Richard Wright: The Hammer and the Nail 4

Max’s thesis is that twentieth-century industrialism has created a “mass man,” a creature who is bombarded with images of con- sumerist bliss by movies and advertisements, but has been given no means for genuine fulfillment. The consequence is an inner condition of fear and rage which everyone shares, and for which black men like Bigger are made the scapegoats. This fits neatly enough with much of the story for it to sound like Wright’s last word. But it is not. Max’s courtroom performance is followed by a final scene, in which Bigger talks with Max in his jail cell. They carry on a rather broken conversation, at the end of which Bigger cries out:
“I didn’t want to kill! . .. But what I killed for, I am! It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder. . . .”
Max lifted his hand to touch Bigger, but did not.
“No; no; no . .. Bigger, not that…” Max pleaded despairingly.
“What I killed for must’ve been good!” Bigger’s voice was full of frenzied anguish. “It must’ve been good! When a man kills, it’s for something. … I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em. . . . It’s the truth, Mr. Max. I can say it now, ’cause I’m going to die, I know what I’m saying real good and I know how it sounds. But I’m all right. I feel all right when I look at it that way. …”
Max’s eyes were full of terror. Several times his body moved nervously, as though he were about to go to Bigger; but he stood still.
“I’m all right, Mr. Max. Just go and tell Ma I was all right and not to worry none, see? Tell her I was all right and wasn’t crying none….”
Max’s eyes were wet. Slowly, he extended his hand. Bigger shook it.
“Good-bye, Bigger,” he said quietly.
“Good-bye, Mr. Max.”
That Bigger should have the book’s last word and that what he has to say should terrify, and apparently baffle, Max has seemed to some critics to be Wright’s way of saying that not even the most sympathetic white person can hope to have a true understanding of a black person’s experience—that the articulation of black experience requires a black voice. “Max’s inability to respond and the fact that Bigger’s words are left to stand alone without the mediation of authorial commentary serve as the signs that in this novel dedicated to the dramatization of a black man’s consciousness the subject has finally found his own unqualified incontrovertible voice,” is how one of these critics puts it. This academic excitement over a black character’s saying something “unmediated” ought to be followed by some attention to what it is that the character is actually saying. For what Bigger says (and Max understands him perfectly well) has nothing to do with negritude. It is that he has discovered murder to be a form of self-realization—that it has been revealed to him that all the brave ideals of civilized life, including those of communist ideology, are sentimental delusions, and that the fundamental expression of the instinct of being is killing. Two years before Wright formally broke with the Communist Party, he had already turned in Marx for Nietzsche.

Now that Wright’s books can be read in the sequence in which they were written, we can see more clearly the dominance that this belief came to have in Wright’s thinking. It didn’t replace his interest in the subject of race; it subsumed it. Wright intended Black Boy, for example, to have two parts—the first about his life in the South and the second about his experiences with the Communist Party. But the Book-of-the-Month Club refused to publish the second part. Wright was convinced that the Communists were behind the refusal (and it is hard to find another reason for it), but he agreed to the cut, and Black Boy became an indictment of Southern racism (and a best-seller). Wright managed to publish segments of the suppressed half of the book in various places during his lifetime—the most widely read excerpt is undoubtedly the one that appeared in Richard Crossman’s postwar anthology The God That Failed (1950). When the autobiography is read as it was intended to be read, though, it is no longer a book about Jim Crow. It is a book about oppression in general, seen through three examples: the racism of Southern whites, the religious intolerance of Southern blacks, and the totalitarianism of the Communist Party.
The idea that there are no “better” forms of human community but only different kinds of domination—that, in the metaphor of Native Son’s famous opening scene, Bigger must kill the rat that has invaded his apartment not because Biggers are better than rats, but because if Bigger does not kill the rat, the rat will kill Bigger—is what gives The Outsider, the novel Wright published in 1953, its distinctly obsessive quality. The outsider is a black man, Cross Damon, who is presented with a chance to escape from an increasingly grim set of personal troubles when the subway train he is riding in crashes and one of the bodies is identified mistakenly as his. Cross has been, we learn, an avid reader of the existentialist philosophers, and he decides to assume a new identity and to see what it would be like to live in a world without moral meaning—to live “beyond good and evil.” He quickly discovers that perfect moral freedom means the freedom to kill anyone whose existence he finds an inconvenience, and he murders four people and causes the suicide of a fifth before he is himself assassinated. (Wright was always drawn to composing lurid descriptions of physical violence. There are beat-ings and killings in nearly all his stories; his first published work, written when he was a schoolboy and now lost, was a short story called “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre.”)

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