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Années 1910-1920, sud des Etats-Unis.
Richard, jeune gamin noir, voit sa famille plongée dans la misère suite au départ de son père. Livré à lui-même avec son jeune frère alors que sa mère travaille, il apprend à découvrir le monde impitoyable qui l’entoure.
La faim et le racisme deviennent progressivement l’ordinaire de son enfance dans une société encore gangrenée par l’esclavage, 50 ans après son abolition…
Né en 1908 dans le Mississipi, Richard Wright est le premier auteur noir américain à connaitre le succès en 1940 avec « Un enfant du pays ».
«Black Boy», publié en 1945, est autobiographique et raconte son enfance.
Et ce qui est décrit dans un style énergique et direct, c’est toute l’horreur d’une société pourrie par la haine raciale.
Ce récit au vitriol s’en prend bien sûr aux blancs du Sud. Toutes les variantes du racisme au quotidien sont disséquées au scalpel.
Mais la communauté noire est aussi critiquée pour ses faiblesses, entre l’égoïsme irresponsable des uns (son père qui a lâchement abandonné sa famille), et la bigoterie religieuse extrême des autres (la famille de la mère de Richard).
Ce livre est donc un cri de désespoir et de révolte, mais surtout un puissant manifeste pour que l'Amérique se ressaisisse face à l'injustice qui frappe ses enfants noirs. Dans ce sens Richard Wright se positionne au niveau des grands écrivains sociaux du XIXème siècle , Zola, Hugo, Dickens ou Dostoïevski, et il n'a rien à envier à son contemporain Steinbeck.
Il contribuera à réveiller les consciences et à tracer la voie aux actions de Martin Luther King, dans sa lutte pour les droits civiques, quinze ans plus tard.
« Black Boy » est donc un monument de la littérature américaine, mais c'est aussi un récit bien écrit et agréable à lire. Pourquoi est-il si méconnu en France? Comme si le problème de l'injustice raciale et sociale n'existait pas chez nous...
A lire et à faire lire à vos enfants.
le 20 mai 2013
Richard Wright is telling his personal story from birth in the South to May Day 1936 in Chicago. And he is telling this story in the first person singular using his own name and we can assume the real names of other people. It is then an autobiographical novel.
The first fundamental value of the book is a testimony of life in the early 20th century in the South for Blacks. We have to take into account the real social or cultural characteristics that produce what Richard Wright renders in his novels, the phenomenal level of Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome/Disorder that shapes the mental life and the behavior of the descendants of slaves in the South as well as in the North.
1- The Blacks then, being the descendants of the slaves, keep and at times cultivate, often unconsciously in many elements, the recollection of plantation slavery since at least one generation, the grandparents, were slaves and the parents were directly educated by them in the period after the Civil War, especially in the Jim Crow period and its Ku Klux Klan terrorism. This recollection is translated in daily life in a few ways among the Blacks themselves, and of course in their relations with the whites.
2- The grandmother and grandfather are typical. The grandfather enlisted in the US army during the Civil War and he was wounded. He lives in the dream of that period, keeping his rifle always ready and loaded, though he never got the pension he should have gotten, because of a mistake in the spelling of his enlisted name done by an improperly literate white person. The grandmother developed an extreme religious commitment in the Jehovah Witnesses that is so fundamentalist that it becomes a real dictatorship for Richard Wright who can’t accept it and particularly because it bans all reading materials from the house except the Bible. We can even consider that the PTSlaveryDisorder is such that this religious commitment and the nostalgic attachment to the Civil war represent in these two ex-slaves the compensation for the loss of slavery with an alienating behavior or religion that become reassuring as the strong frame supporting the frame house of their life that is nothing but a life of mostly self-imposed suffering.
3- The mother and father ran away from the plantation world to small cities where they survive on the father’s small underpaid job till he decides to run away with another woman. This instability of paternal commitment in the father is a direct ingrained result of slavery. The father-slave had to live up with his “wife” being common goods for all white people on the plantation, including teenagers, with his “wife” being a breeding animal to produce more slaves, and with the possibility of his “wife” being sold away, or his own children and all her children going through the same fate. We must also understand that this father-slave could also be selected to become an example of public punishment to all the slaves including his own “wife” and children assembled to see the event. He could be whipped, tortured, emasculated, split in two with horses or plainly put to death, all these procedures leading to death anyway, and many more could be found in the South: to be tied up to a tree in the sun and abandoned there to die of thirst, with or without whipping; released in the fields and hunted by dogs that tore him to pieces when they caught him; being buried alive; and so many other variants. And women could also be submitted to the same tortures, though less often since they are a good breeding investment, at least up to a certain age. We should of course mention the tarring (with burning hot tar) and feathering of a slave to be after a long time of suffering during which the tar cools down be set on fire. All these punishments were then amplified by the mothers onto the children who were at times violently tamed into obedience by the mothers themselves as a prevention allowing survival. We can note here this violence is a preventive measure because for the slaves, and for the descendants of slaves, it is better to survive, even in slavery or under harsh discrimination, than to die straight away.
