The Wright Stuff
Richard Wright’s 40s novel is back - and his brave anti-Communist stand deserves attention.
Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground, written in the 1940s, has now made the best-seller list in 2021. In this short novel, police torture an innocent black man into confessing a double murder. The author, who died in 1960, also spent time in a political underground, and that too has escaped the attention it deserves.
Born in Mississippi in 1908, Richard Wright gained fame for Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945). Wright also served a stint in the Communist Party, and explained his experience in The God That Failed (1949), with former Communists such as Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon), Andre Gide (The Immoralist) and Ignazio Silone (Fontamara). As Wright discovered, the Communists held his intelligence and literary skill against him.
“He talks like a book,” said one of the comrades, “and that was enough to condemn me forever as a bourgeois.” In the Communist Party, Wright learned, “a man could not have his say.” Party Stalinists smeared Wright as a “bastard intellectual” and “incipient Trotskyite,” with an “anti-leadership attitude.” The Communist Party, dominated by whites, “felt it had to assassinate me morally merely because I did not want to be bound by its decisions,” and Wright got the message loud and clear.
“I knew that if they held state power I should have been declared guilty of treason and my execution would have followed.” In his stories, Wright had assigned “a role of honor and glory to the Communist Party.” That was now “finished” and “I knew in my heart that I should never be able to write that way again.”
Richard Wright was a close friend of Frank Marshall Davis, who read the galley proofs for Native Son and reviewed Black Boy for the Associated Negro Press (ANP). Wright used the photo Davis had taken of him to accompany the Time magazine review of Black Boy.
In his memoir Livin’ the Blues: Memoirs of a Black Journalist and Poet, Davis accused Wright of selling out and “redbaiting.” Davis remained in the Communist Party and spent much of his life defending all-white Stalinist dictatorships in the USSR. In the late 1940s, the CPUSA sent Davis to Hawaii, then a prime target of Stalinist expansionism. That failed when Hawaii became a U.S. State in 1959. Frank remained on the island and his pro-Soviet activities landed him on the FBI’s security index.
In 1995 Frank Marshall Davis and Richard Wright showed up in Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama. At the outset of the story he is known as Barry, stepson of Lolo Soetoro, the Indonesian student his mother Ann Dunham married in 1965. Barry goes to the library and reads Native Son and Black Boy, along with books by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. DuBois. He finds them all “exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels,” and “only Malcom X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different.”
IN Dreams from My Father, readers meet “a poet named Frank who lived in a dilapidated house in a run-down section of Waikiki. He had enjoyed some modest notoriety once, was a contemporary of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes during his years in Chicago.” When Barry sets off for college, Frank warns Barry “they’ll train you so good, you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit.” And so on.
In a televised September 20, 1995 speech at the Cambridge library, the former Barry Soetoro clearly identified the poet as “Frank Marshall Davis.” In the original Dreams from My Father Frank got more than 2,000 words, but Davis disappeared from the audio version and in 2006 made no appearance in The Audacity of Hope or the 2015 Believer by “Obama’s narrator” David Axelrod. Two years later, in his massive Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, Pulitzer Prize-winner David Garrow wrote:
“Dreams from My Father was not a memoir or an autobiography; it was instead, in multitudinous ways, without any question a work of historical fiction. It featured many true-to-life figures and a bevy of accurately described events that indeed had occurred, but it employed the techniques and literary license of a novel, and its most important composite character was the narrator himself.”
So the narrative the former Barry Soetoro rode into the U.S Senate and presidency was a novel, and the author a composite character. As for Frank Marshall Davis, his “Communist background plus his kinky exploits made him politically radioactive.” These bombshell revelations escaped notice by the establishment media, then mounting a jihad against President Trump.
In November 2020, days after the election, the composite character came out with A Promised Land. Frank Marshall Davis and Richard Wright and David Garrow are all missing, and Dreams from My Father gets only a single mention. To adapt Milan Kundera, the struggle against deception is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
Meanwhile, readers of The Man Who Lived Underground might check out Chester Himes’ Lonely Crusade, a story of conflict among blacks, the labor movement, and the Communist Party. Also worthy of attention are Black on Red: My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union, by Robert Robinson and Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany, by Hans Massaquoi. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction.