Richard Wright’s Newly Restored Novel Is a Tale for TodayBreaking News
tags: African American history, book reviews, literature, fiction, Richard Wright
THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND
By Richard Wright
The kinds of men Thurgood Marshall would have saved from the gallows suffer in the fiction of Richard Wright. These men aren’t rescued by civil rights lawyers but languish in the margins that have long defined too much of the Black experience in the United States. One uniquely American paradox of Wright’s books is that they could take a Black boy from the Jim Crow South to international fame, and at the same time reveal the unrelenting precarity of that Black boy’s life.
Wright died in 1960, the year my mother was born, and lately, I’ve been troubled by the fact that I am 40 years old and just a dozen years younger than he was when he died. Sometimes it’s impossible to escape the belief that the America Wright chronicled in his writing did the kind of damage to his heart that leads to an early death.
That damage is indeed disastrous, in many ways, in his novel “The Man Who Lived Underground,” which has just been published in its entirety for the first time. Wright wrote “Underground” between his most famous works, “Native Son” (1940) and “Black Boy” (1945), and the book was rejected by his publisher and cut down to a short story. Today, 80 years after Wright worked on it — in a Brooklyn brownstone an easy walk from where Biggie Smalls once lived — the restored novel feels wearily descriptive of far too many moments in contemporary America.
In the opening scene, when Fred Daniels leaves the house of his white employers after a hard day’s work, with money in his pocket and a pregnant wife waiting at home, he is not yet a Black man to readers. But when he’s stopped by the police, the last thing he wants to see, we know immediately that he is Black and that little else matters, even if he doesn’t know it yet.
“Come here, boy,” says one of the three officers sitting in a patrol car outside the house. Daniels runs down the the litany of names he imagines might save him: his employers, Mr. and Mrs. Wooten, “two of the best-known people in all the city”; Reverend Davis, his pastor at the White Rock Baptist Church, where Daniels teaches Sunday school and sings in the choir; Rachel Daniels, his pregnant wife. What he doesn’t know is that the Peabodys, the Wootens’ neighbors, have been murdered. In the 1940s, or the 2020s for that matter, you don’t want to be the Black man who the police believe committed a murder. And Daniels was the first Black man the officers saw on the street.
Tell me that this scene couldn’t happen tomorrow in New Haven or Memphis or Houston or a dozen other cities in America and history will call you a liar.