The Southern Literary Journal 36.2 (2004) 13-30
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"Using My Grandmother's Life as a Model":
Richard Wright and the Gendered Politics of Religious Representation
Qiana J. Whitted
My grandmother had deep-set black eyes with over-hanging lids and she had a habit of gazing with a steady, unblinking stare; in my later life I've always associated her religious ardor with those never-blinking eyes of her[s], eyes that seemed to be in this world but not of this world, eyes that seemed to be contemplating human frailty from some invulnerable position outside time and space.
Silent and fearless, an Indian maiden drowns herself rather than break a mysterious vow—this is the essence of Richard Wright's first short story, written on his knees during a time of prayer. Each day his grandmother pleaded with him "to pray hard, to pray until tears came," so frustrated was she with her grandson's rebelliousness, his willful religious doubts, and feeble attempts at Christian devotion (Black Boy 119). Wright consented to the older woman's wishes, like many of his own characters in the years and novels to come, with much apprehension and dismay. Convinced that his prayers were empty words that "bound noiselessly against the ceiling," he manipulated the daily hour of private reflection toward his own creative ends. After failing to write a hymn, the thirteen year old put aside his Bible, turned to his studies in Native American history, and found his own voice in imaginative prose (Black Boy 120). [End Page 13]
"I had never in my life done anything like it; I had made something, no matter how bad it was; and it was mine," Wright remarks in his 1945 autobiography, Black Boy (120). Cloistered in his room, Wright chose not to commune with his grandmother's god, and yet the moment retains a special reverence in light of his career as a writer, poet, and essayist. The Indian maiden's narrative is poorly written, he admits, and lacks a unifying plot or conflict.1 Nevertheless, the story is made sacred through his account of its creation in Black Boy. It is a cultural marker as significant as the library card that gave the youth his first glimpse into the insurgent power of the written word. The unrefined tale reminds us that in his life, as in his writing, Richard Wright wrestled unceasingly with his faith.
While religion is consistently portrayed as the enduring core of black folk culture in Wright's work, the Mississippi-born writer typically surveys the liturgical landscape over the shoulders of skeptics and unbelievers. His narrative choices in works such as Uncle Tom's Children (1938), Native Son (1945), The Outsider (1953), and the unfinished novel, Tarbaby's Dawn2 emphasize the declining efficacy of black Christian theism in modern times of crisis. Wright also stresses the betrayal of elders, particularly mothers, whose exhortations to believe act as a hindrance to his young protagonists' full understanding of manhood, human dignity, and race pride. As a result, Wright's literary meditations on the black church act as signposts of his own struggle for transcendence, even as they underscore the material angst and fragmentation of his characters.
Black Boy makes this connection explicit through the troublesome birth of his first short story. Likewise, in the unpublished essay, "Memories of My Grandmother," Wright attributes the primary inspiration for works like "The Man Who Lived Underground" to his maternal grandmother, Margaret Bolton Wilson. Signifying upon the planar concept of the believer who lives "in the world but not of the world," Wright's short story features a black male protagonist named Fred Daniels who eludes police capture for a murder he did not commit by hiding in the tunnels and caves of an urban sewer system. From a subterranean vantage point, Daniels surveys the actions "aboveground" like a ghost one moment, and a god the next, hovering in the margins of human-ness. This...