- Womanizing Richard Wright: Constructing the Black Feminine in The Outsider
For some years, I have been trying to understand Richard Wright’s struggle to find and make meaning of Black life and living in a meaningless world that is grounded in white supremacy and anti-Black racism (Hayes, 1997, 2008, forthcoming). Initially influenced by political theorist Cedric Robinson’s critical discussion of Wright in his book, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983), I have approached Wright’s ideas from the standpoint of Black existential political philosophy (See Gordon, 1995, 1997, 2000; Yancy, 2008). Black existentialism is a branch of Africana philosophy, which focuses on the philosophical tendencies that arose out of the historical experience of the African Diaspora; that is to say, this perspective is a response to the often traumatic experience of being Black in the context of an anti-Black world. In my judgment, Wright’s existential quest made him the foremost Black writer to have exploded on the modern American literary scene in the period immediately following the Harlem Renaissance. And as a Black male, he was the essence of Black literary power.
Richard Wright is a towering figure in twentieth-century Africana literary, philosophical, and political thought. Novelist of ideas, radical activist, and global intellectual, he posed a number of pressing questions that spanned many political milieux and traditional academic disciplines. As the author of both fictional and nonfictional works, he was quite simply one of America’s most influential writers. His attempts to extirpate the root motives that underlie Western civilization’s violent anti-Black racism and Black people’s struggle for meaning and liberation in an absurd world deeply influenced subsequent generations of [End Page 47] activists, writers, literary critics, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, historians, and political scientists. The broad significance of Wright’s work—his fiction, nonfiction, and autobiographical writings—is that it forced white America to confront the absolute evils of racist oppression, economic exploitation, and cultural domination. Wright put forward ideas that were controversial and thought-provoking as he fearlessly sought to expose white people’s “perpetual war against the human dignity of Black people—a war of which most white people had kept themselves blithely unaware” (Delbanco, 1995, p. 193). Therefore, it can arguably be said that Wright helped to shape the Black American literary tradition of the twentieth century.
Perhaps the most influential and radical Black writer of his time, Richard Wright contributed some of the most riveting images of Black resentment, anger, outrage, nihilism, and violence to the literary world in response to the oppressive character of Western and Anglo-American civilization. Significantly, prior to Wright, Black writers constructed images of heroic Blacks, mainly males, who were essentially polite and defensive in the face of white violence and terror. For example, in his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Douglass recounts his battle with the vicious slave-breaker, Covey. Importantly, Douglass is not the aggressor; rather, he subdues this white man by grabbing him by the collar and holding him down. Here the slave Douglass, in the tradition before Wright, uses self-restraint and self-control in order to overcome his white attacker. It was Richard Wright who boldly imprinted upon the literary scene Black heroic characters (e.g., Bigger Thomas in Native Son) who were angry and resentful about the manner in which anti-Black racism and economic exploitation had structured their existential condition and who sought to violently change it.
Significantly, Wright inquired into the often lonely and tragic existence of Black and Third World intellectuals, as he sought the meaning of their psychological reactions to cultural domination. His blistering refutation and indictment of the West and the USA—their violent and global imposition of imperialism, colonialism, racism, and capitalism—based upon a revisionist Marxist conception of history that included a theoretical analysis of anti-Black racism made Wright one of the most important radical Black thinkers and writers of his time (see Robinson, 1983). In his book, entitled White Man, Listen!, Wright asserted:
Buttressed by their belief that their God had entrusted the earth into their keeping, drunk with power and possibility...