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All of Wright’s works are in greater and lesser degrees superb instances of aesthetic and political

critical, crucial thinking. They are rooted in the proletarian imagination and modes of cognition.



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!  /  A Father’s Law

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Books by Jerry W. Ward  Jr.

Trouble the Water (1997) / Black Southern Voices (1992) / The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008)  / The Katrina Papers

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One Writer' Legacy: Richard Wright and Our 21st Century

By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. Isaiah 8.2


Our twenty-first century is comparable to living in the land of the shadow of death and terrorism; no great light is granted unto us; we have to seek such light as is available. Richard Wright’s legacy, the published and unpublished body of his writing, is one path upon which one might journey in question enlightenment. Rejecting what the world of our new century would have us believe is reality, we have the option of reading Wright’s legacy with deep and hyper attention and discovering the light that actuality may provide. Such might be the prophylaxis to protect ourselves against disinformation and misinformation.
Reading the legacy with deep and hyper attention1 is, on one hand, an act of practiced history, of willing to engage Wright’s writings much in the way R. G. Collingwood recommended his fellow historians should engage their subjects by inhabiting the minds of the subjects. Whether such an act is felicitous in discovering actuality is not the issue. The issue is Wright’s commitment to understanding his world within a lifetime from 1908 to 1960. Insofar as we might inhabit his mind, we recognize that Wright himself invoked histories to situate his perspectives.

His perspectives are obviously always the past for his current readers (and those of some anticipated future), and those perspectives may seem to be imprisoned by the discursive limits of the twentieth century. This would be especially true regarding his ideas and perspectives on international politics. These limits must be acknowledged. They need not retard efforts to grasp the surgical consciousness Wright developed, in part, through his reading and incorporation of the past in his poetry, short fiction, novels , drama, and non-fiction.
Reading the legacy with deep and hyper attention is, on the other hand, an act that results in an eruption of problems. Due respect must be accorded those who question the contemporary relevance of Wright’s works. They are usually questioning the reliability of history as narrative rather than the validity of history as a process of thinking. I argue, however, the relevance of Wright’s works (like the relevance of any dead writer’s words) is socially constructed in our notice of fragile referentiality and in our self-conscious readings. Our close readings and hyper-dominated readings of his works are complicated by our ideological baggage. That baggage does seem to influence our use of literacy as we analyze and seek to find rational explanatory patterns in our contemporary world. It governs our ability to observe, judge, and reach tentative conclusions. It is Wright that we learn to frame critical questions.
If aesthetic distance is displaced by aesthetic intimacy, we begin to think with Wright. We begin to sense how his flexible Marxism and fidelity to Western assumptions strengthen belief that the past enlightens the present with Faulknerian viciousness. We begin to discern how much our self-interest is entwined with some of his major themes: the permanence of rabid racisms; capitalism’s dependency on enforcing racial inequity; the permanence of imperial, colonial, and neo-colonial enterprises; the non-essential nature of human identity; the immanence of terrorism and global conflicts.
All of Wright’s works are in greater and lesser degrees superb instances of aesthetic and political critical, crucial thinking. They are rooted in the proletarian imagination and modes of cognition. Janet Galligani Casey has recently observed that Olive Tilford Dargan’s novel Call Home the Heart (1932) “suggests that the relation between the ‘aesthetic’ and the ‘political’ is manifested by a constant if often implicit tension rather than a mutual exclusivity” (245).

Implicit tension is explicit in Richard Wright’ thought. It is indeed enlightening to read Wright’s early proletarian poetry,the stories in Uncle Tom's Children (1938 and 1940), the novels Native Son   (1940) and Lawd Today! (1963), the novella Rite of Passage (1994) the play Native Son (1941) the photo documentary 12 Million Black Voices  (1941), and the autobiography Black Boy (1945 and 1991)—works Wright completed before becoming an expatriate in Paris in 1947. Wright discovered existentialism in Mississippi not in France. He rather thoroughly raised questions about racism, capitalisms, the formation of personality and identity and terrorism and counter-terrorism American style.

He understood manifestations of racism in the New World since the fifteenth century. He understood what the sociologist Howard Winant tells us in The World Is A Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II:
Race has been fundamental in global politics and culture for half a millennium. It continues to signify and structures social life not only experientially and locally, but nationally and globally. Race is present everywhere; it is evident in the distribution of resources and power and in the desires and fears of individuals from Alberta to Zimbabwe. (1)

Wright understood racism and terrorism do have researchable histories. Their various manifestations may operate either in concert or in a singular fashion at any given time. The formation of many modern nation states through the world is anchored in combinations of political and economic terrorism.The contemporary scene is brutally, inhumanely illustrated in the Middle East and on the continent of Africa. Above all, Wright recognized and interrogated the transmogrifying force of such tragedies on the human personality. The recognition quickened his interests in sociology, anthropology, psychology, and the origins of criminality.

