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Are Science Majors Better Than Liberal Arts Majors?

Science Major

On the day of my graduation from UMass-Boston, we science majors wore gold tassels while everyone else wore undistinguished white ones. At one point, a young lady Liberal Arts Major said to one of my friends, “You Science Majors think you’re better than the rest of us!” My friend was quick to respond, “That’s because we are better.”

I was borderline illiterate when I reached my twenty-second birthday. Then, to correct this deficit, I read about 7000 first-rate books over the next twenty years. At first, I would just go to the Penguin Classics section of the local bookstore and pick authors with exotic, challenging names like Dostoyevsky and Flaubert. This allowed me to get my bearings in terms of literary quality and where each narrative fit on the four-thousand-year-long cultural timeline, with each book referring me to other great works, and, furthermore, to my wanting to read historical accounts that would add to my knowledge of the human condition. I read advanced literary criticism to enhance my reading experience, which really helped to deepen my understanding of the greatest novel of all-time, Moby Dick. This long process culminated in my reading everything I could find on African American History and Literature and then writing my magnum opus (and feel welcome to buy your own copy), The Education of a White Boy. In short, I earned a sound Liberal Arts education without having gone to college.

Then, at 42, I decided to go to college at UMass-Boston to get a science degree in Biology. Friends and family wondered why I did not pursue a degree in literature or history, to which I answered that I had already done that at a level far beyond what is achieved by the usual Liberal Arts Major. Also, I HAD read science books but had to admit that absorbing their content did not come to me as easily as leaning back on a recliner and breezing through Lord Jim. It turned out that this was not due to a lack of intelligence on my part but rather because science IS a harder discipline, emphasis on discipline.

I had not taken algebra in 25 years. Therefore, in order to qualify right away to take Algebra I so to begin the long ascent to Calculus, I taught myself enough math to bypass all the pre-Algebra classes. My plan was a success, but I learned right off the bat the key difference between a Science and Liberal Arts Major – that is, 2 + 2 = 4, not 5 because 5 FEELS better.

This simple premise was hammered into me for eight years until I graduated at the age of 50 a less dreamy, more grounded man. At the heart of a Science Major’s education is the Scientific Method, which requires that one , first, observe some natural process; second,  think of a reason to explain one’s observation (called a hypothesis); third, create an experiment that employs objective measuring techniques to test one’s hypothesis (or guess); and, last, if one’s data disagrees with the hypothesis, then one must forget about feelings, about one’s clever-sounding guess, and get back to work coming up with another hypothesis. But even if the data agrees with one’s hypothesis, others will follow up with their own experiments to disprove the “clever guess” – and the original scientist, or student, must be cool with having been wrong for the sake of Universal Knowledge, Knowledge that will never achieve the Ultimate Truth. Here is a picture for those without either a Science or Liberal Arts Degree

Scientifis Method

In 1907,  Einstein formed a vague hypothesis on the relativistic theory of gravity that sounded great in his head. But he had to come up with mathematical facts to prove his theory, which took him seven arduous years. Finally, in 1915, in front of the rigorous Prussian Academy of Science, he presented his proof, and then turned around as if to drop the mike, and say, “And that, bitches, is the General Theory of Relativity.” Okay, that was a Liberal Arts flourish. But you can see this moment dramatized in the TV series, Genius, in these two clips:

Still he had to wait four more years until Arthur Eddington observed a solar eclipse off the west coast of Africa to get the final, physical data needed to turn the General Theory from something being debated over by brainy scientist to the awesome Theory that would revolutionize the world – and it was NOT easy.

One way to look at the difference between Science and Liberal Arts Majors is to make it a battle of Facts versus Persuasion. I took a required course on public speaking. One of our assignments was to split up the class for a formal debate on an issue in which I personally had a minority opinion. Yet I volunteered to join the majority-opinion team to test my fact-twisting ability. What I found was how easy it was to argue for something in which I had absolutely no belief.

Now I understood how a Big Tobacco lobbyist could make a living by convincing Washington politicians and the general public that Cancer = Freedom, much how George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, had Big Brother claiming that “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength” and, my favorite, “2 + 2 = 5.”

There have been recent stories about Perdue Pharma and how their cash cow, Oxycontin, has pretty much created millions of heroin addicts that have, in turn, ruined entire American towns and regions. Scientists may have engineered the drug but it was Perdue’s army of marketing people – i.e., Liberal Arts Majors – who distorted the facts, the data, so they could sell Oxy as a wonder drug.

Many have argued that what Washington needs are more Scientists (Fact People) and less Lawyers (Persuaders defending whatever pays their campaign bills). A Scientist will look at measurements, taken for over a half-a-million years, of CO2-levels in the atmosphere, and conclude that, yes, they have risen in lock-step with the Industrial Revolution (a sound hypothesis), while a Persuader/Lawyer will persuade himself that this is a lie because, well, he doesn’t want to FEEL guilty about not giving up his Hummer or big boat. He likes his cushy, feel-good life. Then you have the Hollywood stars – the ultimate Liberal Arts Majors – who will preach against Global Warming while persuading themselves that their private jets and carbon-spewing mansions are exempt from the facts. So, yes, the country would be better off with more scientists serving in government.

The master Persuader, Donald Trump, is infamous for not trusting facts. Instead he will “trust his gut.” Well, Mr. President, just one Anatomy and Physiology class would teach you that your gut is another name for your formidable stomach through which food – in your case, Big Macs – gets broken down into smaller components. It does not break down thoughts, much less create thoughts.

One can posit that Liberal Arts Majors are better equipped in today’s economic landscape, even though that landscape is so dependent on technology. Here is the argument: True, Silicon Valley and its foreign imitators are the prime movers of Globalization, but that element is being taken over by robotics, thus allowing a platform for self-promoting talkers, or Persuaders.

In the Sixties and Seventies, when personal indulgence began to push aside inconvenient, hard facts, people would say things like, “Do what makes you feel good.“ These slack-minded gurus never considered the possibility that what often feels good to one person causes misery to dozens of other people, for example a coke-head who feels great when tooting the white powder while wrecks the lives around him. At present, the junk-science impresario, Oprah Winfrey, is preaching the hazy concept of “living your own truth,” which is say, she has not bothered to submit her blandishments to the Scientific Method. Oprah was a Communications major.

At UMass-Boston I WANTED to have the haziness beaten out of me, but it was still an epic internal battle to jettison what had been my inherent disposition as a born artist-rebel-type who sometimes, out of spite, would align myself with the more irrational aspects of life. One of my favorite professors at UMass was a lady who taught Russian Literature, of which I had always been a fan, and I could not help but to get a rebellious thrill when once she said, “Sorry but I believe the world is flat.” Perhaps this was a welcomed comment during a semester when I was taking physics and organic chemistry.

My transition from Liberal Arts Guy to Science Guy was well documented in my lab reports and other science papers. My first paper was on The Walking Catfish wherein I used a children’s book as a frame on which to hang my scientific research. I have since turned it into a blog, Introducing The Walking Catfish. I again mixed my own literary style with standard scientific presentation when I wrote other papers, for example , Five Plants that Changed Civilization and  Sexual Selection, though I removed all the dry Methods and Results from the latter paper before posting it as a blog.

Then I may have taken this approach too far when I wrote a Cell Biology lab report using the reality show, Jersey Shore, as an analogy for enzyme activity. Here is the opening paragraph:

“Determining the activity of a certain enzyme with its substrate in a specific cell is much like how the reality TV show Jersey Shore examines the romantic and sleazy activities of Guidos and Guidettes – that is, both the proteins and the self-absorbed, shallow Jersey simpletons have to be isolated from their normal environment to allow accurate measurements. The purpose of this experiment was to extract the enzyme, Tyrosinase, from both a green and ripe banana to see which is more effective at oxidizing DOPA to Dopachrome — the same as removing “The Situation” from Staten Island and Ronnie from the Bronx to compare which shallow dolt will win the icy heart of Sammi “Sweetheart” from Hazlet, New Jersey.”

Yes, I got way too cute. But I finally had the cuteness hammered out of me in Physics I and II. The language of physics is math, and no Shakespearean turn-of-phrase is going to replace the numbers needed to prove a hypothesis in this particular field of science. Our lab instructor insisted that I write with equations with nary a word-sentence. At first, I rebelled but soon saw not only the wisdom of this method but also its beauty. 2 + 2 = 4, no words necessary. Or to explain electrical resistance:

R = R₁ + Rg = 34.459kΩ + 0.600kΩ = 35.059kΩ

In the Einstein movie clip above, did the reader see any words?

My best friend at UMass was an ex-con with a gift for science who would go on to become a Physician Assistant. One day we were hanging out at the student center talking about where the various science majors rank in terms of difficulty. We ranked Environmental Science as the easiest, though a Liberal Arts major would cry the first time he had to explain the Nitrogen Cycle. Next came us, the Biology students, though a few Chem and Physics kids told me that they hated Biology because it was too messy, not always definable using sensible equations. Next came Chemistry with its meticulous handling and measuring of atoms and small molecules. The hardest? My friend and I were in perfect agreement that the Physics Majors were smarter than all of us – and when we tried to give an accurate description of this academic specimen, we heard a noise, and lo and behold we saw coming toward us a small group of the nerdiest, most spastic kids with a collective eye-lens width of the Hubble Telescope – and we pointed and laughed, there they are – but they also had our highest respect, since we had taken their basic course and considered it our greatest challenge, whereas, for them, it was only the first grade.

When we Science Majors took the required Liberal Arts classes, it was like taking a holiday, and we could bank on an easy A. But in my case, it was also a chance to do what I do best: write about literature and history using my full arsenal of words…and to hell with mathematical proofs or even being right. In these classes, one could be wrong, but if the wrongness was presented in a sound, well-crafted way, then that was all that mattered to the professor. In other words, welcome to the world of Persuasion!

One of my favorite writers of all time is H.L. Mencken. Now I was given the chance to write a scholarly paper on him, and here it is on my blog minus the footnotes:  H.L. Mencken: The Great Prose Stylist.  I wrote a short essay on Macbeth that allowed me to express my fatalistic worldview, Macbeth Teaches Us About the Futility of Life. The odd thing is that students from all over the world now consult these two blogs for their own papers.

In the end, my Science Degree made me a better writer. I became a more disciplined scribbler, willing to “kill my darlings” if they failed to support the rest of my text. My training in expressing concepts in numbers helped with the accuracy of my prose. I now write screenplays which require a steadfast adherence to the three-act structure and a willingness to jettison excess dialogue and even whole characters. I know other script-writers who struggle with this part of the process, but a Science Major thinks nothing of moving on from a flawed hypothesis.

UMass-Boston had cleared my mind of all the trash that had once made me feel good in the way of whiskey easing the pain of an alcoholic. The thing is that now I FEEL so much better by seeing the world with greater clarity, greater precision. In FACT, science taught me to see life as a beautiful poem.

Are Science Majors better than Liberal Arts Majors? If they are, it is just a hypothesis waiting for proof.

 

(Check out my writer website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

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How to Succeed in the Screenwriting Business

McKee

I have been, of late, receiving emails telling of momentous news on par with the Pope having just announced his departure from the Vatican so he can travel to Tibet to become a Buddhist Monk, or, if not that, then to join hedge fund group on Wall Street. I am talking of course of the imminent “return to the U.S.” of Robert McKee.

You may be wondering about who the hell is this modern day General MacArthur, Robert McKee?

Robert McKee is a screenplay writing guru who does seminars around the world, which explains why he is about to make his triumphant return to America laden with the spoils of having robbed naïve people who suffer from the delusion of thinking that because they like movies, and because they are illiterate, they can break into Hollywood. Note that all these aspiring script writers are not getting paid for their efforts. They are instead spending money. And into which bank account is going all their cash earned from shabby jobs at Uber, Applebee’s and the post office? Hint: the name on the account starts with “Rob…” and ends with “…Kee.”

In short, the best way to be successful in the screenwriting business is to prey upon those desperate people who want – want so bad – to become screenwriters. The Internet is teeming with “experts,” “consultants” – in a word, Gurus — ready to dissect your work and then offer a detailed analysis on how to transform it into the next “Chinatown.” I remember in my own early days as a gullible novice in the trade when some guy said he would totally rewrite my first script for the whopping price of $10,000. The lesson learned was that my ambition to pen a script that could perhaps earn me at least an option and a paycheck worth ten grand entailed that I spend ten grand.

I did pay some other guy a more modest sum of $350 to analyze the same script. We went over his proposed revisions on the phone. At one point, he laughed at how I had written “toe the line” rather then the correct “tow the line,” to which I laughed back at this Expert that “toe” IS the proper usage. Yet he did not pay me for having fixed his grammar.

In 1849, some 300,000-people swarmed northern California to prospect for gold with the impractical dream of becoming rich with one swoop of a tin pan. Few of them achieved this goal, but there were more than a few entrepreneurs who did make a sound, reliable living by furnishing these desperate prospectors with food, clothing, tools, legal counsel, and everything else essential to modern civilization. That pretty much sums up the relationship between wannabe screenwriters, most of whom are impractical dreamers, and the screenwriting Gurus who exploit the wannabe’s desperation to become rich with one swoop of their script being bought by a studio.

An actor, Brain Cox, played script Guru, Robert McKee, in the film “Adaptation,” which was the product of a true writer, Charlie Kaufman. Here is a one-minute clip of McKee earning his living:

You can see that McKee has a schtick and it is called being a Tough Guy. Two other top screenplay writing gurus, Syd Field and Blake Snyder, are both, to a “man,” Tough Guys. Another aspiring guru is William Akers, who must have recognized the importance among successful gurus to practice tough love, hence the title of his book, Your Screenplay Sucks! What a Tough Guy.

Robert McKee is one of those rare specimens that actually makes a substantial living in the screenwriting business. One’s next question, then, may be, What series of blockbusters did he write to establish his credentials as someone now deemed a screenwriting oracle? The answer is NONE! Yep, Robert McKee has never written a workable script. Let us all chant together the mantra: “Those who can’t do, teach!” (And those who can’t teach, administrate.)

Syd Field is considered the first Screenwriting Guru, and his famous book Screenplay – The Foundations of Screenwriting is sometimes called the Bible of Screenwriting, which would make Field more Prophet than Guru. Syd is now a benevolent Tough Guy, a grandfather-type figure who has calmed down over the years from his wild youth when, as a student at Hollywood High School, he was a member of a “gang” called the Athenians – yeah, a name not quite as menacing as the Bloods – that would inspire the James Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause. He writes cool things like, “Make it the same but different,” meaning that all scripts should be written in the exact same spec script format with the exact same rules of dramatic structure, with a hero who must overcome implacable odds to defeat the villain – i.e., the same ole story – but the story must also be something never before seen on the theatres. Get it?

How many original screenplays have issued from the brain of Syd the Prophet to then reach the viewing public? That would be zero.

Blake Snyder wrote another well-known book of script-writing advice called Save the Cat! This odd title refers to the need, in the first scene, to establish the protagonist as someone the viewer will want to root for over the next two hours. An example would be for the main character, like Ripley in Aliens, to save a cat minutes after the opening credits. Then Snyder dons his Tough Guy leather jacket and brass-knuckles, and writes:

“Can you imagine if the makers of Lara Craft 2 spent $4 on a good Save the Cat scene instead of the $2.5 million they spent developing that new latex body suit for Angelina Jolie? They might’ve done a whole lot better.”

But at least the now deceased Snyder had written a few screenplays that reached production and went on to enjoy a modest success, and those would be Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and Blank Check. True, neither of these films ever entered the minds of the judges at the Academy Awards other than as a template for what NOT to be deemed worthy of a nomination, but Snyder did parley the experience into the more dependable income of scolding novices that they “have to come up with a great idea. And I mean it’s a killer! You have a killer title, a KILLER logline….”

Snyder has inspired me with the idea for a movie called I Failed to Save the Damn Cat! In the opening scene, my hero climbs a tree to save the cat owned by his beautiful woman neighbor, played by, say, Megan Fox, only he drops it on a railroad spike protruding from the ground. Now he must spend the rest of the film trying to make amends with Megan with the goal of winning her stubborn heart, the climax of which is when he must again climb the same tree to save her new cat.

Then there is the how-to book in which the Guru’s Tough Guy street creds are implied in the title, and that title would be the aforementioned Your Screenplay Sucks! by William Akers. Note how both Snyder and Akers depend on exclamation points to drive home their point. Snyder wrote the script that future generations of scribes will aspire to match in terms of wit, emotional impact and transcendent theme – you guessed it, Ernest Rides Again. What’s funny is that Akers brags about his work on Ernest Rides Again. Akers must have caught onto the fact that screenwriting novices and wannabes love to part with their money at the expense of buying food in exchange for being told that they are shit and that the chances of them ever writing a script deemed worthy of production is slimmer than them ever writing a coherent sentence. This is never more apparent than in the introduction where he paints a grim picture of the people who read potential scripts for agents and studios and how they are just looking for a reason to stop reading your magnum opus and thereafter toss it in the trash so they can go do something more enjoyable like “flop by the pool with a delightfully refreshing umbrella drink.”

I had read only one screenwriting book before I had finished writing four scripts in a period of five years, and that was The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trotter, who, unlike his fellow script-wizards, is not a Tough Guy. My former mother-in-law bought me the book, even though I had given little thought to writing screenplays other than creating casual skits for my acting class. But Trotter made it seem like a doable enterprise if only you followed certain rules, above all the unyielding three-act format that includes “beats,” which are the Catalyst, Big Event, Pinch, Crisis, Showdown and Realization. So I put a paperclip on page 83-84, which offered a summary of these “critical events” and at what page-number they should occur in a 90-120-page screenplay, and proceeded to churn out my own scripts whenever I had time between working at my blue-collar job, raising kids and getting a degree in biology at UMass-Boston.

I moved to Denver from Boston in 2013 and that was when I encountered another species of Script Guru — that is, the local Script Guru who has done nothing worthwhile in the Business other than to start a Meetup group. I joined such a group two years ago but ended up attending only four meetings. I introduced myself to this group as someone who had written three screenplays (excluding my first one), all of which had reached the quarterfinals in various screenwriting competitions (more later on this method of preying on desperate writers), and one of which had done so in the prestigious Academy Nicholl Fellowship – and this after having only read one how-to book, The Screenwriter Bible. One guy spoke for the whole group when he asked me how it was possible that I had read only one how-to book and had never, until today, met a single other script writer, but had somehow managed to place high in the Academy Nicholl Fellowship?

My answer was that, yes, one must read books to understand the art of storytelling, but NOT books on screenwriting outside of learning the rudiments of script formatting. The books one must imbibe and internalize are all the great works of literature, all of human history, all of science – in short, one should KNOW the entire scope of the human condition through vast erudition. Then the ideas for stories, or how to dream up a way out of a stagnant scene, will always be floating around in your rich pool of neural connections. Most important, to be well read enables one to spot an old already worn idea that you may have initially thought had issued from your own noggin, and thus avoid embarrassment. Of course, the other members of the group, especially our uncomprehending hostess, most of whom got all their inspiration from comic books and video games and Facebook comments, looked at me as the arrogant curmudgeon who still went to libraries for the purpose, get this, of borrowing books rather than the DVDs, poor not-keeping-up-with-the-superficial-times guy. More likely, I came off as a Tough Guy.

