Friday, September 22, 2017

Police TerrorUSA, Inc. Is More Than Police Murders

Police Murders Are the Tip of the Iceberg

St. Louis police confront protesters in the wake of Jason Stockley's acquittal, September 15 
Colin Gordon ▪ September 21, 2017

The protests that have roiled St. Louis since the acquittal last week of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley in the 2011 murder of Anthony Lamar Smith are—in one respect—animated by the palpable injustice of the case. The trial judge gave little weight to Stockley’s declaration, during his pursuit of Smith, that he was “going to kill this motherfucker.” He accepted without hesitation or reservation Stockley’s claim to be acting in self-defense. He whistled past strong circumstantial evidence that Stockley planted a weapon in Smith’s car after the shooting. He made little of chilling detail that Stockley, in addition to his service weapon, was brandishing a personal AK-47 in defiance of departmental regulations. And he punctuated his ruling with the gratuitous aside, on the question of whether Smith was armed, “that an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly.”

More broadly, the protests mark a persistent outrage at police conduct (and misconduct) in which the deaths of Smith in 2011, and of Michael Brown in 2014, are but the most visible episodes. And they mark a persistent burden of unequal citizenship in Greater St. Louis, in which African Americans are more likely to be the targets of local government than its beneficiaries. Policing, in this sense, is not just a public service aimed at securing safety and order. It is, as Joe Soss and Vesla Weaver underscore, a highly discretionary exercise of “coercion, containment, repression, surveillance, regulation, predation, discipline, and violence” that represents for many—and certainly for the most marginal—the single most important point of contact between citizen and state.

“The meting out of punishment in the American criminal justice system,” add Tracey Meares and Ben Justice, “. . . . provide Americans with a powerful and coherent set of messages and experiences that define who is a citizen, and who is a problem.”

These patterns have a long history, and are hardly unique to St. Louis. But they are magnified in this politically fragmented and deeply segregated metropolitan area. As of 2017, St. Louis County alone counts 89 municipalities, 81 municipal courts, and 61 police departments. Local testimony—from the 1970 hearings of the United States Commission on Civil Rights through the work of Arch City Defenders and others in the wake of Michael Brown’s death—document exposure to serial traffic stops and low level harassment from one municipal fragment to the next, and a tangle of local warrant and fines that often trapped those charged with even minor offenses on a “municipal shuffle” from one court docket to the next. And this “byzantine maze of overlapping jurisdictions,” as reporters Ryan J. Reilly and Rebecca Rivas put it, has made it harder to accomplish any meaningful change in policing or the courts; “whatever you do in St. Louis City,” one reformer observes, “you have to replicate 90 times throughout the county.”

Traffic stops are one potent illustration of the disproportionate contact between black citizens of Greater St. Louis and their local police. Since 2000, the State of Missouri has required local police departments to report traffic stops (and their outcome) by race. The figure below plots this disparity index for the nine-county St. Louis region, for blacks and whites, from 2000 to 2016. At a disparity index of “1,” the share of traffic stops matches that racial group’s share of the population. Each dot on the graph is a police jurisdiction; the bars show the range from the 25th to the 75th percentile, with the midpoint line designating the median value for that year across all jurisdictions. The “whiskers” extend to a point 1.5 times the interquartile range (the difference between the 25th and 75th percentiles); all values greater than that are excluded as outliers.

Traffic Stops by Race, St. Louis Region, 2000-2016
Traffic Stops by Race, St. Louis Region, 2000-2016 [graphic]
Source: Missouri Attorney General, Vehicle Stops Report, 2000-2016.

For whites, the 100-odd police jurisdictions in the St. Louis region are clustered at or below 1 in every year surveyed. For blacks, the median disparity index is closer to 2, and the 75th percentile is over 3 for all but four of the years surveyed. A quarter of these police jurisdictions, in other words, stopped black motorists at a rate more than three times their share of the population.

These disparities were even starker when a traffic stop led to a search or an arrest. In 2013 (the year before Michael Brown was shot), the police departments of Ferguson, Olivette, Overland, and Kirkwood searched the vehicles of black motorists at twice the rate of those of whites, and arrested black motorists at almost three times the rate. In Bel-Ridge (just south of Ferguson) that year, more than three-quarters of all traffic stops involved black motorists; of the 775 black motorists stopped, eleven were subject to searches and thirty-two were arrested. Traffic stops of motorists who were not black did not yield a single search or arrest.

This data further corroborates the conclusions of the Obama Justice Department’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, published in 2015. In its report, the Department noted “the persistent exercise of discretion to the detriment of African Americans; the apparent consideration of race in assessing threat; and the historical opposition to having African Americans live in Ferguson, which lingers among some today” in describing local practices more interested in enforcing segregation than in ensuring public safety. The police “see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders,” the report concluded caustically.

Such sharply uneven experiences diminish and devalue civic life in other ways. A criminal record can short-circuit other avenues of meaningful citizenship—including education and employment opportunities, access to housing, and the right to vote. Both the rate and the manner of interactions with the police, of which traffic stops offer but one jarring example, undermine the faith of African-American citizens in the ability of their government to make fair and objective decisions.

Such policing practices “arrest citizenship” not just because they are unevenly targeted, but because the conduct of the police, and the charges themselves, violate basic norms of social and legal equity. “African Americans’ views of [Ferguson Police Department],” as the Department of Justice observed, “are shaped not just by what FPD officers do, but by how they do it.”
The problem here is twofold: first, local policing in Greater St. Louis has always leaned heavily on enforcement of the municipal code—a constitutional fog of petty offenses and citations.

Michael Brown was stopped under the auspices of Ferguson Municipal Code Sec. 44-344 “Manner of walking along roadway,” an exhortation to use the sidewalk that was, before its repeal in 2016, employed almost exclusively as a pretext for stopping black pedestrians. More broadly, much of the harassment that passes for policing rest on “contempt of cop” charges such as Failure to Comply, Disorderly Conduct, Interference with Officer, or Resisting Arrest—all of which are wielded overwhelmingly against black pedestrians and motorists. The result, as the Department of Justice tallied, are systematic violations of the First Amendment, and of the “probable cause” and “excessive force” provisions of the Fourth Amendment.

Second, this pattern of unequal protection under the law is accompanied by only the thinnest veneer of procedural justice. Police interactions with African Americans in St. Louis and St. Louis County have historically been marked by indifference and neglect of those seeking the protection of the courts (including early arrivals in areas of racial transition), and disrespect, disdain, and excessive force for those who are the targets of the law. In their scathing 2015 assessment of the County’s municipal courts, Arch City Defenders underscored this point: “For most individuals, the only substantive interaction they have with the Missouri justice system or with their municipal government is through the municipal courts, and the impressions instilled by those courts reflect on the entire municipality.”

In short, police across the region have snuffed out any semblance of equal protection and equal citizenship for half the population of the City of St. Louis and nearly a quarter of the population of St. Louis County. This regime of policing, at once systemic and chaotic, is just one iteration of the refusal of equal citizenship playing out hour by hour across the country—in stark racial inequalities on every metric from school suspensions to executions, in pervasive entanglement with the police and courts in particular for young black men, and an in era of mass incarceration without historical precedent or current analog. These are the conditions that shield state actors no matter how egregious their conduct, and that extend to others the state’s constant attention but not its protection. These are the conditions that made it possible for Jason Stockley to murder Anthony Lamar Smith and walk away free.

Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (2008) and a companion website.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A 2016 discussion from the Original Founders of the Black Panther Party

Here's a raw video of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party that actually started in May 1966 in Harlem, NY and then spread thruout the USA.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Respectability Politics and their Failure to Keep Black Americans Safe

Respectability Will Not Save Us

On the History of Respectability Politics and their Failure to Keep Black Americans Safe

 By Carol Anderson

Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler Professor and Chair of African American Studies at Emory University. She is the author of Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African-American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955, which was published by Cambridge University Press and awarded both the Gustavus Myers and Myrna Bernath Book Awards, and Bourgeois Radicals: The NAACP and the Struggle for Colonial Liberation, 1941-1960, also published by Cambridge. Her most recent publication, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide, won the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism and has been named one of the best books of 2016 by the New York Times, the Washington Post, Boston Globe, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Globe and Mail and is also a New York Times Bestseller and a New York Times Editor’s Pick. 

NOTE: The following article contains graphic images of lynching.
It was well after the Civil Rights Movement. Decades, even. Yet, the bodies of black people continued to pile up—the victims of police and vigilante violence. Their names read like a memorial to the fallen: Amadou Diallo, Tarika Wilson, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Kathryn Johnston, Rekia Boyd, Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams, Freddie Gray, Tanisha Anderson, Kendrec McDade, Michelle Cusseaux, Jonathan Ferrell, Laquan McDonald, Danette Daniels, Cedrick Chatman, Jamar Clark, Tamir Rice, and far too many more. As children, fathers, wives, even a 92-year-old grandmother were gunned down or choked to death, #BlackLivesMatter activists asserted “respectability will not save us.”

The politics of respectability, deployed during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, was supposed to have put an end to this. This denigration of black lives. This legal and cultural propensity to define African Americans as un-citizens and, therefore, unworthy of rights. If the language of post-racial America is to be believed, the Civil Rights Movement had finally made audible how hollow the nation’s civic pronouncements were whenever the United States

We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal;

O’er the land of the free;

and Pledged:
with liberty and justice for all.
African Americans had long been well aware of the U.S.’s “mocking paradoxes.” In the 1930s, Langston Hughes poetically chronicled the chasm between the myth of the nation and its brutal reality. In a searing indictment of democracy, he declared, “There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’. . . America has never been America to me.” While disfranchisement—which shut down the ballot box to nearly 95 percent of blacks in the South—and unequal schools that mocked the very concept of separate but equal greatly conscribed the lives of African Americans, it was blacks’ vulnerability to legal and extralegal domestic terrorism that defined how tenuous their very existence actually was.

Indeed, one year before Hughes published his searing poem, Claude Neal, a black man accused of rape and murder, was dragged from his jail cell in Alabama, transported to Florida, hoisted onto a platform, castrated, branded, and tortured while a throng of onlookers clamored wildly for the dismembered fingers and body parts tossed to them by his executioners.

Shortly thereafter law enforcement in Alabama and Florida, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), concluded that no crime had been committed.

 Photograph of body of Claude Neal hanging from a tree near the Jackson County Courthouse, later sold as a postcard. From NAACP, The Lynching of Claude Neal, courtesy of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

Similarly, only a few weeks after Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into World War II, a mob stormed the Sikeston, Missouri jail and dragged Cleo Wright, a black man accused of attempted rape, out of his cell. Although Wright was already bleeding profusely from multiple gunshot wounds incurred during his arrest, the mob wanted to inflict a death that the African American community would never forget. They tied his bullet-riddled body to the bumper of a car, drove into the black neighborhood, doused him with five gallons of gasoline, set him afire, and watched as the man, who was miraculously still alive at that point, burned to death while the smell of his roasting flesh wafted through the church windows that Sunday morning.

The grand jury, after hearing the evidence, soon concluded that no-one in the mob had committed a crime.

Photograph of the body of Cleo Wright in Sikeston, Mo, 1942. Retrieved from the Library of Congress. 

In fact, the 1940s witnessed a spate of killings—a 14-year-old African American boy in Florida, who sent a white girl a Christmas card, paid dearly for that transgression by being thrown in the river, his hands bound as his father was forced to watch the child drown; a veteran, his wife, who was pregnant, brother-in-law, and her sister, were hit with a fusillade of over 60 bullets that splattered their bodies into the red dirt of Monroe, Georgia; a soldier, glad to be home from fighting the Nazis, was blowtorched and dismembered in Louisiana; a slew of World War II veterans who dared approach the ballot box in Georgia and Alabama were gunned down for believing they were American citizens who had the right to vote; and then there were the three lynchings in Mississippi that happened within one week. All these murders led to the same conclusion: either no crime had been committed or that it was impossible for law enforcement to identify those who had killed black men, women, and children in broad daylight. U.S. Congressman Arthur W. Mitchell (D-IL) surveyed the racism gripping the United States in the 1940s and asked pointedly, “Is this democracy?

The equally sinister companion to lynching was Southern Justice, which used the criminal justice system to ignore the rules of evidence and flaunt jurisprudence to “legally” execute African Americans—such as the 1951 case in which the State of Mississippi sent Willie McGee to the electric chair for raping a white woman long after it had become crystal clear that the crime never happened. But, in the end, his innocence simply didn’t matter. That same year, Florida sheriff Willis McCall, angry that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new trial for two black men accused of rape, drove them into the woods, stopped the car, pulled out his sidearm, then gunned down the handcuffed prisoners. One man, although shot three times, survived and told a tale that exposed the lies in the sheriff’s story of an escape attempt foiled only by his trusty weapon. Nonetheless, despite cold-blooded murder and attempted murder, McCall kept his job for twenty-one additional years until he finally lost a re-election bid (but was found “not guilty) after bludgeoning yet another black man to death.

The ease with which American society could explain away the slaughter of black people crystallized for African Americans with the 1955 kidnapping, torture, and murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till in Money, Mississippi. When his killers, who subsequently proudly confessed in Life magazine, were found “not guilty” by a jury of their peers, that was the breaking point.

Strategists in the Civil Rights Movement were determined to make democracy real by rendering visible African Americans’ humanity. They adopted the “politics of respectability” as a key tactic to short-circuit society’s penchant to justify the unjustifiable.  Their rationale was simple: stereotypes— “ethnic notions,” in the words of filmmaker Marlon Riggs—had consistently transformed African Americans in the eyes of white people from human beings into “beasts” and “coons,” who were violent, ugly, savage, and feral. The stripping of blacks’ humanity, they argued, had provided a psychological, legal, and linguistic excuse for the extrajudicial violence they faced. Drawing on a tradition that went back to the turn of the century, blacks in the movement worked hard to curate an image as God-fearing, hardworking, law-abiding, and family loving Americans. The point was to skillfully use the new medium of television so that the brutality that rained down on black people—especially respectable ones—would shock the conscience of the white public and lawmakers. As the Paley Center for Media noted:
By 1960, 90 percent of American homes had television. Television became a catalyst for change on a massive scale. People in the northern states could see what was happening in Selma, Birmingham, and Memphis and vice versa. In addition, television helped Southern blacks unify, for while local Southern media rarely covered news involving racial issues, they now had access to national newscasts that were witnessing and documenting this revolution.
That is to say, the politics of respectability made visible that the only possible reason why Selma, Alabama Sheriff Jim Clark would snatch schoolteacher Mrs. Amelia Boynton by the collar when she tried to register to vote was because she was black. Similarly, racism was the only way to explain the bomb that destroyed the home of former city councilman and Nashville civil rights attorney Z. Alexander Looby. There could be no reason but sheer racial hatred that blew up a church in Birmingham on Sunday morning and sent four little black girls to their graves.

The politics of respectability was envisioned as the leverage to compel white Americans to see the violence and destruction done to human beings in the name of democracy. Scholar Gary Dorrien, therefore, concluded that the politics of respectability was essential; “there would have been no civil rights movement without it.”

