Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Uncle Tom's Children by Richard Wright

Uncle Tom's Children is a collection of shorter stories of varying lenght plus an autobiographical intro of 15 pages. It is about being black in the South around 1930 - and we all know that that was not the easiest thing. The autobiographical sketch, as Wright calls it, is called The Ethics of Living Jim Crow, and begins like this:

"My first lesson in how to live as a Negro came when I was quite small. We were living in Arkansas. Our house stood behind the railroad tracks. Its skimpy yard was paved with black cinders. Nothing green ever grew in that yard. The only touch of green we could see was far away, beyond the tracks, over where the white folks lived."

Later, Richard and his family moves to Mississippi, and that is where the rest of the stories take place. In fact, I am not sure they actually take place in Mississippi, but definitely somewhere in the South.
First short story is called Big Boy Leaves Home, and it is about how a single, wrong decision can change everything in a heartbeat - specially if you are a young, black man living in the South 70 years ago. Four friends are out for a swim in the creek, when a white woman spots them. From then on, everything goes wrong, partly the fault of the four friends, partly the fault of the white woman. After finishing this story I thought, well, now it can only get better....I was wrong.

Second story Down by the Riverside, is worse. A heavy rainfall makes the river flow over, and Mann realizes that he has been too stubborn for too long, refusing to leave his house by the riverside. Now his wife is about to die in childbirth, the flood is threatening to take the house, and then Bob shows up with a stolen boat. Will they make it to the Red Cross? Will the white people let them into the hospital?

Third story which is called Long Black Song and is a sultry and dramatic and sad story about sex and love and violence and has the young mother Sarah waiting impatiently for her Silas to come home. Before Silas comes home, a white salesman turns up selling grammophones.

Fourth story, Fire and Cloud, and Fifth story, Bright and Morning Star are both about political awakening, and they were the stories I found the least interesting, although the last story had an ending which left me rather speechless. In Fire and Cloud the awakening is centered around religion, while the last story is centered round communism. In both "political" stories we have white people acting and interacting in a good way with the black community. In the last story we also see examples of "reverse racism", black against whites. Racism is never refreshing, no matter who are on the receiving end, and I think the author describes that brilliantly in the last story.

All stories are written in dialect, but it was still easy to read, even for me. Any native English speaker will have no problems. What is really amazing is the fact that this book was written in the late 1930'es, but it doesn't feel a day old. It could've been written today. This is the first book I have read by Richard Wright, but what an amazing writer, even though the stories are for the most part both sad and brutal. I do hope that we have come a little way since the 1930'es. I read those stories with a heavy heart, but the writing was so phenomenal, that I just had to keep reading. I am stunned that those things took place less than 100 years ago - I mean, there may still be people alive who experienced those things, and that makes me even more sad. I recommend this one. Read it now!
This book is read as part of the Southern Reading Challenge.

3 comments:

Beth F said...

I haven't read a lot of Richard Wright, but he is an amazing writer. This story collection is new to me, and I've added to my wish list.

Rebecca Reid said...

This sounds wonderful! Thanks for the review. I didn't know Richard Wright wrote stories.

Julia Smith said...

For some reason, I love reading heartbreaking stories. These sound like just the thing.