Palette of Fire: The Aesthetics of Propaganda in Black Boy and in the Castle of My Skin

By Lowe, John | The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Palette of Fire: The Aesthetics of Propaganda in Black Boy and in the Castle of My Skin


Lowe, John, The Mississippi Quarterly


All art is propaganda

--W. E .B. Du Bois

RICHARD WRIGHT, WHOSE NATIVE SON EXPLODED ACROSS THE AMERICAN literary firmament like a grenade in 1940, has always been noted as a master of propaganda, and his lifelong commitment to writing as a force for social change has rightly been studied in depth. This critical approach, however, has often hampered a full appreciation of Wright's full arsenal of talents, for he is also fully versed in all the techniques of rhetoric, poetry, and narrative. Nevertheless, from the beginning of his career, Wright has been ceaselessly pigeonholed by left-leaning critics, like Dan McCall, who wrote in a full-length study of Wright's work in the radical year of 1969, "We come to him not for new ways of saying things but for the new things he has to say. When he does get 'literary' on us, when he draws himself up into 'writing,' he is merely fancy, and he fails" (105). For McCall, Black Boy is the perfect antidote to this, for in that book, Wright supposedly merely reveals the horror and lets us interpret it. I believe this is far from the truth, yet this kind of perspective has been paramount in Wright criticism for some time. This discussion will begin from the premise that Wright always saw his propaganda as art and that he worked tirelessly throughout his career to interbraid the two, while simultaneously experimenting with new forms and techniques.

Viewing Wright this way can assist us as we reconfigure him into hemispheric and transatlantic ways, for Wright always appealed to writers outside the United States through both his propaganda and his art. Further, Wright had an especially strong influence on Caribbean writers, who were, in many cases, making an argument through their art against European colonial oppression. I need not detail here how often a parallel has been made between the racial system of the pre-Civil Rights US South and the colonial histories of the Caribbean, which were equally but differently structured around racial division. To demonstrate this influence, I will subsequently demonstrate a similar trajectory for the Barbadian novelist George Lamming, whose autobiographical novel In the Castle of My Skin seems a veritable homage to Wright, who indeed wrote the introduction for Castle when it appeared in 1953. Setting these two texts together reveals the many similarities between Southern and West Indian rural life, diasporan commonalities, and multiple instances of literary invention that stem from racial oppression.

Further, Wright often spoke of the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa as a kind of triangular Black Atlantic. In an interview with George Charbonnier in 1960, he claimed that

It is American Negroes, from the South of the United States and the Caribbean, who brought the idea of black nationalism to Africa.... We feel we are not really at home in our country. This is the origin, logically enough, of black nationalism. It begins with Marcus Garvey [a Jamaican] in the United States. After Garvey and W. E. B. DuBois, George Padmore [from Trinidad] was at the root of this idea. (Kinnamon and Fabre 228)

Thus the idea of black "homelessness" for Wright is a hemispheric, rather than a US, phenomenon, and Lamming would seem to him to be a fellow traveler in this respect.

A corollary to this approach will be the assumption that Wright and Lamming found their genius in their native settings and that much of their greatest writing achieves its stature through shrewd, sometimes majestic employment of Southern and Caribbean culture, flora and fauna, folklife, weather, history and language. Further, these testimonies came from memory, conjured up in exile, as Wright wrote after immigration to Northern cities, and, later, to Paris; Lamming penned his works from London, after an initial exile to Trinidad.

Ample proof and examples for these assertions may first be found in one of Wright's greatest achievements, Black Boy (1945), the first part of the overall autobiography that concludes with American Hunger. …

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