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Dangerous Refuge:
Richard Wright and the Swimming Hole

This essay looks at Richard Wright’s “Big Boy Leaves Home” as a story about swimming—that is, about a natural world claimed as white property and marked “No Trespassing”—finding in Wright’s swimming hole an oblique echo of other bodies of water segregated by violence, from Lake Michigan to municipal pools.

On a Friday afternoon in June 2015, a disturbing cellphone video recorded yet another fraught encounter between white law enforcement and black youth. The video, shot at a community pool in a suburb north of Dallas, shows a white police officer verbally abusing a group of black teens in bathing suits, throwing one girl face-down on the ground and putting a knee to her bare back, and then drawing his gun in apparent response to onlookers’ concerns. The cops had been called when a fight broke out at a pool party—an altercation that began, by some accounts, when a white woman told a black teenager to “go back to your Section 8 home.” The elements of this story are chilling in their familiarity, intensified by this particular context: a white man, fully loaded with the apparatus of policing (so much so that the officer complains of his burden in the heat), demanding submission from black teens not just unarmed but unclothed; seemingly gratuitous demonstrations of power (he appears to half-straddle the crying girl for nearly two full minutes, calmly surveying the scene); play, interrupted (“Sir, sir, we just came for a birthday party, please”).1 As Yoni Appelbaum wrote in The Atlantic, “It is the latest in a string of incidents of police using apparently excessive force against African Americans that has captured public attention. And it took place at a communal pool—where, for more than a century, conflicts over race and class have often surfaced” (n. pag.).

Not only do built environments house social tensions; the century of conflict Appelbaum references also extends to other bodies of water bearing a history of demarcation by race. Evelyn White’s “Black Women and Wilderness” describes how water can be contaminated by human-made fear; the Tallahatchie River bearing Emmett Till’s body is for her psychically continuous with the McKenzie River she declines to enter in Oregon. “While the river’s roar gave me a certain comfort and my heart warmed when I gazed at the sun-dappled trees out of a classroom window, I didn’t want to get closer. I was certain that if I ventured outside to admire a meadow or to feel the cool ripples in a stream, I’d be taunted, attacked, raped, maybe even murdered because of the color of my skin” (1063). White cannot gain access to the psychologically and spiritually restorative solitary wilderness encounter so cherished in Anglo-European nature writing; for her, the human history of violence saturates the natural world.2

A similar primal event in antipastoral African American history occurred in the 1919 drowning of Eugene Williams, who was hit by a rock as he approached a “white” beach on Lake Michigan. This event set off the four-day Chicago race riot that left thirty-eight dead and 537 injured (Fisher 64). Colin Fisher argues that the 1919 riot was not just incidentally but meaningfully about access to nature—that the catalyst registers growing conflict over outdoor recreation space. “Despite forced exclusion from parks, playgrounds, and beaches,” Fisher writes, “blacks struggled for access to open space. Indeed, this struggle for nature and accompanying white resistance played a major but unacknowledged role in one of the most violent racial altercations in twentieth-century American history” (63-64). While Evelyn White experienced the river through the prism of fear, nearly a century earlier more than one generation of Chicago African Americans looked upon water with a particular awareness of vulnerability. In his Autobiography of Black Chicago, Dempsey J. Travis [End Page 27] notes that Williams’s drowning prevented him from learning to swim: “the tragedy forever affected my parents’ attitude toward Lake Michigan. … To Dad and Mama, the blue lake always had a tinge of red from the blood of that young black boy” (qtd. in Fisher 73). Although “many black Chicagoans saw recreation in nature not as a luxury but as an essential escape from unhealthy urban conditions” (Fisher 63), they had been made to learn that there was no unmarked outdoors.

Whether he was haunted by the specific ghost of Eugene Williams or not, Richard Wright was certainly conscious of racial boundaries around natural play. “Big Boy Leaves Home,” the first story in his 1938 collection Uncle Tom’s Children, opens with four boys gamboling through a meadow and ends with two shot, one lynched, and one on a northbound truck. It’s interesting that the trigger for the killings in “Big Boy”—the particular form of trespass that sets the cycle of violence in motion—involves laying claim to a swimming hole. This story is in a sense as much about swimming as it is about lynching; as an oblique echo of the drowning that instigated a riot (which itself both reenacts and anticipates an ongoing assault on black bodies in lakes and pools and rivers), “Big Boy” raises fundamental questions about access to nature, or how one can interact with or make use of nature. Swimming is play, a resistance to the imperative of labor that governs black lives in the Jim Crow South and, for that matter, in the would-be promised land of the North. In Richard Wright’s world, swimming pools both South and North, both natural and built, are marked “No Trespassing.”

Wright’s resistance to pastoral nostalgia and the antipastoral structure of this story in particular have been well documented. Critics generally see in Wright the ascendancy of urban naturalism, a final refusal of the Georgic ideal. As Robert Bone writes in his classic study of African American short fiction, “With the advent of Wright and his generation, black Arcadia may be said to have vanished” (xxii). My reading seeks to develop the backstory, drawing connections between Big Boy and Eugene Williams, between the swimming holes of Wright’s Mississippi and the battleground beaches of his Chicago, as a way of accounting for this antipastoral turn. I see this turn as Wright’s response to the policing of nature in service of white supremacy, to “No Trespassing” as enforced by violence. This scrutiny of the swimming hole may have something to contribute to the project undertaken by Anissa Janine Wardi in her multifaceted exploration of Water and African American Memory: An Ecocritical Perspective. Considering both the metaphoric and molecular content of water and insisting on its material reality as the deepest source of meaning, Wardi shows how bodies of water—the Atlantic of the middle passage, the Mississippi of the slave trade, the levee-breaking swells of the Great Flood of 1927, and Hurricane Katrina—function as “embodied sites where memory and history converge,” as “concrete carrier[s] of cultural history” (6, 19). Old Man Harvey’s swimming hole, like the beaches of Lake Michigan, also functions as a cultural text, narrating the exclusion of African Americans from civil society by way of restricted access to water. In this reading of Wright, what Scott Hicks has called “an ecocriticism of color”3 illuminates the manipulation of nature to sustain a racialized construction of the social contract.

