Hazel Rowley, BookForum, December/January 2006
RICHARD Wright wrote over a dozen books, but during his lifetime and since he has been invariably associated with the three he wrote in his thirties, before he left the United States for France in 1946. Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of hard-hitting stories, introduced “protest writing” into African American literature. His controversial novel Native Son was a Book-of-the-Month Club choice and sold a quarter of a million copies. His autobiographical narrative Black Boy, also a Book-of-the-Month Club choice, sold an incredible half million. No black writer had enjoyed sales of that magnitude before. Wright represented a strange paradox: He was the angriest, most honest and outspoken black writer this country had ever seen, and he was a best-selling writer with a vast white readership. Liberals took the view that if Richard Wright could happen in the United States, things were all right.
When Wright left the United States, he was thirty-eight, in his prime. There appeared to be nothing stopping the man. And yet, as it turned out, that voyage across the Atlantic would mark a dramatic turning point in his career. For the next fourteen years, until his premature death in 1960, he continued to write prolifically, both fiction and nonfiction. But how many of us have heard of, much less read, The Outsider, Savage Holiday, Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos, The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference, Pagan Spain, White Man, Listen!, The Long Dream, Eight Men, or Lawd Today!?
American critics refer to the Paris period as Wright’s “exile” years. Most claim that living abroad was bad for his writing; it cut him off from the reality of contemporary America, cut him off from his roots and from the anger that fueled his writing. Before he even left the country, Wright was surrounded by a chorus of such prophecies. Friends and acquaintances advised him, in the strongest possible terms, not to go. He owed it to America to stay, they said. He had, after all, been a success. What more did he want? His subject matter was here. Was he going to abandon the cause?
It was painful for Wright that almost no one understood why he wanted to leave. He was tired, he told friends, of the daily insults and petty humiliations. He was tired of living on the edge of his nerves. He needed to be free if he were going to expand. He wanted to find out who he was in a country that allowed him to be a full-fledged human being. He wanted to stretch himself to the limits. He didn’t want to be confined to writing about black experience; maybe he would want to write about something else. And even if he didn’t, he argued, most writers had stored away the core of their subject matter by the time they were twenty. Expatriatism hadn’t destroyed Stein, James, or Conrad. It hadn’t destroyed Eliot, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, or Lawrence.
But the voices never ceased. Once he was in France, American friends and acquaintances, his publisher, and his agent continued to tell him that he was making a bad mistake. Among Wright’s papers at Yale, letter after letter carries this message. It was one thing to hail Wright as a talented black native son in his own house, but Americans did not expect this black man to stride out through the front door.
The black community tended to regard Wright as a deserter. Doubtless there was an element of envy in their resentment. This is what the black critic Saunders Redding had to say not only about Wright but about all black writers who became expatriates. A year after Wright’s death, in 1961, Redding wrote:
There are various ways to escape…Some, like Jean Toomer, fair enough to pass, go into the white race. Countee Cullen and William Braithwaite, both poets, turned to fantasy. Some — William Demby, William Gardner Smith, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin — like Wright, expatriate themselves in Italy, Switzerland, Spain, or France. But no matter how it is done, escape is a compulsive act of self-abnegation, and the moment the Negro writer begins to do it he begins to flag as a creative artist. He turns precious and “arty”; honesty deserts him; dedication wilts; passion chills.
It’s a preposterous claim. Wright and Baldwin losing their passion, dedication, and honesty? Wright turning precious? Instead of seeing Richard Wright’s decision to live abroad as a quest for freedom, self-determination, and self-expansion, Redding portrays it in pathological terms as an escape, a flight, a “compulsive act.” He does not mention why black American writers left for Europe in droves in the ’50s. It’s strange to use the term self-abnegation about writers who wanted to leave behind paralyzing and demeaning racism.
But Redding’s comment is typical of a strong strand in Wright criticism, which psychologizes Wright — or “pathologizes” him — while ignoring the historical reality within which he was operating.
