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.

 

 

Girl in the Willows

Mamma and Nanny was always working. Nanny always said a man’s either gonna fish or cut bait but you best be believin you gonna be stuck with the fish bones if you the one cuttin and not catchin. Mamma? Well she had a job down at the Berkshire Woolen Company. Mamma made real fine skirts for the ladies. They went for about two thirty five in Parkins. She’d get up real early in the morning and made the sun seem pretty darned lazy if you ask me. Mamma would walk four miles to get down to the mill which wasn’t so bad I reckon if the weather went with her. But if the weather wasn’t with Mamma, that four mile walk sure could be awful hard. But you wasn’t never gonna hear Mamma complaining.

Nanny was always washing and cleaning and cooking. She did some seamstressin for some of the ladies in town too. And when she wasn’t doing that she was takin care of the animals. We had chickens and pigs and an old milking cow named Maisy. Nanny sure did love that ol’ thing. When she got to milking Maisy she’d start carrying on a conversation like they was best friends. Every now and again Maisy would start in mooing like she was talking back. It was pretty darned funny.

Then there was ol’ Earl, the one eared llama. Nobody knew for sure how Earl done lost his ear never mind how a llama came to be in Kanawa County in the first place. Nanny said Earl probably done lost his ear on account of them foxes or maybe some barbed wire. But we didn’t judge Earl none. Besides, Daddy was the one who done brought Earl home. He went out to throw horse shoes with Jace, and Harlan, and Roscoe’s Daddy’s one night. They was real good friends only Mamma didn’t think much of them. She said an apple don’t fall far from the tree and those boys was rotten to the core. I never even told her what they did to Mr. Jitters down at the creek. Mamma just knew. Kind of like you don’t have to see a dung heap to know ones near. All you have to do is to wait for the breeze to be blowing just right.

But Nanny spoke up for Daddy. Nanny was always speaking up for daddy. She said every dog has a few fleas. Mamma come right back at Nanny though and said that might be well and good but if you going to lay down with the dogs, you’re bound to get up with more fleas then you started with. I guess mamma didn’t mind Daddy’s fleas but she sure won’t going to tolerate nobody else’s.  Mamma said her peace and just left it at that. I reckon she knew Daddy needed to get away from all the women in the house even if it was with a bunch of halfwits. That’s what mamma called them. Halfwits. Anyhow, daddy went out that night alone and came back the next morning with a moonshine hangover and a one eared llama.

We all had special affection for Earl. I guess its cause Daddy died the very next week. It was a Sunday and Daddy had gone night fishing. Daddy loved night fishing. He even took me on occasions. I must have been about nine the last time Daddy took me. I remember it like it was yesterday even though it’s been a good four years come and gone. The moon was high in the sky. A big fat moon so white and round. It was so big you could see the crate marks on it.

“Mmm…Jude Bean. That moon sure looks tasty girl. I’m getting a hankering for some cheese. What ya say Jude Bean? You want to take a bite out of that there moon?”

I can still remember the way my Daddy looked that night. Like a giant. But not a scary giant like the one on the stalk Jack took an axe to. He was more like a Paul Bunyan kind of giant. He was a tall man and so darned strong. I remember the way his arms felt underneath his red checked flannel. They was hard like rocks when he picked me up and held me high over his head so I could take a bite. And his voice was just as strong but there wasn’t nothing hard in it. Even more so, there was a knowingness there. Like when you heard my Daddy talking, you just knew everything was going to be alright. And if you weren’t for sure everything was going to turn out fine, well Daddy was.

“I swear Jude, that looks like the best Swiss cheese I ever had the delight of layin my eyes on. We get us some tomato and a couple a slices of Rye and we gonna have ourselves a mighty fine sandwhich.”

I can still remember giggling and feeling my Daddy so close, his chest like a big ol’ wall. There wasn’t nothing soft at all about my Daddy’s chest but it was still the most comfortable place you could ever think to lay your head on. And that’s just what I did that night. While the bull frogs got to croaking and the cicadas and crickets kicked up a fuss, I sat in Daddy’s lap leaning back into him with my head on his chest. And we sat like that together on the bank of the Kanawa River underneath the light of that Swiss cheese moon and I listened to the sound of his voice and the stories he had to tell. Daddy always had a story to tell. I guess that’s why so many people liked my Daddy. The knowingness in his voice and all those stories. Mamma once said Daddy could talk the ear off a deaf person. But his stories sure were good.

“Tell me again how you and Mamma met.”

