Climate for Genius; A Native Son
A production of the Mississippi Center for Educational Television Series a comedy genius program my native son live 28 30 date November 26 900 Senate by director Jay Lockett.
This program was made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to the Mississippi Library Commission and through the cooperation of Mississippi State University.
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That their holes begun to sweat. And.
Drank. He shrunk up to eight teeny holes. He shrunk up to eight. Told and you're on the comedy group a man. Still runnin down the loo.
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And then he up and Law at. All who four men and you know dying to.
Or want to grab it.
Hello I'm Cicely Tyson. You've just been listening to Margaret Walker reading The Ballad of copy code from a book of poems for my people. It is a fitting way to begin a native son. A program devoted to another great Mississippi writer Richard Wright writes most powerful works do heavily on black folk culture which is of course the sauce of this walk as upon Richard Wright's achievement has always been of great interest to literary scholars and among them Louis Reuben of the University of North Carolina. His colleague Leiden Jackson Lois Simpson of Louisiana State University. And Danny Young of Vanderbilt. They've come to Mississippi to visit with Margaret Walker better known in the academic world as Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander. Of Jackson State University. She was a close personal friend of Wright's during his most creative period. And he recognized her personal contribution to his greatest work. Native son and encouraged her in her own writing. Now we join Professor Reuben who's talking about Wright's pace in Mississippi's literary landscape.
You know the student of the Southern mother issue one of the most fascinating aspects is the tremendous variety of the creativity of the Mississippi writers. If you come to think of it you have great William Faulkner. You have the variety and the mandalas depths of characterisation of a writer like Eudora Welty and of course in drama that preeminence of Tennessee Williams.
And I don't know the final work of American history than Shelby Foote's Civil War trilogy. And then of course we have Richard Wright whose place among in American literature a young one especially among the black American writers is absolutely transcendent. Now write as a Mississippi writer is in a somewhat different relationship I think of course to the pervading white Mississippi culture and society than the others and yet Wright very much is a product of Mississippi was born 19 a way that I believe in Mississippi and his first work. The stories that he began writing he began making a reputation on stories which appeared not go Tom's show that was set in Mississippi.
It seems to me that Wright is almost at the top of his forms of art. I'm concerned at the very top of his form in a story that's from the Tom's children called Big Boy leaves home. This is a very simple story straightforward for young black boys out in the afternoon for a lark decide to go swimmin. In a place where they think they aren't supposed they know they aren't supposed to go swimming but the point is that a white woman comes upon these four black boys and because of this accident as it were a great tragedy develops that story so far as I'm concerned comes as close as anything I've ever read to describing exactly. How it is or how it was to grow up black in Mississippi. I don't know if either one has ever done that as well as by that in that I mean this is right that in that story there are other things too in that story that make it a great story.
It is not a novel in the sense of the M. de Monsoreau but it is the story of how a boy becomes a man.
These initiations. That's right.
And this story which culminates in a lynching which Big Boy is forced to see because he's secreted himself an eye and a hole on the heel and from this from this hole he can see our mentioning. Of the last alone. Boy as then as you and Dan said there were four of them who start out through the woods to get killed at that swimming hole.
Big boy is left with one name Bobo and late that night big boys hiding. He's going to be picked up in the morning and be taken to take a North. And. A mob brings bo bo to heel just across the road. Big boy.
Has to see what happens and the thing that happens there is the lynching of his last friend. So that is what I have said is that in this initiation story right manages to catch up in that episode itself. You know and a very concentrated away both the essence of the whole business of Cada cast which insists that the niggle be stripped of his manhood. They asked him what I don't want to say. Well the symphonic implication in the way the thing is done. And the other thing is that you can see how tribalism operates to bring people together to do the sort of thing that the whites were doing when they insisted on mistreating negroes and he does he does both of them very very fine.
They're very wonderful in the story.
I believe that business the.
The lynching. As it reflects Wright's own experiences. Is almost autobiographical a friend of his. One morning sitting on a step crying saying that his brother had been lynched the night before. Is is all the husband mentioned in our caucus all the terrible experience in Memphis when a black man was lynched and dismembered and pieces of his body put up in various places the idea that the whole business of initiation is an excellent thing because castration is there. And that that's the number the underlying point. But Wright has done a number of things in that story. And that you and I feel he's done them rather way out here.
I was interested in that. In the emotional margins that story more than ever when as a matter of fact that essay you wrote certain one of your best which appeared in Los his journal and subsequently appear in a little book I edited you know the reason for that was that I ask you to do that for a program we had in Atlanta I didn't remember who said it and then you told me a story at that time in Atlanta when we had that session. My job Lee Dan Young was on two on the southern literature that I don't know whether you remember this not you made it not that you were sitting in your office or your your home perhaps and one day thinking about writing you had a kind of a vision and it came to you that the real source of right was this Southern as you see. Yes you discovered that after all this thinking about Wright that he was the real source of the power of that story of thanks to the fact that he really is a Southerner that reveals something to me that you think about black writers of course. And their rejection of the South. Their complete rejection of the South in some cases. So there you are you see is a complete rejection or not and I think this is a very interesting question.
