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.  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.”  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?
 Wright, Richard. Uncle Tom’s Children. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008.
 Pizer, Donald. Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Revised Ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.