During the 1940s, in response to the charge that his writing was filled with violence, Richard Wright replied that the manner came from the matter, that the “relationship of the American Negro to the American scene [was] essentially violent,” and that he could deny neither the violence he had witnessed nor his own existence as a product of racial violence. Abdul R. JanMohamed provides extraordinary insight into Wright’s position in this first study to explain the fundamental ideological and political functions of the threat of lynching in Wright’s work and thought. JanMohamed argues that Wright’s oeuvre is a systematic and thorough investigation of what he calls the death-bound-subject, the subject who is formed from infancy onward by the imminent threat of death. He shows that with each successive work, Wright delved further into the question of how living under a constant menace of physical violence affected his protagonists and how they might “free” themselves by overcoming their fear of death and redeploying death as the ground for their struggle.
Drawing on psychoanalytic, Marxist, and phenomenological analyses, and on Orlando Patterson’s notion of social death, JanMohamed develops comprehensive, insightful, and original close readings of Wright’s major publications: his short-story collection Uncle Tom’s Children; his novels Native Son, The Outsider, Savage Holiday, and The Long Dream; and his autobiography Black Boy/American Hunger. The Death-Bound-Subject is a stunning reevaluation of the work of a major twentieth-century American writer, but it is also much more. In demonstrating how deeply the threat of death is involved in the formation of black subjectivity, JanMohamed develops a methodology for understanding the presence of the death-bound-subject in African American literature and culture from the earliest slave narratives forward.
1. Introduction: the Culture of Social-Death 1
2. Uncle Tom's Children: Dialectics of Death 45
3. Native Son: Symbolic-Death 77
4. Black Boy: Negation of Death-Bound-Subjectivity 138
5. The Outsider: Patricidal Desires 175
6. Savage Holiday: Matricide and Infanticide 210
7. The Long Dream: Death and the Paternal Function 233
8. Renegotiating the Death Contract 266
Works Cited 317
“Abdul JanMohamed reworks the concept of ‘social death’ to read Richard Wright in comprehensive and provocative ways. At the same time, he offers a new account of slavery, rewriting Hegel and psychoanalysis along the way to rethink ‘lordship and bondage’ as the ‘death contract’ and to discern the precise and various ways in which autonomy and freedom are asserted. This book is enormously impressive in its sweep, its detailed consideration of Wright’s corpus, its theoretical ambitions, and the new and compelling paradigms it offers for rethinking slavery, death, and resistance.”—Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor at the University of California, Berkeley
“This is a path-breaking, imaginative, comprehensive, indeed magisterial, analysis of the ways in which death functions in the construction of black subjectivities in Richard Wright’s fiction, autobiographies, and journalism. It both expands our understanding of Wright’s achievement and models a way in which the spectre of violence, lynching, and death may be seen to shadow and shape a trajectory of African American cultural production.”—Valerie Smith, author of Not Just Race, Not Just Gender: Black Feminist Readings