This absorbing new biography of Richard Wright comes at a time that almost seems meant for an accounting. It is just 40 years since the publication of Wright's "Native Son" catapulted him to the forefront of American fiction and recial protest. It is just 20 years since Wright's sudden passing led to controversy over whether the United States government was involved in his demise.
These are long period for black, or any other, individuals to be victims of the injustice and discrimination that remain in the United States. But they are relatively short periods for hisotry to witness the kind of massive constructive change that American Society has undertaken. One specific bit of evidence is the Freedom of Information legislation, under which biographer Addison Gayle, professor of English at Bernard Baruch College in the City University of New York, has obtained access to government documents on Wright.
If only Wright had survived -- he would now be only in his early 70s -- he might not have felt he had to stay abroad for his family to live like human be ings. Even after his experience of poverty, discrimination, and violence, he might have felt confirmed in his measured hopes of years before, when he had decided to "relinquish the belief that salvation on American shores was impossible."
Indeed, during his years abroad, the amelioration of conditions for black Americans had been sufficient to make his later harsh writings seem out of touch. And the great civil rights impetus of the '60s was still to come.
Wright was outraged at one sign of the times, when he thought a young black American, James Baldwin, was attacking him in a critical essay on protest novels. But Baldwin said he had no such intention against the man whose works had made him "my ally and my witness, and alas! my father."
Older than Baldwin, younger than Wright, Ralph Ellison has rejected the notion that Wright was his literary ancestor, the kind of conclusion that can be undiscerningly leaped to when two writers happen to be black. Ellison's chosen "ancestors" Dostoevsky, Faulkner.
Here might be noted the diversity of possibilities even in what Wright, growing up in Mississippi and Tennessee, saw as a monolithic South. Youn Ellison in Oklahoma was the beneficiary of what he has called the Ironies and Uses of Segregation -- when a well-stocked library for blacks was hastily provided after it was discovered there was no law, only custom, to keep them out of the public library. But where young Wright was, the public libraries would not open to black citizens until 1960, and the only black library was "a library in name alone." He managed to use the library by borrowing a white man's card and ostensibly picking up the books for him.
As a young lad, Wright can hardly believe it when he finds white people actually writing critically about the South; when he meets the first white Southerners to give him a helping hand; when he meets a black family unlike the bleak ones he has known: "The main value in their lives was simple, good clean living and when they thought they had found these qualities in one of their own race, they instinctively embraced him. . . ." The burden Wright implicitly places on black people not to cooperate in accepting stereotypes of themselves in echoed these days, consciously or not, in the writings of Ishmael Reed.
What brought Wright to the attention of the government was not only his racial protest but his turn to the Communist Party as a hope for aiding black Americans. Even after he left the party, according to the documents, officials sought to keep his name in a secueity index permitting standby warrants and sudden arrest of "potential subversives."
Wright had seen that the Communists were manipulating the race issue for their own purposes. Like Malcolm Cowley in his recent reminiscences of the depression years, Wright saw that the Communists knew a lot of about politics but little of the human heart.
Nowhere do the documents show that Wright did engage in subversive activity or abet anyone in undermining the security of the US, according to Professor Gayle. Indeed, there is evidence that Wright may have cooperated with authorities voluntarily as well as under pressure.
Nor does the biographer find in the documents any evidence that the FBI or CIA was directly involved in Wright's sudden passing, though he does see the State Department implicated in a "Seeming vendetta" against the expatriate. He believes that only the restoration of heavily deleted sections might show whether there was any connection with Wright's fatal heart attack. The professor's opinion, like that of a previous biographer, is that the tensions produced by the government took their toll.
Sometimes it seems that WRight was his own enemy. As far as the general public is concerned his writings have been in virtual eclipse for years, deservedly so in those episodes of gratuitous violence that may have gone back to childhood horrors but that made protest seem like sensationalism. But Professor Gayle notes some added interest in Wright recently, and his own volume , for all the questions it leaves, is testimony to a flawed but extraordinary career that still holds warnings and promises for America.