ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
We Negroes prefer to take the hint of that great Jewish revolutionist, Karl Marx, and look soberly
upon the facts of history, and organize, all ourselves, and fight it out. Having helped to
build the society of the majority, we Negroes are not so dazzled by its preciousness
that we consider it something holy and beyond attack.
Books by Richard Wright
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I Bite the Hand That Feeds Me
[A Response to David Cohn]
By Richard Wright
I want to reply to Mr. David L. Cohn, whose article criticized my novel Native Son, in the May issue of the Atlantic Monthly. In the eyes of the average white American reader, his article made it more difficult for a Negro (child of slaves and savages!) to answer a cultured Jew (who has two thousand years of oppression to recommend him in giving advice to other unfortunates!) than an American white. Indeed, Mr. Cohn writes as though he were recommending his two thousand years of oppression to the Negroes of America!
No, thank you, Mr. Cohn. I dont think that we Negroes are going to have to go through with it. We might perish in the attempt to avoid it; if so, then death as men is better than two thousand years of ghetto life and seven years of Herr Hitler.
The Negro problem in America is not beyond solution. (I write from a countryMexicowhere people of all races and colors live in harmony and without racial prejudices or theories of racial superiority. Whites and Indians live and work and die here, always resisting the attempts of Anglo-Saxon tourists and industrialists to introduce racial hate and discrimination.) Russia has solved the problem of the Jews and that of all her other racial and national minorities. Probably the Soviet solution is not to Mr. Cohns liking, but I think it is to the liking of the Jews in Russia and Biro-Bidjan. I accept the Russian solution. I am proletarian and Mr. Cohn is bourgeois; we live on different planes of social reality, and we see Russia differently.
He [Wright] wants not only complete political rights for his people, but also social equality, and he wants them now. Certainly I want them now. And whats wrong with my wanting them now? What guarantee have we Negroes, if we were expedient for five hundred years, that America would extend to us a certificate stating that we were civilized? I am proud to declaim as proud as Mr. Cohn is of his two thousand years of oppression that at no time in the history of American politics has a Negro stood for anything but the untrammeled rights of human personality, his and others.
Mr. Cohn implies that as a writer I should look at the state of the Negro through the lens of relativity, and not judge his plight in an absolute sense. That is precisely what, as an artist, I try not to do. My character, Bigger Thomas, lives and suffers in the real world. Feeling and perception, from moment to moment, are absolute, and if I dodged my responsibility as an artist and depicted them as otherwise Id be a traitor, not to my race alone, but to humanity. An artist deals with aspects of reality different from those which a scientist sees. My task is not to abstract reality, but to enhance its value. In the process of objectifying emotional experience in words paint, stone, or tone an artist uses his feelings in an immediate and absolute sense.
To ask a writer to deny the validity of his sensual perceptions is to ask him to be expedient enough to commit spiritual suicide for the sake of politicians. And that Ill never consent to do. No motive of expediency can compel me to elect to justify the ways of white America to the Negro; rather, my task is to weigh the effects of our civilization upon the personality, as it affects it here and now. If, in my weighing of those effects, I reveal rot, pus, filth, hate, fear, guilt, and degenerate forms of life, must I be consigned to hell? (Yes, Bigger Thomas hated, but he hated because he feared. Carefully, Mr. Cohn avoided all mention of that fact.
Or does Mr. Cohn feel that the exquisite, intuitive treatment of the Negro in America does not inspire fear?) I wrote Native Son to show what manner of men and women our society of the majority breeds, and my aim was to depict a character in terms of the living tissue and texture of daily consciousness. And who is responsible for his feelings, anyway?
Mr. Cohn, my view of history tells me this: Only the strong are free. Might may not make right, but there is no right nation without might. That may sound cynical, but it is nevertheless true. If the Jew has suffered for two thousand years, then it is mainly because of his religion and his other-worldliness, and he has only himself to blame. The Jew had a choice, just as the Negro in America has one. We Negroes prefer to take the hint of that great Jewish revolutionist, Karl Marx, and look soberly upon the facts of history, and organize, all ourselves, and fight it out. Having helped to build the society of the majority, we Negroes are not so dazzled by its preciousness that we consider it something holy and beyond attack.