“Strategists in the Civil Rights Movement were determined to make democracy real by rendering visible African Americans’ humanity.”
The politics of respectability were in obvious play when African Americans in Alabama decided to draw a line in the sand over the arrest of middle-class secretary and wife Rosa Parks after she defied the Jim Crow laws on the buses in Montgomery. E.D. Nixon, president of Alabama’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) state branch, “knew instinctively that Rosa Parks was without peer as a potential symbol for Montgomery Negroes—humble enough to be claimed by the common folk, and yet dignified enough in manner, speech, and dress to command the respect of the leading classes.” She was not the first to personally challenge the degrading system that assaulted African Americans’ soul and dignity on public transportation. But the others did not have the respectability quotient of Mrs. Parks. The black leadership had already refused to take up the case for Claudette Colvin, a pregnant, unwed, 15-year-old who also defied the law but whose stereotypical profile made her, in the mid-1950s, problematic as the symbol of black resistance.

While scholars often focus on this self-policing action in the black community, especially the demand that poorer blacks adhere to a code of decorum, those critiques, while valid in certain aspects, ignore the obvious. Respectable or not, some of the strictures, such as the importance of education and sobriety, were essential for the very well-being of the black community. To put it another way, those values were not inherently wrong, misguided, or class-based, and they helped to sustain and protect African Americans and their families.

For all that it does, though, respectability offers little to no protection against anti-black violence. Indeed, in the late 1890s, rights activist Alexander Crummell declared “‘Blind men! For they fail to see that neither property, nor money, nor station, nor office’ were capable of saving the race” from the terror of lynching and the stripping of constitutional rights that defined the rise of Jim Crow.

Respectability politics were always too flawed to be fully viable.

First, the standard for respectability requires blacks to have a level of probity and purity that is close to sainthood status. Any intimation of impropriety—an arrest, a child born out-of-wedlock, on welfare, or even carrying a cigarette—creates an Achilles’ torso that makes the black body vulnerable to deadly force.

Second, the politics of respectability defines the whole by the singular, where the violent or sexually rapacious actions of one black person becomes the societal Rosetta Stone to decode and explain all African Americans. In short, the vaunted individualism that conservative ideology defines as quintessential Americanism dissipates in the face of blackness.

Third, the politics of respectability links rights to behavioral performances and not to the fact that blacks are human. Fourth, with so much focus on behavior, very little attention is paid to the important role institutional, systemic racism plays in fostering continuing inequality.

Finally, the politics of respectability assumes that blacks were responsible, because of their purported criminal actions, for being lynched and disfranchised. And, as Ida B. Wells discovered when her friends, successful businessmen, were lynched in Memphis, accusations of rape were just a pretext:

 “This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was. An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race down and the nigger terrorized.”

Nonetheless, during the civil rights era, African Americans had, essentially, made a deal with the larger society. They would do everything that they were supposed to, indeed, what the overwhelming majority had been doing all along, and, in turn the United States would finally keep its end of the bargain—freedom, democracy, and equal opportunity with liberty and justice for all. The U.S.’s betrayal of that bargain, however, has poured thousands out into the streets in protests and led the overwhelming majority of African Americans to question the very legitimacy of the legal system.

One of the key moments en route to today’s political insurgency was the killing of Amadou Diallo. On February 4, 1999, the NYPD spotted a black man standing in his apartment building’s vestibule. Forty-one bullets later, Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant, was dead. The moment the four police officers realized that they had killed a man whose only weapon was a wallet, the NYPD set out to “dirty up” Diallo, “to find dirt that could be used to justify the shooting.” They searched his apartment looking for anything to “taint his character.”

They took his roommate down to the precinct and interrogated him, demanding to know “who were Diallo’s enemies?” Questioning that only makes sense if the slain man had been gunned down in a drive-by shooting. They smeared him with innuendo, asking why Diallo, who had simply left his apartment after a long day at work to get something to eat, “had been acting in a manner suspicious enough to attract the attention of the officers.” These attempts were not new.

The New York Times noted that “in the past when police officers have shot people,” the NYPD then “revealed the criminal records, if any, of the shooting victims.” Diallo, however, did not have one. The police explained, nonetheless, that they were looking for a black serial rapist that night and saw him. Yet, as even one of the officers, Sean Carroll, had to “admit. . .Diallo really didn’t closely resemble the description of the man they were pursuing.” But still, they shot, with two of the officers emptying their clips, reloading, and firing again.

When they could not destroy Diallo’s respectability to explain away 41 bullets, they went after a much easier target: the black community in the Bronx and the eyewitness. The officers’ defense attorneys argued that it was irrelevant if Diallo was armed or not. The only thing that mattered was that the police had a reasonable belief, given the crime-filled neighborhood, that the West African immigrant had a weapon and would use it. The logic and consequences of that legal argument are harrowing. It defines the entire black population in the Bronx (simply because of their blackness and location) as dangerous—and thus eligible to be shot by the police. Although, that supposition is preposterous—no-one, for example, argues that white males, who account for 79 percent of all mass shootings in schools, should be automatically considered a threat and gunned down before they step foot in any educational facility—it was a defense strategy grounded in New York law.
More than a decade before Diallo’s killing, Bernard Goetz, a white man who said he felt threatened by blacks on the subway and, therefore, had to shoot them, walked away from all charges when the New York Court of Appeals ruled that any “reasonable man” would have done the same. The New York Times winced, “there is little to applaud in a ruling that would justify murderous conduct by all who think they are afraid.”

“The logic and consequences of that legal argument are harrowing. It defines the entire black population in the Bronx (simply because of their blackness and location) as dangerous—and thus eligible to be shot by the police.”
Schrrie Elliott was the one who had so much to fear. Coming home to the Bronx that evening, she had witnessed the four officers jump out of their car, weapons drawn. She saw Diallo on the small porch. She heard “‘Gun!’” And then a barrage of gunfire. Diallo’s bullet riddled body jerking with every strike. More gunfire. Then silence. Elliott ran for blocks, trying to get home to safety.

She kept silent for weeks about what she had witnessed but the nightmares would not stop. An unarmed man. Four cops. A hail of bullets. Blood. She eventually told a reporter; she had every reason to not trust the police with her story.

When word came down that there was a witness, the officers’ attorneys and the press went straight into ethnic notions mode. The defense called her an “adverse” witness, who “hated the police.” But that was to be expected, the lawyers continued, she had a long criminal history; she was arrested multiple times for drugs and actually served time in prison. She not only was hostile and a criminal, she was also a sexually promiscuous, bad mother who began having children at 15 years of age and could not manage to create a home where any of them could live with her. But, then again, that was to be expected; the home of this convicted felon was in “the projects” —public housing. She “lacked credibility” the attorneys charged. The only thing that could be believed from Schrrie Elliott, the defense lawyers continued, was that the police were afraid for their lives when one officer yelled “Gun!”

The jury in upstate New York—the trial had been moved out of New York City—agreed and “found the officers’ actions reasonable under the circumstances.” In the context of a crime-filled neighborhood, police on the hunt for a black rapist, and a black man standing on his porch, forty-one bullets were quite reasonable. One defense attorney crowed, “The point is the police officers have to be able to do their job and do it the right way.” The other defense attorney was outraged that the prosecutor would even bring charges against the officers for shooting down an unarmed man. This whole trial, he asserted, was nothing but a capitulation to “mob justice” where Diallo’s death sparked weeks of protests and marches in New York City.

The head of the NAACP, Kweisi Mfume, saw the killing, the trial, and the acquittal quite differently: “This case is in many ways another example of racial profiling at its worst. It’s hard to believe this kind of force would have been used if Diallo was a white man standing in his vestibule not causing any kind of disturbance . . . The fact that the accused officers were even acquitted on the charge of reckless endangerment is equally as unbelievable.” In other words, despite a man, who embodied respectability, despite the fact that he was unarmed and still mowed down by nineteen of the forty-one bullets fired at him, the justice system roared back, there was no crime here.
That same cadence played its haunting refrain in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012. Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, lay on the ground with a bullet in his heart. The Skittles and Arizona iced-tea he had just purchased from a nearby 7-11 were next to him. His killer, George Zimmerman, stood there with the murder weapon tucked in his waistband.

Minutes before the fatal encounter, he had spotted Martin walking in the gated community and called 911. It was raining and the teen had his jacket hood up to cover his head. Zimmerman, however, saw: black-male-in-a-gated community-hood-up and deduced that Martin was a “real suspicious guy.” “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something,” Zimmerman told the dispatcher. “It’s raining, and he’s just walking around looking about.” “Now he’s coming towards me. He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male . . . Something’s wrong with him. Yup, he’s coming to check me out. He’s got something in his hands. I don’t know what his deal is . . . These assholes, they always get away.”

Zimmerman was determined that this one would not escape. He got out of his SUV with his loaded 9mm and began to follow Martin, who was on the phone with teenage friend, Rachel Jeantel. When the 911 operator asked Zimmerman if he was now following Martin, she informed the neighborhood vigilante, “Okay, we don’t need you to do that.” Zimmerman ignored her and continued to stalk the unarmed teenager through the neighborhood. Moments later, Trayvon Martin was dead, and Zimmerman claimed self-defense.

After a cursory initial investigation, the chief of police insisted that “there wasn’t enough evidence to refute Zimmerman’s self-defense claim.” The black community’s retort was unequivocal: That “doesn’t even make sense,” said Ben Crump, the Martin family’s attorney. “Trayvon Martin, a kid, has a bag of Skittles. (Zimmerman) had a 9 mm gun. Trayvon Martin didn’t approach George Zimmerman, George Zimmerman approached Trayvon Martin. So how can he now assert self defense?” But the police chief was adamant, “The evidence and testimony we have so far does not establish that Mr. Zimmerman did not act in self defense.”

On one hand, Lee was right. But only because the police did not conduct a real investigation, including swabbing for gun powder residue, knocking on all of the neighbors’ doors to see if anyone knew who Martin was and why he would be there, or even sending a homicide detective to the scene. Indeed, the police held up Zimmerman’s supposedly “squeaky clean” record to explain why there had been no arrest that night—or for weeks thereafter. His relative whiteness gave him an aura of respectability and the benefit of the doubt that the unarmed black child simply did not have. And, Zimmerman’s halo of racial innocence protected him despite the killing, the previous arrest for battery on a law enforcement officer, and calling 911 nearly 50 times in the first two months of that year.

That disparity became heightened after intense African American outrage led to Zimmerman’s arrest and trial. The backlash was intense. Martin morphed from a 5’8”, 158 lbs. 17-year-old into a brutal, 6’2”, 170 lbs., pot smoking, hoodie-wearing, jewelry stealing, gold-toothed, aggressive thug that had attacked a man, who was older, less athletic, and vulnerable. The only equalizer was a 9mm. Or as one commenter on remarked, Trayvon Martin was just “another black punk who got what he deserved.”
His friend, Rachel Jeantel, with whom he was on the phone during the stalking, was discredited in much the same fashion as Schrrie Elliott. She devolved in the media and the defense’s case from a multi-lingual high school student traumatized by hearing the blow-by-blow of Trayvon Martin’s death, into an illiterate, ignorant, inarticulate stereotype, who became the butt of jokes, black shame, and derision. “Let’s be honest,” one columnist wrote “Jeantel’s very presence on the witness stand (broadcast live on national and international television) conjures up all kinds of age-old race, class, and gender-based stereotypes about black women. The large, full-figured, dark-skinned black girl. Not a great communicator. Not very articulate. Head hung low. Appearing to roll her eyes and head as she verbally sparred back and forth with defense attorney Don West. And, stunningly, she tweeted about needing a ‘drink.’”

“The traumatized teen became the scapegoat for the way that her inability to model respectability had failed the black community and, with it, any real chance at justice for Trayvon Martin’s death.”
Indeed, Jeantel was stripped of her respectability and “outed” when Zimmerman’s attorney handed her the transcript of her recent testimony and asked Jeantel (taunted her, even), to read it back to the jury. She could not. While the nineteen-year-old bore the full brunt and humiliation of that exposure, Miami’s Norland Senior High School—where only 28 percent of the students read at grade level, the largest share of curricular funding was allocated to vocational education, and nearly one-quarter of all students do not matriculate—remained unscathed.

West was not done with Jeantel. When she seemed confused during questioning, he would chide her, “Are you claiming in any way that you don’t understand English?” It soon became clear, in fact, that many in the court patently refused to understand her English. For example, after saying she heard “get off me” over the phone that fateful evening, she was asked, “Could you tell who was saying that?” The response was telling. The official transcript read, “‘I couldn’t know Trayvon,’” and then “‘I couldn’t hear Trayvon.’” Yet, as Stanford University linguistics professor John Rickford pointed out, “neither of these makes semantic sense in context.” He noted that “When another linguist and I listened to the TV broadcast of the recording played in court we heard, instead, ‘I could, an’ it was Trayvon.’ . . . she definitely did not say what the transcript reports her to have said.” He observed, “On talk shows and social media sites, people castigated her ‘slurred speech,’ bad grammar and Ebonics usage, or complained that, ‘Nobody can understand what she’s saying.’”

The traumatized teen became the scapegoat for the way that her inability to model respectability had failed the black community and, with it, any real chance at justice for Trayvon Martin’s death. Many African Americans were angry with Jeantel for not being able to code-switch, moving seamlessly from Ebonics with her friends to standardized English on the stand. One person, who self-identified as black, lashed out: “She has to be the most, ignorant, ghetto, uneducated, lazy, fat, gross, arrogant, stupid, confrontation Black bitch I’ve ever seen in my fucking life. Yes, I said it . . . and I’m Black.” Or, as Rickford conceded, “People speaking non-standard English are even seen as being of poor character.”

In short, black respectability and not George Zimmerman, the man who had killed an unarmed teenager, was on trial. Social media and commentators transformed Jeantel, who was fluent in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole, into “a junkie,” an “animal,” and “the missing link between monkeys and humans.” One commentator remarked: “You could swap her out for a three-toed sloth and get the same witness value and response.”

Jeantel, in two days of testimony, lost the protection that any teenager would have had, who had been traumatized by the death of a friend whom she had known since second grade. She lost the innocence of youth as questions about her size and complexion led to unflattering queries about her actual age, eating habits, credibility, and her intelligence. Zimmerman, on the other hand, walked away unscathed, especially because his lies, his wannabe cop fantasy, and propensity for violence never fully called into question his initial statement that he was the victim of an attack.

On November 22, 2014, Officer Timothy Loehmann and his partner were dispatched to a park in Cleveland, Ohio where they had reports of someone with a gun. The police rushed to the scene and, within moments of their arrival, opened fire. They called it in: “‘Shots fired, male down,’ one of the officers in the car called across his radio. ‘Black male, maybe 20, black revolver, black handgun by him. Send E.M.S. this way, and a roadblock.’”

Laying there bleeding to death, with neither of the police officers performing any first aid, was not a 20-year-old man but a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice.
As a recent study of police officers indicated, “Black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their White same-age peers.” Worse yet, the researchers’ “findings demonstrate that the Black/ape association,” which is a dehumanization process, “predicted actual racial disparities in police violence toward children.”

Loehmann and his partner Frank Garmback gave a compelling account of why Rice had to die. The basic tenets of their story were that Rice was not alone, there were other people at the table in the pavilion with him. When Loehmann and Garmback pulled up, Rice grabbed the gun and tucked the weapon in his waistband. The police then issued three separate warnings to him “to put his hands up but he refused.” Instead of complying, the police asserted, Rice reached for his weapon and pulled it out from his waistband. Then and only then did Loehmann open fire.

