Richard Wright’s Racism on African Soil

A response I posted on Facebook on September 7th:

Feeling lazy, but am about to start reading this 200–page book for an African Theory class on Wednesday: “The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge” by V.Y. Mudimbe. The blurb at the back sounds interesting.

Last week, we read Richard Wright’s “Black Power” (1954). Wright’s writing was amazing but racist. It was very clear that Wright, when writing this particular book, came across as sexist, elitist, and he didn’t consider his African brothers and sisters as his equal.

I don’t know enough about Wright’s history or all his books following the publication of this book, so he could have changed. I am only sharing the impressions I formed after reading this book.

In the book, Wright visited Africa in the early 1950s at the invitation of Ghana’s leader Kwame Nkrumah. At the time, there were decolonization agitations across Africa. Countries wanted to free themselves. Ghana’s president mobilized the Ghanaian people to reject English control of Ghana.

Soon as Wright’s ship reached African shores, the tone of Wright’s narration changed. He said the sea became choppy, the sky and sea had no line of separation. Everything became suddenly gloomy, as Wright saw it. Even later when the people gathered at political rallies and shouted “Freedom” in celebration of Kwame Nkrumah being possible president, Wright spelt it as “Freeeee-dooom.”

I don’t believe Wright was trying to emphasize the celebratory tone of the people. I believe Wright was trying to say that Africans were freeing a process of doom (or they are doomed no matter what they do), though he claimed he was there to support the president. I take all of that to be Wright’s way of suggesting that Africa was a cut-off continent, axed from civility.

Noticing the occasions Wright came in contact with polite natives, his own attitude was just disgusting. At one point, he blamed a man for selling him to Americans as slaves. Of course, nobody had sold Richard Wright, who was African American; but that was his way of showing disrespect to fellow black people; his way of holding them in contempt, even though he claimed the purpose of his journey was to empower the black Diaspora.

Throughout the book, Wright treated women, just like many black male writers and leaders of the time: with utter disrespect, arrogance, and act as if women were invisible. Each time he saw a woman, if he didn’t ignore her, he made reference to her nakedness and her breasts. Wright even said that some of the women’s breasts were so long and flat that they could throw the breasts on their shoulders and the baby would suck as they continued to work at whatever they were doing.

For those of us familiar with 15th century literature, we know that Wright was lying. We know that Wright took that observation from the mouths of 14th-16th century English travelers who visited Africa, and to make their travels sound interesting, they used travelogues and lied saying, African women threw their breasts over their shoulders and nursed their babies. This was England’s way of trying to associate the black female body with that of an hard-bodied animal.

Indeed, Wright did admit that flat long breasts revealed African women’s fertility, but he still mocked it openly. They weren’t as long as Wright said. Another point of concerning is Wright’s tone when Africans were dancing at a funeral. It was just uncomfortable for me to see how Wright narrated it. He acted as if he had never seen such a thing in his whole life.

Seriously! How could an educated man who wanted to write about black people, not know that African Americans themselves in the North and South and Afro-Caribbeans had the same ritualistic, revivalist, energy at funerals and wake.

After completing the book, I was convinced that Wright didn’t visit Africa as a black man trying to empower black people. Wright went there because he wanted to be god–the black god among the black underclass.

Ultimately Wright gave the president his advice. He told President Kwame Nkrumah (I don’t remember if he was president at the time, but he was a political leader) to maintain African sovereignty by being suspicious of America, which was promising Ghana assistance. Wright said the only reason America was doing that was because America knew that Russia would stop by and try to befriend Ghana soon.

Remember, it was the era of the Cold War! America and Russia were putting their racism in the background in order to recruit Africans, who wanted to be liberated, for their ideology: capitalism or communism.

Knowing this, Wright also advised the president in his feedback-letter that he should be weary of Russia as well and the doctrine of communism. Even England and America weren’t on very good terms, because England wanted to keep Africa all for itself.

Much of Wright’s advice made sense, but they were grounded in a condescending tone towards Africans on a whole. As I see it, Wright was not speaking as another black man, he was speaking as an all-powerful American, using the lenses of racist, sexist, and xenophobic Americans and Europeans, but acting as if he was liberated.

How could I forget to mention that Wright’s main suggestion to the Ghanaian president was that he must militarized (or something like that) Ghana. Wright didn’t say, war-style militarization. He made it appear as if he was using the word as a metaphor; but it seems to me that Wright was suggesting force was needed to police the mannerism, “civility, past and future of Ghana.

I will keep you updated with the summaries of the books I read for certain classes. By writing, it helps me to remember them better

Posted in Race Matters, Reviews