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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)

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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 together nonetheless – 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 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, and this is what happens with our amorous duo as they stand facing each other, tongue-tied, albeit with lingering glances 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 cigarettes 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)

Mary Richards Dies from a Botched Boob Job

Mary Richards

NEW YORK — Mary Richards died on Friday due to complications from a botched boob job. The 77-year-old Richards, a New York City resident, had been obsessed of late with her fading good looks, which, in reality, had faded two decades ago when she put on a ton of weight after learning that her husband, Steve, was having an affair with the granddaughter of her friend, Phyllis Lindstrom. The “other woman,” a sex blogger, lived in San Francisco, yet the ever gullible Mary bought her former politician husband’s story about frequent “business trips” out west, though Steve had no business interests, nor aptitude for business, and moreover had been out of politics since the famous scandal involving him and the disappearance of all the change in the tip jar at Sal’s Deli. But eventually it was Phyllis, old pain-in-the-ass Phyllis, who was once Mary’s landlord in Minneapolis until she took up a lesbian lifestyle in San Fran, who told Mary of the tryst while blaming it all on the inherent evil of men. “Why do you think I started licking box?” said Phyllis over the phone.

Mary’s other Minneapolis friend, Rhoda Morgenstern, now Mary’s next-door neighbor on the Upper East Side, was furious at the news of the affair. “What’s wrong with my granddaughter, Myra? Sure she has her grandmother’s weight problem, but so long as she has her own spin-off series and, with it, ABC’s vast grooming, dietary and fitness training resources at her disposal, if only to give viewers an unrealistic picture  of a dowdy, sarcastic young lady with low self-esteem, she can be quite attractive. And, Mary, my Myra, is local. Those flights to California have to be eating into your retirement fund.” A sniffling Mary countered by saying that at least Steve was racking up the frequent flyer mileage, which they could use when they travel to Europe next year.

It must be noted that Rhoda and Phyllis had been sworn enemies since landlord Phyllis had given the attractive Mary her best apartment at a discount price while relegating the chunky Rhoda to the attic – and now the feud had carried into the third generation. In the end, Mary took solace in food, with her and Rhoda working out a six-month plan to hit every ice cream and fudge shop in Manhattan, and then punctuating each day’s binge by standing in the middle of Time’s Square and tossing their tams in the air while singing in perfect harmony “We’re gonna make it after all” – that is, until the inevitable Pakistani cab driver yelled out: “Geet out of dee way, you crazy old beetches!”

Years later, Rhoda went senile, and thus the binging came to a gradual stop to be replaced by another obsession: The Lou Grant Diaries. Lou Grant had been a news producer for the Minneapolis TV station, WJM, in 1970 when he hired the perky, inexperienced Mary Richards to be his associate producer. The entry in Lou’s diary that night reads: “Can’t stop masturbating thinking of this new broad at work, Mary, whom I plan to keep promoting for no other reason than to keep hearing the cherished phrase, ‘Ah, Mr. Grant.’” This was followed by less flattering lines: “Think Murray Slaughter may be a fairy. Who talks with that kind of lilt in Minneapolis?…Ted Baxter is about to get the extra-wide Grant foot up his ass…Wow, two homosexual references – gee, I would read something into that if I hadn’t just loped the mule to Mary. On other hand, I could be bi…”

Little did Lou Grant know that the spunky Mary would trade on her good looks to rise in the TV news industry until she was working in New York as a news producer and marrying a congressman, Steve. The diary during these years grows very dark: “I guess I was nothing but a fat, old man whom this ambitious little slut used and then threw away when she got what she wanted. What a chump, Lou. And to think that I even had my back waxed (when it was not yet fashionable) to make myself attractive to Mary…But I still love her.”

It was at this time that Steve put a restraining order on Grant.

It was also at this time that Murray Slaughter finally came out of the closet and moved to Greenwich Village. This represented the full arrival of Mary Richards, as she now had a “gay friend,” to whom she could confide her personal drama.

Mary’s lone offspring, Rose, had fought her mother about the boob job. “Mom, let’s face it, you can’t be walking around with a seventy-seven-year-old body with this gigantic, perfect rack. My self-image is bad enough with my training-bra-sized titties without being compared to my mother and her spherical double-d’s.”

Mary’s ashes will be spread over Edward R. Murrow’s grave, if he has a grave, while the leaked silicone from her fatal operation will be recycled for Rose – in a deal to prevent her suing the plastic surgeon — to use for her own implants in honor of her dead mother. “If my mother couldn’t attain her dream of a fabulous set of fake knockers, then, as her daughter, I will fulfill that dream. I love you, Mom.”