The story held up until the video, which the officers did not know existed, told a very different story. There was no-one near the child when the police arrived. The supposed threat to bystanders that Garmback and Loehmann had conjured up evaporated in the grainy, but damning footage: They pulled up within just a few feet of the pavilion, Tamir Rice stood, and within two seconds he was shot. For the original story to match up with the video, Garmback would have had to drive directly in front of the pavilion, Loehmann get out of the police car, Rice reach for the gun, the officers yell, “put your hands up!” three times, the child refuse to comply each time, and then Loehmann fire two shots – all within two seconds. The improbability of that now played out on television screens around the nation.

But, the fact that the police had just lied about the shooting death of a 12-year-old boy and obstructed justice did not become the story. Nor did the U.S. Department of Justice report that “identified the Cleveland Police Department as thoroughly corrupt, and marked by the routine use of excessive force.” Neither did the shoddy vetting process in hiring Loehmann, whose record in a much smaller, suburban police force was abysmal. Deputy Chief Jim Polak of the Independence Police noted that during “firearms qualification training he [Loehmann] was ‘distracted’ and ‘weepy.’” “He could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections, and his handgun performance was dismal.” Polak concluded: “I do not believe time, nor training, will be able to change or correct the deficiencies.”

What should have been an intense investigation into the systemic flaws in the criminal justice system in Cleveland became, instead, an opportunity for the police, the prosecutor’s office, and elements of the media to shred whatever innocence and respectability that a 12-year-old playing in the park had. The Northeast Ohio Media Group ran the headline: TAMIR RICE’S FATHER HAS A HISTORY OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, to provide “a frame of reference . . . why he [a child] had a toy gun.” After delving into the unsavory background of the father, the next story revealed that Rice’s mother was a convicted felon and drug trafficker.

The implications were clear: they were not going to get the status of grieving parents, their pain would not be acknowledged as legitimate, and they would be stripped of even the right to mourn their dead child.

They were unworthy.
The prosecutor made that clear when he suggested that the reason the parents insisted upon an indictment and a trial had nothing to do with justice for their murdered son but was, instead, for financial reasons. District Attorney Timothy McGinty remarked during a community meeting, “They waited until they didn’t like the reports they received” from law enforcement specialists labeling the killing “justified” and “reasonable.” “They’re very interesting people. . . let me just leave it at that . . . and they have their own economic motives.”

“The implications were clear: they were not going to get the status of grieving parents, their pain would not be acknowledged as legitimate, and they would be stripped of even the right to mourn their dead child. They were unworthy.”
The ease with which a 12-year-old (Tamir Rice), an immigrant (Amadou Diallo), a high school student (Trayvon Martin), as well as a 92-year-old grandmother (Kathryn Johnston), a 7-year-old sleeping on the couch (Aiyana Stanley-Jones), a father (Eric Garner), a young mother (Tarika Wilson), and a fiancé (Sean Bell) could be “dirtied up” and their respectability and humanity stripped from them has sparked an insurgency in the black community. The seemingly endless string of deaths was hard enough; but the subsequent smearing of character, of lies, of repeated “not guilty” verdicts even when the killings were caught on film made a mockery of the very concept of justice for the vast majority of African Americans.

When traditional formats for securing justice appeared unresponsive, #BlackLivesMatter took to the streets and airwaves chanting “respectability will not save us.” Scholars and pundits from Brittney Cooper to Ta-Nehisi Coates echoed that refrain. The “thug-ification” of blacks killed by the police and vigilantes sparked an uproar on social media as African Americans asked, “if they gunned me down, which photo will they use?

Monday, August 07, 2017

James Baldwin On Angela Davis- November 1970Sister Angela Dives

An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis

 James Baldwin. 

By James Baldwin
November 19, 1970
(reprinted in the 7 August 2017 issue of The New York Review of Books)
Dear Sister:

One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But, no, they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses. And so, Newsweek, civilized defender of the indefensible, attempts to drown you in a sea of crocodile tears (“it remained to be seen what sort of personal liberation she had achieved”) and puts you on its cover, chained.
You look exceedingly alone—as alone, say, as the Jewish housewife in the boxcar headed for Dachau, or as any one of our ancestors, chained together in the name of Jesus, headed for a Christian land.
Well. Since we live in an age in which silence is not only criminal but suicidal, I have been making as much noise as I can, here in Europe, on radio and television—in fact, have just returned from a land, Germany, which was made notorious by a silent majority not so very long ago. I was asked to speak on the case of Miss Angela Davis, and did so. Very probably an exercise in futility, but one must let no opportunity slide.
I am something like twenty years older than you, of that generation, therefore, of which George Jackson ventures that “there are no healthy brothers—none at all.” I am in no way equipped to dispute this speculation (not, anyway, without descending into what, at the moment, would be irrelevant subtleties) for I know too well what he means. My own state of health is certainly precarious enough. In considering you, and Huey, and George and (especially) Jonathan Jackson, I began to apprehend what you may have had in mind when you spoke of the uses to which we could put the experience of the slave. What has happened, it seems to me, and to put it far too simply, is that a whole new generation of people have assessed and absorbed their history, and, in that tremendous action, have freed themselves of it and will never be victims again. This may seem an odd, indefensibly impertinent and insensitive thing to say to a sister in prison, battling for her life—for all our lives. Yet, I dare to say, for I think that you will perhaps not misunderstand me, and I do not say it, after all, from the position of a spectator.
Sister Angela Davis in 1970.
I am trying to suggest that you—for example—do not appear to be your father’s daughter in the same way that I am my father’s son. At bottom, my father’s expectations and mine were the same, the expectations of his generation and mine were the same; and neither the immense difference in our ages nor the move from the South to the North could alter these expectations or make our lives more viable. For, in fact, to use the brutal parlance of that hour, the interior language of that despair, he was just a nigger—a nigger laborer preacher, and so was I. I jumped the track but that’s of no more importance here, in itself, than the fact that some poor Spaniards become rich bull fighters, or that some poor black boys become rich—boxers, for example. That’s rarely, if ever, afforded the people more than a great emotional catharsis, though I don’t mean to be condescending about that, either. But when Cassius Clay became Muhammed Ali and refused to put on that uniform (and sacrificed all that money!) a very different impact was made on the people and a very different kind of instruction had begun.
The American triumph—in which the American tragedy has always been implicit—was to make black people despise themselves. When I was little I despised myself, I did not know any better. And this meant, albeit unconsciously, or against my will, or in great pain, that I also despised my father. And my mother. And my brothers. And my sisters. Black people were killing each other every Saturday night out on Lenox Avenue, when I was growing up; and no one explained to them, or to me, that it was intended that they should; that they were penned where they were, like animals, in order that they should consider themselves no better than animals. Everything supported this sense of reality, nothing denied it: and so one was ready, when it came time to go to work, to be treated as a slave. So one was ready, when human terrors came, to bow before a white God and beg Jesus for salvation—this same white God who was unable to raise a finger to do so little as to help you pay your rent, unable to be awakened in time to help you save your child!
There is always, of course, more to any picture than can speedily be perceived and in all of this—groaning and moaning, watching, calculating, clowning, surviving, and outwitting, some tremendous strength was nevertheless being forged, which is part of our legacy today. But that particular aspect of our journey now begins to be behind us. The secret is out: we are men!
But the blunt, open articulation of this secret has frightened the nation to death. I wish I could say, “to life,” but that is much to demand of a disparate collection of displaced people still cowering in their wagon trains and singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” The nation, if America is a nation, is not in the least prepared for this day. It is a day which the Americans never expected or desired to see, however piously they may declare their belief in “progress and democracy.” These words, now, on American lips, have become a kind of universal obscenity: for this most unhappy people, strong believers in arithmetic, never expected to be confronted with the algebra of their history.
One way of gauging a nation’s health, or of discerning what it really considers to be its interests—or to what extent it can be considered as a nation as distinguished from a coalition of special interests—is to examine those people it elects to represent or protect it. One glance at the American leaders (or figure-heads) conveys that America is on the edge of absolute chaos, and also suggests the future to which American interests, if not the bulk of the American people, appear willing to consign the blacks. (Indeed, one look at our past conveys that.) It is clear that for the bulk of our (nominal) countrymen, we are all expendable. And Messrs. Nixon, Agnew, Mitchell, and Hoover, to say nothing, of course, of the Kings’ Row basket case, the winning Ronnie Reagan, will not hesitate for an instant to carry out what they insist is the will of the people.
But what, in America, is the will of the people? And who, for the above-named, are the people? The people, whoever they may be, know as much about the forces which have placed the above-named gentlemen in power as they do about the forces responsible for the slaughter in Vietnam. The will of the people, in America, has always been at the mercy of an ignorance not merely phenomenal, but sacred, and sacredly cultivated: the better to be used by a carnivorous economy which democratically slaughters and victimizes whites and blacks alike. But most white Americans do not dare admit this (though they suspect it) and this fact contains mortal danger for the blacks and tragedy for the nation.
Or, to put it another way, as long as white Americans take refuge in their whiteness—for so long as they are unable to walk out of this most monstrous of traps—they will allow millions of people to be slaughtered in their name, and will be manipulated into and surrender themselves to what they will think of—and justify—as a racial war. They will never, so long as their whiteness puts so sinister a distance between themselves and their own experience and the experience of others, feel themselves sufficiently human, sufficiently worthwhile, to become responsible for themselves, their leaders, their country, their children, or their fate. They will perish (as we once put it in our black church) in their sins—that is, in their delusions. And this is happening, needless to say, already, all around us.

Only a handful of the millions of people in this vast place are aware that the fate intended for you, Sister Angela, and for George Jackson, and for the numberless prisoners in our concentration camps—for that is what they are—is a fate which is about to engulf them, too. White lives, for the forces which rule in this country, are no more sacred than black ones, as many and many a student is discovering, as the white American corpses in Vietnam prove. If the American people are unable to contend with their elected leaders for the redemption of their own honor and the lives of their own children, we, the blacks, the most rejected of the Western children, can expect very little help at their hands: which, after all, is nothing new. What the Americans do not realize is that a war between brothers, in the same cities, on the same soil, is not a racial war but a civil war. But the American delusion is not only that their brothers all are white but that the whites are all their brothers.

So be it. We cannot awaken this sleeper, and God knows we have tried. We must do what we can do, and fortify and save each other—we are not drowning in an apathetic self-contempt, we do feel ourselves sufficiently worthwhile to contend even with inexorable forces in order to change our fate and the fate of our children and the condition of the world! We know that a man is not a thing and is not to be placed at the mercy of things. We know that air and water belong to all mankind and not merely to industrialists. We know that a baby does not come into the world merely to be the instrument of someone else’s profit. We know that democracy does not mean the coercion of all into a deadly—and, finally, wicked—mediocrity but the liberty for all to aspire to the best that is in him, or that has ever been.

We know that we, the blacks, and not only we, the blacks, have been, and are, the victims of a system whose only fuel is greed, whose only god is profit. We know that the fruits of this system have been ignorance, despair, and death, and we know that the system is doomed because the world can no longer afford it—if, indeed, it ever could have. And we know that, for the perpetuation of this system, we have all been mercilessly brutalized, and have been told nothing but lies, lies about ourselves and our kinsmen and our past, and about love, life, and death, so that both soul and body have been bound in hell.

The enormous revolution in black consciousness which has occurred in your generation, my dear sister, means the beginning or the end of America. Some of us, white and black, know how great a price has already been paid to bring into existence a new consciousness, a new people, an unprecedented nation. If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name.

If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.

Therefore: peace.
Brother James

Monday, June 12, 2017

Urban League's Marshall Plan Is About Making Black America More In Hock To Capitalist America

Urban League's Tired Ole "Let The Market Liberate Us" Policy Gets a 21st Century Tired Upgrade: The Main Street Marshall Plan

We Welcome your critique of this plan hatched by one of the most bourgeois socalled "Black-led" organizations in the US. We also would like to here your specific alternatives to this domestic Marshall Plan that benefits the masses of Blackfolk and not the capitalists of all colors.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Jay Smooth Speaks Truth On TrumDontCare Bill

Here's what HipHoptivist, Jay Smooth, Has to say about the Horrendous TrumDontCare House bill on healthcare:

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Makings of a Heroic Mistake: Richard Wright’s “Bright and Morning Star,” Communism, and the Contradictions of Emergent Subjectivity

Joseph G. Ramsey
Close readers of Richard Wright’s fiction are hard-pressed to find a hero who embodies a positive mode of intellectual, moral, or political engagement.1 

This point is especially true when one bears in mind the often catastrophic impact that the actions of Wright’s would-be heroes have on women, and black women in particular.2 Native Son (1940), Wright’s most influential and popular novel — widely hailed (and sometimes denounced) as the first black best-seller of the 20th century — features one of U.S. literature’s most infamous anti-heroes, Bigger Thomas, a brutally inarticulate tough who, under pressure, kills without remorse: not only does Bigger unintentionally suffocate left-wing socialite Mary Dalton, but also, more deliberately, he murders his girlfriend, Bessie, in part to keep her hidden from the police (adding to a long list of lesser anti-social acts).3 According to Wright himself, as articulated in his 1940 essay “How Bigger Was Born,” Bigger represents the contradictory possibilities inherent in the “dislocated” and “disinherited” multiracial underclass of modern society, potentiality which, as he then saw it, could become a force “of either Communism or Fascism.”4
Lawd Today, Wright’s first novel, (written in 1936, published posthumously), similarly features a bigoted and patriarchal black worker, Jake Johnson, whose misdirected aggression and psychological vulnerability manifest themselves in both wife-beating and a declared affinity for fascism abroad. Arguably Wright’s last major novel, The Outsider (1953), written in exile, presents us with Cross Damon, a super-alienated worker-intellectual who offers penetrating reflections on the state of the world, but also comes to embody the very traits of cynicism that he would rebel against. Driven to excess by sensual and philosophical passions alike, Damon conspires to fake his own death in order to cut himself off from his wife, his mother, his children, and social responsibility generally, setting loose a spiral of deceit, betrayal, and murderous duplicity that ultimately consumes him (as well as several others). Damon too, like Bigger, becomes an unrepentant, serial murderer.5

While the unpublished manuscripts and posthumous publications complicate the picture somewhat, if Richard Wright’s major works offer readers a sense of “what is to be done,” almost always it is negatively, relayed by dramatizing the limits and the consequences of inadequate, existing modes of social thought and action.6 His fiction further explores how an alienating social environment can pervert even positive human aspirations into their opposite, compounding rather than abolishing oppression.

Wright’s short story collection, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938, 1940), might appear to provide exception to the anti-heroic rule.7 Written during the height of Wright’s commitment to the (then rapidly growing) Depression-era Communist Party, and based upon extensive investigation into contemporary struggles of black Communists in the US South, Uncle Tom’s Children presents a range of characters who bravely stand their ground against white racist terror, and who often pay the ultimate price for it: exile, torture, death.