4- Richard Wright’s mother then is the last stand, protection and resort for her two sons and beyond the mother her own parents, eventually her own sisters and brothers. In this case Richard Wright went through it all: his abandoned mother, his aunts and uncles, his grandfather and grandmother, and he will have to escape from them all and yet to recuperate his mother and his brother out of this post-slavery Black hell.
5- I will skip his southern education up to eighth grade, ninth in fact but that ninth grade was mostly a repeat of the eighth grade. Then he is confronted to working in the South and to the status a Black Boy like him can have or can be granted or imposed by the whites in general, the white employers particularly and the white employees of the places where the Black Boy works. He has to learn to satisfy what the whites expect him to be, do, say. He is denied any kind of personal mind, personality, psyche, and he is supposed to be the way he behaves, hence he has to learn exactly how he is expected to be and behave. In many Blacks that requirement develops a schizophrenia that can take two forms. Either the real mind, psyche, personality of the individual is repressed into total negation and we have a case of PTSlaveryD. Or the individual learns how to develop a double personality and that is schizophrenia since the two have to never mix or overlap. If the individual can control that schizophrenic procedure, on one hand, he may find a way out. Otherwise on the other hand he will be schizophrenic and he will break down sooner or later. Richard Wright is of the previous type: he found a way out. But he gives marvelous examples of the other case. One example of this latter case is a young man, exactly his age, who has exactly the same ancillary unqualified job as his, simple delivery boy in two white businesses one across the street from the other. The whites on both sides manipulate the two Black Boys into fighting for their own white pleasure watching these black animals fighting for a miserable five dollar prize each. Richard accepts the fight after a long period of resistance because the other boy is building a personal project (buying a suit) on the five dollars. But note that even in this case, this schizophrenic boy who accepts to do this absurd fight has a personal motivation that has nothing to do with the whites: he wants to buy a suit, hence to improve his self image: there is a certain amount of self-pride in that behavior and that’s why Richard Wright accepted that fight.
6- Richard escaped that schizophrenia because he set an objective to his private, secret, deep personality in order for it to be satisfied and develop. His objective is to read in order to write and to bring his mother and brother to Memphis where he has escaped from his grandparents’ home, and later to Chicago where he wants to go. This objective will enable him to remain sane in the South and to get himself on some kind of social promotion – or is it social climbing? – in Chicago that will lead him to being published, to having a real writer’s career.
This leads us to the second part of this autobiography, his Chicago period where he will go through the 1929 crisis and then get involved with the Communist Party up to May Day 1936 when he is violently and physically expelled from their ranks during the demonstration.
His epiphany comes in two stages.
First he has to imagine a better world, a better future in a collective way:
“. . . embracing a creative attitude toward life. I felt that it was not until one wanted the world to be different that one could look at the world with will and emotion.” (p. 297)
When this future is thus reopened in general terms, the future has to be realized in himself because it is by changing oneself that one can bring to life the dream one has for the world.
To realize that change Richard Wright looks for various allies, people or institutions that could recognize his writing ambition. That’s how he gets involved with the Chicago John Reed Club that works with the communist party. But he finds out between 1933 and 1936 that the communist party is not really interested in his writing. They want him because he is black and they want him to be an organizer of the action of the Blacks on the South Side. He discovers that in 1935-36 the communist international changes their policy. He was attracted by Stalin’s “The National and Colonial Question” because of the linguistic work done for all ethnic and national minorities in the USSR. He dreams then of the same thing happening for the Blacks in the USA: to study and liberate their personal mind, psyche, soul, imagination. And he sees himself as the writer who is going to do it, at least one of them. But in 1935-36 the communist International shifts policies and against Hitler they advocate a vast alliance of already recognized writers and artists. He feels rejected along with all the younger artists and writers he had been organizing.
It will yet take him some time to realize that his own consciousness is right, and that the communists and their demands for him to be a pamphlet writer and neighborhood organizer are just wrong because the communists may be right on the general world’s situation but they are blind as for the position of the Blacks in the USA.