• • • •
The term exile, used in relation to Wright, reflects a similar blindness. Wright chose to leave his motherland. The word exile, which carries connotations of banishment, is quite inappropriate. Recognizing this, some critics refer to Wright’s “exile” as “self-imposed,” as though he took on Paris as a form of self-punishment. It’s a parochial notion to suppose that being away from home means being in exile, and it’s no coincidence that this viewpoint is most often held by those who remain at home. I’m pretty sure that Gertrude Stein, as she walked up the rue de Fleurus in Saint Germain des Prés with a fresh baguette and a bottle of red wine from the local cellar, would not have been muttering under her breath, “I’m in exile.”
Australians use the more neutral word expatriate to describe our writers and artists abroad — perhaps because so many Australian artists have left the fair shores of the Antipodes that it begins to look as if exile begins at home. Which, of course, it often does.
It did for Richard Wright. His entire body of work up to his departure for France was a passionate portrayal of what it was like to live as an exile in his native land. Wright made it clearer than any black American writer had ever done that as a black man he was not allowed and not able to feel that he was a “full-blooded” American. In 1927, at the age of nineteen, he fled the segregated South, a world in which — as he shows in Uncle Tom’s Children and Black Boy — a black man had to play his deferential, subservient southern Negro role (and what’s more, play it cheerfully) if he did not want to be jailed or lynched. Wright took the train from Memphis to Chicago, full of hopes about the “promised land” of the North, only to find himself in another constricted, segregated world. In the North, he could sit next to white people on the bus and train, but most jobs were still closed to blacks, as were most hotels, restaurants, and diners, and in housing segregation was absolute. Unlike immigrants from Europe, black Americans could not get out of the ghetto and move on; they were confined there by law. In Chicago, Wright writes in Black Boy, the white world was still “so distant and elusive that it seemed unreal.”
He spent the Depression years in that city. At the end of 1932, he joined the Communist Party. At home, unemployment was at an all-time high, and in Europe the dark clouds of fascism were gathering: The Communist Party was beginning to have broad appeal as an organization vigorously working toward change. It was also the only white organization in the country that paid serious attention to the issues of race and civil rights. The Communists fought for the Scottsboro boys in the infamous frame-up case; in the South they campaigned against Jim Crow, and in the North they picketed stores that refused to employ blacks. The party pushed for unions to include blacks and campaigned for the desegregation of housing. It encouraged black writers and artists. And it provided opportunities for black leadership. The social events were the few occasions in the country where black people and white people came together socially as equals.
After ten years in Chicago, Wright, tired of party squabbles and ready for wider horizons, moved to New York. During the next ten years, from 1937 to 1947, he became the most famous black writer in the world. Nevertheless, he was made to feel like an alien in his own country. The unpublished diary he wrote in 1945 makes amply clear the tension he felt living in Greenwich Village as a black man — and worse, as a black man married to a white woman. He had managed to buy a house there, but he had to do it surreptitiously, by setting up a company so that his identity would not be discovered. He had inordinate trouble organizing a bank loan. And after all that, Greenwich Village, that famed enclave of artists and bohemianism, turned out not to be racially tolerant after all. That year, as the war came to an end, there were ugly racial incidents in the Village. Wright and his wife were harassed in the streets. When Ellen Wright went out with their daughter Julia, they were followed by taunts. Wright once paused to look in the window of a corner store, and the Italian owner came running out, frantically chasing him away. When Wright sat down in a Greenwich Village café with a white woman friend, they were served coffee with salt in it. In Manhattan, many restaurants would not serve him; taxi drivers would not stop for him. “Fear is the greatest thing Negroes feel in America,” Wright wrote to Gertrude Stein in Paris. Years later, looking back on his departure from the United States, he told his publisher, “In all of this pointless racial business, I found that my being a rather well known writer did not help me any. In fact, it hindered, for many whites felt that by refusing me they were ‘putting me in my place.'”