We know our weakness and we know our strength, and we are not going to fight America alone. We are not so naïve as that. The Negro in America became politically mature the moment he realized that he could not fight the society of the majority alone and organized the National Negro Congress and throw its weight behind John L. Lewis and the CIO!
I urge my race to become strong through alliances, by joining in common cause with other oppressed groups (an there are a lot of them in America, Mr. Cohn!), workers, sensible Jews, farmers, declassed intellectuals, and so forth. I urge them to master the techniques of political, social, and economic struggle and cast their lot with the millions in the world today who are fighting for freedom, crossing national and racial boundaries if necessary.
The unconscious basis upon which most whites excuse Negro oppression is as follows: (1) the Negro did not have a culture when he was brought here; (2) the Negro was physically inferior and susceptible to diseases; (3) the Negro did not resist his enslavement. These three falsehoods have been woven into an ideological and moral principle to justify whatever America wants to do with the Negro, and, whether Mr. Cohn realizes it or not, they enable him to say the Negro problem in America is actually insoluble.
But there is not one ounce of history or science to support oppression based upon these assumptions.
The Negro (just as the Mexican Indian today) possessed a rich and complex culture when he was brought to these alien shores. He resisted oppression. And the Negro, instead of being physically weak, is tough and has withstood hardships that have cracked many another people. This, too, is history. Does it sound strange that American historians have distorted or omitted hundred or records of slave revolts in America?
We Negroes have no religion that teaches us that we are Gods chosen people; our sorrows cannot be soothed with such illusions. What culture we did have when we were torn from Africa was taken firm us; we were separated when we were brought here and forbidden to speak our languages. We possess no remembered cushion of culture upon which we can lay our tired heads and dream of our superiority. We are driven by the nature of our position in this country into the thick of the struggle, whether we like it or not.
In Native Son I tried to show that a man, bereft of a culture and unanchored by property, can travel but one path if he reacts positively but unthinkingly to the prizes and goals of civilization; and that one path is emotionally blind rebellion. In Native Son I did not defend Biggers actions; I explained them through depiction. And what alarms Mr. Cohn is not what I say Bigger is, but what I say made him what he is. Yes, white boys commit crimes, too. But would Mr. Cohn deny that the social pressure upon Negro boys is far greater than that upon white boys?
And how does it materially alter the substance of my book if white boys do commit murder? Does not Mr. Cohn remember the Jewish boy who shot the Nazi diplomat in Paris a year or two ago? No Jewish revolutionist egged that boy to do that crime. Did not the Soviet officials, the moment they came into power, have to clean up the roaming bands of Jewish and Gentile youth who lived outside of society by crime, youth spawned by the Czars holy belief that social, racial, and economic problems were actually insoluble?
Now let me analyze more closely just how much and what kind of hate is in Native Son. Loath as I am to do this, I have no choice. Mr. Cohns article, its tone and slant, convince me more than anything else that I was right in the way I handled Negro life in Native Son. Mr. Cohn says that the burden of my book was a preachment of hate against the white races. It was not. No advocacy of hate is in that book. None! I wrote as objectively as I could of a Negro boy who hated and feared whites, hated them because he feared them. What Mr. Cohn mistook for my advocacy of hate in that novel was something entirely different. In every word of that book are confidence, resolution, and the knowledge that the Negro problem can and will be solved beyond the frame of reference of thought such as that found in Mr. Cohns article.
Further in his article Mr. Cohn says that I do not understand that oppression has harmed whites as well as Negroes. Did I not have my character, Britten, exhibit through page after page the aberrations of whites who suffer from oppression? Or, God forbid, does Mr. Cohn agree with Britten? Did I not make the mob as hysterical as Bigger Thomas? Did I not ascribe the hysteria to the same origins? The entire long scene in the furnace room is but a depiction of how warped the whites have become through their oppression of Negroes. If there had been one person in the Dalton household who viewed Bigger Thomas as a human being, the crime would have been solved in half an hour.
