White Man, Listen! (Wright)

This book was put together, the bookseller told me, in response to James Baldwin telling Wright to stop writing protest novels (Was Baldwin right when he criticized Wright for writing a protest novel?). I say that this book was “put together” rather than written because it’s four of Wright’s talks put together into this short book. Generally, they do flow together well. And I want to say ahead of time that I am a big fan of Black Boy and like Native Son a great deal, though it can be hard to wade through some of the speeches in the third section. But this book felt like a letdown. Perhaps Wright is out of his element here? He paints in such broad strokes here that it’s hard to find much here compelling or, in Wright’s terms, worth listening to. In addition to his almost obsessive use of generalizations, Wright’s arguments often come down to statements akin to, “You know in your heart that this is true.” The first section, “The Psychological Reactions of Oppressed People,” is the most worthwhile one. It provides a framework for Wright’s thinking, though he too often comes across as someone (to allude to a very popular musical) who thinks that he’s the smartest person in the room. Surprisingly, it is the third section, the one about literature, that is most disappointing. He skims over a series of poets and makes brief observations that he seems to think are true because he made them. And, in a kind of grouchy way, he criticizes his contemporaries (including Baldwin) for lacking the spirit of the writers he’s mentioned.

So, it’s a quick read, but more as an artifact, a piece in a continuing argument, than as anything that really resonates today. Baldwin’s work seems to be going through a renaissance now because his words continue to be urgent. But Wright’s speeches, somewhat like pieces of Native Son, seem dated. And his relentless comments against religion are irksome and ungenerous. Wright has an agenda here, and he imposes it against a backdrop of people that he, alone (he claims), can understand. If anything resonates today, it is his emphasis on the individual, a piece of what some might call neoliberalism these days.

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