The epigraph to “Big Boy” sets the story up as a counterpoint to the pastoral South. “Is it true what they say about Dixie?” begins the popular song. “Does the sun really shine all the time? / Do sweet magnolias blossom at everybody’s door?” To put these questions into the mouth of this story is to ask about the perimeter of that pastoral fantasy: is it available to everyone? Do magnolias mean the same thing for all? “If it’s true, that’s where I belong,” the lyrics conclude. And given what happens to the boys who try to access the mythological Dixie, the question answers itself. As Big Boy and his friends are made to understand, this Dixie is not at all where he belongs, rendering the title ironic from the very beginning. What Big Boy leaves is not home after all; his exile comes not at the end of the story, but before the story even begins. [End Page 28]

The opening scene offers us this paradise about to be (or always already) lost. Big Boy and his friends emerge from the wilderness, “laughing easily … walk[ing] lollingly in bare feet” (17), as innocent as the natural world to which they seem to belong. “They laughed easily, catching and pulling long green blades of grass with their toes” (18), in unmediated contact with what seems very much like home, like that first home that is the Garden. “Man, don the groun feel warm?” “Jus lika bed.” This earth warms, protects, nurtures—like a bed, or, like that other first home that is the womb, it safeguards when one is most vulnerable. “Jeeesus, Ah could stay here forever,” says one of the boys (18). Adam thought the same thing.4

This gives readers a Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn kind of moment; the boys have in that venerated tradition skipped school to go to the woods, and then they strike off for “the creek fer a swim,” evoking the kind of swimming hole that seems to signify universal boyhood (20). It’s an image that exists outside of time and place but which is yet linked by way of Mark Twain mythology to Americanness itself: in a perfect confluence of idealizing narratives, we glimpse for a moment the American Garden as eternal youth. But the fantasy is immediately undermined by the dual interposition of race and property. Big Boy rejects the swimming idea: “N git lynched? Hell naw!” His friends reply, “He ain gonna see us” (20), but even the saying-so turns place into property: the creek (unmarked, timeless) is now suddenly the creek belonging to “him”: cordoned off, untouchable, for whites only.5

The “he” in this sentence—who is not named for six pages and in fact needs no name—functions as a powerful figure in this story. More than once, “he” is employed as a marker that requires no explanation, as when, later, Big Boy tells his mother, “He killed Lester,” and she doesn’t ask who (35). It may be true that his name goes without saying, but in their world “he” seems to denote whiteness generally, more a force than an individual. “His” territory, both geographically and socio-politically, is accessible to these boys only through transgression.

“His” creek is bounded by barbed wire and marked “No Trespassing,” a sign they know how to decode: “Mean ain no dogs n niggers erllowed” (25). This striking equivalence is a recurring motif in Wright’s work, as Lisa Woolley demonstrates. She details the shifts between identification and disidentification with dogs throughout Wright’s writing, highlighting moments of both attempted mastery and shared victimization; “in his reaction to the white world’s conflation of African Americans and animals,” she writes, “Wright, of course, seeks to break this connection but nevertheless sympathetically highlights similarities between the treatment of animals and African Americans” (175). The boys recognize this parallel in their reading of Old Harvey’s sign, which implicitly excludes what for him does not count as human. Old Harvey marks his territory with language, with an assertion of ownership, a sign that black boys, like dogs on the loose, must be disciplined, leashed, and made to serve the white social order (like the dog who looks for boys to lynch later in the story). But the sign also marks the threat: black boys, like dogs on the loose, are potentially uncontrollable. Thus the formal and informal strictures that bend black boys to Jim Crow need vigilant policing.

This threat grows particularly intense in those moments when, for example, Big Boy “bared his teeth” (21) and “grunted and kicked wildly” and “hissed” (23). These bestial irruptions remind us that the boys inhabit the boundary around what considers itself civilization. From this perspective, the “No Trespassing” sign turns out to be the center of the story. Property markers such as “No Trespassing” subdue wilderness by transmuting it into property. It is wildness—black boys, dogs—that the sign wants to keep out, the wildness that would threaten Harvey’s control of the land. There is a lot at stake here: in the tradition of Lockean individualism, control over nature—the assertion of ownership—is the basis for personhood itself. The individual becomes a civil self by subduing the wilderness, such that improved land (removed from the state of nature) is coextensive with the body—both forms of [End Page 29] property that the state must protect. But in an inevitable return of repressed wilderness, unmaintained landscape goes to seed, unrestrained humans run amok: the various forms of nature have a tendency to re-enwild themselves. These boys, insistently black and naked and baring their teeth, mark the precariousness of a social order predicated on nature-as-property, a transmutation threatening to come undone.

