An Equation of Collectivity: We + You in Richard Wright's "12 Million Black Voices."

By Ghasemi, Mehdi | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 2018 | Go to article overview

An Equation of Collectivity: We + You in Richard Wright's "12 Million Black Voices."


Ghasemi, Mehdi, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


I approach Richard Wright's 12 Million Black Voices as a documentary fiction to show how Wright first depicts the "we" vs. "you" dichotomy between white and African Americans but then invites both to leave behind the "we" vs. "you" and embrace a "we + you."

Richard Wright's 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, first published in 1941, encapsulates the journey of African Americans in history and depicts their bitter experience and horrendous living conditions from their transportation to the New World to the time of the Great Migration. The book features a mixture of genres and forms, a mosaic built out of the juxtaposition of prose, poetry, photography, and history. Timothy Dow Adams believes that "Wright, simultaneously a poet, novelist, essayist, journalist, playwright, and actor, often used the same material in different genres" ("Richard" 71) and, as a result, his 12 Million Black Voices bears some similarities in theme with some of his other works, including Uncle Tom's Children, "How 'Bigger' Was Born," Native Son, Black Boy, and American Hunger (published posthumously in 1977). As a documentary fiction, the book combines prose with a number of photos, selected by Edwin Rosskam from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) files, showing African Americans within their socioeconomic roles and households. The term "documentary" signifies a genre that draws upon factual data as the raw materials for a "true story," and we expect a documentary to observe the conventions of the genre that offers a truthful version of an event. On the contrary, the term "fiction" denotes fabrication, and thus the use of documentary alongside fiction looks controversial. I employ the term "documentary fiction" in this essay to refer to the use of factual data within the fictional realm. In his book, Wright intermixes and matches historical accounts with photos, writes captions for some of the photos, contrives some dialogues, and emplots them. He hybridizes fact and fiction in order to create the appearance of being true and convince readers to believe his narratives of African American history/story.

It is worth noting that creating documentary fiction by partnering prose and photo was common during the Great Depression. In addition to the collaboration between Wright and Rosskam, the collaboration of novelist Julia Peterkin and photographer Doris Ulmann evolved into Roll, Jordan, Roll, which brought light to the community of the Gullah, a group of people of African descent living in the coastal region of South Carolina. Furthermore, the collaboration between writer Erskine Caldwell and photographer Margaret Bourke-White resulted in You Have Seen Their Faces, a pictorial portrayal of poor white and black sharecroppers and tenant farmers in the South during the Great Depression. Likewise, the collaboration between writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans produced Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (written in 1936 but not published until 1941), which documents the daily life of three representative white tenant families in the Deep South for a period of about six weeks during the same era.

In this essay, through a close reading, I approach Wright's 12 Million Black Voices as a documentary fiction, offering an analysis of its title and chapters in order to show how Wright first represents the "we" vs. "you" dichotomy and dispute that exists between white and African Americans. I then show how Wright invites white and African Americans to replace the "we" vs. "you" dispute with a "we + you" or "we all" approach and embrace collectivity.

In his 12 Million Black Voices, Wright uses the pronoun "We" and narrates African American history from the first-person plural point of view. According to Joel Woller, "A first-person plural voice of the masses is also one of the characteristic narrative techniques of US Resettlement Administration (RA) and Farm Security Administration (FSA) documentary films of the Depression, as well as of FSA photographic captioning and commentary" (340). …

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