Richard Wright Defines The Outsider

"I'm profoundly interested in the psychological condition of the Negro in this country," Houston said. "Only a few people see and understand the complexity of this problem. And don't think that my interest is solely political. It's not; it was there long before I ever thought of entering politics." He smiled cryptically and let his eyes wander over the icy landscape flowing past the train's window. "My personal situation in life has given me a vantage point from which I've gained some insight into the problems of other excluded people."

Cross's impulses were at war. Was Houston raising the question of the Negro to mislead him before he was told that he was under arrest? Why did he not come right out with what he wanted? He had a foolish desire to reach forward and grab Houston's shoulder and say to him: All right; I know you're after me . . . Let's get it over with . . . His stomach muscles tightened as he checked himself. He knew that Houston, in identifying himself with Negroes, had been referring to his deformity. Houston was declaring himself to be an outsider like Cross and Cross was interested, but he kept his face passive to conceal it.

"The way Negroes were transported to this country and sold into slavery, then stripped of their tribal culture and held in bondage; and then allowed, so teasingly and over so long a period of time, to be sucked into our way of life is something which resembles the rise of all men from whatever it was we all came from," Houston said, the smile on his lips playful and knowing.

"I follow you," Cross said.

"Yes; I see you do," Houston smiled with satisfaction. "We are not now keeping the Negro on such a short chain and they are slowly entering into our culture. But that is not the end of this problem. It is the beginning . . ."

"What do you mean, Ely?" Father Seldon asked.

"I mean this," Houston hastened to explain. "Negroes, as they enter our culture, are going to inherit the problems we have, but with a difference. They are outsiders and they are going to know that they have these problems. They are going to be self‑conscious; they are going to be gifted with a double vision, for, being Negroes, they are going to be both inside and outside of our culture at the same time. Every emotional and cultural convulsion that ever shook the heart and soul of Western man will shake them. Negroes will develop unique and specially defined psychological types. They will become psychological men, like the Jews . . . They will not only be Americans or Negroes; they will be centers of knowing, so to speak . . . The political, social, and psychological consequences of this will be enormous . . ."

"You are much too complicated, Ely," Father Seldon said. "The problem's bad enough without trying to make it into everything. All the colored people need is the right to jobs and living space."

"True," Houston said. "But their getting those elementary  things is so long and drawn out that they must, while they wait, adjust themselves to living in a kind of No‑Man's Land . . . Now, imagine a man inclined to think, to probe, to ask questions. Why, he'd be in a wonderful position to do so, would he not, if he were black and lived in America? A dreadful objectivity would be forced upon him."

"Oh, Ely, you're always climbing some rocky, goat track of speculation," Father Seldon protested. "Take the simple facts of life just as they are found—"

"That's what I'm doing," Houston said. "And when you look at them closely, those simple facts turn out to be not so simple."

"I think Mr. Houston's close to the truth," Cross said, pretending a smile, relishing an irony that came from his referring both to his own feelings that maybe Houston was trying to track him down and to the aptness of the man's remarks. "After many of the restraints have been lifted from the Negro's movements, and after certain psychological inhibitions have been overcome on his part, then the problem of the Negro in America really starts, not only for whites who will have to become acquainted with Negroes, but mainly for Negroes themselves. Perhaps not many Negroes, even, are aware of this today. But time will make them increasingly conscious of it. Once the Negro has won his so‑called rights, he is going to be confronted with a truly knotty problem . . . Will he be able to settle down and live the normal, vulgar, day-to-day life of the average white American? Or will he still cling to his sense of outsidedness? For those who can see, this will be a wonderfully strange drama . . ."


SOURCE: Wright, Richard. The Outsider (1953). Restored text: Works. Volume 2. Later Works: Black Boy (American Hunger); The Outsider. New York: Library of America, 1991. (The Library of America; no. 56) Excerpt from Book Two: Dream, pp. 499-501. (Note: boldface added on this web page.)


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