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Richard Wright's Travel Writings

Richard Wright's Travel Writings: New Reflections

Ngwarsungu Chiwengo
Dennis F. Evans
Yoshinobu Hakutani
Keneth Kinnamon
John Lowe
Jack B. Moore
S. Shankar
Virginia Whatley Smith
Edited by Virginia Whatley Smith
Copyright Date: 2001
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  • Book Info
    Richard Wright's Travel Writings
    Book Description:

    Attracted to remote lands by his interest in the postcolonial struggle, Richard Wright (1908-1960) became one of the few African Americans of his time to engage in travel writing. He went to emerging nations not as a sightseer but as a student of their cultures, learning the politics and the processes of social transformation.

    When Wright fled from the United States in 1946 to live as an expatriate in Paris, he was exposed to intellectual thoughts and challenges that transcended his social and political education in America. Three events broadened his world view- his introduction to French existentialism, the rise of the Pan-Africanist movement to decolonize Africa, and Indonesia's declaration of independence from colonial rule in 1945. During the 1950s as he traveled to emerging nations his encounters produced four travel narratives-Black Power(1953),The Color Curtain(1956),Pagan Spain(1956), andWhite Man, Listen!(1957). Upon his death in 1960, he left behind an unfinished book on French West Africa, which exists only in notes, outlines, and a draft.

    Written by multinational scholars, this collection of essays exploring Wright's travel writings shows how in his hands the genre of travel writing resisted, adapted, or modified the forms and formats practiced by white authors. Enhanced by nine photographs taken by Wright during his travels, the essays focus on each of Wright's four separate narratives as well as upon his unfinished book and reveal how Wright drew on such non-Western influences as the African American slave narrative and Asian literature of protest and resistance. The essays critique Wright's representation of customs and people and employ a broad range of interpretive modes, including the theories of formalism, feminism, and postmodernism, among others.

    Wright's travel books are proved here to be innovative narratives that laid down the roots of such later genres as postcolonial literature, contemporary travel writing, and resistance literature.

    Virginia Whatley Smith is an associate professor of English at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. Her work has appeared inAfrican American Review,Mississippi Quarterly, andMLA Approaches to Teaching Wright's 'Native Son.'

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-688-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xv)

    Once author Richard Wright fled the United States in 1946 to live as an expatriate in Paris, France, he entered an arena of intellectual thought and humanistic challenges that transcended the narrow limits of his former American home. As a result of this intercontinental shift, the writer’s global experiences to come would lead, by the time of his death in 1960, to his adopting the title of “Twentieth Century Western Man of Color” to complement his self-appointed role of spokesperson for oppressed people worldwide. Not only did exposure to French existentialist philosophy affect Wright’s reappraisal of his American identity, but...

  4. Essays on Black Power (1954)

    • Richard Wright’s Black Power: Colonial Politics and the Travel Narrative
      (pp. 3-19)
      S. Shankar

      InBlack Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos(1954), Richard Wright turns his attention to a dimension of the diasporic black experience that he had not previously explored in any great detail. What,Black Powerasks, sometimes explicitly and always implicitly, is the relationship of Richard Wright, this black man of the diaspora, to Africa?Black Poweris an account of Wright’s journey to the Gold Coast during the summer of 1953, four years before the achievement of independence by that country.² During his stay in the Gold Coast, Wright not only witnesses first hand the...

    • Gazing Through the Screen: Richard Wright’s Africa
      (pp. 20-44)
      Ngwarsungu Chiwengo

      James Campbell states inExiled in Paristhat Richard Wright once claimed in his journal that he would write the best book on Africa during his time (185). Wright eventually wrote on Africa, but his travelogue entitledBlack Power(1954) is one of his most criticized books, especially by Africans who feel betrayed and misrepresented. Concurring, John Gruesser contends in “Afro-American Travel Literature and African Discourse” that the disillusioned and alienated Wright, like William Gardner Smith, Maya Angelou, and Gwendolyn Brooks, fails to represent Africans accurately. Despite his self-declared hybridity, Wright neither identifies nor upholds African tradition, nor does he...

    • “No Street Numbers in Accra”: Richard Wright’s African Cities
      (pp. 45-59)
      Jack B. Moore

      Two strong images of African life are projected in Richard Wright’sBlack Power¹ before he begins explaining why he wanted to travel to his ancestors’ homeland, and both refer to an older, non-urban Africa. He dedicates his book “TO THE UNKNOWN AFRICAN. . . who, alone in the forests of West Africa, created a vision of life so simple as to be terrifying, yet a vision that was irreducibly human.” The anthropological validity of Wright’s thinking that earlier African vision to be “simple” is questionable, but his picture of the “primal” African existing far outside the city is clear.


