Emotional Trauma in the Jim Crow South: Truth in Fiction Through Richard Wright’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Children’

The most difficult part of tragedy is, arguably, the aftermath. Coping takes different forms, music, artwork, writing, dialogues, and many others. Each is equally valid, yet nuances in these expressions can create confusion as to what life post-tragedy truly entails. Historian Kidada E. Williams calls for scholars to further investigate analyze the expressions of experiences for families following the tragedy of lynching. While there is a plethora of photographic evidence in regards to lynching, connections of those events to the following lived experiences of families is surprisingly scarce. [1] However the existence of literature from the period offers vivid examples of the emotions and fears of African-American families, even though they are fictitious examples.

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Richard Wright c. 1939. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Fiction was used to speak truth to the injustices faced by the African-American population. Holes in stories or experiences could be filled in with fiction, thus uniting multiple experiences into one fluid story. Fiction seemingly was used to express fears of the African American population of the Jim Crow South, as well as offering a release, a space through which difficult issues could be broached and discussed with ease and a sense of freedom.

Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children is filled with stories of fear, desperation, and uncertainty. While Williams’ focus is on specifically lynching, Wright conveys feelings surrounding various aspects of the Jim Crow South. As a product of the Southern United States, Wright breathes life into his stories. His focus is extensively on the lived experiences, whereas Williams points to scholars focusing mainly on the perpetrators of the lynching. [2] Although it is fiction, Uncle Tom’s Children feels real. None of the events described are out of the realm of possibility, thus creating an extremely powerful work expressing real emotion.

“Fire and Cloud” takes on the issue of oppression from the government. Wright focuses on a preacher, Dan Taylor, that has always worked within the system to keep the peace, yet even he is subjected to extreme abuse once he goes against the local government fighting for his hungry parish. Ultimately, Taylor must make a choice following a night of intense physical abuse. He realizes that unless he (and by extension, the African-American community) stands against the government their lives will only get worse. This story highlights the struggle of being a community leader trying to protect their people. Following his near-death Taylor makes a choice. He commits to fighting injustice, much to his son’s admiration and wife’s caution. [3]

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The feelings expressed following the abuse span the spectrum, there is anger, fear, hesitation, determination, and desperation, but ultimately ends with action. Although this story has an uplifting end, that is not typically the case throughout Uncle Tom’s Children. In another story “Big Boy Leaves Home,” Big Boy must watch as his friend is tarred and feathered because of their swim earlier in the day when Big Boy killed a white man.  Not only must Big Boy flee because of this, his family must give him their savings, have their house destroyed, and hope that they can recover from the experience. [4]

Jim Crow was terrible. It created institutions, both formal and informal, dedicated to the oppression of African-Americans. Works such as those by Richard Wright expose the
public to the extremely real feelings of these oppressed communities. The reason that these stories carry such an impact is that one can see blatant parallels between the characters and Wright.

In 1931 while living in Chicago Wright became intrigued by the Communist party, especially their ideas of racial equality expressed by the League of the Struggle for Negro Rights, and eventually joins the party in 1934. Wright also continually struggled with chronic hunger throughout his adolescent ad early adult life. [5] Characters throughout his book are exposed to and deal with issues that Wright experienced throughout his life and he uses the book to detail his life and feelings of those experiences. He coped with the violence in his life by retelling dramatized versions of his experiences. The popularity of these stories suggests that these resonate with people because of the shared experience.

While it is accurate to claim there is little analysis of the struggles and feelings of the victims of lynching and other Jim Crow abuse, due to the existence of powerful literature like that of Richard Wright, materials exist that paint vivid pictures of the feelings of African-Americans affected by Jim Crow. To get a better understanding of these experiences we cannot overlook the cultural products of the era, such as fiction, music, and art. Tragic events leave emotional trauma and these media allow us to learn from those difficult experiences.

Notes:

[1] Kidada E. Williams, “Regarding the Aftermaths of Lynching,” The Journal of American History 101 no. 3 (2014): 856.

[2] Williams, 857.

[3] Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008): 157-220.

[4] Wright, 17-61.

[5] Wright, 6-8.

6 thoughts on “Emotional Trauma in the Jim Crow South: Truth in Fiction Through Richard Wright’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Children’

  1. I really like how you tie “Uncle Tom’s Children” to the Williams article. I hadn’t thought to read the short stories as examples of how real people may have reacted to the horrors of lynching and Jim Crow. However, I still think more historical research like what Williams suggests is necessary, since what is portrayed in literature may not be representative of all real people’s experiences and reactions.

    1. I agree, Emily. I think Williams’ point is that scholars have focused on the lynching event itself – the perpetrators and the victims, what lead to and the moment of the murder. In the case of “Big Boy Leaves Home” I would argue that Wright didn’t focus on the aftermath either. We saw the two boys’ death by the creek, Bobo’s torture and death by mob, and then Big Boy gets in a truck to escape and the story ends. We didn’t see the aftermath much at all, though he is the survivor Williams encourages scholars to examine in more depth.

  2. Great post, Brandon! The idea of mediums such as art, music, and “fiction” writing as coping mechanisms and expressions is something I had not considered before. I think this is an important topic to discuss, especially when attempting to grasp the struggles and feelings of people that have been systematically suppressed.

  3. I was immediately intrigued by your first sentence “The most difficult part of tragedy is, arguably, the aftermath.” I agree with this statement and I think these stories showed that. I believe it is also a good point to show the importance of not letting history be swept under the rug. While the coping and dealing with the pain of tragedy is the most difficult part, it is important to be acknowledged and shared. The sharing of this pain and trauma is, in my opinion, the only way to show the true impact of these events.

  4. I thought your point about how Uncle Tom’s Children reflected Richard Wright’s own life was well-made. Knowing that the author was writing not only about larger societal issues, but also about his own experience changes how one reads the book. I think that it’s important to not read this book on its own without discussing the context in which it was written because it’s important to note how the stories in it are true to life and not exaggerated.

  5. Good points. I think you tried to cover a lot of ground here, addressing the use of fiction and art created by Black writers and artists to cope with the trauma of living in the Jim Crow South, a historiographic critique of the study of lynching, bringing in the the background of Richard Wright, and digging into the events within the stories themselves. It didn’t feel like to made this as strong as I think it could have been. But excellent points, all of them.

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