Reconstruction 8.4 (2008)


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Aunt Sue's Mistake: False Consciousness in Richard Wright's "Bright and Morning Star" [1] / Gregory Meyerson

 

Abstract: Critics (all of them) have read "Bright and Morning Star" as a continuation of the leftward tending political consciousness developed in Uncle Tom's Children, a pattern culminating in the multiracial march of workers and peasants in "Fire and Cloud."  On this view, Aunt Sue's revolutionary heroism guarantees the survival of the multiracial collective of communists.  While "Bright and Morning Star" does carry forward previous aesthetic and thematic patterning of the collection, the story does not point to Sue's revolutionary political consciousness but to her false consciousness, anticipated precisely by Brother Mann in "Down by the Riverside."  The consequence of this consciousness is that rather than guaranteeing the party's survival, she unintentionally all but guarantees its destruction.

 

<1> While Richard Wright's story "Bright and Morning Star" (BMS hereafter) was not originally a part of Uncle Tom's Children (it was added in 1940 along with "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow"), its addition has not been interpreted as representing a significant departure from the over-arching pattern of emerging, leftward tending political consciousness in the collection. As has been discussed by both biographers and critics, this pattern culminates in the multiracial march of black and white workers and peasants for relief at the conclusion of "Fire and Cloud" (hereafter, FC), the story which originally closed the collection. On this view, Aunt Sue's sacrifice and revolutionary heroism are an extension of the amalgam of Christianity and communism represented by Reverend Taylor in FC, one antithetical to the pie-in-the-sky conservative Christianity that leads to much loss of life in the ironically titled "Down by the Riverside." By virtue of her heroism, according to this reading, Aunt Sue saves the life of the communist collective, which would have been destroyed by the sheriff and his posse had she, having just lost her last son Johnny-Boy to the racists, not sacrificed her own life to kill the stool pigeon Booker. Whatever the interpretive differences among the critics, which are indeed substantial (especially when it comes to the critics' relation to Marxism and Communism), Sue's culminating heroism on behalf of the party has been taken for granted. If we look at the two major Wright biographies, for example, Michel Fabre asserts that the story "clarifies the theme of Christianity evolving into political commitment first treated in 'Fire and Cloud'...with the influence of the heroine's sons...pushing her further in this direction than the Reverend Taylor." [2] Addison Gayle views Sue's killing of Booker as an example of Wright's belief that "for those who shunned violence, death would be futile, meaningless" and that "[o]nly in rebellion...would one be able to create a reason for having lived, would have attained a sense of dignity and humanity." [3]

<2> Among recent critics, Abdul JanMohamed's reading of BMS in "Rehistoricizing Wright: Psychopolitical Functions of Death in Uncle Tom's Children" is the most detailed. JanMohamed mentions that Sue makes a mistake: namely, her individualistic hubris in confronting the sheriff leads to her brutal beating, which is subsequently taken advantage of by Booker, whom Sue, in her bludgeoned mental fog, mistakenly trusts with the names of the secret Communist Party members. According to JanMohamed, Sue's final act of heroism remedies the mistake. Richard Yarbrough, like Fabre, highlights Sue's nationalist distrust of Booker as a telling critique of Johnny-Boy's claim that, as a good party member, he doesn't see white or black, only rich and poor. [4] Yet Yarbrough, along with Anthony Dawahare, takes Sue's heroism for granted. Barbara Foley similarly views Sue's heroism as "guarantee[ing] the survival of the party."

<3> The problem with this widely-held reading, though, is that it is very carefully shown by the story itself – through its painstaking thematic patterning which this paper will detail – to be a misreading. In fact, upon close inspection, Sue's victory over the racists in BMS proves to be, tragically, Pyrrhic, closely paralleling the self-defeating "heroism" of Brother Mann in DBR, and flying in the face of the book's main lessons. Ironically, Sue's actions do not guarantee the survival of the party; they all but guarantee its destruction.

<4> The collection's central motif, the one to which all others gravitate, is the education motif, marked throughout by key words like "sense," "smart," "lesson," "learn," "reason," and of course, "education." If "Fire and Cloud" presents us with a narrative where Wright shows us antiracist education overcoming Jim Crow education, where bosses' education gives way to worker's education, with Rev. Taylor rising above the many split selves and Catch 22s of the Jim Crow false consciousness depicted in the earlier stories, Sue of BMS, I suggest, in many particulars regresses to this false consciousness. In fact, "heroic" readings of the story's ending ironically fall into the same individualist displacement of martyrdom for solidarity that leads Sue to this tragic course of well-intended action in the first place. Hence the conclusion to the essay, which will address the reader response problem: why do all the critics get the story so obviously wrong?

