Born Into Doom

Richard Wright has to be by far one of my favorite writers, for many reasons.  I particularly admire how, through his writing, he captures the African American experience by bringing out notions of political factors, social conditions and of course that he is not afraid to ‘take it there’.  I often find myself in awe of the suspense in his writing, always keeping in mind that there will be an inevitable bad ending.

Living during the Jim Crow era, it was a struggle for blacks to live a free life while simultaneously fighting white oppression.  Wright shows that these forces, like white oppression, in which blacks are presented with from birth, conspire to ultimately aid in their doom- meaning they are doomed from birth.  No matter what one does, it is already predetermined by natural forces to have an impending doom.   A common theme that arises across his writing is the idea of naturalism, which focuses on humans and the relationship they have with their environment.  Naturalism is a concept found both in philosophy and literature.  In literature, naturalism is “a literary style combining a deterministic view of human nature and a nonidealistic, detailed observation of events.”[1]  This applies to all the lives of African Americans Wright writes about.  Naturalism shows that causal factors encourage blacks to make the decisions they do, almost as if they have no choice.  We see an example of this in Big Boy Leaves Home in the book Uncle Tom’s Children, as Big Boy is forced to kill Jim Harvey in a life or death altercation.  If Big Boy had not done what he did, he would not have been alive to escape his childhood in the South.  In addition, Big Boy’s family and community network had to make the decision to send Big Boy to Chicago to escape the mob from lynching him, as they had no other choice.  Naturalism leads us to assume that it was instinctive of the boys to think about their nakedness, run for their clothes, kill in order to survive and thus save themselves from being lynched.  All of their actions were second nature to them.

Another aspect of naturalism focuses on how one finds meaning in their lives despite the negative conditions.  Although doubtful, Big Boy was able to see the meaning of his life, he came to a sort of self-awareness through his struggles.  Overnight, Big Boy went from innocent childhood to mature into an adult who had to fend and fight for his freedom from white oppression.  It is significant for him to gain this self-awareness because he was no longer sheltered by his innocent ways; he understood the full depth of life under Jim Crow and how to survive and fight it.  Naturalism puts into perspective the aspects of African American experience through literature that one may not think about.  Such aspects are how one acts in social situations, how one speaks to white Americans, or how one acts on the job -all determined by their environment driven by powerful social factors.  We have to thank Richard Wright for successfully conveying these experiences through literary arts.

Uncle Tom's Children
Uncle Tom’s Children by Richard Wright
Published in 1938

[1] The Free Dictionary, “Naturalism,”, February 12, 2013.

18 thoughts on “Born Into Doom

  1. I know that Naturalism was a literary and philosophical school-of-thought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so I’ve been wondering why Naturalism was used by African American writers like Wright, Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston after it’s hey-day during the Progressive Era? Perhaps Naturalism’s harsher view reality, it’s focus on oppressive systems beyond human control that interested Wright?

    1. I think that’s right on the money. Naturalism provides a way to allow the events to speak for themselves, asserting that discrimination needs no description in order to be understood. Essentially, naturalism argues that it’s more important that these events be recorded, even in works of fiction, and history will take things from there.

      1. Interesting. When I normally hear about naturalism in conjunction with race, it’s about how naturalist philosophy fed racist beliefs. Did African American writers draw upon a different strand of naturalism than unilinear evolutionists and other racists did, or did they just interpret naturalist implications in radically different ways?

    2. Naturalism has a different definition in the literary realm than in other fields. You’re right to point out that Wright comes a bit late in this movement–well after modernism has taken hold. He was also deeply influenced by the literature of the Radical Left, which we might call social, or even socialist, realist. I’m intrigued by your characterization of Hughes and Hurston as naturalistic. I hadn’t thought of them as fitting in this vein.

      I’m including a fairly lengthy definition of naturalism below that may aid our discussion:

      Donald Pizer’s Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction, Revised Edition (1984):

      [T]he naturalistic novel usually contains two tensions or contradictions, and . . . the two in conjunction comprise both an interpretation of experience and a particular aesthetic recreation of experience. In other words, the two constitute the theme and form of the naturalistic novel. The first tension is that between the subject matter of the naturalistic novel and the concept of man which emerges from this subject matter. The naturalist populates his novel primarily from the lower middle class or the lower class. . . . His fictional world is that of the commonplace and unheroic in which life would seem to be chiefly the dull round of daily existence, as we ourselves usually conceive of our lives. But the naturalist discovers in this world those qualities of man usually associated with the heroic or adventurous, such as acts of violence and passion which involve sexual adventure or bodily strength and which culminate in desperate moments and violent death. A naturalistic novel is thus an extension of realism only in the sense that both modes often deal with the local and contemporary. The naturalist, however, discovers in this material the extraordinary and excessive in human nature.

