(Essay Draft) Richard Wright and His Anxious Influence

April 5, 2020 John Drabinski

Here is a draft of my essay entitled “Richard Wright and His Anxious Influence: On Ellison and Baldwin,” a reflection piece on Wright as a father-figure to Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. It is largely introductory and proceeds through (hopefully) sharp general characterizations of Ellison and Baldwin as critics of Wright, including a short consideration of Irving Howe’s 1963 essays “Black Boys and Native Sons.” The essay concludes:

“These are the perils of fatherhood, whether the biology and culture of reproduction or the figure of influence in literary life. Wright bequeaths a name to Baldwin and Ellison: you are Black writers, African-American writers, and you speak to and from the infrastructure of American memory and history. Indeed, this is precisely what Native Son accomplishes. With Native Son, Wright held a mirror to white Americans, allowing them to see themselves not only in Mary and her parents – white liberals who nonetheless reproduce structures of exploitation and Black suffering – but in Bigger Thomas himself. Bigger is Black, but he is also white America worked through its brown-skinned other. Baldwin understood this in two steps. There is a Bigger inside the skull of every Black person. And Bigger is also the creation of white America, just like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom. What does it mean to work through this dilemma – registering the effects of white terror while also affirming the transcendent beauty of Black life – after Wright and the parricidal work of Baldwin and Ellison? This is the work of reckoning with the very Americanness of America. It is our ongoing task. And for all three writers, our ongoing responsibility to the vicissitudes of the memory and history of racial violence.”