Disgusted with America, the Wrights left for Paris. After four days at sea, Wright wrote to his friend Ralph Ellison, “Already the harsh race lines of America are fading.” In Paris, Wright did not have to hide himself while his wife talked to landlords. They found a beautiful apartment on the Left Bank, across the street from the Sorbonne. Wright could go into restaurants and cafés without hesitating on the threshold; he could walk the streets with his wife without fear; their daughters (soon they had two) could grow up without being taught that they were inferior beings. Over the next fourteen years, Wright traveled within Europe and visited Argentina, Africa, and Indonesia. His work was widely translated; he was frequently interviewed in European newspapers. In Europe, he was regarded as a major American writer and intellectual. In the United States, his books were largely ignored, or else they were panned. Yet when Americans talked about Wright being “in exile,” they were referring to France.
When Wright left the United States, the cold war was just beginning. J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation was already creating an atmosphere of subtle terror. When American Communists, ex-Communists, and fellow travelers arrived in Europe, they drew a long breath. But Europe, they discovered, provided no refuge. The United States was now in a position of global eminence; it was impossible to leave its orbit behind. To the extent that Wright had an American passport, an American literary agent, an American publisher, American readers, and American friends and associates, he was deeply affected by the fear, conservatism, paranoia, and guilt by association generated by the McCarthyist terror of the ’50s. The tentacles of the State Department reached easily across the Atlantic. For American writers who had any association with Communism, past or present, and for American writers who insisted that they had the right to criticize their country, the term cold war proved terrifyingly apt. Publishers were cold about their books, and the threat of poverty was chilling. As Wright put it later in the decade, “I try to keep my heart from freezing in a cold war I never made.”
American citizens living in Europe had to get their passports renewed at the nearest American embassy every two years. Wright and his expatriate friends lived in fear of having their passports revoked. On at least two occasions, Wright was asked to make sworn written statements about his membership in the Communist Party. There were attempts on the part of the US consul in Paris, Agnes Schneider, to get him to name names.
An added insecurity for American nationals in France was that the French government could deport them at any time if they in any way stirred up trouble in their adopted country. This meant that Wright could say nothing about French foreign policy in Indochina or Algeria. He had to keep quiet about the vicious racism toward Arabs that by the mid-’50s everyone was witnessing in the streets of Paris.
In Paris, Wright moved mostly within the American community. He never learned to speak French fluently, which meant that any real friendships with French people were confined to those who spoke English. His favorite cafés were patronized mostly by English speakers — Americans and other foreigners. He and his family went to the American Hospital in Paris; he borrowed books from the American libraries in Paris. He read the International Herald Tribune. American visitors were constantly passing through Paris, and plenty of them wanted to meet Richard Wright. Wright’s Paris was in no way cut off from America.
I want to suggest that, paradoxically, Wright’s “exile” might have been less of an exile if he had been more cut off from America. Many of his friends back home were unable to get passports to travel. From 1947 until 1958 it was US government policy to withhold a passport from anyone who was, or had been, a member of the Communist Party, from anyone who criticized American foreign policy, or, more broadly, from anyone “whose conduct abroad is likely to be contrary to the best interest of the United States.” In the early ’50s, Wright became aware that he was under US government surveillance in Paris, just as he had been in New York before he left. What he did not know was that since 1942 he had been on the FBI’s Security Index (reserved for those considered potentially dangerous subversives) and that he had remained on it after he left the party in 1944. It probably would have surprised him, for he was famous for his vigorous denunciation of the party, “I Tried to be a Communist,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1944. In the essay, he showed the party to be a totalitarian organization, subservient to Moscow, and unable to tolerate critical thinkers who had minds of their own.
Of course, the FBI could not tolerate independent thinkers either. Hoover and his men distrusted liberals almost as much as they distrusted Communists, and Hoover was known for his disdain toward civil rights. There was one thing that the FBI considered every bit as bad as being a Red, and that was being a black who spoke out against American racism. W. E. B. Du Bois’s FBI file contains the damning words, “Subject favors equality between the white and colored races.” Pearl Buck’s file condemns her for being “a champion of the colored races.” A 1945 FBI report comments that Richard Wright might have broken with the party organization, but it was obvious that he “disapproved wholeheartedly of the American way of life” and that he held a “militant attitude toward the Negro problem.”