Well you did hear of them just on this point it seems to me that in this story to. I the lasting impression upon me is the insatiable urge of the black boy to get away that that final scene in which he's going north you see.
Yeah there's a kind of paradox is a Southern issue here on the one hand but on the other there is the you know that you Copia is somewhere north of Cairo I suppose somewhere up near Chicago over the summer I think this is quite true and I think this is very much a I'm a theme and a good deal so in writing not just like writing in the white writing too I mean all you have to do is think of Thomas Wolfe for example a Carson McCullers character a sitting room wanting to get away and so forth so that you use the word rejection of the self which I think is a good word to use if you make a distinction between artistic rejection and political and social rejection. But you know. In a sense all the major southern writers are involved in this kind of rejection in the sense it is of a distancing isn't it. I questioning of the ordinary automatic assumptions of the community along with of course a powerful sense of the down if occasion with them. Well now and Richard Wright's case you have this but of course because of the particular situation the cause of the situation the black man in this racist society the rejection element is very powerful and yet there's a strong artistic identification too which comes out in what you have.
I want to hear what Mary has to say but I can I just get this in first.
I quite agree with you that that these are writers that have had to reject the south to ust certain extent that they reject. They live in the things in the south that they can't and that they just can't take it on.
But I do want you to remember the title of that story that part of that story is big boy leaves home just as when you're talking about Thomas Wolfe You can't go home again and I doubt very much that right ever got to the place where he did not think of the South as home. When Margaret knows much more about this because she knew him very very well as a matter of fact I hope before we get through she would tell you about some things she did in connection with his writing of native son and she can talk much more about how you really feel inside.
What in your eyes is next February will be 40 years since I first saw Richard Wright. I knew him in Chicago in the year. I went about in the last part of those 10 years that he spent in Chicago. I knew him in the late 30s when he was polishing off these stories when he had written two other novels one called Tar Baby. And one called today which I. Typed. And then I we corresponded throughout the writing of native son. And I the thing Martin mentions is that I did the legwork so to speak and all the research that is back of native son and sent him. The clippings from the newspaper concerning the Robert Nixon case. A black boy in Chicago who was accused of having raped and murdered a white girl on the Saar on the south side and right is a not a novelist of ideas.
Many people do not want to to think of you in that way and he is reflected in the folk tradition yes. But there are three great won't last if it is expressed in rights were won. Is Christianity in terms of the black folk interpretation of Christianity but here comes the spirituals of the the Bible. All of these I am right to communism or Marxism which he embraced in Chicago because he thought it was a solution to the problem of race in America. When he was disillusioned very badly about it he moved away from the Communist Party. But and he was disaffected as early as those late 30s.
And when I met Wright he was disaffected with the Communist Party but. He remained in it until 1944. And then. Right through all his writings expresses the thought idea which is this secular existentialism not Christian existentialism because he never went back to the Christianity of his family because of the religious fanaticism in that family because of the cruelty of the Christian world as he knew it both outside and inside. Richard writing was a natural existentialist I resent the fact that people say when he went to Paris and got to know Sergeant come you and Seimone Beauvois that is that he became an existentialist yes but something about that religious run.
What is what was Wright's religious background.
All right Spent be the longest continuous residence that he had. During his boyhood and youth he spent with his maternal grandmother whose whose name was Wilson in Jacksonville. I mean checks in Forgive me. On Main Street.
This grandmother was a Verizon Seventh Day Adventists and she was also a very strong willed woman who ruled her household and it was household although her husband was still living but he had that he was incapacitated.
He had been by the way.
In the civil war and there's a story there which I want to. But she was she was running this house and that meant that everything in that house had to conform to her seventh day adventist beliefs to make it even worse.
If you want to put it that way on the right had an aunt as I remember it was his youngest on who had been sent to the Seventh Day Adventist college in Alabama on old wood oak wood and she had come back and was teaching in the Seventh Day Adventist school had a school there and she was teaching there and had him in her class. Robin Wright didn't like she was much of a teacher anyway. What made clay so he had this.
This double whammy for you about this we're in this war against both the religion one and then against his grandfather and his art.
And so here he was he funny but and and and really actually rebelled and refused to go to the Seventh Day Adventist good any longer and managed to get married to go to the public school and this is this is I think tells you something about him he did not have very well that's all he he had anything but pleasant recollections of all of the Christian faith as he saw it.
And his mother too you know when he killed Kim. And Vera did that was something I mean to go back to him in big boy leaves home that symbol of that whole. Big black hole is all the way through Richard writes fiction and the FaceTime we see it is a chart his mother made him dig a hole and bury the kitten and then pray over it and ask God not to give him in his sleep which is a horrible thing to tell it so I'm going to get some straighten out.
This material appears a good deal of this material appears in the autobiography of men. In black boy and black boy. Now one did right. Right. Black boy did it come out. It came out the native son didn't come. Did he write that before he wrote any of his other novels or what stage of his career did when I asked two year old native son here.
