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Killing the Documentarian: Richard Wright and Documentary Modernity

From: Criticism
Volume 55, Number 3, Summer 2013
pp. 357-390 | 10.1353/crt.2013.0025

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As Bigger Thomas sits wedged uncomfortably between the young, would-be radicals Jan and Mary, Mary touches Bigger’s arm and gestures to the “tall, dark apartment buildings” of Chicago’s South Side, telling him, “You know, Bigger … I’ve long wanted to go into these houses … and just see how your people live.” To anyone familiar with the history of documentary photography, it’s hard not to read this scene early in Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) as a pointed satire of the documentary aesthetic. Mary’s comment that she wants to “see how your people live” carries with it strong connotations of Jacob Riis’s seminal How the Other Half Lives (1890), emphasizing the documentary’s power of sight to interpret, interpellate—and invade—the “dark” and seemingly unknowable lives of the poor and marginal. Likewise, that her statement is made as Mary imposes an unwanted, or at least highly transgressive, intimacy between she and Bigger further suggests the ways in which the documentary impulse is one of crossing barriers and borders—an impulse that often works to reinscribe as much as to overcome the privilege on which the borders are founded. As a figure of the documentarian, Mary Dalton fits this role all too tragically: a wealthy progressive who believes that if she is allowed “to see ” the conditions in which poor African Americans live, this uniquely visual regime of knowing will transform her and lead her to political action. This emphasis on sight , underscored by Wright’s italics, as the crucial precursor to progressive change is, as critics have argued, the ontology of the political documentary. That Jan and Mary have essentially kidnapped their black subject of knowledge and that their act of “vision” on the South Side produces race/ism rather than resolves it could easily be taken as Wright’s final statement on the 1930s radical documentary.

For all of Wright’s pointed satire, it’s equally important to note that less than a year after the publication of Native Son , Wright edits a selection of documentary photographs that do exactly what Mary expresses she wants to do: go into “tall, dark apartment buildings” and “just see ” how Wright’s people live. As Native Son murders its own white documentarian, then we must ask what the relationship is between Mary’s misguided, ultimately deadly desire to see and even touch how the Other lives and Wright’s own documentary impulse to do just that in 12 Million Black Voices (1941). I would argue that 12 Million Black Voices —Richard Wright’s documentary photo-montage of the Great Migration—is not merely the nonfiction companion to Native Son as it was advertised, but rather the culmination of Wright’s own contradictory and dialectical concerns with the politics of black representation. In “killing the documentarian”—the white chronicler of black life—Wright does not abandon the public sphere dominated by a white gaze. As documentary photography has been a significant means by which the West has constructed and codified modern ideas of race, Wright’s critique of the mode and his insistence on its constructed nature call into question the very possibility of a visible regime of knowing. Yet, the documentary is also the form perhaps most associated with the political and representational projects of modernity. As Paula Rabinowitz notes, documentary photography is also the medium that can translate the present into the future and redeem, in a Benjaminian fashion, the wreckage of history. Thus, for Wright, the documentary image stands at just that nexus of historical trauma and liberation that ends 12 Million Black Voices , the “living past living in the present” and the “new procession” and “new tide” of revolutionary progress. Like Wright’s own contradictory statements on modernity, at once based on the “deadly web of slavery” and “higher human consciousness,” photography for Wright becomes an expression of a racial past, as well as a liberatory future. For Wright, the documentary image’s dialectical mode—containing technologies of both liberation and domination—is thus Wright’s precise claim on African American modernity.

It should also be noted that Wright retermed W. E. B. Du Bois’s formulation of double consciousness —experiencing the...

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