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A writer perhaps best known for the revolutionary works Black Boy and Native Son, Richard Wright also worked as a journalist during one of the most explosive periods of the 20th century. From 1937 to 1938, Wright turned out more than two hundred articles for the Daily Worker, the newspaper that served as the voice of the American Communist Party. Byline, Richard Wright assembles more than one hundred of those articles plus two of Wright’s essays from New Masses, revealing to readers the early work of an American icon.
As both reporter and Harlem bureau chief, Wright covered most of the major and minor events, personalities, and issues percolating through the local, national, and global scenes in the late 1930s. Because the Daily Worker wasn’t a mainstream paper, editors gave Wright free rein to cover the stories he wanted, and he tackled issues that no one else covered. Although his peers criticized his journalistic writing, these articles offer revealing portraits of Depression-era America rendered in solid, vivid prose.
Featuring Earle V. Bryant’s informative, detailed introduction and commentary contextualizing the compiled articles, Byline, Richard Wright provides insight into the man before he achieved fame as a novelist, short story writer, and internationally recognized voice of social protest. This collection opens new territory in Wright studies, and fans of Wright’s novels will delight in discovering the lost material of this literary great.
|Publisher:||University of Missouri Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Earle V. Bryant is Professor of English at the University of New Orleans where he teaches American and African American literature. He has written extensively on Richard Wright, Charles Chesnutt, and Bernard Malamud and is at work on a book on Dorothy West. A native of Philadelphia, Bryant now lives in New Orleans.
Read an Excerpt
Byline Richard Wright
Articles from the Daily Worker and New Masses
By Earle V. Bryant
University of Missouri PressCopyright © 2015 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
THE SHAME SPOT OF NEW YORK
Harlem is New York's shame spot when it comes to housing.
One of the impressive features of Wright's articles for the Daily Worker is their sheer variety. In the two hundred or so pieces he wrote for the newspaper, Wright covered crucial national and world events as well as major issues on the local scene in Harlem and elsewhere in New York City. With skill and feeling, Wright's articles captured an America and a world rife with turmoil and angst yet occasionally enlivened by the joy and hope that are testimony to the resilience and pluck of the human spirit. Some of the best of those articles vividly chronicle the plight of Harlem's quarter-million black residents suffering, to a greater or lesser degree, from the effects of the Great Depression. One such article ("Negro, with 3-Week-Old Baby, Begs Food on Streets") relates the dolorous tale of Esther Bostwick, the mother of five young children, a woman deserted by husband and evicted from her apartment, forced to wander the streets of Harlem with her children in search of food and shelter. Touching without being mawkish, Wright's feature story on this woman graphically captures the human misery brought about by the Depression. While Wright depicts Mrs. Bostwick as a flesh-and-blood individual, he also portrays her as representative of the multitudes of suffering souls racked by the country's dire economic circumstances.
One noteworthy point that Wright touches on in the article is the reason that Mrs. Bostwick's husband deserted his family: he lost his job and was thus unable to provide for them. Such behavior was hardly unique. Sociologists and historians have often maintained that one of the Depression's myriad disastrous effects was the shattering of the family structure. Baldly put, men ran away from their homes, leaving their wives and children behind to fend for themselves. While such was the case nationwide, the incidents of husbands deserting their families were especially high in Harlem. "The Depression inevitably disrupted family life [in Harlem]," historian and professor Cheryl Greenberg notes, ushering in "an increase in ... desertion cases." These desertions were directly attributable to unemployment. Edward Ellis accurately captures a reason underlying the record-high number of desertions when he argues, "The Depression castrated some men by dethroning them from their position as the breadwinner and the head of the family."
But not all Depression-era men in Harlem abandoned their families. Many dug in and remained, struggling alongside their wives and children, providing for them as best they could. In his article on Mrs. Bostwick, Wright incorporates the portrait of another Harlem family that has fallen on hard times, the Theus couple and their young child. Their story forms a poignant complement to that of the Bostwick family. The Theus family too has been evicted and is wandering the streets of Harlem, but there is an important difference between the two families: the husbands. Husband and father Theodore Theus has, like Mrs. Bostwick's husband, been "pink slipped," but Theus does not bolt—he toughs it out beside his wife and child. So do a few other family men Wright homes in on in some of his other articles (Mr. Branum, for instance, in Wright's story on the Harlem River Houses, and Adolphus Green in Wright's article on the intolerable burden placed on consumers by the increase in milk prices).
Even though Theodore Theus and other husbands and fathers like him resist the kind of "castration" that Ellis writes of, their resistance does not lessen their misery—and Wright excels at chronicling such misery. Especially gripping is his coverage of the added stressful burden that the holidays place on Harlem families. One of those holidays, Thanksgiving, receives close attention as Wright interviews a number of typical Harlemites who have little or no reason to be thankful. The article comes close to being a virtual tour of a Harlem teeming with hungry people whose pantries are empty. An even bigger holiday is Christmas. In "Santa Claus Has a Hard Time Finding Way to Harlem Slums," Wright interviews a fairly representative Harlem family (one in which again the husband, having been laid off, has deserted). A particularly poignant piece, the article juxtaposes the gaiety of the Christmas season with the grinding poverty that forces parents to go so far as to cut back on buying milk so that their children will have a toy or two.
