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Wright’s story “Down by the Riverside” makes us aware that natural

disaster and its subsequent traumas do not necessarily lead to

any transcending of racial differentiation and skin privilege. 



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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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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On Richard Wright and Our Contemporary Situation

By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.


“Are you still,” someone asked my young colleague Howard Rambsy II, “interested in Richard Wright?”  Imagine substituting another writer’s name in the question.  “Are you still interested in William Shakespeare?”  Anyone who asked that question might be considered odd.  So too do I regard the unnamed person who posed the question to Rambsy.  I have discovered no justifiable reason for not being still interested in Wright’s challenging works of fiction or in his provocative non-fiction. 

Indeed, our contemporary situation, which is constituted by a welter of immediate and long-term anxieties and denials, invites me to have a more profound investment in Wright and in how the body of his published and unpublished works might assist us in dealing with the chaos of the twenty-first century.  Our contemporary situation invites our dwelling with writers ancient and modern, especially those who raised disturbing questions about the designs human beings have upon other human beings. 

Focusing on Wright is both a professional and personal choice; it is , for me,  an existential choice, a choice to confront rather than be lobotomized by the absurd..

II. Wright orients us to points of reference

It is not a single work by Richard Wright that assists us to deal with the lack of metaphysical absolutes to secure our sense that life has meaning; it is the whole body of his work that serves as a question-generating machine. The short fiction in Uncle Tom’s Children forces me to deal with the idea of regional differences in the United States, with social and labor relations, with the permanence of race, racialism, and racism in America and with the fact that terrorism threatened certain Americans at least a century prior to 9/11.

Native Son forces me to ponder possession or absence of free will among my fellow citizens, to think about the nature of our vernacular political economy,  and to view the drama enacted in the spider web of the urban. Consider that Bigger Thomas has been rescued from the electric chair, displaced from Chicago to New Orleans, and refashioned as a dedicated looter rather than as an environmentally determined adolescent.

12 Million Black Voices, which Wright proclaimed in 1941was a folk history, exposes the unstable grounds upon which human histories are constructed and revised.  Moreover, given that some photographs used in the book came from the Farm Security Administration, my interest in the uses of visual evidence to broadcast state propaganda is quickened.

Black Boy, Wright’s autobiography, forces me to consider that life writing is an inscription of the self within a tradition and a quest for understanding, that book titles are often gendered.  Wright’s 1953 novel The Outsider obligates me to consider that philosophical meditations and common sense thinking about life can result in abject alienation. Eight Men bids me to examine stereotypes and Savage Holiday provides a glimpse of non-black pathologies. The Long Dream begets questions about fathers and sons, economics and amoral corruption, and death. The posthumously published Lawd Today takes me into the realm of folklore and generic imitation of James Joyce’s Ulysses; Wright’s 817 haiku (Haiku: This Other World) lead to questions about American uses of Oriental aesthetics.

Wright’s travel writing—Pagan Spain, Black Power, The Color Curtain, and White Man, Listen!—provides yet another frame wherein I can pose my unanswerable questions about world order and disorder; about human responses to natural disasters and recovery; about imperialism and its relationship with terrorism.

III. Wright promotes deeper inquiry about the aftermath of recent disasters

Richard Wright’s works did not suddenly cease on August 28, 2005 to be the objects of my research, but they did become, in a rather new sense, instruments or catalysts for thinking about the aftermath of September 11, 2001 and the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. 

Wright hinted in his writing at the end of his life that the history of Western imperialism might be usefully examined as surreal, irrational, and effective immoral acts in the service of power.  One of the key phrases in our current situation is “homeland security,” a phrase that served as a warrant for the passage of the USA Patriot Act, a legal entity that authorizes suspension of constitutional guarantees. 

This Act has done much to create a climate for “legitimate” transgression of human rights.  To the extent that American citizens can be persuaded to be patriotic without question and to survive on a diet of misinformation, the immense power unleashed by the Act can oil that path that leads from American democracy as we knew it to American fascism that we imagined would never come into existence on our soil.  What has slouched into our lives is a horror that not even Wright’s most prophetic vision could prepare us to deal with.