      The second tension involves the theme of the naturalistic novel. The naturalist often describes his characters as though they are conditioned and controlled by environment, heredity, instinct, or chance. But he also suggests a compensating humanistic value in his characters or their fates which affirms the significance of the individual and of his life. The tension here is that between the naturalist’s desire to represent in fiction the new, discomfiting truths which he has found in the ideas and life of his late nineteenth-century world, and also his desire to find some meaning in experience which reasserts the validity of the human enterprise. (10-11)

  2. Growing up, I learned racism was an action, not so much an environment. Underlying tensions each day never really appeared–then again, I grew up in a rural and primarily white area. It has taken a long time to understand how racism can surround someone just by stepping into public, often forcing survivalist instincts to be at the ready. Thanks to you and Richard Wright for explaining it so well.

    1. I agree that racism is an action. You could argue that when people repeat an action they inevitably shape the environment. This new environment can harbor racial tensions that make it difficult to change racist actions. In fact, it can teach neutral people to resort to racism. I experienced this when I moved to Korea as a child. I knew nothing about the Korean people, but because I lived inside the American Installation I was taught to distrust the South Korean people. There was a lot of racial tension that was considered acceptable by everyone. It was a weight that covered me for many years after I moved back to the United States.

  3. Your point about naturalism putting the African American experience into perspective really got me thinking about how society has changed, if at all. Still today in the United States many minority populations must consider their actions in public and social situations. There is still a need for double consciousness today, just as there was when Wright was writing “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” and “Big Boy Leaves Home.”

  4. Thank you, Araya, for pointing this out. I had not picked up on this theme in the readings until you pointed it out. I agree with Michelle that, unfortunately, little has changed and these issues are all too relevant today. Oppressive systems still shape the way that people live. I think sometimes we forget this and put too much emphasis on individual actions, rather than imbalances in power structures in society. I also think this issue goes beyond race.

    1. I agree that I think these issues are all too present yet today. Just to clarify for myself, what do you mean when you say “too much emphasis on individual actions?” Do you mean the more isolated events that occur? Just curious.

  5. The relationship between people and place/environment was something that also stuck out to me in this week’s readings. Travel allowed John Jones (“Of the Coming of John”) and Roy Williams (“Home”) to experience a world outside of Jim Crow. Ultimately, John’s and Roy’s experiences had tragic consequences for them.

    In “Big Boy Leaves Home,” the northbound seven train provided Big Boy and his friends a symbol of hope, especially while they contemplated what Jim Harvey would do to them if he caught them swimming on his property. This, in turn, made me think of assumptions that come with race relations and place. Do images of racial violence in the South distort assumptions about racism in the North? Are we to assume that once Big Boy arrived in the North, he would be free from racism?

    1. That is an excellent point Eric. While northern states may not have had the volume of reported lynchings that occurred in the South, that does not suggest that the North was free of racial violence. Physical threats are the most immediate, but enforcing the idea of racial inferiority shapes a person’s life forever. I think we have a tendency to remember the Jim Crow era for its immediate violence and forget that the northern states still upheld a sense of white superiority.

    2. “Do images of racial violence in the South distort assumptions about racism in the North?”
      Interesting point, Eric. I was thinking about this too, and I think that racial tensions in the North can be overshadowed by the history of violence in the South. However, ultimately it is not the places themselves, the physical environments, but the people who live there that color one’s impressions of home. I’m not quite sure what to make of this connection between place and people…

    3. Good point, Eric. I think some northerners (including myself) tend to have misconceptions about how things really were for African Americans back in the days of the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, etc. I like to think that northerners didn’t have slaves and that they didn’t lynch anyone; unfortunately, this was not the case. It’s easy to focus on the tragedies in the South during this time, as there was so much overt violence and racism there, which was even supported by local law enforcement. However, we must not forget about the acts of violence suffered in the North also.

    4. I think that Wright’s own life can answer your last question. Wright lived in Chicago and New York, but moved to Paris in the 1940s. I know there are multiple reasons why Wright left, but one was the racism that he experienced in the North.

    5. It is easy for us as Americans to segregate racism to one region and time period, it certainly is convenient. Buying into this idea can perpetuate a myth of America as a post-racial nation. Based on our discussions on this blog and tweets it is apparent that America is not. Though reading Wright and Hughes is gut-wrenching and looking at photos depicting acts of racial violence is distressing, more education of racism throughout the America’s history and geography seems necessary to combat this idea and to stop throwing it all on the South. Certainly I’m not suggesting the South is innocent by any means whatsoever and we should never downplay what happened there, but I find it distressing that America can use an ill-defined region as its scapegoat for racism and not confront the present problems we have today.

  6. So much literature and history of racial tension have been focused in the Jim Crow South. I wonder if theres any books about there that deal with issues of race going on, in the North around the same time?

    1. You might be interested in “Black No More” by George S. Schuyler. I read it a while ago but if I remember correctly part of it takes place in NYC. It is a science fiction satire novel where a scientist has created a way to turn people white, because of this “As the country “whitens”, the economic importance of racial segregation in the South as a means of maintaining elite white economic and social status becomes increasingly apparent.”-wikipedia. It was published in 1931 five years before “Big Boy Goes Home”.

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