Far more compelling is Wright's story of Florence Christopher, a sixty-five-year-old black woman who suffers a heart attack, collapses, and dies on the floor of the Emergency Relief Bureau in central Harlem. One reason the story is so gripping is Wright's revelation that the woman's body lay on the floor of the crowded relief station for half an hour before a doctor arrived. Another hour had then passed waiting for an ambulance. The ambulance, Wright points out, never arrived, and at length the woman's body was draped with "a dirty burlap bag," unceremoniously "shoved ... into a police wagon," and carted off to the morgue. While exposing such blatant inhumanity, the article also indicts the system responsible for it—a system, the article charges, that provides no emergency health aid at Harlem relief stations (despite regular fainting in those stations), that funnels money away from the poor and gives it to Wall Street bankers, and that allows the body of an elderly woman to be treated with something akin to desecration.
While Wright's account of Harlem's battered and bruised souls is heartrending, his intent is not to evoke tears. "If you are the type to weep," he writes at the conclusion of "Negro ... Begs Food," then "you can have a good cry over this and then feel good, 'purged,' you know. But tears can't stop starvation." Wright's primary purpose is to effect action, reform. It is significant, then, that he opens the same article with a direct reference to that Victorian apostle of social reform, Charles Dickens. Wright, we know from both his autobiography and his biographers, was a voracious reader, and one of his favorite authors was Dickens. An attentive reader, Wright well knew that while Dickens's novels tugged at the heartstrings, they did so in order to hammer home the need for social change. In his articles on Harlem's "disinherited" (to use Wright's own word), he does the same.
Other Daily Worker articles that Wright penned also laid bare the indignities heaped on Harlem's poor people and the rampant social injustice they suffered. One piece, for example, exposes the unconscionable disregard for the care of black patients at Harlem Hospital, where Wright reports insect-ridden medicine being dispensed to patients. Another article tells of the eviction of a single mother and her three children from their Harlem apartment, the eviction being overseen by a contingent of police officers there to ensure no interference. Still another article recounts the life-threatening predicament faced by a black man, John Jones, who had settled in Harlem after fleeing for his life from the South ("Negro, Who Escaped Lynch Mob in South, Ordered to Return by Harlem Relief Officials"). The article, one of the last Wright wrote for the Daily Worker, is among his most jarring. The article discloses that Jones fled the South and his hometown in Florida after a fistfight with a white man led to the formation of a lynch mob. Jones escaped to the supposedly sheltering bosom of Harlem, where bureaucratic ineptitude and indifference within the Harlem Emergency Relief Bureau threatened to force Jones back to the South, straight into the arms of the mob he had eluded. An important, engrossing story, it was one not covered by any other reporter for any other paper.
Other stories by Wright expose instances of job discrimination against black workers, even against black doctors at Harlem Hospital, while several others reveal brutality against blacks by storekeepers, teachers, and the police. This issue was one with which Wright was all too familiar. Having grown up in the Jim Crow South, where blacks routinely suffered brutality, humiliation, and emotional torment at the hands of whites, he had not only heard firsthand accounts of blacks being beaten, raped, and lynched, he had also witnessed (and in some cases even experienced) his share of these atrocities, as he reveals in Black Boy and "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow." Wright was thus uniquely qualified to report on stories of white violence against blacks.
One of his first Daily Worker articles, along with its follow-up piece, highlights a then-important story of white-on-black brutality: the beating of a fourteen-year-old African-American boy, John Wilson, by a white store clerk. The boy, the article relates, had been sent to the store (Phillips Market on Fulton Street in Brooklyn) by his family to buy some hot dogs but had forgotten to get his change. When the youth went back for the money, the store clerk assaulted him. (The photo accompanying Wright's story showed the boy's swollen, bandaged face.) For twenty-first-century readers, a store clerk's assault of a customer may seem nothing more than a blip on the radar screen of neighborhood news. At the time, however, the incident caused a volatile situation. After word spread about what had happened, hundreds of angry people gathered outside the store. (The Amsterdam News placed the number of people in the crowd at over eight hundred, while the New York Age gauged it at two thousand.) The situation grew so tense that police were called to the scene. When they arrived, they arrested the store clerk, Leo Toscana, and charged him with assault. New York authorities, it seemed, were not about to run the risk of having a riot break out. The 1935 Harlem riot was still fresh in the minds of everyone in the city. Black Harlemites recalled how two years earlier Harlem had exploded after rumors spread that a white store clerk at a five-and-dime had savagely beaten a youth, sixteen-year-old Lino Rivera. The assault on John Wilson was thus an acutely troubling matter to 1937 Harlem, and Wright was well aware of this even though he had been in Chicago in 1935. He also knew that conditions in Harlem, which were the underlying cause of the riot, had not improved greatly, and hence the beating of Wilson had the potential to spark another outbreak of mass violence. It mattered little that the incident happened in Brooklyn. The victim was black and young; his attacker was white and adult. In his follow-up article on the assault, Wright detailed steps that were being taken to ensure justice in the case. He reported how Toscana, the clerk, had been jailed, and then had been fired by the store owner, one A. Philips. Wright went on to relate that in a community meeting attended by over five hundred people, Philips had apologized for the incident and agreed to hire a black clerk to replace Toscana, as well as a black butcher. Wright did not mention that Philips even took out an ad in the New York Age decrying what he called "the ill-advised and brutal action of his former clerk" and announcing at the bottom of the ad, "COLORED HELP EMPLOYED.") Unfortunately, not all Wright's articles end on such a positive note—but then, life in Harlem during the 1930s was not conducive to happy endings.
