James Baldwin and Richard Wright: What quarrel?

August 7, 2013

It was all very public, well documented.

Wright had started out being the central inspiration.   Baldwin’s essay, “Notes of a Native Son,” and his essay collection also of that title, are obvious tributes to the long shadow of a great predecessor.  By 1949 and “Nobody’s Protest Novel,” though, Wright had stopped being that.  Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, he’s someone Baldwin has to resist, circumvent, openly turn away from.

It happened very early — too early, and I’m bothered by that.   But I don’t think it’s simply one-upmanship on Baldwin’s part.   With hindsight from the 1960s, that break seems almost inevitable, and not because Baldwin couldn’t stand the greater visibility of someone older and far better known at the point.   After all, what strikes me, looking at all those pictures from the 60s, is how comfortable Baldwin was, standing next to and playing second fiddle to others who were the main show: Martin Luther King, Joan Baez, Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando.  In the famous picture with Heston and Brando from the 1963 March on Washington, he’s literally dwarfed.  What’s striking too, is that in fact it’s Baldwin himself who’s writing some kind of protest novel in his own life: all those rallies that he participated in,  speeches that he gave on behalf of the Congress of Racial Equality and Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee.

Wright didn’t believe in the efficacy of such activities, at least not within the deeply entrenched social and political structures of the United States, as we should have known from Native Son.  He attended only the 1955 Bandung Conference held in Indonesia, a gathering of 29 non-aligned nations from Asia and Africa, representing more than half the world’s population.

It’s that kind of quarrel.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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