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Lawd Today is one of the most depressing reads I've had in a long time. The plot, a day in the life of Jake Jackson,

 a disgruntled postal worker who bickers with his wife, runs debts with his job and is oppressed by society,

 is nearly formless, incoherently rendered and crassly told.



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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Robert Lashley Reviews  Lawd Today!

A Novel by Richard Wright


Saturday, February 18, 2006

The posthumous work is a relatively new phenomenon for African American literature, and not without its share of high-profile successes. Leon Forrest's Meteor in the Madhouse was polished with editor John Calwetti's almost symbiotic understanding of the author's mad yet beautiful style (think Dostoevsky and Faulkner gone to church), and the resulting set of novellas serve as a fine closure to the career of what many people consider the patron saint of overlooked African American writers.

While Toni Cade Bambara's These Bones Are Not Of My Child suffers from the opaqueness of plot and structure that most unfinished works have, the judicious and careful editing of Toni Morrison, Bambara's longtime mentor, gave it a range of intelligence and lucidity that makes it stand with her best work. Even Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth, a 2,500-page, forty-year-long epic work reduced to a 350-page vanity project by Ellison executor John Callahan, has enough majestic passages to remind the reader of Ellison's position as one of the greatest writers in the history of American literature.

Which makes Richard Wright's Lawd Today all the more disturbing. Given the massive stature of its author, the circumstances regarding its publication and the miserable failure of the work itself, Lawd Today is one of the most depressing reads I've had in a long time. The plot, a day in the life of Jake Jackson, a disgruntled postal worker who bickers with his wife, runs debts with his job and is oppressed by society, is nearly formless, incoherently rendered and crassly told. The result is nothing short of garbage, and by far the worst work that Wright has ever done.

But what bothered me so much was that I didn't know whom to blame for the content, Ellen Wright for publishing it two years after he died, or the author himself. The problem with the posthumous novel is that it takes away an author's ability to guide their own story, the unique creative autonomy that fiction writers have.

When I read it the first time I chalked its failure to the Wright estate's literary grave-digging, given Wright's overall ability to construct the events of a story and the sharp naturalism of his prose. But when I read it again, I saw that it had all of the markings that made his final two works, 1959's The Long Dream . and 1961's Eight Men, such brutal failures: vicious sexism, obsession with violence, atrocious craftsmanship, and subconscious yet deep self-hatred. Adding on the fact that I have found out that Wright had stated numerous times that it was a finished work, this crystallizes its stature as one of the most epic failures in the history of African American literature.

The best aspects of the book lie in the scene where Jackson goes to the barbershop and the overall dialogue between him and his co-workers at the post office. One of Wright's greatest strengths is to capture many of the aspects of Black male camaraderie, relating to “good talkin” and various aspects of Black male ritual. You can see it in the down-home, beautifully vulgar, and righteously contrarian banter between Jake; Doc, the barber; and Duke, a communist organizer.

That same aesthethic makes for the book's best part, the 28 pages of non-stop dialogue between Jake and his friends at work, where they reminisce about the south and ruminate about being Black in society. Here, if Wright were either as polished as he was when he started writing (he wasn't), or in sound mind when he ended writing (he wasn't), could have been the basis for the down-home novel that he wanted Today to be.

But beneath the brotherhood and warmth of their dialogue lies an emptiness that points to his greatest flaw as a writer: his subconscious internal loathing of his own people. Wright can't get past the punch line of Black dialect, he can't see its historical foundation, its interrelationship with myth and folklore, its ever changing sensibility used as an agent of survival. Am I asking Wright to overly mythologize the language? No. 

One cringes at the thought of another Temple of My Familiar, where every character is bathed in an imitation of an imitation of an imitation of folk wit, so much so that it ceases to be folk wit at all, but New Age crap. But Wright can't see the dialect as anything other than part of their depraved condition as oppressed members of society. The result is that their dialogue, which constitutes about 35 percent of the book, has a dreadful emptiness to it.