As political philosopher Charles Mills explains, this racialized tension is implicit in the dominant conception of society; for Mills, the Lockean social contract operates more accurately as the Racial Contract. In classical contract theory, all men come out of the state of nature to become social beings, but political and economic history demonstrate that only white men effectively emerge into the political state. Nonwhites “can be conceptualized in part as carrying the state of nature around with them, incarnating wildness and wilderness in their person. In effect, they can be regarded even in civil society as being potentially at the center of a mobile free-fire zone in which citizen-to-citizen/white-on-white moral and juridical constraints do not obtain” (86-87). The Racial Contract facilitates “the exploitation of [nonwhite] bodies, land, and resources, and the denial of equal socioeconomic opportunities to them. All whites are beneficiaries of the Contract, though some whites are not signatories to it” (11; original emphasis). Indeed, Mills argues that whiteness is in fact “invented” by the contract, brought into being by this assertion of difference from and superiority to nonwhite nonpersons (63). The trespass Big Boy threatens to enact contaminates civil society with the state of nature, whiteness with black bodies.6

But whatever potential resistance they represent strains under the internalized authority of Old Man Harvey. Their play is circumscribed by Jim Crow: “Don holler so loud!,” they warn each other. They can never escape the reality of the “he” who dominates the story even in his absence. Feeling this constriction, the boys wish for a “bigger place t swim in,” which in turn produces the observation that “The white folks got plenty swimming pools n we ain got none” (27). This lament comes straight out of Wright’s own Mississippi childhood.

[Wright’s childhood friend] Joe Brown would recall the tirade they inevitably heard from Richard. “Even though they are poor white trash they can go to Livingston Park and swim in the public lake, but we Niggers can’t. We got to dive out of trees like black monkeys and swim with the water moccasin snakes and bull frogs.”

The nature to which he has access is dangerous; the sanctuary of play is infested with poisonous snakes, and he can engage with it only as a jungle creature—he has to inhabit the role of “black monkey” that the “he” who owns swimming has marked out for him. For Wright as for Big Boy and his friends, the experience of nature is fundamentally defined by the unnatural fact of segregation.

In other words, human activity—socially constructed hierarchy—limits equality of access to idealized nature. As Evelyn White’s contemplation of the river reminds us, there is no “pure” nature outside of human history (because it is necessarily experienced through the filter of the social self). So those ineligible for the restorative play of publicly authorized swimming are relegated to the perilous wilderness—or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, to the waters contaminated by human detritus. In Black Boy, Wright fondly remembers a local sewage ditch as a site for recreation:

But our greatest fun came from wading in the sewage ditch where we found old bottles, tin cans that held tiny crawfish, rusty spoons, bits of metal, old toothbrushes, dead cats and dogs, and occasional pennies. We made wooden boats out of cigar boxes, devised wooden paddles to which we twisted pieces of rubber and sent the cigar-box boats sailing down the ditch under their own power. Many evenings the fathers of the children would come out, take off their shoes, and make and sail the boats themselves.

This will to play, the boys’ ability to carve out a space for recreation amidst the rusty spoons and dead dogs (and the persistence of this ability into manhood), testifies to [End Page 30] the power of the instinct. But it also reinforces the degree to which social conditions determine the experience of nature: all boys want to swim, but only some boys can take swimming for granted.7 And significantly, Wright himself learned to swim “in the privacy of his pool” in Mexico (Rowley 196).

While still living in Mississippi, Wright imagined an integrated North offering a whole new experience of outdoor recreation. As his friend Joe Brown recalls, “He would tell us about the news stories he had read in the Chicago Defender. How Negroes and white folks could swim together in Lake Michigan. … He would always say ‘I’m gonna leave Mississippi and be long gone up north one of these days’” (qtd. in Rowley 32). Swimming freely, without the entanglement of Jim Crow lines, becomes for Wright the ultimate representation of Northern equality. It’s no surprise that the boys’ experience at the swimming hole in “Big Boy Leaves Home” is punctuated by the train whistle, an audible index of the escape fantasy that forms the undercurrent of their lives. But beaches in Chicago offered few illustrations of racial harmony.

A commission established to investigate the causes of the 1919 Chicago riot delivered its report in 1922, detailing systematic institutional failures to defuse ongoing racial tension in recreation areas. According to the commission’s narrative of events as described in the Defender, “An imaginary line in the water, separating the two beaches, had been generally observed by the two races” at the lakefront beaches at 26th and 29th Streets. When seventeen-year-old Eugene Williams “drifted across the line,” he “promptly became a target for stones.” Black witnesses identified a man named Stauber as the thrower of the stone that caused Williams to drown, but police refused to arrest him “and at this crucial moment arrested a Negro on a white man’s complaint. … These two facts, the drowning and the refusal of the policeman to arrest Stauber, together marked the beginning of the riot” (Jackson 14). The report recognizes that this event emblematizes a history of unequal access to leisure activities, calling for “an end to the present gross discrimination by white persons which practically bars Negroes out of certain recreation centers,” improved facilities for all to use, “competent and intelligent playground and recreation center directors, white and Negro,” to supervise recreation areas and “reduc[e] … racial friction in their neighborhoods,” and a police force that will “adequately protect all citizens, without regard to color” (14). In short, the commission champions the right to play, and publicizes the role of the police in circumscribing that right.

During this period, the Defender repeatedly affirms that swimming rights are civil rights. Reading these challenges to a culture of “No Trespassing,” a young Richard Wright might well have believed that those “imaginary lines” in nature were being erased in the North. One account observes,

Perhaps Mayor Thompson will have to instruct the police authorities and a certain element of Chicagoans that the beaches from one end of the lake to the other are for the use of all citizens alike, just as the mayor of Atlantic City some few years ago had occasion to tell the people of his city, “So long as the Lord has seen fit to make no dividing line in the ocean for whites and blacks I will not presume to do so,” or words to that effect.