<5> The autobiographical "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," which opens UTC, lays out the main themes that the subsequent stories will develop, especially the theme of education. [5] In the autobiographical sketch, the "ethics" are of course unlivable – not to mention unethical – a condition represented most clearly in the double-binds and Catch 22s to which young Richard and black people as a whole are subject. This autobiographical sketch focuses, then, on "lessons" — nine of them to be exact — in living in an unlivable situation, that is to say, lessons in "how to live as a negro," lessons that Richard Wright himself could not live, and which prompted him to go north — like Big Boy and later Bigger Thomas — in 1927. Among other things, this Jim Crow education meant developing a split self in order to survive — as Wright tells us in section nine, it was as a hotel porter in Memphis that he learned "to lie, to steal, to dissemble," "to play that dual role which every negro must play if he wants to live and eat" (4). This "education" meant no actual education: when Richard entertains the fantasy, "visions," to be exact, of "working [his] way up," of "learn[ing] something," he is told — ironically at the optical company at which he works: "whuddya tryin to do nigger, get smart?" (13)

<6> In the opening pages of the terrifying "Big Boy Leaves Home," the nave Big Boy draws his own ironic lesson, a lesson with serious bearing on the collection as a whole. After defeating in mock battle the other three boys who try to gang up on him, he claims "ahma smart nigger" and states that: "when a ganga guys jumps on yuh, all yuh gotta do is jus put the heat on one of them n make im tell the others to let up, see?" (24) The limits of such tactical wisdom will become clear later when a "ganga guys," the racist lynch mob, "put the heat" on Bobo. You can't fight a lynch mob — and in the larger sense racism – alone, a lesson Wright's characters do not learn until "Fire and Cloud." At the same time, however, Big Boy's childish "lesson," which articulates a kind of "weakest link" theory for dealing with otherwise daunting odds, foreshadows later stories, in which the emergent collectives of the oppressed, such as the mass hunger march in FC and the underground Communist Party in BMS, are shown to be especially vulnerable at the level of the individual who becomes isolated from the other members of the group. In a tragic reversal of Big Boy's playful insight, throughout UTC it is shown that when a "ganga guys" — or the ideology that serves them — is able to separate lone individuals from their likely or potential allies, the emergent, emancipatory "gang" cannot stand.

<7> Showing how vulnerable the isolated individual can be, in DBR, Brother Mann works hard (like Silas in the next story) to provide for his family, but all this is wiped out by the flood of '27. Wright here uses the trope of natural disaster "bringing the community together" to show that in fact natural disaster reveals the truth about social relations under Jim Crow: black men are press ganged and enslaved at gun point by the national guard, to work on the levee and to prevent other black workers from fleeing. Working similar ironies, the places of safety in UTC often become places of death: while the train, symbol of liberation, becomes a place of "sho death" in BB, the Red Cross is the place where Lulu will die in DBR. Similarly, the prayers of the preacher in DBR, rather than bringing peace, prove to be dangerous.

<8> "Down By the Riverside" offers a critique of religious false consciousness, with its accompanying ideologies of submission to authority, pacifism and passivity. Mann seems driven by fate (represented by the inexorable flood waters taking him in directions he cannot control). Fate leads him to realize that he cannot, as the story-title and song suggest, "lay down [his] sword 'n shield." In the Jim Crow South, Wright's narrative suggests, if you are black, laying down your sword and shield will get you killed; on the other hand, picking up your sword and shield, in this case your axe and gun, gets you killed too — shot, down by the riverside. The title incorporates both the pacifist song and its critique without offering a solution.

<9> As powerful as the central metaphor of the flood is, however, it is misleading to see the forces of nature here as a stand-alone symbol for the fateful power of social relations under Jim Crow. For, and this is extremely important for understanding BMS, the water itself does not doom Brother Mann to lose his family and to be shot down by the riverside alone. The Catch 22 of kill and be killed could have been avoided, the story subtly suggests, had he, to riff on the racist phrase, "gotten smart," instead of internalizing church authority. Let me explain.

<10> The situation early in the story is this: Mann's wife, Lulu, is pregnant and he must get her to the hospital immediately, but he needs a boat; however, whites with boats, instead of sharing them – after all, to quote the mayor in "Fire and Cloud," "we're all in the same boat" – are raising their price during the flood. So Bob is forced to steal a boat, prompting savvy readers to recognize how raising prices for needed items in a crisis is itself a form of stealing and further underscoring how the entire racist social order is based on theft. The one choice Mann has, if he wants his family to survive, is to take the stolen boat NOW and hope for the best. As he repeatedly tells himself, "there ain't nothin else to do" (69). This is itself a double-bind, since the boat is easily recognized as belonging to the racist "ol man Heartfiel'" (who of course is heartless). There is, however, something else to be done at this juncture and Mann chooses, due to the paralyzing power of ideology, not to do it. What he could do — it is a matter of life and death—is to switch boats with the Elder Murray and Mann knows this:

