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Wright’s masterful depiction of Turner’s states of mind and Tommy’s catalytic

 antagonism leads us into a vortex . . . . His prose at once charms and frightens us



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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The Weight and Substance of A Father's Law

Book Review by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Wright, Richard.  A Father’s Law.  New York: HarperPerennial, 2008.  288 pp.  $14.95.


Fiftieth anniversaries provide opportunities for reassessing a past or for reinventing one, for remembering. It seems to matter little whether the object for inspection is a marriage, an ordination, a war, a presidency, acts of genocide, or a book.  We anatomize it in the often distorting glare of the present. Such seems to be the habit of the contemporary mind.

For reasons about which we may only guess, we gave minimal attention to the fiftieth anniversary of Richard Wright’s Pagan Spain (1957).  Perhaps we did not want to offend our Spanish allies or to reawaken the issue of Basque nationalism.  Perhaps we forgot. It is unlikely, however, that the Richard Wright Centennial (2008) will permit us the luxury of amnesia. Or sanction a spate of elegant but empty aesthetic discourses.  On the contrary, commemoration of Wright’s birth and his legacy demands serious commentary of the kind usually found in the arena of ethics, the hard sciences,  and foreign policy. His works have weight and substance.  And much of our talk will be about ethics and morality, because Wright’s last novel, A Father’s Law, obligates us to adjust our thinking about his relentless exploration of the human condition.

Wright’s forte was the creation of stories and cultural meditations that do not permit readers to be complacent, passive, or indifferent.  He inspired argument about the values and acts which generate conflict or peace, wretchedness or prosperity.   Indeed, in A Father’s Law, Wright provides fresh evidence of his talent for spinning tales which catch our conscience.  He demonstrates, in a novel that is slightly more reader-friendly than either The Outsider (1953) or The Long Dream (1958), why the confluence of psychology, philosophy, and criminology is a compelling tactic.  It works well in fiction that has affinities, let us say, with Melville’s romances or Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Unlike some twentieth-century African American novels that focus on detection and kinshipworks by Jeffery Renard Allen, Toni Morrison, and David Bradley come to mind, A Father’s Law dwells less on the specifics of racialized being-in-the-world and more on  ancient prejudices, biological anxieties, and legalized mores that frustrate people’s efforts to act morally, to do the right thing.  Wright uses some elements of the detective novel to plot crucial moments in the relationship of Chief of Police Rudolph Turner with his son Tommy, but Wright subverts our expectations. We do not have an average thriller. He is not faithful to that genre as was his friend Chester Himes in the Coffin Ed-Grave Digger series. A Father’s Law denies us the pleasure we might derive from the time-killing fictions we consume between flights at the airport or when the thin offerings of television bore us.  It summons us to ponder what conditions necessitate law, how strict construction of law may debase our humanity, and how a father’s guilt and probing may quicken a son’s embrace of real or imagined criminality. It invites us to interrogate the minds of two characters seemingly caught in the net of law.

As a police chief in Brentwood Park, an upscale Chicago suburb, Rudolph (Ruddy) Turner relishes his achievement, and he loves “the laws and rules of the community with an abiding and intense passion.”  Nevertheless, as a father who is Republican, Catholic, and black, he is vulnerable. His badge of authority is a weak shield. He has failed to cultivate bonds of friendship with his nineteen year old son Tommy, although he has been responsible in providing him with material goods and educational advantages. He feels guilty about that failure.  His efforts to make amends, to know his son better, only beget more doubts. Is his son against him and the bourgeois values for which he stands? Is his son a genius and a criminal?  Wright’s masterful depiction of Turner’s states of mind and Tommy’s catalytic antagonism leads us into a vortex where explanations of good, evil, guilt, innocence, obedience and fathomless resentment evade us. His prose at once charms and frightens us with the power of the indeterminate.

For some readers, A Father’s Law may appear to be a rewriting of The Long Dream insofar as it is about fathers and sons. Others, focusing on Tommy’s character, will be reminded of the long song of yearning in The Outsider. The resemblances among the books exist only on the surface of the narratives or in our anxiousness to reinvent Wright’s discourses on law and masculinity fifty years after publication of The Long Dream.. The dice are loaded differently in Wright’s last novel.  As we descend into the depths of A Father’s Law, we discover that Wright’s exploration is superbly radical, pre-future rather than modern.  

In The Long Dream, the son, Rex “Fishbelly” Tucker, comes to despise his middle-class father’s corruption and sycophancy; he scorns Tyree Tucker’s wearing of a mask in the face of  racism and the “white” law’s turning a blind eye, if sufficiently bribed, on matters of black criminality. Under his father’s tutelage, Rex becomes savvy about the hypocrisies of a segregated world; out of spite, he eschews formal education, embraces “manhood,” and becomes his father’s partner in shady dealings.  The narrative is a faithful rendering of law and desire in the postwar South.  On the other hand, A Father’s Law is set in the “integrated” North. Tommy has stronger intellectual yearnings than Rex, and his life is more sheltered. His father has never instructed him about the ways of the real world.  It is through his readings in psychology and sociology that he develops distrust of  his father’s unquestioning belief in the rightness of law. He is poised intellectually much like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, to challenge the foundations of a belief grounded in the dimness of the state of nature and some ur-social contract.  He is ill-equipped to deal with some brutal facts of everyday life.  

