Mann vs. Nature

Uncle Tom’s Children is a collection of short stories written by Richard Wright and published in 1938.  Wright was born in Mississippi during the first decade of the 20th century, and as a result, lived to experience the immense racial injustices that Africans Americans still faced even after the passing of the 13th,14th , and 15th  amendments to the United States Constitution.  According to Richard Yarborough of the University of California, Uncle Tom’s Children marked the beginning of modern black protest literature and was one of the most unabashed critiques of white racism directed toward mainstream American readership. [1]  In the stories of “Down by the Riverside”, “Fire and Cloud”, and “Bright and Morning Star”, Wright creates vignettes depicting the everyday struggles of post-bellum African Americans whose lives are relentlessly plagued by the violence and brutality of Jim Crow law.     

“Down by the Riverside”, “Fire and Cloud”, and “Bright and Morning Star” each tell the story of a socially victimized African American protagonist who must choose between helping his/her black kinfolk seek refuge or succumb to the racist rules of the Jim Crow white power structure.  In each story, the protagonist ultimately chooses to assist his/her African American people, and as a result, ends up dying a merciless death.  Though the characters in these three stories are active agents in selecting their damned destinies, they each choose varying levels of militancy in their active resistance to the constraints of their oppressive societies.

In “Down by the Riverside”, Mann must navigate through conflicting familial and naturalistic pressures.  Over the course of the vignette, Mann attempts to save his family from an environmental disaster, while also fulfilling his societal obligations of a subjugated black man who must work to salvage a failing levee for the good of an oppressive community.  Though Mann has clear goals for his actions, it is evident that his environment is simply not in his favor.  In this sense, Wright uses Naturalism to tell the story of Mann. 

From the 1880s until the 1940s, Naturalism was a popular literary technique that used realism to suggest that environmental and social factors had an inescapable force on people that could not be overcome.  According to Donald Pizer’s Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction, Naturalists, like Wright, create their characters as being “conditioned and controlled by environment, heredity, instinct, or chance.” [2] And so, through the insurmountable forces that control Mann’s destiny, such as the storm and the Jim Crow Era, it is evident that Mann has been stripped of any independent agency that would have normally belonged to a man.  

Though Wright allows Mann to make decisions, such as choosing to save his family and violently defending himself against Mr. Heartfield, it is evident that Mann is not able to act as independently as the protagonists in “Fire and Cloud” and “Bright and Morning Star”.  In these two vignettes, Wright writes about the struggles that African Americans faced in gaining economic agency, particularly through their organization within the Communist Party.  Unlike “Down by the Riverside”, “Fire and Cloud” and “Bright and Morning Star” are directly about black activism as a means to combat racism, and so, Wright does not use Naturalism to tell these stories.  In “Fire and Cloud”, Taylor the preacher attempts to save his African American people from starvation by organizing with the town’s Communist Party and demanding that the white authorities give them food aid; and in “Bright and Morning Star”, Sue, whose sons are active Communist organizers, kills Booker, an informant, before he can give away the names of the other men of the Party.  As a result, both Sue and Taylor end up purposely sacrificing their lives for the black freedom struggle.

Regardless of the differing emotional states that Wright situates his protagonists in, the lives of each character are clear commentaries on American society of the Jim Crow Era.

What do you think are the major grouping themes of his vignettes?  What do you think are the political and social messages within them?  Do you think there are any morals to these stories?  If so, what?         

 

[1] Wright, Richard. Uncle Tom’s Children. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008.

[2] Pizer, Donald. Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Revised Ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

 

8 thoughts on “Mann vs. Nature

  1. The message I took from this week’s readings was that doing the right thing can be challenging, but in the end it is worth the fight. History is filled with people willing to give their lives for their beliefs. Though those times seem heroic and distant, we must continue to discuss their sacrifice and progress as human beings.

  2. I could not help but think of hurricanes Katrina, Irene and Sandy while reading Down by the Riverside. Natural disasters can bring out the worse in people, and the injustices that Mann encounters. Help came to those with greater power – i.e. the white townspeople – first, while their security was built by those with less power – the black men who were working on the levees and the black men who went to save the trapped the Heartfields. Discrimination still occurs overtly whenever tragedy strikes, and when disasters hit a community the losses of those with lesser power can be overshadowed by the privileged. Mann’s loss of his wife was hardly a thought in the minds of the white doctors, nurses and soldiers in the hospital, but the Heartfield’s trapped in their home was a grave enough concern that they asked a rescue boat to attempt to save the family.

    1. I too thought about Katrina, but I thought about the chaos that must follow a natural disaster such as this. Mann could easily have escaped his fate by simply not acting and saving the white family. His actions would easily have been covered up by the chaos of the flood, and no one would would have known, and yet he chose to do the “right thing” and was punished for it in the end.

  3. In a way, these stories show just how powerless many people, especially those without power, when faced with an insurmountable challenge. Mann, for instance, really did not have any choice in what happened to him. He wanted to save his pregnant wife, but the only way to do it was by rowing a stolen boat into the middle of the white part of town, risking a deadly confrontation with its owner and she ended up dying anyway.

  4. For me, in Mann’s story, the theme of being powerlessly swept away by uncontrollable forces spoke louder than any individual plot point. The water symbolized the world Mann lived in, and how though he struggled and fought, in the end he felt incapable of holding back the rising tides. It was a brilliant way to give readers the same feeling of powerlessness that Mann felt (and yes Nick and Naomi, it unfortunately reminded me of Katrina as well). It also is well balanced by Fire and Cloud. Without Fire and Cloud demonstrating what choices could occur (though of course, in Jim Crow America, every choice has serious repercussions) I would have said Wright was perhaps showing his characters as lacking agency, which is rather pessimistic (but then again, that pessimism would not be misplaced). The story of the preacher organizing his community shows what could be done to fight back the raging tide.

  5. Partway through reading “Down By the Riverside,” the thought struck me that if anyone but Richard Wright had written the story (well, “anyone” is an exaggeration, but you know what I mean), it might have ended with some kind of hokey moment of racial reconciliation in the face of nature’s unsegregated cruelty – but, of course, it does not. He doesn’t give us the easy ending that we desperately want, but instead shows us just how powerless man is against the forces around him. I hadn’t thought of it, but I really like tying it into the idea of environmental determinism – the characters are subject to their cultural landscape as much as (if not more than) they are subject to the literal one.

    1. I agree with you, I kept half expecting the white characters to set aside their strict segregation in the face of such a disaster (of course, knowing who I was reading, I knew better). It was such a powerful commentary on the strength and depth of racism that even in the life or death situation of the flood, the black characters were consistently treated with callous disregard.

  6. Lindsey, I completely felt the same way, that by some miracle white characters would not exactly band together, but at least treat them in a different manner. Instead I found myself so upset that racism continued to persevere even in such disastrous events. At the end of the reading I felt the same exact way as you, how the readings portrayed the incredibly deep roots of racism. It definitely is relevant to recent disasters as well, especially Katrina.

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