Introduction to Richard Wright's Forgotten Speech

Scott McLemee

[This reprint of Richard Wright’s 1948 Paris speech appeared in the fourth print issue of the revolutionary arts journal Red Wedge (www.redwedge.com) in 2017. Richard Wright (1908-1960) was an acclaimed author and novelist whose works are regarded as some of the most important on themes of race and racism in America. Scott McLemee’s introduction, which puts the speech in biographical and political context, has been revised and somewhat expanded for Against the Current.]

THE ENGLISH TRANSLATION of Richard Wright’s address to the Revolutionary Democratic Assembly in Paris in December, 1948 seems to have escaped the notice of the biographers and literary scholars who have otherwise been extremely thorough in documenting the author’s life and work.

That neglect is all the more remarkable given the speech’s substance. A major defense of radical political and cultural principles at a moment when the Cold War was turning downright arctic, it is also a credo, a statement of personal values, by the preeminent African-American literary artist of his era.

“My body was born in America,” Wright declares, “my heart in Russia” — a tribute to the spirit of the October Revolution, with its potential to realize a fuller measure of democracy and equality than the United States had claimed in even its grandest promises.

But the corruption of the best gives rise to the worst. Wright’s speech, while expressing an ongoing commitment to struggles for liberation, was also his own declaration of independence.

Some points of biographical and historical information may be of value to the 21st century reader who knows Richard Wright mainly for his novel Native Son (1940) and his memoir Black Boy (1944). Between the publication of those works, he broke with the Communist Party.

While retaining an affinity for Marxism, he soon developed a strong interest in existentialist thought, with its emphasis on alienation, freedom, and self-creation. These had been major themes of his writing all along, of course, but only in the mid-1940s did word of existentialism as a philosophical school begin to interest the American literary public.

Wright’s fascination involved a shock of recognition: When the Marxist historian and theorist C.L.R. James noticed Wright’s collection of writings by Søren Kierkegaard — the 19th-century Danish theologian whose work defined the basic existentialist concerns with anxiety, authenticity, and the crushing burden of social myths — Wright responded that, as a Black man living in America, he’d understood Kierkegaard even before reading him.

Wright in France

In 1946, Wright accepted an invitation to visit France. Finding a welcome contrast with American mores, especially concerning race, he moved there with his family the following year. He knew Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir from their visits to New York.

Translations of his work began to appear in their journal Les Temps modernes. His memoir Black Boy was serialized across several issues in 1947, at the same time as it was running chapters of Sartre’s major statement What Is Literature?

In criticizing the limitations of bourgeois literary culture, Sartre cited to Wright’s work as embodying the tension of writing that addresses both sides of an oppressive social order. During this period Wright joined the editorial board of another important literary and political journal, Presence Africain, which also had connections with the Sartrean milieu.

And so it seems almost a matter of course that Wright would be drawn, like others in the orbit of Les Temps mo­dernes, to the Rassemblement Democratique Revolutionnaire when it emerged in 1948. Reflecting dissatisfaction with the status quo on the French left, the RDR sought to be — as one account put it — “more democratic than the Communists and more revolutionary than the Socialists.”

Besides the involvement of Sartre, Beauvoir and others in their circle, RDR had a close relationship with Franc-Tireur, a left-wing newspaper with a circulation of 370,000. (The title means “Free Shooter,” with connotations of guerrilla combat.)

The idea of an independent left movement — one appealing to dissidents in the established groups as well as unaffiliated radicals — met with a warm reception at first. RDR events drew large audiences, and organizers were initially confident of growing to a membership in the tens of thousands.

It cannot have hurt that 1948 happened to mark the centennials of a wave of revolutions that started in France and spread throughout Europe, and also of the publication a certain manifesto by Marx and Engels.

But as Ian Birchall explains in the chapter on the RDR in his book Sartre Against Stalinism (2004), the Socialist and Communist parties soon proved hostile, while the Trotskyists and other small revolutionary groups regarded the RDR as a distraction at best. And as one East European country after another turned into so called “people’s democracies” (i.e. extensions of the Stalinist political and social system), the RDR came under enormous pressure to “choose the West” as the lesser of two evils.