The imaginary line here is not just fraudulent or forced—it is almost blasphemous, a usurpation of divine authority. And in the Defender’s rendering, significantly, “white hoodlums,” not wild black boys, represent the forces of disorder: “The police, who are supposed to enforce the law impartially, are prone to let their prejudices get the better of them, with the result that the white hoodlums are encouraged in their lawlessness until racial clashes similar to the one Chicago witnessed two years ago occur.” From the Defender’s point of view, what imperils social stability—and the safety of property—are the white boys trespassing on the bodies of black swimmers. “This is not the South, and we refuse to be ‘jim-crowed,’” the writer pointedly [End Page 31] asserts. “We are going to use every beach along the shores of Lake Michigan and if our white brothers and sisters fear that the waters that we splash around in are contaminated we have not the slightest objection in the world to their continuing the use of their old reliable bath tub every Saturday night” (“Beach Parties” 16). If white people insist on drawing lines in the water, in other words, they will be the ones confined and contained.

During the mid-1920s, when Wright was delivering the Defender in Mississippi (Rowley 32), he may have read about antisegregation victories beyond Chicago and even crossing the Northern border; for example, a minister living in Canada was refused access to a Canadian beach run by an American from Mississippi, but made threats and the color line was quickly abolished (“Minister Calls Halt” 3). The theme continues through the 1920s, with resistance to segregated bathing beaches in Washington, D.C., setting the tone (“No effort is being spared to make this the most deserted beach in the United States, if [C]ongress persists in building it” [“Bathing Beach ‘Outrage’”]). After the discovery of alligators at the proposed segregated beach in Washington, members of “our group” promise to boycott: “[U]ntil our government sees fit to treat all its citizens alike our Race will continue to do without public recreational facilities” (“Alligators Play” 1). A letter to the editor in 1929, observing that “We are hearing and reading a great deal just now about the race question and bathing beaches,” proceeds to complain about “that dumping ground at 31st St. called [a] bathing beach”: “Why is it that better and more decent facilities are not made for the comfort of those caring to go to the 31st St. beach?” (Just Me A2). Wright and his friends may have been forced to see a Mississippi sewage ditch with dead dogs and old toothbrushes as playground enough, but the Defender offered access to a world in which black swimmers could demand adequate facilities, at least in its pages.

But lingering or thinly veiled tensions persist, signs that bathing remains fraught despite the message the Defender wants to send. A 1923 Defender piece observes that “[o]nly a few of our group can be seen on the bathing beaches that are strung along from Gary to Evanston, though thousands of the other groups are daily in the water” (“Using Lake Michigan” 12). Conflict seems to intensify in the early 1930s. For example,

When 5,000 persons of our group gathered at the famous Rhode Island seashore resort run by the Rocky Point Amusement company, none were seen in bathing. The pool had been drained.

The management said that this was the method of keeping non-whites from the water, which was reserved for pure whites only.

And when a member of the Alpha Mu Gamma Social Club attempts to swim at a Chicago beach after being warned away, she is told, “Oh, well; you drown in this lake if you don’t ‘scram’” (Gilbert 15). Eugene Williams may have been laid to rest in public discourse, but he remains available for private haunting.

Swimming holes and bathing beaches function as loaded texts even after bringing the swimming hole indoors. Also in the background of Wright’s story about swimming is the South Side boys club, where he worked during the summer of 1934 (Fabre 108). “I found my work in the South Side Boys’ Club deeply engrossing,” Wright relates in American Hunger. “Each day black boys between the ages of eight and twenty-five came to swim, draw, and read. They were a wild and homeless lot, culturally lost, spiritually disinherited, candidates for the clinics, morgues, prisons, reformatories, and the electric chair of the state’s death house” (88). “Wild” like Big Boy and his barefoot friends and “homeless” like the story leaves him at the end, these boys are also looking for a place to swim. Grafted onto his childhood memories, the South Side boys introduce another context in which to consider the right to [End Page 32] swim: urban pools. In Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, Jeff Wiltse traces the development of swimming in public as a cultural phenomenon, detailing “how and why municipal swimming pools in the northern United States were transformed from austere public baths—where blacks, immigrants, and native-born white laborers swam together, but men and women, rich and poor, and young and old did not—to leisure resorts, where practically everyone in the community except black Americans swam together” (2). Although in some senses the municipal pool is the opposite of nature—it seeks to house, to domesticate, the outdoor behavior of the working class—the persistence of associations with nature is noteworthy. Significantly, the lavish outdoor pools that were developed in the 1920s and ’30s simulated natural settings with sandy beaches and grassy slopes, and urban pools were often surrounded by trees and hills that obscured city skylines (Wiltse 88). So even municipal pools can be seen as a form of access to nature—repackaged or simulated but still a staging of the same desire for natural recreation. And so they replay the story of the swimming hole in a slightly different key.