The cold war was largely a propaganda war. In the years after World War II, the US government made every effort to counter Soviet propaganda with its own propaganda about the race situation in America. US embassies and consulates throughout the world distributed booklets showing the great progress that had been made on race matters. Any American who deviated from this line was regarded as a propagandist for the Soviets. A 1952 dispatch from the American embassy in Paris to the State Department in Washington commented, “Whereas Richard Wright continues to maintain an anti-Stalinist position . . . he has wittingly or not been serving Communist propaganda ends by . . . his insistence on portraying abroad only the seamy side of the race question in the United States.”
Americans who lived abroad and criticized their country were, of course, a greater threat to the propaganda machine than those who remained at home. This was why the government did its best not to let its critics out of the country. Wright intended to take full advantage of his position of influence in Europe. In the early ’50s, he told a French audience that recent concessions to the American Negro were undoubtedly due not to the Bill of Rights or the American Constitution but to fear of hostile criticism abroad. Throughout the decade, he considered it his duty to tell Europeans about American racism.
Even without vocal critics like Wright, the US government was having difficulty sustaining the smooth image of racial progress. In Mississippi, in 1951, William McGee, a black man, was executed for raping a white woman, though the evidence made it clear that the two had had a long-term consenting affair. Wright joined the chorus of European journalists who condemned the execution as a “legal lynching.” In 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. When the all-white, all-male southern jury let his white murderers off scot-free, it made front-page news throughout the world. Later that year, Rosa Parks was arrested when she refused to give her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus; the result was the Montgomery bus boycott. The American propaganda machinery made much mileage out of the Supreme Court’s school-desegregation decision in 1954. But over the next few years, world newspapers carried stories of ferocious white mobs terrorizing the handful of black students who valiantly tried to make their way into the school building. In September 1957, European television viewers watched with horror as federal troops tried to protect nine black schoolchildren against an angry white crowd in Little Rock, Arkansas.
In interviews, public speeches, and books, Wright kept up a barrage of criticism of American racism. For its part, the US government kept a close watch on him. Every time Wright spoke to the press anywhere in Europe, Argentina, or Africa, the local American embassy dispatched a report to Washington. Every time he gave a talk, the local American embassy sent informers along.
Wright knew little of all of this. What he did know was that in the spring of 1953, Joseph McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, a twenty-six-year-old New York lawyer and one of the prosecutors in the famous case against Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, got the idea that the State Department’s overseas libraries should be purged of their Communist holdings. Cohn set off on a two-week trip with his aide, David Schine. The young men went around Europe ordering the removal of subversive books from the United States Information Service libraries. More than forty authors were on the list, including Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Langston Hughes, and, of course, Richard Wright.
One Sunday in April 1953, Wright’s doorbell rang. The man at the door introduced himself as David Schine, from the Senate Judiciary Committee. He asked to come in, then proceeded to question Wright. They were not alone; the black American writer Chester Himes was visiting Wright that day. Nevertheless, Schine shamelessly tried to get Wright to inform on others. Wright would not cooperate. Schine became angry. Before he left, he warned Wright that Hughes had just had a hard time in front of Senator McCarthy’s investigating committee in Washington and told Wright that if he continued to be difficult, he could be subpoenaed too.
The incident left Wright shaken. People were in prison in the United States for their association with the Communist Party. One of the witnesses at Wright’s wedding, a prominent black Communist lawyer named Ben Davis, was at that very time sitting behind bars in a high-security federal prison in Indiana because of his party membership. And in June 1953, just two months after Schine’s visit, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were led to the electric chair for their purported espionage on behalf of the Soviets. Many throughout the world saw their trial as a frame-up.
• • • •
During the McCarthy era, the government found subtle ways of silencing people. A good study still needs to be done of the many ways in which McCarthyism affected the publishing industry. What we do know is that no mainstream publishing houses in the United States published Communist writers or Communist subject matter. Nor were they interested in subject matter that was critical of the West, or of America, or of capitalism or racism. Hughes wrote a children’s book called Famous American Negroes, and his publisher (Dodd) made him excise all references to racism and all references to W. E. B. Du Bois, who was known as a Communist sympathizer. In another children’s book, Famous Negro Music Makers, Hughes was told to delete the section on Paul Robeson, another Communist sympathizer. If he didn’t, he was told, school libraries would ban the book. When Grove Press translated and published Simone de Beauvoir’s book America Day by Day in 1953, several pages commenting on the treatment of the Negro in the South were omitted. The publisher did not mention these cuts; Americans were generally not aware of the extent of the censorship in their country.
