Richard Wright’s White Man, Listen!

by Ralph Dumain

Richard Wright's White Man, Listen! had more or less disappeared for decades from the American scene since it originally appeared in the repressive 1950s. However, after thumbing through the book and stumbling upon certain passages at random, I am once again in awe of the centrality of Richard Wright's intellectual role in the 20th century. It appears that Wright is once again the missing link to issues I've been concerned about but have not been generally faced. And I doubt very much that the new introduction by Cedric Robinson does justice to what is most exciting and innovative about the book, i.e. that Wright has set himself up as the mediator by which the non-western world can see itself clear to entering modernity on an equal basis with the West!

When you read this book by Wright, which I believe follows Pagan Spain chronologically, you will realize how useless academia has been in bringing us the message of what Wright was all about, even now that it has rehabilitated his neglected oeuvre of the 1950s. Wright dedicates the book to Eric Williams and the tragic elites of the colonized world who stood at a historical crossroads. Wright is a mediator primarily in a philosophical sense. In my short essay on individual identity (see first link at bottom of page), I asked how history's victims can place themselves in a historical progression that negates their traditional world-views. This is precisely the task that Wright set himself, as an advocate of modernism serving to mediate philosophically the process of decolonization and the appropriation of modernist values by history's victims. Wright sees the contradictions between the West's own savagery and the rationalist values that it engendered, and the paradox of the basis on which the semi-savage Europeans conquered the non-western world. As a modern, secular man who was also by virtue of his race excluded by the western world, Wright understood the paradoxes very well, and so understood the need of colonized peoples to fight their way out of subjugation as well as appropriate the best values of the modern West. The inhabitants of the non-western world, being as human as anyone, can also be understood in their behavior, contrary to the usual racialist thinking of the West, as admixtures of rational and irrational thought, and so the curious spectacles of irrational beliefs and practices getting mixed up with modern tendencies should not shock westerners, given the West's own history of savagery and superstition.

In the 1950s, Wright knew what he was dealing with, and there must have been those outside of the USA at least who knew what he was talking about. Isn't it curious, then, that a decade later, in the anti-western, anti-imperialist climate of the late 1960s, also coterminous with the Black Power movement, the ideologues of the time should have so totally neglected Wright's philosophical position even where it preserved the memory of his contributions on other fronts? Now Wright is resurrected in the ideological climate of postmodernism, which his philosophical position explicitly contradicts. One can predict what uses the liberal academic intellectuals will make of him--the postcolonialists, the feminists, all the usual suspects. An intensive examination of Wright will show up how useless they all are.

Note the chapter titles: The Psychological Reactions of Oppressed People, Tradition and Industrialization, The Literature of the Negro in the United States, The Miracle of Nationalism in the African Gold Coast. The chapter on African-American literature is very interesting in its own right. Once again, Wright begins this book with a quote from William Blake (as well as one from Dylan Thomas).

The following gem of a quote reveals the philosophical difference that rendered the Black Power movement incapable of absorbing the totality of Wright's perspective:

I feel constrained, however, to ask the reader to consider and remember my background. I'm a rootless man, but I'm neither psychologically distraught nor in any wise particularly perturbed because of it. Personally, I do not hanker after, and seem not to need, as many emotional attachments, sustaining roots, or idealistic allegiances as most people. I declare unabashedly that I like and even cherish the state of abandonment, of aloneness; it does not bother me; indeed, to me it seems the natural, inevitable condition of man, and I welcome it. I can make myself at home almost anywhere on this earth and can, if I've a mind to and when I'm attracted to a landscape or a mood of life, easily sink myself into the most alien and widely differing environments.

The prevalent mentality of the 1960s could not accept this rootless cosmopolitanism. This is the heart of the matter, but the paragraph continues:

I must confess that this is no personal achievement of mine; this attitude was never striven for. . . . [ellipsis is in original, unabridged text] I've been shaped to this mental stance by the kind of experiences that I have fallen heir to. I say this neither in a tone of apology nor to persuade the reader in my ideological direction, but to give him a hinting clue as to why certain ideas and values appeal to me more than others, and why certain perspectives are stressed in these speeches.

Recently a young woman asked me: "But would your ideas make people happy?" And, before I was aware of what I was saying, I heard myself answering with a degree of frankness that I rarely, in deference to politeness, permit myself in personal conversation: "My dear, I do not deal in happiness; I deal in meaning."

— Richard Wright (in Paris). White Man, Listen! New York: HarperPerennial 1995. (Originally published 1957.) Quote from pp. xxviii-xxix.

(10 November 1999, edited and uploaded 28 June 2000)

©2000 Ralph Dumain

Richard Wright Study Guide
(includes following links & more)

Individual Identity, Historical Meaning, and the Unknown Autodidact

Richard Wright's Pagan Spain

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

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

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Uploaded 28 June 2000

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