The posthumous work is a relatively new phenomenon for African American literature, and not without its share of high-profile successes. Leon Forrest’s Meteor in the Madhouse was polished with editor John Calwetti’s almost symbiotic understanding of the author’s mad yet beautiful style (think Dostoevsky and Faulkner gone to church), and the resulting set of novellas serve as a fine closure to the career of what many people consider the patron saint of overlooked African American writers.
While Toni Cade Bambara’s These Bones Are Not Of My Child suffers from the opaqueness of plot and structure that most unfinished works have, the judicious and careful editing of Toni Morrison, Bambara’s longtime mentor, gave it a range of intelligence and lucidity that makes it stand with her best work. Even Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth, a 2,500-page, forty-year-long epic work reduced to a 350-page vanity project by Ellison executor John Callahan, has enough majestic passages to remind the reader of Ellison’s position as one of the greatest writers in the history of American literature.
Which makes Richard Wright’s Lawd Today all the more disturbing. Given the massive stature of its author, the circumstances regarding its publication and the miserable failure of the work itself, Lawd Today is one of the most depressing reads I’ve had in a long time. The plot, a day in the life of Jake Jackson, a disgruntled postal worker who bickers with his wife, runs debts with his job and is oppressed by society, is nearly formless, incoherently rendered and crassly told. The result is nothing short of garbage, and by far the worst work that Wright has ever done.
But what bothered me so much was that I didn’t know whom to blame for the content, Ellen Wright for publishing it two years after he died, or the author himself. The problem with the posthumous novel is that it takes away an author’s ability to guide their own story, the unique creative autonomy that fiction writers have.
When I read it the first time I chalked its failure to the Wright estate’s literary grave-digging, given Wright’s overall ability to construct the events of a story and the sharp naturalism of his prose. But when I read it again, I saw that it had all of the markings that made his final two works, 1959’s The Long Dream. and 1961’s Eight Men, such brutal failures: vicious sexism, obsession with violence, atrocious craftsmanship, and subconscious yet deep self-hatred. Adding on the fact that I have found out that Wright had stated numerous times that it was a finished work, this crystallizes its stature as one of the most epic failures in the history of African American literature.
The best aspects of the book lie in the scene where Jackson goes to the barbershop and the overall dialogue between him and his co-workers at the post office. One of Wright’s greatest strengths is to capture many of the aspects of Black male camaraderie, relating to “good talkin” and various aspects of Black male ritual. You can see it in the down-home, beautifully vulgar, and righteously contrarian banter between Jake; Doc, the barber; and Duke, a communist organizer. That same aesthethic makes for the book’s best part, the 28 pages of non-stop dialogue between Jake and his friends at work, where they reminisce about the south and ruminate about being Black in society. Here, if Wright were either as polished as he was when he started writing (he wasn’t), or in sound mind when he ended writing (he wasn’t), could have been the basis for the down-home novel that he wanted Today to be.
But beneath the brotherhood and warmth of their dialogue lies an emptiness that points to his greatest flaw as a writer: his subconscious internal loathing of his own people. Wright can’t get past the punch line of Black dialect, he can’t see its historical foundation, its interrelationship with myth and folklore, its ever changing sensibility used as an agent of survival. Am I asking Wright to overly mythologize the language? No. One cringes at the thought of another Temple of My Familiar, where every character is bathed in an imitation of an imitation of an imitation of folk wit, so much so that it ceases to be folk wit at all, but New Age crap. But Wright can’t see the dialect as anything other than part of their depraved condition as oppressed members of society. The result is that their dialogue, which constitutes about 35 percent of the book, has a dreadful emptiness to it.
But compared to the garbage that the bulk of the book consists of, that emptiness seams merely peachy. And the garbage starts early. The book begins with Jackson in a dream sequence going up an endless flight of stairs, and there you can see flashes of all that made Wright great, his clear, no nonsense naturalism and the descriptive imagery he shows in blending the dream states with reality. But alas, he wakes up to a wife who won’t tend to his every whim. And because she won’t do so, we are supposed to understand why he brutally beats her, chides her for having religious material, and is offended at her for contracting cancer from an abortion that he tricked her into having. For Wright, this is supposed to be and is presented as some political statement about the travails of the black man in society. It makes a statement all right, but one against Wright’s grotesque sexual politics.