This was the atmosphere in which Wright was writing books that were critical of racism, imperialism, and Western attitudes in general. His literary agent in New York, Paul Reynolds, was a political conservative. So were Wright’s editors at Harper’s. None was happy with the books produced after Wright left for Paris, and in many ways it is surprising that they agreed to publish them at all. They knew that American readers were not particularly interested in angry books about oppression.
Wright’s agent and his publisher, who behind his back were in cahoots, did ask him to cut out of his manuscripts any overtly critical statements about the United States. If Wright was even by implication critical of American imperialism, Reynolds wrote back annoyed. He told Wright he was personally convinced (and “most Americans,” he felt sure, agreed) that the United States intervened abroad “out of charitable feelings” and a desire to “help other nations.” When Wright turned in his manuscript on Africa, Black Power, his publisher asked him to state explicitly in the introduction that although he had once been a Communist, he had now entirely disassociated himself from Marxist politics.
His nonfiction books Black Power, which dealt with the Gold Coast (Ghana), and Pagan Spain, on Spain under Franco, contained some of his best writing ever. But, like most writers, he needed a good editor, and the books were badly edited to a point where I can’t help but wonder whether it was deliberate. Both books were controversial — like everything Wright ever wrote — but the Western world was deeply threatened by the independence of Ghana, and America had signed an important economic and military treaty with Franco. These books sold poorly in the United States. Wright, deeply disappointed, wrote to his Dutch translator, “So far as the Americans are concerned, I’m worse than a Communist, for my work falls like a shadow across their policy in Asia and Africa…Truth-telling today is both unpopular and suspect.”
• • • •
The CIA and FBI fought the propaganda war by means of sabotage, surveillance, and harassment. Their undercover tactics included sending anonymous letters, providing leaks to friendly politicians and journalists, spreading false rumors in smear campaigns, and getting people fired. There were cleverer ways of preventing radicals from speaking or teaching or publishing than assassinating them. Espionage strategies could even involve bribing or threatening the local councilman who rented out the church hall in which the radical was to speak.
In addition to silencing dissenters, the CIA poured a great deal of money into making America look good abroad. On the cultural front, one of its main achievements was to fund the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a worldwide front that in the 1950s became almost as important a spokespiece as the Communist Party had been in the 1930s. (Some of its members were disenchanted former Communists.) Unbeknownst to nearly all, the founder, Mike Josselson, was a CIA agent. The source of funding was secret, as it was essential to disguise the extent of American interest in that organization. The agency also funded a Paris tour by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and sponsored several prestigious liberal-leftist journals, among them the British magazine Encounter, edited by Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol. This magazine, and its French and Spanish counterparts, published extracts from Wright’s African book Black Power and from his book on the 1955 Bandung meeting of colored ex-colonial nations, The Color Curtain. Now why would the Congress for Cultural Freedom do that?
As far as the CCF was concerned, Wright had a number of things going for him. Most important, he was an outspoken anti-Communist. That he regularly spoke out against American racism and the lack of real democracy in the United States reflected well, ultimately, on American openness to criticism. The CCF invited Wright to speak in Amsterdam in 1954 and in Germany and Scandinavia in 1956. The organization even paid for his trip to the Bandung Conference in Indonesia. Wright never knew who his real sponsors were. As Frances Stonor Saunders writes in The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, “America’s spying establishment extended its reach into the cultural affairs of its western allies, acting as unacknowledged facilitator to a broad range of creative activity, positioning intellectuals and their work like chess pieces to be played in the Great Game.”