Mann closed his eyes and rested his hands on his hips... He wished with all his heart that Elder Murray would hurry up and get through with the prayer, for he wanted to be in that boat. The quicker we's in tha' boat, the bettah, he thought. . . Oh Yeah! Maybe the Elderll take mah boat n lemme have his since he's on the way to the hills? Lawd yeah, that'll be a good way to dodge them white folks. Ahma ast im. (72)

<11> Had he (political) "sense," Brother Mann would insist on switching boats, but ultimately he refuses even to ask Elder Murray because he would then have to tell the Elder about the stolen boat and there "ain no use astin the Elder to take mah boat" since the "Elder ain gonna hep nobody he thinks ain't doin right" (72). Mann knows precisely what he has to do but cannot act. [6] Though in some sense he realizes the dogmatism and nave idealism of this notion of "doin right," — for it is the same notion of ethics held by Grandma, who at first refuses senselessly to get in a stolen boat — he nevertheless himself cannot break away from religious dogmatism and act ethically. He thus subordinates the lives of his wife and child to "doin right," condemning both himself and his family to a stream of events that leads to death. Had he gotten in the Elder's boat immediately, he could have avoided the run-in with Heartfield. [7] This Heartfield encounter leads Mann to shoot Heartfield in self defense, a shooting which in turn leads seemingly inexorably to his own death. Also he may have saved time enough to have protected the life of his wife and child. Yet even after Mann decides against asking the Elder for his boat, he wastes still more precious time, listening to a long prayer led by the same Elder Murray. Once again, he is afraid not to do "right." This useless (and death-dealing) prayer anticipates a scene in "Fire and Cloud," where in response to the question of what is to be done, Taylor leads the congregation in prayer, at the conclusion of which the congregation again asks "But Reverin, what can we do?" (168) In FC, it becomes clear that one very important thing to do is to talk back to the preacher, something Mann fails fatally to do.

<12> Mann finally gets underway in the stolen boat where he exhibits almost superhuman, manly, strength and endurance to get Lulu to the hospital, but much too late. Eventually, Mann is ironically ordered by the National Guard to rescue the Heartfield family and to take along a Negro boy named Brinkley. Here, instead of disobeying orders from the guardsman and going straight to the hills as he should have done to begin with, he follows orders, not just the orders of the colonel, but the orders of Brinkley as well. Finally, Mann obeys the orders of the even younger and racist Heartfield boy, whose family, at that point, Mann knew he had to kill. In these surrealistic scenes, Mann's mind splits off from his body, his mind saying kill them, his body obeying the boy who will condemn him to death:

'get my mother.'
Like a little child, Mann obeyed. (112)

At the conclusion of this scene, Mann can only offer a silent prayer.

<13> If DBR offers a critique of religious false consciousness, LBS critiques the false consciousness of individualism. (It doesn't critique the false consciousness of sexism, however, a topic to which this essay will turn in conclusion). Silas' vision of "working his way up" is to work hard to own a piece of property, to hire help, and to make money. Internalizing the gender ideologies accompanying this vision of success (a vision mostly reserved at this time for white people), Silas aims to keep a stay at home wife, a wife he in turn treats like property. But Silas' individualism as a mode of survival and a mode of resistance does him no good, getting him killed in the end, leaving his wife and child homeless. For all his seeming success at playing by the rules, he does not get out of slavery. As he puts it:

For ten long years ah slaved mah life out to get ma farm free . . . . Gone, gone . . . . If ah run erway, I ain't got nothin. If ah stay 'n fight ah ain't got nothin. It don't make no difference which way Ah go. Gawd ... ah wish all them white folks was dead. Dead. Ah wish Gawd would kill em all. (143)

If Big Boy, preparing to leave home, can fantasize about "killing em all" or many of 'em in a shootout, Silas realizes Big Boy's deadly fantasy. Moreover, Big Boy's fantasy is transformed into the fantasy of God killing all the white folks. The point though is that these fantasies are literally dead ends; in the end, they "don't make no difference." For Brother Mann, it is not "kill or be killed" — Big Boy's situation — but kill and be killed. Same for Silas: "it don't mean nothing ... yuh die if yuh fight yuh die if you don't fight. Either way yuh die and it don't mean nothin."

<14> "Fire and Cloud," the final story in the original 1938 release of the collection, both recaps and dialectically transcends the themes of the previous stories — while, it should be noted, also staying faithful to the collection's sexism. The working class communities, both white and black, are hungry, the story makes clear, for reasons which are social not natural. We can date this story in the early thirties, the first half of the New Deal when, the AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Act), staffed mainly by members of the planter class in the South, ordered land to be taken out of circulation in order to boost prices. [8] As part of this, people were in fact, as Wright's story suggests, not allowed even to grow their own food. In this context, Taylor notes, articulating another Catch 22, "ef Ah fight for things, the white folks say Ahma bad nigger stirrin up trouble. . . . N if Ah don' do nothin, we starve" (160).

