“What do Communists think people are?”

This woodcut from the Voice of Action, a Seattle weekly published by the Communist Party, shows the anti-racist agenda of the CP in the early 1930s.

In 1944 Wright published an article in The Atlantic Monthly called “I tried to be a Communist.” He recounts a wonderful conversation with his mother who finds him reading communist magazines. She is taken aback not by the words of the movement but the imagery:

“What’s the matter, Mama?”

“What is this?” she asked, extending the magazine to me, pointing to the cover.  “What’s wrong with that man?”

With my mother standing at my side, lending me her eyes, I stared at a cartoon drawn by a Communist artist; it was the figure of a worker clad in ragged overalls and holding aloft a red banner.  The man’s eyes bulged; his mouth gaped as wide as his face; his teeth showed; the muscles of his neck were like ropes.  Following the man was a horde of nondescript men, women, and children, waving clubs, stones, and pitchforks.

“What are those people going to do?” my mother asked.

“I don’t know,” I hedged.

“Are these Communist magazines?”


“And do they want people to act like this?”

“Well —“ I hesitated.

My mother’s face showed disgust and moral loathing.  She was a gentle woman.  Her ideal was Christ upon the cross.  How could I tell her that the Communist Party wanted her to march in the streets, chanting, singing?

“What do Communists think people are?” she asked. [1}

I think the relaying of this story gets at a central struggle in Wright’s political ideology and his inability to separate himself from the culture of  which he is a product.  His early embrace of communism, and its use in Uncle Tom’s Children as a device that may save African American’s never rings as true to me as the individual actions of the characters who act not out of political ideology, but out of their essential humanness.

Wright Wrote:
The Communists, I felt had oversimplified the experience of those whom they sought to lead. In their efforts to recruit masses, they had missed the meaning of the lives of the masses, had conceived of people in too abstract a manner…. I would tell Communists how common people felt and I would tell common people of the self-sacrifice of Communists who strove for unity among them [2]

But in the stories from Uncle Tom’s Children, Wright does legitimize and builds up the communist party as a new force in African-American lives. In the story “Bright and Morning Star”  Sue  says “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” [3]

Yet when faced with the horrifying end of her son’s and her own life, Sue is not emboldened by party slogans or thoughts of the masses, She is focussed on her individual actions. Her sacrifice is rooted in her formative Christian beliefs. She shares Wright’s Mother’s conviction that the ideal is  Christ upon the cross.  The last line says the rain fell on “the doomed living, and the dead that never dies”[4] place the slaughtered lambs and the mob in an eternal context that is unmistakable.

Wright could not possibly be demonstrating the power of the communist party. Sue’s action are born of a selfless love of a mother. Just as Taylor’s eventual decision to march in Fire and Cloud is through the connection he shares with the ultimate suffering of his brother’s and sisters.

Wright wrote in his 1945 journal that he was a “…Communist who cannot stand being a member of the Communist groups, a writer who does not and cannot and will not write as other writers write?”[5]

Wright as author and man is a product of his culture. The strength of the masses never equal the strengths of his individual charachters.

1. Richard Wright, “I tried to be a communist,” in The God That Failed, ed. Richard Crossman (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949), p. 120.

2. Ibid

3. Wright,Richard. Uncle Tom’s Children (New Y0rk:Harper Collins 1993)225

4. Wright.263

5.Rowley, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. New York: Holt, 2001.320.

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