But compared to the garbage that the bulk of the book consists of, that emptiness seams merely peachy. And the garbage starts early. The book begins with Jackson in a dream sequence going up an endless flight of stairs, and there you can see flashes of all that made Wright great, his clear, no nonsense naturalism and the descriptive imagery he shows in blending the dream states with reality. But alas, he wakes up to a wife who won't tend to his every whim. 

And because she won't do so, we are supposed to understand why he brutally beats her, chides her for having religious material, and is offended at her for contracting cancer from an abortion that he tricked her into having. For Wright, this is supposed to be and is presented as some political statement about the travails of the black man in society. It makes a statement all right, but one against Wright's grotesque sexual politics.

Now that is not to say that Black men have their own unique and viable problems, for one of America's gravest historical sins has been the madness that it has had, and to an extent still continues to have, regarding Black Male sexuality. But in no way, shape or form does Wright address the complex aesthetics regarding the subject when Jake beats his woman to a pulp or says “b*tch” and “c*nt” more times than in an Easy-E LP. In its atrocious symbolism, Wright's use of Jackson as a character also follows the same flawed sensibility that cast a shadow over even his best work, including Native Son.

Every time Jake slaps around his wife or vulgarly insults a woman, Wright seems to be saying, “We're depraved creatures because you made us so!” But what Wright, along with the generation of black militants and white liberals that were influenced by him, didn't understand was in saying that, “We're depraved creatures because you made us so!” instead of saying, “We're depraved creature's because we are inferior beasts!” you are still saying that “We're depraved creatures!”

The bulk of what makes the book structurally unreadable lies in Wright's worst aesthetic flaw, his tendency to pad a story for length's sake. Wright uses the day in the life motif as an excuse to add numerous scenes in the name of showing an “ordinary” Black man's day. But the problem with the plot lies twofold: his inability to describe his neighborhood in vivid terms and link those descriptions to the plot, reprehensible as the plot may be. 

Scenes where Jake reads the paper, complains about social issues, glances at advertisements, loiters around a movie house, and picks up the local numbers are not only crudely written (nobody has ever mistaken Wright for Proust, or to be more precise, Ellison or James Baldwin), they exist simply to exist, to make the book long enough to be a novel. Wright tries to communicate their significance to the ritual of Black life, but again that flawed sensibility that rendered him unable to depict African Americans as anything but damaged from the nightmare of racism does him in.

But to center the discussion of the book's structural merits (or lack thereof) would overlook the book's abominable treatment of women. While it is noteworthy to mention that Wright's attitudes on women evolved greatly (his very close friendship with Simone De Beauvoir and the progressive attitude towards women reflected in his speeches are examples), his fiction showed opinions that were nothing short of hideous.

Lawd Today's" implied premise, that Black women are just as responsible for Black man's problems as White racism is, is beyond reprehensible. Everything that Jackson does, from the problems that he has with money, the oppression he has at his job, and his fight over the prostitute that robs him at a Juke Joint, is linked to that myth of the evil Black Jezebel, the castrating Cassandra that is supposed to lurk in all Black women, but in actuality only lurks in the dark and empty corners of the minds of Black misogynists everywhere. 

In his abusive behavior towards his wife and the women in the book, Wright turns Jake into not only a subconscious parody of a character, but a parody of his own art also. Jackson's (and subsequently Wright's) treatment of women is bad enough to curdle the blood, and his self-pitying behavior to justify his actions does nothing but provoke a reader with a hint of decency to recoil in anger.

Richard Wright's art and historical meaning cannot be underestimated. It should be the first, second and third thing that should be mentioned when you talk about his significance as a writer. At his best, his writing not only contained a breathless emotional impact and the gut toned power of a sermon, but served as an extension of the social realism movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, in which American writers eschewed the oppressive conventions and the perverse anglophillia of the industrial (or what Twain so beautifully coined, “guilded”) age.