Yes, Love Was All Around.

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

Kate Austen is “Lost” a Second Time

THE ISLAND – Kate Austen, who grew up in Iowa before relocating to Purgatory for six years, has died a second time due to a malfunction in the Afterlife Phase-Shifter, a device that transitions mended souls from Purgatory/The Island to a Better Place. There is confusion about whether Kate’s encore demise was more terrestrial than corporeal, being that this Island of Purgatory featured a lot of real human blood being spilled as a result of what sure looked like a lot of real guns. Then there was the Earth-like matter of all the sexual shenanigans, as demonstrated within the rambunctious love triangle involving Kate and the Island’s two alpha males, Jack Shephard and Sawyer. Some people got more ass on The Island than in all their lustful years as a mortal on Earth, a factor that made some of them reconsider the value of a higher plane of existence.

Kate’s first Island lover was Sawyer, yeah, just Sawyer – that is, until Kate began calling him by the pet name, James, which turned out to be his real name. Sawyer was the purgatorial bad boy of the group that had all died in the crash of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815. In turn, Sawyer had his own pet name for Kate:  Freckles. Kate had no problem accepting this mock designation, not because she liked it all that much, but it was better than the litany of cruel names that Sawyer bestowed on fellow Islander, and resident blimp, Hurley. Sawyer called Hurley such names as Jabba, Deep Dish, Pillsbury, and the too-long-to-fit-on-a-birth-certificate name of “International House of Pancakes.” Yes, Kate may have associated the moniker Freckles with the always laughable Howdy Doody, but it sure beat another of Sawyer’s Hurley-inspired nicknames, JumboTron.

Kate’s second lover, and Island-ordained soul mate, was Jack, who, though a doctor and all around good guy, was too sincere about his role as Hero to ever possess the light-hearted wit necessary to create nicknames. His idea of addressing Kate in an alternate way was to modify the degree of sweat pouring from his overwrought brow while uttering “Kate” through a tight grimace. The reason Kate ended up with the forever angst-ridden Jack was because the love triangle of Kate, Jack and Sawyer eventually added a new member, the blonde female doctor, Juliet. At first, it made sense that the two doctors, Jack and Juliet, should combine their unsmiling selves to form a Yuppie power-couple; while the two criminals, Sawyer (a former conman) and Kate (a fugitive wanted for the murder of her step-father), should pair off as the wild couple that other people are afraid to invite over to their house. But remember, this was Purgatory, and if Kate and Sawyer were to become better half-mortals, then it followed that both of them would need better halves, and so Sawyer teamed up with the “good” Juliet, though Sawyer did once lose moral ground when he called Hurley “Fat-Fuck,” and Kate went off with the “saint” Jack.

But Kate and Jack did share one major attribute: they loved being the ones to save the day while toting a gun. This insight was furnished by Rose, wife of Bernard, after the two of them had quit the drama of the group to live in solitude in 1970s Purgatory, a phrase which, if you stare at it long enough, especially while recalling disco and cheesy mustaches, will solidify into an oxymoron no less obvious than the term Compassionate Conservatism. Rose had not seen Jack and Kate in a year or two, when, lo and behold, the two chronic heroes came rushing through her camp, wielding guns on another of their self-induced missions, at which point Rose said, to paraphrase, “Are you people still running around the jungle shooting guns?” Of course, it was Jack and Kate that did in fact save the Island when, together, they killed the Man in Black, though, to be precise, it was Kate who put the deciding bullet through his black heart. The moral of the story was, A couple that slays the Prince of Darkness together, stays together. This extreme example of a couples-activity cemented their status as Soul Mates.

How can a non-corporeal body in Purgatory die when, last seen, Kate was all dolled up sitting next to Eternal Husband, Jack, in the church way station along with Sawyer, Juliet, Sayid and the others, all ready to ascend to the next highest spirit level, maybe Heaven or maybe a celestial chocolate factory (no, sorry, that was Hurley’s next stop)? The answer to this question was that the operator of the Afterlife Phase-Shifter was none other than the ancient Roman poet, Virgil, who had once chaperoned Dante through the three dimensions of the Afterlife: Inferno (a tenth ring has since been added for people who take forever to conduct a simple transaction at a retail store), Purgatorio (Dante saw no signs of Kate’s Purgatory of massive blood baths instigated by sadistic mercenaries armed to the teeth with automatic weapons) and Paradiso (Heavenly soul mates are forbidden from expressing carnal love, and so must be content with listening to each other talk about their feelings for eternity). Virgil had been raised on Earth to write verse on parchment, but now, to keep up with the present generation, he had bought the latest iPhone. What happened was that at the exact moment when Virgil was to transport Kate to Paradiso, he received a text-message from Julius Caesar, which distracted him just enough that he mishandled the Afterlife Phase-Shifter and thus Lost the essence of Kate, thus losing Kate to all known life.