There was a gentle breeze blowing that night filling the air with just a bitty chill. Daddy hugged me even tighter as he started to tell me my most favorite story.

What You Pawn I Will Redeem

What You Pawn I Will Redeem, is a beautiful short story about a homeless Native American, Jackson Jackson, who discovers his grandmother’s regalia in a mysterious pawn shop. He is given twenty four hours to come up with the money to buy it back. During the following twenty four hours, the reader follows Jackson Jackson on his quest to regain his grandmother’s regalia and in the process reclaim his lost heritage. Two of the biggest elements of postmodern literature found in the short story are the elements of black humor and magical realism.

In the opening paragraph Jackson introduces himself, “I grew up in Spokane, moved to Seattle twenty-three years ago for college, flunked out after two semesters, worked various blue- and bluer-collar jobs, married two or three times, fathered two or three kids, and then went crazy.” His flippant introduction is humorous but also suggests something depressing. That Jackson jokes about how many times he was married and how many children he may have is an indicator of the apathy Jackson has. The reader can hardly blame him because Jackson constantly hints at the displacement, alcoholism, and violence that saturates his people and alludes to this having to do with white people.

Black humor is woven throughout the story. The scene in which Jackson is sitting beside his friend, Junior, is a great example. “I put my ear to his chest and listened for his heartbeat. He was alive, so I took off his shoes and socks and found one dollar in his left sock and fifty cents in his right sock.” On the one hand, Jackson cares enough to make sure Junior is alive while on the other hand, Jackson steals what little money is stashed in his socks of all places. Words like “sacred bar” referring to the alcoholism common in the Native American culture and the “pawnshop radar” referring to the idea that Native Americans are well acquainted with pawn shops because they need money for alcohol are humorous. The humor is not used to merely incite a giggle but to unsettle the reader. Why is this funny?

Aside from the use of black humor, the magical realism made this story very affecting. The pawnshop seemed to have mysteriously appear and it was quite an amazing coincident that Jackson’s grandmother’s regalia would have showed up after fifty years. It’s possible but highly unlikely and the serendipitous way in which Jackson receives help in his quest urges the reader on. After Jackson spends the twenty dollars the pawnshop owner gave him on “three bottles of imagination” the reader might expect the situation to go downhill. But Jackson continues to fall into more money though he loses it just as quickly. In the end he finds his way back to the pawn shop with five dollars, the same amount he began his quest with.

Along with the mysterious pawnshop, the coincidental emergence of the regalia, and the pawnshop owner seeming to grow younger, the other magical aspect of the story was the characters that disappeared abruptly. Though it is realistic for people to come and go, there was something strange about it. The Aleut cousins’ disappearance was particularly poignant. They sat on the same bench waiting for their ship to take them home but the ship never came. Towards the end of the story Jackson describes what happens, “I heard later that the Aleuts had waded into the salt water near Dock 47 and disappeared. Some Indians swore they had walked on the water and headed north. Other Indians saw the Aleuts drown. I don’t know what happened to them.”

There was a mystic beauty in the ending and an affirmation of goodness, if not in humanity, then at least in Jackson Jackson. As Jackson puts on his Grandmother’s regalia and dances amid a frozen city, he has reclaimed his heritage, even if for just one moment in time.

Girl In The Willows

My name is Judith, born in the dead heat of summer, when it was too hot even for a man to spit proper. Mamma said it was so hot that summer, the Paw Paw creek ran dry and you could see little salamander bodies all dried up and burnt up mixed in with the creek stones and the Kanawa River was so low a person with the mind could walk clear across it without their knee caps getting wet. Mamma said it was so hot because the devil was fit to be tied that an angel was coming into the world.

That angel was me of course. Judith Clay Willis, but most people call me Jude. Daddy tried calling me Judy once but Mamma gave him a look fit to skin his hide. Daddy said he’d be darned if his little girl was going to have to wrestle with a name like Judith all her life. So he took to calling me Jude. Since Mamma knew good and well, once Daddy got a thought tied up in his head real tight like, there was no way on God’s green Earth of untyin it, she gave in. But mamma? Well Mamma never called me anything but Judith.