Chief among them is Sue, the main character of the collection’s closing novella, “Bright and Morning Star,” a story added to the collection in 1940, though originally published in The New Masses in May 1938.8 Readers have long hailed Sue as that rare thing, a Wright hero (indeed, that even rarer thing, a heroine!), one who overcomes inner and outer conflicts to intervene bravely, nobly, and skillfully on the side of social justice, transforming herself in the process of saving the day. Sue may represent the last and best hope of individual heroism in the major published fiction of Richard Wright.9
Indeed, until at least 2008 Wright scholars universally held that “Bright and Morning Star,” had, if not a happy ending, then at least a heroic and redemptive one. According to this long-unchallenged reading of the novella, the main character “Aunt” Sue is able to meet the demands of crisis, saving the underground interracial communist collective her sons have helped to found from vicious state repression, through a heroic act of self-sacrifice. Certainly, her transformation is remarkable. The middle-aged, widowed mother of two young activists, Sue not only personally weathers racist violence and endures the certainty of her sons’ torture and death, but she deploys folk wisdom in the service of radical resistance.

She tricks the white authorities who aim to trick her into betraying her sons’ cause, exploiting her oppressors’ racist and sexist blindness to foil their anti-red plot. Her tactics are quite ingenious: posing as a mourning mother come to fetch the body of her soon-to-be-executed son, Johnny-Boy, Sue uses a white sheet to conceal a loaded gun, with which she kills the treasonous party-infiltrator (a white man ironically named Booker), before he can expose the fledgling organization.10 In this dominant reading, Sue not only redeems her earlier error of trusting Booker with the names of the party members (against her better instincts) but allows the underground revolutionaries to live to see another day, at the cost of her own life.

She makes her martyred sons’ cause her own, melding her inherited black Christian outlook with an emerging communist worldview, becoming perhaps the only major female character in Wright’s published oeuvre to display serious psychological complexity and genuine political development, and the only main character in Wright’s fiction to make such a direct and deliberate contribution to the Communist cause. Novelist-critic Sherley Anne Williams has underscored Aunt Sue’s exceptional, and heroic, status within Wright’s oeuvre, describing “Bright and Morning Star” as “one of the most deft and moving renderings of a black woman’s experience in the canon of American literature.”11 The flat and undeveloped or even outright stereotypical depictions of other black women in Uncle Tom’s Children, Williams argues, “are somewhat redeemed in the character of Aunt Sue.”12

More recently, Cheryl Higashida, in what may be the most lucid and richly contextualized reading of Uncle Tom’s Children and “Bright and Morning Star” to date, concludes that, “It is precisely by transforming and uniting both ideologies [Communism and black nationalism] into a synthetic perspective that Sue saves the Party from being destroyed by the state.13 Though critics continue to debate “Bright and Morning Star” from sharply contending perspectives, they tend to agree that Sue is to be read as a hero who saves the party.14 This is true even of critics who take a more anti-communist view, reading Sue as a nationalist rebuke to Communism, or as heralding Wright’s own later break from the Party.15
With Gregory Meyerson’s 2008 essay, “Aunt Sue’s Mistake,” however, the heroic status of Sue’s final act has been radically called into question. Where previous critics have found meaningful individual self-sacrifice that leads to collective salvation, Meyerson — attending to long-overlooked textual evidence — has revealed individualist false consciousness leading to catastrophic unintended consequences: namely, the destruction of the fledgling communist movement that Sue has been hailed for saving.16 “The problem with this widely-held reading,” Meyerson writes, “is that it is very carefully shown by the story itself – through its painstaking thematic patterning — to be a misreading. Sue’s victory over the racists in “Bright and Morning Star” proves to be, tragically, Pyrrhic ... flying in the face of the book’s main lessons. Ironically,” he argues, “Sue’s actions do not guarantee the survival of the party; they all but guarantee its destruction.”17
The core of Meyerson’s corrective reading comes down to one, crucial, long-overlooked, but now indisputable fact. In the course of pursuing her self-sacrificing, solitary, and “total act” of salvation, Sue neglects — in fact, deliberately avoids — doing the other thing that needs to be done. Acting alone, she kills the stool pigeon, Booker, yes — and in dramatic, seemingly heroic, fashion — but she fails to save the party, for she fails to warn the other comrades about the sheriff’s plan to ambush their scheduled red meeting — a fate which, Sue realizes, means their capture, death, and destruction come morning.18 By acting “erlone,” instead of with others, Sue helps to bring about the annihilation of the party she appears to be “saving.” We shouldn’t be surprised either, Meyerson argues; for Sue’s solitary act of martyrdom flies in the face of the recurrent anti-individualist lessons that run through every story of Wright’s celebrated collection.

Meyerson makes a very compelling case, both regarding Uncle Tom’s Children as a whole, and “‘Bright and Morning Star” in particular, a case that has yet to receive the attention it deserves.

As he shows in detail, throughout Uncle Tom’s Children, individualistic action consistently fails in the face of systemic oppression. Not only do characters die despite and because of their (often astounding, back-breaking, brave) individual efforts, but their deaths “don’t mean nothing,” as Silas, another brave — and brutally patriarchal — martyr figure puts it in “Long Black Song.”19 The basic lesson is made explicit in “Fire and Cloud” (the story which closed the original 1938 edition of Uncle Tom’s Children) when Reverend Taylor, following his brutal beating at the hands of state-sanctioned racists, counters his son’s angry proposal to meet white violence with violence of their own: “Don be a fool, son! Don thow yo life erway! We cant do nuthin erlone.20 Rev. Taylor elaborates the point further, anticipating the militant mass march of black and white workers and peasants that ends the story: “We gotta git wid the people, son…Wes too much erlone this way! Wes los when we erlone! Wes gotta be wid our folks….”21

To Meyerson’s own useful review, I would add here that the very colloquial (mis)spelling of the word — alone as erlone — implies the way in which, for Wright, acting alone is almost necessarily to err. The absence of positive heroes in Wright’s fiction here comes full circle as a critique of the very idea of individual heroism. In a sense, the only heroes to be upheld are collective(s): it is only to the extent that individuals admit or participate in such a collective project, that they too can become, in a sense, heroic. They can’t do nothin’ erlone. 22
A crucial and corollary lesson of the collection Uncle Tom’s Children, however — albeit a subtler one — is that collective action is not only necessary but possible, even in circumstances that may appear almost fatalistically desperate and determined — but only if one finds the courage to speak up to transform the inherited conditions of the situation, bringing out their latent collectivity. For instance, as Meyerson shows, in the famously “fatalistic” story, “Down by the Riverside,” protagonist Brother Mann, though trapped by the interlocking dangers of rising flood waters and a racist police state, has several opportunities to speak up and potentially win allies to his cause, allies that could help him (and perhaps his wife, Lulu) to survive this crisis. He has at least two consciously recognized chances to break out of his isolation, to shift what will become his doomed coordinates of possibility; but Mann remains silent, thus participating in the sealing of his own “fate.”23 Collective agency exists as potentiality in Uncle Tom’s Children, even for seemingly isolated individuals, but only if they dare to seize the moment and break the spell of isolation and fatalism. Only if they cease to think and act upon their situation as individuals, individualistically.24

Exploring Aunt Sue’s Mistake

In the wake of Meyerson’s scandalously corrective reading, new and vital aspects of Wright’s widely celebrated, widely misunderstood text begin to emerge. Building on Meyerson’s revelation that Sue makes an “individualist” mistake, the present essay will explore in detail the question of how so and why she comes to make it. I will further consider the question of what Wright’s depiction of this mistake-process suggests, for him and for us: both what it says about Wright’s late Thirties conception of the relationship between individual psychology and collective, egalitarian politics, and what that may mean for re-conceiving radical political subjectivity today.25 

A close reading of Sue’s subjective processes, we shall see, reveals a complex dialectic of emergent political consciousness: disclosing interrelations between individuality and collectivity, courage and fear, insight and blindness, symbolic empowerment and ideological mystification. In this new light, “Bright and Morning Star” becomes for us a story that does not only document Wright’s deep commitment and faith in the communist cause, but also foregrounds the difficulty of sustaining communist practice, dramatizing the precariousness of the bonds between comrades and their allies, even, and perhaps especially, when everything depends on them. 

No longer a heroic story of individual sacrifice, “Bright and Morning Star” turns out to be a cautionary tale about the need for communists to develop more thoroughly collective methods of work as a means of sustaining comrades’ faith in one another — and in the people — such faith being particularly necessary in moments of life-and-death crisis.

The story further stands as a reminder of how Wright’s existential reflections — about the difficulty of sustaining meaningful human relationships in a deeply alienating modern world — are found not only in later works such as Black Boy (American Hunger) or the The Outsider; they are rather a key aspect of his 1930s fiction as well. Our reading of “Bright and Morning Star” thus will complicate the common but all-too-simple (and Cold-War-inflected) periodization of Wright’s work into “early Marxism” vs. “late existentialism,” early “proletarian didacticism” vs. later “novels of ideas.” Such schemas suggests a binary opposition between communist radicalism and deep individual psychological investigation that oversimplifies both Wright himself and the dialectical interactions between individuality and collectivity that he was at pains to reveal.

Keeping Quiet To Protect Reva — The Subject Supposed to Believe

Meyerson’s essay can be summed up as establishing five crucial points: 
1) that Sue makes a mistake; 
2) that the consequences of this mistake are catastrophic, dooming the local branch of the party; 3) that Sue on some level knows this, and yet proceeds as if she does not;26 
4) that this mistake is all the more glaring when “Bright and Morning Star” is read in relationship to the consistently anti-individualist lessons of the Uncle Tom’s Children collection; and 
5) and that the critics — “all of them” — have also made mistakes in overlooking Sue’s mistake for so long. Accepting these key points, we now need to fully excavate the ground they uncover, attending to the question of how Sue comes to make her error, and what this erring means. 

At this point the relationship between Sue and Reva takes on great significance. For it is Reva, the young white communist — appearing twice in Sue’s home as a party messenger — who most concretely presents Sue with the opportunity to think and act collectively in her moment of crisis, providing Sue the chance to inform the other comrades about the morning’s ambush, and thus with a chance to save them. How precisely Sue comes to neglect this crucial task is thus worth closer analysis, as is the question of what Wright means to imply — about emergent political subjectivity, about intra-party and interracial relations — through this depiction of failed communication. That the Sue-Reva scenes provide us with the Wright-rarity of an extended interracial woman-to-woman encounter adds an important additional aspect to consider.27
Virtually alone among Wright’s fictional depictions of white women, Reva is presented very sympathetically.28 She is a young white communist whom Sue sees as an ally and even a friend, an impoverished local tenant farmer who has been actively risking her life and her health for the cause, and who appears to have genuine personal affection for Sue and for Sue’s son, Johnny-Boy.
As Wright puts it, Sue “liked Reva; the brightest glow her heart had ever known was when she had learned that Reva loved Johnny-Boy.”29 In marked contrast to Sue’s (ultimately validated) suspicion towards the new white party recruit, Booker, there is no suggestion in the text that she does not trust Reva (or Reva’s father, Lem); she has known them a long time and accepts the sincerity of their red commitment to class-based inter-racial unity. And yet, later, at the crucial moment, Sue not only neglects to tell Reva (both about Johnny-Boy’s capture, and Sue’s own giving the comrades’ names to Booker), but verbally misleads her — suppressing crucial information, effectively lying to her at least twice. Finally, Sue literally puts Reva to bed, over Reva’s own protestations and even her suspicions that something else is wrong. (Reva: “Yuh worried about something…Ah wanna stay up wid yuh.”30 ) Sue hushes her, treating a friend and ally, as a “chile” who cannot handle the truth, who must be put to bed, ushered out of sight.31

The alienation is truly profound. We do not have here a case of a character who is simply trapped in a solitary struggle, but rather a case of a character who is playing a part in constructing her own solitude, and then acting within those constructed (and terribly inadequate) confines as if they were fated or beyond her control. 32
Wright describes Reva’s importance for Sue and for Sue’s emergent radical consciousness during their first scene together. Reva has come to deliver news of the planned police ambush, and to ask Sue to send Johnny-Boy to warn the comrades, so they can avoid capture. Wright offers Sue’s thoughts:
Reva believed in black folks and not for anything in the world would [Sue] falter before her. In Reva’s trust and acceptance of her she had found her first feelings of humanity. Reva’s love was her refuge from shame and degradation. If in the early days of her life the white mountain had driven her back from the earth, then in her last days Reva’s love was drawing her towards it, like the beacon that swung through the night outside.33
What stands out about this passage — besides the analogy to the Memphis airport “beacon,” an ominous figure that slices across almost every scene in “Bright and Morning Star” — is not only the way Sue is concerned with preserving Reva’s belief in black folks, but the way that Sue’s feeling of her own emergent humanity is bound up with and dependent upon that belief. 34 It might be more precise to say: dependent on her own perception of Reva’s belief, or even, her own belief in Reva’s belief. We have here something like what Zizek, following Jacques Lacan, calls the “subject supposed to believe.”35 That is, for Sue, Reva figures not only as a person, but as a symbol, or more precisely: a sustaining symbolizer. Reva’s (presumed, posited, projected) belief in Sue (and in “black folks”), functions as a symbolic support for Sue’s own emergent/transforming consciousness. “In Reva’s trust and acceptance of her she had found her first feelings of humanity. Reva’s love was her refuge from shame and degradation.”36 Wright depicts Sue as having a deep need for Reva’s belief/love; it functions, for her, as a kind of personalized proof that humanity can transcend racial barriers; Sue needs to feel believed in, in order to believe (in) herself

An interesting reflexive element here is that Sue sees Reva as seeing her — Sue — as a representative of “black folks.” Sue believes that “Reva believes” not just in Sue or in Johnny-Boy, but in “black folks” more generally. This is not at all to say that Sue sees herself this way, as in some sense “representative” of “black folks.” Nonetheless, Sue’s perception of Reva’s faith in “black folks” generally exerts a powerful force on Sue, one that, as we shall see, can become a source of both liberation and of alienation.

The paradox of objective intersubjective belief here is that Sue need not actually believe in her own representative-ness in order to act as if she believes in it. She may not believe in race (subjectively) and yet may still perform/recreate it (intersubjectively); for she believes in (and feels she depends on) the other’s belief, and acts in such a way as to protect that belief. Sue perceives that she must bear the burden of representing “black folks” in general before Reva’s eyes, for the compound reason that Sue’s individual “faltering” could undermine not only her white comrade’s belief in racial equality, but also Sue’s own belief in her own growing humanity.37

We should add that this very need to protect Reva’s belief can also be read as a symptom of a lack of belief of another sort: namely a lack of faith that a “white” person (however red) might in fact accept Sue for who she actually is, that Reva could handle the truth, that this young white woman could remain loving of her and committed to anti-racism without an idealized buffer of ever-dependable “black folks.” “Bright and Morning Star” thus anticipates Wright’s recurrent later critique of the tendency of white liberals and communists to idealize black people or black oppression, a critique that is present clearly not only in Native Son, but in The Outsider, and in Wright’s autobiographical writings published under the title American Hunger.38 But whereas in later depictions this critique tends to align with an anti-Communist — or even anti-communist — perspective, here Wright articulates it as an internal (self)criticism of the communist movement.39
It’s important to note, however, that Sue’s investment in (or dependence on) Reva’s belief is not simply depicted as some kind of “false consciousness” that can be easily opposed to and/or corrected by something like the clarity of “scientific truth.” The situation is more deeply contradictory: Wright suggests that without Reva — not only Reva as material actor (who makes tea, who bandages wounds, who brings news) but Reva as symbolic force (whose love represents for Sue the possibility of achieving full humanity) — Sue would not have been able to face the racist “white mountain.”40 She needed another to believe in her own aspiring humanity in order to assert and sustain that humanity in the face of a world that otherwise fails to recognize it. Her emergent subjectivity depends upon Reva as symbolic anchor. This psychological-ideological process, Wright leads us to believe, though based on a kind of reification, has had the positive and enabling effect of helping Sue to transition in a communist direction, towards a more self-consciously, insistently human subjectivity, enabling her courageous political resistance to white supremacy.