It turned out that, on a table situated in the middle of our circle, sat Trotter’s book along with a host of other ones that I was seeing for the first time. These titles included “The Foundations of Screenwriting” by Syd Field and “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder, and all were put there by our hostess. I decided after this first meet-up that I would read Syd Field and Blake Snyder – why not, at this point in the game?

Our hostess, the local Guru, was a woman who had absolutely no writing talent, no sense of humor, but who made money from the rest of us by collecting our annual dues. This lady had read all the books, taken all the courses, watched all the instructional YouTube videos – in fact, she was still shoveling out cash for any class that came down either the cyber or geographical pike, but all the technical knowledge gleaned from first and second tier Gurus did nothing to compensate for her lack of “feel” for how to write an original, stimulating composition.

At our meetings, she would give us diagrams of the three-act structure and the page numbers of where to place the beats — all copied from the experts — but leave out the more important lesson on what it takes to be a true writer, which is someone born with a sense of poetry and drama, to say nothing of an inherent emotional range that enables one to tell a good story with ups and downs and a rousing conclusion. We would take turns group-reading scenes a few of us had brought from our works in progress. Our hostess had the annoying tendency to interrupt and respond to these readings with quotes lifted verbatim from either Syd Field or the Save-The-Cat guy. In other words, she had given the matter no original thought, hence why she could not write an original screenplay. She had no actual feel for telling a story.

The moment she lost me for good was when she interrupted, again, the reading of one of my scenes to ask, with total authoritative disdain, why I had used the term “purloined gun,” when perhaps “shiny gun” would’ve been a better, easier way to describe the object? I answered with even loftier disdain that “purloined” meant “stolen” not shiny, while restraining from calling her a stone-cold fraud.

Then again, various Gurus have critiqued me for using a full vocabulary and sound grammar in my descriptions, since it is imperative that professional script readers understand my meaning. And here is where I am in the sane minority for believing that professional readers and writers, or those aspiring to either of these trades, should, of all the people in the world, know grammar and vocabulary, right? Or am I being crazy?

This just demonstrates how being a Screenwriting Guru – i.e., one who is compensated for offering movie script advice – is simply a matter of following an algorithm. Are the beats of the story in place? If yes, then do we want to root for the protagonist? Does he or she Save the Cat? Next, is there a strong antagonist that will offer the viewer catharsis when the hero vanquishes this villain? Okay, then, let’s move down to the next line of code: Are the minor characters instrumental is moving forward the action? Or are they superfluous to the story? If the latter, then eliminate these fictional wastrels or combine them into a single character, much how Spike Lee fused three actual people in The Autobiography of Malcolm X into one man, Baines. But what happens if the Guru reaches the end of the algorithm with no calls to jump to the concluding print-command of “This needs a lot of work, so pay me another few hundred dollars and WE will improve your script.”? Easy. What he now does is dismiss, with a snooty flourish, the whole script because it “doesn’t work for” him, when in fact he just lacks the worldview, or weltanschauung, to comprehend a dramatic theme more complex than an Adam Sandler movie, much like how a shallow Millennial, pursing his lips, will “write” a negative review in the commentary section of a YouTube video about a cartoon lunchbox using misspelled words and the English grammar of dyslexic Uzbekistanian nationalist.

Okay, Mr Sour-Grapes-because-he’s-never-made-a-dime-from-his-scripts (that would be me), would this algorithm work in real life? To this question, I reply that algorithms are already being used in the medical field to diagnose disease, and in the legal profession to search for just the right precedent to argue a case. All I can say is look out Script Gurus, for a robot will soon have your job, and then the gig is up!

Another “successful” screenwriter is the person who will rewrite YOUR story at the behest of the studio, if only to remove YOUR one great line of dialogue and replace it with their own line as dictated to them by their talking dog. Then comes the soul-crushing step in the process when your name is deleted from the credits to make room for the re-write man or woman who did the yeoman’s work of replacing a period with an empty space, since, in their opinion, a run-on sentence is more cinematic than a series of cogent sentences.

There are a lot of good consultants who really will give your script a competent reading and then write a detailed analysis that demonstrates that they truly did understand the method to your self-involved madness. Of course, they always end it with how “we” still need to do a lot of work on this script if it’s to be pitched, without the risk of humiliation, to an agent or a studio. I thrice used Christina Gray from the Los Angeles by way of Texas and truly appreciated her dependability and competence. In fact, she was the one who advised me to join a screenwriter group, the difference being that her group in L.A. was comprised of people with actual writing credits in Hollywood, while my…well, you know the story. She was the one who called me out for being a bad proofreader of typos, as it has been demonstrated that I can read one of my own passages ten times and still miss the use of the word “it” for what I meant to be “at.” And Christina eats, sleeps and breaths the Hollywood culture, since, as she told me, yes, it’s possible to sell a script from outposts like Boston and Denver, but c’mon, Jim, the reality is you have to be close to the action, to the agents and the studios to make it in the Biz. Blake Snyder said the same thing, but in a more belligerent way.

So why then did I move on from Christina and twice use Coverage, Ink for analysis? For one, the resident founder and Guru, Jim Cirile, offered the prospect of placing a script with a passing grade to a studio; and, two, his services cost less due to the division of labor at his factory of readers.

The last way to Succeed in the Screenwriting Business is to host a Screenwriting Contest, to which I have been an eternal sucker. I have donated much of my paltry salary to these competitions, in part because I reached the quarterfinals a number of times…but NEVER the semis…oh but so close, dammit, so, yeah, let me pay out another entry fee and maybe this time I will get that email that lists my name as a semi-finals winner. Chump!

Then you have Gordy Hoffman, who is both a script consultant AND operates a screenwriting contest, the well-known BlueCat Screenwriting Competition. That is a man who knows how to succeed in the Business!

One may be curious to know what the Gurus and Gordy Hoffman (the BlueCat gives every entrant a complimentary analysis) had to say about my own screenplays, what was their consensus opinion on the writer, James Francis Johnson? To them, I suffer from two flaws: One, my villains are not villain-esque enough. In my defense, I do not believe in simple good and evil, just degrees of stupidity and selfishness. Therefore, I made a conscious effort to invest my bad guys with multi-dimensional aspects rather than make them one-dimensionally Evil. Still, in the end, I obeyed the Gurus, and, in my movie about social media run amok, I transformed the Steve Jobs-like antagonist from a not-so-bad-once-you-get-to-know-him, egomaniacal pain in the ass into a guy with only the one predictable goal of seeking power for the mere sake of innovation. In my story about the Christian girl trying to make it in Hollywood with the help of a Little Person writing her a raunchy stand-up routine, Jim Cirile, or one of his reader-cogs, advised that I make the girl’s pastor father an all-out terrorist, but I have yet to revise that one.

My second chronic problem is that I am too in love with grand ideas that I tend to express using too many secondary and tertiary characters; and so, to borrow a quote from Arthur Quiller-Couch, I have had to “kill my darlings.” I heeded this advice in two total rewrites of my gangster/Greek Odyssey script that takes place in my hometown of Philadelphia (hence my aversion to Tough Guys) when I replaced my protagonist with a more Homeric character and then omitted the disgraced former baseball player, Pete Rose, from both the story and the title. Perhaps when I write I Failed to Save the Damn Cat!, the silliness of the subject alone will prevent me from introducing complex ideas on the meaning of Life and the Universe – although I can see how a dead cat pierced by a railroad spike can be used as a metaphor for Beauty being rendered Ugly by an unthinking Universe.

There was another common point that all the consultants and contest readers made about my work. They all gave me high grades for Originality, which I will take any day of the week over being deficient at spotting typos. It reminds me of the story of when pre-fame Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood auditioned for the same part. They were both rejected but for different reasons, Burt because he couldn’t act and Clint because he had an oversized Adam’s apple. The two of them left the studio together and were walking down the street when Burt said to Clint, “You know, I can learn to act, but I don’t know what you’re going to do about that Adam’s apple.” In short, we originals can learn technical stuff about beats and formatting, but I don’t know what the big-Adam-appled Gurus are going to do about their lack of imagination.

At present, I do belong to a screenwriter group that was formed when three ladies, all Colorado natives, and I seceded from the group organized by the Local Guru who thought the word “purloined” meant “shiny.” We meet every other Sunday at a Whole Foods and none of us bring diagrams or screenwriting books. What we do is table-read scenes and then offer commentary devoid of tough guy inflection. We make light of the whole screenwriting guru racket, though we are all guilty of feeding the beast. One member, not long ago, was ecstatic when none other than Gordy Hoffman volunteered – for a fee, of course – to read her script. Then she became flummoxed when Gordy wanted to change her favorite part, the ending, her “darling.” But now she is back to work still determined to get to Hollywood. Another member is in the process of reworking an ingenious script we have decided should best be described as a supernatural lesbian love story. And the last member writes hilarious skits that rival anything on SNL, but when it comes time to expand the concepts into a full-blown TV pilots, she instead brings us a few more original short scripts that have issued from her fertile mind. What the four of us have in common is that we have rich imaginations and excellent senses of humor, which, really, are the main prerequisites to becoming a good writer. The hypocritical part of our group’s dynamic is that I play the role of the beats and format scourge, but only because I am the only one, until Gordy entered our world, to have been through the analysis grind; as such, I want them to hear it, first, from the far nicer me than the Tough Guy Gurus.

This Fab-Four, huddled around our table in Whole Foods in Denver, are afforded a beautiful view of the Rocky Mountains. We are all aware that over them thar’ hills is a straight, clear road through Utah and Nevada that leads to Hollywood, CALIFORNIA, like the Gold Rush of yore. Therefore, it is just a matter of staying committed to our unique cinematic visions while knowing which tips from the Gurus to accept as true and which ones to discard as nonsense coming from “experts” who have never themselves written a successful screenplay – yes, it is just a matter of us navigating the peaks and valleys of the screenwriting process in order to reach that flat road to Paradise.

Every aspiring screenwriter from all over the world wants to be compensated for their herculean hard work however much this dream becomes a retreating mirage with each passing year and each fee paid for a book, a seminar, a contest. It gets to the point where, like a client of a dominatrix, you begin to think you deserve to be punished by the harsh, unforgiving world of Hollywood; or that, like a wage-slave at the lower rungs of the economic realm, you accept that your masters will, and should, reap all the benefits of your long hours of toil, except that at least the wage-slave does receive some money.

That is when the unsuccessful screenwriter may want to consider joining the ranks of the exploiters and become a Guru. All it takes is some bluster and an entrepreneurial spirit and a know-it-all attitude, even if you don’t know squat.

This article could be considered the work of a Guru, even a Tough Guy, if only I had been paid a cent (which is less than a dime) – and so, like all the other Hollywood wannabes, I will continue chasing the retreating mirage of becoming a Screenplay Writing Success.

 

(Please check out my writer website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

Good Looking Faces on LinkedIn

 

Michelle P

Does either a pretty face on a woman, or a handsome visage on a man, guarantee a more lucrative professional career? I ask this because of the profile pictures on LinkedIn, many of which seem like they were taken by a hired photographer bent on making their otherwise humdrum clients look more like glamorous supermodels than people competent in their chosen job skill.

True, Edward has a decent resume in Information Technology, and the more brilliant Peter could hack into the NSA if he lacked ethics, BUT Edward’s shiny photo shows a man a few plucked eyebrow hairs away from appearing on the cover of GQ, while Peter, on his LinkedIn page, features an image taken on his smart phone into a foggy mirror just prior to shaving after a hot shower and depicts a man closer, in appearance, to Woody Allen than to Dylan McDermott. Guess who would get the first interview from an IT company because his face brims with “dynamic confidence” and the hint of someone comfortable in his own skin and therefore more apt to be a team player regardless of Edward’s real-life narcissism? Hint: Edward. Another hint: not Peter.

Then there are the LinkedIn profiles of women who, to be honest, could very well be models if their careers in marketing or acupuncture should ever fail to pay the bill just received from their high-end photographer. I clicked on a few of these profiles – first because I did indeed find them attractive to the point of imagining them and me walking down the marriage aisle, and, second, because I wanted to test my hypothesis that they had more “professional contacts” than did less striking ladies in the same field. The reader may guess the answer. The gorgeous and cosmetically made-up Janet, a real estate agent in a modest-sized town in Iowa, has five times more “contacts” than the jowly Sarah plying her desperate trade in the heavily populated Austin, Texas.

I have a “friend” who could very well be the most beautiful fifty-ish-year-old woman on the planet. (You can see for yourself on the blog that I wrote called The All-American Girl.) One day she was telling me about the professional prospects of her daughter, and I quote: “First she’s VERY pretty….and she’s a good at her job….” To underline the obvious, she led with how her daughter’s inherent beauty mattered more than any other factor in her ability to make money.

My own LinkedIn photo was taken by my brother, on my iPhone, in front of a clown statue.

I have a B.S. in Biology at Umass Boston, and it was in my Evolution class that I wrote a paper that scientifically supports my argument. I converted it to a humor-laden blog that the reader, if she or he is willing to continue hanging on my every word, can peruse on the following link: Sexual Selection.

Of course, there have been so many studies that demonstrate that male height and female beauty are advantageous to climbing the economic ladder that only a contrarian with chronic migraines would dismiss as just an opinion. So for all you average-looking job-seekers, remember that a good photographer and better lighting — and Photoshop –could very well be more beneficial to your career than actual competence.

(Check out my writer website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

The Blues in Trenton

Trenton Makes

(Here is an excerpt from my book, THE EDUCATION OF A WHITE BOY)

Two miles northeast of Levittown is a small bridge spanning the Delaware River that, along its south side, bears this rickety message: “TRENTON MAKES THE WORLD TAKES.” I never met anyone in Levittown or in Trenton, New Jersey who was able to explain this locally famous blurb except to joke, What did Trenton ever manufacture, aside from poor quality drugs, that was so coveted by the rest of the planet? The real story was that the sign was affixed to the bridge in 1935 as the result of a contest as to who in the area could come up with a catchy slogan that would flatter the Trenton Chamber of Commerce.

The most famous resident in Trenton’s history was Ruben Carter, the former world-class middleweight boxer who languished in Trenton State Prison from 1967 to 1986 on a trumped-up charge of murder. White cops, white lawyers and white judges had assumed that an angry black man, Carter, must have committed the homicide, and if not, he should be incarcerated anyway for being black and angry. To get a better idea of what Trenton looks like, rent the movie Hurricane, a biopic of Carter starring Denzel Washington, and study the scene in which Dan Hedaya, playing the cop who set up Ruben, confronts friends of the accused man right outside the prison. Take the street and neighborhood as framed in the background and multiply it by eight square miles, and there is Trenton. In other words, Trenton is not a very attractive city.

In 1978-79, I worked just over the Trenton-Makes Bridge in the New Jersey State House as an apprentice printer. I was eighteen-years-old, and, to me, Trenton was an urban paradise to be explored in the same spirit as would a Victorian British gentleman traipsing into Central Africa – if, that is, I spoke proper English and this sentence did not sound so racist. The print shop was located downstairs from Governor Brendan Byrne’s office, which added another level of romanticism to my white trash imagination.

In Delhaas, I was one of a handful of students who had not partaken of drugs and alcohol. I had been obsessed with staying clean and healthy. Now I became obsessed with undoing the non-damage, of sowing the oats that had lain dormant in my loins – assuming that the loins are the storage unit for oats — while my Delhaas comrades were over-plowing the fields of drugs and alcohol. The drinking age in Jersey back then was eighteen, and so I began frequenting dive bars with the dedication of a first-year medical student whose long-term goal is to cure cancer. What better way to go slumming than in the greatest of slums, the anti-paradise called Trenton?

This also marked a lightening in my attitude toward African-Americans – for a number of reasons. 1) I was out of Delhaas. In Trenton, I met and consorted with older blacks, who, unlike my former black classmates, did not launch metal objects at my ass from homemade cannons, or conduct other terrorist activities toward little white boy, Jim. 2) I became close friends with two black co-workers. 3) To repeat, I beheld Trenton, a black town, with the same teenage romanticism that convinces high school girls that early pregnancy will transform them into the star of their own movie. And 4) this was when I first learned of the blues. The result of all these factors was that I stopped saying nigger, at least for a while, thereby reducing my vocabulary to thirty-two words, seventeen of which were slang.

My first day on the job, the Italian foreman asked for my last name. When I told him, he snorted: “Johnson? Ain’t that a jigaboo name?” That was the last racist comment I was to hear in the shop, as everyone stayed on their best behavior, given that, of our eight-man crew, two were black and one was Puerto Rican. The oldest of the brothers was Jason, a recent honorable discharge from the Navy. We worked side by side in bindery. He had sailed around the world twice and regaled me with oceanic myth, of exotic locales, of international ports so seedy as to make Trenton look like Beverly Hills, and of wine, women and song. Everyone else in the shop paid him no mind, whereas, to me, he was Marco Polo and Alexander the Great wrapped into one black skin. He was always trying to win me over to the adventurous life. If the military was not for me, then there were other ways in which to see places beyond Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Jason’s sales pitch grew more eloquent with each passing day. My imagination became inflamed with the prospect of meeting strange new people in dramatic settings and thereby attaining mystical knowledge. Travel would be my way of breaking the chains of my narrow, steel mill town environment and reach Nirvana. Then one day, as if inspired by his own evangelism, Jason quit the State House to join the Merchant Marine. His last words to me were: “Do it while you’re young. Time is short.”

The other African-American printer was a kid named Peter. We were the same age and shared a more equitable relationship than the grasshopper-to-master way in which I bowed to Jason. Peter was a native Trentonian. He was forever in dress clothes, not advisable in the printing industry, and was soft spoken and had an easy, unruffled manner. We were inseparable for the better part of a year. I valued his calm, smooth personality, and he my ability to make him laugh. He was under the impression that I was not quite right in the head. I would provoke him into laughing jags so long as to take valuable time away from his clothes shopping, after which, once he wiped away the tears, he would say: “Jim, you’re crazy.” He was such an easy audience that all I had to do was yell “motherfucker” at my rickety press and he would go into hysterics.

Peter was Virgil to my Dante as we explored the alcoholic Inferno of Trenton. We would sit down at a white bar with the regulars who would not know what to make of our salt and pepper friendship, and especially what to make of this dapper young nigger. But Peter’s irresistible charm would soon allay their suspicions. They would even, at times, buy him a beer. On the other hand, when we entered a black tavern, my chalky skin was forgiven thanks to my partner. If a brother, in this case Peter, thought the white boy, me, was cool, then the white boy was all right in the eyes of the black assemblage, no questions asked.

Delhaas had brainwashed me into regarding all African-Americans as the same – wild and sadistic maniacs. Now, during my jaunts with Peter, I came to realize that there really was no difference between black and white people – yes, I know that sounds like something from the mouth of a West Virginian Baptist following a dinner at the home of a “colored” member of the congregation – but the point here is that I was heretofore a total ignoramus. It really was a revelation to see that black people had regular lives, a steady diet of ups and downs, grim duties toward job and family, and each personality was distinct from the rest (this last revelation being the most violent assault to my previous worldview). Not one black Trentonian seemed bent on grinding my face into the wall and kicking my ribs in for sheer amusement, as in high school. There was the businessman, who, quiet and severe, brooded for an hour over a gin and tonic preparatory to going home to the nuclear family; the two chefs talking shop and getting passionate about sauces and the correct way to marinate a steak; the female college student determined not to follow the path of her two beaten down siblings; the matron supervisor of an N.J. State department, who, knowing my difficult boss on a first name basis, told Peter and me that she felt bad for us.

