Social Text 19.2 (2001) 75-101
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Revisiting Richard Wright in Ghana
Black Radicalism and the Dialectics of Diaspora
For students of black radicalism, Richard Wright's Black Power (1954), his report on the nationalist revolution in the Gold Coast colony (present-day Ghana), inevitably frustrates the expectations raised by its prophetic title. 1 Wright undermines his avowed anti-imperialism with numerous problematic assertions about African culture. Wright's evident disdain, in Black Power, for the folk cultures of peoples of African descent places him fundamentally at odds with major currents of black radical thought, which regard the cultural resistance of African peoples as imaginative responses to their subordination. 2 Wright's view of the backwardness of African peoples and culture, and his inability to question his teleology of modernization, have clouded his legacy and hindered recognition of Black Power's importance in theorizing black radicalism and diaspora. 3
In this essay, I argue that despite the considerable problems of Black Power, Wright demands our attention for his revisionist reading of the condition of blacks in the diaspora, which he understands dialectically as the product of slavery, dispersion, and oppression, and simultaneously, as the necessary condition for black modernity and the forging of an anti-imperialist critique of Western culture. 4 However unfashionably idiosyncratic Wright may appear to us today, it is important to realize that he was not the lonely rebel he often made himself out to be. With fellow black radical intellectuals in exile, including George Padmore and C. L. R. James, Wright was engaged in theorizing about the revolutionary significance of black and African peoples' struggles against Western oppression. Moreover, like Wright, Padmore and James were vehement in their own rejections of Negritude, the politically charged assertion by some Francophone African nationalists of a transhistorical, transnational black cultural unity. 5
Wright's revisionist reading of the African diaspora offers an explicit critique of the diaspora-homeland binary. This is of paramount importance, insofar as that binary powerfully underwrites nationalist and essentialist understandings of blackness and is frequently indicative of a black diaspora identity invested in an often diversionary quest for authenticity. Wright thus challenges both the black cultural commonplace of the African diaspora as the fallen condition whose resolution is obtained through reclamation of African roots as well as its converse: the equally irrelevant [End Page 75] assertion that one cannot "go home" to Africa. Instead, Wright's discussion of anticolonialism recasts diaspora as the mobilization of black modernity toward a transnational, transracial community of struggle.
Wright's text, read in the context of his participation in transnational politics of decolonization and African liberation, suggests yet another sense of the dialectic of diaspora. Brent Edwards has given an account of the emergence of the term during the mid-1960s as a corrective to totalizing declarations of pan-Africanism that masked the waging of sharp political and ideological disputes within decolonization movements. 6 This corrective sense of diaspora as the pragmatic recognition of a diverse black world fragmented by language, politics, and ideology is commonly displaced by those who invoke diaspora as the sign of incommensurability. Instead of perceiving internal tensions and differences as symptomatic of political struggle, defining diaspora as incommensurability simply acquiesces to the notion that national, geographical, or cultural differences pose insurmountable obstacles to transnational solidarity. This essentializing, reductive sense of diaspora as an unbridgeable gulf reinscribes the diaspora-homeland dyad and is routinely invoked in the wake of the destruction of pan-African and global black radical projects.
Wright's exemplary reflections on diaspora suggest a larger problem of the politics of location bearing on the transnational careers of black radical thinkers as varied as Wright, Padmore, Malcolm X, and others. If exile and expatriation have been vital and liberating for some black radical intellectuals, then what of the relationship of these intellectuals to communities of struggle, both within their countries of origin and elsewhere? What were the conditions either facilitating or mitigating the production and dissemination of knowledge between these intellectuals and audiences and vice versa? These questions...