Reconstruction 8.4 (2008)


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Facing the Future After Richard Wright / Graham Barnfield and Joseph Ramsey


<1> In 2005, we seized an opportunity for a new publication marking the anniversaries of two significant works of cultural history, Alan Wald's The New York Intellectuals and The Cultural Front by Michael Denning. The latter work was approaching its tenth anniversary at the time and seemed to us to call for revisiting and revaluation. Simultaneously, we noted that the former work had surfaced as a reference point in hostile attempts to make sense of Bush administration neoconservative foreign policy, against a broader backdrop of intellectual realignment over the question of the "war on terror." Combining this "calendar story" with analyses of recent trends seemed like a strong rationale for what became Reconstruction 8.1: Class, Culture and Public Intellectuals. Readers may judge the results for themselves.

<2> With this special section of Reconstruction 8.4 "Facing the Future After Richard Wright," once again we adopt this approach: 2008 is Richard Wright's centenary year - our calendar story - as well as a year in which the questions with which Wright struggled, questions of class, race, organization, and internationalism, as well as gender, show no sign of abating. It is our wager that even though the forms of race, racism, and empire have changed considerably since he was at the height of his powers - as evidenced perhaps most starkly by the ascendancy of Kenyan-descended, African American, Barack Obama, during the recent U.S. Presidential race - Richard Wright's writings remain invaluable; even with their obvious limitations, they continue to yield insight, inspiration, and even injunction for those of us seeking to understand and to change the world in 2008.

<3> Indeed, having recently watched candidate Obama repudiate and denounce the radical Wright from his own past (the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, that is) on the road to optimistic proclamations of "another American century," it seems to us all the more important to foreground and to engage the radicalism of Richard Wright himself, a figure who one hopes cannot be so easily dismissed. The media spectacle that savaged Obama's former pastor after he dared to condemn the United States as "imperialist" in the fiery, righteous idiom of the black church, drives home to us how marginalized, and much-abused - indeed subaltern - radical ideas remain in what passes in privatized U.S. "public" culture these days. And yet at the same time, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and in the midst of an economic storm of historic proportions, Richard Wright's injunction to confront the harsh realities of class and race in this country, and to do so in the spirit of an internationalist vision, are as pressing as ever. Bereft of such a realistic, independent, and committed vision to guide the reconstruction of progressive forces in the United States, it is inconceivable to us that the prevailing political winds of "Change" that have filled Obama's sails will bring us much more than perfumed policies and hot air: "humanitarian" imperialism, militarization and extra-legal detention with a "human face," more racism, but without "racists." [1] With our section of Reconstruction 8.4, we have continued the dialogue initiated by our earlier collaboration regarding the state of "class, culture, and public intellectuals" not just in the U.S., but beyond its borders as well.

<4> Our supplement opens with Kevin Yuill evaluating the significance of country music. The genre operates as a bridge between past and present, articulating differing conceptions of U.S. national identity. Indeed, works such as those of Denning and George Lipsitz's Rainbow at Midnight [2] treat country as part of the soundtrack to sweeping demographic and political changes in the post-war period. Whereas Wright was happy to develop his poetry and early fiction - such as the posthumously published Lawd Today (1963) - in a creative tension with the Blues (even while thoroughly debunking the pervasive nostalgia of Dixie-land pastoral ballads, in works such as Uncle Tom's Children), Yuill argues that the nascent national music of the New Deal era gave expression to 1920s-style nativism, simultaneously expunging any acknowledgement of the music's African-American origins.

<5> In a contribution to the re-evaluation of Wright, Linda Chavers considers the author's representation of gender. Assessed through the prism of contemporary liberation politics (and Lacan's theory of the "mirror stage"), Chavers argues that Wright's equivocal, patriarchal orientation to social critique and the struggle for equality served to undermine the expression of his own advocacy of full democratic rights for African-Americans. It points to an uneven legacy on the part of one of the major writers to emerge from the 1930s cultural milieu.