Did not Bigger himself know that it was the denial of his personality that enabled him to escape detection so long? The one piece of incriminating evidence which would have solved the murder mystery was Biggers humanity, and the Daltons, Britten, and the newspaper men could not see or admit the living clue of Biggers humanity under their very eyes! More than two thirds of native Son is given over to depicting the very thing which Mr. Cohn claims completely escapes me. I wonder how much of my book escaped him.
Mr. Cohn says that Biggers age is not stated. It is. Bigger himself tells his age on page 42. On page 348 it is stated again in the official death sentence.
Mr. Cohn wonders why I selected a Negro boy as my protagonist. To any writer of fiction, or anyone acquainted with the creative process, the answer is simple. Youth is the turning point in life, the most sensitive and volatile period, the state that registers most vividly the impressions and experiences of life; and an artist like to work with sensitive material.
Source: The Atlantic Monthly (June 1940)
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The Katrina Papers is not your average memoir. It is a fusion of many kinds of writing, including intellectual autobiography, personal narrative, political/cultural analysis, spiritual journal, literary history, and poetry. Though it is the record of one man’s experience of Hurricane Katrina, it is a record that is fully a part of his life and work as a scholar, political activist, and professor. The Katrina Papers provides space not only for the traumatic events but also for ruminations on authors such as Richard Wright and theorists like Deleuze and Guattarri. The result is a complex though thoroughly accessible book. The struggle with formthe search for a medium proper to the complex social, personal, and political ramifications of an event unprecedented in this scholar’s life and in American social historylies at the very heart of The Katrina Papers . It depicts an enigmatic and multi-stranded world view which takes the local as its nexus for understanding the global. It resists the temptation to simplify or clarify when simplification and clarification are not possible. Ward’s narrative is, at times, very direct, but he always refuses to simplify the complex emotional and spiritual volatility of the process and the historical moment that he is witnessing. The end result is an honesty that is both pedagogical and inspiring.Hank Lazer
The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008) is a marvelous resource! It’s not like any encyclopedia I’ve seen before. Already, I have spent hours reading through the various entries. So much is there: people, themes, issues, events, bibliographies, etc., related to Wright. Yours is a monumental contribution! The more I read Wright (and about him), the more I am amazed at the depth and breadth of his work and its impact on the worlds of literature, philosophy, politics, sociology, history, psychology, etc. He was formidable! Floyd W. Hayes
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By Andrew B. Lewis
With deep admiration and rigorous scholarship, historian Lewis (Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table) revisits the ragtag band of young men and women who formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Impatient with what they considered the overly cautious and accommodating pace of the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr., the black college students and their white allies, inspired by Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence and moral integrity, risked their lives to challenge a deeply entrenched system. Fanning out over the Jim Crow South, SNCC organized sit-ins, voter registration drives, Freedom Schools and protest marches. Despite early successes, the movement disintegrated in the late 1960s, succeeded by the militant Black Power movement. The highly readable history follows the later careers of the principal leaders. Some, like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, became bitter and disillusioned. Others, including Marion Barry, Julian Bond and John Lewis, tempered their idealism and moved from protest to politics, assuming positions of leadership within the very institutions they had challenged. According to the author, No organization contributed more to the civil rights movement than SNCC, and with his eloquent book, he offers a deserved tribute.
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By Noam Chomsky
In this urgent new book, Noam Chomsky surveys the dangers and prospects of our early twenty-first century. Exploring challenges such as the growing gap between North and South, American exceptionalism (including under President Barack Obama), the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S.-Israeli assault on Gaza, and the recent financial bailouts, he also sees hope for the future and a way to move forwardin the democratic wave in Latin America and in the global solidarity movements that suggest “real progress toward freedom and justice.” Hopes and Prospects is essential reading for anyone who is concerned about the primary challenges still facing the human race. “This is a classic Chomsky work: a bonfire of myths and lies, sophistries and delusions. Noam Chomsky is an enduring inspiration all over the worldto millions, I suspectfor the simple reason that he is a truth-teller on an epic scale. I salute him.” John Pilger In dissecting the rhetoric and logic of American empire and class domination, at home and abroad, Chomsky continues a longstanding and crucial work of elucidation and activism . . .the writing remains unswervingly rational and principled throughout, and lends bracing impetus to the real alternatives before us.Publisher’s Weekly
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 14 January 2012