<15> Like Brother Mann, who is repeatedly described as "[seeing] himself outside himself," Rev. Taylor is divided: "outside of himself" (185). His divisions, though, are far more politically complex, as in some sense the stories' warring parties war inside Taylor's head. Wright however makes very clear that it is only when this ideological strife is combined with the attack on Taylor's body — after he is physically kidnapped and whipped — that Taylor truly learns the lessons about fighting Jim Crow. Taking up the litany of "nothings" from LBS, characters in FC reiterate early on that "there's nothin we kin do" or "nothin we kin do but wait." Taylor's son, Jimmy, suggests the Silas response, to engage the bosses in a shootout (though Jimmy would act with others, not alone like Silas). But that will get them "all killed," as Taylor notes. The reds, Hadley and Green (one white, the other black), keep telling him that if they "all" get together, they can "make" em [the local rulers] give us something or "scare" em into giving us something. While Deacon Smith insists that multiracial collective action will get them "all" killed, Taylor and the congregation's rebuttal is that "we kin make em give us all something," and that if the demonstration is big enough, "the police won't bother us" (175).

<16> The word "bother" is worth a comment. Up to this point in the collection, it has been associated with racist sexual myth. At the conclusion of DBR, for instance, a soldier asks Mrs. Heartfield, just saved, however ill advisedly, by Mann, if Mann "bothered" her — meaning sexually molested or raped her. Similarly in BBLH, Big Boy and company are attacked by Jim Harvey after finding themselves — nakedly but innocently — in the position of appearing to be "bothering" a white woman. (This myth of the black rapist is reversed and hence revealed as sheer ideology in LBS where the white salesman rapes Sarah — even if Wright does obscure the situation by suggesting at times that the less than clear thinking "earth mother" Sarah longs for some sort of sexual attention.) Later, in FC itself, after Rev. Taylor is beaten almost to death in a scene whose imagery interestingly echoes the rape scene of LBS, Taylor must walk home through a white neighborhood. When he sees a white lady cross the street to get away from him he says to himself: "don't worry lady, I ain't gonna bother ya." (204) [9] By the end of the story, in the midst of a triumphant march, the formerly helpless congregation ("we's helpless at yo feet," they pray earlier) has transmogrified into a multiracial collective that knows that "freedom belongs to the strong" and that the police "ain't gonna bother us, bettah not bother us" (219). It is suggested that multiracial collective action is the way to oppose the rape myth, itself designed, some have argued, to prevent such collective action. [10]

<17> Thus the collection suggests: Yuh die if you fight only if yuh die fighting alone. As Taylor says to Jimmy, "they'll keep killin us til we learn how to fight." And the lesson is "you can't do nothin erlone":

Son, it's the people we mus' get wid us. We's empty and weak this way. The reason we can't do nothin is cause wes so much erlone... (210).

The language of sense and reason has gone from hegemonic to counterhegemonic, racist to anti-racist.

<18> Finally we arrive at BMS. Critics have noted correctly that, unlike FC, this story is not an unproblematic celebration of heroic class consciousness. Yet in every published interpretation of the story to date, Sue's heroism goes unquestioned. It should have been. The lesson of "Fire and Cloud" and of the collection as a whole is to get with the people, that you "can't do nothing alone," that you need to get with the people "til our po selves is forgotten" (211). Aunt Sue's thinking is shown to be antithetical to the ethic of solidarity summarized by Rev. Taylors' plea to forget "our po selves" and "get wid the people." [11] Contra Taylor, Sue warns her Johnny-Boy not to forget himself — "don't forgit yo'self," meaning, not to forget that he is black, and that many whites remain racists. This warning is read by Yarbrough, among others, as a kind of wisdom, a cautionary nationalist moment that posits an overeager class consciousness as "blind." Perhaps, but here's the thing. (BMS, 228, 235)

<19> Contrary to Taylor who tells us you can't do "nothin erlone," Sue acts alone to kill Booker, the stool pigeon. This lone act itself certainly seems a righteous and selfless one. However, in the course of preparing for this lone "heroic" action, Sue fails to tell Reva, the white Communist organizer, that Johnny-Boy has been captured, meaning that Reva must warn the comrades that the Sheriff knows about the meeting already, even if he doesn't yet know the names that Booker pried from Sue. Reva thinks that Johnny-Boy will be doing this, not knowing that he has been captured. At the crucial moment, when Reva comes to Sue after Booker has informed Sue of Johnny-Boy's capture, Sue knows in a completely conscious way that the comrades must be told about the upcoming ambush, and yet she says nothing; indeed she actively misleads Reva, even insisting –contrary to Reva's own desire — that the young Communist go to sleep upstairs, so that Sue can pursue her plan alone. This scene echoes the situation of Brother Mann, who knows what he must do, but who cannot unite theory and practice; in both cases, the failure to rely on others leads to disaster.

<20> Ironically, and this is one textual signal among many testifying to Wright's care here, Sue notes of Johnny-Boy what turns out to be true for herself: "Johnny-Boy ain't the one t trust nobody to do nothin. He's gotta do it all hisself" (221). Note the repetition of two key words in the collection, "nothin" and "all," and recall their transformations in FC—from we "can't do nothin" to if we do somethin, it'll get us "all killed," to if we act together, we kin get somethin for "all" of us. The implicit message recalls the point above about the power of real solidarity, as opposed to individual action.

<21> Since Sue's understanding of the import of warning the comrades has been completely ignored in previous readings of the story, the relevant instances are recapped below:

But Johnny-Boy, Sue soon finds out from Booker, is caught:

'he didn't have a chance t' tell the others. . . .' Then all the horror of it flashed upon her; she saw flung out over the rainy countryside an array of shacks where white and black comrades were sleeping. In the morning they would be rising and going to Lem's; then they would be caught. And that meant terror, prison and death. The comrades would have to be told. She would have to tell them (244, my italics).

<22> It ought to be noted that before she tells Booker the names — against her better judgment — she says to herself that she "did not want to decide alone" and wishes she "had somebody like Reva to talk to. . . ," that "[she] must make no mistake about this [thus my title]." Sue doesn't trust Booker but Booker pressures her, again invoking recurring motifs of the collection, "yuh wan em all to git killed?" (245) Ironically, getting 'em all killed is indeed likely to happen as a result of Sue's mistake.

<23> Reva returns to tell Sue that Booker is the stool, but only after Sue has told Booker the names. Reva, not knowing Johnny-Boy has been caught, asks: "He's done gone t' tell the others?" But Sue does not tell her the truth (to be sure in part out of sympathy and love for Reva). Ironically, at the crucial moment she is unable to "talk to" Reva:

No she would not tell Reva; Reva was all she had left. But she had to do something, someway. She was undone too much as it was.... She wanted to be alone and fight this thing out for herself. (250, my italics)

So, Aunt Sue acts alone, despite the preceding thought that "she did not want to decide alone," and because she decides, contra the message of the collection, to "fight this thing out for herself" she, tragically, condemns the comrades, including Reva, to terror, prison and death. If Mann's split self thinks but cannot act; Sue acts, but acts in a way she herself implicitly knows to be wrong. Ironically repeating Silas' error, she has forgotten how to fight. Her trickster-like heroism at the end, disguising the gun with the bullet meant for Booker, appearing submissive with her litany of "yessuhs" (echoing ironically and non-ironically Mann's submissive " yessuhs" ), thus backfires, offering only a narcissistic, fleeting, symbolic "victory." Her dying cry – "yuh didn't get what yuh wanted" — is a seductive but tragic misrecognition. Sue's refrain here picks up her earlier defiant moment ("Yuh didn't git what yuh wanted! N yuh ain't gonna nevah get it!") with the Sheriff after the Posse breaks into her house. We are perhaps meant to see yet another contrast between Sue and Rev. Taylor; both experience the brutality of the law's racist posses all alone, but they end up drawing very different lessons from the experience.

<24> Sue of course draws the wrong lesson. Consequently, "they," the defenders of the ruling order, do get what they wanted. Yet, had Sue, following her initial thought that "she did not want to decide alone," told Reva to warn the comrades herself, the party members could have avoided capture in the morning, truly denying the police "what they wanted." Perhaps the comrades could have even surprised the sheriff in the woods, saving Johnny-Boy, just as Brother Mann may have been able to save his whole family had he talked to the Elder Murray. The collection ends, as in DBR, with the sympathetic lead character dying in the mud and the rain, with her "yuh didn't kill me, Ah come here by maself" echoing Mann's desperate and paradoxical "he would die before he let them kill him" (263, 123). [12]

<25> The ending, it should also be noted, alludes to the ending of The Dead, the great short story by James Joyce, one of Wright's favorite writers. In Wright's story, we have Aunt Sue, "focused and pointed ... buried within the depths of her star, swallowed in its peace and strength." She dies, "not feeling her flesh growing cold, cold as the rain that fell from the invisible sky upon the doomed living and the dead that never dies." The verbal echoes of the final passages where Gabriel Conroy has his famous "epiphany" are clear. In the conventional reading of BMS, we make sense of this allusion by paralleling Sue's epiphany, manifest in her dying vision, with Gabriel's. The most convincing reading of the conclusion to Joyce's story sees Gabriel achieving, through his final vision, genuine understanding and sympathy for his wife, a sympathy that requires a radical break with his own prior narcissism. But Aunt Sue, contrastingly, is "buried" and "swallowed" up by an illusory, narcissistic peace after she forgets about her "doomed" comrades. My reading thus transforms the allusion into another devastating and tragic irony. [13] Suspiciously, Sue's illusory peace echoes the full and "vast peace," clearly and understandably delusional, experienced by Sarah after being raped by the white salesman in LBS (139).