The latest report is that Jack has again strapped on a gun and rifle and is ready to play hero and rescue Kate from Death II.

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

James Baldwin: A Tribute

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

In a famous essay, Irving Howe bemoaned Ralph Ellison’s lack of militancy, and then he chastised another African-American writer, James Baldwin. The argument against Baldwin was that what militancy he did have was unleashed, not on the white man, but on Richard Wright, and not just once or twice, but on three separate published occasions. What made it all the more baffling – or perhaps all the more explainable – was that Baldwin, like Ellison, owed much of his career to the author of Native Son.

In 1949, a twenty-five-year-old James Baldwin, a black American expatriate living in France, published an essay, on both sides of the Atlantic, called “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” It begins with a review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, is called a prude, a sentimental do-gooder and a bad writer. The only way the chaste Mrs. Stowe could bear to write of a naked dark male was to transform the title character into a black Jesus, a myth, one who “has been robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex.” Uncle Tom prefigures the cinematic Sidney Poitier, who, though he may come to dinner to meet the parents of his white fiancée, will not touch the girl until their wedding night and only with mom and dad’s permission. The white public, no matter how liberal and advanced in their racial views, becomes uneasy at the idea of a normal, flawed brother wanting to get laid as much as the next guy. But since Mrs. Stowe’s intentions are so noble, the book is forgiven the “excessive demands” it makes “of credibility.” The “aim of the protest novel” is little different from “the zeal of those alabaster missionaries to Africa to cover the nakedness of the natives, to hurry them into the pallid arms of Jesus and thence into slavery.” Then, midway through the final paragraph, Baldwin calls to the stand Bigger Thomas and asks if he is not an inverted Uncle Tom, another stock character that allows white Americans to breathe easier by reinforcing their preconceived notions of the no good nigger. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Richard Wright “are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle: the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses.” Wright had modeled himself on naturalists writers like Sinclair Lewis, never imagining that one of his disciples, Baldwin, would associate him, Wright, with a Victorian lady abolitionist writing fantasy. When he and Baldwin met on the street after the publication of the essay, the younger man defended himself by taking refuge in Greek mythology, screaming that the “sons must slay the fathers.”

Two years later, Baldwin, in “Many Thousands Gone,” resumed the slaying, with a more thorough attack on Native Son. He discounts Wright’s claim to realism. Bigger is too isolated from his family and friends for even the most antisocial black kid. This gives the reader the misguided notion that “in Negro life there exists no tradition.” – and a tradition is “nothing more than the long and painful experience of a people” that comes “out of their struggle to survive.” In this observation, one can imagine Ellison standing over Baldwin giving dictation. But, just as fast, Ellison steps away and the young writer goes in an independent direction to say that Wright played into the hands of white America by verifying their worst fears about the black man who wants to rape and kill their women. Baldwin avows that blacks have no desire to wreak vengeance upon the state, since “Negroes are Americans and their destiny is the country’s destiny.” As for Bigger, “he wants to die because he glories in his hatred and prefers, like Lucifer, rather to rule in hell than serve in heaven.”

Though Baldwin continued to obsess over Wright, it was not until the latter’s death in 1960 that he again took out the hammer and this time nailed shut the coffin. This was done in a mini memoir entitled “Alas, Poor Richard.” Baldwin now suspects that Wright was not even a good protest writer, for he had no “real sense of how a society is put together.” Perhaps he should have, instead, labored in the theatre. But now, sighs Baldwin, the man…who meant so much to me is gone.”

