Believe it or not, just last month was the first time that I had read Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy. It was one of the books that I read in Thailand. It has been sitting in my e-reader (a statement with some metaphysical implications; what/where is a book when it is in, no the general ether, but the ether of a particular device?)
It’s not the sort of thing that’s put on the high school curriculum, at least not in a state, like Florida, where the powers that be have very little interest in the history (nor the future) of African-Americans.
Good lord is it a wonderful, beautiful, brutal read. The first section, covering his life in the South in the early twentieth century. Yikes. Anyway who complains about cultures of violence or the use of the n-word within the black community needs to read this book (incidentally, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been writing some great stuff on this very topic lately; look it up). He writes about poor black kids and the bravado driven by this constant, crushing fear of white people. An uncle killed by whites for the crime of having been financially success and his aunt and mother afraid the leave the house or even ask for the body (much less assume ownership of the business or property). White employers trying to goad the author into literally killing another black adolescent. It’s just terrible to read and more terrible for knowing that it all happened – and that far worse happened, only without a future Pulitzer Prizer winner to chronicle them.
The second part covers his joining and departing the Communist Party. He leaves without disavowing the believe in class struggle and, really, without relinquishing his own, personal communism (small ‘c’), only relinquishing membership in a top down organization.
It reminded me of when I read the piece that Arthur Koestler (now there’s a fellow that no one reads anymore! and I stand by my prediction that, soon enough, Christopher Hitchens, for all his wonderful prose-fying, will find his work placed in the same basket) contributed to the collection The God That Failed. No one is praising Stalinism or suggesting that it was anything but a blight, but, despite the disavowals, not even a staunch anti-communist like Koestler can avoid capturing some of the romance of being a leftist and radical and a communist in the twenties and thirties. The idealism of it all. Wright doesn’t try to walk back the great thrills of that time in his life, like Koestler does, and the work is better for it. It reminds me of a review of a recent Family Guy episode where Peter takes up smoking. Yes, smoking is bad for you. Awful. The world would be a better place if no one smoked anymore. But it’s cool. It just is. Humphrey Bogart looked cooler smoking. Audry Hepburn looked sexier lighting her cigarette. And let’s not even talk about the way Catherine Deneuve could send shiver up the spines of any human (male or female, gay or straight) with the slightest fraction of sex drive just by blowing a puff of smoke from a gauloise. I feel that being a communist in the early thirties was like that.