Sometimes we would include our Puerto Rican co-worker on our itinerary. We became a Welcome Back Kotter episode in which the classroom was a seedy tavern, and the Mr. Kotter character was played by a pockmarked African-American bartender spitting tobacco into a soda can. Nor did we, the kids, fit our respective stereotype. I was a white kid who did not aspire to a mustache, a pick-up truck and a child out of wedlock. Peter was a black kid who sucked at basketball and whom even I could beat in a fight. And the Puerto Rican had not an iota of Latin animation, and, if truth be told, he was more boring than a Rotary Club president, AND, to prove it, he wore thick glasses. This was not the Mod Squad.

Another of our crewmates was a fifty-year-old white man named Joe. He saw himself as someone not defined by his trade as a printer. He was a photographer, an artiste, Trenton’s answer to Walker Evans. He had won a trip to Hawaii in a contest sponsored by Kodak during the previous year. Now he was groping for a new idea for the next competition. One day he announced that Peter and I would be called on to pose for his next masterpiece. The photo would feature two hands, one black and one white, reaching toward each other in a rescue effort of some sort – yeah, a total cliché. It would signify how we were all brothers, blah, blah, blah, in need of a helping hand, a hallmark message that just so happened to coincide with Joe’s own need for a free, all-expense paid vacation. Peter and I started to back away until Joe offered to reward us with food. At lunch break, the three of us drove across the Trenton-Makes Bridge to find a suitable location.

In Morrisville, along the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, was a steep embankment of giant flattened rocks. There we set to work under Joe’s perfectionist lash. Peter and I had assumed that the shoot would take all of five minutes and that the free sandwiches would be ours in ten. It takes only a second to snap the shutter, right? Wrong. We were there well beyond our one-hour break, most of which, for Peter and me, was spent lying head to head on frigid stones extending our hands toward one another like some Northeast Corridor version of God touching hands with Adam on the Sistine Chapel. Meanwhile, the fifty-year-old Joe scampered up and down the slope imploring us, like a mad movie director, to invest our hands with more emotion, more sincerity. He suggested that we imagine ourselves in a life and death struggle. We told him that, with our stomachs now shrinking to nil, imagination was no longer necessary. Joe’s added to the grind with his uncertainty as to which hand should be reaching downward to save the other from sliding into the raging waters. This required that Peter and I alternate positions so as to give our taskmaster a strong visual. Soon we were yelling up into the hovering monomaniacal face of the artiste to just – pah-leeze! – take the motherfuckin’ picture! At last the shutter clicked, but it was not until the next day that Joe bought us lunch, one that should have included an extra order of fries for the overtime. The result of our grand sacrifice to art was a black hand offering succor to the white. It won Joe and his wife a second trip to Hawaii. And who said racism wasn’t lucrative?

Before Jason and Peter became a part of the crew, we in the shop had been in the habit of annexing the word boy to the name of whomever it was being accosted in the hardy, slap-on-the-back way fashionable in the unfashionable blue-collar world. For instance, I was hailed as Jimmy-boy, while our bindery supervisor was met with Freddy-boy. Even Joe, who had reached the half-century mark in age, was referred to as Joey-boy, though on the day of the rocky slope I wanted to call him Fuck-head-boy. Yet toward Jason and Peter such a display of camaraderie was off limits, however much they were looked upon as comrades. One usually refrains from calling a good friend with acne “Pizza Face,” and so with an African-American buddy sensitive to the not far distant past when boy meant chattel. What had been a fun and unifying custom became a source of group discomfort.

…………………..

 

I was now accustomed to the Trenton ghetto scene, which emboldened me to test the gritty urban waters without Peter’s Virgilian guidance, as if Dante had retreated from Purgatory and went back, alone, into the Inferno. This was not as dangerous as it may sound to those reading this in Iowa. I had learned in Delhaas that to act crazy, like someone who may, with the right emotional trigger mechanism, run a stake through the heart of a vending machine, was to be draped in protective armor. As long as I showed no fear and behaved in a direct manner, with no phony apologies, the patrons at the black bars in Trenton, upon my walking in unescorted by a black sponsor, would defer judgment and a good ass-kicking. There was also the chance that I was a cop. This suspicion would dissipate once I got to talking with everyone and it became clear that not only was I not the Man but that I was a boy, a kid, who hated the Man as did their patron saint, Ruben “Hurricane” Carter. Toward the end of the night, my newfound drinking companions would bestow on me the ultimate accolade: one crazy white boy – and that was my ticket anywhere in the city.

My favorite Trenton hangout was located right smack in the middle of the darkest slum, though its regular nighttime clientele was of mixed hue. It was called Billy Dee’s The Rum Runner, which, in its heyday, when giants walked the Earth, featured on its creaky stage the greatest blues guitarist ever to remain in obscurity — Joe Zook, short for Joe Zookarelli. Perhaps the world was ready to accept an Englishman, Eric Clapton, as an heir to T-Bone Walker and Elmore James, but not an Italian from Trenton. That did not stop our little clique of Jersey-ites from putting him at the top of our list.

How I came to The Rum Runner and the blues was simple: The inclination had always been there, needing only time and various hints to point me in the direction of the holy mountain. The inclination was the huge melancholic streak that had plagued me since birth, and the hints were supplied by my two favorite rock bands: Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. On Zeppelin’s maiden album, two of the songs, “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” were written by an old black Chicago bluesman, Willie Dixon, and the name “The Rolling Stones” was lifted verbatim from a tune from Dixon’s mentor, Muddy Waters, called “Rollin’ Stone.” When Mick Jagger and Keith Richard did “You Gotta Move” or “Love in Vain,” all covers of old blues standards, they struck an instant chord within my somber teenage head.

At the time, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters were, to me, just mythological names in parentheses on Zeppelin and Rolling Stones records. They were old black guys who had done something bluesy on the other side of the Rock n’ Roll Great Divide of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, and, in my then ignorant opinion, it had taken the superior talent of Jimmy Page and Richard to transform their primitive songs into something palatable, if not grand. That they had been working musicians playing to wild crowds, albeit not on the scale of football stadiums, was too farfetched an image to be comprehended by this child of the Beatles, as how other children refuse to believe that their parents once had sex on top of car hoods. I was wrong.

Dixon and Waters operated on the future side of another musical Great Divide, the one separating their own Chicago blues style of the Fifties from the Mississippi Delta blues of the Twenties and Thirties, the origin of the blues. Its deepest roots were in slave and Jim Crow culture. Blacks chanted their sorrow in the fields and at home in their shacks as oppressed people with no recourse to anything except their voices. At a time when psychoanalysis was inventing ways for bourgeois whites to complicate their psychic pain, these folks opted to embrace their troubles and turn them into art, into beautiful stirring music. Then black professional singers and musicians took up the mantle and began spreading the blues gospel. They were not human chattel like their parents, but Jim Crow was in the process of consolidating its hold over the South, especially in the Mississippi Delta, and so the pain in the words and voices were no less real.

In 1920, Mamie Smith recorded what many call the first blues song called “Crazy Blues.” Three years later her rival, the great Bessie Smith (no relation), did “Down Hearted Blues.” The vaudevillian, Ma Rainey, had influenced both these ladies. This triumvirate represented the era when the blues was voice-driven, usually female.

That changed in the Twenties with Charlie Patton, followed by Son House and Robert Johnson. Enter the guitar as a key accompaniment to lyrics that had by now become standardized: the first line was recited twice and then answered by a qualifying second line. Fifty years later, Led Zeppelin would amass post-perestroika-oil-baron-like riches by filching ideas and, in some cases, whole sentences from these musicians who had all played and died in utter poverty. One of my all-time favorite tunes by Plante and Page was “When the Levee Breaks.” It turned out that it was based on a number of old blues songs inspired by the Mississippi Flood of 1927. Charlie Patton’s best-known tune was called “High Water Everywhere — Parts I and II.” In another so-called Zeppelin original, “The Lemon Song,” Plante groans “…squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg…” – words lifted verbatim from Robert Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Bob Dylan, the greatest lyricist of modern times, in “Corrina, Corrina,” says: “I got a bird that whistles, I got a bird that sings…” Johnson crooned the exact same declaration in “Stones in My Passway.” At least Eric Clapton had the decency, when recording “Crossroads,” to credit Robert Johnson.

Then came the aforementioned Great Divide separating the Mississippi and Chicago blues. It started when the acoustic guitar was replaced by the electric guitar. The pioneer in this transition was T-Bone Walker, a Texan who made his way out to California and then the world. He was as much a showman as a musician. He would jump around on stage making his guitar talk, prefiguring Chuck Berry. In 1947, he hit it big with the now classic recording of “Stormy Monday Blues.”

The biggest change was when the blues and its practitioners of the Deep South migrated north, first to Beale Street in Memphis, then to Chicago. In 1943, a tractor driver from Clarksdale, Mississippi, got on a train bound for Chicago, with the urge to export the music that his native Delta seemed to grow with more productivity than cotton, though, in a sense, the latter helped nurture the former. His name was Muddy Waters, and he was an apostle of Son House. Throughout the Fifties he ruled the South Side. But Muddy differed from most kings, to say nothing of most musical artists, in that he was selfless and generous to a fault. He hired Willie Dixon as a writer and occasional band member, and was thrilled when the student took off on his own and became a mentor to others. All that concerned Muddy was that the blues, the good word, be preached to the masses. He also helped launch Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter, going so far as to convince the Juvenile Court to appoint him as guardian to the wild and talented Junior Wells to keep the kid on the straight and narrow so as to enable him to contribute to the blues.

It was the custom on the South Side that whenever a new talent arrived, usually from the Delta and other southern locales, Muddy was summoned to get a firsthand look. If he liked what he heard, he would do all he could to kick-start another career. In 1957, a kid from Louisiana showed up in town flat broke with the dream of knocking them dead as a guitarist. By now, Muddy’s reign had lasted longer than a two-term President’s. He rushed over right away to welcome the rube to Chicago and listen to what he could do on the six-string. But the most telling part was that Muddy – in a very un-regal-like act — brought along salami and bread in case the kid was hungry. The kid was Buddy Guy, who went on to inherit from Waters the role of the South Side’s Godfather of the Blues.

In 1978, I knew nothing of this history (much of which I later learned from the excellent book The History of the Blues by Francis Davis) and was oblivious to Muddy Waters, who, on the summit of the second Great Divide, hit the nail on the head when he sang: “The Blues had a baby and they called it Rock n’ Roll.” Still, Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, babies of the blues, had offered me a clue as to their mysterious mama. Now this short and stocky Italian from Trenton, Joe Zook, was shoving me even closer to the bluesy matriarch with renditions of songs straight from the womb.

In a book called Really the Blues, written by Mezz Mezzrow in 1946, the author describes his twenty-year quest to do the impossible – be a white man who can play the blues on his clarinet. The odds are stacked against him. He explains how the “white man is a spoiled child, and when he gets the blues he goes neurotic. But the Negro never had anything before and does not expect anything now, so when the blues get him he comes out smiling and without evil feeling.” With the white man, when “he’s brought down he gets ugly, works himself up into a fighting mood and comes out nasty. He’s got the idea that because he feels bad, somebody’s done him wrong, and he means to take it out on somebody. The colored man, like as not, can toss it off with a laugh and a mournful, but not too mournful, song about it.” For two decades, Mezz endures many hardships and yet is never able to play the blues in its purest form. Then, while in prison at the age of forty-one, he is marching through the yard and a feeling swells up inside him and he starts to play the real thing on his clarinet, as the other inmates take notice. Of this beautiful moment, he says: “I had been wandering for twenty years, looking for this fine fabled place, and suddenly I made it, I was home… All the rambling years behind suddenly began to make sense, fitted into the picture: the prison days, the miss-meal blues, the hophead oblivion, the jangled nerves, the reefer flights, the underworld meemies. They were all part of my education…Those twenty years of striving and failing had all gone down into my fingertips, so that now, all of a sudden, I could tickle the clarinet keys and squeeze out the only language in the whole wide world that would let me speak my piece…And you know what my piece was? A very simple story: Life is good, it’s great to be alive! No matter how many times you go hungry, how many times you get a boot in your backside and a club over your head – no matter how tough the scuffle is, it’s great to be alive, brother!”

I was no expert on the difference between authentic blues and cheap imitation, but, to me, a goofy eighteen-year-old white boy swaying in The Rum Runner, Joe Zook sure sounded like the real thing. Perhaps, as a musician condemned to play in every New Jersey dive from Paterson to Camden, Joe, like Mezz, had done the requisite hard time and could now hold his own with any Mississippi bluesman. His talent echoed throughout this fire hazard of a tavern and out into the bitter streets of the Trenton slum. The African-American half of the crowd seemed to appreciate his interpretation of their ancestor’s music, from Charlie Patton to Muddy Waters to BB King. They nodded with heavy eyelids and a cool somberness, in contrast to the white bikers standing alongside them who stomped around like hippos and tossed their heads about in spastic pleasure. Yet both groups drank as one under the banner of Joe Zook. The blues were all about tolerance.

One steady fixture at the Rum Runner was a brother named Francis. I had first seen him outside the State House, in the adjoining park, where every day at lunch hour he played an acrobatic game of Frisbee. It was obvious that he was a non-state worker, as evidenced by the gym shorts and no shirt he wore and the bicycle he kept chained to a tree to transport himself away while the rest of us filed back into the bureaucratic mines. He was balding with a well-manicured, gray-spotted beard, yet had the body of a middle distance runner. He could often be spotted pedaling his bike when not tossing a Frisbee. He was ubiquitous, a black Moby Dick cruising the waters of Trenton, north, south, east and west, sometimes all at once. I started to become curious about this silent man. Does he work? Have a home? Or is his bike both job and home? Was he a deaf mute? One of my co-workers, Markie-boy, had been telling me for months to check out this fantastic blues guitarist, Joe Zook. One Friday night I gave into Markie-boy’s advice and parted the plywood door of The Rum Runner and the first person I saw was Francis sitting by the pool table drinking beer in all his enigmatic splendor.

Joe Zook had yet to mount the stage, but even if he had, my new priority was to get to the bottom of this African-American bicycling freak. I challenged him to a game of pool. He answered: “Yeah, sure. Rack ‘em up.” I fell backward from the shock of hearing a real live voice when I had been expecting sign language, or a grunt. Francis ran the table, as I added excellent hand-eye coordination to his personality profile. The loser, me, bought us a round and so we sat down for some light philosophical dialogue.

He was a dinnertime cook, which explained his shirtless afternoons and nights at The Rum Runner. His apartment, job and the bar were the only places that demanded his presence. A bike was more than adequate for such a lifestyle and helped burn off the Budweiser. He was married once, divorced, and in no hurry to again trod that path, or aisle. Life was good enough without the complications brought on by relationships. Soon Joe Zook plucked his first chord and Francis nodded toward the stage and ceased his monologue. The blues enveloped our table and helped add depth to the camaraderie already under way.

In the coming months, we met often at The Rum Runner. It was Francis who instructed me on the subtleties of pool so that I would never again embarrass myself as on that first night. He excelled in cutting the ball for a bank shot. He would often choose this difficult maneuver over a simple straight shot. This made me question his credo that life should be lived in the easiest and most direct way. Then, to silence my doubts, he taught me how to calculate the angle and to spin the cue ball, and, lo and behold, it was not that risky — and was the prettier shot. If the same objective could be reached just as easy in different ways, opt for the most aesthetic. Art over the utilitarian.

At closing time, I would sometimes offer to put his bike in the back of my pick-up truck (I was still a stereotypical working class Caucasian) and drive him home, it being so late. He would wave me off, saying he had to work off the Budweiser. At two in the morning? I would ask. “Two in the morning, two in the afternoon. What’s the difference?” he would reply, and then jump on the ten-speed and peddle off into the darkness, into the city.

I witnessed only one act of intolerance in all my time at The Rum Runner. Some white, drunk, multi-chinned slob had begun to shout and gesture at Francis. It was difficult to ascertain what had made this goon so mad, for the guy had the vocabulary of a Neanderthal and the delivery of a Neanderthal’s slow-witted brother. Nor did Francis seem to understand what he could have done or said to provoke such a row, as he looked at the cretin with the puzzlement of a father toward a son who has just declared that he hates sports. In an instant, Billy Dee, the white owner, swooped down on the scene, accompanied by every able-bodied guy in the place, and started lecturing this jackass about the ethos of The Rum Runner. It was about people getting along and listening to good music. The guy responded by pointing his thumb toward Francis and uttering the n-word along with a nonsensical qualifier, and, boy, did he ever wish he had stuck to just the qualifier. Everyone moved in on him. Billy Dee poked the guy’s flabby chest while proclaiming that Francis was a valued customer and, better, a good friend, and no one fucked with a friend, especially in his bar. The guy seemed astounded that a white man would come down so hard on a fellow tribal member in defense of a black man. His expression subsided from anger to perplexity to shame – and to him walking out the door with slumped shoulders.

In Delhaas, black and white socialized all the time, but when conflict arose, the line separating the races was thick and defined. Now I saw firsthand that to some adults the line dissolved when friendship was at stake. Billy Dee may not have been a Freedom Rider, but he was a Freedom Fighter. Here at The Rum Runner there would be no tolerance for intolerance.

…………….

 

My printing and drinking career (with no pension plan for either occupation) began in Trenton. Twenty years later, I retired from the drinking life, but not the printing trade. Now three decades have passed since toiling for the New Jersey Treasury Department, and each day I still continue to march off to my thankless job as a pressman to inhale chemicals in the hope that enough brain cells will survive with which to write a book or a screenplay that will free me from having to inhale more chemicals. At times, the days and weeks grow long and dispiriting, and it is then that I recall Joe Zook on that rickety stage, a little sad himself that his own dreams of musical stardom have not materialized in a record contract. His eyes are closed. The crowd goes silent. We are all in this together and the words that issue from an emotional Joe hit us working drones square in the gut. It is the T-Bone Walker’s classic “Stormy Monday Blues:”

 

They call it Stormy Monday,

But Tuesday’s just as bad.

They call it Stormy Monday,

But Tuesday’s just as bad.

Wednesday’s worse

And Thursday’s oh so sad.

 

Well the eagle flies on Friday

And Saturday I go out to play.

The eagle flies on Friday,

On Saturday I go out to play.

Sunday I go to church

And kneel down and pray.

(Visit my website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

The Great Richard Wright

Richard Wright

(Here is an excerpt from my book, THE EDUCATION OF A WHITE BOY)

Richard Wright was the first African-American to write a best-selling novel, Native Son, which came out in 1940. The movie was released in 1986 and, get this, it did not star Denzel Washington (who was too busy on the set of St. Elsewhere and also gearing up for Cry Freedom, a film about Stephen Biko, the black South African dissident who stood up to Apartheid and was then jailed, tortured and died in a Pretoria prison). The black protagonist in Native Son, Bigger Thomas, is not the usual Denzel hero bucking the system with courage and a severe ethical code, or one who rises to literacy through self-discipline. Instead, he is an illiterate thug besieged by social pressures who, in the end, is defeated by the system.