At a time when manly bodies were taken to represent manliness itself, the specter of black masculinity at public pools generated cultural panic; black male bodies in intimate proximity to white women necessitated the segregation of municipal pools by race (Wiltse 86). But the pretext of preserving white feminine purity both served and obscured the more fundamental interests at stake in homogenizing the pool. As the Great Migration “heightened perceptions of racial difference in the North,” municipal pools allowed “whites of all social classes [to] forge a common identity out of their shared whiteness” (Wiltse 107). In other words, policing the swimming pool was a way of reinforcing the boundary around whiteness, shoring up a construct as natural, and reaffirming the whiteness of those allowed in. The black body, in Mills’s formulation, is a disruption, “a moving bubble of wilderness in white political space, a node of discontinuity which is necessarily in permanent tension with it” (53). Like the naked black bodies of Big Boy and his friends, black swimmers at municipal pools vividly dramatized “discontinuity,” perpetrating a somatic incursion into the terrain of whiteness. The terrain was private property for Old Man Harvey, but public property—the municipal pool—functions in much the same way: public pools are for “the people,” and nonwhite is excluded as nonperson.8 (This formulation may also point to something interesting about urban pools. Although functioning like the swimming hole in some fundamental ways, as noted above, the urban nature resort at the same time sublimates wilderness, re-creating a nature space—and so those wilderness bodies of black teens offer a challenge twice over.) In some cases, there was explicit segregation; when implicit, “[e]nforcement then fell to white swimmers who often harassed and assaulted black Americans who transgressed this new racial boundary. In this way, segregation was frequently achieved through violence” (123).9

Wiltse describes a particularly revealing case in Pittsburgh. When Highland Park Pool, an enormous area that could fit 10,000 swimmers, opened in August 1931, all (and only) blacks were asked to produce a health certificate and turned away because they couldn’t. The next day, fifty young black men were allowed to enter, but they were told the police couldn’t help them once they were in the water. “Frightened but undeterred, they slipped into the crowded pool. A reporter for the Post-Gazette described the violence that followed: ‘Each Negro who entered the pool yesterday was immediately surrounded by whites and slugged or held beneath the water until he gave up his attempts to swim and left the pool.’ The white swimmers eventually beat all 50 young men out of the water” (Wiltse 126). The next day, four young men were attacked before they even got to the pool. Two of them were arrested and fined (126). Such altercations, fueled by police-sanctioned bias, happened repeatedly: [End Page 33]

According to the Courier, the city’s black newspaper, one of the officers actually encouraged swimmers to beat the boys out of the water. “We can’t afford to let these niggers run this town,” he was quoted as saying. As the black teens waded into the pool, “white bathers” started by throwing rocks at them and then swarmed them like human piranhas—punching and dunking them without mercy.

(127)

A nearby church group tried to help, but according to the Courier the police threatened to shoot them and did assault at least two of its members. Ultimately, seven people were arrested, and all of them were black (127). The Highland Park case illustrates institutionalized white supremacy, racism underwritten by official authority. “The events that summer show that white swimmers, police officers, local magistrates, and even top city officials all sought to exclude black Americans from Highland Park Pool” (Wiltse 128). Cases like these clearly echo and thus keep in view the cause of the Chicago race riot. As Emmett Till’s body remains always in the river for Evelyn White, Eugene Williams remains always drowning, on lakefronts and in municipal pools across the country.

Although the (auto)biographical core of “Big Boy” grows out of a drowning incident from Wright’s own youth and a lynching he heard about from a Communist Party colleague,10 this context certainly informs its resonance. Old Man Harvey’s creek is, like the swimming hole of Wright’s youth, the beaches of Lake Michigan, and the municipal pools he would have read about, segregated by violence in a familiar reinscription of whiteness as a category. And as in those municipal pools, the body of white womanhood offers the pretext for policing the boundaries in the story.

After their swim, the boys lounge in a momentary idyll. In a “pensive” moment, a “black winged butterfly hovered at the water’s edge. A bee droned. From somewhere came the sweet scent of honeysuckles. Dimly they could hear sparrows twittering in the woods. They rolled from side to side, letting sunshine dry their skins and warm their blood” (29). But their pastoral is always precarious; rather than withdrawing from the human-made world, they can only talk about equal rights in the North, the train that would get them there, and what they would do if Old Man Harvey came along.11 What happens is worse. When “they st[an]d, black and naked, on the edge of the hole under a sloping embankment” (26), they are nature itself, innocent as the morning. But as soon as a white woman appears, that same nakedness is a threat to everyone; nature is perceived as wilderness, as wildness, as menace to civilization. “Black and naked, Big Boy stopped three feet from her” (30); in this moment, they fall from paradise into race, into human-made categories. The rest of their interaction follows the script each has internalized, an inability to see the other’s reality. Bertha has learned to see sexual predation in black male bodies, and learned to rely on a white knight—here, Harvey’s son Jim—for protection.12 The boys know themselves to be vulnerable, and like the suddenly naked Adam and Eve, can only follow the instinct to take cover: they shield their genitals, and must have their clothes even if it kills them. First Lester is shot down, and then Buck (like the animal whose name he bears)—and then Jim himself, the power his rifle gives him proving losable.

That Jim is wearing a uniform is significant. Whatever private memory it may be connected to in the story’s multiple sources, it offers a powerful link to the forces he represents. Behind Jim’s individual action to “protect” his father’s land, Bertha, and white womanhood looms the institutionalized white supremacy of the state.13 In Jim’s uniform is the uniform of a military that offers to police the world without examining its own injustice, of a legal system upholding Jim Crow, of the cop abetting violence against black swimmers, of the city officials who tacitly encourage segregation by violence. In shooting Jim, Big Boy (or Wright) may be lashing out at the flawed authority that misshapes his world. But that individual death only mobilizes the forces his uniform represents—the “he” dominating the story from offstage. [End Page 34]