I was born in the black hills of West Virginia. They call them the black hills cause those hills are filled up with coal. Well they used to be but they ain’t filled with nothing much now except the ghost of old miners. Old except for the ones that was just kids. They used to work kids just like me and even smaller than little Jay down in them hills. My granddaddy, him being my mama’s daddy, was a coal miner and got some of the blackness in his lungs. He died when Mama was only three. He was young, but you’d never know by looking at the creases in his forehead. There was an old corner worn photograph of Granddaddy resting on the china hutch. He was wearing a pair of coal dusted coveralls and had one of them head lamps on. His forehead was creased something fierce and covered in coal dust all but for the white of his eyes and his lips so that you’d be mistaken him for a Negro if you didn’t know better. Mama said she didn’t remember much about her daddy except the way he smelled. Like sweat and sunshine all mixed up together. Sometimes I’d see Mamma just sitting and starin off, where I don’t know. Starin off and breathing in real deep and heavy, like she was smelling something, smelling a memory of her Daddy maybe. And it sounded like she was going to sigh real big. She’d breathe in, smelling that ghost smell, and I could see the softness of her chest rise up, but she never did let them sighs go. She’d keep them inside. And I’d see the softness of her chest settle back down and get a little hard. It never did seem right holding on to all them sighs. Seemed to me holding onto things like sighs and such, well, one day it’s all just going to explode. Mamma never said, but I knew she still hurt for her Daddy. Not having a Daddy does something terrible to a person. It’s like there’s a dark empty place in your heart, a hollow, where nothing takes hold. Just an empty place where all the sadness bumps around in the dark banging up against the sides of your heart. It hurts pretty terrible. I’d know cause my Daddy’s dead too. Seems like that’s what Daddy’s did around here. They died.

After Granddaddy died, it was just Mamma and Nanny. Nanny was my grandmamma, and I won’t afraid to say, at least when she wasn’t near enough to throw a pan at me, that she was meaner than a creek-tossed cat. And I know just how mean a creek-tossed cat is cause one day after school Harlan and Jace took Ms. Jones cat, his name’s Mr. Jitters and he was the meanest ole cat in the state of West Virginia, and swung him round by the tail like he was some kind of lasso or something, and sailed that poor thing clear to the middle of the creek. You aint never seen anything as sad I bet. I ran into the creek, shoes and all, to fetch that poor wailing cat out and got scratches clear up my arms for my troubles. Not only that, but when I came out the creek and let Mr. Jitters go, Jace pushed me down to the ground and I landed on one of them sharp creek rocks and got a tear in my dress not to mention a right nice pain. And as if it couldn’t get much worse, when I walked through the door for supper that night Nanny skinned my hide with her switch as “payment for her seamstress services” she said. I didn’t much care though. I know I’d done the right thing. Every time after that I’d see Mr. Jitters, he’d come strolling up to my legs, all prissy like, even for an old country cat like him, and rub himself up against my legs. Course he spit and hiss right after, but I know he was just keeping up appearances. You know, reputation and all.

Sometimes I wonder. When the sadness gets to bumping and banging around in that hollow place in my heart, I get to wondering about Nanny and Mamma. I wonder if Nanny would have been so darned mean if Granddaddy hadn’t gotten the black lung and had stayed around. Shoot, maybe if she’d had a husband to use her pan on, frying up some eggs or something, she wouldn’t have always been throwing it at someone. And I wonder about Mamma. My Mamma with the face of an angel. A dark angel with long black hair and even blacker eyes. Coal black eyes. My Mamma with the voice of an angel to match. Mamma used to sing all the time before Daddy died. She’d sing in the morning and she’d sing in the evening and all the hours in between. I wonder if Mamma would still have been singing if Daddy hadn’t died. I wonder if she would have been able to let go them sighs. Heck, I wonder if Mamma would even have had so many sighs needing to be let go if Daddy had still been around. I guess if missing a Daddy does something terrible to a person, I don’t even know what missing a husband does. If you were Nanny, it’d make you nasty and hard. Tough like a strap of leather. But if you were Mamma, well that sadness would just keep on whittling away at that hollow place until there’d be nothing left. Just a pile of ole saw dust.

The Field at Dusk

She finds herself standing in the middle of a field that opens up to a dusk emblazoned sky. It could have been any field in any town. People are milling about, some have camps set up around small fires. Various music from throughout the decades can be heard playing on small transistor radios scattered across the field – seventies disco falling into seventies rock clashing with the doo wop of the fifties and punk of the eighties. It could have been any field in any town.

