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.