African American Literature and Ecocriticism: Exploring Richard Wright

Dr. Gregory E. Rutledge, an assistant professor with a joint appointment in University of Nebraska-Lincoln ‘s English Dept. and Institute for Ethnic Studies. His publications (criticism, essays, fiction, poetry, and photography) have appeared or will have appear in Callaloo, African American Review, Amherst Review, Yonsei Law Journal (South Korea), Journal of College and University Law, Interventions, Wasafiri(United Kingdom), Black Magnolias, ANQ (Annotated Notes Quarterly), The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Modern Fiction Studies, The Omaha Star, Foundation, and in reference encyclopedias published by distinguished presses such as Oxford University Press.

Carl Anthony, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, penned “African Americans and Environmental History: A Manifesto” (2006) in part because he realized the overwhelming tragedy confronting black Americans. Anthony’s inquiry led him to unearth a disturbing greening of the racial line that privileges American Indians, at the expense of the people of African descent, with the expected result:

I came across a very important book by Thomas Berry, called The Dream of the Earth. Berry proposed that, in order to get our bearings in terms of our current ecological crisis, we need a new story about who human beings are in relationship to the story of the earth . . . .  At the same time, I found I had an uneasy feeling about the book because it didn’t appear to include black people at all. There was wonderful talk of Native Americans – the ecumenical spirit, the struggle against patriarchy, etc., were reflected – but where were the black people? In fact, African Americans’ experiences were not included in any of the environmental literature I could get my hands on about people’s relationship to the land. Thoreau, David Brower . . . none of them reflected black people’s experience.

            “How could this be? What was I to do with this?” (86)

Though the racial history of the United States is at fault—the association of blacks with nature and primitivism and whites with modernity and technology helped establish among blacks an anti-nature ethos leading to the urbanization of black identity—the ecological crises is such that Anthony’s question, echoed by activists and policymakers, is as urgent as it is paradoxical: what are we to do with this?

Much of the distance between eco-criticism, a vigorous understanding of the environment beyond the envisioning of Nature as motherly, passive, or hostile, and African-American literature can be found in the wide divide between Richard Wright and the Dust Bowl. Because of Native Son (1940) and Bigger Thomas of Chicago, Wright’s oeuvre—alternatively called protest literature, proletarian fiction, naturalism, sociological fiction, and modernism—is largely defined by an inner-city urbanity arising from the Great Migration. The Dust Bowl, in literature, is John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939), an epic novel that dramatizes how the Dust Bowl forced Okies, white rural farmers, into their own great migration. Despite the troubling implication of the parallels, Wright’s and Steinbeck’s novels and concerns are, in sum, regarded as distinct as night and day, black and white.

But Wright, his mind reaching and hungry for understanding of American racism and culture, was no stranger to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Indeed, as a resident of the Southside of Chicago who was attuned to ecological issues both because of he was reared in the sharecropping South and was sympathetic to Marxist theory, the arrival of the Dust Bowl in Chicago, which had tons of dust fall upon it, would not have been lost upon Wright. What did he do with that experience? What any great writer would have: beneath the mask of the Scottsboro Boys and racial injustice from southern lynchings to northern ghettoes, use structural irony to deposit a layer of dust to put sediment on the greater tragedy owing to the cultural logic.
For example, Bigger’s hideout with Bessie is dust-strewn, but the fast-paced, epic overtones of racial conflict and adventure, the horror of Bigger’s murder of Bessie, and Wright’s “prize fighter” aesthetic leave such sediment to rich, necessary atmosphere. Or consider the dust in “Long Black Song,” a story from Uncle Tom’s Children (1937) set in an unspecified rural landscape that sutures together a woman’s loneliness, her sharecropper husband’s American Dream, and the racial tragedy of inter-racial sexuality. Wright first deposits dust when a young white man forces himself upon Sarah, the sharecropper’s wife, and adds more when Silas, her husband, returned from selling his crops: his “bare feet whispered in the dust.” Once he discovers her infidelity, and as the story whips, shoots, and blazes its way into racial warfare, Wright increases the dusty sediment until it literally rushes toward Sarah and Silas’ home: “The long line of cars,” Wright writes near the ending, “came bearing white men intent on lynching Silas, “came speeding in clouds of dust.” They cars rolled in just like the black blizzards, the mountain-high clouds that rolled in with the Dust Bowl.

Consider Lawrence Buell’s seminal Writing for an Endangered World (2001), a form of literary ecocriticism tasked with fashioning an organic relationship between “ecocentric” and “anthropocentric ethics.” Buell briefly considers Wright’s Native Son in the context of urban sociology and the ecological dimension contained within the Chicago School of Sociology. Buell compares Wright’s style of describing the urban environment to works like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (138-42). Perhaps because Buell focused exclusively upon American literature, notwithstanding his awareness that ecocriticism “should extend from the oldest surviving texts” like the Epic of Gilgamesh, his eco-criticism of Native Son—despite being the first—creates a modern, urban divide that undermines Wright’s ecocritical depth. Native Son, a work of “ghetto” or “urban fiction,” is “sparse,” Buell argues, in “environmental detail.” Contrasting Wright’s sociological acumen with Gwendolyn Brooks’ “sensuous feel of urban blight” and Zora Neale Hurston’s “‘anthropological’ approach to the rhythms and preoccupations of African-American folk-life,” Buell in effect reads Wright’s aesthetic—conjoining sociology and fiction—as the product of a mind incapable of comprehending the limits of his ability to reconcile them. Hence, Wright’s claim to have “derived Bigger, so he said,” from “representative” lives, arises from the use of the “‘ecological’ approach” of the Chicago School of Sociology, “a confused blurring of categories and pseudoscientific claims about the ‘natural’ laws of urban structure and growth” instead of a legitimate ecological perspective (1-18, 138-42).

Perhaps Buell is correct, or not, since Wright grew up in a southern locale where farming was the major economic engine, and black folklore was as pervasive as the forces that often created racial types on both sides of the color-line. Either way writers and scholars need to give greater attention to the ecological dimension of African-American literature. If they ask themselves, “What am I to do with this?” they might start a line of inquiry that excavates a whole Dust Bowl of possibilities whose ramifications are more urgent today than ever.

One thought on “African American Literature and Ecocriticism: Exploring Richard Wright

  1. I agree with Rutledge that Wright scholars should attend more carefully to Wright's "ecological" insights. Indeed, one might vigorously disagree with Buell's implying that Wright's ecological perspectives are not sufficiently "legitimate." Wright's anatomy of Jake Jackson in Chicago in LAWD TODAY!is remarkably distinct from his portrayal of Bigger Thomas in NATIVE SON and Cross Damon in THE OUTSIDER; each protagonist processes the materiality of the urban uniquely. Wright was not blind to the limits of sociology qua sociology. One might argue that Wright was very sophisticated in knowing that ecology and sociology have to be tempered by sustained attention to psychological possibilities. Gregory, thanks for suggesting that critical inquiry take a new path. We should also note that Camille T. Dungy includes work by Wright in her anthology BLACK NATURE: FOUR CENTURIES OF AFRICAN AMERICAN NATURE POETRY (University of Georgia Press, 2009), a sign that we ought to be cautious about making any quick judgements about Wright's aesthetic and poetics.

    Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

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