Oppression and Agency: Opposing Themes in Uncle Tom’s Children

In his collection of short stories, Uncle Tom’s Children, Richard Wright demonstrates the challenges of being black in the Jim Crow South. His characters deal with everything from insults and condescension to violence and death, and yet because of their strength and their responses to these challenges, the characters do not come across as victims. In this way, Wright explores the opposing themes of oppression and agency. In Uncle Tom’s Children, the characters tend to find themselves in “impossible” situations, where no matter what choice they make, the outcome will be devastating. Still, they manage to resist this oppressive system and find some satisfaction in the choices they make, even if the consequences are sometimes painful.

 

One example of these “impossible” situations occurs in “Big Boy Leaves Home.” Big Boy and his friends are naked, drying off after swimming in the creek, when a white woman wanders upon them. Because black men were considered sexual threats to white women, she is terrified and backs away, ending up standing by the tree where the boys left their clothes. The boys now find themselves in a dilemma. They cannot leave without their clothes, but if they approach the tree where their clothes and the white woman are, she could accuse them of trying to rape her. However, if they stay put and hope for her to leave, they risk someone else finding them there, such as the man who owns the land who has been known to shoot black people for trespassing. Either way, there is a good chance that the situation could end in their deaths.

 

Ultimately, the boys decide to go and get their clothes. The woman screams for her fiancé, who comes running with a gun. The shoot-out that follows leaves two of the boys dead and puts the other two on the hit-list of a lynch mob, showing that they were unable to choose an action that would have ended well for them.[1] This story makes it clear how frustrating it must have been to live under a system where no matter what one did, it was not the “right” choice.

 

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Anti-lynching protest (Courtesy of LessonPaths, “Rosa Parks Biography”)

The oppressiveness of this system makes it all the more impressive when the characters resist, with varying degrees of success. Big Boy escapes before the lynch mob can come after him. He hides in a kiln near the road to wait until morning, when a family friend lets him hide in the back of his truck and takes him to safety in Chicago. However, first he has to endure a terrifying night of lying in the kiln, expecting the mob to discover him, and watching the mob capture and brutally murder his remaining friend. Big Boy manages to resist the system and come out alive, but his three friends are not so lucky.[2] Others, like the anti-lynching protesters pictured here, used more organized protest as a means of resistance. The starving black community in “Fire and Cloud” similarly uses this technique; they join forces with the poor white community for a march and succeed in getting the mayor to promise them food.[3]

 

Perhaps the best example of resistance in Uncle Tom’s Children, however, is also the one with the highest cost. In “Bright and Morning Star,” Sue’s son Johnny-Boy, a leader of the local Communist Party, has gone to warn his comrades that the sheriff knows about their next meeting. The sheriff and his men break into Sue’s house and demand to know where Johnny-Boy is, but she stands up to them, telling them to get out of her house and refusing to say where her son is, even when the sheriff beats her repeatedly until she loses consciousness.[4]

 

When she regains consciousness, she soon finds herself in another difficult situation. Booker, a white man who recently joined the party, comes and tells her that the sheriff caught Johnny-Boy before he could warn the others. Someone needs to warn them, but she is too weak from being beaten and she does not trust Booker. Eventually, Sue decides to tell Booker the names of all the party members in the hopes that he will warn them, but when she finds out that Booker is actually working for the sheriff, she is determined to stop him before he can tell the sheriff who is in the party. Despite her injuries, she finds the strength to walk through the rain, wade through the creek, and find the sheriff’s men and Johnny-Boy before Booker can get there. When Booker arrives, she shoots and kills him before he can tell any of the names. The sheriff’s men kill both her and Johnny-Boy in revenge, but she is satisfied in her last moments, knowing that she is dying on her own terms.[5]

 

These stories, with their opposing themes of oppression and agency, have a powerful message. If black people in the Jim Crow South could resist oppression and injustice against seemingly impossible odds, when the potential consequences were so high, then people today can also resist injustice.

 

Notes:

[1] Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1936), 25-33.

[2] Ibid., 46-61.

[3] Ibid., 215-220.

[4] Ibid., 232-241.

[5] Ibid., 241-263.

Featured Image: Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Courtesy of Michael Venske, “Why Cops are in an Impossible Situation”)

4 thoughts on “Oppression and Agency: Opposing Themes in Uncle Tom’s Children

  1. I like the idea of bringing this into the contemporary sphere, however I think it would be far more impactful to introduce that idea earlier. Having it be the last sentence is out of the blue and a little confusing as a reader. However, I think you really hit on something great with the idea that even when things do not appear as resistance they actually are.

  2. Great post, Emily! I think the examples you chose from the reading really illustrated your points. I would love to expand on your last statement, because I think it has great parallels to current social justice issues we are facing globally.

  3. I like how you highlighted the different ways the characters are able to have control over their own lives even when living under an oppressive system. As the others have said, it is particularly important today to show that there is not just one way to resist an unjust system.

  4. I really enjoyed this close reading of the text. The oppression and the agency the characters took within the oppressive environments and situations was something I noted as well as I read the stories. On a personal level, was there one story that best highlighted this interplay to you?

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