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America’s bloody and racist legacy, it’s condition of continued apartheid, is one of the more shameful aspects of her culture--all the more shameful because of the society’s hypocrisy of covert practices while trumming self-congratulation for pluralism that barely exists.
Nonetheless, some voices have rung out over time to direct those minds less fearful, less lost in a fantastic nostalgia more akin to a wet dream of domestic and social bliss than any real historic era. These voices remind us that ours is a society that has not yet truly earned the victory of egalitarianism, and additionally, that our racist conflicts are continual, violent and no reason for patriotic pride.
Among the voices that have rung out, some have been categorized as being of Black Literature—a reductionist label that does no favors to either the writer or their work. A true democracy of the arts would not require such tags; nonetheless, in our flawed cultural landscape, some voices are heard then ignored, then shrugged off as classic, merely. Of these, Richard Wright ought to need no introduction, as one of his works is still routinely taught (though without embarrassment, some educators will default to Kill A Mockingbird, as if the treatment is irrelevant as long as The Topic is nodded to lest federal funding slap the schools for their institutionalized and intrinsically segregationist practices). Lesser known is Wright’s work Uncle Tom’s Children, ostensibly a collection of short stories, but which when taken as a whole can read as an episodic novel, if the reader has a post-modern enough sensibility to not insist on an overtly prosaic connection of the characters. Although Wright’s characters are authentic, human, their situations are symbolic, the culture these people inhabit is brutal—they are inherently criminals and their crime is the fact of their birth.
In Wright’s narrative, characters become even more wrong, even more criminal, when they commit such felonies as being a young man swimming and espied by a white female, as trying to get a wife to the hospital, as being a pastor of a church of a starving community, as being the mother of a son invested in worker’s rights. Interestingly, Wright’s characters interact with communists, and despite the 1936 copyright, the presence of these rather blandly drawn and harmless-seeming secondary characters might account for the cold shoulder given this work nearly eighty years after its publication, and nearly half a century since the shameful witch hunts associated with the word itself.
Beyond Wright’s courageous treatment of American Apartheid during a time of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and other moments of social shame, his writing alone is in itself luminous. Consistently balancing and counter-balancing the voice of the prose is the dialect of the characters, and the amalgamation of both when the reader is given the gift of the characters’ internal meditations. This interplay allows the harrowing experience of the characters to reach a dimensionality that will provoke the squeamish, but which is needful to our awareness—Wright’s stories here act as both literature and testimonial. Of these, the episodically structured “Fire and Cloud” truly ought to be required reading for citizenship. The starving community—literally foodless—is headed by a pastor who hopes to unite with impoverished people in the town no matter their race, and force the town administrators to, apparently, release federally supplied food. The pastor, Taylor, endures a gruesome episode that begins when:
Taylor saw it coming, but could do nothing. He remembered afterward that he had wanted to ask, what yuh doin? The blow caught him flush on the point of the jaw, sending him flying backwards. His head struck the edge of the runningboard; a flash of red shot before his eyes. He rolled, face downward, into a bed of thick violets. He felt a hand grab the back of his collar and jerk him up.
“ Get in the car, nigger!’ ( 159)
Taylor endures further physical torture, and the reader experiences both the physical sensations as well as the authorial distant eye; additionally, the reader becomes acutely aware of the verisimilitude of Taylor’s experience to that of untold others, doubling the cringing shame of these scenes.
While a reader desperate to dismiss any culpability for our socially entrenched hatreds might wheedle past Wright because of the work’s date of copyright, no such excuse can be made for Jane Smiley’s 1998 novel The All-True Travels and Adventures of Liddie Newton. Set in the antebellum American Civil War era and focusing on the bloody events of the Kansas Territory on the 1850s, Smiley’s protagonist is an American Jane Eyre. Told in the first person, Smiley’s Lydia Harkness Newton encounters a frontier life not mentioned in texts that detail the inherent genocide of Manifest Destiny, nor the white on white brutality of communities that disagreed on whether or not to allow slavery as they were settled. At one point, as the Kansas settlers endure increasing violence from the residents of Missouri:
When the news came back to Lawrence of what they did to Captain Brown, we were convinced at last and permanently that the Ruffians were animals –worse than animals, merciless fiends who had no thoughts in their heads except of the most brutal sort. They killed him with hatchet blows and kicks, then got drunker, then threw him in the wagon and drove him home to his wife, where they threw him in the yard and shouted “ Here’s Brown!” ( 174).
The violence in the text escalates, as it did in history, but Smiley is careful to imbue this rising of bloodshed with the daily realities that faced the women of that time: the size of the settler’s homes, the availability of foodstuff, as well as reference to newspapers of the time that “so savagely and frequently called for the death of all abolitionists” ( 166). Any modern reader with the most casual familiarity with social media will sense some echo to our own times, especially in the realm of political discussions where vitriol is the default mechanism.
Although both texts deserve full literary scrutiny, neither has apparently received such attention in the years since publication—nearly eighty for Wright and fifteen for Smiley. This lapse can only be seen as squirming around the theme, for both works have much merit as works of literature alone. Yet, our clotted conversation regarding culture becomes gangrenous on the subject of our racist heritage, and works which confront this topic are shunned as if to disavow the very existence of our deeply held hatreds. Although no one who has experienced even the lightest slap of prejudice would give any deposition as to its invisibility, we cannot continue to ignore the presence of such divisive violence in our culture, our history and our society. If America is to be more than a host of lying braggarts, then in the name of the democracy which is touted as the soul of national pride we must own up to our past crimes and acknowledge our current ones. Any other course of action, no matter how passively our society pretends the matter is moot, is to be a participant is every racially motivated act of personal or economic violence that continues to beleaguer us as a people.
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