Now that is not to say that Black men have their own unique and viable problems, for one of America’s gravest historical sins has been the madness that it has had, and to an extent still continues to have, regarding Black Male sexuality. But in no way, shape or form does Wright address the complex aesthetics regarding the subject when Jake beats his woman to a pulp or says “b*tch” and “c*nt” more times than in an Easy-E LP. In its atrocious symbolism, Wright’s use of Jackson as a character also follows the same flawed sensibility that cast a shadow over even his best work, including Native Son. Every time Jake slaps around his wife or vulgarly insults a woman, Wright seems to be saying, “We’re depraved creatures because you made us so!” But what Wright, along with the generation of black militants and white liberals that were influenced by him, didn’t understand was in saying that, “We’re depraved creatures because you made us so!” instead of saying, “We’re depraved creature’s because we are inferior beasts!” you are still saying that “We’re depraved creatures!”
The bulk of what makes the book structurally unreadable lies in Wright’s worst aesthetic flaw, his tendency to pad a story for length’s sake. Wright uses the day in the life motif as an excuse to add numerous scenes in the name of showing an “ordinary” Black man’s day. But the problem with the plot lies twofold: his inability to describe his neighborhood in vivid terms and link those descriptions to the plot, reprehensible as the plot may be. Scenes where Jake reads the paper, complains about social issues, glances at advertisements, loiters around a movie house, and picks up the local numbers are not only crudely written (nobody has ever mistaken Wright for Proust, or to be more precise, Ellison or James Baldwin), they exist simply to exist, to make the book long enough to be a novel. Wright tries to communicate their significance to the ritual of Black life, but again that flawed sensibility that rendered him unable to depict African Americans as anything but damaged from the nightmare of racism does him in.
But to center the discussion of the book’s structural merits (or lack thereof) would overlook the book’s abominable treatment of women. While it is noteworthy to mention that Wright’s attitudes on women evolved greatly (his very close friendship with Simone De Beauvoir and the progressive attitude towards women reflected in his speeches are examples), his fiction showed opinions that were nothing short of hideous. Lawd Today’s”implied premise, that Black women are just as responsible for Black man’s problems as White racism is, is beyond reprehensible. Everything that Jackson does, from the problems that he has with money, the oppression he has at his job, and his fight over the prostitute that robs him at a Juke Joint, is linked to that myth of the evil Black Jezebel, the castrating Cassandra that is supposed to lurk in all Black women, but in actuality only lurks in the dark and empty corners of the minds of Black misogynists everywhere. In his abusive behavior towards his wife and the women in the book, Wright turns Jake into not only a subconscious parody of a character, but a parody of his own art also. Jackson’s (and subsequently Wright’s) treatment of women is bad enough to curdle the blood, and his self-pitying behavior to justify his actions does nothing but provoke a reader with a hint of decency to recoil in anger.
Richard Wright’s art and historical meaning cannot be underestimated. It should be the first, second and third thing that should be mentioned when you talk about his significance as a writer. At his best, his writing not only contained a breathless emotional impact and the gut toned power of a sermon, but served as an extension of the social realism movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, in which American writers eschewed the oppressive conventions and the perverse anglophillia of the industrial (or what Twain so beautifully coined, “guilded”) age. In Wright’s work, you can see the lineage of Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and John Dos Passos, insomuch that he created a moral fiction that shifted the consciousness of the country by forcing it to look at its most glaring flaws. Wright’s best work, from the haunting, nightmarish and gripping Jamesian psychological tale of America’s racial madness that is Native Son, to the powerful and even at times graceful polemic that is Black Boy, should be required reading for people who have any interest in the history of American literature. By graphically and passionately showing the brutality that American life could be for Black people, Wright served as a witness, not only in the rich tradition of African American literary history, but in the tradition of all American artists and intellectuals that reminded this country of the principles of its creed, whether the country liked it or not.
But reading Lawd Today also showed me that Wright, for all his brilliance, extracted a debt that he couldn’t pay. The nether edges of his fiction established a template of picaresque male saints whose hyperbolic rants against racism were sandwiched in between the physical and emotional brutalization of Black women and the killing off of White ones as “symbolic” acts. Those edges can be seen in the morbidity, incoherence and downright evil of the bulk of Chester Himes’s fiction, the crass sexual and racial realpolitik of John Killens and John A. Williams, and the pseudo- intellectual posturing, interpersonal race and class-based con games and maddeningly brutal misogyny of Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed and Cecil Brown. The pulp protest writers of the 50’s and 60’s and early 70’s not only did a disservice to African American literature, it did a disservice to all literature, period. And because of them, a dark cloud of animosity lurks over Black male writers to this very day.
Lawd Today, with its array of glaring technical flaws and psychopathic foundations, shows that cloud’s gestation. It also shows that Wright, for all the deserved acclaim he has received, had faults as a writer that are too huge to ignore.