Critical Essays Autobiography and Social Protest

Sartre, in his essay “For Whom Does One Write,” shows what is exceptional in Richard Wright’s work. He says, “each work of Wright contains what Baudelaire would have called ‘a double, simultaneous postulation'” that is, Wright is addressing himself to two different audiences when he writes. He is addressing both blacks and whites, and for each he needs to supply different information. Blacks will understand readily what he is talking about. No elaborate explanation for Wright’s experience is necessary. His purpose in addressing them, then, is to articulate common experience and common attitudes in order that blacks will be better equipped to deal with their own destiny. Whites, on the other hand, cannot possibly understand the point of view of Wright’s black background. Nor can Wright hope to have them fully see the world through his eyes. So, for white readers, he must supply information that will have an effect entirely different from that of his own people. He must, by his tale, induce in whites a feeling of indignation that will lead them to act. This dual purpose, Sartre says, is what creates the tension in Wright’s work.

Wright’s use of the naturalistic form is inevitable under the circumstances. He must maintain an objective voice for his white readers. At the same time, he must write about what is most familiar and painful to blacks. There is never any question that he will tell the truth and that his words will have passion behind them. It would not be possible to have it otherwise.

In his novels, Wright enlarged upon the themes he discovered in his own life. But fiction never has the same authority as autobiography because art, by its very nature, is devious; an author creates personality types and manipulates them for a certain preconceived result. Autobiography has the revolutionary value of “telling it like it is.” At the time that he wrote Black Boy, Wright was immersed in Marxist ideology and Communist party activities. In an article he published in New Challenge, a black literary monthly started in 1934, he wrote: “It is through a Marxian conception of reality and society that the maximum degree of freedom in thought and feeling can be gained for the Negro writer. Further, this dramatic Marxist vision, when consciously grasped, endows the writer with a sense of dignity which no other vision can give.”

With this vision he wrote his autobiography and thereby put the reality of living experience into Marxist ideology. The book is not a mere record of personal catastrophes, but a form of social protest intended to change the society it describes.

Some of the historical events taking place around Wright, both as a boy and as a man, of course, helped to strengthen these attitudes. His father, for instance, was one among thousands of blacks involved in the Great Migration away from the southern countryside into the cities. This took place preceding and during World War I. His father was one of the casualties in this migration, so Richard was thrown back into Jim Crow society.

When Wright started his own migration northward in 1925, the country was on the brink of the Great Depression. Until the beginning of World War II, every citizen black and white was part of a culture suffering so badly from economic collapse that there was little opportunity to think in terms of pure art. Harlem was the center of black culture, just as Greenwich Village was a center of white culture; but both of these groups were highly influenced by political, rather than aesthetic, events.

The New Deal and communism were developing along parallel lines each was an attempt to cope with the effects of the Depression on the country and the world. In Greenwich Village, white radicals and artists included Carl van Vechten, John Reed, Max Eastman, Walter Lippman, Lincoln Steffens, and Sinclair Lewis. In Harlem, there were Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, George S. Schuyler, Paul Robeson, Jean Toomer, and Josephine Baker. In fact, there was some contact between these groups and even a constructive exchange of ideas based on an awareness of each group’s difference from the other and a search for a common ideal.

In Harlem, the same ideas we hear discussed today were being discussed by the black intellectuals and politicians of those prewar years. Black nationalism, the Black Power movement, the matter of assimilation or integration these were common points of difference then as now. The great exception is that communism then played a strong role in the social state of mind and many intellectuals believed that it would solve the problems of separation.

When Richard Wright was moving from Chicago to New York, therefore, the society around him was reflecting many of his own concerns. He had done some writing already for the Communist party. But Black Boy, even with its Marxist conclusions, was a personal record with a restricted audience. Wright was conscious of this paradox when he wrote: “Negro writers must accept the nationalist implications of their lives, not in order to encourage them, but in order to change and transcend them.”

By writing, then, an autobiography for a people whose political power was, to say the least, minimal, he intended to transform their minds as opposed to their lives and thereby give them the self-knowledge necessary for action. The book was bound to offend many blacks, as well as whites, for rather than glorifying anyone’s image, it examined what it saw and was critical.