Alongside her growing love and respect for her own sons’ radical vision, Sue needed to believe that Reva (a “white person”) believed in her (and in “black folks”) to make this leap. Communist conversion required the belief of comrades, over and above their knowledge or strategic wisdom.

One is reminded at this point of Wright’s dialectical treatment of black consciousness in his influential 1937 essay, “Blueprint for Negro Writing” — a text he developed almost simultaneously with “Bright and Morning Star.” In that early manifesto, which like Uncle Tom’s Children, seeks to delineate sharply a modern literary and political practice from the “Uncle Toms” who have come before, Wright argues for taking seriously and working through the understandably, and perhaps even necessarily, nationalist dynamic of Negro experience, precisely in order ultimately to transcend this nationalist horizon — towards a proletarian, class conscious, internationalist standpoint. As Wright wrote:
Negro writers must accept the national implications of their lives, not in order to encourage them, but in order to change and transcend them. They must accept the concept of nationalism because, in order to transcend it, they must possess and understand it…. It means a nationalism that knows its origins, its limitations; that is aware of the dangers of its position; that knows its ultimate aims are unrealizable within the framework of a capitalist America; a nationalism whose reason for being lies in the simple fact of self-possession and in the consciousness of the interdependence of people in modern society.41
Far from an inevitable historical process, however, this dialectical path through nationalism is fraught with danger: narrow nationalism on one-side, race-blind economism on the other. In Native Son, as well as in Lawd Today, we see Wright’s less-than-optimistic account of how such nationalist sentiments, if not properly worked through, may leave the oppressed open to the lures of mystification, misogyny, self-destructive violence, and even affinity for fascism. Similarly, in “Bright and Morning Star,” Wright shows us how an intersubjective structure that is a necessary mediation towards a higher political state of consciousness may persist, even after it has done its crucial work, in ways that do not help but rather hinder progress on to some ostensibly “higher” stage of consciousness. Transcending the nationalist (and religious) aspect of folk consciousness and achieving true interracial trust and solidarity remains a protracted affair, a struggle that continues within and around the ranks of the communist movement. 

Thus Reva’s symbolic power continues to determine Sue’s subjectivity, becoming, in the second Reva scene, a deadly threat to the life of Reva, and many others, black and white alike. In these crucial moments, Sue addresses herself not to the actual Reva (or to the political project with which Reva has taken up), but to the Reva image Sue feels the need to protect. “No she would not tell Reva; Reva was all she had left … Reva’s trust would never be shaken.”42 In a kind of dialectical Marxian-psychoanalytic irony, Wright suggests that the very symbols that enable growth can become fetters on further development, or even worse, chains that threaten to pull the new communist subject — and the communist project — back into the alienation from which it has just begun to emerge.

It is in the second Reva scene that we see the damage done, the chains pull, the dialectical bridge buckle. To review the characters’ immediate situation: since Reva’s first visit, Sue has relayed the message about warning the comrades to Johnny-Boy, who has dutifully set out to do just that. After he leaves, Sue’s home is invaded by the sheriff’s posse; they question her about Johnny-Boy and about the party, beat her when she refuses to talk, and then again when she “talks back.”

Finally knocked unconscious, Sue awakens to find the newly recruited white “comrade” Booker in her house. Offering Sue sympathy and attending to her injuries, Booker reports that Johnny-Boy has been captured (before getting the chance to warn the other party members), and persuades Sue — against her better instincts — to tell this “comrade” the names of the party members, ostensibly so he can go warn them himself. Reva arrives for the second time at some point after Booker has left, hoping that Sue has relayed the message to Johnny-Boy as planned, and seeking confirmation of that fact. She promptly informs Sue that Booker is indeed, a “stool” (confirming Sue’s fears).

At first it seems that Sue is planning to tell Reva the news — about Booker, about Johnny-Boy’s capture, and about the fact he hasn’t been able to warn the comrades as planned. As Wright informs us, “She was wondering how to tell Reva about Johnny-Boy and Booker. Ahll wait a lil while longer, she thought.”43 While Reva dresses Sue’s bleeding scalp, Sue thinks again how “She was feeling better now; in just a little while she would tell Reva.” 44 One is reminded of the opening scene between Sue and Johnny-Boy, where Sue similarly waits until the work of nurturing and caring is done — allowing Johnny-Boy to eat, warm up, and dry off — before she drops upon him the hard news of “what is to be done.”

But unlike Sue in this earlier scene, Reva puts the question to her directly, before such soothing can occur:
“Did Johnny-Boy come?”
[Sue] hesitated.
“He done gone t tell the others?” Reva’s voice sounded so clear and confident that it mocked her. Lawd, I cant tell this chile…
“Yuh tol im, didn’t yuh An Sue?”
“Gee! Thas good! Ah tol pa he dindt hafta worry ef Johnny-Boy got the news. Mabbe thingsll come out awright.”
“Ah hope…”
She could not go on; she had gone as far as she could. For the first time that night she began to cry. 45
Sue here misleads Reva, effectively lying by way of omission. Why can’t Sue bring herself to tell Reva the truth? The immediate “reason” Wright provides has to do with how Reva’s voice sounds, “so clear and confident that it mocked her.” Reva’s clarity and confidence prompt Sue to see Reva in a protective mode, as a “chile,” not capable of hearing the brutal truth. Similarly, once Sue’s crying begins to make Reva cry, “She forced herself to stop. Naw; Ah cant carry on this way in fronta Reva…Right now she had a deep need for Reva to believe in her.46 We see that Sue is motivated not so much by protecting Reva as by protecting Reva’s belief in her own trustworthiness. 

Sue cannot bring herself to show her own vulnerability around this young woman who both “believed in black folks,” and who has deep feelings for her (now captured) son. The very feelings that have helped to buoy her up now hold her back.

It would be one-sided to put the blame on Sue here (her individualism, her Christian martyrdom, her residual nationalism), for Wright also directs us to the material context of the characters’ interaction, asking us to consider Reva’s role (and even Johnny-Boy’s) as well. Reva refers to Sue as “An” [Aunt], in a way hailing Sue to continue to assume a protective role that hearkens back to the days of “mammy.” Further, the contrast with the opening scene between Johnny-Boy and Sue is illuminating; it serves as a counter example, a successful scene of communication that sets off the later, failed one. In the former scene, Sue deliberately and patiently puts off telling Johnny-Boy the bad news about the sheriff watching Lem’s house — news which will require Johnny-Boy’s prompt action — until he has a chance to “eat and get dry…Theres time yet.”47 Sue allows him to rest until well past midnight, not with a desire to avoid telling him — Wright indicates that she knows she will and must, that everything depends on the comrades being warned — but wanting to take the time to tell him in the right way.48
In the later scene, conditions have changed: time is running short and Sue’s ears are still ringing from her beating at the hands of the sheriff. Yet the failure of Sue and Reva to connect cannot be blamed exclusively on the enemy’s violent repression or the urgency of the situation; a genuine opportunity is missed — and Reva contributes to the miscommunication as well. Arguably, Reva’s “confident” rush to get good news from Sue makes it all the more unbearable for her to deliver the bad news truth. It’s also worth noting, as we parse the devastating disconnect, that — in stark contrast to later portrayals of white communists, Jan Erlone, Boris Max, and fellow traveler Mary Dalton in Native Son — Wright depicts Reva in “Bright and Morning Star” as extremely similar to Sue at the level of material conditions. Besides the fact that both are women — with the hint of love between Sue’s son Johnny-Boy and Reva adding a near-familial connection — we learn that, like Sue’s son, Sugg, Reva’s own brother is in jail, presumably for political reasons. “Ma cries ever day…” she confides to Sue.49

Similarly, Reva’s poverty appears to be as acute as Sue’s. Helping Reva with her coat, Sue is struck by the “scant flesh of the girl’s shoulders. She don git enuff t eat.”50 Though “white,” Reva and her family are dealing with the same kind of threats that affect Sue and hers — police terror and hunger. This makes the tragic disconnect between these two comrades all the more remarkable, tragic, and sobering. We have here not — as in Native Son — an account of the great (if still perhaps bridgeable) cultural or social distance separating Communist activists and those they would represent and organize, but rather an account of how barriers to trust, communication, and collectivity can emerge even between people (comrades!) whose conditions of life are quite similar.

The Desire to Deny the Enemy to His Own Face 

Ironically, alongside this failure to communicate with a comrade, Wright draws our attention to Sue’s psychological desire to communicate to her enemy, suggesting how this urge to be “heard” by the agents of repression clouds her strategic judgment. This desire is totally understandable, of course — perhaps, like her desire to protect her comrades, it is even necessary for (and constitutive of) her radicalization. Yet in the moment of crisis, the urge to prove the enemy other wrong to the enemy’s own face, like the felt need to protect a comrade from an unsettling truth, throws Sue, her comrades, and their would-be-collective project into danger, death, and doom. 

Sue’s individualism takes the form of a desire to sacrifice her body in order to prove herself to the racist enemy that confronts her.51 Again, it is in a sense a “selfless” desire, and yet one that loses sight of actual others — and of the necessities of the situation — in its flight from responsibility, a narcissistic substitution of fantasy for strategy. Just as Sue’s desire to “protect” Reva leads to her failing actually to protect her, Sue’s desire to deny the other, to show and to prove to the other that “yuh didn’t git what yuh wanted,” actually allows the sheriff and company to “git” what they want, the destruction of the local communist organization. Early on, while Sue is still alone and waiting for Johnny-Boy’s initial return, she reflects: “Lawd, Johnny-Boy…Ah just wan them white folks t try t make me tell who is in the part n who ain! Ah just wan em t try, n Ahll show em something they never thought a black woman could have!”52 The lines reveal Sue’s political desire as a desire to see the enemy other seeing her own strength in action, a desire not only to disprove the Enemy’s notion of what a “black woman” is capable of — or to laugh at the deluded racists behind their backs — but to have “them” watch her as she disproves it. In itself, there is nothing wrong with this; arguably such desires for recognition are a necessary moment in a process of revolutionary self-assertion.

The point, as it emerges through “Bright and Morning Star,” is that such rebel desire for recognition from the enemy, despite — or perhaps because of — its psychological appeal, threatens also to create a kind of tunnel vision, drawing one’s eyes away from what is to be done, leaving the subject reactive, stuck in the enemy’s universe. Mired in immediate reaction, locked into seeking the enemy’s gaze, it becomes difficult to create new coordinates of subjectivity that aim not to ‘be heard” by ruling powers, but to subvert and supplant them.53
Later, Sue gets the chance to act on her desire for recognition, after her house is broken into by the sheriff and his posse. Watching the racist, red-hunting thugs tear through her home, Sue recognizes that they don’t yet know where Johnny-Boy is. “She was consumed with a bitter pride…She gave him up because she wanted them to know they could not get what they wanted by bluffing and killing.”54 Sue’s strength in the face of racist, anticommunist repression is impressive. But as she experiences the moment, it is not enough for her to deny them; she wants them to know they are being denied. This other-orientation leads Sue to confront the sheriff as he is about to leave:
Yuh didn’t git whut yuh wanted! she thought exultingly. N yuh ain gonna never git it! Hotly something ached in her to make them feel the intensity of her pride and freedom; her heart groped to turn the bitter hours of her life into words of a kind that would make them feel that she had taken all they had done to her in stride and could still take more. Her faith surged so strongly in her she was all but blinded.55
Sue’s faith-surging shouts provoke the departing sheriff; he re-enters the house to hit her so hard that she loses consciousness. Sue reflects later (ironically right as she is in the midst of going silent before her comrade, Reva), that “If she had not shouted to the sheriff, she would have been strong enough to have resisted Booker; she would have been able to tell the comrades herself.”56

“Bright and Morning Star,” or, the ambiguity of symbolic redemption

Sue’s radicalization in “Bright and Morning Star,” like Reverend Taylor’s in “Fire and Cloud,” is cast in deeply Christian terms, suggesting the potential for a kind of synthesis of religious and communist symbolism.57 As Cheryl Higashida has shown, the novellas in Uncle Tom’s Children represent a fleshing out of concepts Wright outlined in his 1937 essay, “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” where he wrote that “Negro writers who seek to mould or influence the consciousness of the Negro people must address their messages to them through the ideologies and attitudes fostered in this warping way of life” of Jim Crow segregation.58 Thus, though Wright had a very critical view of the “warping” effects of established Christianity, both in his own life and in the lives of black people generally, he saw religion and religious symbolism not as a static or unchanging thing but as one that could alter (and be altered — “moulded”) in relationship to changing historical and social conditions, one that revolutionary writers needed to take seriously — as he himself did.59 

Thus, for Rev. Taylor in “Fire and Cloud,” the specter of social justice is likened to the visiting of hellfire upon the oppressors, and, later, following his decision to march alongside the “Reds,” the masses mobilizing to demand bread come to stand in the place of a redemptive “Gawd.” Likewise, for Sue in “Bright and Morning Star,” under the influence of her activist sons and her own life of labor and struggle, “[t]he wrongs and sufferings of black men had taken the place of Him nailed to the Cross; the meager beginnings of the party become another Resurrection.”60
In marked contrast with the rousing symbolic synthesis that closes “Fire and Cloud,” however, the symbolism in “Bright and Morning Star” plays an overtly contradictory role. Whereas Rev. Taylor in “Fire and Cloud” comes to see the existence of “Gawd” as at once confirmed and made flesh by the red-led, interracial, mass mobilization of the poor to demand bread — Christianity and communism aligning in a conclusion that is likened to “a baptism of clean joy” — for Sue in “Bright and Morning Star”, the redemptive discourse of Christianity at once enables the development of radical subjectivity, on one hand, and yet threatens to hold it back or to compromise it, on the other.61 Her Christian martyr’s ambition — “to be like Him [Jesus] and suffer without a mumbling word” — is shown to be both an impetus and an impediment to collective action.62

If “Fire and Cloud” depicts the progressive promise of a Christian-Communist synthesis, “Bright and Morning Star” suggests the promise, but also the challenges and dangers of such a fusion.

Startlingly, the very title of Wright’s story, “Bright and Morning Star,” foregrounds this ambiguous, double-edged status of redemptive Christian symbolism. The phrase, which recurs throughout the story, alludes to the Bible; Sue clearly sees it as a symbol for Jesus (though she sings it in such a way that the “he” in question could equally well apply to her son Johnny-Boy, for whose safe return her heart longs).63

 However, the Biblical allusion is a contradictory one; it points readers to the possibility that what appears to be the coming of redemption may in fact be the arrival of its opposite. The first reference in the Bible to the “morning star” as an individual is in Isaiah 14:12, and refers not to Jesus, but to Satan: “How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations!” (New International Version). Both the King James Version and New King James Version of the text translate “morning star” as “Lucifer, son of the morning.” Yet, in Revelation 22:16, Jesus identifies Himself as the morning star: “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The “bright and morning star” could be Christ, or anti-Christ.64 Wright’s frequently ominous descriptions of the distant Memphis beacon-light that cuts across virtually every scene of the story further signal the double-edged symbolism, with the beacon light described as being “Like a gleaming sword above her head,” a “blade of light.”65 The point here of course is not to engage scriptural debate about the proper interpretation — or proper translation — of the “bright and morning star(s).”