While father and son are at odds about the nature of the criminal mind and obedience to man’s law, they are of one accord  in regarding congenital syphilis as an unmistakable sign of moral pollution.  Tommy reluctantly confesses to his father that he broke off his engagement to his girlfriend Marie when blood tests showed she inherited syphilis. Transferring his dread of the unclean to the urban environment, Tommy consequently abandoned his sociological studies of Chicago’s Black Belt. Turner is naturally concerned about his son’s emotional state, but he is relieved that right and just law prevented his son from marrying “a tainted girl” who has inherited the sins of her forefathers. Such sharply gendered irony!  There is even more irony  in Turner’s assuming Tommy’s unbalanced view of life can be cured by exposing him to the state of affairs in Brentwood Park, so he might see “that all areas had their tragedies, that all areas had their poisons, their sources of contamination.” Tommy knows more about Brentwood that his father.

Under the influence of patriarchal law and prejudices, father and son reify the blindness implicit in how some American males socially construct reality. Wright’s characterization of males tests the capability of  psychological realism to explain. If we accept that in his last days Wright was more openly sharing the obligation of reaching ethical conclusions with his potential readers, we better appreciate the new turn in his experiments with the art of fiction. The novel is a question-making instrument.  The reader must supply answers, remaining uncertain that they are the right ones. Our  transactions with the text provoke us to consider that law qua law does not secure order; on the contrary, it may induce chaos.

Given that A Father’s Law is replete with echoes from such earlier novels as Lawd Today!, Native Son, The Outsider, and Savage Holiday, the novel is a summation of Wright’s aesthetic, his hardboiled vision of a future for which the Cold War was preparing us and the worlds we inhabit.  We may find ourselves agreeing with an insight Julia Wright gives us in her introduction. “There is eeriness in my father’s premonition,” she writes, “that criminality was doomed to bloom among the elite, that the energies of the Tommies of America might better be used by a cause or a movement for justice, that syphilis would overtake us under another name, and that youth serial killing on American university campuses would eventually inspire a prize-winning film in Cannes”(xi-xii). 

Yes, Wright was already prophetic in Native Son.  If external events lend credibility to prophecy, we must not neglect the Old Testament sources of Wright’s premonition and vision and Wright’s struggle to find the language and forms which speak of the terror and impediments embedded in the law of the father. What is law? Who is its father? What are we to make of Nietzsche’s notion that morality is a disease?  Does the enlightenment promised by ratiocination in the modern world only intensify the power of what Sir Francis Bacon identified as the “Four Idols”?  Even in its unfinished state, A Father’s Law succeeds in reading mankind’s dirty laundry and in leaving us with the option of reading  against the patriarchal grain.

November 18, 2007

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A fathers final words: Late author's daughter brings last novel to life"Beyond his books and in between the books, there was the person and the person had suffered and had come out from the hurricane of suffering and not become inhumane," says Julia Wright. "On the contrary, he had learned to be gentle."

Wright recalls some of the fondest memories of her father. "When I think of him, one of the first images that comes to my mind is of him laughing," she says. "He had the most wonderful laugh, as if he were enjoying some delicious food."

At the time Wright started A Father's Law, fame, a merciless amoebic infection and the watchful eye of the U.S. government were all conspiring against him. He believed A Father's Law to be a new chapter in his life and literary career.

"There was the excitement of feeling slightly better, leaving the much-criticized manuscript of Island of Hallucination (the intended sequel to The Long Dream) on the back burner for a time," Julia Wright writes. "There was the thrill of being gripped by a new powerful idea, and even though he was still feverish and weak, of sitting up at the Underwood for a go at what was to be the first and last draft . . . ."

Julia had moved from London to Paris to work as an au pair, and to be near her father as he recovered from his lingering illness.

"I still remember getting the call. I knew something had been dreadfully wrong, but I just couldn't put my finger on it," she says. "I would go see him three or four times a week, shop and cook and help with the laundry."

Julia Wright rushed to the studio, mostly to be alone with his memory and to wait for family members. There she saw the typescript among papers strewn on the table. She did not read it immediately. "I just couldn't," she says softly. "But when I finally did, I was fascinated by the book, by his notes. It was like being inside his head." Before long, Julia Wright, who became her father's literary executor, "started the long work of becoming myself: a journalist, a mother and eventually a grandmother. I didn't deal with the depth of my mourning. I knew I would have to come back to the book and deal with it." Miami Herald  (Audra D.S. Burch)

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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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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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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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posted 20 November 2007 




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