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Stuctured Reading: African-American Classics

My latest Structured Reading (Richard Wright's memoir Black Boy, James Baldwin's essay collection Notes of a Native Son and Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God) is easily the most rewarding and meaningful one I've had yet, because the three books and especially the writers are so tightly connected. Of the latter, it's particularly telling to note that Baldwin disliked Wright's landmark novel Native Son, and Wright openly disdained Their Eyes Were Watching God. And it's probably safe to say that Hurston had few kind words for Wright.

Black Boy is Wright's vivid account of his childhood and teenaged years in the American South during the 1910s and 1920s, before he finally departed for the relative freedom of Chicago in 1927. For me, the biggest shock here isn't the racism (both virulent and subtle) that Wright faced every day of his younger life - such an experience surely was common amongst African-Americans in that place and time - but the fact that Wright ever became a writer at all. His family clearly placed little value on education, and Wright seems to have had no encouragement as either a reader or writer (other than one white person in Memphis who lent him his library card; blacks weren't allowed to check books out of the public library at the time). Reading Wright's long litany of racial insults and predicaments, it's easy to see where the relentless anger that stoked Native Son and Wright's other works came from.

James Baldwin seems to have had a somewhat more advantaged upbringing; though while growing up he was likely as poor as Wright (and lived in a similarly oppressive household), the Harlem of his childhood and its fledgling black middle class likely sheltered him to some degree from the blatant racism that Wright faced. In contrast to Wright's gritty and vivid memoir, the essays in Notes of a Native Son (other than the stellar title piece, about his father's death) have a detached, intellectual tone in which Baldwin discusses race in such vague, abstract terms that the impact of his message is severely blunted. Most tellingly, while Baldwin obviously disliked Wright's Native Son, his meandering piece "Many Thousands Gone" never really explicitly explains why. Baldwin was a passionate observer who had plenty to say about society, but his failure to be specific kept his message from fully coming across.

The best of the three books, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a stirring, triumphant novel that tells the story of Janie, an African-American woman in rural Florida during the 1920s. Janie endures two suffocating marriages before meeting Tea Cake, an exuberant vagabond who proves to be her soulmate, and who exposes her to a joyous, carefree life that was probably as liberated as a woman like her could have experienced. Her story is far from idealistic - her life is nowhere near perfect, not even while with Tea Cake - but as she slowly realizes the possibilities of life, which she dreamed of from an early age yet never quite believed she would be able to experience herself, the reader is drawn along in the wake of her quiet triumph.

Yet despite the considerable power of Hurston's novel, Wright dismissed it, saying "The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought." Wright didn't think the book was symbolic or political enough, which to me is the book's strength: it's a personal story that delivers its message through characterization and story, while Wright openly believed that a fiction writer should begin with an overriding sociopolitical theme and tell a story that delivers that theme, even if the characters end up being two-dimensional symbols. I was greatly disppointed by Native Son when I re-read it a few years ago, partly for its implausibility (Wright never let inconvenient plot details get in the way of his big theme) but mostly because I never felt like Bigger Thomas was a genuine, flesh-and-blood human being, but was instead a mere symbol through which Wright projected his political beliefs. In contrast, Hurston's Janie felt totally real, flawed but vibrantly alive. And I dispute Wright's claim that Their Eyes Were Watching God had no message or theme; though the novel wasn't a discursive, ideological discussion of the African-American's role in society (which Wright was so fond of), it said plenty about female liberation and potential while also telling a compelling, touching story of a memorable life.

March 19, 2014 in Books | Permalink