The point is that the very title of Wright’s story — a title which reverberates in Sue’s hymn singing, in the distant Memphis airport “beacon,” and, crucially, at the precise moment of Sue’s fateful decision — refers us to a Biblical symbol that is widely taken to signify in two opposed and incompatible ways. 66 The status of the “bright and morning star,” the symbol of redemption, is unclear; what appears to be a beacon of hope may turn out to be the headlights of doom.

As we’ve shown, things stand similarly with Wright’s story itself. For the long-established reading of “Bright and Morning Star,” Sue appears akin to a savior. But in reality, despite her best and even in many ways heroic efforts, she presides over the destruction not the redemption of the comrades, making “Bright and Morning Star” a story about collective betrayal that takes the form of what looks like — and is mistaken for — individual martyrdom and salvation. If religious signs, and the emotions they unleash, align with the radical subjectivity of Taylor at the end of “Fire and Cloud,” in “Bright and Morning Star” Wright confronts us with the possibility that the former may be misread as the latter, redemption and resurrection fantasies substituting for rather than supporting and spurring on revolutionary practice, with catastrophic results.

What is at stake here, and what the title “Bright and Morning Star” points us towards, is not just the irony of readers and critics misinterpreting Sue’s act, (interesting as this may be), but the tragic irony of Sue herself misinterpreting her situation (and its symbolism) so as to come to the point of committing this mistaken act in the first place.67 This isn’t just a case of Wright slipping one by two generations of critics (a noteworthy fact, nonetheless); a close analysis of Sue’s ‘”internal”’ psychological processes, and of the material conditions that set the context for these processes, takes the issue to another level, revealing “Bright and Morning Star” to be a story about the misleading or illusory appearance of redemption.

“Bright and Morning Star” thus becomes a story about how betrayal can take the form of what looks like salvation, about how the brightness of a star (or a beacon) can confuse or even blind one to the situation at hand, about how easy it is to lapse into “individualism” in the name of saving (or taking revenge on) others, especially in moments of crisis. “Bright and Morning Star” is not just a story about a mistake Sue made, but about the makings of this mistake.

Grasping the Transindividual Structure of Individualism

On one level, what I have written above can be seen as an extension of Meyerson’s approach; I agree with him that in a sense Sue falls prey to “individualism.” And yet, moving beyond an acknowledgment of “false consciousness,” my close reading of “Bright and Morning Star” has revealed an interesting paradox: Sue’s “individualism” tends to take the form of its ostensible opposite: a concern for (or even an obsession with) others, friends as well as enemies. Sue makes her crucial error not when she is concerned for herself (or even for her family), but when she is worried about upsetting another, her comrade (or worried about showing up the enemy). Her “individualist” going-it-alone is shown by Wright to be an effect of her attempt to be (or to appear to be) what (she thinks) her newfound ally expects from her (or, on the other hand, to defy what she thinks the enemy thinks of her). 

“Individualism” here is not a sign of selfishness or indifference for the collective, so much as — one the one hand — a lack of faith in the ability of another member of that collective to grasp and to accept the fullness of her own contradictory being, and — on the other hand — a too narrow focus on the enemy as the “audience” for her activism. Sue tries to “go it alone” for the sake of others, to protect their faith, or to make them feel their failure. Individualist “false consciousness” is a symptom of a broader — and collective — lapse.68
We can thus intuit here Wright’s suggestion of yet another — more collective — failure of faith, this one attributable to the local Communist party-movement itself, for not having involved Sue (this black, working mother and widow, this devout Christian) sooner and more fully in their organizing (in the weeks and months leading up to the crisis-night of the story). Sue’s early reflection on how “Johnny-Boy ain the one t trust nobody t do nothing. He gotta do it all hissef…” thus reverberates with irony, and not just because, as other critics have noted, Johnny-Boy has been all too trusting when it has come to allowing white men — such as the traitor Booker — into the fledgling party.69 An additional irony, just as profound and tragic, emerges from the recognition that Johnny-Boy’s (individualistic) bearing of burdens by himself has — however unintentionally — allowed Sue to remain marginalized and under-politicized within the movement she is increasingly sympathetic to.

Insofar as Sue’s heroic lapse is a (very understandable) sign of her lack of experience with communist political activity prior to this crucial crisis moment, we can hypothesize that Johnny-Boy’s own individualist mode of communist work has inadvertently contributed to Sue’s individualistic error. Doing the political work for others — rather than challenging them to take it up themselves — is here shown to be yet another “heroic” mistake. A mistake that breeds other mistakes.

The Stakes of a Scandalous Rereading

The present reading offers us more than a descriptive correction of “Bright and Morning Star.” Fully grasping the subjective process by which Sue ultimately betrays the cause she aims to defend enriches our understanding of Richard Wright’s pro-communist 1930’s fiction, foregrounding and reframing his interest in human consciousness — and in relationships between comrades and the masses of people — as a crucial site of struggle, one with deep implications for the communist movement he sought to build.70 Long hailed as an exemplary achievement of pro-communist/proletarian literature, “Bright and Morning Star” comes to stand as not only a compelling narrative that reflects actual, ongoing radical struggles of the time (though it is this, too), but an example of Wright using fiction as a kind of dialectical psychoanalytic tool through which to contribute to the radical cause, not (only) by touting its achievements, but by illuminating the internal and existential contradictions that threaten to undermine that movement from within. The powerful draw of martyr-like “heroism” was among the dangers Wright sought to bring to light.71
More broadly, re-reading “Bright and Morning Star” in this way gives us occasion to consider the (contradictory) formal dynamics of political subjectivization itself, understood as the process by which a particular, singular individual in specific material circumstances comes to infuse his/her life with the practical consequences of a political commitment to a universal, collective, revolutionary, and egalitarian process.72 In this vein, Meyerson’s corrective reading of “Bright and Morning Star” has given us the chance not only to document (Wright’s awareness of) the dangers of individualistic, martyr-like substitutions for collective action, but also to explore the basis for this subjective error, as it can be traced to the workings of human consciousness and to comradely relations, in their complex interaction with the social and political conditions faced by an emergent, besieged communist project.

“Bright and Morning Star” thus becomes not only a critical warning about the danger of lapsing into individualist modes of thought and thus betraying causes that one seeks to support, but a call to study, engage, and transform the latent conditions that make such betrayal possible — including, but not limited to, the gendered division of labor, the persistence of racialized attitudes within the communist movement (on both sides of the “race” line), and the subjective deformations and disconnections these give rise to. This possibility, far from being best understood as a foreign or false ideology that is imported into the communist movement from the “outside,” or as some residual “bourgeois” element, is perhaps better grasped as a danger that is always present, a possibility that is immanent to the political process of subjectivization itself, not only because subjectivization is always a matter of working with those contents inherited from the past, but insofar as this subjectivization necessarily involves a tense dialectic of individuality and collectivity in the crisis-time of the present.

Similarly, our reading of Wright’s novella suggests the continued relevance of his work — and perhaps of US proletarian fiction more generally — to contemporary theoretical discussion, developed by figures such as Alain Badiou and Jodi Dean, theorists who approach communism as a matter of subjectification and collective desire.73

Arguing that, against the “democratic drive” that now dominates on the Left, “communist desire designates the subjectification of the gap necessary for politics, the division within the people,” Dean has insisted that “this subjectification is collective — our desire and our collective desire for us…Communist desire is a desire for collectivity… the desire for collective desiring.”74 Against this framework of collective desire for collectivity, Dean criticizes Badiou for emphasizing acts of “individual decision and will.” “Such an emphasis,” she writes, “thereby assents to capitalist form, rendering communism as just another content, and object of individual desire rather than the desire for a collective subject. In Badiou’s version,” she adds, “the individual’s active participation in a new subject doesn’t even require any radical change on the part of the individual — he or she can remain ‘the individual that he or she is.’ What gets lost is the common that gives communism its force.”75

I gesture towards this debate here merely to suggest that Wright’s text offers a means of mediating between Dean’s emphasis on collective desire and Badiou’s focus on individual incorporation in the communist Subject. Wright’s story explores the relationship between individuality and collectivity in the precarious light of a communist horizon; it thus opens up space for discussion about the ways in which particular individuals may become incorporated (or fail to become incorporated) within a communist Subject.

At the same time, “Bright and Morning Star” recounts Sue’s subjective process in such a way as to foreground for readers the complex terrain of revolutionary desire, confronting us with how vexing the struggle to align personal desire with strategic action can be, of how individualist form may subsume communist content, even when some notion of a “communist horizon” is ostensibly in view, and a committed communist party at work.

Sue reminds us that to care about comrades and to dream of destroying enemies is necessarily to risk excesses of both caution and revenge. Similarly, to cultivate a will and a revolutionary faith that is up to the task of sacrifice is to court the fantasy of substitutive martyrdom; to be willing to die for a symbol of redemption is to risk dying for the symbol without materializing the redemption as revolutionary praxis. None of which eliminates the need to nonetheless heroically dare to act in the face of these dangers. Leaps of faith, like symbols, remain necessary — despite their dangers. For Wright, the stakes were high; the role of the revolutionary artist was nothing less than to “fashion symbols by which his people will live and die….”76

As my reading of “Bright and Morning Star” has hopefully made clear, however, Wright’s radical Thirties fiction was not only concerned with fashioning such finished symbols as heroes to be upheld — or better yet, fixed beacons or “bright and morning stars,” to be followed to the red horizon — but equally with depicting the contradictory potential that symbols and symbolism imply for human consciousness, and thus for political struggle.

Conclusion: Rethinking the Time-Line and Gender-Lines of Wright’s Class War

Our reading of “Bright and Morning Star” sheds new light on Wright’s famous self-critical comments regarding the original reception of the 1938 version of Uncle Tom’s Children. Responding to the popular reception of Uncle Tom’s Children, Wright expressed frustration that the emotional experience of his stories was preventing readers from grasping their social and political implications. Famously, he quipped that he “had made an awfully naïve mistake. I found that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about” (“How Bigger Was Born”). Critics who reference this famous line of self-critique generally take it to refer to Uncle Tom’s Children as a whole, making no distinction between the 1938 and 1940 versions. But this conflation of the two editions risks erasing “Bright and Morning Star” from view altogether. More specifically, it risks blinding us to how “Bright and Morning Star” does not merely represent a continuation of patterns established previously in Uncle Tom’s Children, but rather in some ways, signifies a significant departure, a reflexive amendment that alters the meaning and impact of the Uncle Tom’s Children as a (reframed) whole. 

Notably, Wright’s critique of Uncle Tom’s Children in “How Bigger Was Born” was written and published before “Bright and Morning Star” appeared as part of Uncle Tom’s Children later that same year. In fact, Wright was working to get his publisher to add “Bright and Morning Star” (and the “autobiographical sketch” “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow”) to Uncle Tom’s Children at roughly the same moment that he was writing, delivering, developing and publishing the speech that would become a pamphlet, and soon after an appendix to Native Son.77 At the very least then, it is misleading to read Wright’s famous self-critical comments on Uncle Tom’s Children as applying directly to the version that includes “Bright and Morning Star.”

Indeed, it would seem more plausible to read “Bright and Morning Star” as a part of Wright’s own critical reflection on the 1938 version of Uncle Tom’s Children, complicating the triumphal and cathartic, indeed “baptismal” ending “Fire and Cloud”. Adding “Bright and Morning Star” to the end of Uncle Tom’s Children thus can be seen as a challenge to such cathartic modes of reading, a final warning about how “tears” and individual emotional release — however well intended — may obscure a clear view of the situation, blinding one to the actuality of what must be done. Even a “baptism of clean joy” cannot wash away those contradictions that still linger on beneath the surface.78 It is thus not only “banker’s daughters” whose emotions risk blinding them to the realities of social struggle; rather, Wright suggests, the oppressed themselves can fall victim to the blindness of cathartic release, the temptation of “total acts” guided by ambiguous “bright and morning stars.”79
For those accustomed to seeing Sue as that rare thing, a Richard Wright hero, not to mention, a sympathetic, richly drawn heroine, the re-interpretation of “Bright and Morning Star” opened up by Meyerson and developed further here may seem like a symbolic loss: Does this re-reading merely add more evidence to support Sherley Anne Williams contention that even at his exceptional best, “Wright’s loving characterization [of Aunt Sue] also reinforces the image of the black woman as a symbol of the reactionary aspects in Afro-American tradition implicit in the preceding three stories [of Uncle Tom’s Children]”?80 Similarly, in her insightful 2009 essay, Cheryl Higashida notes that the domestic scene of “Bright and Morning Star” can be seen as limiting the otherwise progressive gender politics of this exceptional story. “In representing female solidarity arising out of the domestic sphere, Wright also confines Sue and Reva’s relationship within it.”81 These are valid concerns. And yet, in re-evaluating the gender politics of the closing story of Uncle Tom’s Children, we would do well to reframe the discussion somewhat.

For one, can we not read this politicizing of domestic space as itself a positive, progressive, even proto-feminist move? Contrary to a certain masculinist, militant bias that would suggest that the class war is won primarily on the picket lines and the barricades — an approach privileging highly confrontational, even overtly violent actions as the primary site or figure for radical politics — “Bright and Morning Star,” as we have re-interpreted it, suggests that the struggle may be won or lost in the “private” sphere, in the kitchen and the pantry. With “Bright and Morning Star,” Wright revises his famously violent and bloody collection to suggest that the key moments in the struggle for communism may involve not (just) guns, but conversations; trust, comfort, and patience among comrades may be as important as militancy, political consciousness, or courage.

Appreciating this aspect of Wright’s work thus means rethinking a line of Wright criticism that extends back to Zora Neale Hurston’s original review of Uncle Tom’s Children (in 1938), a review that took to task a version of Uncle Tom’s Children that did not yet include “Bright and Morning Star.”82 Notoriously, Hurston accused Wright of offering readers — and especially black male readers--“wish fulfillment” grounded in violence. “In each story,” she wrote, “the hero suffers but he gets his man.” To this she added that “Not one act of understanding and sympathy comes to pass in the entire work” 83

Putting to one side the retaliatory harshness of Hurston’s review as an interpretation of even the 1938 version of Uncle Tom’s Children, it is tempting to read “Bright and Morning Star” as a kind of reply — perhaps even a self-corrective one — to Hurston’s critique. That is, “Bright and Morning Star” certainly does provide us with what may appear to be violent “wish-fulfillment,” but it presents it in order to critique it. Sue “gets her man”… and that that isn’t enough. Dramatizing the limits of heroic violent individualist action, Wright gives us a story that is precisely about the need for “understanding and sympathy” between comrades, and about how difficult it is to achieve this combination in the context of race-class struggles in the Jim Crow South.

Beyond replying to Hurston, “Bright and Morning Star” suggests not only that such gun-slinging heroism can be inadequate to the task of revolution in times of crisis, but that a focus on this dramatic, climactic, “total” mode of action threatens to blind subjects to the less dramatic but nonetheless essential social and political tasks, tasks that remain essential if individual confrontational heroics are actually to mean anything at all. It’s not just that violence is risky or inadequate, but that thinking in terms of such “total acts” aimed at blotting out of the Enemy can blind us to other crucial, collective work that needs to be done. Embedded in “Bright and Morning Star” then is an argument for taking seriously the contexts of comradeship, the mundane habits of speaking and listening, the cultivation of interpersonal relations — “understanding and sympathy” — traditionally “feminine” and feminist concerns. Sue’s error is that she reaches for Johnny-Boy’s gun instead of finding words for Reva.