Baldwin remembers how, at the age of twenty, he begged an invitation to meet Wright “because he was the greatest black writer,” the man who had produced “Native Son and, above all Black Boy,” works that “I found expressed, for the first time in my life, the sorrow, the rage, and the murderous bitterness which was eating up my life and the lives of those around me.” The older novelist was polite and supportive and helped him to win the Saxton Fellowship. In 1948, Baldwin moved to Paris where, once off the plane, he was met by a one-man welcoming committee named Richard Wright, who introduced him to the editors at Zero magazine, a favor Baldwin repaid by using the organ to publish “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Now, ten years later, he admits that “Richard was right to be hurt,” and, yeah, he, Baldwin, may have “used his work as a kind of springboard into” his own. Then again, Wright had been his idol by proving that a black kid from “the Mississippi nightmare and the Chicago slums” could rise in the literary world, and had died, as he “also hoped to do, in the middle of a sentence,” and “idols are created in order to be destroyed.” Still, he does not know how he will take the same treatment when his time comes. And it would come.

James Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem. He was a different kind of African-American from the start, becoming one of the few black men ever to prefer the name “Jimmie,” another example being Walker, as in the Kid Dy-No-Mite! It was not long before Jimmie felt the impulse to slay fathers, and for good reason. His own father was a vicious, abusive and borderline insane task-master, and, further, was not even his real dad, a secret that was not divulged to him until his teens. The old man was a factory worker and a storefront preacher, and when not thus occupied, he was knocking up Mrs. Baldwin. In the end, Jimmie would have eight younger half siblings. He was a high-strung and sensitive kid who suffered when his dad called him ugly, which hurt worse than the subsequent beatings. James arrived at books early and read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Dickens and later Dostoyevsky, in each case holding a volume in one hand and the latest baby in the other – anything to escape the raging patriarch. He dreamed of killing that sonovabitch preacher of an old man.

He attended Frederick Douglass Middle School where a white lady teacher noticed his precocity and began, away from class, taking him to plays and movies, though dad resisted such secular activities as un-Christian. But then, at thirteen, he was “saved” and so he renounced the teacher, who said to him: “I’ve lost a lot of respect for you.” This may have hurt Jimmie, but now he had the Lord to soothe his chronic injuries, both real and imaginary. For the next three years, he was a child preacher, a star at the Fireside Pentecostal Faith Church in Harlem. This served two purposes: He received love and affirmation all throughout his sermons. That’s right, Brother James! Second, in excelling at daddy’s profession, he was also taking the old man down one Proverb at a time.

Meanwhile, he attended high school with a large Jewish student body in the Bronx. At sixteen, he began to again read serious literature. It was Dostoyevsky who helped ruin his Christian faith, for the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov could turn even Jesus into an atheist. He graduated high school in 1942, after which he worked for a year in New Jersey in a defense factory. He was an undersized black kid with oversized eyes and effeminate mannerisms. The white guys at the plant hated and abused him with total abandon, being that this was an era that long predated today’s society that holds up gay people as heroic celebrities. Then, the biggest abuser of all, Daddy Baldwin, after a stint in a mental institution, met his death. Jimmie came home to bury the bastard on the same day as the Harlem riot of ’43, the one Ellison covered for the New York Post and was to use as fictional fodder in Invisible Man. Baldwin was now free in a sense. He moved to the Village with the purpose of becoming a writer and a full-blown homosexual. When he was not getting rejected by editors, he was getting his ass kicked by gay-bashing drunken goons. He collected his injuries to fuel his art. Then he made the pilgrimage to Richard Wright.

He wrote for various magazines as the token black guy reviewing African-American subjects. He lived in France for the next eight years, where he practiced his craft until his first novel Go Tell It On The Mountain was published in 1953, which put him on the literary map. In this autobiographical coming of age story, the character is based on his father who, of course, takes a literary beating. He wrote two more acclaimed novels by 1962, Giovanni’s Room, about gay white men, and Another Country, in which the sex is hetero- and homo, interracial and a few other forced combinations. His later fiction was a mediocre.

What Baldwin is best known for are his essays. If Du Bois was correct to say that blacks, as odd men out of white society, have double vision, then Baldwin, as someone even further off on the periphery due to his homosexuality, had triple-vision. This outsider status coupled with his reaching maturity during the McCarthy era made him an original voice. It was in the Fifties that he came to appreciate the blues of Bessie Smith, which added more texture to his literary gifts, until he became a prose stylist second to none. To take a highlighter to his early nonfiction is to color the entire page yellow, for no thought stands alone without the next one, and so on, and to paraphrase him is to attempt a different way of drawing a straight line. His every observation was made three-dimensional on paper. He could call Richard Wright both the greatest black novelist and a hack destined to spend eternity with Harriet Beecher Stowe, and still make sense. Not that he was ever above mauling himself, as when, in his last nonfiction work worth reading, No Name In The Street, he asks what was he “but an aging, lonely, sexually dubious, politically outrageous, unspeakably erratic freak?” Such self-examination can be traced back to the opening of his first collection of essays when he outlines his primary goal: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”

