Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Uncle Tom's Children

Uncle Tom’s Children, by Richard Wright, Harper & Row, 1940/1965/1989, 214 pages.

This is a collection of short stories by the author of Native Son, which I’ve also read and rated highly. Wright (1908 – 1960) was an African American born dirt poor in Mississippi. His education was haphazard but he was a quick study and became valedictorian of his high school class. He later lived in Chicago and eventually in New York City where he worked to improve the lot of African Americans, often through what turned out to be an uneasy relationship with the American Communist party.

Uncle Tom’s Children was first published in 1938 as a collection of four short stories, “Big Boy Leaves Home,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Long Black Song,” and “Fire and Cloud.” The collection was reissued in 1940 with an additional story, “Bright and Morning Star,” and with a nonfiction essay at the beginning entitled “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” which is autobiography material on Wright himself. This is the version I read.

The autobiographical material is tough to read. The daily humiliations that so many African Americans lived through in the days of Jim Crow is almost beyond imagining for those of us who have never had such experiences. How so many kept from exploding with the gathering tension is beyond me.

The five stories that follow each feature an African American character striving to live in a world where they have few choices and few freedoms, and where dignity has to be fought for every minute of every day. We have stories of young men, old women, and all ages in between. As is the nature of fiction, we join the stories primarily at moments of high drama, where the characters are pushed even further than usual. The characters meet their struggles with dignity, although they are not depicted as one dimensional saints.

White people do not fare well in these stories. They are almost all uniformly vicious and untrustworthy. There are a few white communist party members who work with the blacks but we really don’t get to meet any of them and they are mostly ciphers. The story “Bright and Morning Star” is an exception. It features a kind and caring young white woman. Although this is a somewhat one dimensional portrayal of white people, I’m sure that many black folks of that era felt it to be truth. And when I read the stories of the “Little Rock Nine,” when nine young black students had to be escorted through throngs of screaming, hateful white faces by troops of the 101st Airborne merely to attend school, I cannot doubt the truth behind many of the experiences described in these stories.

All in all, these are very powerful tales. Each one became my favorite as I read it. There is a mythic feel to all of them, and they are certainly constructing a narrative that tries to make some subjective sense out of experiences that ultimately made no objective sense. I was moved by each of these stories and characters.



Riot Kitty said...

Shame on me, I've not read him yet.

I can't even imagine the indignities and fear of African Americans during that time. I'm reading a biography of Rosa Parks, and it's just so shameful.

Cloudia said...

Wise and beautiful review, Charles

ALOHA from Honolulu

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I had absolutely no idea of this collection or even Richard Wright for that matter. Thanks for the review.

Brian Miller said...

nice...i will check it out...and the perceptions are a great view into the times...and attitudes....and realities....

sage said...

Thanks for the review. I think it is hard for us (white folk) to read this but it is also necessary. I've not read this but have read Native Son.

R. T. said...

There is a wonderful episode in Wright's life during which he lived (with others -- including Carson McCullers, W. H. Auden, George Davis, and more) at 7 Middaugh Street in Brooklyn. About 17 to 18 years ago, a colleague and I were working on a book about the residents' tenure at that address when we were beaten to the punch by another researcher/author (her book is entitled February House).

I happen to think Wright's short works are superior to his longer efforts. "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" is my favorite. The focus is primarily a generational rather than a racial conflict. And that is universal.

Charles Gramlich said...

Riot Kitty, I actually liked this collection better than Native Son, although that one is later and probably more polished. There's a rawness to this that is quite powerful.

Clouda, thankee.

Prashant, he was not a prolific writer but his stuff is quite good.

Brian, yes, and it is good to see that we have come far in general as a nation from that point.

Sage, it is hard. I don't feel guilty when I read this kind of material, but I feel angry at the white people who behaved in such horrid fashion.

R.T., I actually liked this better than Native Son as well, partly because of the varied views I got of characters. Maybe not as polished as the later Native Son, but raw and full of passion.

R. T. said...

To anyone who feels guilty about the past (and this comes up a lot in class discussions when I have assigned stories by authors like Wright), I simply make the point: You need to understand that Germans in 2015 have no reasons to feel guilty about the Nazi era; Japanese in 2015 have no reasons to feel guilty about Pearl Harbor and WWII in the Pacific; Americans in 2015 have no reasons to feel guilty about past treatments of Native Americans, African Americans, and others who suffered in the past. We must all simply avoid repetitions of the past. And we go a long way to doing that by learning about the past -- through history and through literature. Guilt is inappropriate. Honest, clear-eyed study and appreciation of the past is appropriate. And authors like Richard Wright help us with our honesty and our clarity. So, the bottom line is this: we owe nothing to the anyone in the past; we only have a responsibility to the present and the future. (End of sermon -- no collection -- now I will be quiet.)

Charles Gramlich said...

R.T. agreed

Oscar said...

Started Native Son but never finished. I think he had some articles or stories in Playboy, if I remember correctly.

Ron Scheer said...

We all, regardless of color, need to read these. The issue of guilt raised by RT came up in a western seminar I once taught. A student said she was tired of being made to feel guilty about Native Americans. I was taken by surprise that she had come to believe guilt was her only option as a response, while I had assumed that learning for its own sake was reason enough to read and study.

the walking man said...

I wonder if their is a Yin to the Yang of Jim Crow? I live as a minority among a huge majority population of Blacks who have not the faintest care for any barb, discrimination or racist rant thrown my way.

I understand the past, never felt any "white guilt" (and yes that is the term) for it. I still come at race, which is still the biggest factor in Detroit moving forward, from the center.

I don't give a shit what your color is if I need a blood transfusion and I don't give a shit when you're being a saint or an asshole what your color is.

Stories centered on race, have worn me out, maybe Jim Crow was different in the south but in Detroit in 1925 an all white jury acquitted a black man of murder for killing a white man in defense of his brothers home. That incident could have been a building block for new idea between people but hell no, after Clarence Darrow left town and the hoopla was over it was right back to the same old biases, both Black and White.

I have come to the conclusion that 95% of people do not want to understand that an equal society by every measure is a safe society and a society that needs to have a lower caste to spit on is one that will forever be on edge.

Don't for a minute think that Blacks during Jim Crow though while abused still did not get their little revenges in.

That is reality all over the world, no matter who is on top and who is on the bottom. Some caste will always overpower another making them their nigger, until everyone says no more, no mas, enough, it is finished.

Charles Gramlich said...

Oscar, he may have. I don't know about that part of it. I know the stories in this collection were mostly published elsewhere first.

Ron, guilt is usually a choice people make, about whether to feel it or not. Of course some folks will try to make one feel guilty for all kinds of things as a manipulation. But one doesn't have to feel guilt for the way one's ancestors treated someone else's ancestors. That doesn't change the fact that you need to be aware of such mistreatments and about how that has affected our history.

Mark, although I didn't mention it in the review, Wright does illustrate in places where oppressed blacks got their revenges. Humans as a species are the same all over, no matter the nationality or ethnicity, and it seems a characteristic of that is to need someone to look down on and abuse. It is a sad quality of the human species, and one we should always be aware of.

David Cranmer said...

Been years since I've read it but I remember being deeply moved as well.

Charles Gramlich said...

David, I'm trying to read some classics I've missed this year.