Leaving the scene, Big Boy and Bobo enter an ambivalent natural world; their exile from the Garden is already in evidence. Although the “thick shadows cast from the trees were friendly and sheltering,” they found that the “[v]ines and leaves switched their faces” and “once Bobo tripped and fell” (33). They recognize that keeping to the fields is safer than hazarding the road, both a symbol and literal avenue for the socially constructed human reality that threatens them, but “last year’s corn stubbles bruised their feet” (34). While Big Boy is making his way to the kiln, “He ke[eps] his eyes straight ahead, fearing every clump of shrubbery, every tree” (45). If the earth was warm like a bed before the fall, now nature is the instrument of the lynch mob, providing hiding places and hanging trees. As in Evelyn White’s rapids, human cruelty perverts wilderness, populates nature with ghosts.14

When Big Boy arrives at the kiln, “[s]ix feet of snake slid out of the pit and went into coil” (47). Although he’s crawling into the belly of nature, looking for sanctuary, his Garden is always populated by poisonous snakes, just like the swimming holes in which Wright was made to swim with water moccasins. And just as that swimming hole obliged Wright to jump like a “black monkey,” fighting the snake here bestializes Big Boy: “He fought viciously, his eyes red, his teeth bared in a snarl” (47). Seeking refuge in the earth, he instead encounters and is assimilated into a hostile natural world. But it cannot be separated from and perhaps fundamentally symbolizes a hostile human world; the coils of snake are inextricably linked to the “coils of rope slung over shoulders” (53) as the mob approaches. Once again, Big Boy’s pastoral is disfigured by violence, a landscape of strange fruit; while shivering in the pit, he hears the mob sing: “We’ll hang ever nigger t a sour apple tree,” the voices—including women’s—making “the song round and full. Song waves rolled over the top of pine trees” (55). Nature itself is absorbed into this song, the Garden made a lynching field.

Great significance occupies this space of the kiln. The kiln that he and his friends dug the previous week, presumably for brickmaking, is a site of interaction with the natural world, a form of nature playground; as he waits for morning, Big Boy remembers playing with his friends in those kilns. But their play turns the hillside into an (antipastoral) escape fantasy. They make steam boilers to simulate the ever-present train whistle, making play out of labor either while firing brick in the kiln or after it has fulfilled its brickmaking function—and turning nature into its traditional antithesis, the railroad. But the kiln is a unique hybrid, in which nature itself makes nature into a commodity; it is dug into the earth rather than built on top, but its purpose is to transform the earth into a salable product. This labor in nature generates a saving intimacy with and knowledge of nature, insofar as the kiln protects Big Boy from the lynch mob. At the same time, however, Big Boy’s train-game reverie echoes disturbingly in Bobo’s lynching. Big Boy’s remembering how “[m]ore and more pine-knots and dry leaves would be piled under the cans [and flames] would grow so tall they would have to shield their eyes” (49) anticipates the mob feverishly adding fuel until the flames under Bobo “leaped tall as the trees” (57). If nature is supposed to offer restorative escape from society, Big Boy’s outdoor play can never quite be separated from the violence of life in the Jim Crow South.

Ultimately this dug kiln proves a dangerous refuge, inhabited by savage nature (snake, dog) that is at the same time human-made savagery (rope, master: as Woolley points out, “[s]ymbolically, the dog’s green eyes, its castrating position between Big Boy’s legs, and its death by choking link the animal to the white men of Big Boy’s fantasies and too-real nightmares” [178]). He then seems to lose himself in the earth. “Big Boy had no feelings now. … He rested his cheek against the cold clay, waiting” (53), as if transformed by his environment into the clay from which he came.15 Waiting in the cold clay, drained of feelings as if his ordeal had siphoned off humanity itself, he effectively finds himself fired in this kiln of his own making—so as he drinks from Will’s hat on the truck leaving town, “[h]ard cold lumps [End Page 35] of brick rolled into his hot stomach” (61), signaling his internal metamorphosis. He goes north not as a man, but as a natural resource transformed (like any other Southern export for the Northern market) and made available for commodification and exploitation.16 The kiln’s function, even as it protects him from the mob, is to prepare him for the industrial version of Jim Crow—for just as the urban pool turns out to be the swimming hole all over again, Chicago is in some ways Mississippi with smokestacks—and so he becomes hardened into brick, nature made over into ownable property.

In this version of the fall, ending with both asphalt and exile, Big Boy speeds north in a truck for the Magnolia Express Company (44), an ironic echo of the “sweet magnolias” of the story’s epigraph. As Daniel J. Martin writes in his analysis of “Strange Fruit,” “It is hard to imagine a more cherished symbol of the southern reverence for nature than the magnolia, a tree and flower associated with a beauty distinct to the region, with gentility, and in some quarters with the idealization of white womanhood and the accompanying sense of purity” (95). With this company name, Wright offers a subtle but grim parting shot. The road north promises new life for Big Boy, or seems to—he “turned on his side and slept” (61), as if ending the story in embryo. But Wright knows better. In 12 Million Black Voices, he reflects on the death-in-rebirth of the Great Migration: “And how were we to know that, the moment we landless millions of the land—we men who were struggling to be born—set our awkward feet upon the pavements of the city, life would begin to exact of us a heavy toll in death?” (93). The truck’s magnolia marks Big Boy’s exile, mocks his “struggle to be born” with the symbols of a home that was never his.

If for many Wright readers there is a seamless link from Big Boy to Bigger Thomas, so too the last page of “Big Boy Leaves Home” seems to transition directly into Wright’s own arrival in Chicago. Leaving the (not so) pastoral South behind, Wright encounters the kiln writ large:

My first glimpse of the flat black stretches of Chicago depressed and dismayed me, mocked all my fantasies. Chicago seemed an unreal city whose mythical houses were built of slabs of black coal wreathed in palls of gray smoke, houses whose foundations were sinking slowly into the dank prairie. Flashes of steam showed intermittently on the wise horizon, gleaming translucently in the winter sun. The din of the city entered my consciousness, entered to remain for years to come.