His first good essay, “The Harlem Ghetto,” is reminiscent of his hero Dickens in Sketches of Boz, wherein the young English author takes the reader on a casual tour of London’s streets. This time a young black man guides us through his old ‘hood in a gentle and reassuring way so as not to scare us off before he can make his point. He reminds us that “the white man walking through Harlem is not at all likely to find it sinister or more wretched than any other slum.” But do not be fooled by the commonplace veneer, as just below the surface is an explosion waiting to happen, and which did happen in 1935 and 1943, whereupon the rest of the city shook its head at these troublesome Negroes. Politicians made speeches and launched investigations, and then authorized the construction of playgrounds and housing projects. Baldwin introduces us to the black politicians, many of whom make a living from Harlem’s misfortune – think Al Sharpton. He also sits us down and reads to us from a few African-American newspapers. This one is dedicated to crime and sensation, a tabloid, while another follows the achievements of a limited number of black celebrities, with Lena Horne writing her own column. Then there are the storefront churches, which are “a fairly desperate emotional business.” The services emphasize the Old Testament in that blacks can commiserate with the Jews held in bondage and wishing to flee to the Promised Land. Thus the “images of the suffering Christ and the suffering Jew are wedded with the image of the suffering slave.” Yet Jews own much of Harlem, and so blacks also resent the Chosen People. In the end, Boz stands with us on a street corner and issues an unsettling truth: Just “as a society must have a scapegoat, so hatred must have a symbol. Georgia has the Negro and Harlem has the Jew.”

Each essay, regardless of the subject, starts with James Baldwin and his ongoing self-examination. Toward the end of his life – he died in 1987 in France – he did a slim book on the Atlanta child murders that was almost a satire of his own youthful writing technique. Here, in Atlanta, there were dozens of dead kids and a murderer, Wayne Williams, each with their own stories, and still Baldwin has the need to tell of his growing up in Harlem. He could never get to a subject without first running the gauntlet of his own related – even non-related — experiences. But the early self-exploratory pieces were brilliant, and never more so than in “Notes of a Native Son” – a title filched from the slain Papa Wright and written in 1955.

“Notes of a Native Son” deals with the death of his father and the Harlem riot that accompanies the funeral that is also his nineteenth birthday. Such a collision of events reinforces the idea that he, James Baldwin, stands as a pivot around which turns the entire history of Mankind. This is also his first mention of the racial Armageddon that he will speak of so much in later works. He states that he “had declined to believe in that apocalypse which had been so central to” his “father’s vision; very well, life seemed to be saying, here is something that will certainly pass for the apocalypse.” He describes how the old man had come north from New Orleans, the Southern town in which, at the same time, another black child was running the streets — Louis Armstrong. Yet Daddy forbids his own kids from listening to Sachmo because the music is un-Christian. He is proud of his blackness, though bitter, too, that it has “fixed bleak boundaries to his life.” When the white schoolteacher takes Jimmie to plays and movies, Daddy relents only because, deep down, whites intimidate him, however much he may rage against them in private. The year the younger Baldwin spends in New Jersey at the defense factory marks his baptism in hardcore discrimination. Harlem may be dangerous, but it still insulates one from white persecution. Now Jimmie is taunted and thrown out of restaurants and movies and anything else that frowns upon a dark face. Then he is informed that Daddy is ready to meet, postmortem, the white Jesus Christ, and so he rushes home in time to witness the rendezvous. Baldwin remembers three years ago when he was preaching with less frequency – his faith being on the descent – and his father, out of the blue, had asked him: “You’d rather write than preach, wouldn’t you?” “Yes,” answered the son. This was one of their few real conversations. Now Baldwin looks down into the open casket and sees “simply an old man dead, and it was hard to believe that he had ever given anyone either joy or pain.”

In the months leading up to this day, the streets have been tense. Black people who would otherwise not mingle are now nodding toward each other as comrades in this world run by the Man. Hookers speak with church matrons, and Garveyites with zootsuiters. It is pissing them all off that their brothers and fathers are going to war in Europe but only after being trained down South where they are experiencing Jim Crow. For whose freedom are they risking their lives? Not their own, that’s obvious. On the night of the funeral, “a Negro soldier, in the lobby of the Hotel Braddock, gets into a fight with a white policeman over a Negro girl.” – and the rumor spreads that the cop has shot the brother dead. Then comes the riot, “for Harlem had needed something to smash.”