Bigger shares a one-room Chicago apartment with his mother, sister and little brother. The novel starts with the anti-hero engaged in combat – against a rat that has invaded the hearth. He subdues it with a frying pan and in the aftermath holds aloft the fruits of war to his disgusted sister. It only gets worse for Bigger.

It is the height of the Great Depression. He is constricted in every sense of the word – socially, spatially and economically — and hates his family because he knows that they are suffering and that he is “powerless to help them,” but, the narrator says, “the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else.” He feels capable of more than menial labor, for instance believing that he “could fly a plane if” he had the chance, but knows that society will never allow it. This leaves him no other outlet than to commit petty theft – toward other poor blacks. His frustration is such that he wants “to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel like this. If not that, he wanted to blot himself out.”

After the rat scene, he and his friends plan the unthinkable – robbing a white storeowner. This is “territory where the full wrath of an alien white world would be turned loose upon them.” Bigger loses his nerve and, not wanting to admit fear to his running mates, beats and humiliates one of them at knifepoint.

Bigger is alienated from everyone, including black people, though he thrills at the Garveyites preaching on the streets about how the white man can go to hell. In his opinion, his friends and family are deluded patsies, in particular his mother and girlfriend, Bessie. The former blinds herself to reality through the Christian church and the latter through alcohol. He, on the other hand, does not “want to sit on a bench and sing, or lie in a corner and sleep. It was when he read the newspapers or magazines, went to the movies, or walked along the streets with crowds, that he felt what he wanted: to merge himself with others and be a part of this world, to lose himself in it so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black.”

In a sense, it is Hollywood and commercialism that undoes Bigger Thomas. Boris Max, a lawyer, sums it up toward the end of the novel: “How alluring, how dazzling it is! How it excites the senses! How it seems to dangle within easy reach of everyone the fulfillment of happiness! How constantly and overwhelmingly the advertisements, radios, newspapers and movies play upon us! But in thinking of them remember that to many they are tokens of mockery. These bright colors may fill our hearts with elation, but to many they are daily taunts. Imagine a man walking amid such a scene, a part of it, and yet knowing that it is not for him!”

The city relief agency offers Bigger a job as a chauffeur for a white family, the Daltons. He sits in a movie theater to contemplate whether or not to take the job. The film being projected on the big screen is about how the other half, the white half, lives in the lap of privilege, and this inspires Bigger to become excited about the job: “Maybe Mr. Dalton was a millionaire. Maybe he had a daughter who was a hot kind of girl; maybe she spent lots of money; maybe she’d like to come to the South Side and see the sights sometimes. Or maybe she had a secret sweetheart and only he would know about it because he would have to drive her around; maybe she would give him money not to tell.” This mocking fantasy clinches it for Bigger, as he will go and interview for the job.

It turns out that Mr. Dalton is a millionaire, but at the expense of African-Americans. He is a slumlord, who, by refusing to rent to blacks in other neighborhoods (de facto segregation), has created a housing shortage and thus is able to charge the Thomas family through the nose for a hovel crawling with vermin. But Dalton fashions himself a philanthropist because he donates ping-pong tables to the Negro YMCA and hires destitute black boys to be house niggers. Society hails him as a good man. Bigger’s movie theatre fantasy becomes even more true when Mr. Dalton entrusts him with the task of chauffeuring around his pretty and spoiled daughter, Mary; and, yes, she does have a secret lover, a radical Communist, Jan Erlone; and, yes, Bigger does bring them to the South Side.

But the fantasy becomes an inverted nightmare. Bigger is patronized by Mary and Jan, who see in the black boy a chance to demonstrate their open-mindedness and loyalty to the Communist ideal of the brotherhood of man. They insist that Bigger take them to eat fried chicken in the ‘hood. He is grows uncomfortable watching Mary get bombed out of her mind, as she becomes, not a friend to the black masses, but rather a major cock-tease. If Bigger had earlier been aware of the taboo against robbing a white storeowner, then he is now frantic at the greatest taboo of all – a black boy alone with a white girl, especially an inebriated rich one.

Bigger is left no choice but to carry Mary to her room, lest her parents blame him for having got their innocent daughter drunk in some South Side dive. He tucks her into bed and is about to get the hell out of there when the legally blind Mrs. Dalton enters the room calling out Mary’s name. Bigger is now in a frenzied panic, as he knows that if he is discovered in the bedroom of a white woman, regardless of his noble intentions, he will be tried for rape, a crime the white man ranks above murder. He holds a hand, then a pillow, over Mary’s mouth, so she will not betray his presence, as the “white blur” that is Mrs. Dalton moves toward him. Mary dies while Mrs. Dalton stands at the bedside and prays over what she thinks is her sleeping daughter. Then there is the spooky white cat that never stops looking at Bigger.

He takes the corpse to the basement and jams it into the furnace. Afterward, the Daltons and the police scramble to locate Mary, which causes Bigger, for once in his life, to feel in control of events. “The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had somehow been cheated, but had now evened the score.” Then he raises the ante by writing a ransom note implicating Jan as the kidnapper, signing it Red. Even though he gives himself away with the sentence Do what this letter say, the authorities are so stoked up on anti-Communism that they never notice the black vernacular. Bigger enlists the gullible Bessie into the plot. Now that he is grappling one-on-one with white power, he is no longer awed by its reputation. In a perverse way, the murder is bringing focus and wholeness to his life.

Then a reporter, with Bigger standing nearby, discovers Mary’s bones in the furnace. He and Bessie flee to an empty building, where his girlfriend learns that Bigger has murdered Mary Dalton. He becomes scared that she will betray him. He loses control, rapes her and, while she is asleep, bashes her head in with a brick and throws her body down an elevator shaft. Now he is beyond good and evil.

The press and all of white Chicago assume that Bigger raped Mary. Why else would he try to burn the body? And isn’t that what black men do to white women? A citywide lynch mob chases him, in a blizzard (the snow reminding him that whiteness is everywhere), until they corner him on a rooftop, an anti-Christian mount, where “Two men stretched his arms out, as though about to crucify him; they placed a foot on each of his wrists, making them sink deep down in the snow. His eyes closed, slowly, and he was swallowed in darkness.” In the coming weeks, the entire black population will pay for Bigger’s crimes, as hundreds get fired from their jobs and others are beaten by white mobs.

The last third of the book is courtroom drama. Jan is crushed by Mary’s death and also feels guilty about having treated Bigger like a novelty. He enlists a fellow Communist, Boris Max, to represent the defendant. Max tries to impress upon the jury how Bigger was shaped by a racist environment that had stifled his humanity, turning him into a hunted animal, leaving him no opportunity for self-expression save crime. The title Native Son indicates the final product of the America Dream – Bigger Thomas. The chickens have come home to roost, and, Max warns, there is going to be a lot more roosting if white society fails to get its act together in time.

The experienced reader is now dreading a Jack London-Upton Sinclair ending wherein Bigger sees the Leninist god and calls for black and white to join together under the socialist banner. At the very end, Mr. Max (Marx) tries to convince Bigger that his execution will not be in vain, that it may well galvanize and improve this predatory capitalist society. But the narrator has been putting less of his own words into Bigger’s mind until now Bigger is thinking and talking for himself.

“Mr. Max” he says from inside his cell, “you go home. I’m all right…I ain’t trying to forgive nobody and I ain’t asking for nobody to forgive me. I ain’t going to cry. They wouldn’t let me live and I killed…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!…What I killed for 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…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 is horrified by this speech, as the Leninist god has been rejected by a proletariat. He and Bigger, white and black, remain strangers to one another. Max walks away…down the corridor. Bigger smiles “a faint, wry, bitter smile” and hears “the ring of steel against steel as a far door” clangs shut. The end.

No moral uplift here. Native Son will be criticized for the next seventy years, especially by African-Americans, as too bleak a story. They will take extra shots at the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, as having no redeeming value – of not being Denzel. But that was the whole point. For Bigger to have risen from de facto segregation to heroic status would have been to let white America off the hook, and the author had no such intention. In the preface to my copy of the book, Richard Wright explains the genesis of Native Son: “I had written a book of short stories…Uncle Tom’s Children. When the reviews…began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naïve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even banker’s daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears…” How can a writer be taken to task for a premeditated act of literature? When I read the last passage of Native Son, of that steel door slamming shut, I was left numb, as if Richard Wright had chained me to the edge of the racial abyss, taped my eyes open, and shouted: White Man, Listen!

I moved on to Wright’s two autobiographies, Black Boy and American Hunger. The story begins with the four-year-old Richard burning down his house in rural Mississippi in 1912. It ends just after May Day, 1936, in Chicago, as former associates, white men of the American Communist Party, toss him onto a sidewalk for daring to march in their brotherhood parade. Black Boy recounts his first nineteen years in Jim Crow South, while American Hunger tells of young adulthood in the Windy City, made windier in the drafty tenements that that were home to his destitute family, much like the fictional Thomas quartet.

Speeches by Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, histories by Du Bois and Zinn, the polemics of Malcolm X, the mini-bios on Harriet Tubman – they all pointed to, and highlighted, Jim Crow, but it took a novelist, Wright, to put me into the skin of black boy in feudal Mississippi. At some point, a Southern black kid will become cognizant of the Other (Du Bois’ Veil), but prior to that he sees the natural beauty of the Delta, “the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.” Then, amidst this Eden, the Other makes its inevitable appearance, as young Richard hears of a white man who has severely beaten a black boy. He gains, over time, the understanding that, in the South, such an act is common and permitted under the law. He watches as his elders crack under the pressure of Jim Crow. His father abandons the struggle and his family when Richard is six. Two years later, his mother breaks down and is an invalid for life. His grandmother and spinster aunt retreat into the narcotic haze of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Whites murder his uncle with absolute impunity so they can take over his modest saloon business. Another uncle must flee in the middle of the night as the Klan is hot on his trail. Meanwhile, Richard is moved from one poor relative to the next, and an orphanage in between, until, at thirteen, he settles, along with his paralyzed mother, in Jackson, Mississippi, in the house of the Seventh-Day Adventist grandma and aunt, who terrorize him and feed him lard and gravy.

In Jackson, he completes a full year of school. He works at odd jobs to feed himself and to buy school supplies, and, in the process, he runs straight into the scary arms of Jim Crow. One early employer, a white housewife, upbraids him for turning down a plate of moldy, green molasses. At the local brickyard, the owner’s dog sinks his teeth into Richard, who then asks if the infection now spreading is something to worry about, to which the bossman laughs, and says: “A dog bite can’t hurt a nigger.” He tries to learn the optics trade, whereupon two hillbillies threaten his life for daring to fathom the sacred art of lens grinding. The further I got into Black Boy, the more I could feel Wright’s mounting claustrophobia. I had a knot in my stomach throughout the book.

Like Bigger Thomas, Richard is also alienated from, and critical toward, fellow blacks, so that he fits into no group. He is neither house nor field nigger. At one point, he asks “what on earth was the matter with me, why it was I never seemed to do things as people expected them to be done. Every word and gesture I made seemed to provoke hostility.”

But I knew the reason for his alienation. Richard was a born writer, which is a curse as much as a blessing. If the writer is not born into an artistic or scholastic environment, the urge to read and write may remain an unnamable desire, a seed buried under a mound of external ignorance, that will only manifest itself in gnawing rebellion or in creative destruction or in childish delusion. The good news is that whether the frustrated and unwitting artist grows up in a black religious home in Mississippi or white one in Levittown, PA, books will somehow rise up on the horizon of his mind, like a dim North Star, and he will grope forward in that direction until his intellect begins to glow with recognition, when at last he staggers into literary Bethlehem. That he will have arrived late does not matter, for he, too, has gifts to bring.

For Richard, the goal of becoming a writer came early in life, but his immediate surroundings, both black and white, stymied him at every turn. His religious fanatic of a grandmother would not allow him to read anything not pro-God, while the same lady who fed him moldy leftovers scoffed: “You’ll never be a writer. Who on earth put such ideas into your nigger head?” Midway through Black Boy, the older Richard, the narrator now in Bethlehem, laments that this “environment contained nothing more alien than writing or the desire to express one’s self in writing.” Following the dog-bite incident, when it truly hits home that, in the South, he is perceived as an animal, he grows “silent and reserved as the nature of the world in which I lived became plain and undeniable; the bleakness of the future affected my will to study…living as a Negro was cold and hard.” Was his family right to call him a bad seed? “Why was it considered wrong to ask questions?…It seemed inconceivable to me that one should surrender to what seemed wrong…how could one live in a world in which one’s mind and perceptions meant nothing and authority and tradition meant everything?” He graduates from the ninth grade and that is the end of his formal education.

The turning point comes after he escapes Mississippi to the less oppressive, though still Jim Crow, Memphis, Tennessee. He is eighteen-years-old and finds a job at another optics company, but this time he is smart enough not to demonstrate to white co-workers that he is a smart young man. One morning, he is reading the city newspaper and comes across an editorial denouncing the editor of the American Mercury, H.L. Mencken. “I wondered what…this Mencken had done to call down upon him the scorn of the South.” He borrows a library card from the only approachable white man in the optics shop, an Irish Roman Catholic. Then he sits down to read two of Mencken’s books, and a whole universe opens up to him, as the North Star brightens to a glorious beacon of hope. It is through Mencken’s essays and opinions that Richard discovers his literary role models, the naturalists – Dreiser, Hardy and Dostoyevsky. In the novel Babbit by Sinclair Lewis, he learns the foibles and ludicrous thought-process of the blowhard American businessman. In Main Street, Lewis portrays white people in an even more ridiculous light. Richard admits that the act of reading “was like a drug, a dope.” What he “derived from these novels was nothing less than a sense of life itself. All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel…”

American Hunger starts when he migrates to Chicago in 1927. He intensifies his self-education program, though for the next nine years he will remain employed at menial jobs. Along the way, he joins the John Reed Club so to associate with writers, the catch being that he must also develop Communist sympathies. He laughs at the black Communists who lecture on the streets doing bad imitations of Lenin, pounding a right fist into a left palm, and wearing the famous hat. He becomes a member of the Party in 1934, but his artistic nature leads him to clash with its dogmatism. “I could not refute the general Communist analysis of the world; the only drawback was that their world was just too simple for belief.” He is accused of being – gasp! – an intellectual, to which a dumbfounded Richard says: “I sweep the streets for a living.” Later he expounds on this problem: “But there existed in the Western world an element that baffled and frightened the Communist party: the prevalence of self-achieved literacy. Even a Negro, entrapped by ignorance and exploitation – as I had been – could, if he had the will and the love for it, learn to read and understand the world in which he lived.” Hence why, in the end, he is tossed, airborne, from the 1936 May Day parade.

But the eternal loner brushes himself off and, on the last page of American Hunger, heads back home to his desk. He picks up a pencil and holds “it over a sheet of white paper,” and broods that, when the time is ripe, he “will hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”

This is the man who, three years after the Mat Day incident, would finish the chilling portrait of Bigger Thomas. Just as Hemingway claimed that the American novel begins with Huckleberry Finn, so it can be said that the African-American novel dates from Native Son, regardless of how critics of both races have felt about Bigger not being a positive role model. Some critics of the book have scoffed at its contrived plot and clichéd prose, that it is not a refined work of literature. What these aesthetes fail to understand is that only someone who had been denied an education all the way into adulthood could have written Native Son, and because Richard arrived so late in Bethlehem, and even then having to sweep the streets for a living, the writing was not going to measure up to the aristocratic Marcel Proust. This is a book about life by someone who knew all about life before he knew about words.

In 1947, he and his white wife moved to France where he would die in 1960 of a condition which was the opposite of how he had lived for fifty-two years – heart failure. During this time he, like Du Bois, became more interested in international racism. He hung out with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, which led to speculation that he was becoming an Existentialist, forgetting that, years ago, he had created Bigger Thomas, the original existentialist character.

In 1959, Martin Luther King, recovering from a knife wound to his chest inflicted by a deranged woman in New York, was en route to India when he stopped in France to meet the famous Richard Wright. The only distinct memory of the occasion was from Wright’s daughter, Julia, then seventeen, who had never lived in America. Her father called her into the room and asked King to reveal the scar on his chest. Then Wright announced to her: “This is what happens to people in the States who speak up for their rights.”

Richard Wright was the first African-American to write a best-selling novel, Native Son, which came out in 1940. The movie was released in 1986 and, get this, it did not star Denzel Washington (who was too busy on the set of St. Elsewhere and also gearing up for Cry Freedom, a film about Stephen Biko, the black South African dissident who stood up to Apartheid and was then jailed, tortured and died in a Pretoria prison). The black protagonist in Native Son, Bigger Thomas, is not the usual Denzel hero bucking the system with courage and a severe ethical code, or one who rises to literacy through self-discipline. Instead, he is an illiterate thug besieged by social pressures who, in the end, is defeated by the system.

Bigger shares a one-room Chicago apartment with his mother, sister and little brother. The novel starts with the anti-hero engaged in combat – against a rat that has invaded the hearth. He subdues it with a frying pan and in the aftermath holds aloft the fruits of war to his disgusted sister. It only gets worse for Bigger.

It is the height of the Great Depression. He is constricted in every sense of the word – socially, spatially and economically — and hates his family because he knows that they are suffering and that he is “powerless to help them,” but, the narrator says, “the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else.” He feels capable of more than menial labor, for instance believing that he “could fly a plane if” he had the chance, but knows that society will never allow it. This leaves him no other outlet than to commit petty theft – toward other poor blacks. His frustration is such that he wants “to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel like this. If not that, he wanted to blot himself out.”

After the rat scene, he and his friends plan the unthinkable – robbing a white storeowner. This is “territory where the full wrath of an alien white world would be turned loose upon them.” Bigger loses his nerve and, not wanting to admit fear to his running mates, beats and humiliates one of them at knifepoint.

Bigger is alienated from everyone, including black people, though he thrills at the Garveyites preaching on the streets about how the white man can go to hell. In his opinion, his friends and family are deluded patsies, in particular his mother and girlfriend, Bessie. The former blinds herself to reality through the Christian church and the latter through alcohol. He, on the other hand, does not “want to sit on a bench and sing, or lie in a corner and sleep. It was when he read the newspapers or magazines, went to the movies, or walked along the streets with crowds, that he felt what he wanted: to merge himself with others and be a part of this world, to lose himself in it so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black.”

In a sense, it is Hollywood and commercialism that undoes Bigger Thomas. Boris Max, a lawyer, sums it up toward the end of the novel: “How alluring, how dazzling it is! How it excites the senses! How it seems to dangle within easy reach of everyone the fulfillment of happiness! How constantly and overwhelmingly the advertisements, radios, newspapers and movies play upon us! But in thinking of them remember that to many they are tokens of mockery. These bright colors may fill our hearts with elation, but to many they are daily taunts. Imagine a man walking amid such a scene, a part of it, and yet knowing that it is not for him!”