In order to change the world, Wright’s “Bright and Morning Star” suggests, we need to get better at understanding the processes by which human consciousness changes, as both subject and object of the world it seeks to shape, and also better at transforming the way comrades relate to one another, and to the masses of people in their uneven, emerging political development. In this light, critical examination of the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of existing political collectivities — or the contradictions at work in revolutionary symbolism — is not a diversion or a “retreat” from the “real movement that abolishes the present state of things.”84

It is rather a part of that emancipatory movement, insofar as the things to be abolished and transformed are not just out there, but also in here, internal to political consciousness and, indeed, to the relations between comrades and the people. To become true participants in such a communist movement, Wright reminds us, is not only a matter of courageously “showing” the enemy, or of “proving” oneself a hero. It is a matter of more fully and honestly engaging the masses of people and fellow comrades alike, in the light of a strategic view of what truly needs to be done.

Revolution is not only a matter of producing or clinging to symbols, but of grasping their meanings more fully, of making space and time for full and collective communication that can transcend the social divisions created by white supremacist, patriarchal capitalism, even in the midst of crisis. Even the best symbol can buckle or boomerang, if not handled dialectically, critically, and collectively.

Here, in the light of his own communist fiction, Wright’s classic metaphor for revolutionary writing too demands renewed critical reflection. In Black Boy (American Hunger), Wright famously wrote of H.L. Mencken as his first radical literary influence: “The man was fighting with words.

He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club … Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon?”85 Here is where the classic quote usually breaks off, with Wright endorsing the idea of using words “as a weapon.” But Wright goes on: “No. It frightened me. I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.86 It’s not the weapon but the will and courage to wield it that most strikes the young Wright.

Where does the courage to speak such fighting truths come from?

Of course, reading against the grain here, the idea of using words “as one would use a club” can signify doubly; a writer’s club is not only a metaphoric weapon that can be gripped by an individual, but also a group where people meet to build trust, to chart the best course, to choose the best metaphoric weapons, and to gather courage for collective action. Similarly, Wright’s vision of a writer “fighting with words” takes on an enriched dialectical meaning in light of the struggle “Bright and Morning Star” dramatizes, the struggle to ‘mould’ the ‘warped’ materials of an oppressive society in a revolutionary direction. The struggle is not just to target the enemy (whether with words or with bullets), but also to cultivate — in oneself and in others — the courage to speak suppressed truths.

Words then become not just “weapons” to be deployed against an enemy, but part of the very terrain of the struggle to constitute revolutionary collectivity as such. And so, yes, perhaps we should use Richard Wright’s communist writing as one would use a club, not just as a weapon but as a collective space for critical reflection in the midst of struggle.

As we do so, we might recall that Wright’s own courage to speak so powerfully was sustained by his participation in the Chicago John Reed Club, that short-lived worker-writer project that fused his life-work with mid-20th century Communism.

As Wright later described that movement’s passionate call: “It did not say: ‘Be like us and we will like you, maybe.’

