Richard Wright: The Hammer and the Nail 5

The influence of Camus’s The Stranger is easy to see, but Wright’s book is even more explicitly a roman à these. Two of Cross’s victims are Communists; a third is a fascist. Cross kills them, it is explained, because he recognizes in Communists and fascists the same capacity for murder and the same contempt for morality he has discovered in himself. The point (which Wright finds a number of occasions for Cross to spell out) is that Communism and fascism are particularly naked and cynical examples of the will to power. They accommodate two elemental desires: the desire of the strong to be masters and the desire of the weak to be slaves. Once, as Cross sees it, myths, religions, and the hard shell of social custom prevented people from acting on those desires directly; in the twentieth century, those restraining cultural influences have been stripped away, and in their absence totalitarian systems have emerged. Communism and fascism are, at bottom, identical expressions of the modern condition. And is racism as well? Race is only a minor theme in The Outsider, but there is no evidence in the book that Wright regards racism as a peculiar case, and The Outsider reads, without strain, as an extension of the idea he was developing at the end of Native Son—that racial oppression is just another example of the pleasure the hammer takes in hitting the nail.
It’s not completely clear how we’re meant to understand this analysis. Is the point supposed to be that twentieth-century society is unique? Or only that it is uniquely barefaced? If it’s the latter—if the idea is that all societies are enactments of the impulses to dom¬inate and to submit, but that some have disguised their brutality more cleverly than others—we have reached a dead end: every effort to conceive of a better way of life simply reduces to some new hammer bashing away at some new nail. But if it’s the former—if Wright’s idea is that modern industrial society, with its contempt for life’s traditional consolations, is a terrible mistake—then racism is really an example that contradicts the thesis. For the South in which slavery flourished was not an industrial economy; it was an agricultural one, with a social system about two steps up the ladder from feudalism. That civilization was destroyed by the Civil War, hut the racism survived, in the form that Wright himself described so unsparingly in the first part of Black Boy and in the essay “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” (1937): as part of a deeply ingrained pat¬tern of custom and belief. To the extent that the forces of modernity are bent on wiping out tradition and superstition, institutionalized racism is (like fascism) not their product, as Wright seems to be in¬sisting, but a resistant cultural strain, an anachronism.
The evil of modern society isn’t that it creates racism, but that it creates conditions in which people who don’t suffer from injustice seem incapable of caring very much about people who do. Wright knew this from his own experience. There is a passage in the restored half of Black Boy which is as fine as anything he wrote about race in America, and which has an exactness and a poignancy often missing from his fiction. Shortly after he arrived in Chicago, Wright went to work as a dishwasher in a cafe.
One summer morning a white girl came late to work and rushed into the pantry where I was busy. She went into the women’s room and changed her clothes; 1 heard the door open and a second later I was surprised to hear her voice:
“Richard, quick! Tie my apron!”
She was standing with her back to me and the strings of her apron dangled loose. There was a moment of indecision on my part, then 1 took the two loose strings and carried them around her body and brought them again to her back and tied them in a clumsy knot.
“Thanks a million,” she said grasping my hand for a split second, and was gone.
I continued my work, filled with all the possible meanings that that tiny, simple, human event could have meant to any Negro in the South where 1 had spent most of my hungry days.
I did not feel any admiration for the girls [who worked in the cafe], nor any hate. My attitude was one of abiding and friendly wonder. For the most part 1 was silent with them, though I knew that I had a firmer grasp of life than most of them. As I worked I listened to their talk and perceived its puzzled, wandering, superficial fumbling with the problems and facts of life. There were many things they wondered about that I could have explained to them, but 1 never dared. . . .
(I know that not race alone, not color alone, but the daily values that give meaning to life stood between me and those white girls with whom I worked. Their constant outward-looking, their mania for radios, cars, and a thousand other trinkets made them dream and fix their eyes upon the trash of life, made it impossible for them to learn a language which could have taught them to speak of what was in their or others’ hearts. The words of their souls were the syl¬lables of popular songs.)

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