The city relief agency offers Bigger a job as a chauffeur for a white family, the Daltons. He sits in a movie theater to contemplate whether or not to take the job. The film being projected on the big screen is about how the other half, the white half, lives in the lap of privilege, and this inspires Bigger to become excited about the job: “Maybe Mr. Dalton was a millionaire. Maybe he had a daughter who was a hot kind of girl; maybe she spent lots of money; maybe she’d like to come to the South Side and see the sights sometimes. Or maybe she had a secret sweetheart and only he would know about it because he would have to drive her around; maybe she would give him money not to tell.” This mocking fantasy clinches it for Bigger, as he will go and interview for the job.

It turns out that Mr. Dalton is a millionaire, but at the expense of African-Americans. He is a slumlord, who, by refusing to rent to blacks in other neighborhoods (de facto segregation), has created a housing shortage and thus is able to charge the Thomas family through the nose for a hovel crawling with vermin. But Dalton fashions himself a philanthropist because he donates ping-pong tables to the Negro YMCA and hires destitute black boys to be house niggers. Society hails him as a good man. Bigger’s movie theatre fantasy becomes even more true when Mr. Dalton entrusts him with the task of chauffeuring around his pretty and spoiled daughter, Mary; and, yes, she does have a secret lover, a radical Communist, Jan Erlone; and, yes, Bigger does bring them to the South Side.

But the fantasy becomes an inverted nightmare. Bigger is patronized by Mary and Jan, who see in the black boy a chance to demonstrate their open-mindedness and loyalty to the Communist ideal of the brotherhood of man. They insist that Bigger take them to eat fried chicken in the ‘hood. He is grows uncomfortable watching Mary get bombed out of her mind, as she becomes, not a friend to the black masses, but rather a major cock-tease. If Bigger had earlier been aware of the taboo against robbing a white storeowner, then he is now frantic at the greatest taboo of all – a black boy alone with a white girl, especially an inebriated rich one.

Bigger is left no choice but to carry Mary to her room, lest her parents blame him for having got their innocent daughter drunk in some South Side dive. He tucks her into bed and is about to get the hell out of there when the legally blind Mrs. Dalton enters the room calling out Mary’s name. Bigger is now in a frenzied panic, as he knows that if he is discovered in the bedroom of a white woman, regardless of his noble intentions, he will be tried for rape, a crime the white man ranks above murder. He holds a hand, then a pillow, over Mary’s mouth, so she will not betray his presence, as the “white blur” that is Mrs. Dalton moves toward him. Mary dies while Mrs. Dalton stands at the bedside and prays over what she thinks is her sleeping daughter. Then there is the spooky white cat that never stops looking at Bigger.

He takes the corpse to the basement and jams it into the furnace. Afterward, the Daltons and the police scramble to locate Mary, which causes Bigger, for once in his life, to feel in control of events. “The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had somehow been cheated, but had now evened the score.” Then he raises the ante by writing a ransom note implicating Jan as the kidnapper, signing it Red. Even though he gives himself away with the sentence Do what this letter say, the authorities are so stoked up on anti-Communism that they never notice the black vernacular. Bigger enlists the gullible Bessie into the plot. Now that he is grappling one-on-one with white power, he is no longer awed by its reputation. In a perverse way, the murder is bringing focus and wholeness to his life.

Then a reporter, with Bigger standing nearby, discovers Mary’s bones in the furnace. He and Bessie flee to an empty building, where his girlfriend learns that Bigger has murdered Mary Dalton. He becomes scared that she will betray him. He loses control, rapes her and, while she is asleep, bashes her head in with a brick and throws her body down an elevator shaft. Now he is beyond good and evil.

The press and all of white Chicago assume that Bigger raped Mary. Why else would he try to burn the body? And isn’t that what black men do to white women? A citywide lynch mob chases him, in a blizzard (the snow reminding him that whiteness is everywhere), until they corner him on a rooftop, an anti-Christian mount, where “Two men stretched his arms out, as though about to crucify him; they placed a foot on each of his wrists, making them sink deep down in the snow. His eyes closed, slowly, and he was swallowed in darkness.” In the coming weeks, the entire black population will pay for Bigger’s crimes, as hundreds get fired from their jobs and others are beaten by white mobs.

The last third of the book is courtroom drama. Jan is crushed by Mary’s death and also feels guilty about having treated Bigger like a novelty. He enlists a fellow Communist, Boris Max, to represent the defendant. Max tries to impress upon the jury how Bigger was shaped by a racist environment that had stifled his humanity, turning him into a hunted animal, leaving him no opportunity for self-expression save crime. The title Native Son indicates the final product of the America Dream – Bigger Thomas. The chickens have come home to roost, and, Max warns, there is going to be a lot more roosting if white society fails to get its act together in time.

The experienced reader is now dreading a Jack London-Upton Sinclair ending wherein Bigger sees the Leninist god and calls for black and white to join together under the socialist banner. At the very end, Mr. Max (Marx) tries to convince Bigger that his execution will not be in vain, that it may well galvanize and improve this predatory capitalist society. But the narrator has been putting less of his own words into Bigger’s mind until now Bigger is thinking and talking for himself.

“Mr. Max” he says from inside his cell, “you go home. I’m all right…I ain’t trying to forgive nobody and I ain’t asking for nobody to forgive me. I ain’t going to cry. They wouldn’t let me live and I killed…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!…What I killed for 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…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 is horrified by this speech, as the Leninist god has been rejected by a proletariat. He and Bigger, white and black, remain strangers to one another. Max walks away…down the corridor. Bigger smiles “a faint, wry, bitter smile” and hears “the ring of steel against steel as a far door” clangs shut. The end.

No moral uplift here. Native Son will be criticized for the next seventy years, especially by African-Americans, as too bleak a story. They will take extra shots at the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, as having no redeeming value – of not being Denzel. But that was the whole point. For Bigger to have risen from de facto segregation to heroic status would have been to let white America off the hook, and the author had no such intention. In the preface to my copy of the book, Richard Wright explains the genesis of Native Son: “I had written a book of short stories…Uncle Tom’s Children. When the reviews…began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naïve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even banker’s daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears…” How can a writer be taken to task for a premeditated act of literature? When I read the last passage of Native Son, of that steel door slamming shut, I was left numb, as if Richard Wright had chained me to the edge of the racial abyss, taped my eyes open, and shouted: White Man, Listen!

I moved on to Wright’s two autobiographies, Black Boy and American Hunger. The story begins with the four-year-old Richard burning down his house in rural Mississippi in 1912. It ends just after May Day, 1936, in Chicago, as former associates, white men of the American Communist Party, toss him onto a sidewalk for daring to march in their brotherhood parade. Black Boy recounts his first nineteen years in Jim Crow South, while American Hunger tells of young adulthood in the Windy City, made windier in the drafty tenements that that were home to his destitute family, much like the fictional Thomas quartet.

Speeches by Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, histories by Du Bois and Zinn, the polemics of Malcolm X, the mini-bios on Harriet Tubman – they all pointed to, and highlighted, Jim Crow, but it took a novelist, Wright, to put me into the skin of black boy in feudal Mississippi. At some point, a Southern black kid will become cognizant of the Other (Du Bois’ Veil), but prior to that he sees the natural beauty of the Delta, “the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.” Then, amidst this Eden, the Other makes its inevitable appearance, as young Richard hears of a white man who has severely beaten a black boy. He gains, over time, the understanding that, in the South, such an act is common and permitted under the law. He watches as his elders crack under the pressure of Jim Crow. His father abandons the struggle and his family when Richard is six. Two years later, his mother breaks down and is an invalid for life. His grandmother and spinster aunt retreat into the narcotic haze of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Whites murder his uncle with absolute impunity so they can take over his modest saloon business. Another uncle must flee in the middle of the night as the Klan is hot on his trail. Meanwhile, Richard is moved from one poor relative to the next, and an orphanage in between, until, at thirteen, he settles, along with his paralyzed mother, in Jackson, Mississippi, in the house of the Seventh-Day Adventist grandma and aunt, who terrorize him and feed him lard and gravy.

In Jackson, he completes a full year of school. He works at odd jobs to feed himself and to buy school supplies, and, in the process, he runs straight into the scary arms of Jim Crow. One early employer, a white housewife, upbraids him for turning down a plate of moldy, green molasses. At the local brickyard, the owner’s dog sinks his teeth into Richard, who then asks if the infection now spreading is something to worry about, to which the bossman laughs, and says: “A dog bite can’t hurt a nigger.” He tries to learn the optics trade, whereupon two hillbillies threaten his life for daring to fathom the sacred art of lens grinding. The further I got into Black Boy, the more I could feel Wright’s mounting claustrophobia. I had a knot in my stomach throughout the book.

Like Bigger Thomas, Richard is also alienated from, and critical toward, fellow blacks, so that he fits into no group. He is neither house nor field nigger. At one point, he asks “what on earth was the matter with me, why it was I never seemed to do things as people expected them to be done. Every word and gesture I made seemed to provoke hostility.”

But I knew the reason for his alienation. Richard was a born writer, which is a curse as much as a blessing. If the writer is not born into an artistic or scholastic environment, the urge to read and write may remain an unnamable desire, a seed buried under a mound of external ignorance, that will only manifest itself in gnawing rebellion or in creative destruction or in childish delusion. The good news is that whether the frustrated and unwitting artist grows up in a black religious home in Mississippi or white one in Levittown, PA, books will somehow rise up on the horizon of his mind, like a dim North Star, and he will grope forward in that direction until his intellect begins to glow with recognition, when at last he staggers into literary Bethlehem. That he will have arrived late does not matter, for he, too, has gifts to bring.

For Richard, the goal of becoming a writer came early in life, but his immediate surroundings, both black and white, stymied him at every turn. His religious fanatic of a grandmother would not allow him to read anything not pro-God, while the same lady who fed him moldy leftovers scoffed: “You’ll never be a writer. Who on earth put such ideas into your nigger head?” Midway through Black Boy, the older Richard, the narrator now in Bethlehem, laments that this “environment contained nothing more alien than writing or the desire to express one’s self in writing.” Following the dog-bite incident, when it truly hits home that, in the South, he is perceived as an animal, he grows “silent and reserved as the nature of the world in which I lived became plain and undeniable; the bleakness of the future affected my will to study…living as a Negro was cold and hard.” Was his family right to call him a bad seed? “Why was it considered wrong to ask questions?…It seemed inconceivable to me that one should surrender to what seemed wrong…how could one live in a world in which one’s mind and perceptions meant nothing and authority and tradition meant everything?” He graduates from the ninth grade and that is the end of his formal education.

The turning point comes after he escapes Mississippi to the less oppressive, though still Jim Crow, Memphis, Tennessee. He is eighteen-years-old and finds a job at another optics company, but this time he is smart enough not to demonstrate to white co-workers that he is a smart young man. One morning, he is reading the city newspaper and comes across an editorial denouncing the editor of the American Mercury, H.L. Mencken. “I wondered what…this Mencken had done to call down upon him the scorn of the South.” He borrows a library card from the only approachable white man in the optics shop, an Irish Roman Catholic. Then he sits down to read two of Mencken’s books, and a whole universe opens up to him, as the North Star brightens to a glorious beacon of hope. It is through Mencken’s essays and opinions that Richard discovers his literary role models, the naturalists – Dreiser, Hardy and Dostoyevsky. In the novel Babbit by Sinclair Lewis, he learns the foibles and ludicrous thought-process of the blowhard American businessman. In Main Street, Lewis portrays white people in an even more ridiculous light. Richard admits that the act of reading “was like a drug, a dope.” What he “derived from these novels was nothing less than a sense of life itself. All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel…”

American Hunger starts when he migrates to Chicago in 1927. He intensifies his self-education program, though for the next nine years he will remain employed at menial jobs. Along the way, he joins the John Reed Club so to associate with writers, the catch being that he must also develop Communist sympathies. He laughs at the black Communists who lecture on the streets doing bad imitations of Lenin, pounding a right fist into a left palm, and wearing the famous hat. He becomes a member of the Party in 1934, but his artistic nature leads him to clash with its dogmatism. “I could not refute the general Communist analysis of the world; the only drawback was that their world was just too simple for belief.” He is accused of being – gasp! – an intellectual, to which a dumbfounded Richard says: “I sweep the streets for a living.” Later he expounds on this problem: “But there existed in the Western world an element that baffled and frightened the Communist party: the prevalence of self-achieved literacy. Even a Negro, entrapped by ignorance and exploitation – as I had been – could, if he had the will and the love for it, learn to read and understand the world in which he lived.” Hence why, in the end, he is tossed, airborne, from the 1936 May Day parade.

But the eternal loner brushes himself off and, on the last page of American Hunger, heads back home to his desk. He picks up a pencil and holds “it over a sheet of white paper,” and broods that, when the time is ripe, he “will hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”

This is the man who, three years after the Mat Day incident, would finish the chilling portrait of Bigger Thomas. Just as Hemingway claimed that the American novel begins with Huckleberry Finn, so it can be said that the African-American novel dates from Native Son, regardless of how critics of both races have felt about Bigger not being a positive role model. Some critics of the book have scoffed at its contrived plot and clichéd prose, that it is not a refined work of literature. What these aesthetes fail to understand is that only someone who had been denied an education all the way into adulthood could have written Native Son, and because Richard arrived so late in Bethlehem, and even then having to sweep the streets for a living, the writing was not going to measure up to the aristocratic Marcel Proust. This is a book about life by someone who knew all about life before he knew about words.

In 1947, he and his white wife moved to France where he would die in 1960 of a condition which was the opposite of how he had lived for fifty-two years – heart failure. During this time he, like Du Bois, became more interested in international racism. He hung out with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, which led to speculation that he was becoming an Existentialist, forgetting that, years ago, he had created Bigger Thomas, the original existentialist character.

In 1959, Martin Luther King, recovering from a knife wound to his chest inflicted by a deranged woman in New York, was en route to India when he stopped in France to meet the famous Richard Wright. The only distinct memory of the occasion was from Wright’s daughter, Julia, then seventeen, who had never lived in America. Her father called her into the room and asked King to reveal the scar on his chest. Then Wright announced to her: “This is what happens to people in the States who speak up for their rights.”

Richard Wright was the first African-American to write a best-selling novel, Native Son, which came out in 1940. The movie was released in 1986 and, get this, it did not star Denzel Washington (who was too busy on the set of St. Elsewhere and also gearing up for Cry Freedom, a film about Stephen Biko, the black South African dissident who stood up to Apartheid and was then jailed, tortured and died in a Pretoria prison). The black protagonist in Native Son, Bigger Thomas, is not the usual Denzel hero bucking the system with courage and a severe ethical code, or one who rises to literacy through self-discipline. Instead, he is an illiterate thug besieged by social pressures who, in the end, is defeated by the system.

Bigger shares a one-room Chicago apartment with his mother, sister and little brother. The novel starts with the anti-hero engaged in combat – against a rat that has invaded the hearth. He subdues it with a frying pan and in the aftermath holds aloft the fruits of war to his disgusted sister. It only gets worse for Bigger.

It is the height of the Great Depression. He is constricted in every sense of the word – socially, spatially and economically — and hates his family because he knows that they are suffering and that he is “powerless to help them,” but, the narrator says, “the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else.” He feels capable of more than menial labor, for instance believing that he “could fly a plane if” he had the chance, but knows that society will never allow it. This leaves him no other outlet than to commit petty theft – toward other poor blacks. His frustration is such that he wants “to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel like this. If not that, he wanted to blot himself out.”

After the rat scene, he and his friends plan the unthinkable – robbing a white storeowner. This is “territory where the full wrath of an alien white world would be turned loose upon them.” Bigger loses his nerve and, not wanting to admit fear to his running mates, beats and humiliates one of them at knifepoint.

Bigger is alienated from everyone, including black people, though he thrills at the Garveyites preaching on the streets about how the white man can go to hell. In his opinion, his friends and family are deluded patsies, in particular his mother and girlfriend, Bessie. The former blinds herself to reality through the Christian church and the latter through alcohol. He, on the other hand, does not “want to sit on a bench and sing, or lie in a corner and sleep. It was when he read the newspapers or magazines, went to the movies, or walked along the streets with crowds, that he felt what he wanted: to merge himself with others and be a part of this world, to lose himself in it so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black.”

In a sense, it is Hollywood and commercialism that undoes Bigger Thomas. Boris Max, a lawyer, sums it up toward the end of the novel: “How alluring, how dazzling it is! How it excites the senses! How it seems to dangle within easy reach of everyone the fulfillment of happiness! How constantly and overwhelmingly the advertisements, radios, newspapers and movies play upon us! But in thinking of them remember that to many they are tokens of mockery. These bright colors may fill our hearts with elation, but to many they are daily taunts. Imagine a man walking amid such a scene, a part of it, and yet knowing that it is not for him!”

The city relief agency offers Bigger a job as a chauffeur for a white family, the Daltons. He sits in a movie theater to contemplate whether or not to take the job. The film being projected on the big screen is about how the other half, the white half, lives in the lap of privilege, and this inspires Bigger to become excited about the job: “Maybe Mr. Dalton was a millionaire. Maybe he had a daughter who was a hot kind of girl; maybe she spent lots of money; maybe she’d like to come to the South Side and see the sights sometimes. Or maybe she had a secret sweetheart and only he would know about it because he would have to drive her around; maybe she would give him money not to tell.” This mocking fantasy clinches it for Bigger, as he will go and interview for the job.

It turns out that Mr. Dalton is a millionaire, but at the expense of African-Americans. He is a slumlord, who, by refusing to rent to blacks in other neighborhoods (de facto segregation), has created a housing shortage and thus is able to charge the Thomas family through the nose for a hovel crawling with vermin. But Dalton fashions himself a philanthropist because he donates ping-pong tables to the Negro YMCA and hires destitute black boys to be house niggers. Society hails him as a good man. Bigger’s movie theatre fantasy becomes even more true when Mr. Dalton entrusts him with the task of chauffeuring around his pretty and spoiled daughter, Mary; and, yes, she does have a secret lover, a radical Communist, Jan Erlone; and, yes, Bigger does bring them to the South Side.

But the fantasy becomes an inverted nightmare. Bigger is patronized by Mary and Jan, who see in the black boy a chance to demonstrate their open-mindedness and loyalty to the Communist ideal of the brotherhood of man. They insist that Bigger take them to eat fried chicken in the ‘hood. He is grows uncomfortable watching Mary get bombed out of her mind, as she becomes, not a friend to the black masses, but rather a major cock-tease. If Bigger had earlier been aware of the taboo against robbing a white storeowner, then he is now frantic at the greatest taboo of all – a black boy alone with a white girl, especially an inebriated rich one.

Bigger is left no choice but to carry Mary to her room, lest her parents blame him for having got their innocent daughter drunk in some South Side dive. He tucks her into bed and is about to get the hell out of there when the legally blind Mrs. Dalton enters the room calling out Mary’s name. Bigger is now in a frenzied panic, as he knows that if he is discovered in the bedroom of a white woman, regardless of his noble intentions, he will be tried for rape, a crime the white man ranks above murder. He holds a hand, then a pillow, over Mary’s mouth, so she will not betray his presence, as the “white blur” that is Mrs. Dalton moves toward him. Mary dies while Mrs. Dalton stands at the bedside and prays over what she thinks is her sleeping daughter. Then there is the spooky white cat that never stops looking at Bigger.

He takes the corpse to the basement and jams it into the furnace. Afterward, the Daltons and the police scramble to locate Mary, which causes Bigger, for once in his life, to feel in control of events. “The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had somehow been cheated, but had now evened the score.” Then he raises the ante by writing a ransom note implicating Jan as the kidnapper, signing it Red. Even though he gives himself away with the sentence Do what this letter say, the authorities are so stoked up on anti-Communism that they never notice the black vernacular. Bigger enlists the gullible Bessie into the plot. Now that he is grappling one-on-one with white power, he is no longer awed by its reputation. In a perverse way, the murder is bringing focus and wholeness to his life.

Then a reporter, with Bigger standing nearby, discovers Mary’s bones in the furnace. He and Bessie flee to an empty building, where his girlfriend learns that Bigger has murdered Mary Dalton. He becomes scared that she will betray him. He loses control, rapes her and, while she is asleep, bashes her head in with a brick and throws her body down an elevator shaft. Now he is beyond good and evil.

The press and all of white Chicago assume that Bigger raped Mary. Why else would he try to burn the body? And isn’t that what black men do to white women? A citywide lynch mob chases him, in a blizzard (the snow reminding him that whiteness is everywhere), until they corner him on a rooftop, an anti-Christian mount, where “Two men stretched his arms out, as though about to crucify him; they placed a foot on each of his wrists, making them sink deep down in the snow. His eyes closed, slowly, and he was swallowed in darkness.” In the coming weeks, the entire black population will pay for Bigger’s crimes, as hundreds get fired from their jobs and others are beaten by white mobs.

The last third of the book is courtroom drama. Jan is crushed by Mary’s death and also feels guilty about having treated Bigger like a novelty. He enlists a fellow Communist, Boris Max, to represent the defendant. Max tries to impress upon the jury how Bigger was shaped by a racist environment that had stifled his humanity, turning him into a hunted animal, leaving him no opportunity for self-expression save crime. The title Native Son indicates the final product of the America Dream – Bigger Thomas. The chickens have come home to roost, and, Max warns, there is going to be a lot more roosting if white society fails to get its act together in time.

The experienced reader is now dreading a Jack London-Upton Sinclair ending wherein Bigger sees the Leninist god and calls for black and white to join together under the socialist banner. At the very end, Mr. Max (Marx) tries to convince Bigger that his execution will not be in vain, that it may well galvanize and improve this predatory capitalist society. But the narrator has been putting less of his own words into Bigger’s mind until now Bigger is thinking and talking for himself.

“Mr. Max” he says from inside his cell, “you go home. I’m all right…I ain’t trying to forgive nobody and I ain’t asking for nobody to forgive me. I ain’t going to cry. They wouldn’t let me live and I killed…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!…What I killed for 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…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 is horrified by this speech, as the Leninist god has been rejected by a proletariat. He and Bigger, white and black, remain strangers to one another. Max walks away…down the corridor. Bigger smiles “a faint, wry, bitter smile” and hears “the ring of steel against steel as a far door” clangs shut. The end.

No moral uplift here. Native Son will be criticized for the next seventy years, especially by African-Americans, as too bleak a story. They will take extra shots at the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, as having no redeeming value – of not being Denzel. But that was the whole point. For Bigger to have risen from de facto segregation to heroic status would have been to let white America off the hook, and the author had no such intention. In the preface to my copy of the book, Richard Wright explains the genesis of Native Son: “I had written a book of short stories…Uncle Tom’s Children. When the reviews…began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naïve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even banker’s daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears…” How can a writer be taken to task for a premeditated act of literature? When I read the last passage of Native Son, of that steel door slamming shut, I was left numb, as if Richard Wright had chained me to the edge of the racial abyss, taped my eyes open, and shouted: White Man, Listen!

I moved on to Wright’s two autobiographies, Black Boy and American Hunger. The story begins with the four-year-old Richard burning down his house in rural Mississippi in 1912. It ends just after May Day, 1936, in Chicago, as former associates, white men of the American Communist Party, toss him onto a sidewalk for daring to march in their brotherhood parade. Black Boy recounts his first nineteen years in Jim Crow South, while American Hunger tells of young adulthood in the Windy City, made windier in the drafty tenements that that were home to his destitute family, much like the fictional Thomas quartet.

Speeches by Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, histories by Du Bois and Zinn, the polemics of Malcolm X, the mini-bios on Harriet Tubman – they all pointed to, and highlighted, Jim Crow, but it took a novelist, Wright, to put me into the skin of black boy in feudal Mississippi. At some point, a Southern black kid will become cognizant of the Other (Du Bois’ Veil), but prior to that he sees the natural beauty of the Delta, “the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.” Then, amidst this Eden, the Other makes its inevitable appearance, as young Richard hears of a white man who has severely beaten a black boy. He gains, over time, the understanding that, in the South, such an act is common and permitted under the law. He watches as his elders crack under the pressure of Jim Crow. His father abandons the struggle and his family when Richard is six. Two years later, his mother breaks down and is an invalid for life. His grandmother and spinster aunt retreat into the narcotic haze of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Whites murder his uncle with absolute impunity so they can take over his modest saloon business. Another uncle must flee in the middle of the night as the Klan is hot on his trail. Meanwhile, Richard is moved from one poor relative to the next, and an orphanage in between, until, at thirteen, he settles, along with his paralyzed mother, in Jackson, Mississippi, in the house of the Seventh-Day Adventist grandma and aunt, who terrorize him and feed him lard and gravy.

In Jackson, he completes a full year of school. He works at odd jobs to feed himself and to buy school supplies, and, in the process, he runs straight into the scary arms of Jim Crow. One early employer, a white housewife, upbraids him for turning down a plate of moldy, green molasses. At the local brickyard, the owner’s dog sinks his teeth into Richard, who then asks if the infection now spreading is something to worry about, to which the bossman laughs, and says: “A dog bite can’t hurt a nigger.” He tries to learn the optics trade, whereupon two hillbillies threaten his life for daring to fathom the sacred art of lens grinding. The further I got into Black Boy, the more I could feel Wright’s mounting claustrophobia. I had a knot in my stomach throughout the book.

Like Bigger Thomas, Richard is also alienated from, and critical toward, fellow blacks, so that he fits into no group. He is neither house nor field nigger. At one point, he asks “what on earth was the matter with me, why it was I never seemed to do things as people expected them to be done. Every word and gesture I made seemed to provoke hostility.”

But I knew the reason for his alienation. Richard was a born writer, which is a curse as much as a blessing. If the writer is not born into an artistic or scholastic environment, the urge to read and write may remain an unnamable desire, a seed buried under a mound of external ignorance, that will only manifest itself in gnawing rebellion or in creative destruction or in childish delusion. The good news is that whether the frustrated and unwitting artist grows up in a black religious home in Mississippi or white one in Levittown, PA, books will somehow rise up on the horizon of his mind, like a dim North Star, and he will grope forward in that direction until his intellect begins to glow with recognition, when at last he staggers into literary Bethlehem. That he will have arrived late does not matter, for he, too, has gifts to bring.

For Richard, the goal of becoming a writer came early in life, but his immediate surroundings, both black and white, stymied him at every turn. His religious fanatic of a grandmother would not allow him to read anything not pro-God, while the same lady who fed him moldy leftovers scoffed: “You’ll never be a writer. Who on earth put such ideas into your nigger head?” Midway through Black Boy, the older Richard, the narrator now in Bethlehem, laments that this “environment contained nothing more alien than writing or the desire to express one’s self in writing.” Following the dog-bite incident, when it truly hits home that, in the South, he is perceived as an animal, he grows “silent and reserved as the nature of the world in which I lived became plain and undeniable; the bleakness of the future affected my will to study…living as a Negro was cold and hard.” Was his family right to call him a bad seed? “Why was it considered wrong to ask questions?…It seemed inconceivable to me that one should surrender to what seemed wrong…how could one live in a world in which one’s mind and perceptions meant nothing and authority and tradition meant everything?” He graduates from the ninth grade and that is the end of his formal education.

The turning point comes after he escapes Mississippi to the less oppressive, though still Jim Crow, Memphis, Tennessee. He is eighteen-years-old and finds a job at another optics company, but this time he is smart enough not to demonstrate to white co-workers that he is a smart young man. One morning, he is reading the city newspaper and comes across an editorial denouncing the editor of the American Mercury, H.L. Mencken. “I wondered what…this Mencken had done to call down upon him the scorn of the South.” He borrows a library card from the only approachable white man in the optics shop, an Irish Roman Catholic. Then he sits down to read two of Mencken’s books, and a whole universe opens up to him, as the North Star brightens to a glorious beacon of hope. It is through Mencken’s essays and opinions that Richard discovers his literary role models, the naturalists – Dreiser, Hardy and Dostoyevsky. In the novel Babbit by Sinclair Lewis, he learns the foibles and ludicrous thought-process of the blowhard American businessman. In Main Street, Lewis portrays white people in an even more ridiculous light. Richard admits that the act of reading “was like a drug, a dope.” What he “derived from these novels was nothing less than a sense of life itself. All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel…”

American Hunger starts when he migrates to Chicago in 1927. He intensifies his self-education program, though for the next nine years he will remain employed at menial jobs. Along the way, he joins the John Reed Club so to associate with writers, the catch being that he must also develop Communist sympathies. He laughs at the black Communists who lecture on the streets doing bad imitations of Lenin, pounding a right fist into a left palm, and wearing the famous hat. He becomes a member of the Party in 1934, but his artistic nature leads him to clash with its dogmatism. “I could not refute the general Communist analysis of the world; the only drawback was that their world was just too simple for belief.” He is accused of being – gasp! – an intellectual, to which a dumbfounded Richard says: “I sweep the streets for a living.” Later he expounds on this problem: “But there existed in the Western world an element that baffled and frightened the Communist party: the prevalence of self-achieved literacy. Even a Negro, entrapped by ignorance and exploitation – as I had been – could, if he had the will and the love for it, learn to read and understand the world in which he lived.” Hence why, in the end, he is tossed, airborne, from the 1936 May Day parade.

But the eternal loner brushes himself off and, on the last page of American Hunger, heads back home to his desk. He picks up a pencil and holds “it over a sheet of white paper,” and broods that, when the time is ripe, he “will hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”

This is the man who, three years after the Mat Day incident, would finish the chilling portrait of Bigger Thomas. Just as Hemingway claimed that the American novel begins with Huckleberry Finn, so it can be said that the African-American novel dates from Native Son, regardless of how critics of both races have felt about Bigger not being a positive role model. Some critics of the book have scoffed at its contrived plot and clichéd prose, that it is not a refined work of literature. What these aesthetes fail to understand is that only someone who had been denied an education all the way into adulthood could have written Native Son, and because Richard arrived so late in Bethlehem, and even then having to sweep the streets for a living, the writing was not going to measure up to the aristocratic Marcel Proust. This is a book about life by someone who knew all about life before he knew about words.

In 1947, he and his white wife moved to France where he would die in 1960 of a condition which was the opposite of how he had lived for fifty-two years – heart failure. During this time he, like Du Bois, became more interested in international racism. He hung out with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, which led to speculation that he was becoming an Existentialist, forgetting that, years ago, he had created Bigger Thomas, the original existentialist character.

In 1959, Martin Luther King, recovering from a knife wound to his chest inflicted by a deranged woman in New York, was en route to India when he stopped in France to meet the famous Richard Wright. The only distinct memory of the occasion was from Wright’s daughter, Julia, then seventeen, who had never lived in America. Her father called her into the room and asked King to reveal the scar on his chest. Then Wright announced to her: “This is what happens to people in the States who speak up for their rights.”

Richard Wright was the first African-American to write a best-selling novel, Native Son, which came out in 1940. The movie was released in 1986 and, get this, it did not star Denzel Washington (who was too busy on the set of St. Elsewhere and also gearing up for Cry Freedom, a film about Stephen Biko, the black South African dissident who stood up to Apartheid and was then jailed, tortured and died in a Pretoria prison). The black protagonist in Native Son, Bigger Thomas, is not the usual Denzel hero bucking the system with courage and a severe ethical code, or one who rises to literacy through self-discipline. Instead, he is an illiterate thug besieged by social pressures who, in the end, is defeated by the system.

Bigger shares a one-room Chicago apartment with his mother, sister and little brother. The novel starts with the anti-hero engaged in combat – against a rat that has invaded the hearth. He subdues it with a frying pan and in the aftermath holds aloft the fruits of war to his disgusted sister. It only gets worse for Bigger.

It is the height of the Great Depression. He is constricted in every sense of the word – socially, spatially and economically — and hates his family because he knows that they are suffering and that he is “powerless to help them,” but, the narrator says, “the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else.” He feels capable of more than menial labor, for instance believing that he “could fly a plane if” he had the chance, but knows that society will never allow it. This leaves him no other outlet than to commit petty theft – toward other poor blacks. His frustration is such that he wants “to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel like this. If not that, he wanted to blot himself out.”

After the rat scene, he and his friends plan the unthinkable – robbing a white storeowner. This is “territory where the full wrath of an alien white world would be turned loose upon them.” Bigger loses his nerve and, not wanting to admit fear to his running mates, beats and humiliates one of them at knifepoint.

Bigger is alienated from everyone, including black people, though he thrills at the Garveyites preaching on the streets about how the white man can go to hell. In his opinion, his friends and family are deluded patsies, in particular his mother and girlfriend, Bessie. The former blinds herself to reality through the Christian church and the latter through alcohol. He, on the other hand, does not “want to sit on a bench and sing, or lie in a corner and sleep. It was when he read the newspapers or magazines, went to the movies, or walked along the streets with crowds, that he felt what he wanted: to merge himself with others and be a part of this world, to lose himself in it so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black.”

In a sense, it is Hollywood and commercialism that undoes Bigger Thomas. Boris Max, a lawyer, sums it up toward the end of the novel: “How alluring, how dazzling it is! How it excites the senses! How it seems to dangle within easy reach of everyone the fulfillment of happiness! How constantly and overwhelmingly the advertisements, radios, newspapers and movies play upon us! But in thinking of them remember that to many they are tokens of mockery. These bright colors may fill our hearts with elation, but to many they are daily taunts. Imagine a man walking amid such a scene, a part of it, and yet knowing that it is not for him!”

The city relief agency offers Bigger a job as a chauffeur for a white family, the Daltons. He sits in a movie theater to contemplate whether or not to take the job. The film being projected on the big screen is about how the other half, the white half, lives in the lap of privilege, and this inspires Bigger to become excited about the job: “Maybe Mr. Dalton was a millionaire. Maybe he had a daughter who was a hot kind of girl; maybe she spent lots of money; maybe she’d like to come to the South Side and see the sights sometimes. Or maybe she had a secret sweetheart and only he would know about it because he would have to drive her around; maybe she would give him money not to tell.” This mocking fantasy clinches it for Bigger, as he will go and interview for the job.

It turns out that Mr. Dalton is a millionaire, but at the expense of African-Americans. He is a slumlord, who, by refusing to rent to blacks in other neighborhoods (de facto segregation), has created a housing shortage and thus is able to charge the Thomas family through the nose for a hovel crawling with vermin. But Dalton fashions himself a philanthropist because he donates ping-pong tables to the Negro YMCA and hires destitute black boys to be house niggers. Society hails him as a good man. Bigger’s movie theatre fantasy becomes even more true when Mr. Dalton entrusts him with the task of chauffeuring around his pretty and spoiled daughter, Mary; and, yes, she does have a secret lover, a radical Communist, Jan Erlone; and, yes, Bigger does bring them to the South Side.

But the fantasy becomes an inverted nightmare. Bigger is patronized by Mary and Jan, who see in the black boy a chance to demonstrate their open-mindedness and loyalty to the Communist ideal of the brotherhood of man. They insist that Bigger take them to eat fried chicken in the ‘hood. He is grows uncomfortable watching Mary get bombed out of her mind, as she becomes, not a friend to the black masses, but rather a major cock-tease. If Bigger had earlier been aware of the taboo against robbing a white storeowner, then he is now frantic at the greatest taboo of all – a black boy alone with a white girl, especially an inebriated rich one.

Bigger is left no choice but to carry Mary to her room, lest her parents blame him for having got their innocent daughter drunk in some South Side dive. He tucks her into bed and is about to get the hell out of there when the legally blind Mrs. Dalton enters the room calling out Mary’s name. Bigger is now in a frenzied panic, as he knows that if he is discovered in the bedroom of a white woman, regardless of his noble intentions, he will be tried for rape, a crime the white man ranks above murder. He holds a hand, then a pillow, over Mary’s mouth, so she will not betray his presence, as the “white blur” that is Mrs. Dalton moves toward him. Mary dies while Mrs. Dalton stands at the bedside and prays over what she thinks is her sleeping daughter. Then there is the spooky white cat that never stops looking at Bigger.

He takes the corpse to the basement and jams it into the furnace. Afterward, the Daltons and the police scramble to locate Mary, which causes Bigger, for once in his life, to feel in control of events. “The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had somehow been cheated, but had now evened the score.” Then he raises the ante by writing a ransom note implicating Jan as the kidnapper, signing it Red. Even though he gives himself away with the sentence Do what this letter say, the authorities are so stoked up on anti-Communism that they never notice the black vernacular. Bigger enlists the gullible Bessie into the plot. Now that he is grappling one-on-one with white power, he is no longer awed by its reputation. In a perverse way, the murder is bringing focus and wholeness to his life.

Then a reporter, with Bigger standing nearby, discovers Mary’s bones in the furnace. He and Bessie flee to an empty building, where his girlfriend learns that Bigger has murdered Mary Dalton. He becomes scared that she will betray him. He loses control, rapes her and, while she is asleep, bashes her head in with a brick and throws her body down an elevator shaft. Now he is beyond good and evil.

The press and all of white Chicago assume that Bigger raped Mary. Why else would he try to burn the body? And isn’t that what black men do to white women? A citywide lynch mob chases him, in a blizzard (the snow reminding him that whiteness is everywhere), until they corner him on a rooftop, an anti-Christian mount, where “Two men stretched his arms out, as though about to crucify him; they placed a foot on each of his wrists, making them sink deep down in the snow. His eyes closed, slowly, and he was swallowed in darkness.” In the coming weeks, the entire black population will pay for Bigger’s crimes, as hundreds get fired from their jobs and others are beaten by white mobs.

The last third of the book is courtroom drama. Jan is crushed by Mary’s death and also feels guilty about having treated Bigger like a novelty. He enlists a fellow Communist, Boris Max, to represent the defendant. Max tries to impress upon the jury how Bigger was shaped by a racist environment that had stifled his humanity, turning him into a hunted animal, leaving him no opportunity for self-expression save crime. The title Native Son indicates the final product of the America Dream – Bigger Thomas. The chickens have come home to roost, and, Max warns, there is going to be a lot more roosting if white society fails to get its act together in time.

The experienced reader is now dreading a Jack London-Upton Sinclair ending wherein Bigger sees the Leninist god and calls for black and white to join together under the socialist banner. At the very end, Mr. Max (Marx) tries to convince Bigger that his execution will not be in vain, that it may well galvanize and improve this predatory capitalist society. But the narrator has been putting less of his own words into Bigger’s mind until now Bigger is thinking and talking for himself.