Wright’s fictive treatment of the Mississippi River flood of 1927 in the short stories “Silt” (later retitled “The Man Who Saw the Flood”) and “Down by the Riverside” does prepare us partially for the national tragedy that is unfolding as the national gaze on the plight of New Orleans segues into macrodiscourses about government preparedness for responding to natural disasters, about poverty (which is being treated as an amazing new discovery); about the long-term effects of various toxins on ecosystems and on public health in the southeastern United States;  about race as an inevitable American dilemma;  about probable government appropriation of private property in New Orleans by using a fairly obscure concept—USUFRUCT –– as one recovery strategy. 

Wright’s story “Down by the Riverside” makes us aware that natural disaster and its subsequent traumas do not necessarily lead to any transcending of racial differentiation and skin privilege. As can be seen in the way our mass media used various kinds of print and visual narratives to report on New Orleans, a regressive process of demonizing one portion of the city’s population and of erasing the existence of other portions. The classic binary of black and white was showcased with a vengeance.  It is now very easy to believe that no Latinas/Latinos, no Haitians, no Vietnamese, no Japanese, no Chinese, no people of Asian descent inhabited the city.  They are a significant absence in the ongoing discourse.

So, what is the fallout that might be anticipated?  Listen to this small excerpt from the screenplay of Hotel Rwanda.

Paul [Rusesabagina]: I am glad that you have shot this footage—and that the world will see it.  It is the only way we have a chance that people might intervene.

Jack glances down.

Jack:  Yeah, and if no one intervenes, is it still a good thing to show?

Paul:  How can they not intervene—when they witness such atrocities?

Jack: (sighs) I think if people see this footage they’ll say “Oh my God, that’s horrible,” and then go on eating their dinners.

Hotel Rwanda (New York: Newmarket Press, 2005), p. 170

A more scholarly forecast comes from Slavoj Zizek, a senior researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities in Essen, Germany:  He concluded his article “The Subject Supposed to Loot and Rape: Reality and Fantasy in New Orleans” with a chilling paragraph:

….New Orleans is one of those cities within the United State most heavily marked by the internal wall that separates the affluent from ghettoized blacks.  And it is about those on the other side of the wall that we fantasize: More and more, they live in another world, in a blank zone that offers itself as a screen for the projection of our fears, anxieties and secret desires.  The “subject supposed to loot and rape” is on the other side of the Wall –this is the subject about whom [William ] Bennett can afford to make his slips of the tongue and confess in a censored mode his murderous dreams.  More than anything else, the rumors and fake reports from the aftermath of Katrina bear witness to the deep class division of American society.

The best that Richard Wright’s works can do to alleviate our pessimism and near despair is to remind us that human beings do survive enormous tragedies.  I grant that may be very true, but I still ask if in the absence of ruthless conversations about what it means to be an American it is possible for Americans to survive one another. 

It is quite conceivable that benign, highly selective genocide can occur here under the guise of homeland security or whatever the buzzword of choice might be. Wright’s example of engaging dangerous issues by way of his actively reading contemporary situations and writing about them is one we might wish to follow.

When I sum up my investment in Richard Wright and our contemporary situation, my attitudes are expressed concisely in the third stanza of my poem “After the Hurricanes.” –

Hope is not devoid of its deceit,

Nor immune to misleading into swamps.

Careful. Don’t move left.  Quicksand be there.

Don’t move right.  Gators will kiss you.

Learn from the fugitive enslaved.

Befriend moccasins.

Capture and coffle the cruel,

The arrogant, the mammon cold.

Send them on middle passages into the blues.

Permit me to leave you with an unarticulated but certainly intended warning in the final line “Send them on middle passages into the blues.”  Remember, of course, that you will be on the same awe-filled journey.  Richard Wright and I are very unlike Ralph Ellison’s invisible narrator who spoke for you perhaps at the lower frequencies.  Our current situation demands that we speak to you of anguished efforts to uncover a truth.

Address delivered at Grinnell College (October 27, 2005) /Jerry W. Ward, Jr. / 4311 Commons Circle / Vicksburg, MS 39180 / (601) 883-9926

posted 30 October 2005

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The Katrina Papers is not your average memoir. It is a fusion of many kinds of writing, including intellectual autobiography, personal narrative, political/cultural analysis, spiritual journal, literary history, and poetry. Though it is the record of one man's experience of Hurricane Katrina, it is a record that is fully a part of his life and work as a scholar, political activist, and professor.  The Katrina Papers  provides space not only for the traumatic events but also for ruminations on authors such as Richard Wright and theorists like Deleuze and Guattarri. The result is a complex though thoroughly accessible book. The struggle with formthe search for a medium proper to the complex social, personal, and political ramifications of an event unprecedented in this scholar's life and in American social historylies at the very heart of The Katrina Papers . It depicts an enigmatic and multi-stranded world view which takes the local as its nexus for understanding the global.  It resists the temptation to simplify or clarify when simplification and clarification are not possible. Ward's narrative is, at times, very direct, but he always refuses to simplify the complex emotional and spiritual volatility of the process and the historical moment that he is witnessing. The end result is an honesty that is both pedagogical and inspiring.Hank Lazer

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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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Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (2009)

By David Waldstreicher

Taking on decades of received wisdom, David Waldstreicher has written the first book to recognize slavery’s place at the heart of the U.S. Constitution. Famously, the Constitution never mentions slavery. And yet, of its eighty-four clauses, six were directly concerned with slaves and the interests of their owners. Five other clauses had implications for slavery that were considered and debated by the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and the citizens of the states during ratification. This “peculiar institution” was not a moral blind spot for America’s otherwise enlightened framers, nor was it the expression of a mere economic interest. Slavery was as important to the making of the Constitution as the Constitution was to the survival of slavery.By tracing slavery from before the revolution, through the Constitution’s framing, and into the public debate that followed, Waldstreicher rigorously shows that slavery was not only actively discussed behind the closed and locked doors of the Constitutional Convention, but that it was also deftly woven into the Constitution itself.

For one thing, slavery was central to the American economy, and since the document set the stage for a national economy, the Constitution could not avoid having implications for slavery. Even more, since the government defined sovereignty over individuals, as well as property in them, discussion of sovereignty led directly to debate over slavery’s place in the new republic.Finding meaning in silences that have long been ignored, Slavery’s Constitution is a vital and sorely needed contribution to the conversation about the origins, impact, and meaning of our nation’s founding document.

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Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918

By Jeffrey B. Perry

This first full-length biography of Harrison offers a portrait of a man ahead of his time in synthesizing race and class struggles in the U.S. and a leading influence on better known activists from Marcus Garvey to A. Philip Randolph. Harrison emigrated from St. Croix in 1883 and went on to become a foremost organizer for the Socialist Party in New York, the editor of the Negro World, and founder and leader of the World War I–era New Negro movement. Harrison’s enormous political and intellectual appetites were channeled into his work as an orator, writer, political activist, and critic. He was an avid bibliophile, reportedly the first regular black book reviewer, who helped to develop the public library in Harlem into an international center for research on black culture. But Harrison was a freelancer so candid in his criticism of the establishment—black and white—that he had few allies or people interested in protecting his legacy. 

Historian Perry’s detailed research brings to life a transformative figure who has been little recognized for his contribution to progressive race and class politics.Vanessa Bush

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The First Emancipator

The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves

By Andrew Levy

In 1791, at a time when the nation's leaders were fervently debating the contradiction of slavery in a newly independent nation, wealthy Virginia plantation owner Robert Carter III freed more than 450 slaves. It was to be the largest emancipation until the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln. Levy offers an absorbing look at the philosophical and religious debate and the political and family struggles in which Carter engaged for years before very deliberately and systematically freeing his slaves as he attempted to provide a model for others to follow. Drawing on historic documents, including Carter's letters and painstakingly detailed accounts of plantation activities, Levy conveys the strongly held beliefs that drove Carter through the political and religious fervor of the time to arrive at a decision at odds with those of other prominent leaders and slaveholders of the time, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Levy offers a fascinating look at one man's redemption and his eventual lapse into historical obscurity despite his incredibly bold actions. Well researched and thoroughly fascinating, this forgotten history will appeal to readers interested in the complexities of American slavery.—Booklist

