Why Write? or Higher Duties

The last handful of days has seen me working my way through Harold Cruse’s ‘The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual’ – part of one of the conversations to come out of my last post was a recommendation to read the book, in order to get a grasp on why a simplistic call to arms, which inarguably was the main thrust of my position, will not work in the complex world we find ourselves saddled with. So, eager to deal in good faith and engage with criticism, here I am – and I’m quite happy with it, too: it’s the first I’d heard of the work, and it’s been shedding light on an area of history that I knew woefully little of.

Cruse sets the stage with the Harlem Renaissance, describing its failures and successes in comparison with that other, contemporary, white cultural milestone – the Greenwich Village scene as it was centred around Mabel Dodge’s Salons. Cruse goes to some lengths in the opening chapters to underline the importance of Harlem to the African American cultural, political, and economic experience – as Harlem goes, he states more than once, so goes all black America. With this in mind, he describes in the next few chapters the personalities and politics of the major players in and around Harlem, decade by decade, from the turn of the century up to the 1930’s, discussing the fledgling negro nationalism and its antithesis, the integrationist movement, the Garveyist exhortation to return to Africa, the response to this by the Left, the hollowing out of the American Communist Party, betrayed by ill-informed directives from Moscow and a usurpation for Jewish secular nationalism. He covers the origins of the NAACP, the African Blood Brotherhood, the National Negro Congress, and other important organisations. Then, he has a chapter focussed on one man – Richard Nathaniel Wright.

Cruse quotes at length from an article of Wright’s called “Blueprint for Negro Writing”, published in the magazine New Challenge in 1937. Cruse has made efforts to underline the importance, the primary importance, of the cultural angle in the struggle for black American equality, so the stress on this one article makes sense in context. I was struck by one of the quotes in particular – I’ll cite a portion of it:

The Negro writer who seeks to function within his race as a purposeful agent has a serious responsibility. In order to do justice to his subject matter, in order to depict Negro life in all of its manifold and intricate relationships, a deep, informed and complex consciousness is necessary; a consciousness which draws for its strength  upon the fluid lore of a great people, and moulds this lore with the concepts that move and direct the forces of history today…a new role is devolving upon the Negro writer. He is being called upon to do no less than create values by which his race is to struggle, live and die.

Unfortunately for both Wright and we here in the future, the effort folded, as Cruse goes on to describe. The edition of New Challenge that Wright’s article appeared in turned out to be the final one – the resurgence it represented, “…a belated effort to rally the tattered and defeated forces of the Harlem Renaissance for a new stand on a new line of defense on the cultural battlefield,” was defeated both by internal ideological malaise and external circumstance. The New Deal was putting a fresh face on the status quo, and all black nationalist aspirations were swept aside by a bolstered integrationist camp.

What about this, this failed rallying cry, do I find so interesting, then? The present, at least in its minutiae, is vastly different than the time that Wright was writing in, if not necessarily writing for. Overarching elements, however, remain the same. I’m not an American. I’m not Black. At best, I hope the Negro Question can be resolved (as if it were some trifling theorem in need of proof!!) in a way that results in dignity for all involved – whether that takes the form of full integration, or a black nationalism within a multi-cultural society, I simply don’t know enough to deserve an opinion. I am, however, a writer. And that quote, that way of looking at the profession, holds some importance.

What am I doing this for? I’ve not really thought about the question in an in-depth way before. One of the many privileges of being White, and middle-class, and healthy, I suspect. It was enough that it was “what I wanted to do.” If I’m not grossly deceiving myself, I have some latent talent for it – with plenty of room to grow, given the right attention and effort, to be sure. I derive pleasure from it. I might even be able to make a living at it.

The urgency, the gravity, of Wright’s quote shows all those concerns for the tawdry fluff that they are. I’m not about to write a Negro literature – I haven’t the right, and it is someone else’s task. However, our future is grim. Our enemies multiply in number and strength. And we have been rudderless for generations. The call for “…values by which..to struggle, live, and die,” is as prescient for all of us today as it was for Harlem Blacks in the late 30’s. If we don’t have an idea of where we are headed, we will only ever gain piecemeal victories, which will be swept away as so many crumbs. This must be my task, then, and the task of all people like me. It is the work of literature to carve out the possible, so that it may become the real.

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Posted on October 21, 2014, in Maunderings and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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