“Mr. Max” he says from inside his cell, “you go home. I’m all right…I ain’t trying to forgive nobody and I ain’t asking for nobody to forgive me. I ain’t going to cry. They wouldn’t let me live and I killed…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!…What I killed for 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…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 is horrified by this speech, as the Leninist god has been rejected by a proletariat. He and Bigger, white and black, remain strangers to one another. Max walks away…down the corridor. Bigger smiles “a faint, wry, bitter smile” and hears “the ring of steel against steel as a far door” clangs shut. The end.

No moral uplift here. Native Son will be criticized for the next seventy years, especially by African-Americans, as too bleak a story. They will take extra shots at the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, as having no redeeming value – of not being Denzel. But that was the whole point. For Bigger to have risen from de facto segregation to heroic status would have been to let white America off the hook, and the author had no such intention. In the preface to my copy of the book, Richard Wright explains the genesis of Native Son: “I had written a book of short stories…Uncle Tom’s Children. When the reviews…began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naïve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even banker’s daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears…” How can a writer be taken to task for a premeditated act of literature? When I read the last passage of Native Son, of that steel door slamming shut, I was left numb, as if Richard Wright had chained me to the edge of the racial abyss, taped my eyes open, and shouted: White Man, Listen!

I moved on to Wright’s two autobiographies, Black Boy and American Hunger. The story begins with the four-year-old Richard burning down his house in rural Mississippi in 1912. It ends just after May Day, 1936, in Chicago, as former associates, white men of the American Communist Party, toss him onto a sidewalk for daring to march in their brotherhood parade. Black Boy recounts his first nineteen years in Jim Crow South, while American Hunger tells of young adulthood in the Windy City, made windier in the drafty tenements that that were home to his destitute family, much like the fictional Thomas quartet.

Speeches by Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, histories by Du Bois and Zinn, the polemics of Malcolm X, the mini-bios on Harriet Tubman – they all pointed to, and highlighted, Jim Crow, but it took a novelist, Wright, to put me into the skin of black boy in feudal Mississippi. At some point, a Southern black kid will become cognizant of the Other (Du Bois’ Veil), but prior to that he sees the natural beauty of the Delta, “the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.” Then, amidst this Eden, the Other makes its inevitable appearance, as young Richard hears of a white man who has severely beaten a black boy. He gains, over time, the understanding that, in the South, such an act is common and permitted under the law. He watches as his elders crack under the pressure of Jim Crow. His father abandons the struggle and his family when Richard is six. Two years later, his mother breaks down and is an invalid for life. His grandmother and spinster aunt retreat into the narcotic haze of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Whites murder his uncle with absolute impunity so they can take over his modest saloon business. Another uncle must flee in the middle of the night as the Klan is hot on his trail. Meanwhile, Richard is moved from one poor relative to the next, and an orphanage in between, until, at thirteen, he settles, along with his paralyzed mother, in Jackson, Mississippi, in the house of the Seventh-Day Adventist grandma and aunt, who terrorize him and feed him lard and gravy.

In Jackson, he completes a full year of school. He works at odd jobs to feed himself and to buy school supplies, and, in the process, he runs straight into the scary arms of Jim Crow. One early employer, a white housewife, upbraids him for turning down a plate of moldy, green molasses. At the local brickyard, the owner’s dog sinks his teeth into Richard, who then asks if the infection now spreading is something to worry about, to which the bossman laughs, and says: “A dog bite can’t hurt a nigger.” He tries to learn the optics trade, whereupon two hillbillies threaten his life for daring to fathom the sacred art of lens grinding. The further I got into Black Boy, the more I could feel Wright’s mounting claustrophobia. I had a knot in my stomach throughout the book.

Like Bigger Thomas, Richard is also alienated from, and critical toward, fellow blacks, so that he fits into no group. He is neither house nor field nigger. At one point, he asks “what on earth was the matter with me, why it was I never seemed to do things as people expected them to be done. Every word and gesture I made seemed to provoke hostility.”

But I knew the reason for his alienation. Richard was a born writer, which is a curse as much as a blessing. If the writer is not born into an artistic or scholastic environment, the urge to read and write may remain an unnamable desire, a seed buried under a mound of external ignorance, that will only manifest itself in gnawing rebellion or in creative destruction or in childish delusion. The good news is that whether the frustrated and unwitting artist grows up in a black religious home in Mississippi or white one in Levittown, PA, books will somehow rise up on the horizon of his mind, like a dim North Star, and he will grope forward in that direction until his intellect begins to glow with recognition, when at last he staggers into literary Bethlehem. That he will have arrived late does not matter, for he, too, has gifts to bring.

For Richard, the goal of becoming a writer came early in life, but his immediate surroundings, both black and white, stymied him at every turn. His religious fanatic of a grandmother would not allow him to read anything not pro-God, while the same lady who fed him moldy leftovers scoffed: “You’ll never be a writer. Who on earth put such ideas into your nigger head?” Midway through Black Boy, the older Richard, the narrator now in Bethlehem, laments that this “environment contained nothing more alien than writing or the desire to express one’s self in writing.” Following the dog-bite incident, when it truly hits home that, in the South, he is perceived as an animal, he grows “silent and reserved as the nature of the world in which I lived became plain and undeniable; the bleakness of the future affected my will to study…living as a Negro was cold and hard.” Was his family right to call him a bad seed? “Why was it considered wrong to ask questions?…It seemed inconceivable to me that one should surrender to what seemed wrong…how could one live in a world in which one’s mind and perceptions meant nothing and authority and tradition meant everything?” He graduates from the ninth grade and that is the end of his formal education.

The turning point comes after he escapes Mississippi to the less oppressive, though still Jim Crow, Memphis, Tennessee. He is eighteen-years-old and finds a job at another optics company, but this time he is smart enough not to demonstrate to white co-workers that he is a smart young man. One morning, he is reading the city newspaper and comes across an editorial denouncing the editor of the American Mercury, H.L. Mencken. “I wondered what…this Mencken had done to call down upon him the scorn of the South.” He borrows a library card from the only approachable white man in the optics shop, an Irish Roman Catholic. Then he sits down to read two of Mencken’s books, and a whole universe opens up to him, as the North Star brightens to a glorious beacon of hope. It is through Mencken’s essays and opinions that Richard discovers his literary role models, the naturalists – Dreiser, Hardy and Dostoyevsky. In the novel Babbit by Sinclair Lewis, he learns the foibles and ludicrous thought-process of the blowhard American businessman. In Main Street, Lewis portrays white people in an even more ridiculous light. Richard admits that the act of reading “was like a drug, a dope.” What he “derived from these novels was nothing less than a sense of life itself. All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel…”

American Hunger starts when he migrates to Chicago in 1927. He intensifies his self-education program, though for the next nine years he will remain employed at menial jobs. Along the way, he joins the John Reed Club so to associate with writers, the catch being that he must also develop Communist sympathies. He laughs at the black Communists who lecture on the streets doing bad imitations of Lenin, pounding a right fist into a left palm, and wearing the famous hat. He becomes a member of the Party in 1934, but his artistic nature leads him to clash with its dogmatism. “I could not refute the general Communist analysis of the world; the only drawback was that their world was just too simple for belief.” He is accused of being – gasp! – an intellectual, to which a dumbfounded Richard says: “I sweep the streets for a living.” Later he expounds on this problem: “But there existed in the Western world an element that baffled and frightened the Communist party: the prevalence of self-achieved literacy. Even a Negro, entrapped by ignorance and exploitation – as I had been – could, if he had the will and the love for it, learn to read and understand the world in which he lived.” Hence why, in the end, he is tossed, airborne, from the 1936 May Day parade.

But the eternal loner brushes himself off and, on the last page of American Hunger, heads back home to his desk. He picks up a pencil and holds “it over a sheet of white paper,” and broods that, when the time is ripe, he “will hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”

This is the man who, three years after the Mat Day incident, would finish the chilling portrait of Bigger Thomas. Just as Hemingway claimed that the American novel begins with Huckleberry Finn, so it can be said that the African-American novel dates from Native Son, regardless of how critics of both races have felt about Bigger not being a positive role model. Some critics of the book have scoffed at its contrived plot and clichéd prose, that it is not a refined work of literature. What these aesthetes fail to understand is that only someone who had been denied an education all the way into adulthood could have written Native Son, and because Richard arrived so late in Bethlehem, and even then having to sweep the streets for a living, the writing was not going to measure up to the aristocratic Marcel Proust. This is a book about life by someone who knew all about life before he knew about words.

In 1947, he and his white wife moved to France where he would die in 1960 of a condition which was the opposite of how he had lived for fifty-two years – heart failure. During this time he, like Du Bois, became more interested in international racism. He hung out with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, which led to speculation that he was becoming an Existentialist, forgetting that, years ago, he had created Bigger Thomas, the original existentialist character.

In 1959, Martin Luther King, recovering from a knife wound to his chest inflicted by a deranged woman in New York, was en route to India when he stopped in France to meet the famous Richard Wright. The only distinct memory of the occasion was from Wright’s daughter, Julia, then seventeen, who had never lived in America. Her father called her into the room and asked King to reveal the scar on his chest. Then Wright announced to her: “This is what happens to people in the States who speak up for their rights.”

Richard Wright was the first African-American to write a best-selling novel, Native Son, which came out in 1940. The movie was released in 1986 and, get this, it did not star Denzel Washington (who was too busy on the set of St. Elsewhere and also gearing up for Cry Freedom, a film about Stephen Biko, the black South African dissident who stood up to Apartheid and was then jailed, tortured and died in a Pretoria prison). The black protagonist in Native Son, Bigger Thomas, is not the usual Denzel hero bucking the system with courage and a severe ethical code, or one who rises to literacy through self-discipline. Instead, he is an illiterate thug besieged by social pressures who, in the end, is defeated by the system.

Bigger shares a one-room Chicago apartment with his mother, sister and little brother. The novel starts with the anti-hero engaged in combat – against a rat that has invaded the hearth. He subdues it with a frying pan and in the aftermath holds aloft the fruits of war to his disgusted sister. It only gets worse for Bigger.

It is the height of the Great Depression. He is constricted in every sense of the word – socially, spatially and economically — and hates his family because he knows that they are suffering and that he is “powerless to help them,” but, the narrator says, “the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else.” He feels capable of more than menial labor, for instance believing that he “could fly a plane if” he had the chance, but knows that society will never allow it. This leaves him no other outlet than to commit petty theft – toward other poor blacks. His frustration is such that he wants “to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel like this. If not that, he wanted to blot himself out.”

After the rat scene, he and his friends plan the unthinkable – robbing a white storeowner. This is “territory where the full wrath of an alien white world would be turned loose upon them.” Bigger loses his nerve and, not wanting to admit fear to his running mates, beats and humiliates one of them at knifepoint.

Bigger is alienated from everyone, including black people, though he thrills at the Garveyites preaching on the streets about how the white man can go to hell. In his opinion, his friends and family are deluded patsies, in particular his mother and girlfriend, Bessie. The former blinds herself to reality through the Christian church and the latter through alcohol. He, on the other hand, does not “want to sit on a bench and sing, or lie in a corner and sleep. It was when he read the newspapers or magazines, went to the movies, or walked along the streets with crowds, that he felt what he wanted: to merge himself with others and be a part of this world, to lose himself in it so he could find himself, to be allowed a chance to live like others, even though he was black.”

In a sense, it is Hollywood and commercialism that undoes Bigger Thomas. Boris Max, a lawyer, sums it up toward the end of the novel: “How alluring, how dazzling it is! How it excites the senses! How it seems to dangle within easy reach of everyone the fulfillment of happiness! How constantly and overwhelmingly the advertisements, radios, newspapers and movies play upon us! But in thinking of them remember that to many they are tokens of mockery. These bright colors may fill our hearts with elation, but to many they are daily taunts. Imagine a man walking amid such a scene, a part of it, and yet knowing that it is not for him!”

The city relief agency offers Bigger a job as a chauffeur for a white family, the Daltons. He sits in a movie theater to contemplate whether or not to take the job. The film being projected on the big screen is about how the other half, the white half, lives in the lap of privilege, and this inspires Bigger to become excited about the job: “Maybe Mr. Dalton was a millionaire. Maybe he had a daughter who was a hot kind of girl; maybe she spent lots of money; maybe she’d like to come to the South Side and see the sights sometimes. Or maybe she had a secret sweetheart and only he would know about it because he would have to drive her around; maybe she would give him money not to tell.” This mocking fantasy clinches it for Bigger, as he will go and interview for the job.

It turns out that Mr. Dalton is a millionaire, but at the expense of African-Americans. He is a slumlord, who, by refusing to rent to blacks in other neighborhoods (de facto segregation), has created a housing shortage and thus is able to charge the Thomas family through the nose for a hovel crawling with vermin. But Dalton fashions himself a philanthropist because he donates ping-pong tables to the Negro YMCA and hires destitute black boys to be house niggers. Society hails him as a good man. Bigger’s movie theatre fantasy becomes even more true when Mr. Dalton entrusts him with the task of chauffeuring around his pretty and spoiled daughter, Mary; and, yes, she does have a secret lover, a radical Communist, Jan Erlone; and, yes, Bigger does bring them to the South Side.

But the fantasy becomes an inverted nightmare. Bigger is patronized by Mary and Jan, who see in the black boy a chance to demonstrate their open-mindedness and loyalty to the Communist ideal of the brotherhood of man. They insist that Bigger take them to eat fried chicken in the ‘hood. He is grows uncomfortable watching Mary get bombed out of her mind, as she becomes, not a friend to the black masses, but rather a major cock-tease. If Bigger had earlier been aware of the taboo against robbing a white storeowner, then he is now frantic at the greatest taboo of all – a black boy alone with a white girl, especially an inebriated rich one.

Bigger is left no choice but to carry Mary to her room, lest her parents blame him for having got their innocent daughter drunk in some South Side dive. He tucks her into bed and is about to get the hell out of there when the legally blind Mrs. Dalton enters the room calling out Mary’s name. Bigger is now in a frenzied panic, as he knows that if he is discovered in the bedroom of a white woman, regardless of his noble intentions, he will be tried for rape, a crime the white man ranks above murder. He holds a hand, then a pillow, over Mary’s mouth, so she will not betray his presence, as the “white blur” that is Mrs. Dalton moves toward him. Mary dies while Mrs. Dalton stands at the bedside and prays over what she thinks is her sleeping daughter. Then there is the spooky white cat that never stops looking at Bigger.

He takes the corpse to the basement and jams it into the furnace. Afterward, the Daltons and the police scramble to locate Mary, which causes Bigger, for once in his life, to feel in control of events. “The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as their symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of them, like a man who had somehow been cheated, but had now evened the score.” Then he raises the ante by writing a ransom note implicating Jan as the kidnapper, signing it Red. Even though he gives himself away with the sentence Do what this letter say, the authorities are so stoked up on anti-Communism that they never notice the black vernacular. Bigger enlists the gullible Bessie into the plot. Now that he is grappling one-on-one with white power, he is no longer awed by its reputation. In a perverse way, the murder is bringing focus and wholeness to his life.

Then a reporter, with Bigger standing nearby, discovers Mary’s bones in the furnace. He and Bessie flee to an empty building, where his girlfriend learns that Bigger has murdered Mary Dalton. He becomes scared that she will betray him. He loses control, rapes her and, while she is asleep, bashes her head in with a brick and throws her body down an elevator shaft. Now he is beyond good and evil.

The press and all of white Chicago assume that Bigger raped Mary. Why else would he try to burn the body? And isn’t that what black men do to white women? A citywide lynch mob chases him, in a blizzard (the snow reminding him that whiteness is everywhere), until they corner him on a rooftop, an anti-Christian mount, where “Two men stretched his arms out, as though about to crucify him; they placed a foot on each of his wrists, making them sink deep down in the snow. His eyes closed, slowly, and he was swallowed in darkness.” In the coming weeks, the entire black population will pay for Bigger’s crimes, as hundreds get fired from their jobs and others are beaten by white mobs.

The last third of the book is courtroom drama. Jan is crushed by Mary’s death and also feels guilty about having treated Bigger like a novelty. He enlists a fellow Communist, Boris Max, to represent the defendant. Max tries to impress upon the jury how Bigger was shaped by a racist environment that had stifled his humanity, turning him into a hunted animal, leaving him no opportunity for self-expression save crime. The title Native Son indicates the final product of the America Dream – Bigger Thomas. The chickens have come home to roost, and, Max warns, there is going to be a lot more roosting if white society fails to get its act together in time.

The experienced reader is now dreading a Jack London-Upton Sinclair ending wherein Bigger sees the Leninist god and calls for black and white to join together under the socialist banner. At the very end, Mr. Max (Marx) tries to convince Bigger that his execution will not be in vain, that it may well galvanize and improve this predatory capitalist society. But the narrator has been putting less of his own words into Bigger’s mind until now Bigger is thinking and talking for himself.

“Mr. Max” he says from inside his cell, “you go home. I’m all right…I ain’t trying to forgive nobody and I ain’t asking for nobody to forgive me. I ain’t going to cry. They wouldn’t let me live and I killed…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!…What I killed for 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…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 is horrified by this speech, as the Leninist god has been rejected by a proletariat. He and Bigger, white and black, remain strangers to one another. Max walks away…down the corridor. Bigger smiles “a faint, wry, bitter smile” and hears “the ring of steel against steel as a far door” clangs shut. The end.

No moral uplift here. Native Son will be criticized for the next seventy years, especially by African-Americans, as too bleak a story. They will take extra shots at the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, as having no redeeming value – of not being Denzel. But that was the whole point. For Bigger to have risen from de facto segregation to heroic status would have been to let white America off the hook, and the author had no such intention. In the preface to my copy of the book, Richard Wright explains the genesis of Native Son: “I had written a book of short stories…Uncle Tom’s Children. When the reviews…began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naïve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even banker’s daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears…” How can a writer be taken to task for a premeditated act of literature? When I read the last passage of Native Son, of that steel door slamming shut, I was left numb, as if Richard Wright had chained me to the edge of the racial abyss, taped my eyes open, and shouted: White Man, Listen!

I moved on to Wright’s two autobiographies, Black Boy and American Hunger. The story begins with the four-year-old Richard burning down his house in rural Mississippi in 1912. It ends just after May Day, 1936, in Chicago, as former associates, white men of the American Communist Party, toss him onto a sidewalk for daring to march in their brotherhood parade. Black Boy recounts his first nineteen years in Jim Crow South, while American Hunger tells of young adulthood in the Windy City, made windier in the drafty tenements that that were home to his destitute family, much like the fictional Thomas quartet.