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Pelican Heart—An Anthology of Poems by Lasana M. Sekou

Edited by Emio Jorge Rodriguez

Passion for the Nation is what comes out of Sekou’s poems at a first glance and at a deeper reading. The book is a selection gathered from eleven of Sekou’s poetry collections between 1978 and 2010. Rodríguez is an independent Cuban academic, writer, and essayist. He has been a researcher at Casa de las Américas’s Literary Research Center and founded the literary journal Anales del Caribe (1981-2000). María Teresa Ortega translated the poems from the original English to Spanish. A critical introduction, detailed footnotes, and a useful glossary by Rodríguez are also found in the book of 428 pages. The collection has been launched at conferences in Barbados, Cuba, and Mexico.

Rodriguez’s introduction to Pelican Heart refers to Dr. Howard Fergus’s Love Labor Liberation in Lasana Sekou, which is the critical commentary to Sekou’s work that identifies three cardinal points in his poetics.

I would add as cardinal points: Belief or Driving Force of people in political processes, like his political commitment to make St. Martin independent, as the southern part of the Caribbean island is a territory of the Netherlands, while the northern part is a French Collectivité d’outre-mer; Excitement over his literary passions, which led him to found House of Nehesi Publishers at age 23; co-found the book festival of St. Martin, organized with Conscious Lyrics Foundation and to expand his culture considerably; Enthusiasm, which springs out of his eyes and words when you listen to his poetry being performed or when you speak to Sekou in person.—Sara Florian

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Book of Sins

By Nidaa Khoury

Khoury's poetry is fired by belief in the human and the spiritual at a time when many of us feel unreal and often spiritually hollow.—Yair Huri, Ben-Gurion University 

Written in water and ink, in between the shed blood. Nidaa Khoury's poems take us to the bosom of an ancient woman  . . . an archetype revived. The secret she whispers is 'smaller than words.'—Karin Karakasli, author, Turkey

Nidaa Khoury was born in Fassouta, Upper Galilee, in 1959. Khoury is the author of seven books published in Arabic and several other languages, including The Barefoot River, which appeared in Arabic and Hebrew and The Bitter Crown, censored in Jordan. The Palestinian poet is studied in Israeli universities and widely reviewed by the Arab press. The founder of the Association of Survival, an NGO for minorities in Israel, Khoury has participated in over 30 international literary and human rights conferences and festivals. Khoury is the subject of the award-winning film, Nidaa Through Silence.

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My First Coup d'Etat

And Other True Stories from the Lost Decades of Africa

By John Dramani Mahama

Though the colonies of sub-Saharan Africa began to claim independence in the late 1950s and ’60s, autocratic and capricious leadership soon caused initial hope to fade, and Africa descended into its “lost decades,” a period of stagnation and despondency from which much of the continent has yet to recover. Mahama, vice president of the Republic of Ghana, grew up alongside his nascent country and experienced this roller-coaster of fortunes. In this memoir, Mahama, the son of a member of parliament, recounts how affairs of state became real in his young mind on the day in 1966 when no one came to collect him from boarding school—the government had been overthrown, his father arrested, and his house confiscated.

In fluid, unpretentious style, Mahama unspools Ghana’s recent history via entertaining and enlightening personal anecdotes: spying on his uncle impersonating a deity in order to cajole offerings of soup from the villagers hints at the power of religion; discussions with his schoolmates about confronting a bully form the nucleus of his political awakening. As he writes: “The key to Africa’s survival has always been . . . in the story of its people, the paradoxical simplicity and complexity of our lives.” The book draws to a close as the author’s professional life begins.Publishers Weekly

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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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