Academic journal article African American Review

"The Uses and Hazards of Expatriation": Richard Wright's Cosmopolitanism in Process

Academic journal article African American Review

"The Uses and Hazards of Expatriation": Richard Wright's Cosmopolitanism in Process

Article excerpt

"I'm a rootless man," Richard Wright declares boldly in White Man Listen! (1957), "but I m neither psychologically distraught nor in any wise particularly perturbed because of it" (xxix). In this and in many other statements, Wright claims for himself, and decidedly embraces, the status of the rootless cosmopolitan, the man who does "not hanker after, and seem[s] not to need, as many emotional attachments, sustaining roots, or idealistic allegiances as most people" (xxix). This radically solitary position, Wright "confesses" to his (presumably American) reader, "is no personal achievement of mine.... I've been shaped to this mental stance by the kind of experiences that I have fallen heir to" (xxix). His historical situatedness, Wright suggests, as a black man in the racist United States, as an American who does not "belong" to the American community, and as a foreigner experiencing the French and African political climates of the 1950s, produced in him an outlook that rejects tradition and community in favor of what we might call a Cynic cosmopolitanism. After all, it was Diogenes the Cynic who first called himself a kosmopolites, a "citizen of the world," and who famously refused, as Martha Nussbaum explains in her controversial essay "Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism" (1996), "to be defined by his local origins and group memberships ... instead, he defined himself in terms of more universal aspirations and concerns" (6-7). In a similar spirit, Wright declared that he was perfectly able and happy to "make [him]self at home almost anywhere on this earth" (White Man xxix). Fulfilling this capacity, however, turned out to be more difficult than he had hoped.

To aspire to cosmopolitanism, as Wright's life demonstrates, is to set one's self a demanding task, to invite failure. Nevertheless, it is precisely from both his successes and his failures that we can learn valuable lessons about the development of a cosmopolitan outlook. Wright's life and work show that the rootless, detached--Cynic--brand of cosmopolitanism that he passionately proclaimed in several of his writings is hard, if not impossible, to sustain in lived experience. Even more interesting, however, is that Wright's actions and writings were inconsistent with his proclamations of radical independence. Despite his occasional Cynic outbreaks, overall, he embraced a much more Stoic brand of cosmopolitanism, one that, starting from a necessarily specific geo-historical position, continues to strive for human solidarity across national and racial boundaries. Rather than condemning the resulting inconsistencies as failures or evidence of dishonesty, deceit, or disingenuity, we might consider them a necessary and nearly inevitable part of the cosmopolitan endeavor: cosmopolitanism, I think, is best understood as a permanent, "in-process" pursuit. (1)

As Kwame Anthony Appiah asserts in his 2006 Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, "There's a sense in which cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge" (xv). While Appiah is well aware of the challenges that cosmopolitanism poses to the individual, and stresses the centrality of the conversation (in its widest sense) in facing or overcoming those challenges, nowhere does he fully clarify how we should lead such conversations--itself a difficult theoretical and practical issue. Richard Wright's life and writings yield insight into the difficulty of being truly cosmopolitan; they reveal how we can, if not remedy, at least alleviate that difficulty. Read through theories of intercultural hermeneutics provided by German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, theories that stress historical situatedness and the significance of the prejudice for (intercultural) understanding, Wright's writings insinuate an "in-process" approach to cosmopolitanism that favors the process of becoming a world citizen over its final outcome. Cosmopolitanism is understood here, then, as a complex dialogical practice in which the cosmopolitan ideal figures permanently as a yet-to-be-accomplished and yet-to-be-fully-defined utopia. …

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