In the next morning’s aftermath of broken glass, as Baldwin accompanies his father to the grave, he says of the old man: “This was his legacy: nothing is ever escaped…Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.” This leads to the epiphany that a black man must “hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance.” The “second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept…injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.”

Throughout his work there are a few consistent themes. One is “reality” and the other is “identity,” and both go hand in hand. White Americans live in a fantasy world, unaware that the rest of the world does not share its high self-regard. They are even more deluded when believing that there is no such thing as Negro individuality; that blacks exist only as told they should by whites. But, as Baldwin says: “If I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either!” Due to a stronger sense of reality, blacks know whites better than whites know themselves, and only by facing facts will all of us achieve a solid identity.

At the same time, the very definition of what it means to be an American is nothing more than the search for an identity. This country is so new and lacking in tradition that we are making it — and ourselves — up on the fly. That is why exile is so instructive. “The American in Europe is everywhere confronted with the question of his identity.” What distinguishes one seeker from the other is how each “come to terms with their confusion.” It is hoped that from “the vantage point of Europe” this person may discover “his own country.”

“Stranger in the Village,” though another brooding meditation on self (Jimmie Baldwin) and racism, offers a few key insights. Baldwin repairs to a tiny Swiss town in which not one resident has ever encountered a black person in the flesh. These white hamlet-dwellers are innocent, and that is why he is forbearing when the children follow him, a gay black man from Harlem, down the street shouting Neger! Neger! They have no idea of the implications that the n-word carries back in the states. There is also “a custom in the village” of dropping spare francs into a box “decorated with a black figurine” for the purpose “of ‘buying’ African natives” so to convert them to Christianity. Last year they “bought” six or eight of them, and the villagers think Baldwin “might now breathe more easily concerning the souls of at least six of” his kinsmen. He recalls his father and how he never forgave “the white world (which he described as heathen) for having saddled him with a Christ in whom…they themselves no longer believed.” What is ironic is that Baldwin, for all his accomplishments in the Western literary tradition, is still deemed less of a descendant of European culture, due to genetics, than these ignorant villagers, many of whom have never left this isolated spot, nor read a book. Back in America, the two races are stuck together and whites have lost their grip on reality by forcing the insane laws of Jim Crow on the country. In this, the “white man’s motive” is “the protection of his identity; the black man” is “motivated by the need to establish an identity.” But, contrary to the official scorekeeping, the black man’s “battle for his identity has long ago been won. He is not a visitor to the West, but a citizen there, an American.” The biggest problem facing white Americans is their wish to live as do these villagers, to return “to a state in which black men do not exist” – and people “who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction,” an apocalypse. In the end, Baldwin must concede that the white American is a better man than his European counterpart, since at least he is trying to become “involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa,” and not just tossing some coins into a box on some abstract principle and following a skinny gay black man through the street like the Pied Piper yelling Neger! Neger!

In the fall of 1956, Baldwin and Richard Wright and some others were walking to lunch when they came upon a newspaper kiosk. On all the front pages were photographs of a black fifteen-year-old girl, “Dorothy Counts being reviled and spat upon by” a white mob “as she was making her way to school in Charlotte, North Carolina.” That decided Baldwin to return to America, though he was frightened by the prospect; or, as he churned the thought around in his hyperactive mind, “am I afraid of journeying any further with myself?” Either way, everybody “else was paying their dues, and now it was time I went home and paid mine.”

