The Lord or Lenin

Reading Richard Wright’s “Fire and Cloud” and “Bright and Morning Star,” I was struck by the negative portrayal of Christianity and the Church within both stories.  The picture that Wright paints in these stories seems to be a reflection of his own life experiences.  In “Bright and Morning Star” the protagonist, Sue, finds a new religion in the teachings of the communist party.  The talk of her communist sons,

ripped from her startled eyes her old vision, and image by image had given her a new one, different but great and strong enough to fling her into the light of another grace.  The wrongs, and sufferings of black men had taken the place of Him nailed to the Cross; the meager beginnings of the party had become another Resurrection, and the hate of those who would destroy her new faith had quickened in her a hunger to feel how deeply her new strength went.[1]

Sue found that the “sufferings” of life could not be fixed by the Church and turns to the message of the communist party for answers.  Her fictional experience mirrors the real life experience of Wright which he recounts in his autobiography:

Before I had been made to go to church, I had given God’s existence a sort of tacit assent, but after having seen His creatures serve Him at first hand, I had my doubts.  My faith, such as it was, was welded to the common realities of life.[2]

However, while Wright was obviously turned off by the Church and its teachings, his attitude seems out of touch with the message of the civil rights movement that would come later under Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr's church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta GA.

King recognized the power of the Church community and preached a message that was rooted in biblical principles. “God grant that ministers, and lay leaders, and civic leaders, and businessmen, and professional people all over the nation will rise up and use the talent and the finances that God has given them, and lead the people on toward the Promised Land of freedom with rational, calm, nonviolent means.”[4]  Perhaps Wright and other black communists failed to recognize the real power of the Church as was vehicle for change in Jim Crow south.  This leads me to question how much of Wright’s communist portrayal is indicative of the time, and how much of it is just an extension of his own beliefs.

[1]Richard Wright, “Bright and Morning Star,” in Uncle Tom’s Children. (New York: Harperperenial, 1991), 225

[2]Richard Wright, Black Boy. (New York: Literary Classics of America, 1991), 110.

[3]Ebenezer Baptist Chuch, http://commons.wikimedia.org

[4]Martin Luther King Jr. “A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in the Area of Race Relations,” MLK online, http://www.mlkonline.net/progress.html

3 thoughts on “The Lord or Lenin

  1. I think what changed was the message churches (like King’s) were sending to their members.

    Given the importance of the church in black communities (particularly in the South), it’s probably unrealistic to believe that sort of institution could/would be dismantled and disregarded quickly. However, I think Wright was right in that, historically, organized religion had been used in a way that encouraged blacks to quietly accept “their place” as second-class citizens (or slaves, if you want to go even further back).

    By Dr. King’s time, liberation theology was making huge inroads into many Christian denominations. Political and social activism, aimed at improving life in the here and now, became a major focus for many churches, resulting in groups like King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Rather than quietly turning away from social change, congregations were taking the lead in effecting change.

    Religion was a difficult issue for Wright. In an interview shortly before his death in 1960, he remarked, “The religious spirit always endures. Up to now, man has always been a religious animal and secular art is a sublimination of the religious feeling.”[1] Clearly he was aware of the importance and power of religion in many people’s lives. It would be interesting to know if Wright’s feelings on religion changed/softened towards the end of his life, when these activist religious movements were taking place.

    [1] Keneth Kinnemon and Michael Fabre, eds. Conversations with Richard Wright (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993), 210.

  2. I don’t think Wright and other black communists failed to recognize the power of the church. I think both movements had their merit in different time periods. In both cases of Communism and religion, I think it was a matter of being the right answer at that specific point in history. In the 1920s and 30s, Communism was in the right place at the right time – serving as a means to escape the ugly ideology that plagued America. I think that the church, too, became an important agent in the South because it pushed change and advocated for a peaceful resolution.

    In “Fire and Cloud,” Dan Taylor’s congregation knew that associating with communists looked bad, but in the end, that’s what would get them bread to feed themselves and their children. The organization or entity that forces the most noticeable change will be recognized as the leader. Was it possible to join the movement for equal treatment without being an outright believer in the leaders, either Communism or religion?

  3. Listen Jesus, do you care for your race?
    Don’t you see we must keep in our place?
    We are occupied
    Have you forgotten how put down we are?
    I am frightened by the crowd
    For we are getting much too loud
    And they’ll crush us if we go too far
    If we go too far

    Listen Jesus to the warning I give
    Please remember that I want us to live
    But it’s sad to see our chances weakening with ev’ry hour
    All your followers are blind
    Too much heaven on their minds
    It was beautiful, but now it’s sour
    Yes it’s all gone sour
    Ah — ah ah ah — ah
    God Jesus, it’s all gone sour

    Jesus Christ Superstar by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber

    I had just finished reading Richard Wrights, Fire and Cloud, when Andrew Lloyd Webbers Heaven on their Mind from Jesus Christ Superstar appeared on my playlist. I don’t think I would have caught the similarities had I not just finished the reading; though the plot and specific character traits may be different, the character dynamics are strikingly similar. Fire and Cloud, depicts a town of blacks and poor whites, crying for relief aid, as they starve. Dan is a reverend and an important community figure, depicted as the mediary for his people and the white authorities. Having made his appeals to the white authorities and receiving no aid he returns home to a starving people. A march on the town is planned. With the assistance of local communist leaders blacks and poor whites alike will join in the demonstration. There is, however, a divide among Dan’s congregants, spearheaded by Deacon Smith. It is in the dynamics of Dan and Deacon Smith that I see the Judas and Jesus dynamic as displayed in Heaven on their Minds. Smith and Judas both fear the repercussions of the authority against the oppressed. The lyrics above could easily have replaced the pleas shouted by Deacon Smith before the march began. The desire to lie low seems to strike both men as the only sane option. Smith and Judas fear that to react is to cause problems for their entire race. They both allow the fear and anguish to permeate their pleas. Jesus and Dan both believe they are acting in the right of the people, basing their choices and beliefs in God and their People. Though the backdrops are different the character dynamics are surprisingly similar.

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