The works Wright created before his death in 1960—the novels The Outsider (1953), Savage Holiday (1954), and The Long Dream (1958) and  A Father’s Law (2008); the short stories in Eight Men (1961), the travel books Black Power (1954), The Color Curtain (1956), Pagan Spain (1957); the 817 haiku in This Other World: Haiku  (1998); the striking essays in White Man Listen!  (1957)—the relentless problems of alienation, moral disengagement, the power of religion, international policies, imperialism, and lack of remorse for acts of murder.

Wright hinted in his later works that the histories and emerging events of Eastern and Western imperialism and fascism can be examined as surreal, irrational, and effective immoral acts in the service of power. The historicized hyper and deep attentive acts which can be our survival mechanisms, our limited salvation, draw forth the accusative and valid and necessary questions. We become aware that such a film as Hotel Rwanda allows us to see the constellation formed by imperialism, genocide, and terrorism. We begin to see sites of reciprocal responsibility for our global tragedy in the reactions of the oppressed and the oppressor.

A reader who wants to explore the consequences of Wright’s instigations can now access the Internet. She or he can follow the branching links of cyberspace which eventually cast light on the appropriateness of returning to the past and experiencing the uncanny shock of Richard Wright’s recognitions. He prompts us to be historical in agonizing over our lives, our destinies. His legacy in our 21st century fosters our more active “readings” of actuality and contemporary existence. The legacy constitutes its own warrants for our passionate attention.

1 See N. Katherine Hayles's 'Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes' in Profession 2007.

Works Cited

Casey, Janet Galligani. “Reviving the Thirties: The Case for Teaching Proletarian Fiction in the Undergraduate American Literature Classroom.” College English 70.3 (2008): 233-248.
Hayles, N. Katherine. “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes.” Profession 2007. New York: Modern Language Association, 2007.
Winant, Howard. The World is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
January 27, 2008

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The Homestretch to the Richard Wright Centennial  / Dr. Jerry Ward Lectures on Richard Wright

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In many ways, his journal and the "new diary" finds its postmodern manifestation in the blog, particularly one like Ethelbert's. The journal/new diary/blog is an extremely flexible genre that permits the inclusion of various other forms: poetry, Q & As, course syllabi, dialogs, prose pieces, doodlings, sketches, dramatic scenes, etc. I was particularly fascinated with Jerry's piece about his body, suggesting as it does, separation and disconnection from the "life of the mind" that he lives. Jerry is an intellectual par excellence with little indication in the Papers  of his physical/pleasurable self. Maybe he'll expand later in the book on his trips to casinos and enjoyment of Jack Daniels. But, then, the book is not a reflection on joy, but, as you say, of power and clarity in the midst of disaster and depression. Most people would have disintegrated under such trauma. More about this later as I get my thoughts together. Miriam

The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008) is a marvelous resource! It's not like any encyclopedia I've seen before. Already, I have spent hours reading through the various entries. So much is there: people, themes, issues, events, bibliographies, etc., related to Wright. Yours is a monumental contribution! The more I read Wright (and about him), the more I am amazed at the depth and breadth of his work and its impact on the worlds of literature, philosophy, politics, sociology, history, psychology, etc. He was formidable! Floyd W. Hayes

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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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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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A Wreath for Emmett Till

By Marilyn Nelson; Illustrated by Philippe Lardy

This memorial to the lynched teen is in the Homeric tradition of poet-as-historian. It is a heroic crown of sonnets in Petrarchan rhyme scheme and, as such, is quite formal not only in form but in language. There are 15 poems in the cycle, the last line of one being the first line of the next, and each of the first lines makes up the entirety of the 15th. This chosen formality brings distance and reflection to readers, but also calls attention to the horrifically ugly events. The language is highly figurative in one sonnet, cruelly graphic in the next. The illustrations echo the representative nature of the poetry, using images from nature and taking advantage of the emotional quality of color. There is an introduction by the author, a page about Emmett Till, and literary and poetical footnotes to the sonnets. The artist also gives detailed reasoning behind his choices. This underpinning information makes this a full experience, eminently teachable from several aspects, including historical and literary—School Library Journal

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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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Negro Digest / Black World

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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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ChickenBones Store (Books, DVDs, Music, and more)



update 2 April 2012




Home  Jerry W. Ward Jr. Table  Richard Wright

Related file: The Weight and Substance of A Father's Law    Blue Voices for the Fourth of July   Making Peace with the Loss of Things   Whatbody Is Killing  One Writer's Legacy Richard Wright