A bone thin man who has more stubble on his face than meat on his bones sits on an overturned crate and plays a banjo while six children in knee patched jeans and grubby faces chase the fireflies that are beginning to light up the field. A woman with a haggard look and weary eyes tucks the strand of hair that has escaped her bun behind her ear as she holds her baby to her partially exposed breast. She bends over a large cast iron pot and the light from beneath the pot illuminates her face so that she looks like a dying angel. Steam rises up and with it a smell that makes the mouth water and the heart feel at home. Sunday dinners and family, laughter and conversation, and grown up conversation where children can get lost in the safety of each syllable passing through the lips of those great giants.

Her eyes move past the dying angle and settle on a man dressed in a suit, a finely pressed suit of pinstripes. He has a wireless hands free in one ear and his finger is moving furiously across the small screen of his blackberry. He is oblivious to the music and the flaxen-haired woman dancing circles around him in white harem pants and a top so sheer her nipples can be seen. The contrast of the dark flesh against the white fabric is enticing and the only diversion away from them is the way she moves her long graceful fingers. They caress the air as she moves in circles around him. She thrust her hips forward toward him as he wipes the sweat from his creased brow and continues tapping. A baby cries and she sees the flaxen-haired Goddess dance gracefully to a white-flaked wooden crib where in lies a baby clad only in a cloth diaper. The woman gently picks up the baby and once again begins her dance. The once seductive sway of her hips filled with unnoticed intention becomes softer now. No longer caressing the empty air, she touches the soft skin of the baby’s back, tracing circles with the tips of her beautiful fingers. The baby is quiet as she continues the dance around the white crib, flakes falling to the ground.

She takes it all in, the sights and sounds filling this field. All of the different people. The associations tied to the soft skin of a babies back, or the delighted glee of firefly catching in the light of a disappearing sun. Her own memories of giants before they had fallen are stirred of in the cast iron pot of the dying angel along with her own memories of unnoticed intent like that of the swaying hips of the dancer.

And then they begin to leave. One by one, nearly half of the people in the field begin walking to the line of trees bordering the edge of the field. Brother leaving brother, daughter leaving mother, husband leaving wife, families separated from one another. Those that are walking towards the trees do not look back. They walk with purpose, their heads up and their gaze straight. Those that are left behind seem to be unaware of what is happening. The man keeps tapping away on his blackberry while the flaxen-haired woman resumes her dance. The baby cries in its crib. The banjo still plays as the children make rings that glow from the stolen firefly lights. The pot stands unattended.

That is when she sees the dying angel making her way toward the trees. She is sobbing and holds her arms straight by her sides her fists clenched as if she is willing herself to go forward and her clenched fists are the only things keeping her from going back. She is no longer holding a baby and there is such an emptiness now along with the tired, haggard, worn look in her eyes. Tears have made streaks down her dirty cheeks. The brown strand has come loose once more but this time she leaves it be and it sticks to her cheek in one of the tracks of her tears.

She shouts to the woman. She shouts for her to stop.

“Don’t go! You don’t have to go!”

Then she runs. She catches up to the woman before she reaches the opening in the tree line. It is dark. She cries for her to stop, and though the dying angel continues to sob with such exquisite anguish, she does not look back. And then she is gone.

She wants to follow the woman but she is afraid. She looks back over her shoulder at those left behind in the field. They are oblivious. She is filled with an overwhelming urge to stay with these people, to not leave them behind, and at the same time is drawn to the dark opening in the trees, to follow her dying angel into the unknown. As she is frozen with confusion and an awful indecision a man comes to stand beside her. He is nondescript with no distinguishable characteristics other than the sound of his voice. It’s the tide rolling in and being pulled back out, filled not just with his own voice but that of her father’s who has long been gone. It contains that voice and so many other unrecognizable voices all blended together, all speaking in unison.

“What has happened? Why did they leave?”

He looks at her with kindness and explains quite plainly, “We are all dead. The people who have entered the trees have realized that. They are moving on. The people in the field have yet to realize it, so they will continue to relive everything over and over. They will be stuck until they too come to realize it.”

She does not find herself filled with horror or shock or disbelief. She does not find herself filled with anything but the image of the dying angel sobbing with grief, her calloused hands clenched into fists. Then she looks once again over her shoulder and sees the baby that once laid in the tired arms of the dying angel, surrendered in the grass at the feet of the banjo picker.

She finds herself standing in the middle of a field that opens up to a dusk emblazoned sky. It could have been any field in any town. People are milling about, some have camps set up around small fires. Various music from throughout the decades can be heard playing on small transistor radios scattered across the field, seventies disco falling into seventies rock clashing with the doo wop of the fifties and punk of the eighties. It could have been any field in any town