Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Queer Guerrillas: On Richard Wright's and Frantz Fanon's Dissembling Revolutionaries

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Queer Guerrillas: On Richard Wright's and Frantz Fanon's Dissembling Revolutionaries

Article excerpt

IN WHITE MAN, LISTEN!, RICHARD WRIGHT GIVES US AN ANECDOTE OF A meeting with two acquaintances, one "an Englishman interested in Asia and Africa," the other "a West Indian Negro social scientist." As the three men have lunch, the Englishman directs numerous questions to Wright concerning the reactions of the colonized to their situation, questions which Wright obligingly answers. He gradually notices the increasing discomfort and anger of his West Indian acquaintance, who listens mutely to the exchange. In the end, the black social scientist cannot contain himself but quips: "Wright, why are you revealing all of our secrets?" Taken aback by the man's reaction, Wright tries to placate his friend by making a conciliatory remark: "Listen, ... the only secret in Asia and Africa and among oppressed people as a whole is that there is no secret." This statement makes the man "thr[ow] up his hands in disgust" and cry out: "You have now revealed the profoundest secret of all!" (17-18).

At stake in the scene are the possible merits for the postcolonial future of open, rational exchanges on the one hand and the wary strategies of deception on the other. Wright makes clear which side he favors: "To imagine that straight communication is no longer possible," he writes, "is to declare that the world we seek to defend is no longer worth defending, that the battle for human freedom is already lost" (46, emphasis added). He insists on his own strait-laced disposition by suggesting that he is constitutively incapable of adopting strategies of dissemblance in any sustained manner. As the scene unfolds, he positions himself as something of a well-intentioned dupe, naively divulging military secrets to the enemy, not realizing that there is a war going on. He unwittingly blows the game by revealing the bluff that his side has been keeping up: the "profoundest" secret of the anti-colonial counterstrategy is that there are no such secrets, that the hand of the colonized is empty; the veil is there to hide the fact that it hides nothing. In the West Indian's estimation, Wright renders his own people "vulnerable to white attack" (19).

Playing the straight man of the exchange, blissfully unaware of the intrigue and conspiracies all around him, Wright repeats in White Man, Listen/the descriptions of his adolescent self in Black Boy. The autobiography is replete with scenes of the young Richard's stumbling into situations in which he forgets, or is unaware of, how to act so as to conform to "the ethics of living Jim Crow." Wright impresses upon the reader: "it was simply utterly impossible for me to calculate, to scheme, to act, to plot all the time. I would remember to dissemble for short periods, then I would forget and act straight and human again, not with the desire to harm anybody, but merely forgetting the artificial status of race and class" (177, emphasis added). Calculating, scheming, acting, plotting these are names for the subaltern strategies of "cunning" that for slave narrators like Harriet Jacobs constitute the few available "weapon[s] of the weak" (609). There is, Wright explains, "an almost unconscious tendency [in the colonized] to hide their deepest reactions from those who they fear would penalize them if they suspected what they really felt" (White 17). "Acting" has developed as the result of the "enforced duplicity" (Wright, Conversations 108) imposed on the less powerful inhabitants of what Mary Louise Pratt calls "the contact zone." Frantz Fanon refers to such dynamics when he depicts the exchange of the "falsehood[s]" that characterize all contact between the colonized and the colonizers ("Algeria" 65; Wretched 39). While Wright at times recognizes the value that such tactics have had in history, (1) he unfailingly finds them self-defeating and emasculating. He typically seeks the eradication of all tricksterism and signifyin(g), whose subversive potential more recent scholarship and art have elaborated and affirmed. …

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