Antidote for alienation

“Uncle Tom’s Children”: fast paced and powerful writing to help you with all the soul-searching going around

Saying you’re too tired to have a conscience is not a good excuse for avoiding “Uncle Tom’s Children”, the book that shot Richard Wright to fame in 1940. Is understandable if you say you don’t like violence or hate, but be aware: sometimes, people can manage to transmute these things into something beautiful and mind opening.

Wright was critical of this power after the book’s success, and tried to write something that would be truly provocative for its time. He complained about rich banker’s daughters reading it and relating to its suffering, and perhaps he was being too ambitious, but we can never condemn too much of the right kind of ambition in a writer: “Native Son”, his attempt at transgressive art, he even questioned the guilt of enlightened bourgeoisie and its true responsibility on oppression. He failed miserably, since the novel, his first, allowed him to become one of the most successful black writers of his era.

Is curious how the most solitary of all pursuits, at the same time, takes you somewhere you had never been, to meet a whole thicket of new people. Tonight, for it took me about six hours to crack Wright’s collection of five short stories, I met a southern pastor and politician, saw him wade into a swamp intimidation and social unrest; a lonely, tragic wife; a black boy who escapes miraculously and another who doesn’t; and many more so forth.

Wright is a fast guy with an aggressive sense of dialogue and scenes that will materialize easily in your imagination. He also bends the rules sometimes, as when he piles too many coincidences in the story of a certain Mr. Mann trying to save his family during a flood in New Orleans. Or when he drifts into a stream of consciousness by the cheating wife that barely helps us feel like the one struggling with an overwhelming baby and isolated emptiness. These are brilliant stories with minor flaws that only people who read too much will feel bothered about. I can’t guarantee you won’t be angered by Wright’s ideological and deterministic sprees, though.

But he will surely crack open your head with the story of Dan Taylor, a southern pastor divided between the politics of being powerful in a Dixie town during the Great Depression, and the needs of his hungry people. He has heat coming on from all sides: the powerful whites want him to calm the insurgency, first using political tactics and even torturing him later on to make their point, while the communists say that if the demonstration is too thin and fails to achieve its goal it will be the reverend’s fault.

Meanwhile, things are getting testy at the congregation, where the spiritual sub-leaders want Taylor to take responsibility for leadership and one of them is even challenging his power. In the end, the pastor finds the solution after trying to explain his son what has happened and the true meaning of it. He must teach him right, thinks Taylor. Then he summons up a brilliant lesson about religion and being powerful: the people. “Even the Reds cant do nothing ef yuh lose yo people”, says the pastor in delightful vernacular.

Read it, digest it, keep it or give it to someone else who you think might really like it. But don’t sit around not being aware of what has happened and share an hour of two with someone else’s creation. And think. That’s what it’s all about.

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