- Autobiography in Black and Brown: Ethnic Identity in Richard Wright and Richard Rodriguez by Michael Nieto Garcia
The title of this book immediately caught my eye since it focused on two writers whose work I have admired for many years. But I soon became puzzled about how these two figures could be productively compared in a book-length study [End Page 218] because they came from such different backgrounds and seemed opposed to each other in terms of how they envisioned literature and politics. To further complicate matters, Rodriguez had relatively little to say about Wright throughout his career, although he has made many illuminating observations about African American culture and literature.
But these initial misgivings about the book quickly disappeared as I began reading it. Garcia provides a highly original and penetrating reassessment of both writers, as well as a careful study of how Hispanic and black American literatures are integrally related to each other. This important area has never been adequately examined by scholars and, hopefully, Autobiography in Black and Brown will initiate new research into this underdeveloped field.
From the publication of Hunger of Memory in 1982 to Darling in 2013, Rodriguez’s work has been sharply criticized for what has been called “hyper-individualism”; that is, valorizing his own personal growth and success in mainstream society at the expense of his commitment to affirming his cultural roots as a Mexican American. Throughout his career a number of negative labels have been attached to him such as “assimilationist,” “race traitor,” “inauthentic ethnic writer,” and “coconut.”
Garcia does a masterful job of revealing the falsity of these reductive labels by examining individual texts in carefully nuanced detail and then demonstrating how Rodriguez’s four autobiographical books form a dialectical sequence which comprise a long conversation of over thirty years about how individual identity is closely interwoven with cultural life. From the outset, he stresses how one’s personal experience grows out of and must be balanced with one’s experience of ethnic community. And as the series of four books develops, increasing emphasis is placed on the importance of the self’s being nurtured by cultural values, traditions, and rituals. Far from rejecting his Mexican American roots, Rodriguez affirms them lovingly, all the while stressing that they are complexly interwoven with mainstream life. For Garcia, Rodriguez is a “theorist of the borderlands” who celebrates his hybrid, protean identity. Like Wright, Ralph Ellison, Percival Everett, and a broad range of other African American writers, he rejects any racial or ethnic “scripts” which prevent him from telling the full truth of his experiences.
Although not subjected to the same level of persistent critical misunderstanding that has plagued Rodriguez, Wright has also been misunderstood by critics who have sometimes argued that he emphasized his own liberation as a person at the expense of honoring his own cultural origins. (W. E. B. Du Bois and Lorraine Hansberry, for example, strenuously objected to what they believed was his excessively negative reading of black American cultural life, and saw in him an alienated modernist.) Garcia vigorously challenges this mistaken view of Wright by arguing that Black Boy/American Hunger is a “hybrid text,” an autobiography which envisions Wright both as a heroic individual who freed himself from his society’s racial injustices and also as a “representative figure” who could speak for his people and use his art to liberate them from the constraints of a segregated society. Like Rodriguez, he “negotiates the complicated triangulation between self, ethnic group, and the larger society” (7). Garcia’s richly layered, carefully detailed discussion of Black Boy/American Hunger is combined with equally astute analyses of Native Son and 12 Million Black Voices to provide refreshing correctives to two classic misreadings of Wright’s work, one which would make him a doctrinaire determinist and the other which would reduce him to being a solipsistic individualist.
Wright and Rodriguez, despite what Garcia acknowledges as their “surface differences,” are also connected on a number of other important levels...