By the late ’50s, Wright did know that the American community in Paris was sprinkled with spies. In the end, as Island of Hallucination, his unpublished novel about American spies in Paris, makes clear, he trusted no one. A landlord, a concierge, a delivery boy, a hotel maid, a man in sunglasses at a nearby table, a piano tuner, a woman in a car parked across the street — everyone was a potential informer. The State Department referred to these people, somewhat euphemistically, as “informants” or “sources.” We know now, and Wright knew at the time, that the spies employed within the black communities (even in Paris) were mostly black.
In the last speech he ever gave, at the American Church in Paris in November 1960, Wright publicly alluded to black spies who posed as Communists in order to hunt out Communists. “I’d say that there is more Communism being talked among Negroes today than ever in American Negro history,” he told the audience, “but it is false Communism, the language of the informer, the spy.” He added that he and his friends had uncovered several such spies in the American community in Paris and that it was sad to think that these men were working for the white powermongers in the US government. “When facing a young black man spouting super-revolutionary ideas, the intelligent Negro artist suspects that he is listening to a white man wearing a darkly painted false face.”
Three weeks later, at age fifty-two, Wright was dead. One of the many questions that have never gone away is whether his death was natural. He had been ill for some time with amoebic dysentery, probably caught in Africa, but his death — allegedly of a heart attack — was completely unexpected. His best friend in Paris at the time, the black artist Ollie Harrington, was convinced that foul play was involved. Wright’s daughter Julia and many of his Paris friends are also convinced of this. Scholars and Wright biographers have generally taken the line that it is unlikely. Wright was outspoken, but his influence was not sufficiently great to warrant such extreme means of silencing him.
My own view is that he died of liver failure due to bismuth poisoning. His Russian-born doctor, a specialist in gastroenterology and a rather dubious character, with whom Wright had a strange and tense relationship, insisted on his taking high quantities of bismuth for his stomach problems. Before he ate, Wright would pour a white powder — bismuth salts — into a glass of water, and he did this for eighteen months until his death, getting sicker and sicker, showing all the signs of poisoning.
But where does this lead us? Wright died in 1960. Bismuth wasn’t taken off the market until the 1970s; by then it was known to be toxic in high doses and to cause liver failure and other problems. Even if Wright’s doctor, Vladimir Schwarzmann, worked for the CIA, the espionage agency could surely not have been ahead of the medical community in its understanding of heavy-metal poisoning. Still, there are oddities around Wright’s death. Schwarzmann drove him to the obscure little Paris clinic where he died two days later. Normally Wright went to the American Hospital at Neuilly. Why didn’t he go there this time? What sort of a doctor drives his patients to the hospital? (Wright was puzzled that Schwarzmann had very few — if any — other patients, yet he lived in a luxurious apartment off the Champs-Elysées.) But all I am doing here is adding to the mystery — a mystery I cannot solve. It is unlikely that we will ever know more than we already do.
• • • •
Within the United States, at least, Wright had already been silenced by more subtle means. To return to the question of exile, would it have been better for Wright if he had remained in the US? Wright himself certainly did not think so. He told an audience in Paris in the late ’50s, “Had I not fled my native land, I would have perished in the atmosphere of political hysteria of McCarthyism and I would not have been able to stand here before you.”
Most of his friends and acquaintances in the United States were given a very hard time during the McCarthy era. In private sessions with McCarthy’s committee, they were asked to name names. If they refused, they were put on trial publicly. If they refused to answer questions in court, they risked being cited for contempt. If they pleaded the Fifth Amendment, they were deemed guilty by implication. “Fifth Amendment Communists,” as McCarthy’s team cynically referred to them, were usually fired from their jobs. Employers in both the private and public sectors collaborated with the government and fired liberals, Communists, or anyone who refused to take a loyalty oath. Lawyers who defended people in anti-Communist proceedings risked being disbarred or jailed. Historians have estimated that at least ten thousand people lost their jobs during the McCarthy period.
