Individual Identity, Historical Meaning,
and the Unknown Autodidact

by Ralph Dumain

"I have no religion in the formal sense of the word . . . . I have no race except that which is forced upon me. I have no country except that to which I'm obliged to belong. I have no traditions. I'm free. I have only the future."

— Richard Wright, Pagan Spain

I think my esteemed colleague Norm Allen once alluded publicly to my skepticism concerning the future of the concept "people's culture." My original concern was with the death of any collective culture of the "people" in any meaningful traditional sense, at least in highly urban areas where collective existence almost from birth is already centered around socialization through the mass media rather than person-to-person collective cultural expression. Not that I have any nostalgia for any good old days I never experienced, but the future may lie in a different direction than in concerning oneself with cultural collectivities which are becoming emptier and emptier except as ways of artificially dividing the public at a time when social integration is long overdue. Perhaps the destruction of "culture", begun by the bourgeoisie, which by now has left only banal residues which perhaps deserve to be finished off once and for all, is ultimately a good thing, making the positive side of individualism more of an inescapable necessity than it ever was.

Since I first began to think about this several years ago, my position has become even more extreme, especially with respect to the practical task of child-rearing, which necessitates fostering the development of children as conscious individuals capable of resisting the pervasive other-directedness (peer pressure, consumerism, domination by impersonal and destructive bureaucracies beginning with school) that prevents people from developing a strong sense of self. For those of us whose backs are really against the wall, the pressing need is to reject the deadly influence of the culture of poverty above all, but also to be able to succeed in bourgeois society without making undue compromises and while recognizing that it is the enemy. This orientation was always necessary in my lifetime, but now it is more urgent than ever, in an era of social decay and declining expectations.

Also, given my recent dealings with an increasingly ridiculous academic "left", whose stupidity increases in proportion to its sophistication, animated by reactionary communitarian presuppositions lurking behind multiculturalism and by an anti-Enlightenment bias, I'm recognizing more and more the importance of my viewpoint for everyday living, coming from a different place in society than the specialized and privileged niches of both the detached academic and the committed "activist" (or worst of all the academic activist), both of which suffer from similar ailments.

Another focus of the same concern is with the individual identity and historical self-location of black Americans, and the pitfalls of the "immediate sense-certainty" of one's social identity. Some of this has to do with child-rearing, but a large part of it comes from observation of adults. Postmodern rhetoric aside, few seem to be aware of the pitfalls of racial classification, virtually everyone assuming that it is an eternal and necessary means of categorizing human beings. There are exceptions, such as my pen-pal, a young black man from Alabama, an Existentialist who rejected his religious upbringing and is so enamored of philosophy he is finally embarking upon graduate school. Though fiercely intellectually independent, he is too young to have ever been tipped off (until I came along) that Richard Wright had worked this through a half-century ago.

Aside from the increasingly fragile rationale for racial classification to begin with, there is the spontaneous defensive attitude one finds in everyday gossiping and grousing, which rarely gets beyond the undisciplined intellectual level of immediacy: reflexive reactivity instead of creative thought, uncritical indulgence in conspiracy theories, taking refuge in irrelevant identities, e.g. being concerned with something so pathetic as the alleged blackness of the ancient Egyptians, etc. All in all, there's a problem of locating oneself in the world as a whole and in history in a meaningful but non-obscurantist fashion. The same would go for all nostalgic world views: the American Indians being close to nature and other such nonsense. What affirmative meaning can dialectical historical materialism have for people whom the march of history destroyed? And yet it must, as an alternative to the retreat into obscurantism.

Finally, whatever happened to that precious alternative to the bureaucratization of intellect, the working class autodidact? Where does he or she fit into today's world? Yet such people are more needed than ever, as becomes evident when one gets to see up close the pitiful results of the academic socialization of young people and the increasingly sophisticated diversionary character of what they are forced to study and write. Nobody wants to face up to or acknowledge the lone wolf individualism and heroism of the most important and inspiring autodidact of the twentieth century, who suffered more to develop his intellect and thus became more militantly modernist, cosmopolitan, and fiercely jealous of his individual intellectual freedom than anyone else on the planet, for which he has never been forgiven: Richard Wright. Everything I say from here on in is inspired by his legacy.

"Richard went to Paris in 1946, when I was 22, he was 38. Now, it took me a long time; I had to get to be much older to realize something. I didn't realize it that day at all. I was not born in Mississippi; I was born in New York. And I did not leave Mississippi to go to Chicago. And endure all that. I was much too young to realize what I was looking at really. But, that's a journey. To go from Mississippi to Chicago to New York to Paris in 38 years is amazing. You might as well have walked all that distance, it's almost that remarkable."

— James Baldwin on Richard Wright, Yale University, 2 November 1983

(Finished 1 July 1999)
©1999, 2000 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.


SOURCE: Dumain, Ralph. "Individual Identity, Historical Meaning, and the Unknown Autodidact," People's Culture, no. 48 (1998, published 2005, final issue), pp. 8-9.


Richard Wright Study Guide
(includes following links & more)

Richard Wright's Pagan Spain

Richard Wright's White Man, Listen!

Cornel West's Evasion of Philosophy, Or, Richard Wright's Revenge

James Baldwin Revisited (1): Prolegomena

Lest We Forget--The Hidden History of the African-American Autodidact:
A Belated Tribute to Black History Month


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Uploaded 22 June 2000
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