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63 PART 3: Nonfictions “A Dramatic Picture . . . of Woman from Feudalism to Fascism”: Richard Wright’s Black Hope Barbara Foley In February 1940, Richard Wright sent to his literary agent, Paul Reynolds, the 961-word manuscript of an untitled novel for which the working title was “Slave Market”; he would later title the manuscript “Black Hope.” Apologizing for what he acknowledged to be the “over-written and redundant, and too vague and abstract” nature of the text, he noted that its present state was no worse than the “same crude condition” of the original typescript of Native Son, which was then on its way to publication. Wright summarized the plot of his new novel as “a dramatic picture . . . of woman from feudalism to fascism” (6 Feb. 1940, Richard Wright Papers [hereafter RWP], box 18, folder 292). Only briefly alluded to in the scholarship on Wright, and never reproduced even in excerpted segments, Black Hope is indeed an unwieldy novel. It warrants far more attention than it has received, however, and ought to find its way to publication. The novel demonstrates that Wright, who is often viewed as oblivious to gender issues, if not outrightly misogynist, was in fact deeply interested in the condition of women as an issue in its own right as well as in its broader social and political connections with racism, capitalism, and fascism. The novel further illuminates Wright’s concerns—as a political thinker, a student of psychology, and a creative artist—in the intensely productive period when he was working on not only Native Son but also “The Man Who Lived Underground” and Twelve Million Black Voices. In this essay, I will describe what Wright was attempting to accomplish in Black Hope; 64 examine the novel’s significance in Wright’s political and artistic odyssey; and suggest the text’s relevance to the mid-twentieth-century left’s attempts to link Marx with Freud in a formulation of the necessary connections between women’s liberation, the defeat of fascism, and the fight for egalitarian communism.1 1 Richard Wright to Paul Reynolds, 6 February 1940, Black Hope, Box 18, F. 292, Richard Wright Papers (henceforth RWP), Beinecke Library, Yale University). While Reynolds advised Wright to cut his original manuscript by 50 percent and to undertake extensive revisions, he encouraged the novelist, opining that Black Hope was “a larger and deeper book than Native Son” (Reynolds to Wright, 13 Apr. 1942, qtd. in Rowley 264). Wright continued to work on Black Hope on and off for many years, substantially abandoning it when he started working hard on Black Boy (American Hunger) in 1943, but dropping it “for once and for all” only in 1948 (Rowley 354). The locus classicus of feminist commentary targeting Wright’s negative attitudes toward women is Maria K. Mootry’s “Bitches, Whores and Woman Haters: Archetypes and Typologies in the Art of Richard Wright.” See also Green. Because of stringent prohibitions surrounding the Wright estate, I am constrained in my ability to quote directly from the manuscript; paraphrase and summary will have to bear much of the burden of my commentary on the text. 65 A summary of this complex novel is rendered difficult by the fact that Wright produced not only three different drafts of the first version but also a second version, apparently composed about a year later but left incomplete. The second version, which I will call Black Hope 2, begins in North Carolina and features the experiences of Maud Wilson, a light-skinned African American woman who is entrapped by Ed Basin, a trafficker in indentured labor who transports young—and usually illiterate—black women to the urban North, where they are coerced either into low-wage domestic work, prostitution, or some combination of the two. His practice of keeping them indebted, unable to escape his grasp, establishes a clear parallel with the economics of sharecropping. Basin first rapes Maud but then, realizing the value of her skin color, subjects her to arsenic poisoning which, while nearly killing her, bleaches her skin. Although Maud is deeply ambivalent about her newfound whiteness, after her ordeal, she glimpses herself in a mirror and imagines new possibilities for herself—possibilities that, it is implied, will bring her into conflict with the criminal use that Basin plans to make of her (RWP, box 21, folders 323–27). The manuscript breaks off here. Drawing upon journalistic exposes of the so-called slave markets in the Bronx and Brooklyn, where middle-class housewives would...


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