Writers and artists did not have jobs per se, but there were plenty of ways of cutting off their income. Wright spoke about Paul Robeson in his last speech. By then, the details were known: Robeson had been banned from American television, his passport confiscated from 1950 to 1958. The FBI tailed him, tapped his phone, opened his mail, and ran a vicious smear campaign against him; his income dropped from nearly $100,000 annually to less than $2,000 a year. Wright told this to his audience, adding that what the government had begun, the black community had taken up. Black people closed their doors to Robeson. Concert halls in black areas refused him. Dinners at which Robeson was present were shunned by the black community. The hand of the white man was effective but invisible. This was how the spying establishment liked to work: The bloodied hands were black hands.
Wright did not mention W. E. B. Du Bois in that speech, but the same thing had happened to him. In 1951, the eighty-three-year-old Du Bois was on trial, with four others, for belonging to the Communist-sponsored World Peace Council. If convicted, they would have been sentenced to five years in prison and a fine of $10,000 apiece. “I have faced during my life many unpleasant experiences,” Du Bois wrote years later in his autobiography, “the growl of a mob; the personal threat of murder; the scowling distaste of an audience. But nothing has so cowed me as that day . . . when I took my seat in a Washington courtroom as an indicted criminal.” They were acquitted. “We five are free,” proclaimed Du Bois, “but America is not.” For him it was merely the beginning. His passport was withheld for years, his mail was tampered with, and reputable publishers refused to publish his manuscripts. Black newspapers were warned not to publish him; black colleges stopped inviting him to speak. From being the icon of the black community, he became a social pariah.
Such was the McCarthy era. The American government scapegoated its critics and the official wariness dripped down, a bit like coffee through a filter, to the publishing houses and magazine editors, to sponsors and universities and agents and critics and reviewers and readers, to friends and acquaintances. Everyone knew, in the ’50s, what they could and could not say. McCarthyism was a strange, all-consuming social disease; it silenced people, it frightened people, and eventually it narrowed and distorted their thinking. Wright once said, “I would die for my country rather than lie for my country.” But he could not make people listen. McCarthyism and the changing times made Americans less interested in what Wright and other critical thinkers had to say.
Michel Fabre, the pre-eminent Wright scholar, began research on the author in France in 1961, a year after his death. In France, writes Fabre, Wright was esteemed as “a major writer, not only the greatest Afro-American novelist … but also as one of the great post-World War II American authors.” Then Fabre went to the US to carry out his research. He writes, “Many professors of American literature showed polite surprise when I mentioned the subject of my research: Perhaps in America one was forced to ‘publish or perish,’ but were there not other thesis topics left in France?”
Wright died on alien soil, but it was not France that was his “exile.” His exile, just as it was for many of his friends who remained in America, was disillusionment. By 1960, at the end of his life, he had seen it all. He had seen racism. He had seen the undercover manipulations of the Communist Party. He now realized, at the end of his life, that anti-Communists were using similar undercover strategies of infiltration. All these -isms were tyrannical systems that did not tolerate dissent.
Among Wright’s papers is a piece he seems to have written in the late ’50s. To the question, “Am I an American?” he gives eighty-six different answers. Each response begins, “I am an American but…” In one response, in which he was doubtless thinking of Emerson and Whitman, he states, “I am an American but perhaps of the kind you have forgotten, self-reliant, irritated with authority, full of praise for those who can stand alone, respecting the sacredness that I feel resides in the human personality.”
In another he describes himself as an American who is an “amalgam of many races and many continents and cultures,” an American who has chosen migration. He adds, “I feel that the real end and aim of being an American is to be able to live as a man anywhere.”
As a black man in the American South, Wright was called “boy” and had to live his life acting out a demeaning and ludicrous role. So he left the South. In the North, he encountered a pileup of daily humiliations such that he decided to flee the country to a place where he could discover his real self. He fled to France. There he had more freedom, but he was an outsider, living on the island that was the American community in Paris, spied upon by Americans, and made into a pawn by the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom.
Richard Wright believed in human dignity whatever one’s skin color, in individuality, in the right to think critically, the right to speak out, the right to travel abroad without the state confiscating one’s passport, and in the right to write.
Hazel Rowley is a writer based in New York and the author of Richard Wright: The Life and Times (Henry Holt, 2001). Her new book, Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, was published by HarperCollins last October.