In a related article written about a month later ("Harlem Crowd Shows Feelings on Chiseling"), Wright again reported on a near-riot stemming from "a small incident based on a misunderstanding." The incident in question occurred when a white clerk in a shoe store in Harlem refused to pay a black youth the full amount of money agreed upon for electrical work the youth had done in the store. A minor scuffle broke out between the youth and the clerk, but it was soon quelled, and the youth left the store unharmed. Somehow, though, a rumor circulated that the youth had been beaten by the store owners (again, a rumor similar to the one that sparked the 1935 riot). Before long a crowd formed in front of the store and began smashing its windows. It was only when the youth returned to the store and showed everyone that he was unhurt that the angry crowd dispersed. Though brief, the article is noteworthy because, like Wright's piece on the assault of John Wilson, it reveals that racial tension in Harlem was still high and that a rumor of white-on-black aggression had the potential to set off a riot comparable to the one two years earlier. Just as important, the article homes in on some of the root causes of this "high ... pitch of resentment in Harlem": "exploitation by landlords, storekeepers, and businessmen." Wright would go on to devote many of his Daily Worker articles to exposing this and other forms of racial injustice.
One particularly painful form of injustice that African Americans in Harlem faced was price gouging, especially by landlords. It was no secret, though white realtors adamantly denied it, that the rent black Harlemites paid was exorbitant, way out of proportion to that paid by white renters in Manhattan or Brooklyn, or even by members of other minority groups living in East Harlem. Scores of committees and commissions were set up throughout the 1930s to study and rectify the housing problem in Harlem. The City Affairs Committee, the Slum Clearance Committee, the Housing Commission, the Citywide Citizens' Committee on Harlem, the Mayor's Commission—all these bodies arrived at essentially the same conclusion, one voiced as early as 1929 by Richard Moore, an outspoken African American Communist: "Rents in Negro Harlem are ... often double and sometimes triple those in other sections of the city." In the words of the City Affairs Committee's 1937 report, "Negro tenants [in Harlem] pay one percent to twenty percent more of their income for rent than any other group." In Central Harlem, Cheryl Greenberg goes on to reveal, "rents never fell below $31 a month, and often ran as high as $70. The average resident of Central Harlem paid $52." This was despite the Depression, when rents were much lower elsewhere. Additionally, the apartments (or tenement flats) for which black Harlemites paid such exorbitant rent were nothing more than hovels, dank and squalid, decaying and rat-ridden. Testifying in December 1937 at a court hearing that grew out of a state-commissioned inquiry into housing conditions in Harlem, New York City Housing Authority Commissioner Langdon Post painted a harrowing picture of tenement life in Harlem. (Wright covered Post's testimony for the Daily Worker in an article that appeared in the paper's December 15, 1937, edition.) At the hearing, Post detailed the disease, infant mortality, and crime that resulted from such squalid housing and went on to deliver a scathing indictment of the landlords responsible. "There is no doubt," he concluded, "that we are faced with an emergency in Harlem."
Post was neither exaggerating nor being melodramatic; if anything, he understated the problem. Little wonder, then, that not infrequently Harlem tenants would launch rent strikes against their slumlords. "More than any other time," Mark Naison contends, "the 1930s was the period when the tenant movement 'came of age'"—a period, he adds, "of extraordinary ferment among tenants." One of the spots where that movement and that ferment were most pronounced was Harlem, where rent strikes were repeatedly staged. Wright covered some of these rent strikes, reporting on their course and outcome (many of them successful).
Excerpted from Byline Richard Wright by Earle V. Bryant. Copyright © 2015 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
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Table of Contents
Section One: The Shame Spot of New York,
Section Two: The Winds of War,
Section Three: Heroes Sung and Silent,
Section Four: A Burst of Fists on a New Horizon,
Section Five: Art for Life's Sake,