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Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices

Richard Wright's 12 Million Black Voices, first published in 1941, is an impassioned essay on the African-American experience: the highs and lows, the triumph and the tragedy, from slavery to Emancipation and sharecropping, to the great Northern migration and life in the urban ghetto. One wouldn't think it possible to distill over two hundred years of African-American life into roughly seventy pages of text, and in such a beautifully poetic manner, but Wright succeeds brilliantly.

Wright's prose is accompanied by classic Depression-era photos from the Farm Security Administration, flawlessly selected by Edwin Rosskam and including the works of the usual FSA heavyweights--Jack Delano, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, et al. The photos are seamlessly integrated into the text, echoing and amplifying Wright's various phrases.

For me, the book bogged down momentarily while Wright discussed the plight of the sharecroppers, but perked up considerably when he described the Great Migration to the cities of the north.

Night and day, in rain and in sun, in winter and in summer, we leave the land. Already, as we sit and look broodingly out over the turning fields, we notice with attention and hope that the dense southern swamps give way to broad, cultivated wheat farms. The spick-and-span farmhouses done in red and green and white crowd out the casual, unpainted gingerbread shacks. Silos take the place of straggling piles of hay. Macadam highways now wind over the horizon instead of dirt roads. The cheeks of farm people are full and ruddy, not sunken and withered like soda crackers. The slow southern drawl, which in legend is so sweet and hospitable but which in fact has brought down our black bodies suffering untold, is superseded by clipped Yankee phrases spoken with such rapidity and neutrality that we, with our slow ears, have difficulty in understanding. And the foreigners--Poles, Germans, Swedes and Italians--we never dreamed that there were so many in the world! Yes, coming north for a Negro sharecropper involves more strangeness than going to another country. It is the beginning of living on a new and terrifying plane of consciousness.

Despite the optimism, note the ominous tone of that last phrase. Wright is startled by the casual and non-venomous behavior of northern whites that he encounters on the northbound train.

Even though we have been told that we need not be afraid, we have lived so long in fear of all white faces that we cannot help but sit and wait. We look around the train and we do not see the old familiar signs: FOR COLORED and FOR WHITE. The train speeds north and we cannot sleep. Our heads sink in a doze, and then we sit bolt-upright, prodded by the thought that we must watch these strange surroundings. But nothing happens; these white men seem impersonal and their very neutrality reassures us--for a while. Almost against our deeper judgment, we try to force ourselves to relax, for these brisk men give no sign of what they feel. They are indifferent. O sweet and welcome indifference!

However, the promise of the Promised Land proves to be short-lived, as the African-American pilgrims find a new kind of discrimination which, while not as blatant as that of the plantation, proves to be no less cruel in its quiet invisibility.

So, under the black mourning pall of smoke from the stacks of American industry, our observing Negro eyes watch a thousand rivulets of blood melt, fuse, blend and flow in a common stream of human unity as it merges with the great American tide. But we never mix with that stream; we are not allowed to. For years we watch the timid faces of poor white peasants--Turks, Czechs, Croats, Finns and Greeks--pass through this curtain of smoke and emerge with the sensitive features of modern men. But our faces do not change. Our cheek-bones remain as unaltered as the stony countenance of the Sphinx.

But despite the degradations of ghetto life--fifty people crammed into an apartment which was built for five, limited job opportunity and virtually no upward mobility, young people turning away from family life and the church--Wright concludes on a positive note, after noting several examples of tenuous progress.

We are with the new tide. We stand at the crossroads. We watch with each new procession. The hot wires carry urgent appeals. Print compels us. Voices are speaking. Men are moving! And we shall be with them...

This concluding passage is followed by a striking photograph by Carl Mydans in which a young African American man stands at the rear door of his tenement. The building is poor, worn, unpainted, and the man is somewhat shabbily dressed. He stands, with a mangy dog lying at his feet, squinting into the late-day sun, not exactly smiling but with a look of mild optimism on his face. Looking at his surroundings, one wouldn't think he has much to be optimistic about, but it is none the less an image of unquestionable hope and positivity. This memorable image of simultaneous deprivation and hope is perfectly emblematic of 12 Million Black Voices as a whole.

December 17, 2004 in Books | Permalink



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