Richard Wright’s The Man Who Was Almost a Man and the Inevitable Failings of Capitalism (Just in Time For the Election)

American author, Richard Wright, was born in Natchez, Mississippi forty-five years after the emancipation of slaves. Though slavery was technically no longer practiced, codes and laws were still set in place which limited the rights and freedoms of African-Americans. It was in this atmosphere that Wright began writing. The focus of this research in regards to Richard Wright’s story, “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” is analyzing the story through a Marxist lens and identifying how the characters in this story are a part of the capitalist machine in which racism, produced by colonization in the form of slavery, is an important aspect. The components of capitalism- alienated labor, commodification, colonization of consciousness, and the ideology of the rugged individual – will be examined and how those structures work together to move the character of Dave Sanders through the entire story to the very end where his decision to hop the train illustrates the inevitable failings of capitalism.

“From a Marxist perspective, because the survival of capitalism, which is a market economy, depends on consumerism, it promotes sign-exchange value as our primary mode of relating to the world around us” (Tyson, 60). Wright’s story revolves around the seventeen-year-old Dave who so desperately wants to buy a gun because he is sure owning a gun will earn him the esteem of his fellow African-Americans and his white boss, Mr. Hawkins. For Dave, the gun holds a sign-exchange value because he is under the mistaken impression it will cause the men he works with to have some respect for him. “One of these days he was going to get a gun and practice shooting, then they couldn’t talk to him as though he were a little boy…and if he were holding his gun in his hand, nobody could run over him; they would have to respect him” (Wright, 899, 903). The gun symbolizes not only respect but power, the power that has always eluded African-Americans.

One reason for Dave’s angst and feeling of separation could be seen as a result of what Karl Marx refers to as alienated labor. Alienated labor occurs when the worker is separated from the production, the product of his production, himself, and as a result others. Richard Wright was the son of a sharecropper and so was well familiar with the practice of sharecropping and labor in general for African-Americans in the South. As History explains, many African Americans “went into debt or were forced by poverty or the threat of violence to sign unfair and exploitative sharecropping or labor contracts that left them little hope of improving their situation” (“Sharecropping”). It is from this feeling of alienation that Dave first begins to want a gun.

Commodification is perhaps one of the biggest traits of capitalism and is illustrated in the relationship between Dave and his family,  Dave and Mistah Joe. The capitalist ideology promotes the viewing of “objects or persons in terms of their exchange value or sign-exchange value” (Tyson, 60). “In a capitalist economic system, an objects value becomes impersonal. Its value is translated into a monetary “equivalent” –  the term capital means money – and determined solely in terms of its relationship to a monetary market” (Tyson, 59). Dave Sanders and his family work, along with other African-Americans, on Jim Hawkins farm for low wages. In this respect, the African Americans laborers hold a value for Mr. Hawkins that is detached and impersonal and merely relates to the cheap labor that benefits him financially. Equally, Dave can be seen as a commodity for the Sander’s family. His labor provides an income that helps support the family unit. But much like the early slaves who were beaten into submission, Dave is also beaten. “Nobody ever gave him anything. All he did was work.  They treat me like a mule, n then they beat me” (Wright, 906). Dave can also be seen commodifying his mother. Her value lies in the fact that she is the one that can give him the money for the gun. He exchanges his sweet talk and words of love in order to gain the money. And she willingly complies.

“To colonize the consciousness of subordinate people means to convince them to see their situation the way the imperialist nation wants them to see it, to convince them, for example, that they are mentally, spiritually, and culturally inferior to their conquerors…” (Tyson, 61). “Whut’s the use talkin wide m niggers in the field…Them niggers can’t understand nothing” (899).  Though Dave is speaking of his fellow Negro workers, he is also (whether he realizes it or not) speaking of himself. “He felt very confident until he saw fat Joe walk in through the rear door, then his courage began to ooze” (Wright, 899). This is another example of the feeling of inferiority that has been colonized in his, as well as other African-Americans, consciousness.

The idea of the rugged individual, and individualism in general, is one of the biggest attributes of the foundation of the American dream. This is encouraged by the competition that capitalism involves. This idea of the rugged “individual who strikes out alone in pursuit of a goal not easily achieved, a goal that often involves risk and one that most people would not readily undertake” has been romanticized throughout America’s history. One example of this rugged individual trait is when Dave goes to shoot the gun while plowing the fields. Though he doesn’t go far, he is striking out alone to achieve a goal he has been forbidden to achieve and entails risk if it is discovered. “Although it may sound like an admirable trait, Marxist thinkers consider rugged individualism an oppressive ideology because it puts self-interest above the needs – and even the survival – of other people” (Tyson, 57). In the end of the story, Dave decides he is no longer going to submit to anyone. He digs the gun back up from where he buried it, symbolically digging up the power and illusion of respect, and hops on a train. It could be conceived as a heroic feat but for the fact that has now robbed his family of the extra income and has left them with a huge debt, a debt that he created. In effect, he put his own self-interests before that of his family’s. Though the reader could interpret his actions as those that are “bucking” the capitalistic society that has oppressed him, he is actually participating in it.

Though America has been hailed as a land of freedom, wealth, and opportunity, through the story, “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” the opposite picture is portrayed. Through the character of Dave Sanders, the reader is able to see the incredible failings of a capitalist society selling the American dream especially for a “liberated” race. Through the alienation Dave feels as a result of hard labor without reward or pride, the inevitable commodification which strips away any meaning to be found for Dave in his life or family obligations, the colonization of consciousness and the idea that the consciousness of both whites and blacks have been conditioned to believe in the superiority of one over another, thus retaining the status quo, and the idea of the rugged individual propelling Dave to take his gun, claim his “freedom” and hop the train, the darker side of capitalism is displayed along with the inevitable failings. Wright does well to explore the dark side of capitalism in “The Man Who Was Almost a Man.” He explores it through the character of Dave Sanders and ultimately shows that there is no escaping the oppression that comes with such a system.

Works Cited

Bertens, Hans. Literary Theory the Basics. NY: Routledge. 2014. Print.

“Estranged Labour.”  Marx Engels Collected Works. Lawrence & Wishart. Web. 2 April 2016.

“Sharecropping.” History. A+E Networks Corp. Web. 2 April 2016.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide. NY: Routledge. 2015. Print.

—. Using Critical Theory: How to Read and Write About Literature. NY: Routledge. 2011. Print

Wright, Richard. “The Man Who Was Almost a Man.” The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Ed. Baym, Nina. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 899-907. Print.

 

 

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