It is hard not to imagine Big Boy, like Bigger, like Wright himself, finding in the industrial North not an escape from the Jim Crow swimming hole, but another series of “No Trespassing” signs without even a magnolia to sweeten the funereal wreaths of smoke.

Those boundary markers remained in place for African Americans seeking outdoor recreation in Chicago in the decades following Eugene Williams’s drowning. During a swelteringly hot summer in 1966, a three-day riot on Chicago’s West Side was set off when police enforced the ordinance against opening fire hydrants. “The fire-hydrant confrontation did not just precipitate the riot—it revealed an underlying cause of it as well. Black Chicagoans seethed with anger in part because they lacked summertime recreation opportunities, especially swimming pools” (Wiltse 186). Indeed, the Defender claimed that swimming pools “may be the most immediate need the community faces” (qtd. in Wiltse 186). Once again, African Americans in Chicago told a familiar story: “There were three municipal pools within a mile of the riot flashpoint, but they were inaccessible to black residents. The pools were located within white neighborhoods, where, according to one West Side resident, blacks ‘can’t go without being beaten’” (186).

City officials both did and did not get the point. “During the third day of violence, Martin Luther King, Jr. met with Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley and advised him that swimming pools would help alleviate some of the tensions that caused the riot” (Wiltse 187). The city bought ten small pools and put them in [End Page 36] problem areas immediately, and then opened thirty-two new pools over the next two years. But the kind of pool that got built in this era was “utterly unnatural,” more like a “prison recreation facility” than an outdoor play area (Wiltse 189). The pools were designed, as Wiltse argues, to “essentially quarantine angry black citizens” (210).

The history of swimming in the twentieth century suggests that what ultimately needs to be quarantined as a potential contaminant of the white polity is the assertion of freedom that is black play. If, according to the terms of the Racial Contract that Charles Mills delineates, nonwhites can be integrated into society only as secondary citizens serving white interests, play is itself a form of trespass and an affront to a ruling class that profits from black labor. These penal institutions masquerading as recreation areas expose the empty promise of separate but equal, revealing the consequences for the transgression of Big Boy and his friends (as well as all the black bodies their bodies represent): confinement, entrapment, exclusion.

Melissa Ryan

Melissa Ryan is an associate professor of English at Alfred University, where she teaches courses in American literature with particular attention to race, class, gender, and place. Her essays have appeared in American Literature, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Studies in the Novel, and elsewhere.

Notes

1. The video link is embedded in Appelbaum’s online Atlantic article. For the New York Times’ coverage of the incident, see Carol Cole-Frowe and Richard Fausset, “A Party at a Pool, a Jarring Image of Police Force,” 9 June 2015: A11.

2. This insight informs a growing body of scholarship on the African American experience of nature. Among the most useful historical or theoretical accounts are Kimberly K. Smith, African American Environmental Thought: Foundations (Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 2007) and the collection “To Love the Wind and the Rain”: African Americans and Environmental History, Dianne D. Glave and Mark Stoll, eds. (Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2006). On the representation of nature in African American literature, see especially the anthology Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism, Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace, eds. (Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2001); Paul Outka, Race and Nature from Transcendentalism to the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2008); and other sources cited elsewhere in this essay.

3. If ecocriticism is, in David Mazel’s words, “the study of literature as if the environment mattered” (qtd. in Hicks 202), then an ecocriticism of color “offers the potential to reread literature as if the environment mattered differently” (Hicks 202). In part, this means “ask[ing] critics to be conscious of various environments (urban, rural, and suburban, and the miscegenation and marginalization therein) as well as be attuned to the political ramifications of social justice, justice not just for the clichéd redwoods and spotted owls, but for communities and cultures as well” (Hicks 203).

4. On Edenic imagery in the story, see, for example, David Lionel Smith: Wright “initially represents nature in Edenic terms, as a group of black boys cavort in youthful innocence. Soon, however, innocence and immersion in nature prove to be their downfall; a white woman stumbles upon them swimming nude,” becoming “the serpent in their garden” (1005). Fabre also sees this symbolism of lost paradise (157-58).

5. Webb comments on the boys’ ambivalent experience of the creek: “Erich Neumann, in Origins and History of Consciousness, discusses the ancient Egyptian view of water as both good mother and terrible mother. The good mother is the water that cushions the fetus in the womb, whereas the terrible mother is the destructive power of the flood, the devouring deep. In ‘Big Boy Leaves Home’ the boys are tantalized by a ‘good mother’ image of water—a refreshing swim in the pond, a little excitement to replace the boredom of school. Wright accentuates this idyllic mood. … Yet the description of the swimming hole, examined closely, is not peaceful or tranquil” (7).

6. Harris makes a related point in her reading of “Big Boy Leaves Home”: “Blackness is enough of a ‘crime’ without adding a real one to it (justification of innocence or guilt is irrelevant in the historical scheme of things)” (106). For a contemporary illustration of this dynamic, see Mexal, in which he shows how the nonwhite teens wrongly convicted of the Central Park Jogger rape in 1989 were constructed as wilderness figures violating the civilized nature of Central Park and thus challenging “the hegemony of white, ‘civilized’ liberal selfhood” (102).

