Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Rapid Review: Uncle Tom's Children by Richard Wright

Last week, I discovered a copy of Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children at a used bookstore. This is the third work I've read by Wright, in line with Native Son (fiction) and Black Boy (non-fiction). Like his other work, Uncle Tom's Children does not, as far as I can tell, flinch from the truth of the violent and impossible labyrinth that is living in the United States as a black person.

Published in 1936, the book begins with a non-fiction piece, "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," in which Wright recounts his experiences learning the unwritten rules white people required black people to follow, from his first job in which his life is threatened because he referred to a white person in conversation without using "Mr.", to witnessing his white bosses beat a black woman in the back of the store--an event treated by his boss as a delicious matter of fact. After she wanders into the street, bloody, weak, confused, a white police officer arrests her for intoxication.

Starting the book with the non-fiction piece serves to authenticate the reality that all the following novellas take place in, and to establish Wright as the clear storyteller of the book. The reader cannot sink too far into a story without remembering its author and the first non-fiction piece, which is important since these fictions contain such vivid, awful violence many readers will shirk from it by trying to shrug it off as fiction. Nope. The organization of the book refuses this wish. Fiction is bound to reality, and any attempt to deny this reality is to be aware that Wright is watching and knows this impulse and will not have it.

Except the first piece, the rest of the book is comprised of short stories/novellas, each told in a series of small sections that typically culminate in a person trying to save his life, or her own, after breaking the white man's code which Wright illuminates as ridiculous, arbitrary, and impossible with a guaranteed violence built into it--not just violence committed to the body, which Wright shows, but also the violence committed to the soul, identity, relationships, and one's ability to grasp what reality is since so much of reality is maneuvering through illusion.

In the story "Big Boy Leaves Home," which might, from the title, seem like a coming-of-age story about a boy maturing into a man about to start a new life . . . is not. "Big Boy Leaves Home" is the story of a group of teenagers who skip school on a hot day and want to go swimming, but a white man owns the pond and will likely kill on sight. The teenagers go swimming anyway, which ends with a white woman screaming, a white man shooting two of them, and one of the teenagers (Big Boy) killing the white man in defense. Of course, as soon as the white man is shot, everyone, including the reader, knows that this is the certain death for the teenager. The rest of the story is the two surviving teenagers attempt to save their own lives, while white people follow in a mob that burns down houses and worse.

In the last novella, "Bright and Morning Star," a mother has raised her two sons to young adulthood. Now, she is made to witness the destruction of her sons, which coincides with the blossoming of their ideas and beliefs in a workers' revolution and unification of poor white and black people in order to gain any traction to better lives. Her eldest son has been put in prison for his ideas, and her next son is about to die for the same reason. And she knows it. And she tries to protect him and the group of people in the community who believe the same. This night, she summons courage to "talk back" to white men who come hunting for her son. "Bright and Morning Star" is an incredible story that, in little time, explains how religion had been used to quiet the woman to the tragedy of her life--and after her awakening to communist ideas, she begins to feel alive.

In sum, Uncle Tom's Children is a harrowing book full of beautiful lives caught in a wretched reality made by, and perpetuated by, people who control it and then claim ignorance about its existence. How I wish someone had taught this book, or any book by Richard Wright, when I was a literature student. But they didn't.

I don't wonder why.

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Places to find Uncle Tom's Children by Richard Wright (click for links)
Reminder: If your library does not hold a copy of this book, you can request the book through Interlibrary loan, or request its purchase. Librarians are always looking to add books that community members believe will benefit the collection.