In Wright's work, you can see the lineage of Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and John Dos Passos, insomuch that he created a moral fiction that shifted the consciousness of the country by forcing it to look at its most glaring flaws. Wright's best work, from the haunting, nightmarish and gripping Jamesian psychological tale of America's racial madness that is Native Son, to the powerful and even at times graceful polemic that is Black Boy, should be required reading for people who have any interest in the history of American literature. 

By graphically and passionately showing the brutality that American life could be for Black people, Wright served as a witness, not only in the rich tradition of African American literary history, but in the tradition of all American artists and intellectuals that reminded this country of the principles of its creed, whether the country liked it or not.

But reading Lawd Today also showed me that Wright, for all his brilliance, extracted a debt that he couldn't pay. The nether edges of his fiction established a template of picaresque male saints whose hyperbolic rants against racism were sandwiched in between the physical and emotional brutalization of Black women and the killing off of White ones as “symbolic” acts. 

Those edges can be seen in the morbidity, incoherence and downright evil of the bulk of Chester Himes's fiction, the crass sexual and racial realpolitik of John Killens and John A. Williams, and the pseudo- intellectual posturing, interpersonal race and class-based con games and maddeningly brutal misogyny of Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed and Cecil Brown.

The pulp protest writers of the 50's and 60's and early 70's not only did a disservice to African American literature, it did a disservice to all literature, period. And because of them, a dark cloud of animosity lurks over Black male writers to this very day.

Lawd Today, with its array of glaring technical flaws and psychopathic foundations, shows that cloud's gestation. It also shows that Wright, for all the deserved acclaim he has received, had faults as a writer that are too huge to ignore.


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What the f!&$k??? Who is this Robert Lashley?

I just sent this out to some other black writers and are curious to hear there response. But - holy Jesus (and I never say holy Jesus) - this is beyond an attack on Wright, as you warned, its an attack on Black Literature - period.

Someone is definitely looking for an ass-whupping. I am not a pacifist - although I hope one day I will be.  I don't like guns and I don't believe in murder, but I do believe in a good brawl. It seems to me - that it is one of the lost art-rituals of our time: just punching your opponents - real and honest. Sometimes a little blow flow re-aligns the senses. 

And sometimes a good old-fashioned beating does wonders for the brain.

I have never read something such a ridiculously open-lynching piece of literary "criticism" in my entire life.  Lashley has major problems within himself and his bigotry has the same feel of Anne Coulter's and there is something chillingly alarming that Lashley feels so "free" to write and piss all over such great artists.  I hope he welcomes the responses.

I need to pull myself together and think about what I could write, I am bad at this type of thing...Keep me posted. Damn. In the struggle, Dennis 

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Rudy, I did a quick google search on this cat 'cause I just knew that I read him before. He's a blogger, does his thing at Literary Thug From what I gather he's around 27 years old, a self-described pragmatic conservative. Sometimes defined as moderate. Some of his stuff is circulating on the web. I think Jon could probably hand out one well of an ass whoopin' whenever he got the chance. Peace, Rodney D. Foxworth, Jr., Associate Editor, LiP magazine

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I hope this dude never gets hold of my book.

I think he makes a few good points, but he is extremely harsh, and includes writers I would consider worthy of praise, not scorn.  James W. Coleman, author of Black Male Fiction and the Legacy of Caliban (Caliban, a Shakespeare character portrayed in his work The Tempest, is a black, ignorant slave who lusted after his master’s daughter, and was a general threat to civilization), says that “As contemporary black male fiction writers have tried to free their subjects and themselves from this legacy to tell a story of liberation, they often unconsciously retell the story, making their heroes into modern-day Calibans.”   

Wright in my opinion has created more than a few “Calibans” in his lifetime, but it is also necessary to respect our elders, ancestors and all those involved in telling our story whether you agree with them or not.  Because Lashley has not, his strident tone distracts from any cogent points he might have made.  J. Everett Prewitt, Author Snake Walkers

posted 23 February 2006

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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

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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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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Ancient African Nations

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Related files: A Brief Defense of Richard Wright and Other Writers