7. Researchers and activists targeting environmental racism originally focused primarily on core necessities such as potable water and freedom from disease (see Robert D. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality [Boulder: Westview, 1994]), but the right to play is a closely connected concern. In Children at Play: an American History, Chudacoff notes, “In 1930, amid rising concern over the Great Depression’s effect on children’s welfare and happiness, President Herbert Hoover convened a White House Conference on Child Health and Protection. The meeting brought together professionals from fields of education, psychology, medicine, and social services to discuss and present reports concerning [End Page 37] child care and protection on all governmental levels. In addition to preparing a Children’s Charter—a set of nineteen principles that addressed issues of health, education, child labor, family welfare, and growth and development—conference delegates declared that play was ‘every child’s right’” (98). Conference proceedings also briefly mention progress providing recreation facilities for African American and immigrant children (Official Proceedings 17). For a contemporary account of the link between recreation and environmental justice, see Myron F. Floyd and Cassandra Y. Johnson, “Coming to Terms with Environmental Justice in Outdoor Recreation: A Conceptual Discussion with Research Implications,” Leisure Sciences 24 (2002): 59-77.

8. The Racial Contract, as Mills demonstrates, “is not a contract between everybody (‘we the people’), but between just the people who count, the people who really are people (‘we the white people’)” (3).

9. Note that this happens when municipal pools evolve from bathing to swimming pools—that is, when “they became sites of leisure and recreation” (Appelbaum n. pag.). The violent segregation of swimming pools is then consistent with the exclusion of African Americans from nature that Fisher describes.

10. On the accidental drowning of Robert Ellis at Rock Bottom Creek, see Fabre 43-44; Constance Webb, Richard Wright: A Biography (New York: Putnam, 1968), 53-56; and Rowley 26. For Ross’s story, see Wright, American Hunger 86-87.

11. As Hicks claims, “Wright unsettles and upends the pastoral. He rejects its simplistic appreciation for nature unreflected on in favor of one in which danger and disorder are imminent and endemic, one in which terror and fear are always but a few steps away” (213). Martin characterizes Wright’s poem “Between the World and Me” as a “curtailed pastoral,” a designation that seems to work for this story as well: “Wright may not really be challenging the validity of pastoral ideal as much as he is simply excluded from it. … In the poem, nature does not prove to be hostile to itself, but humans have brought their hostility to nature, so much so that Wright’s speaker has no opportunity for … the pastoral withdrawal from civilization, no escape really, except perhaps, as in Wright’s case, to a city in the North” (102).

12. “In a sense, she is paralyzed by a fearful conjunction of historically codified racial myths—the inviolate white female and the bestial black male, on the one hand, and the Jim Crow laws and customs that both prescribe and proscribe her responses to black men, on the other; she is cast into the historically-determined role of victim/victimizer” (Bryant 543). Bryant sees this as a moment of gothic paralysis.

13. For McCarthy, “The military presence brings in another level of history, the early World War I climate of U. S. involvement in Europe. Wright uses this actual history as a realistic foundation to build the metaphorical history of black-white relations: Whites are formally militant in opposition to blacks” (731). And Higashida notes, “The son, a soldier, fulfills his duty to state, property, and propriety by fatally shooting two of the children” (402).

14. Several critics have remarked on the adversarial turn nature takes at this point in the story. See for example Watson: “Indeed, it is as if the initial moment of white intrusion operates as a hideous vortex, a still point into which every major element of the opening scene is drawn and then spit out mangled or dismantled, its significance reversed. … The natural world has turned hostile” (172). And for Delmar, this transformation invalidates any potential optimism in the ending: As the sun comes up, “The natural order is once again depicted as benevolent. … But Big Boy’s response is not the same as his response to the benevolent pre-catastrophic natural world. His experience, if it has done nothing else, has numbed him to the effects of nature, and not only does Big Boy fail to participate in nature, he refuses to contemplate it” (6).

15. As Dixon observes, Wright’s narratives often feature “fugitive escape from society and into hiding that offers either rebirth or a probable grave” (60); for Dixon, Big Boy earns rebirth. Baker offers a further contextualizing insight: “For Wright’s narrator [in 12 Million Black Voices,] an Afro-American semantic of place crushes together two competing definitions of ‘confine.’ Definitions of the term as immobility while giving birth and as imprisonment converge in the hole, that place of knotted pain and scant hope that is the first, imprisoning birthplace of the Afro-American” (89-90). Like the slave ship, the kiln functions for Big Boy as both womb and tomb.

16. Watson points out that “[a] kiln, after all, is supposed to be a site of making, where the raw materials of the earth are transformed into human artifacts,” and so it is tempting to see in the kiln “the site of Big Boy’s initiation into manhood, where his human clay is hardened or ‘fired’ into maturity by bitter adversity. Yet … the cramped confines of the kiln function as a space of world contraction and unmaking—or, to put it another way, as a space ordinarily devoted to making that has been unmade” (174). Higashida also sees the kiln as a space in which Big Boy is transformed: “Big Boy hides in a kiln, where the raw material of his experiences is fired and hardened into a new subjectivity; foreshadowing Bigger in his prison cell, Big Boy reauthorizes himself. At first he longs for the ties of community, family, and home, symbolized by the womb-like kiln built by the collective labor of black kin, and by his mother’s corn pone, which he saves so that he and Bobo can eat together. However, as Big Boy reflects on the day’s events, he realizes that he must sever these maternal bonds in order to survive” (402). [End Page 38]

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Chudacoff, Howard P. Children at Play: an American History. New York: New York UP, 2007.
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———. American Hunger. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. [End Page 39]
———. “Big Boy Leaves Home.” Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children 17-61.
———. Black Boy. New York: Harper & Row, 1945.
———. “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.” Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children 1-15.
———. Uncle Tom’s Children. 1938. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993. [End Page 40]