First rolled a folk history of the American Negro what you called 12 million Black Voices and he put the promise that it seems to be about 1940 to modern and correct them all there. Then he wrote Black Boy and.
I think I should tell you that he wrote he wrote. Consider a longer manuscript in the one that was eventually published and that was published in 1945 which means that all of his other novels except all of his other novels are published except now today were written after Blackmore actually a lot today was written in the 1930s but it was published posthumously. So when people don't realize how powerful.
The black cultural tradition is in the south and how rich it is I know this is something which is just. Beginning to be really written about and understood. I was struck for example when I read your novel Margaret Jubilees which is a story set in antebellum in the Civil War and post-Civil War. Georgia and Alabama of the and which I understand came directly out of your own. Family by family background. The extent to which this material and your case it was very consciously being used I know you have one passage in that in which your heroine who is a slave at the time is out where she shouldn't be. And. They catch up. And. They ask her what she's doing and she's got to. Let them think of what she was doing that was entirely innocent which it wasn't at all. And. So she holds up this basket of roots and herbs and she proceeds to describe the. Man the white man is a little suspicious. And he says Well one of these herbs fall and she proceeds to numerate them. And. In a very convincing way and convinces him that she this is exactly what she was about of course it wasn't what she was above all that she knew that she had to do this and doing this you give this list and you describe what they're all about now you had to draw that out. Experience but you also I'm sure you had to do some research on just what those Arabs were and what they were used for the Jews. No.
I didn't have to do research there.
My man asked me once if if I knew what I was talking about 10 cams I had done research on tin cans and I knew when they were well placed for me and brought to this country. I got that from my grandmother actually how mother knew I was that way and there are two things you said one thing and then Young said about being where they had no business.
I have to pick up that you talked about those boys being where they had no business and that was because there was no place for a black boy to go and swim professionally and that's where they were. They were often is in these woods swimming when they should have been at school at work or someplace. They were playing hooky really. And Barry not supposed to gather the Libs because. At the time they had discovered that a black cook had poisoned our master with with mushrooms and but this comes not just out of the South. This folk tradition is a direct.
Result the black people coming from Africa.
It is rooted in our African past you using material which is drawn directly out of a folk culture and yet you are using it in a highly sophisticated fashion as if from a standpoint of conscious artistic use of this material. And. For yourself. For Richard Wright. You have something of the same kind of problem with the same kind of situation that a James Joyce faces. Ari William Butler Yeats faces that particular Yeats or something like this and. Combining these two elements and this is the richness of the art consists of the sort of the tension between these things and the the.
After all the author of that poem but all hopping toward about five minutes ago was talking about Simone de Beauvoir.
Yes it's the tension between these two elements in the art. And one would assume in the life which produces the.
The work of a Richard Roy Don't assume that Richard Wright material that's precisely the secret in the understanding of Wright in his use of the supple materials. As Leyden says to to create a social weapon.
To be a mini A the life of the people.
And at the same time. To give an artistic depth and meaning and to work more then just as a crap someone with this material. Here is the secret to his art.
Either you or I got into a terrific dilemma really.
You can't be a Marxist on one hand and a natural existentialist on the other. Natural and I think you really had a conflict in his mind that a real struggle. I don't think you ever resolved it and that resulted in a falling off perhaps of his ability to get at people. Now what you talk about the the black tradition the folk tradition these things are in right but I really wonder if he didn't in a sense become too cosmopolitan that maybe.
Today Richard Wright is widely regarded as the father of America's 20th century black writer and it is true of course that as a Young Man Wright left his native state. But as we've seen right the artist never left Mississippi shaped his imagination and provided his true subject matter. And so this most influential of modern American black writers is no less a native son and other Mississippi writers who stayed home to be a black.
Man and to be born black. Maybe old and poor in Mississippi in the early part of the 20th century was the human condition out of which everything Wright wrote as calm we have talking about right in Mississippi we're sitting here.
Almost on the soil of the state. And I did spend really the first 17 years I was alive much of for 17 years most of the first 17 years in Mississippi. I would like to suggest something else that the experiences which you had in Mississippi made him when he was at his best as an artist a Mississippi writer. What I'm anxious to do now is to disabuse anyone and I hope I'm not seeing this tactlessly of the notion that the only reason Wright can be called a miss is in the right and been called he was dentist declared a citizen volunteer. I'm perfectly aware of the fact that he left and went a long way away. He went across an ocean and he died in Paris. But the impressions which he got when he was a boy growing up apparently formed his creative imagination and the point I want to make now is that this is if it was is not only the place where he was literally a boy but is the place where his creative imagination was born and shaped.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
- Climate for Genius
- A Native Son
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- Chicago: “Climate for Genius; A Native Son,” Mississippi Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 16, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_60-289gj0px.
- MLA: “Climate for Genius; A Native Son.” Mississippi Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. February 16, 2019. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_60-289gj0px>.
- APA: Climate for Genius; A Native Son. Boston, MA: Mississippi Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_60-289gj0px