It said: ‘If you possess enough courage to speak out what you are, you will find that you are not alone.’”87
  1. Here I follow Barbara Foley, who has argued convincingly in her essay, “The Politics of Poetics: Ideology and Narrative Form in American Tragedy and Native Son,” that Wright’s literary practice in Native Son (New York: Harper Collins, 1993) is aimed more at getting readers to scrutinize critically the social conditions shaping the narrative before them than at getting readers to “feel for” or identify with the protagonist of that narrative. I would add only that while Native Son may be a privileged case of Wright’s “apologue” approach, such a tendency characterizes a great deal of Wright’s oeuvre. Foley’s essay can be found in the anthology Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K.A. Appiah. (New York: Amistad, 1993).back
  2. My approach differs here from that taken by a critic such as Sherley Anne Williams, who appears to argue the opposite in her quite brilliant and illuminating essay “Papa Dick and Sister Woman: Reflections on Women in the Fiction of Richard Wright,” in Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Arnold Rampersad (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1995). Williams finds that Wright’s male characters all too often embody a tradition of “black male heroism” (64) which “tends to foreground black male protagonists’ struggle for self-definition and against oppression and their social environment in such a way as to push women into the “background.” As she writes, “Neither women or ‘women’s questions’ figure centrally in Wright’s fiction; when they appear at all, they are subsumed under larger philosophical or political themes” (64). I do not contest that a number of Wright protagonists can be viewed as “heroic” in the problematically macho sense that Sherley Anne Williams outlines. My point is precisely that, read closely, and in the wake of the work of black feminist criticism, these characters no longer appear heroic. I will go one step further below, to argue that — against the grain of the “black male tradition” which Williams criticizes — the supposedly “heroic” characters’ in Wright’s fiction, whatever their own imputed intentions, are shown by Wright to fail, and even, in many cases to compound rather than to relieve the oppression against which they seek to act. Williams herself admits that “their acts of heroism” are “often nihilistic and Pyrrhic” (67). back
  3. There are a number of critics for whom Bigger Thomas represents a “hero” of one sort or another. For an interesting, but to my mind problematic reading of Bigger as a kind of “existential hero” see Petar Ramadanovic’s essay “Native Son’s Tragedy: Traversing the Death Drive with Bigger Thomas,” in Richard Wright: New Edition, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 2009). A more recent, and very rich reappraisal of Bigger as a positively exemplary figure can be found in Anthony Dawahare, “Richard Wright’s Native Son and the Dialectics of Black Experience.” Richard Wright in a Post-Racial Imaginary, ed. Alice Mikal Craven and Yoko Nakamura (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014)back
  4. “How Bigger Was Born” Native Son (New York: Harper Collins, 1993) 521. That Wright would later come to equate somewhat these two social tendencies, (reminding of Hannah Arendt’s thesis of “two totalitarianisms”) in his 1953 novel The Outsider, should not keep us from seeing the radical distinction he drew between them earlier. While sharing roots in a common situation of modern alienation, Communism and Fascism were, for the early Wright, diametrically opposed social-political responses to that situation.back
  5. Richard Wright, The Outsider (New York: Harper Collins, 1993).back
  6. See for instance Barbara Foley’s essay, “A Dramatic Picture ... Of Woman from Feudalism to Fascism: Richard Wright’s Black Hope.” in Richard Wright in a Post-Racial Imaginary, ed. Alice Mikal Craven and William E. Dow (New York, Bloomsbury: 2014).back
  7. The 1938 edition of Uncle Tom’s Children (New York: Harper, 2004) contained in order, “Big Boy Leaves Home,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Long Black Song,” and “Fire and Cloud.” The 1940 edition added, at Wright’s insistence, the opening “autobiographical sketch,” “Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” and the closing story, “Bright and Morning Star.” back
  8. The story was subsequently included in both Edward O’Brien’s Best American Short Stories of 1939 and Fifty Best American Short Stories (1914-1939).back
  9. For present purposes I exclude here Wright’s non-fiction works, such as Ten Million Black Voices (1941) and his autobiography Black Boy (American Hunger) (1945, 1977). Reverend Taylor, the protagonist of “Fire and Cloud” is another obvious candidate. His heroism however hinges precisely on his coming to refuse individualist leadership over or apart from “the people.” In effect, I would argue, echoing Gregory Meyerson and others, that the real hero of “Fire and Cloud” is not so much Taylor as the mass of militant workers and peasants; Taylor’s major “heroic” contribution is to realize this basic fact and to step back and out of the way, merging with and being subsumed by this emerging collective subject.back
  10. It is worth noting that the basic arc of Sue’s final heroism — hiding a gun in a white sheet to shoot the racists who have violated her loved one — here repeats almost exactly a tale that Richard Wright would later report having heard and been deeply inspired by as a child. In his autobiography, Black Boy (American Hunger), written years after “Bright and Morning Star” and Uncle Tom’s Children, Wright devotes two pages to discussing the overheard story. That Wright singles out this overheard childhood tale underscores its importance (to him as a child and/or to him as an author in the mid-1940s). Moreover, the way he reflects on this story, and its psychological-emotional resonance in his life, as a kind of symptom of his sense of powerlessness as a child, has implications for how we should read the “Bright and Morning Star” version as well. I am treating this topic in a forthcoming essay.back
  11. Sherely Anne Williams “Papa Dick and Sister Woman: Reflections on Women in the Fiction of Richard Wright,” 67.back
  12. Williams does qualify her praise a bit, noting that “Wright’s loving characterization also reinforces the image of the black woman as a symbol of the reactionary aspects in Afro-American tradition implicit in the preceding three stories” (Williams 67). back
  13. Cheryl Higashida, “Aunt Sue’s Children: Reviewing the Gender(ed) Politics of Richard Wright’s Radicalism” (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views New Edition of Richard Wright, ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 2009) 89. In this essay, she invaluably locates Sue within an emergent discourse of interracial proletarian solidarity that emerged during the Communist-led effort to free the Scottsboro Boys, arguing that “Sue is Wright’s rendition of a Popular Front symbol — the radical black mother” (86). “In contrast to her sons’ monolithic Communism that uncritically privileges class over race and gender,” she continues, “Sue constantly negotiates and eventually transcends the contradictions between black nationalism and Communist integrationism.”back
  14. For a range of readings of the story that reproduce this heroic interpretation of the ending, despite their marked differences in other areas, see: Edward Margolies, “Wright’s Craft: The Short Stories” in Gates and Appiah, Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (New York: Amistad, 1993). Richard Yarbrough’s introduction to Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), ix-xxix, especially xxvi-viii; Barbara Foley, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in US Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941 (Durham: Duke UP, 1993) 206-9; Abdul JanMohamed, “Rehistoricizing Wright: “Psychopolitical Functions of Death in Uncle Tom’s Children” in Richard Wright (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views), ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House) 191-228; and Anthony Dawahare, Nationalism, Marxism and African American Literature between the Wars (Oxford: Univ. of Mississippi Press, 2003) 117. back
  15. For a recent example, see A. C. Kilinski’s “Flinging a New Star: ‘Fire and Cloud’ and ‘Bright and Morning Star’ as Reflections of Richard Wright’s Changing Relationship with Communism,” Epiphany: Journal of Transdisciplinary Studies 5.1 (2012). back
  16. Gregory Meyerson, “Aunt Sue’s Mistake: False Consciousness in Richard Wright’s ‘Bright and Morning Star’” Reconstruction: Studies in Culture,, ed. Graham Barnfield and Joseph G. Ramsey. The conclusion of the essay offers a useful reader-response analysis of what may account for the universal misreading of this widely hailed story. To date, I am not aware of a single scholarly citation of Meyerson’s 2008 article.back
  17. Gregory Meyerson, “Aunt Sue’s Mistake: False Consciousness in Richard Wright’s ‘Bright and Morning Star.’”back
  18. Richard Wright “Bright and Morning Star” Uncle Tom’s Children (New York: Harper, 2004) 235.back
  19. Richard Wright “Long Black Song” Uncle Tom’s Children (New York: Harper, 2004) 153. Uttering this statement, Silas initiates a gun battle that he knows will lead to his death, leaving his wife Sarah and their newborn baby destitute, homeless, and abandoned. Whatever their symbolic force, such individual ‘heroics’ leave the others in the story no better off. Positive appraisals of Silas’s last stand, such as George Yarborough’s in the Harper Modern Classic introduction of Uncle Tom’s Children — Yarborough deems Silas and Mann’s choice of death-terms “an existential triumph of no small order” (xxiv) — demand a great deal of qualification.back
  20. Richard Wright, “Fire and cloud,” Uncle Tom’s Children (New York: Harper, 2004) 209, emphasis added.back
  21. Richard Wright “Fire and could” 210back
  22. This interpretation also casts new light on Wright’s — otherwise quite odd — naming of Mary Dalton’s communist lover in Native Son, Jan Erlone. In light of Wright’s playing on this trope in Uncle Tom’s Children, Erlone’s last name calls our attention to the way this would-be communist has become detached and disconnected from the common people he would ostensibly serve or represent. A full tracing of Wright’s complex and evolving negotiation of the relationship between collectivity and individuality is beyond the scope of this essay. However, readers surely will agree that from the stories of Uncle Tom’s Children, to Native Son, to Black Boy (American Hunger), to The Outsider, while Wright’s work often implies criticisms of actually existing collectives (from the lynch mobs of the South to the contradiction ridden Communist Party) he simultaneously explores the dread, desperation, and often the death to which isolated individuals are destined, insofar as they attempt or are forced to try to manage their dangerous situations erlone. We might provisionally conclude that despite its political shifts after 1940, Wright’s work consistently embodies a negative, anti-individualist politics, if not a positively collectivist one.back
  23. See Meyerson’s discussion of “Down by the Riverside” in Reconstruction 8.4. The two key moments in “Down by the Riverside” are 1) when Mann fails to ask the pastor to exchange boats — which he knows could allow him to avoid the police, who are looking for Mr. Heartfield’s stolen vessel; and 2) when Mann neglects to speak up to the black man Brinkley, to stop them from heading to the Heartfield’s house, where Mann knows his doom awaits. A third, less collective moment comes when, after arriving at the house, Mann briefly considers killing the rest of the Heartfield family with his axe — a moment that clearly foreshadows Bigger Thomas’s notorious suffocation of Mary Dalton in Native Son. Meyerson helpfully draws out the way the Wright’s text foregrounds these silences as moments of self-conscious alienation. Mann knows that he must speak up, but he cannot bring himself to do so.back
  24. We should add here that Wright’s opening story, “Big Boy Leaves Home,” does provide a more collective model of community resistance, albeit a defensive one. It is only due to Big Boy’s reliance on his family, and their reliance on neighbors and networks across the Black community, that he is able to escape the lynch mob that is looking for him.back
  25. This essay will thus attempt to provide a more satisfying answer to the question of “What was Wright ‘trying to say’ by thus subverting his reader’s expectations [in “Bright and Morning Star”]?” A question to which Meyerson in his essay admits: “I don’t have a fully convincing answer.” back
  26. The most extended of several passages clarifying this point comes on page 244: “Then all the horror of it flashed upon her; [Sue] saw flung out over the rainy countryside an array of shacks where white and black comrades were sleeping; in the morning they would be rising and going to Lem’s; then they would be caught. And that meant terror, prison, and death. The comrades would have to be told; she would have to tell them; she could not entrust Johnny-Boy’s work to another…”back
  27. The Aunt Sue-Reva relationship has been insightfully explored in somewhat competing ways by Sherley Anne Williams and by Cheryl Higashida. back
  28. For an overview of Wright’s depictions of white women, an account that does not attend to Reva’s exceptional status, see Tara T. Green “The Virgin Mary, Eve, and Mary Magdalene in Richard Wright’s novels. In Richard Wright: New Edition edited by Harold Bloom. (New York: Chelsea House, 2009) 35-53.back
  29. Richard Wright, “Bright and Morning Star” 231.That Sue refers to Reva as “the brightest glow,” using language so close to the symbolically overdetermined title of Wright’s story, “Bright and Morning Star” again suggests the importance, perhaps even the emblematic status, of the Sue-Reva relationship. We will return to this symbolism below.back
  30. Richard Wright, “Bright and Morning Star” 250-251.back
  31. Once she is sound asleep, Sue fetches the pistol from the dresser beside her bed, watching the young communist sleep as she quietly gathers the weapon. Re-read in light of Sue’s mistake, this scene ominously foreshadows Booker Thomas’s silent smothering of (white communist fellow traveler) Mary Dalton in the crucial scene of Wright’s Native Son. And indeed, Sue’s fear of disturbing Reva leads inexorably to death, destruction, and police repression in the community every bit as much as Bigger’s suffocating Mary, an act which is similarly executed to prevent a racially tinged misunderstanding from coming between a Black person and his would-be white allies. Sue now appears as a forerunner for Bigger Thomas. back
  32. It’s also worth noting here the uncanny similarity between the name Reva and Eva, the name of the main romantic interest and potential artistic comrade (another young white woman) that Cross Damon briefly connects with but ultimately drives to death (by suicide) in Wright’s later novel, The Outsider. As with the Sue-Reva relationship, the major tension and struggle structuring the Damon-Eva relation — and arguably the book’s climactic section itself — is the question of whether it is possible to fully and meaningfully communicate across racial lines. Though he knows what he’d like to say to Eva, Damon Cross doubts that Eva’s life-experience and worldview will allow her to accept him and his situation in all its complexity (and horror). Indeed, in some ways, like the disconnect in “Bright and Morning Star” (to be discussed further below), Eva’s very (romanticizing, oversimplifying) sympathy for oppressed black people — or at least Damon’s perception of this sympathy — becomes not just a bridge but ultimately a barrier to meaningful mutual understanding. Unlike in “Bright and Morning Star,” however, Damon does finally spill his heart out to Eva, though never in its full complexity (he too is convinced that Eva can’t handle the truth), and only after he has committed a number of irreversible and violent acts. Shocked by his confessions (of murder as well as love) Eva leaps to her death through a window, in a sense confirming Damon’s sense that she could never understand him. While a full discussion of the parallels, similarities, and differences between the various scenes of failed interracial communication in Wright’s work — even or especially between would-be intimates — demands more space than the present essay offers, we can at least observe here that Wright’s concern with the complex psychological and cultural barriers to interracial communication — even and perhaps especially between would-be friends, lovers, comrades, and confidantes — runs through from his earliest to his latest fiction. Closely related to this is Wright’s ongoing concern with exposing and challenging white liberals and communists idealization of black people. Such a de-idealizing of “the oppressed black masses” can be seen as a black-red thread running through “Bright and Morning Star” (among other stories in Uncle Tom’s Children), Native Son, as well as Black Boy (American Hunger), and The Outsider. back
  33. “Bright and Morning Star” 229.back
  34. “Like a gleaming sword above her head” (221), a “blade of light” (226). back
  35. For an astute discussion of this concept, see Zizek “The Interpassive Subject,” Talk given at Centre Georges Pompidou, 1998. A classic example is that of belief in Santa Claus, as it operates in households with children approaching adolescence. The parents don’t believe — but think (or want to believe) that the kids do. The kids don’t believe — but don’t want to disturb their parents’ belief that they still do. Each ‘believes’ for the other. They don’t believe in Santa Claus, but believe in the other’s belief in Santa Claus, or (in the case of the child who performs belief for the parents) believe that the other still believes in one’s own belief. The fascinating thing of course is that the entire ritual can continue, and can retain its “magic,” even as none of the participating parties “actually” believe in old Kris Kringle. back
  36. “Bright and Morning Star” (229)back
  37. Again, this may or may not be in fact the case; what Reva actually believes or is capable of is another matter; we are dealing here with Sue’s subjective perceptions, which is all that Wright’s text allows us.back
  38. See for instance Black Boy (American Hunger) where Wright notes that “I talked with white Communists about my experiences with black Communists, and I could not make them understand what I was talking about. White Communists had idealized all Negroes to the extent that they did not see the same Negroes I saw” (339).back
  39. Here and elsewhere I use the term anti-Communist to describe ideas or actions that are antagonistic to the particular institutions, positions, or leadership of the Communist Party; anti-communist signifies ideas or actions antagonistic to the ideas and goals of communism as such. Wright’s Black Boy (American Hunger) is in many respects an anti-Communist text; however, it is not until The Outsider that Wright’s anti-Communism slides into outright anti-communism. back
  40. Anthony Dawahare brilliantly explores Wright’s use of “the white mountain” to explore the reification and de-reification of consciousness in Native Son, particularly at the very end of the novel. This developing treatment of this “white mountain” across these two late-thirties texts is yet another piece of evidence suggesting the deep connections between “Bright and Morning Star” and Native Son, suggesting the ways in which Aunt Sue is a kind of predecessor for Bigger Thomas. See Dawahare’s “Richard Wright’s Native Son and the Dialectics of Black Experience” in Richard Wright in a Post-Racial Imaginary, ed. Alice Mikal Craen and William E. Dow (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).back
  41. Richard Wright, “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader ed. David Levering Lewis (New York: Penguin, 1995) 199.back
  42. “Bright and Morning star” (250, 253).back
  43. “Bright and Morning Star” 248.back
  44. “Bright and Morning Star” 248.back
  45. “Bright and Morning Star” 248-249.back
  46. “Bright and Morning Star” 249, emphasis addedback
  47. “Bright and Morning Star” 231.back
  48. The role that perceptions of time and depictions of temporality play in this story, and across Uncle Tom’s Children, deserves further study.back
  49. “Bright and Morning Star” 229.back
  50. “Bright and Morning Star” 229-230.back
  51. This recalls also the moment in “Long Black Song,” where Silas’s long speech addressed to the dead white man, is juxtaposed to his failure to communicate with his wife, Sarah. “He began to talk to no one in particular; he simply stood over the dead white man and talked out of his life…” (Uncle Tom’s Children 152).back
  52. “Bright and Morning Star” 225back
  53. One could perhaps speak here of a distinction between a subject of rebellion — aimed at gaining recognition from an oppressor (or an oppressive system), and a subject of revolution, which aims not to gain recognition from an oppressor, but to supplant that oppressor (or oppressive system) entirely. Paulo Freire addresses the issue in the opening chapter of Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 2000): “The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility.”back
  54. “Bright and Morning Star” 239-240, emphasis added.back
  55. “Bright and Morning Star” 240, emphasis added.back
  56. “Bright and Morning Star” 251.back
  57. This itself is an interesting fact, considering, as Cornell West has recently put it, Wright’s status as “the most secular thinker the Black tradition has ever produced.” Black Prophetic Fire: in Dialogue with and Edited by Christa Bushendorf (Beacon Press, 2014) 22.back
  58. Richard Wright, “Blueprint for Negro Writing” 198-199.back
  59. For Wright’s most sustained critical — but also deeply dialectical — treatment of the Church, see Black Boy (American Hunger), “Part One: Southern Night.” Twelve Million Black Voices (New York: Basic Books, 2008) also engages the contradictory — ideological, but also utopian — tendencies at work in the Black Church. back
  60. “Fire and Cloud,” 204 and “Bright and Morning Star” 225. Wright was not merely imagining this christian-communist dialectic. For the classic study of the syncretic practices that characterized Communist work in the Jim Crow South, see Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1990). back
  61. “Fire and Cloud” 220.back
  62. “Bright and Morning Star” 224.back
  63. Sue sings, “He’s the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Mawnin Star / He’s the fairest of Ten Thousand T Mah Soul” (222), as she hopes for Johnny-Boy’s return in time for supper. While an earlier verse of this hymn — “Though all the world forsake me, and Satan tempt me sore, / Through Jesus I shall safely reach the goal,” — makes it clear that the song refers to Jesus, the lines Wright includes in “Bright and Morning Star” do not.back
  64. Just to show how open this startling title-secret has been for some time: As of August 9, 2013, a Google search for the phrase “Bright and Morning Star,” retrieves the following top ‘results’: “Is the Morning Star in the Bible Jesus or Lucifer?”; “The Bright and Morning Star — Jesus of Lucifer?; “Why are both Jesus and Satan referred to as the Morning Star?” Among other intertextual signs that Wright was often thinking about the coincidence of Christ/Antichrist we can include: his writings on Seventh Day Adventism; his paraphrase of black church doctrine in 12 Million Black Voices (68-75), where both Satan/Lucifer and God/Jesus are depicted as “going down” to earth; and Wright’s later naming of his protagonist in The Outsider, Cross Damon. back
  65. “Bright and Morning Star” 221, 226.The likening of light as “blades” also echoes — and gathers ominous association from — the closing pages of “Big Boy Leaves Homes,” as Big Boy hides from the light in the back of his Chicago-borne wagon.back
  66. “Ah got to make her go t bed! Yes; Booker would tell the names of the comrades to the sheriff. If she could only stop him some way! That was the answer, the point, the star that grew bright in the morning of new hope…. Ah could wade the creek n beat him [Booker] there…but what would she do after that? ‘Reva, honey, go t bed. Ahem alright. Yuh need res.” (250-1, emphasis added).back
  67. In “Aunt Sue’s Mistake: False Consciousness in Richard Wright’s ‘Bright and Morning Star,’” Meyerson offers some compelling reader reception analysis near the end of the “Aunt Sue’s Mistake” essay. “That Wright’s closing story, and hence his collection as a whole, has been so long misread, that Sue’s narcissistic death-dream has been mistaken for a radical and heroic encounter with reality, even on the left, is perhaps testimony to the continuing power that such fantasies of the “total act” continue to exert on contemporary readers.”back
  68. In a sense we can see false consciousness here (in a political register) as somewhat analogous to Marx’s famous critique of commodity fetishism (in an economic one). In the first chapter of Capital vol. 1, Marx traces the way in which the mystified consciousness of fetishism is not merely a matter of ideology, but is the effect of actual social relations of production; the crucial corollary is that to abolish, overcome, and transform this fetishism of commodities requires not just scientific discovery, but an actual revolutionary transformation of the social relations that give rise to this mystification. Similarly, one could hypothesize that the individualist errors Sue makes cannot be educated away in a direct sense, but only by addressing the lack of collectivity of which “individualism” is a symptom; communist consciousness requires communist social relations within the movement itself! back
  69. “Bright and Morning Star” 221. This is in accordance with Johnny-Boy’s belief that class commonality is more fundamental than racial difference, and that, furthermore, practically speaking, it is impossible to grow the party if one maintains a stance of suspicion towards potential comrades (234).back
  70. For a very clear and useful review of Richard Wright as a writer deeply committed to Marxism and the communist cause, see James Smethurst’s essay, “After Modernism: Richard Wright Interprets the Black Belt,” Richard Wright in a Post-Racial Imaginary, ed. Alie Mikal Craven and William E. Dow (Bloomsbury: New York, 2014).back
  71. Likewise, we can see “Bright and Morning Star” as offering a sobering counterpoint to more triumphalist tendencies in proletarian literature or socialist realism, which, though — contrary to anti-communist stereotypes — seldom depicting the revolutionary road ahead as an easy one or victory as inevitable, often did suggest that the revolutionary consciousness that had been gained would not be easily lost. This counterpoint becomes clear when one juxtaposes “Bright and Morning Star” to one of Wright’s likely models for this story, Maxim Gorky’s Mother. I take up the many textual relations of these two works in a forthcoming essay.back
  72. For a compelling formal account of communist political subjectivization see the closing chapter on Alain Badiou’s The Communist Hypothesis (New York: Verso, 2010). Also see Badiou’s The Rebirth of History: Living in a Time of Riots. (New York: Verso, 2012). back
  73. See Dean’s penultimate chapter, “Desire” in The Communist Horizon (New York: Verso, 2012). Notably, Dean’s most recent book, Crowds and Party (Verso, 2016) published while the present essay was in production, turns to the Chicago section of Richard Wright’s autobiography Black Boy (American Hunger) in order to develop her account of the relationship between individuality and collectivity in the U.S. Communist Party the 1930s. I review Dean’s discussion of these issues — and of Wright’s treatment of them — in a forthcoming essay.back
  74. Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon, 179, 197, 199.back
  75. The Communist Horizon 195. back
  76. “Blueprint for Negro Writing” 199.back
  77. The “Note on the text” in the Harper Perennial edition of Uncle Tom’s Children points out that Wright wanted “Bright and Morning Star” added to the 1938 edition of the text, but was refused by publishers. Rejected, “Bright and Morning Star” first appeared in The New Masses in May 1938, two months after the appearance of the first edition of Uncle Tom’s Children. Wright offered to pay the costs of adding “Bright and Morning Star” to the 1940 edition out of his own pocket (298). Apparently, he felt it was important that the story be added to the volume.back
  78. A recent essay by April Conley Kilinski does explore the rupture signified by adding “Bright and Morning Star” (and “The Ethics Of Living Jim Crow”) to Uncle Tom’s Children in 1940. Kilinksi however argues in a direction diametrically opposed to the present project, arguing that the addition of “Bright and Morning Star” represents the beginning of a mid-to-late-Thirties anti-communist turn in Wright’s work, rather than a swerve within that continued pro-communist orientation. Kilinksi’s interpretation, which would date Wright’s break with the Communist party and with communism in 1937, hinges on a seriously flawed reading of both Wright’s 1937 essay “Blueprint for Negro Writing” and his later biography Black Boy (American Hunger). Lacking the space to refute in full here, I will just note that the linchpin of the misinterpretation is Kilinski’s erasure of the explicitly pro-Marxist and implicitly pro-communist perspective in both of these texts. She also ignores the fact that in 1937, for instance, Wright wrote over 200 article for the pro-Communist Daily Worker newspaper, and would continue producing fiction, poetry, and journalism for pro-Communist publications such as The New Masses for years to come. See A.C. Kiliniski “Flinging a New Star: ‘Fire and Cloud’ and ‘Bright and Morning Star’ as Reflections of Richard Wright’s Changing Relationship with Communism” in Epiphany: Journal of Transdisciplinary Studies: Vol. 5, No. 1, 2012.back
  79. Perhaps then we can say of emotional catharsis what Sue says at the very outset of “Bright and Morning Star,” lines which, for readers of Uncle Tom’s Children, come but a page after Rev. Taylor’s teary-eyed epiphany at the end of F&C: “Rains good n bad. It kin make seeds bus up thu the groun, er it kin bog things down lika watah-soaked coffin” (221).back
  80. “Papa Dick and Sister Woman: Reflections on Women in the Fiction of Richard Wright,” 67.back
  81. “Aunt Sue’s Children: Reviewing the Gender(ed) Politics of Richard Wright’s Radicalism” 91.back
  82. Hurston’s review is at least in part a response to Wright’s own scathing — and equally uncharitable — criticism of Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. For a brilliant critical discussion of Wright and Hurston’s fiction that complicates the operative opposition that frames much “debate” about these two writers, see William Maxwell “Black Belt/Black Folk: The End(s) of the Richard Wright –– Zora Neale Hurston Debate,” New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars (New York: Columbia UP, 1999).back
  83. Zora Neal Hurston, “Stories of Conflict,” Saturday Review of Books. April 2, 1938, 32-33back
  84. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: The German Ideology ed. Chris Arthur (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1970) 56-57.back
  85. Wright, Black Boy (American Hunger). The first part only is quoted in the Yarborough introduction to Uncle Tom’s Children, xiii.back
  86. Black Boy (American Hunger) 248, emphasis added.back
  87. Black Boy (American Hunger) 318.back