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  • The Role of Water Imagery in Uncle Tom's Children
  • Tracy Webb (bio)

To say that each protagonist in Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children takes one step further along a progression toward greater strength is nothing new. Among patterns critics have dealt with, Campbell Tatham in "Vision and Value in Uncle Tom's Children" sees a progression from "relative passivity to authentic engagement" (14) paralleled by a broadening area of responsibility on the part of the main character, as he progresses from a boy to a community leader, from a victim to a victor, riding on a rising tide of militancy. Additionally, Tatham says the book

dramatizes a movement from the world of fantasy which in fact encourages and sustains paralysis (e.g. Big Boy) to the concrete commitment of the Black woman who is willing and able to abandon the cultural and religious bulwark of all fantasies in order to embody authentic values—which alone can provide personal integrity.


Tatham further explores a pattern of increasing freedom on the part of the protagonist to choose to refuse racism, tracing the movement from Big Boy's paralyzed inaction to Sue's self-motivated "total act." Dan McCall in The Example of Richard Wright discusses a progressive movement, if the protagonist's action is to be successful, from an individual [End Page 5] effort to group rebellion. Russell Carl Brignano in Richard Wright and James R. Giles in "Richard Wright's Successful Failure" make more specific this claim, focusing on the increasing influence of Marxist thought on the interpretation of characters' actions. Although the stories are most easily read as a comment on racism, says Brignano, a Marxist reading most effectively illuminates the hope and personal fulfillment Sue finds through the Communist Party. Giles outlines his brief view of the progression thus:

There is Big Boy the youth who runs, then Mann the adult who runs, then Silas who meets a heroic but lonely death, then Taylor the minister who will not openly endorse Marxism but acts out its implications, and finally there is Sue who dies a martyred convert to Communism and thus triumphs over all the forces which have limited the characters in the first four stories.


Nearly as striking stylistically, however, as the progression motif is thematically, is Wright's nearly overwhelming use of water in the book. And although it has been emphatically stated that "obviously . . . Uncle Tom's Children in its final form cannot be dismissed as a collection of unrelated stories" (Giles 266), critics have largely overlooked this stylistic unifying device.

For instance, in the first story we have a thirsty boy, a pond, and rain. The second is set in a flood. The third revolves around thirst in a dry, dusty setting. The fourth features a thirsty man and a figurative baptism. In the final story it is, again, raining as the heroine crosses a creek. Because nearly every page of the book is either damp, if not dripping, or else conspicuously dry, one necessarily wonders how the characters' relationships to all this water—their struggle with it, their thirst for it, or their acceptance of it—shape our perceptions of them and the progressions previously outlined.

Tellingly Wright prefaces Uncle Tom's Children with an essay, "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," a record of his experiences as a black child, adolescent, and man in a white-controlled world. He presents anecdotes of his past as he learned to cope, to play the intricate, dangerous game known as Jim Crow. One of these incidents briefly concerns us here.

Wright, then a delivery boy, walking his bicycle along a hot, dusty road, is approached by a car full of young Whites who offer him a ride on their running board and then a drink from a flask they are passing. Wright, obeying all his recently learned precepts of Jim Crow, laughs and replies, "Oh, no," for which the Whites smash him between the eyes and tell him he's lucky they didn't kill him for not saying "sir" (9). The point of this anecdote, admittedly, is not the offer of a drink, but his manner of refusal. Nevertheless, it...


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