At its peak in 1948, the RDR had a few thousand members. Before the end of 1949, most of them voted with their feet. And by 1950, it barely existed at all, except as a memory of the hope for an alternative to the standoff between the United States and the USSR.

Wright delivered the speech reprinted here during one of the high points of the RDR’s activity: a mass meeting in early December 1948 that drew an audience of 4000 people, with another 2000 turned away. Andre Breton and Albert Camus also spoke.

Wright‘s Paris Speech

Wright delivered his speech, originally written in English, in a translation by Simone de Beauvoir (so indicated by Arnold Rampersad in the biographical timeline appearing in the two Library of America volumes of Wright’s work). Franc-Tireur published the French version of Wright’s presentation under the title “Humanity is Greater than America and Russia” in its issue dated December 16, 1948.

The speech returned to English a few months later — circuitously, in the form of Mary Coleman’s English translation, which is the version reprinted here. It appeared in the Summer 1949 number of The Student Partisan, the magazine of the Politics Club at the University of Chicago, and was soon reprinted under the title “Such Is Our Challenge” in the Fall issue of Anvil: A Student Anti-War Quarterly, published by the New York Student Federation Against War.

The editorial note accompanying the speech provides no information about the translator Mary Coleman. When this introductory note appeared in Red Wedge, I pointed out that someone by that name born in 1928 received her bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago in 1950, worked with the Congress of Racial Equality throughout the 1950s, and went on to publish extensively on the neurology of autism.

Against the Current editor Alan Wald has confirmed that she was indeed the same Mary Coleman who translated the speech. Many of her papers in medical journals were published under the name Mary Bazelon, during her marriage to David T. Bazelon, a social critic who contributed to Partisan Review and Dissent, among other journals.

Perhaps the closest equivalent to the RDR on the American scene was the Independent Socialist League, known for the slogan “Neither Washington Nor Moscow, But the Third Camp of Independent Socialism” — a position substantially identical to that of Sartre, Wright and their comrades during the height of their involvement with the RDR.

Hence the evident enthusiasm with which ISL members and supporters working with The Student Partisan and Anvil must have greeted Wright’s speech. The journals merged in 1950 and continued publication as Anvil through 1960 — an impressive achievement for any group of radical students, let alone one operating throughout the McCarthy era. (All issues of Anvil are available for download at https://www.marxists.org/history/etol//newspape/anvil/index.htm.)

Cold War Chill

But by the time Coleman’s translation was available, the existentialist left in France was taking its distance from the RDR. One of the group’s founding members, David Rousset, had begun to drift away from a Third Camp perspective, towards support for the U.S. bloc.

When the RDR held an “International Day Against War and Dictatorship” in Paris at the end of April 1949, the list of participants included the philosopher Sidney Hook and the novelist James T. Farrell — two American leftists turned Cold Warriors — who spoke in support of the military alliance that would soon be known as NATO.

Sartre, Wright and the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty submitted a statement to the conference but declined to participate. “We condemn,” they said, “for the same reasons, both the more or less disguised annexations in Eastern and Central Europe by the USSR, and the Atlantic Pact. It is by no means certain that this pact will slow up the coming of war. It may on the contrary hasten it. What is certain, on the other hand, is that, a little sooner or a little later, it will contribute to make it inevitable.”

In May 1949, the ISL newspaper Labor Action published “An Interview in Paris with Richard Wright on U.S. Politics” that affirmed support for the principles expressed in his speech a few months earlier, but with evident concern that the Cold War pressures were only worsening.

Wright scholars have been aware of the interview for some time; its text was reprinted in the volume Conversations with Richard Wright (University Press of Mississippi, 1993). It seems to rescue this other text — published by the same cluster of American radicals standing fast in hard times — from oblivion. It is a small part of his legacy, but as such worth reclaiming.

January-February 2020, ATC 204