Speeches by Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, histories by Du Bois and Zinn, the polemics of Malcolm X, the mini-bios on Harriet Tubman – they all pointed to, and highlighted, Jim Crow, but it took a novelist, Wright, to put me into the skin of black boy in feudal Mississippi. At some point, a Southern black kid will become cognizant of the Other (Du Bois’ Veil), but prior to that he sees the natural beauty of the Delta, “the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.” Then, amidst this Eden, the Other makes its inevitable appearance, as young Richard hears of a white man who has severely beaten a black boy. He gains, over time, the understanding that, in the South, such an act is common and permitted under the law. He watches as his elders crack under the pressure of Jim Crow. His father abandons the struggle and his family when Richard is six. Two years later, his mother breaks down and is an invalid for life. His grandmother and spinster aunt retreat into the narcotic haze of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Whites murder his uncle with absolute impunity so they can take over his modest saloon business. Another uncle must flee in the middle of the night as the Klan is hot on his trail. Meanwhile, Richard is moved from one poor relative to the next, and an orphanage in between, until, at thirteen, he settles, along with his paralyzed mother, in Jackson, Mississippi, in the house of the Seventh-Day Adventist grandma and aunt, who terrorize him and feed him lard and gravy.

In Jackson, he completes a full year of school. He works at odd jobs to feed himself and to buy school supplies, and, in the process, he runs straight into the scary arms of Jim Crow. One early employer, a white housewife, upbraids him for turning down a plate of moldy, green molasses. At the local brickyard, the owner’s dog sinks his teeth into Richard, who then asks if the infection now spreading is something to worry about, to which the bossman laughs, and says: “A dog bite can’t hurt a nigger.” He tries to learn the optics trade, whereupon two hillbillies threaten his life for daring to fathom the sacred art of lens grinding. The further I got into Black Boy, the more I could feel Wright’s mounting claustrophobia. I had a knot in my stomach throughout the book.

Like Bigger Thomas, Richard is also alienated from, and critical toward, fellow blacks, so that he fits into no group. He is neither house nor field nigger. At one point, he asks “what on earth was the matter with me, why it was I never seemed to do things as people expected them to be done. Every word and gesture I made seemed to provoke hostility.”

But I knew the reason for his alienation. Richard was a born writer, which is a curse as much as a blessing. If the writer is not born into an artistic or scholastic environment, the urge to read and write may remain an unnamable desire, a seed buried under a mound of external ignorance, that will only manifest itself in gnawing rebellion or in creative destruction or in childish delusion. The good news is that whether the frustrated and unwitting artist grows up in a black religious home in Mississippi or white one in Levittown, PA, books will somehow rise up on the horizon of his mind, like a dim North Star, and he will grope forward in that direction until his intellect begins to glow with recognition, when at last he staggers into literary Bethlehem. That he will have arrived late does not matter, for he, too, has gifts to bring.

For Richard, the goal of becoming a writer came early in life, but his immediate surroundings, both black and white, stymied him at every turn. His religious fanatic of a grandmother would not allow him to read anything not pro-God, while the same lady who fed him moldy leftovers scoffed: “You’ll never be a writer. Who on earth put such ideas into your nigger head?” Midway through Black Boy, the older Richard, the narrator now in Bethlehem, laments that this “environment contained nothing more alien than writing or the desire to express one’s self in writing.” Following the dog-bite incident, when it truly hits home that, in the South, he is perceived as an animal, he grows “silent and reserved as the nature of the world in which I lived became plain and undeniable; the bleakness of the future affected my will to study…living as a Negro was cold and hard.” Was his family right to call him a bad seed? “Why was it considered wrong to ask questions?…It seemed inconceivable to me that one should surrender to what seemed wrong…how could one live in a world in which one’s mind and perceptions meant nothing and authority and tradition meant everything?” He graduates from the ninth grade and that is the end of his formal education.

The turning point comes after he escapes Mississippi to the less oppressive, though still Jim Crow, Memphis, Tennessee. He is eighteen-years-old and finds a job at another optics company, but this time he is smart enough not to demonstrate to white co-workers that he is a smart young man. One morning, he is reading the city newspaper and comes across an editorial denouncing the editor of the American Mercury, H.L. Mencken. “I wondered what…this Mencken had done to call down upon him the scorn of the South.” He borrows a library card from the only approachable white man in the optics shop, an Irish Roman Catholic. Then he sits down to read two of Mencken’s books, and a whole universe opens up to him, as the North Star brightens to a glorious beacon of hope. It is through Mencken’s essays and opinions that Richard discovers his literary role models, the naturalists – Dreiser, Hardy and Dostoyevsky. In the novel Babbit by Sinclair Lewis, he learns the foibles and ludicrous thought-process of the blowhard American businessman. In Main Street, Lewis portrays white people in an even more ridiculous light. Richard admits that the act of reading “was like a drug, a dope.” What he “derived from these novels was nothing less than a sense of life itself. All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism of the modern novel…”

American Hunger starts when he migrates to Chicago in 1927. He intensifies his self-education program, though for the next nine years he will remain employed at menial jobs. Along the way, he joins the John Reed Club so to associate with writers, the catch being that he must also develop Communist sympathies. He laughs at the black Communists who lecture on the streets doing bad imitations of Lenin, pounding a right fist into a left palm, and wearing the famous hat. He becomes a member of the Party in 1934, but his artistic nature leads him to clash with its dogmatism. “I could not refute the general Communist analysis of the world; the only drawback was that their world was just too simple for belief.” He is accused of being – gasp! – an intellectual, to which a dumbfounded Richard says: “I sweep the streets for a living.” Later he expounds on this problem: “But there existed in the Western world an element that baffled and frightened the Communist party: the prevalence of self-achieved literacy. Even a Negro, entrapped by ignorance and exploitation – as I had been – could, if he had the will and the love for it, learn to read and understand the world in which he lived.” Hence why, in the end, he is tossed, airborne, from the 1936 May Day parade.

But the eternal loner brushes himself off and, on the last page of American Hunger, heads back home to his desk. He picks up a pencil and holds “it over a sheet of white paper,” and broods that, when the time is ripe, he “will hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.”

This is the man who, three years after the Mat Day incident, would finish the chilling portrait of Bigger Thomas. Just as Hemingway claimed that the American novel begins with Huckleberry Finn, so it can be said that the African-American novel dates from Native Son, regardless of how critics of both races have felt about Bigger not being a positive role model. Some critics of the book have scoffed at its contrived plot and clichéd prose, that it is not a refined work of literature. What these aesthetes fail to understand is that only someone who had been denied an education all the way into adulthood could have written Native Son, and because Richard arrived so late in Bethlehem, and even then having to sweep the streets for a living, the writing was not going to measure up to the aristocratic Marcel Proust. This is a book about life by someone who knew all about life before he knew about words.

In 1947, he and his white wife moved to France where he would die in 1960 of a condition which was the opposite of how he had lived for fifty-two years – heart failure. During this time he, like Du Bois, became more interested in international racism. He hung out with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, which led to speculation that he was becoming an Existentialist, forgetting that, years ago, he had created Bigger Thomas, the original existentialist character.

In 1959, Martin Luther King, recovering from a knife wound to his chest inflicted by a deranged woman in New York, was en route to India when he stopped in France to meet the famous Richard Wright. The only distinct memory of the occasion was from Wright’s daughter, Julia, then seventeen, who had never lived in America. Her father called her into the room and asked King to reveal the scar on his chest. Then Wright announced to her: “This is what happens to people in the States who speak up for their rights.”

 

(Check out my website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

The Pickup Truck Driver

Pickup Truck

The usual unimaginative critic of The Pickup Truck Driver is a stereotype unto himself – that is, he employs the boring cliché that those who sit high in a Ford F-150 are compensating for their small penises, and, worse, he delivers this rote statement with an air of triumphant originality. But this tedious assertion makes no sense when one considers that there are too many PTDs wreaking havoc on the land to not cover the full spectrum of penile length and girth, especially when one takes into account that not a few of this species are women – unless the joke is that a lady PTD has a penis so diminutive as to be nonexistent and so must require the compensatory ownership of a Ford Super Duty Truck F-350. Nay, the actual common trait among Pickup Truck Drivers is an unearned sense of entitlement and the unquenchable urge to be a Dickhead, regardless of the size of their actual Dick, Head and Shaft.

The primary complaint against the PTD is how he will ride up so close to your ass as to risk passing onto you all his sexually transmitted diseases – and if done at night, then made worse by how he will activate his high-beams and thereby direct a veritable maximum-security-prison-flood-light into the interior of your Nissan Altima. This of course is a totally dickhead move, the definition of which is to expend extra time and energy, with little or no reason, to torture a complete stranger.  Yet the exact same PTD who will push the gas to such an obnoxious extent as to push the Altima off the road and into a ditch (this has happened) will also, if in front of the Altima, slow down to the crawling speed of 15 -miles-per-hour on a state highway for the sole purpose of keeping the driver behind him from getting his pregnant wife to the hospital for an emergency C-section. In other words, the only thought that inhabits the reptilian brain of the PTD is how he can ruin the lives of fellow motorists – i.e., how he can raise his Dickheadedness to the level of Joseph Stalin starving 7 million Ukrainians to death because they wanted, like Greta Garbo, to be left alone.

Studies have shown that the same guy who employs his Pickup Truck as a Weapon of Mass Irritation was, before his purchase of a Toyota Tundra, a mere level-one Dickhead who, at a supermarket, manifested his self-absorption by leaving his shopping cart in a prime parking spot, with the cart-collection area only ten feet away. But then comes the day when he climbs into the Tundra, which, to an enlightened person, would seem no more remarkable than pulling a rake out of the backyard shed, but, to this solipsistic, unaccomplished dunce, has the transformative effect of what happens to a mild-mannered reporter who gets bitten by a radioactive spider. In an instant, this Nobody feels imbued with comic book-like superpowers that now catapult him right past levels two, three and four on the Dickhead Scale — past the guy who, at a health club, leaves four hundred pounds of metal plates on a barbell that must then be put away by a 53-year-old, 110-pound lady professor at the local college if she is to do her three sets of light squats – and past the guy who  blasts  Goth Rock music at 4:00 AM in an apartment building filled with families of sleeping children. Yes, this simpleton will now take his Pickup Truck out into the road and, within an hour, he will morph into a Level-Five Dickhead when he parks his behemoth vehicle right in front of the door of a convenience store (so he can buy two packs of Marlboros which will enable him to extend his asshole repertoire to blowing smoke in the faces of asthma sufferers) rather than walk twenty feet from an assigned spot.

You see, Royalty is not beholden by the rules of a civil society, hence why the PTD feels no qualms about knowing full well that patrons to the convenience store will have to twist themselves into an advanced yoga position just to get around his carbon-monoxide-spewing tank so they can buy a bag of pretzels. It is a historical fact that Royalty will eventually produce inbred dummies, hence why this Prince of the Pickup will force his shiny new, expensive aircraft carrier on wheels into a tight parking spot close to the entrance of a mall and then get go into a self-righteous tizzy when the car next to him scrapes his precious identity-solidifier. Dumb people are myopic people who are in turn people who cannot fathom the existence of other people also sharing space in this vale of tears, and so the rest of us responsible adults must accommodate the PTD’s gross and childish need for attention.

Another indication of how this man is not the brightest headlight in a sea of high headlights meant to blind other motorists is how he can only drive ten MPH when he is carting a passenger. This is because he must turn to the passenger when in-articulating another life lesson about how “you win some, you lose some,” or how he “can’t wait for Friday,” or how “life’s a bitch and then you marry one,” or how “life is like a box of used engine gaskets.” He is too ignorant of the laws of sound mechanics to understand that he can look forward at the road and still be heard by the person sitting three feet to the side of him. This is why driving behind this yo-yo is like BEING a yo-yo, since he will slow down when he turns to torture his captive audience with his home-spun drivel and then speed back up when taking a breath and returning his focus to the task at hand. In sum, he cannot walk and chew gum at the same time, though, in reality, he cannot walk at all as evidenced by how he parks an inch away from the aforementioned convenience store entrance.

A simple test will prove true the hypothesis that the Pickup Truck Driver is motivated by nothing more than an unimaginative need to gain cheap ascendancy over his superiors who choose to increase their own self-esteem by more honorable methods like earning a PhD in Neuroscience or training for a Triathlon.  The test is to ask why the PTD drives a pickup instead of an SUV, much less a sensible auto? In most cases, the PTD does not haul lumber, nor collect junk on trash day to be sold for scrap, nor have a job that requires metal pipes. In fact, that bed behind the cap is usually empty so that it would make more sense to just convert it to a tiny house or an office space for a real estate agent, or, better, to just saw it off and use it as a stage for a teenage garage band. The PTD will respond to this argument that he needs the expansive bed of his truck for his tools, yet, if you open his tool chest, all you will find is a few roach-clips and a screwdriver with a broken off tip. Okay, then, he needs the space for his fishing gear, which is tantamount to claiming that you need Yankee Stadium to store your push-lawnmower.

What he will not say is the truth: I need all this empty space to match my empty mind, a mind that equates projecting my vast emptiness into the more productive and meaningful space of my fellow citizens – i.e., I am a total Dickhead, period.

(Check out my website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

The Cigarette Couple

Cigarette Couple

 Most romantic couples – and couples who are not romantic but are nonetheless together – usually forge their bond around a theme, hobby or shared goal. For example, there are singles who meet in a bicycle club – you know, the ones that require its members to dress like neon billboards in spandex and then back up auto traffic for five miles because these peddlers never got the memo that they are not entitled to take up the road as if they were Mack Trucks hauling grain. This social arrangement is ideal for people who have nothing of import to say but have no problem showing off every crevice of their okay looking anatomies. Thus is borne the couple who communicates by grunting up steep inclines while checking out each other’s genitals and buttocks as outlined by the aforementioned spandex. Then there is the not so fit couple who’s shared passion, the hearth around which they lounge together in domestic bliss, is the cigarette.

The Cigarette Couple’s mutual hobby is smelling like a Chicago speakeasy from the 1920s, a time when inhaling glowing sulfur was deemed attractive and healthy – that is, until the pretty Flapper’s skin turned into wrinkled leather and she died of lung cancer when her last breath was a putrid blast into the face of her respectful grandchildren. The Cigarette Couple also shares a passion for matching yellow fingers, not unlike a dorky couple who will walk together in public wearing the exact same purple T-shirts. Their on-point message to the world is: “We smoke, therefore we skink, therefore we love each other.”

The Cigarette Couple’s sole subject of communication is their respective supply of smokes. Honey, where are my cigarettes? Each cannot go out on errands without first asking the other if they have enough cigarettes. Do you need cigarettes while I’m out? Many long-term couples will get a dog and both stare at it when they have run out of things to talk about; the same holds true for our amorous duo when they stand facing each other, tongue-tied, searching for a way out of this conversational impasse until they will both glance down, with relief, at their respective, flicked cigarettes. Their oral fixation is so strong that often the husband will wish that his old lady’s clit was a whole lot bigger, perhaps the size of what hangs between the legs of the Marlboro Man. They use the buddy system when out in the world, as one will enter a store while the other will stay outside sucking for dear life so to stock up on nicotine in preparation for the next errand when it will be their turn to enter – the horror! – a smoke-free zone.

Their wedding follows the guidelines as dictated by the Cigarette Couple’s belief system. It is an outdoor affair, being that chain-smoking is not permitted in a church, though the husband did once fantasize about founding a new religion called the Holy Church of the Cigarette. The pastor presiding over the ceremony is himself a three-pack a day inhaler, which explains the small-circular burns throughout the pages of his personal Bible, especially at the passage in the Book of Revelation that reads “and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down on the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.” – the reading of which never fails to inspire the good Pastor to burn a cancer-stick. In other words, the bride, groom and the man about to join them in hazy matrimony all have gaspers dangling from their singed lips.

The clinching of the vows comes when the Pastor snuffs out a cig and quickly relights another one before he looks from the bride to the groom, both enveloped in a loving tobacco cloud, and says, “Do you, Sally, with your foghorn voice, agree to help blacken the lungs of Chuck, in plenty and in want; in joy and in sorrow; in sickness and in health, mostly sickness, since who the fuck can  ever stay healthy with the way you two foul-smelling apes suck down the butts – I say, Sally, do you take this man, Chuck, to be your husband for as long as you both shall live, which, let’s be honest, won’t be long?” Sally now has tears in her eyes from both the romantic sentiment and stinging jet of smoke just blown in her face by Chuck when she announces “I Do.” Then the Pastor turns to the groom and intones, “And do you, Chuck, promise to always make sure that Sally’s dental work remains a bright yellow hue with traces of black tar embedded between the teeth and gums?” Here a proud Chuck puffs out his chest in tandem with puffing another drag from his shortening coffin-nail, and says, “I Do!” Whereupon the Pastor says, “I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride and thereby join your horrid breath with her equally mustard-gas-spewing exhalation – and may those witnessing this feel free to turn away so to avoid throwing up in your mouths.”

The bond felt between the Cigarette Couple tightens when they MUST attend a gathering of civilized people – i.e., humans who are literate in the sense of not ending every statement with “I need a cigarette,” and who value clean air quality. The healthy, well scented hosts are nonetheless obligated to reserve an area outside of the non-gray-stained walls of their homes for these two skink-bombs so that, when the conversation veers toward subjects far removed from the various beards worn by NASCAR drivers or what ashtrays cost at Walmart, Chuck and Sally can flee to their smoggy refuge and there smoke their glowing cylinders and bitch about how all those people inside “aint no better” than them, “fucking a-right.” This is when they see themselves not as halitotic pariahs but as Bonnie and Clyde united against the chicken-shit, afraid-of-getting-cancer world. This romantic vision of themselves is reinforced when they return inside to the gathering and mistake the participants tilting their eye-watering heads backwards to minimize the instant rush of just imbibed cigarette smoke as the ultimate fear and respect due to Bonnie and Clyde.

Squabbles between our pungent couple are often the result of one having pilfered the other’s stash of private smokes. For example, what man worth the spent butts strewn throughout the cab of his pickup truck would be seen dragging on his wife’s Virginia Slim cigarette, and her last one, to boot? The answer, according to Sally, is a selfish man not at all sensitive to her needs, her own repulsive addiction. Yeah bitch, yells Chuck, how about the time you took my last pack of Marlboro Reds AND my truck, forcing me to WALK two wheezing miles to the Seven-Eleven where my hands were shaking so much that only by the grace of our beloved Jesus could I light my cigarette?

Conversely, there is nothing more romantic than the following scene. The man is laboring beneath his jacked-up truck and is beginning to feel delirium tremens from having gone an epic fifteen minutes without a nicotine fix due to his phalanges being occupied by holding up a transmission pan with one hand while screwing it in with the other hand. Luckily, his cosmic mate has been monitoring him in his hour of need and casually walks toward her Eternal Husband while igniting his Marlboro. Chuck has anticipated the approach of this goddess, his precious Sally, by scooting out from under their piece-of-shit F-150 and sitting up to await disaster relief. His savior squats down, takes a long pull for her own benefit (for this is a fifty-fifty relationship), and then places the cigarette between his sweaty, greasy lips, whereupon, in one long, desperate inhalation, he reduces the butt to half of its original length. They now exchange a tender look that is a clear manifestation of their Transcendent Love. Such a public display of affection would usually elicit an “awwww” from an audience, but in this case the spectator would be too busy backing away so to avoid being contaminated by the fetid odor.

The final portrait of the Cigarette Couple is of them posing together in a tribute to Grant Wood’s American Gothic except that Sally is wearing a pink T-shirt with rhinestones spelling out the words HOT STUFF and Chuck is not holding a pitchfork but rather a five-foot-long torch of a giant cigarette, with the caption reading, “We Love, Therefore We Smoke.”

(Check out my writer website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)