  5. Essays on The Color Curtain (1956)

    • The Color Curtain: Richard Wright’s Journey into Asia
      (pp. 63-77)
      Yoshinobu Hakutani

      Partly because of America’s independence and isolation from the other continents, and perhaps, because of its development and evolution from the older cultures, the mode of writing in America has historically been noted for its time lag. Howellsian realism and the turn-of-the-century naturalism, for example, were in vogue two or three decades later than their counterparts in Europe. Poundian imagism, a modernistic literary movement under the influence of Asian poetics, originated in London in the early 1910s, but its full impact on American poetry came at least a decade later. What we today call postmodernity in American literature is no...

    • Richard Wright’s Passage to Indonesia: The Travel Writer/Narrator as Participant/Observer of Anti-Colonial Imperatives in The Color Curtain
      (pp. 78-115)
      Virginia Whatley Smith

      The leap from Richard Wright’s six-month assignment in New York as a paid reporter for the CommunistDaily Worker, June 8–December 28, 1937, to his three-week stint in Indonesia at the Bandung Conference as a self-employed writer and temporary press reporter, April 10–May 5, 1955, is an eighteen-year period that embraces the multiple, professional guises that he would assume on his way to international acclaim as a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and specifically narratives of travel. It was owing to Wright’s previous experience as a journalist, his present literary stature, and his proposed trip to Asia in 1941...

  6. Essays on Pagan Spain (1957)

    • Richard Wright as Traveler/Ethnographer: The Conundrums of Pagan Spain
      (pp. 119-156)
      John Lowe

      When Richard Wright’s meditation on Spanish life and culture was published in 1957, everyone—including Wright and his publisher—expected it to be controversial. As Richard Strout, one of the early reviewers aptly put it, “There are so many ways of misunderstanding this vivid book of travel-journalism that it is likely to kick up a controversy—a Negro writing about whites, a man of Protestant background appalled by the degradation of a quasi Church-state, an expatriate drawing upon his native land for occasional comparisons, an ex-radical describing Franco’s Falange.” Strout hastened to add, however, that “Wright is a citizen of...

    • Wright, Hemingway, and the Bullfight: An Aficionado’s View
      (pp. 157-164)
      Keneth Kinnamon

      Of the three great Latin countries of the Mediterranean, Spain has elicited less attention from North American writers than France or Italy, but the volume of work on Spanish subjects is nevertheless very considerable and the quality is high. Stanley T. Williams even asserts that “for American men of letters the fascination of Spain has in some ways exceeded that of other European countries, hardly excepting England itself ” (xx), and his magisterial two-volume work onThe Spanish Background of American Literaturedocuments the case with substantial treatments of Irving, Ticknor, Prescott, Bryant, Longfellow, Lowell, Harte, and Howells along with...

    • The Good Women, Bad Women, Prostitutes and Slaves of Pagan Spain: Richard Wright’s Look Beyond the Phallocentric Self
      (pp. 165-175)
      Dennis F. Evans

      Stephen Butterfield’s idea that autobiography “lives in the two worlds of history and literature, objective fact and subjective awareness,” and that the product of autobiography “asserts that human life has or can be made to have meaning, that our actions count for something worth being remembered, that we are conscious of time, [and] that we not only drift on the current of our circumstances but we fish in the stream and change the direction of the flow” (1), serves to illuminate and define the work of Richard Wright. Wright’s fiction is almost universally accepted as being autobiographical in nature; yet,...

  7. Essay on “French West Africa” (c. 1959)

    • “French West Africa”: Behind the Scenes with Richard Wright, the Travel Writer
      (pp. 179-214)
      Virginia Whatley Smith

      By spring of 1959 coinciding with the May 1946 anniversary of his thirteenth year of exile in Paris, France, Richard Wright had made the word “Africa” a familiar term of reference in the majority of his long, nonfictional texts and short essays about his foreign travels during this decade. He especially became interested in the anti-colonial and post-colonial struggles of the continent’s various black and brown peoples. Just as he had made the “Negro” in America the major metaphor of his fictions of the 1930s and still gave them central presence in the 1950s, Wright also began to broaden his...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 215-218)
  9. Works Cited
    (pp. 219-228)
  10. Contributors
    (pp. 229-230)
  11. Index
    (pp. 231-237)