“They are blind . . . Their enemies have blinded them with too much oppression.” (p. 381)
But Richard Wright is here a witness of the folly of the communists at the time. They became, along with Stalin, obsessed by Trotskyites and they started a campaign to rid the communist party of all “Negro Trotskyite elements” (p. 346) and Richard Wright himself will become the target of accusations like: “smuggler of reaction,” “petty bourgeois degenerate,” “bastard intellectual,” “incipient Trotskyite,” “possess[ing] an anti-leadership attitude,” “seraphim tendencies.” The last one is funny and requires an explanation: “one [who] has withdrawn from the struggle of life and considers oneself an infallible angel.” (p. 350-351). The use of such a metaphor is surprising for anti-clerical people but anything having to do with religion becomes in that way of thinking an insult or accusation they could level at those they assess to be their enemies. In the same line, Richard Wright identifies the feeling of these communists concerning him: it is a feeling of fear:
“Alone, they said, a man was weak, united with others, he was strong. Therefore, they habitually feared a man who stood alone.” (p. 373)
Richard Wright in 1944/45 is a pioneer of the Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome/Disorder in its general form and not only in its post-slavery form. He states this disorder in simple terms for the communists in general and for the black communists in particular. He even goes farther with the case of the black communists Ross who is put on a trial by the communist party for all kinds of political crimes for which he pleads guilty – in order to be pardoned and not expelled:
“The communists had talked to him until they had given him new eyes with which to see his own crime. And then they sat back and listened to him tell how he had erred. He was one with all the members there, regardless of race or color; his heart was theirs and their hearts were his; and when a man reaches that state of thinking with others, that degree of oneness, or when a trial has made him kin after he has been sundered from them by wrongdoing, then he must rise and say, out of a sense of the deepest morality in the world: “I’m guilty. Forgive me.”” (p. 374)
In the first case of blindness Richard Wright is the precursor of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in which the secretary general of the communist party is a black man with one glass eye that he drops in a glass of water to support his reasoning that should be clear even for a blind person. Ralph Ellison’s hero was invisible to a half-blind man just as much as he was invisible to every white person in the street who either did not see him at all since he was black, or only saw his black surface and ignored what could be under that surface, hence his humanity.
In the second case of the trial Richard Wright is a pioneer of the Stockholm syndrome and he identifies being a member of the communist party as a post traumatic stress syndrome that erases your own personality and merges you in the collective personality of the communist party as defined by its leadership. But he is also the precursor of Artur London’s 1951 trial in Czechoslovakia who was submitted there to the same kind of ordeal by the local communists. Moreover the fake trial of “comrade Ross” in early 1936 was an obvious echo of the real purges that took place in 1936 in Moscow that were concluded in the same way with mass court trials in which the accused pleaded guilty, with the difference that these accused were all sentenced to death and were executed after the mass-trials.
But what is interesting is how the communist party used its members to make Richard Wright fail wherever he is sent to work by the Chicago social services, be it for example a black theater with a black company like the Federal Negro Theater where he tried to get a better director and a better project around Paul Green’s Hymn to the Rising Sun and himself, the newly appointed director and the project, all in one move, will be ousted by the Blacks of the company manipulated by the communist party. This is very important and it is not typical of the communist party but it is a fact of life: some people mix up what they think and feel with any objective knowledge they could collect with some minimal effort. They refuse that effort and it is comfortable to follow one’s own convictions, forgetting that these convictions sound like a plain condemnation in a moral court, but the sentence they pass is irreversible and final against the person they have decided disturbs their peace of mind or their projects. This is fundamentalism, bigotry and we find that in all kinds of fields: religion, politics, all social institutions, research, universities and many others. At times too in our parliaments in the form of filibustering that does not aim at any ethical logic but only at blocking a reform they know has to go through.
The communists often prefer using demonstrations to achieve their aims, like in Prague in February 1948, though recently Greece, Spain, Portugal and France have been flirting with what some French “historians” call “street democracy.” Danielle Tartakowsky is one of these communist idealists and dangerous ideologues who consider working class demonstration and violence to be both justified and the acme of democracy. Richard Wright shows how this vision is nothing but a post traumatic stress disorder. It is also funny to see how the communists in Europe supported the Arab Spring, not understanding that after the “revolution” there will be elections and then they yell, cry and moan that the “revolution” has been betrayed because the elections do not go the way they wanted. After two centuries of compulsory marginalization of Islam in these countries by European powers and the USA, it was to be expected that the Islamic argument was going to be an essential rallying flag for the people who had been alienated for so long in their religious beliefs and practices. This forced secularism being an incentive to become more fundamental in their belief than a tool to reach freedom of thought. And we must keep in mind, which Richard Wright does not always do, that religion is part of this freedom of thought.
The conclusion I can reach here is that this black author had explored and exemplified the Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome/Disorder in detail long before this PTSlaveryS/D was ever conceptualized. At the same time Richard Wright also explored ways to get out of it for one individual, but within a wider concept of collective resistance, though he clearly says the black consciousness being born in the 1930s was hijacked by the Communist Party and that will make black emancipation lose twenty years up to 1956 when the Civil Rights Movement starts with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.
Could that Civil Rights Movement have started earlier? No one can say that. One thing is sure though, the communists party’s call for the action of the Blacks in general to be included into the action of white workers, did not help the emergence of the necessary consciousness that had to be built by the black community, with the black community and for the black community, before they could integrate the general field of action of American society. Before becoming part of “We the people” they had to define and build their own “people” and their own “we,” and the communist party in the 1930s plainly refused this perspective.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU