'The Reds Are in the Bible Room": Political Activism and the Bible in Richard Wright's 'Uncle Tom's Children.'

Article excerpt

When Israel was in Egyptland,

Let my people go.

Oppressed so hard they could not stand,

Let my people go.

Go down, Moses

Tell old Pharaoh,

Let my people go.

Despite Ralph Ellison's proclamation that Richard Wright "found the facile answers of Marxism before he learned to use literature as a means for discovering the forms of American Negro humanity,"(1) Richard Wright could not help but "discover" the various forms of his own African-American heritage. As Ellison has also said, quoting Heraclitus, "geography is fate."(2) While the first volume of Wright's autobiography, Black Boy, does claim "the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes" and the "cultural barrenness of black life,"(3) it also catalogues many of the joys and strengths of that same "black life": the Thomas Wolfe-like lists of beautiful sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of Southern black rural life; the lyrical catalogues of black folk beliefs that, like Zora Neale Hurston, he recognized as being vital to African-American survival in the racially hostile South; the indomitable will that Wright inherited from his mother; and, perhaps most importantly for Wright as an artist, his imaginative quest through literature for insight into his own lived experience.(4)

It is important to remember that Wright's "geographic destiny" also included a thorough indoctrination into the black South's religiosity, a fact also documented in Black Boy, but often overlooked. His initiation into the symbology of biblical stories and the power of verbally constructed images as taught to him in the black church formed a vital part of his literary apprenticeship. And while Wright did not embrace the black church, as an African American from the violently Jim Crow state of Mississippi, he certainly did recognize the vital role the church played as a bulwark against the tide of white racism in the lives of Southern blacks; he recognized that African-American religiosity provided psychic health for blacks by assuring them that they would not always be oppressed in the "Egyptland" of the Jim Crow South; and, moreover, he came to recognize the radical potential of the black church and its ability to equip Southern blacks with an indigenous belief system for hastening and contributing to their own liberation.(5) The political, revolutionary lessons Wright learned during his affiliation with the American Communist Party (CPUSA) in Chicago allowed him to recognize the revolutionary potential within the Bible lessons he learned from the black church. The lessons from these seemingly conflicting sources entered into what he once called the "community medium of exchange"(6) of his imagination and were transmuted into the fictive works of Uncle Tom's Children. Each of the collection's stories demonstrates either the tragic consequences of life without a church committed to revolutionary politics, or the victorious results of a Christian praxis driven by a Marxist demand for social justice.

As Abdul JanMohamed has noted, the cohesion of Uncle Tom's Children derives from its incremental repetition of themes,(7) with Wright's concerns progressing outward from individual survival toward community solidarity and eventual political activism. Wright revised the collection for its subsequent 1940 publication by adding an introductory essay, "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," and a fifth and concluding story, "Bright and Morning Star," which make this outward expansion even more explicit. Wright explained his decision to revise the collection in "How `Bigger' Was Born," the introduction to his next work, Native Son. He says, "I had written a book of short stories which was published under the title of Uncle Tom's Cabin [in 1938]. When the reviews of that book began to appear, I realized that I had made an awfully naive mistake. I found that I had written a book which even bankers' daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. …