Concluding thoughts on Richard Wright & Ralph Ellison

by William T. Fontaine

Since the death of Richard Wright in 1960, old critics and admirers have come to recognize the true depth of his message. Formerly they had charged Wright with overemphasizing violence and with the conception and use of artistic creations as media of blatant social protest. James Baldwin, who himself, chooses to be a writer and not a “Negro writer,” notes that in a later book, Eight Men, two of the stories, “Man, God Ain’t Like That” and “Man of All Work,” reveal that Richard Wright was approaching that aesthetic distance characteristic of the true artist. And Baldwin adds also the very significant observation that within the South-Side Negro community of the Chicago of Native Son, where Bessie and Bigger, Jan and Mary, Max and Buckley, the state’s attorney, were joined together in a tragicomedy of lust and love, murder and venality, degradation and regeneration—within this wasteland on the borders of wasted riches—Wright uncovered the longings of the human heart.

[p. 30]

The questions plaguing Invisible Man are remote but unmistakable forecasts of the dominant social philosophy of Negro leaders today. Concerning his grandfather’s advice, he asks:

Could he have meant . . . that we were to affirm the principle on which the country was built, not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence . . . or did he mean that we had to take the responsibility for all of it, for the men as well as the principle, because we were the heirs who must use the principle because no other fitted our needs? Not for the power or for vindication, but because we, with the given circumstances of our origin, could only thus find transcendence? Was it that we of all, we, most of all, had to affirm the principle, the plan in whose name we had been brutalized and sacrificed—not because we would always be weak nor because we were afraid or opportunistic, but because we were older than they, in the sense of what it took to live in the world with others and because they had exhausted in us, some—not much, but some—of the human greed and smallness, yes, and the fear and superstition that had kept them running.

Invisible Man considered these and other questions and treated their answers as possibilities among which he could not yet decide. But for us who live at a later time, the idea of a leadership, founded in action, nonviolent, without fear of death, concerned for the needs of white men as well as black, is not only visible, but brilliantly realized in Martin Luther King.

[p. 39]

SOURCE: Fontaine, William T. Reflections on Segregation, Desegregation, Power and Morals. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishing Company, 1967.

Note: Section I of the book condenses material from Fontaine’s 1942 essay “The Mind and Thought of the Negro of the United States as Revealed in Imaginative Literature, 1876-1940,” with an updating paragraph on Wright and a section on Ellison.

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