<6> In "Aunt Sue's Mistake: False Consciousness in Richard Wright's 'Bright and Morning Star'" Gregory Meyerson offers a radically re-oriented, indeed paradigm-shifting view of the female character that many have found to represent a lonely exception to the rule when it comes to Wright's limited, often negative, depictions of black women. In a boldly revisionist reading, Meyerson persuasively argues that Aunt Sue's closing actions at the end of the story which closes Uncle Tom's Children, actions which have universally been read as signifying heroic martyrdom, do not in fact lead to the salvation of the besieged Southern Communist Party cell, as critics have contended, but rather doom it to almost certain destruction. Without getting into the fascinating details of his reading here, suffice it to say that on more levels than one, Meyerson's essay reminds us that, whether in the realm of politics or criticism, much - indeed everything - can hinge on seemingly "minor details," the "little things" overlooked or unsaid. More attuned to this insight than his many later readers and interpreters, Richard Wright emerges here as very much a cautionary proletarian realist, not a peddler of comforting, redemptive, left-wing fantasies. Offering a rich and detailed interpretation of not only "Bright and Morning Star" but Uncle Tom's Children as a whole, Meyerson's essay purports to do nothing less than to set seventy years of scholarship on this influential and widely celebrated story (and story-collection) back upon its feet, having found it starry-eyed and standing on its head. In the view of the editors, it is not hyperbole to assert that Meyerson's argument here should become required reading for all serious readers of Wright, from here on out. Furthermore, in a moment where the paucity of serious historical and materialist analysis, let alone mass-organization, on the American "left" is increasingly supplemented and concealed by misty-eyed fantasies of spectacular salvation, Meyerson's Wright reminds us that Antonio Gramsci's "optimism of the will," taken without the "pessimism of the intellect," can be as dangerous as it is seductive.

<7> Returning us to Cold War American discourse, a continuing dialogue with the New York Intellectuals can be found in Nathan Abrams' account of the journal Commentary. Drawing upon a wider, ongoing study, Abrams evaluates what made the publication become a "must read" for its elite readership, in ways which both made its reputation but undermined its relevance over time. While its contrarian leanings and position within the political establishment were often easily reconciled, Commentary has survived, not on account of its frequent foreign policy predictions that foreshadow the "war on terror."

<8> Introducing valuable, historically, and theoretically attuned international perspectives into our special section, Robert Lesman and Nataša Kovačević each provide compelling and nuanced accounts of pre- and post- Communist cultural developments, focusing, respectively, on Cuban and Eastern European texts and contexts. Presenting a story that "defies easy categorization," Lesman traces the intellectual and political development of José Rodríguez Feo, an important Cuban critic and translator, who was born into the wealthy classes, and yet whose twin interests in aesthetics and North American culture seem, somewhat paradoxically, to have encouraged his radicalization, anti-imperialism, and commitment to the Revolution. Kovačević, on the other hand, in her wide-ranging, sophisticated, yet lucid and penetrating application of postcolonial theory to the literary and cultural narratives of Post/Communist Eastern Europe, returns us to the pessimism of the present, where actually existing socialism is scarce, and yet where the wrinkle in time left legible in post-communist narrative might just mark the utopian opening upon the horizon.

<9> On this update to the project, our co-editor Victor Cohen was here in spirit, busy with his own research and editing for an upcoming issue of Works and Days devoted to the socialist tendency, the New American Movement. As with Reconstruction 8.1, we see these articles as part of an ongoing discussion. We look forward to welcoming further contributions to this project of left-intellectual reconstruction.


Notes

[1] For a compelling compendium of the current dialectics of capital, race, and racism in the U.S. and worldwide, see the most recent PMLA, (October 2008, volume 123, Number 5) "Comparative Racialization" edited by Shu-Mei Shih. [^]

[2] Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s, by George Lipsitz (University of Illinois Press, 1994). [^]

 

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