<26> Before turning to the concluding section on the story's readers, I offer the following brief meditation on Wright and gender. As is well known, Wright has often been taken to task for his female characters. Indeed, in UTC's initial form, his female characters all lack political consciousness. From Wright's mother in the opening sketch and Grandma in DBR to Sarah in LBS (a highly sexualized earth mother who knows little about the world and feels without thinking, yet because of these attributes has quasi-political visions) and Taylor's conservative wife in FC, none is even a potential revolutionary subject. [14] It is men, not women, who are viewed as subjects of political development. As several scholars have noted, however, Wright may be breaking this gender pattern in BMS. [15] It is certainly plausible to view Sue as the central subject of political development (and there is Reva as well, a politically developed woman, albeit a white one). As Anthony Dawahare has noted, Wright wrote positively — notably in his journalism for the Daily Worker in 1937 — about working class black women's role in breaking the bounds of black nationalism to help forge multiracial radical collectives. For present purposes, what is important to note is that my reading does not depend upon Wright's presumed patriarchal view of women. We can have great sympathy for Sue's catastrophic heroics if we understand that in the Jim Crow South overcoming the ideological contradictions in order to cobble theory to practice is no easy task, whether for man or woman, white or black. Richard Wright remains a proletarian realist, not a writer of proletarian fantasies.

<27> So then, why has BMS been so consistently misread, and for so long? Such a speculative question is warranted, I believe, because the misreading has been not only universal among the critics, whatever their politics, but among students as well. I myself taught the story in the conventional way for the best part of a decade. As is probably well known to many readers of the present article, once, as a teacher, you've got a story down, and are pretty sure of your take, you don't need to reread it every year. Gradually, the details begin to blur, at which point you return to the text. It was during one of these refresher sessions that I noticed the aforementioned passages to which I had never before paid much attention. I have taught UTC for almost 18 years since the change, and no student has ever spontaneously interpreted BMS correctly, even when I told them in advance that Sue makes a huge mistake carrying deadly consequences. When I show them the mistake, it all then becomes obvious.

<28> The primary reason for the misreading, in my view, is that the story breaks the book-long pattern of learning. Critics and students alike don't expect this — students perhaps because they are not as attuned to pattern-breaking ironies as teachers and critics ought to be! Historically and biographically minded critics, on the other hand, would seem motivated to adopt the conventional reading due to powerful genre considerations themselves shaped by the overall situation of UTC's publication. BMS was originally published as part of a New Masses "special literary supplement" on May 10, 1938. According to Fabre, "it fit party specifications better than had the four previous stories." Fabre notes that Wright was showered with honors and the story was celebrated as "the latest triumph of a great writer." Fabre also notes that in writing the story "Wright wanted to perform as great a propaganda function as possible."

<29> Some leftist critics would rightly query Fabre's reference to "party specifications." The question though is this: is it likely that the party press would knowingly hail a story where the main character unwittingly guarantees the party's destruction? Such an outcome would not likely, if we are to follow Fabre, "perform as great a propaganda function as possible," at least not within prevalent norms of radical criticism, norms which often encouraged "optimistic" endings. [16]

<30> Additionally, one might argue that sympathetic, biographically-informed readers of proletarian literature would tend to read the ending the way they have because they focus (perhaps too narrowly and literally) on the "real life source" for Aunt Sue. As Addison Gayle notes, for his source, Wright claimed to have gone "back to a story in his youth involving an old black woman who, enraged over the treatment of her son by white men, hid a gun in a sheet, went to the place where her son was being tortured and managed to kill several of the torturers before succumbing herself." [17] There is no sense, in Gayle's biography, or for that matter, elsewhere, that this real life analogue has Sue's blindness. Thus, given certain assumptions about Wright's own realism at the time, left-wing readers would be strongly prone to read Sue positively. After all, presumably since Wright had not yet broken with the party, and since his stories emerged from his own factual investigations for the Daily Worker, Wright would not be likely to ironize the kind of character he wrote about in his party journalism, such as the radical peasant proletarian to which Dawahare refers. Or maybe he saw no great contradiction between ironizing a character and having great sympathy for her.

<31> Anticommunist readers, including some feminist readers, have often defended Aunt Sue's heroism – which they might see in the first place because they too expect the pattern of learning to continue, a pattern they view perhaps as unsubtle propaganda — because for them it breaks from their perception of Communist orthodoxy; thus one can cheer for Sue without having to buy into (or be "co-opted by") "the party line." In this reading, what is important is the way that the story bears out Sue's critique of Johnny-Boy's race blindness; Johnny-Boy says he doesn't see white or black, and Aunt Sue says, presciently, "don't fergit yourself." The treason of Booker, a white man newly recruited to the cause, suggests the wisdom of such residual race consciousness and of so-called "old-fashioned" maternal sensibility as well. Readers who are eager to discover Wright's incipient ambivalence toward the CP may latch onto this "unorthodox" act, thus missing the irony of Sue's own forgetting, a forgetting which, of course, does not cancel out entirely Sue's criticism of Johnny-Boy's race-blindness.

<32> My reading of the story might, then, seem to conflict with reasonable reader-expectations based in the situation of the story's publication. So how do we reconcile this tension between the situation of publication, which has affected how readers have framed the story, and the gigantic anomalies my reading poses to the conventional one? What was Wright "trying to say" by thus subverting his reader's expectations? I don't have a fully convincing answer. We should note though that my reading is by no means an anti-Marxist or anticommunist one. To the contrary, appreciating the brutal, tragic irony of Sue's mistake presupposes an appreciation and a respect for the death-defying communist project that Johnny-Boy, Reva, and by extension Sue are involved in.

<33> Further, while many readers have emphasized the class/race tension in the story, my reading can be seen as in fact emphasizing the importance of class analysis, while drawing Sue's, not just Johnny-Boy's, attitudes in for criticism. Thus, Sue's correct comment to Johnny-Boy (correct in the stories' rhetorical terms) about the nave fantasy of a voluntarist leap into race blindness likely applies to her own relation with Reva as well. That Sue sees Reva as a "child" (a weird echo of Sarah's view of the white salesman as a "little boy" in LBS) who needs to be protected and whom she does not want to upset reflects at once a motherly concern but also a lack of deep political trust, the kind of trust that would have been necessary for her to have spoken honestly to Reva about "what is to be done." Indeed, the fact that Sue feels that way even as she really likes Reva and even as her own son is apparently involved with Reva further underscores the difficulty of overcoming racial division in the Jim Crow South, without in any way negating the importance or the overall viability of that project.

<34> From this point of view, Johnny-Boy would be faulted for not understanding adequately the complexities and material basis of racist ideology and the relation of this to class rule — so that Johnny-Boy was perhaps not marxist enough. This reading actually reinforces the importance of building a more thoroughgoing multiracial unity. If Sue in fact knew Reva more as person than as symbol, perhaps she would not have "forgotten" about the meeting! Similarly, if Johnny-Boy is not Marxist, not materialist enough, certainly neither is Sue. Ideologically then, this version of the story, though tragic instead of heroic, reveals Wright's text to be highly compatible with class analysis, even as Wright may have been moving and would continue to move in the direction of the kind of existentialism embodied in certain ways by Sue's end — her final act described in a language very similar to that which Wright will use to describe Bigger Thomas's understanding of his murder of Bessie as a meaning creating act in Native Son (1940): "she had in her heart the whole meaning of her life; her entire personality was poised on the brink of a total act" (253). That Wright's closing story, and hence his collection as a whole, has been so long misread, that Sue's narcissistic death-dream has been mistaken for a radical and heroic encounter with reality, even on the left, is perhaps testimony to the continuing power that such fantasies of the "total act" continue to exert on contemporary readers. And yet, Wright's texts insist again and again that no individual action, no noble death, however imbued with visions of Christian or communist redemption, is enough to stop the rain from continuing to fall upon both the living and the dead of this earth. To paraphrase Marx, the point is not simply to dream and to die nobly for a better world, the point is to change it.

 

Notes

[1] I want to dedicate "Aunt Sue's Mistake" to Joe Ramsey. Joe immediately got the essay's significance and communicated this to me with an infectious enthusiasm that made me feel like I should win some sort of prize. His stewardship made this a much better essay: both better written and more convincingly contextualized. Joe: amazing job. [^]

[2] Michel Fabre, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993 ed.), 163. Fabre notes that the story contains a "fundamental hesitation between ethnic and Marxist perspectives," suggesting that Sue's revolutionary heroism is primarily motivated by race. The focus of my paper is not on the class/race debate; I mention this primarily to show that those with different political emphases nevertheless share the view that Sue saves the comrades. Wright's "ambivalence" on the race/class question operates for Fabre within the frame of Wright's "firm propagandist intentions" (164). Fabre, by the way, seems to associate propagandist intent narrowly with a happy or affirmative ending and, probably, didacticism. While not accepting the equation of propaganda with "affirmative ending," I do think, along Burkean lines, that all art is implicitly if not explicitly didactic, propaganda if you will, just by virtue of its rhetorical and referential functions. On the relation between art, propaganda and didacticism in proletarian literature (though her comments are relevant for all fiction), see Barbara Foley, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993). [^]

[3] Addison Gayle, Richard Wright: Ordeal of a Native Son (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 113. [^]

[4] See Richard Yarbrough's introduction to Richard Wright, Uncle Tom's Children (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), p. ix-xxix, especially xxvi-viii; Foley, Radical Representations, 206-9; Abdul JanMohamed, "Rehistoricizing Wright: "Psychopolitical Functions of Death in Uncle Tom's Children" in Richard Wright (Bloom's Modern Critical Views), ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House), 191-228; Anthony Dawahare, Nationalism, Marxism and African American Literature between the Wars (Oxford: Univ. of Mississippi Press, 2003), 117. [^]

[5] Most of these stories—the exception being the mythic "Long Black Song" — are not incidentally very closely tied to real history: from the spectacular mob lynching represented in Big Boy and the Mississippi flood of '27 to communist led demonstrations for relief and the shootout at Camp Hill. The best single work for understanding the social context of UTC is Robin D. G. Kelley's Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1990), especially chapter two. [^]

[6] I thus disagree with JanMohamed's claim, in an otherwise careful reading of the story, that Mann is "repeatedly faced with a series of impossible choices...and that Mann finally realizes that the only choice available to him is between voluntary and involuntary death" (218). [^]

[7] Interestingly, Mann thinks he might be able to reason with the racist Heartfield even as he is afraid to talk to Elder Murray. [^]

[8] See Kelley, 53-4. [^]

[9] This moment of course further echoes one of the opening "lessons" of "Ethics of Living Jim Crow," when the young Wright is caught by a policeman in a white neighborhood after dark (10). [^]

[10] This argument is most clearly articulated by Angela Davis in her Women, Race and Class chapter entitled "The Myth of the Black Rapist." A very good argument can be made that this myth emerged both to control the black labor force and block multiracial popular movements, from the populist movement itself to the later socialist and communist movements. [^]

[11] Sue, to be more precise, doesn't think so much as feels — much in fact like Sarah. And like Sarah, she has [wondrous] visions and like Sarah, "the past and the present become mixed in her." These gender stereotypes distinguish her from Rev. Taylor whose political education does not involve visions but learning thru reflection and hard experience. [^]

[12] JanMohamed notes that in her fierce pride before the Sheriff Sue "stood on a narrow plot of ground from which she would die before she was pushed" (239). This line foreshadows her final "yuh didn't kill me" and further echoes the thoughts of Brother Mann. Mohamed sees both Mann and Sue's death as affirmative. He thus misses the extent to which BMS repeats many of the ironies Mohamed himself points out in DBR. [^]

[13] It is to be noted that Sue's "narcissism" is not comparable to Gabriel Conroy's crisis of middle class cosmopolitanism. To take up the Joycean parallels, the rain falling on the doomed dead and living finds its parallel in the famous snow "falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead" at the end of The Dead (not to mention the cold rain falling on the dying Michael Furey). Joyce's ghostly snow "faintly falling" and "falling faintly" is repeated in the "falling" rain and the "faint voices" Sue hears as she dies. [^]

[14] In her conversation with the salesman, Sara of LBS wonders why the salesman wants to study science, "why things are as they are." "How come you wanna study that," she wonders. Why things are as they are is of course the collection's principal question. For Wright in UTC, you ask it so you can change the world. See UTC, 134. [^]

[15] Yarbrough notes that Shirley Anne Williams "argues that Wright consistently portrays black women in this collection (even the heroic Sue) as symbolic of 'the reactionary aspects of the Afro-American tradition'" (UTC, xxviii). For a complication of this reading, see Dawahare, chapter six. [^]

[16] See Fabre, 164. When the story was re-released by International Publishers, Wright released the story rights to help pay for Earl Browder's defense fund and stated that the story belonged to the workers. On Fabre's "party specifications" and "greatest propaganda function," the reference to a tacit totalitarian structure of feeling may well be Fabre's anticommunist a priori. Foley notes in Radical Representations that "Marxist critics did not specifically urge proletarian novelists to incorporate the Communist party into their narratives' subject matter. But Marxist politics still crept thru the backdoor of discussions of the subject matter of proletarian fiction. For when it came to deciding what was essential to or representative of working class experience, there was considerable debate: what the writer felt to be representative or typical could be, in the eyes of the critic, distorted or idiosyncratic" (114). She goes on: "Contrary to the received wisdom [viewpoints like Fabre's], critics actually made few stipulations about the topics that writers should or should not represent. They offered no 'formulas' about conversion plots, triumphant workers, or heroic party members: so long as writers addressed some aspect of working class experience and indicated its relation to the class struggle, they should follow the bidding of their own imaginations" (my italics. 117). Citing Foley here, of course, does not dispel the question of why the story is misread. [^]

[17] Addison Gayle, Richard Wright: Ordeal of a Native Son (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 112-13. [^]


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