“Days were never so long as these days; and nights were never so empty as these nights.” [1]

In “Long Black Song” by Richard Wright, Sarah waits for Silas to come home and describes her loneliness, comparing it to the march of time.  In addition to this short story, “Big Boy Leaves Home” and “Down by the Riverside,” also by Richard Wright, and “Father and Son” and “Home” by Langston Hughes all reveal a strong theme of isolation within Southern Jim Crow African American communities.  The isolation created by white oppression widened the social and racial divide between Southern communities, driving African American communities further into depression.

This theme really stood out to me because most literature I’ve read before has focused on how communities create agency through relationships to fight or at least lessen the blow of oppression, contrasting strongly with the despair, hopelessness, and desolation prevalent throughout these stories.

Wright and Hughes portray whites as assuming a collective identity and persona for all African Americans.  These Jim Crow southerners can then easily transfer the blame for seeming transgressions of one African American individual to another, like in “Father and Son” when the townsmen decide to lynch Willie because they failed to murder Bert on their own terms. [2]

In contrast to this stereotype, this oppression forced African American communities apart.  White prejudice plays such a strong role in these short stories that African Americans could not bond together against it and lost their ability to physically care for each other.  When Big Boy tries to get help from his family in fleeing the white mob, all they can really do for him is provide him with food for the night and prayer. [3]  Emotional support, yes, but still a segregation and lessening of community power.

Isolation – and, in turn, individuality – can empower that person, but not when that isolation is forced upon someone.   Silas, Bert, and Mann all assert power in choosing their own terms of death and not granting the white men that satisfaction, but is a desperate, fatal symbol really a victory? [4]  This isolation was created for African Americans, not as an assertion of identity, but rather as a “veritable erasure of black individuality.” [5]

Wright and Hughes both convey that African American assertion of self is futile against the strength of white oppression.  They present a bleak outlook of individuals trying to claim space in the Jim Crow south, but who are relentlessly pushed back into this low place they have no power to escape.  These characters can escape and avoid oppression, but they are powerless to overcome it.

[1] Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004), 128.

[2] Langston Hughes, “Father and Son” in The Ways of White Folks (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990), 254-5.

[3] Wright, 35-45.

[4] Ibid, xxiv.

[5] Ibid.

One thought on ““Days were never so long as these days; and nights were never so empty as these nights.” [1]

  1. I really like your interpretation of community. “Father and Son” was the story that struck me most of those that we read, because I think it applied to what you have said about how oppression forced the African American community and supported isolation in many of its citizens. In this specific story, many of the African American characters practiced isolationism in different ways. No matter how each practiced this isolation, it seems that they all wanted to look “different” than the image of African Americans that the whites held.
    Willie isolated himself from black men who “sassed” white men (like his brother, Bert); Bert isolated himself from black people who he thought acted like the property of a white man; their mother isolated herself from other African Americans who lived on the plantation because she was Norwood’s (the white man’s) mistress. The worst part of the story was that no matter how he or she acted, they were never considered actual people by the whites that oppressed them. We see that in the way the white lynch mob decided to lynch Willie too after Bert did not give them the result they wanted.

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