His father had often told him bedtime stories of what happened to black men in the South. He grew terrified of the region and avoided it all his life until 1957 when, at the age of thirty-three (do we need to dwell on the Christian significance of this number?), and with two controversial novels to his name, he toured the region. He was on a plane as it approached Atlanta and looked down on the fabled terrain and pondered whether the “rust-red earth of Georgia” had “acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from the trees” in which young black men had been hung, “while white men watched him and cut his sex from him with a knife.” His “father must have seen such sights.” After landing on terror-firma, he met Martin Luther King and then listened to him preach in the Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery. Baldwin was surprised to be moved by King’s words, being that, as a former minister himself, he knew the tricks of the trade and suspected all religious leaders as frauds. It helped that King was five years his junior, as there would be no need of Oedipal execution. He went on to Little Rock and Tuskegee and came back to New York committed to the Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights Movement radicalized Baldwin and transformed him into not only a protest writer, and one that made Richard Wright seem an ivory tower intellectual, but into an actual protester. He began speaking at fundraisers and colleges. He summoned his old gifts of oratory and, with his intense nature and increasing identification with the injured black Southerner, made it a personal issue and would thunder down from the pulpit in all his apocalyptic fury. He often joined Malcolm X on radio and television programs. They were supposed to represent opposing sides of the race issue – separation versus integration – but Baldwin, off the air, agreed with much of Malcolm’s doctrine, and came to love the Nation of Islam minister and considered him one of the kindest and most gentle men in the world. He met James Meredith, the man who, with twenty-thousand U.S. Army troops, broke the color barrier at Ole Miss, and, while in the neighborhood, befriended Medgar Evers, a leader in the NAACP, who was shot dead in his driveway in Jackson in 1963. The killers of Evers confessed to the crime and were still acquitted of murder. Baldwin was at the March on Washington and then fell into a rage days later when the four black children were killed in Birmingham from a bomb tossed at a church by white patriots. He was also present at King’s greatest moment when the Civil Rights Movement culminated in the march from Selma to Montgomery where they brought Ole Dixie down.

Throughout these years, his essays became more hard-hitting. He slew two old mentors, William Faulkner and Langston Hughes, the latter being one of the black poets of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Faulkner was a racist who thought that black and white relations had improved, because, according to police figures, only “six Negroes were killed by whites in Mississippi last year.” As for one of the pioneers of black literature, every time he reads Langston Hughes, he is “amazed all over again by his genuine gifts – and depressed that he has done so little with them.”

Then, in 1963, all that had gone into the making of Jimmie Baldwin – the illegitimate birth; the abuse from Daddy; the teenage stint as a preacher; the insults and persecution from cops, whites and homophobes; Bessie Smith; Richard Wright; the hard fight to gain a prose style that was leaning toward apocalyptic language and increasing bitchiness – now came together in one great book-length essay that set out to slay the ultimate father, Uncle Sam. The book was called The Fire Next Time.

It begins, as always, with the personal, a letter to his nephew, James. He wastes no time in summoning Daddy Baldwin and the theme of identity. The old man “had a terrible life; he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.” The reason whites are compelled to label blacks as inferior is that to abandon such a myth will result in “the loss of their identity.” It is now our duty, James, to “force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” Signed, Your uncle, James.

The next part of the book is entitled the “Letter from a Region in My Mind.” He rehashes how he had become a serious Christian at fourteen and thence to view the Harlem streets through a more menacing lens. He could already predict where his peers were heading in life just by taking a hard look at all the older, broken souls drifting up and down Lenox Avenue. His friends were “unable to say what it was that oppressed them, except that they knew it was ‘the man’ – the white man.” Thus crime became, not “a possibility, but the possibility.” Money was not “made or kept by…adherence to the Christian virtues,” at least not “for black Christians.” But young Jimmie did not want to be a crook, nor would he “let any white man spit” on him. Therefore, preaching became his racket.

He goes on to recount the psychology behind the religious experience when one falls to the floor and gives oneself over to God. The feeling of renewal comes from letting go of the will to keep fighting a losing battle against white power, of being released from “guilty torment.” A black church service hitting on all cylinders is one of the most thrilling events on earth, and it affords blacks, with otherwise stunted lives, a healthy release.

Young Jimmie was not a born follower, and so, when saved, he became a minister. Then came Dostoyevsky and a change of heart, or, better, a change of mind. Christianity was actually not a release but the very thing that held back his people. He wished they would “throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize…a rent strike.”

Yes, he left the church, but in doing so he was also running from what gave the black version of Christianity its vigor — the blues. This “zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster” was “very moving and very rare.” White Americans knew nothing of this code. To these simpletons, “happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad.” Only blacks, “who have been ‘down the line,’ know what this music is about.”

Baldwin reminds us of what Malcolm X says: that the “white man’s Heaven is the black man’s Hell.” Europeans came to Africa holding a Bible and left with human cargo to work American plantations. In this world, it is power that reigns supreme, and in “the realm of power, Christianity has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty.” This white god, Jesus, has done nothing but persecute blacks. Perhaps, then, “it is time we got rid of Him” – and replace him with a black god.

Now we are introduced to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Baldwin has heard variations of the white devil rhetoric all his life from having grown up in Harlem. What makes him now take notice is how the cops, “in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces,” behave at the Muslim rallies. They are afraid of these self-respecting African-Americans — in contrast to the past when the police held the power and struck fear into any black individual they chose to select for abuse. And power “was the subject of the speeches.” The Muslims had good news: “white people are cursed, and are devils, and are about to be brought down” – as everyone turned to the shuffling cops.

