Presidential elections the Negro vote may decide who shall become President of the United States. Hence the scramble of both parties for the Negro vote. Nowhere in America save in the most benighted sections of the South, or in times of passion arising from the committing of atrocious crime, is the Negro denied the equal protection of the laws. If he is sometimes put in jail for no reason at all in Memphis, so too are whites put in jail for no reason at all in Pittsburgh. This is the unjust fate, not of the Negro alone, but of the poor, the obscure, and the inarticulate everywhere, regardless of pigmentation. The ownership, also, of more than a billion dollars’ worth of property by Negroes in the South alone, and the presence of prosperous Negro business concerns throughout the country, are some refutation of the sweeping statement that Negroes are denied property rights in this country.

Through the mouth of Bigger’s lawyer we are told in unmistakable terms that the damning up of the Negro’s aspirations, and the denial to him of unrestricted entry into the whole environment of the society in which he is cast, may lead Negroes, in conjunction with others, toward a new civil war in America. Mr. Wright seems to have completely forgotten the unparalleled phenomenon – unique in the world’s history – of the first American Civil War, in which millions of white men fought and killed one another over the issue of the black slave. If it be granted that the original enslavement of Negroes was a crime against justice, then it must also be granted that its bloody expiation was filled with enough death and destruction to satisfy even the most hate-consumed Negro. But it doesn’t seem to satisfy Mr. Wright. A second civil war must begin where the first left off in order to bring about the eventual freeing of the Negro minority, even if it means the destruction of the society of the majority. Justice and understanding are to come through the persuasive snouts of machine guns.

Bigger’s lawyer is a Jew. As a member of a race which has known something of oppression, -- not for three centuries, the length of the Negro’s residence in America, but for more than twenty centuries in nearly every country of the world, -- he pleads extenuation for his client both on broad grounds of justice and on the ground that white society drove Biggers to crime by repressing him. If repression of the members of a minority drives them to slay members of the majority, it would follow that the principal occupation of Jews in Tsarist Russia, Poland, Rumania, and other bitterly anti-Semitic countries would have been to use their oppressors as clay pigeons.

Jewish revolutionists there have been, indeed, but over the whole sweep of two thousand years of dark, Jewish history the mass of these people, enduring greater oppression than Negroes knew here even in slavery, created within the walls of their ghettos an intense family and communal life and constructed inexhaustible wells of spiritual resource. They used their talents and energies as best they could, serene in the belief either that a messiah would ultimately come and deliver them out of bondage into the Promised Land or that justice would ultimately triumph. Mr. Wright uses a Jewish lawyer as his mouthpiece, but he has learned nothing from Jewish history, nor gleaned anything of the spirit of that group whom Tacitus called “a stubborn people.”

It is beyond doubt that Negroes labor under grave difficulties in America; that economic and social discrimination is practiced against them; that opportunities open to whites are closed to blacks. It is also beyond doubt that the position, if not the status, of the Negro is constantly improving in the United States. The evidence on this point is overwhelming. But there is one hard and inescapable fact which must be courageously faced. The social structure of America, despite many racial admixtures, is Anglo-Saxon. And nowhere on earth – save in isolated instances – do whites and Negroes in Anglo-Saxon communities intermingle social or intermarry. And so long as this is a fact, neither the Negro – and this is what completely escapes Mr. Wright – nor the white man will function as a full-fledged personality. It could easily be demonstrated that Southern whites living in the presence of masses of Negroes, and maintaining at least tolerable racial relations through the exercise of exquisite, intuitive tact on both sides, suffer aberrations and distortions of the spirit only slightly less severe than those suffered by Negroes.

It is no fault of the Negro or of the present generation of whites that the Negro is here. But the preaching of Negro hatred of whites by Mr. Wright is on a par with the preaching of white hatred of Negroes by the Ku Klux Klan. The position, moreover, of a minority struggling toward the sun must be gauged at any given time by its relative rather than its absolute state, and in accordance with this postulate it is clear that the Negro’s lot in America is constantly being ameliorated.

It is highly significant of the whole hate-headlong point of view of Mr. Wright that he has chosen to make his hero so hopelessly despairing of making a good life for himself because of white repressions, that he drives him to crime and execution when his adult life has hardly begun. Contrast this with the experience of the Jews in England, who were first granted full civil rights only after five centuries of living in the country.

Mr. Wright obviously does not have the long view of history. He wants not only complete political rights for his people, but also social equality, and he wants them now. Justice demands that every right granted to others shall be granted to Negroes, but men are not gods. A hard-headed people will be conscious of the Pauline law of expediency: “All things are lawful unto men, but all things are not expedient.”

Justice or no justice, the whites of America simply will not grant to Negroes at this time those things that Mr. Wright demands. The Negro problem in America is actually insoluble; all profound, complex social problems are insoluble, and only a politically naïve people will believe otherwise. In the meanwhile, recognition by both sides that the question is insoluble, followed by tempered, sincere efforts to make the best of the situation within its frame of reference, will produce the most equitable results for both. Hatred, and the preaching of hatred, and incitement to violence can only make a tolerable relationship intolerable.

Even Abraham Lincoln did not envisage a time when the Negro question would be solved upon Mr. Wright’s terms. In 1862 he said to a Negro delegation who called on him: “ You and we are different races. . . . But even when you cease to be slaves you are yet far from being placed on an equality with the white race. . . . The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this continent not a single man if your race is made the equal of a single man or ours. . . . Go where you are treated best, and the ban is still upon you.”

And Mr. Wright’s hero kills and dies in Mr. Lincoln’s state of Illinois.

Source: The Atlantic Monthly (May 1940)


David L. Cohn (1896-1960), born in Greenville, Mississippi, graduated from the University of Virginia and took his Master of Laws at Yale. "Then," he writes, "I went into business -- instead of into writing -- because my family went bust on a cotton plantation they had bought. I had a successful business career in New Orleans, rising as they say, to the head of a large mercantile corporation. In 1934 I quit in order to write. In the meantime I had managed to attend the late war in a highly minor capacity and to travel extensively from Turkey to Tahiti."  Between 1935 and 1960, Cohn produced ten books including his best known, God Shakes Creation, later expanded into Where I Was Born and Raised -- and scores of articles and essays, including more than sixty such pieces in The Atlantic Monthly. He is also author of Picking America's Pockets.

James C. Cobb, Bernadotte Schmitt Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, discovered Cohn's memoir in 1985 in the David L. Cohn Collection at the University of Mississippi. Struck by its richness and convinced that it should be published, he undertook the task of arranging and editing the material. What Cobb has brought forth is an immensely valuable , and entertaining work of both literary and historical significance that plots one extraordinary man's course through the changes of the twentieth century.

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The Katrina Papers, by Jerry W. Ward, Jr. $18.95  The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008)

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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Hopes and Prospects

By Noam Chomsky

In this urgent new book, Noam Chomsky surveys the dangers and prospects of our early twenty-first century. Exploring challenges such as the growing gap between North and South, American exceptionalism (including under President Barack Obama), the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S.-Israeli assault on Gaza, and the recent financial bailouts, he also sees hope for the future and a way to move forward—in the democratic wave in Latin America and in the global solidarity movements that suggest "real progress toward freedom and justice." Hopes and Prospects is essential reading for anyone who is concerned about the primary challenges still facing the human race. "This is a classic Chomsky work: a bonfire of myths and lies, sophistries and delusions. Noam Chomsky is an enduring inspiration all over the world—to millions, I suspect—for the simple reason that he is a truth-teller on an epic scale. I salute him." —John Pilger

In dissecting the rhetoric and logic of American empire and class domination, at home and abroad, Chomsky continues a longstanding and crucial work of elucidation and activism . . .the writing remains unswervingly rational and principled throughout, and lends bracing impetus to the real alternatives before us.—
Publisher's Weekly

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The Last Holiday: A Memoir

By Gil Scott Heron

Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King's birthday ended up becoming a national holiday ("The Last Holiday because America can't afford to have another national holiday"), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered. Gil uses Lennon's violent end as a brilliant parallel to Dr King's assassination and as a biting commentary on the constraints that sometimes lead to newspapers getting things wrong. —Jamie Byng, Guardian / Gil_reads_"Deadline" (audio)  / Gil Scott-Heron & His Music  Gil Scott Heron Blue Collar  Remember Gil Scott- Heron

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 17 April 2012




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Related files:  Wright Bio-Chronology (1908-1960)