– Excerpt from Black Regions of the Imagination –
After making the nearly eight-hour flight from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle International Airport, I was plagued by the sneaking suspicion that everyone in Paris spoke English, but none of them would do so with me. My suspicions were fueled by the myth that French people will speak English only once an American stumbles over a few French phrases: “Bon-jore. Como tah-lay vu? Par-lay vu inglays? I don’t speak French” (said with sheepish grin). This myth casts the French as a perverse group of people who measure their national superiority by the yardstick of American linguistic ineptitude.
Walking through Charles de Gaulle, there were moments when I was convinced it was true. Every sign in the airport had subscript in English directing one toward various methods for travel away from Charles de Gaulle: they wanted to give me just enough English to hang myself because once I made it out of the airport, only God knew how I would navigate Paris proper.
Signs or no signs, for me, as I’m sure it is for many Americans of a particular class background, there was something entirely overwhelming and frightening about leaving the United States and finding myself in a country where I did not speak the language. I know that admitting this is tantamount to admitting one is illiterate in a room full of literature teachers. I suppose my identity as an American academic is supposed to lift me above the masses of provincial Americans and deliver me into the bosom of the cosmopolitan elite. But for better or worse, I became generic American in France. This is not a profound observation, I know. But on this particular trip to Paris, the relationship between internationalism and nationalism was at the forefront of my thoughts.
I was in Paris to deliver a paper at the International Richard Wright Centennial Conference, which was hosted by the American University of Paris. This conference was one of many centennial events held during 2008 to commemorate the fact that in 1908 Richard Wright had been born on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi. Richard Wright was born less than half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment’s ratification ended U.S. slavery, and in some ways his life stands as testament to the United States’ ability to reinvent itself. In less than fifty years, the former prison house of black human chattel counted among its citizens one of the most prominent writers of the twentieth century. This writer also happened to be the grandson of black American slaves. American exceptionalism encourages us to look upon the facts of Wright’s life and stand astounded that it took only two generations to “turn” a slave into a great American writer.
Yet buying into the narrative of American exceptionalism requires that we blind ourselves to harsh realities of black life in the United States from post-emancipation and into the twentieth century: Jim Crow, urban poverty, racism, underemployment, high infant mortality, and so on. Richard Wright, unable to reconcile his sense of his own humanity with the historical reality of state-sanctioned inequality under which most blacks lived during the early twentieth century, spent his life critiquing the myth of American racial progress and arguing that it was the very notion of American exceptionalism that retarded such progress.
Wright honed an artistic vision of America as a nation imperiled by its refusal to admit black humanity. His responsibility, he felt as an artist, was to represent the negative realities that were generated by such a national incapacity. In his critically acclaimed novel Native Son (1940), Wright centralized his protagonist’s social retaliation upon the realization that Bigger Thomas’s human potential would be forever denied by white power structures. Native Son is his graphically violent imagining of how black inhumanity is created by U.S. racism and racial inequity. Bigger’s fear, flight, and fate are dictated by the destructive American racial landscape of which he is a product. In responding to one critic’s negative review of the violence in Native Son, Wright retorted:
If there had been one person in the Dalton household who viewed Bigger Thomas as a human being, the crime would have been solved in half an hour. Did not Bigger himself know that it was the denial of his personality that enabled him to escape detection so long? The one piece of incriminating evidence which would have solved the “murder mystery” was Bigger’s humanity, and the Daltons, Britten, and the newspaper men could not see or admit the living clue of Bigger’s humanity under their very eyes![i]
For Wright, more destructive than Bigger’s murders is the racist nation that makes such deeds inevitable. Bigger murders because he is black and poor; and he nearly gets away with it because he is black, poor, and not human in the eyes of white people.
As James Baldwin would point out on numerous occasions, Wright’s literary rendering of black inhumanity was disingenuous due to Wright own unwillingness to accept the reality of black humanity. Trapped within the framework of protesting the beliefs and actions of the nation’s racial majority, Wright found little solace in representing the African American capacity to manage, live, and even flourish within the confines of a racist America. And why would he? From the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787, which codified slaves into a human-property hybrid worth three-fifths of a human life, to the Jim Crow laws, America had historically neither fostered nor accepted black humanity. As Wright stated in his posthumously published autobiographical novel, American Hunger, as the grandson of slaves, he was never able to be human in the United States: “What had I got of out living in the south,” he writes. “What had I got out of living in America? I paced the floor, knowing that all I possessed were words and dim knowledge that my country had shown me no examples of how to live a human life.”[ii] It was this quest for humanity, to live a life in which he felt fully human, that drove Wright first from the American South, then from Chicago, and then from New York to Paris.
It is rather common knowledge that Paris was the space in which Wright felt most free to explore and embrace his humanity. Still, he never fully learned French during the time he lived in France. If language is tied to national belonging, as many of the American ideological Right would have us believe, then Wright’s failure to fully embrace the language of the country that “freed” him speaks to his deep failure to take root there. From 1947 to his untimely death in 1960, Richard Wright lived outside the confines of the United States and wrote fiction, essays, travel narratives, and thousands of haiku. His years of self-exile were years of experimentation in literary form and an opening up of the content of his literary production to the world. Confined neither by the geography of the United States nor narratives of the American racial landscape, throughout the 1950s Wright produced texts with topics as far-ranging as the decolonization of the Third World, Spanish fascism, and middle-class black life in Mississippi and Chicago; he produced this array of writings in order to expand his world beyond the family plantation in Natchez.
And one hundred years after his birth, on a train heading into Paris to attend a conference meant to celebrate the international turn in his work, I was haunted by Wright’s birthplace: Mississippi, U.S.A. And even though Wright wrote—screamed to the world—“I am a rootless man!,” it was always hard for him to shake the United States.
The United States, both the concept and the place, was hard for me to shake, as well. Because even in France, especially in France, I kept sight of the self that was created when my grandmother gave me my family’s story, one of the few keepsakes that has been passed down over generations: I must always remember that I am the great-great-great granddaughter of a black woman who was owned, who toiled on a South Carolina farm for the man who fathered but never recognized her children. The mundane trauma of that keepsake stays with me, and was reflected back at me through the windows of every Parisian storefront I passed. That keepsake is partially what motivates me to read, analyze, and write about the works of other American descendants of slaves who walked, thought, and wrote abroad.
So while I was officially in Paris to consider the significance of America, Paris, and elsewhere in the writing of one America’s most important native sons and daughters, Wright’s writing is just one of many things that compels me to examine African Americans in the world. These two concepts, “African American” and “the world,” are at odds sometimes, but examining how various writers have lived and written works of art that bridge this spatial and imaginative chasm prompt me to ask and attempt to answer a variety of questions in this book. How have African Americans written about their travels around the world or their relationships with other blacks around the world, their nation, and, most important, themselves? How do African American writers attempt to tell the stories of their travels in a way that fortifies their souls? Is self-fortification possible in the face of a predominantly white readership that expects to “know” something about black people from reading black-authored texts? These are some of the questions that motivate this study, questions that I imagine haunted the African American traveler-writers who populate this book.
[i] Richard Wright, “I Bite the Hand That Feeds Me,” Atlantic Monthly [vol.] (June 1940), 828.
[ii] Wright, American Hunger (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), 452–453.
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Eve Dunbar is the author of Black Regions of the Imagination: African American Writers Between the Nation and the World (Temple University Press 2012), which explores the aesthetic and political ties that bind literary genre, American nationalism, and black cultural nationalism in the literary works of mid-20th century African American writers.