Elijah Muhammad has been able to do what generations of welfare workers have failed to do: “heal and redeem drunkards and junkies,” keep “men chaste and women virtuous” and make African-Americans stand up straight and be proud of their race. How has he “managed it?” Elijah says it is not him “who has done it but time,” for time “catches up with kingdoms and crushes them,” and time is up for Christianity and White Power. This gives black people hope, since they have lost all hope of ever getting a fair shake from the status quo. “God is black.”

Baldwin pays a visit to Elijah in his South Side Chicago mansion. Baldwin is frightened because of the tension in him “between love and power, between pain and rage,” and he does not want to be seduced into a bad decision. He is confronted by a small and delicate man “with a thin face, large, warm eyes, and a most winning smile.” Baldwin is “drawn toward his peculiar authority.” Elijah tells him that there is “no virtue in white people,” and that “the power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions.” But that’s all right, since whites are a global minority, and “the sword they have used so long against others can now, without mercy, be used against them.” Or, as Malcolm would phrase it, the chickens will come home to roost. Elijah walks Baldwin outside and they stand together alone, and the writer confesses that he feels close to the old man and wishes that he could “love and honor him as a witness, an ally, and a father.” But this is one father he dares not try to slay, especially after what will befall Malcolm in two years.

Baldwin ends with a twenty-page sermon. He throws in the famous Du Bois quote that the “problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” But the problem started long before that when “a white Christian named Baldwin” compelled him to kneel at the foot of the cross in order to obliterate his African identity. The Muslims are right to replace the slave name with an “X.” But now it is getting more difficult for the so-called master race to hold down the black man, who has never bought into the American myth that white “ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes.” Blacks have “been down the line” and are tough and “take nothing for granted” and “hear the meaning behind the words.” They know that whatever life “brings must be borne.” Whites, on the other hand, with their infantile need for happy endings, refuse to accept “that life is tragic” and that “one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time.” Power does not last forever, as summed up “when we say, Whatever goes up must come down.” If whites continue to shy away from reality, there will come “the fulfillment of that prophesy, re-created from the Bible in a song by a slave: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

1968 was a difficult year for Jimmie Baldwin. He attended Martin Luther King’s funeral and was never again the same man. He lost all faith in white America. Everything he wrote thereafter ended with something about “the shape of the wrath to come” or some other apocalyptic vision. This was also when Eldridge Cleaver’s book, Soul on Ice, gained popularity. One chapter is entitled “Notes on a Native Son.” He first talks of how he, like so many other blacks, “lusted for anything that Baldwin had written…He placed so much of my own experience, which I thought I had understood, into new perspective.” Then Cleaver turns on his former mentor, calling him “a white man in a black body.” And let us not forget how he “drove the blade of Brutus into the corpse of Richard Wright.” He then equates Baldwin’s homosexuality with “baby-rape or,” worse, “wanting to become the head of General Motors.” Baldwin now became the slain father figure. But he was man enough to admit his hurt feelings borne from hypocrisy, thus achieving the goal he had set at the start of his career: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”

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My own book, The Education of a White Boy, is drawing to a close. It may never reach the public forum, as it is not adaptable to a You Tube video; or, in truth, it may just not be good enough to sit on the shelf of a Barnes and Noble store. But that’s all right. The private Jimmy Johnson has still been enriched by the process of writing and researching — and, ten years later, rereading and editing — this book. I have learned a lot of life lessons from Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. Du Bois, and especially the Big Three of African-American Literature.

Jimmie Baldwin reinforced the idea of starting from a personal view and then fanning outward to embrace the wider scope of history and social dynamics. He is also a warning not to take the same notion so far as to sound like a drama queen, and that is why humor is a key ingredient to any memoir. More important, the writer must let other people take center stage. Even the most gifted and charismatic actor, if alone too long in the spotlight, will bore the audience.

Ralph Ellison proved that one’s literary ancestors do not have to be of the same race and that my instincts were correct when, at eighteen, in Trenton, I gravitated to Joe Zook and the blues. Ellison showed me, too, the wisdom of sometimes having to go underground in order to lick my wounds and, with Louis Armstrong playing soft and low, tell my tale.

And the great Richard Wright made it laughable that I should ever use a lack of formal education as an excuse not to measure myself against the best in literature. All it takes is “the imagination and the will to do so.”

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