Richard Wright on Black Power

In 1954, acclaimed novelist and thinker Richard Wright published Black Power about his visit to the Gold Coast (later Ghana) and his observations concerning the rise of the Pan-African movement. On the 100th anniversary of Wright’s birth, the American University of Paris is holding a centennial conference on June 19-21. In the lead-up to this conference, FPIF’s E. Ethelbert Miller discusses the novelist’s views on Africa and colonialism with James Miller (English and American Studies, George Washington University), Michele L. Simms Burton (African American Studies, Howard University), and Jerry W. Ward (English, Dillard University).

E. Ethelbert Miller: How did Wright view colonialism? Was it shaped by his views on Communism?

Jerry W. Ward: Wright saw colonialism as a major example of capitalist exploitation of human and natural resources. Obviously, his vision was shaped by Marxist analysis, but we should discriminate between Marxism and communism. Wright accepted Marxism as an instrument not as an article of faith. I think Wright’s view of colonialism is better expressed in The Color Curtain and in White Man, Listen! than in Black Power.

Michele L. Simms Burton: Because of his associations with George Padmore, Leopold Senghor, Amie Cesaire, C.L.R. James, and Frantz Fanon and his involvement in the pan-African quarterly Presence Africaine, Wright’s anti-colonial and neo-colonial views were reinforced. He understood the economic devastation that the colonial powers meted out on the entire continent of Africa. Wright believed that the educated African elite were in a perfect position to rescue their nations from the insidious exploration of colonialism and its aftermath.

James Miller: As one might expect, Wright sharply condemned colonialism as the ruthless capitalist exploitation of land, labor and human beings, most often people of color throughout the world. Wright’s views of colonialism were certainly shaped by the Marxist critique of colonialism he encountered in the Communist Party, but they were later profoundly influenced by his conversations with black radicals like C.L.R. James and George Padmore, and by his fascination with the psychology of colonization, as explored by writers like Octave Mannoni in Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization.

E. Ethelbert Miller: When did Richard Wright become interested in Africa?

James Miller: References to Africa appear in his early fiction like Lawd Today and Native Son, and Wright wrote about African affairs during his time as a reporter for the Daily Worker in 1937.

Jerry W. Ward: His first serious comments appear in 12 Million Black Voices (1941).

Michele L. Simms Burton: Wright seems to have developed an interest in Africa on his arrival in New York City and meeting Garveyites; however, his interest burgeoned in 1946 when he met George Padmore, a black student leader and activist in the Communist Party. He also meets the South African writer Peter Abrahams and facilitates the publication of his book The Path of Thunder (1947). Wright’s interest in Africa is finally realized when Padmore helps him plan a six-week trip to the Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1953.

E. Ethelbert Miller: What were Wright’s opinions of traditional African culture?

Michele L. Simms Burton: Upon his visit to the Gold Coast in 1953, Wright was taken aback by traditional African culture, particularly fetish worshiping.

Jerry W. Ward: Wright’s opinions were mixed, almost tortured. Ultimately, from his perspective as a man of the West, Wright’s opinions were largely negative.

James Miller: In Black Power, he presents himself as a quintessential Westerner who regards African traditions from a position of rational, critical detachment.

E. Ethelbert Miller: Could you comment on Wright’s relationship with George Padmore and C.L.R. James?

Michele L. Simms Burton: Padmore was like spiritual father to Wright, and I believe that Wright also found a rebel with a cause in Padmore. Wright writes the introduction to Padmore’s book Pan-Africanism or Communism?: The Coming Struggle for Africa (1956). Wright’s relationship with C.L.R. James was close, but not as close as it was with Padmore. But it was James who introduced Wright to Padmore.

E. Ethelbert Miller: Is there any theoretical connection between Wright’s use of the term Black Power and how it would later be popularized by Adam Clayton Powell, Willie Ricks, Stokely Carmichael, and Charles Hamilton?

James Miller: The term “Black Power” is an elastic one, with some recent scholars arguing that its antecedents can be found as much in the 19th century as in politician Adam Clayton Powell and civil rights worker Willie Ricks. In the context of the early-to-mid-1950s, Wright was prepared to recognize the possibility in West Africa, but not in the United States.

E. Ethelbert Miller: How much attention have Richard Wright scholars given to Black Power? How should this book be taught today?

Jerry W. Ward: The attention to Black Power is scant in relation to the notice given other works. We should teach the book as travel writing and as autobiography. It should certainly be taught as an extended response to the initial question in Countee Cullen’s poem “Heritage” – What is Africa to me?

James Miller teaches English and American Studies at George Washington University, Michele L. Simms Burton teaches African American Studies at Howard University, and Jerry W. Ward teaches English at Dillard University. E. Ethelbert Miller is an award-winning poet, the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, and the board chairperson of the Institute for Policy Studies. His interviews are a regular feature of Fiesta.