Richard Wright’s ‘The Long Dream’ as racial and sexual discourse
When The Long Dream, Wright’s last novel, written in exile in France, appeared in 1958, two years before his death, it encountered largely negative reviews in America. Despite Wright’s efforts to portray black people’s bitter experiences in the deep South, as he had done so successfully in Uncle Tom’s Children and Black Boy, The Long Dream, some readers felt, betrayed a distinct decline in his creative power. Saunders Redding, who had earlier detected a danger inherent in Wright’s exile, observed that in The Long Dream Wright had “cut the emotional umbilical cord through which his art was fed, and all that remains for it to feed is the memory, fading, of righteous love and anger” (329). In “A Long Way from Home,” Nick Aaron Ford, another black critic, concurred with Redding that Wright had lost touch with his native soil and the swiftly changing racial current in the United States (335-36). Agreeing with Redding and Ford, Maxwell Geismar remarked that, while Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son, and Black Boy are “solid, bitter, savage, almost terrifying fictional studies of the Negro mind,” The Long Dream turns out to be “a surrealistic fantasy of paranoid and suicidal impulses, veiled in political terminology” (333).
Yet the lack of depth some critics deplored was appreciated as socially authentic by others. Such reviewers as Redding and Ford considered the novel merely repetitious of what Wright had shown before, whereas others deemed Wright’s racial discourse as developing and continuing in relevance. Roi Ottley argued that the novel presents “a social document of unusual worth,” depicting lynching, police brutality, and a race riot in a Southern town (327). Writing in Best Sellers, another reviewer found value in Wright’s depiction of black characters as amoral and as “interested in practically nothing but irregular but frequent sexual relations,” although this reviewer cautioned that Wright blames this idiosyncrasy of black people “on the white people” (Kiniery 332). Still another reader compared The Long Dream with Native Son for its direct treatment of race problems, as well as with well-established social novels like An American Tragedy and The Grapes of Wrath (Shapiro 334).
What is implicit in much of the criticism The Long Dream has received is the perception that, even though the novel thrives on authentic details, its structure and characterization lack artistic merit. Most critics have accepted Wright’s racial views in the novel as realistic and convincing, but found the ending of the book abrupt, because Wright allows Fishbelly, despite his emerging manhood, to remove himself from the African-American world, go to jail, and then flee to France in search of freedom and equality. What seems lacking at the crucial point in Fishbelly’s development is his mental and physical toughness in battling against racism and achieving the independence of other Wright heroes such as Bigger Thomas and Cross Damon.(1)
To reassess The Long Dream would require a new approach – not to its social and cultural backgrounds, which are history and legend, but to Wright’s construction of a unique discourse. It was especially important for Wright to express what he actually felt as a black youth growing up in the deep South. This subjectivity, which early critics of the novel overlooked, enabled Wright to develop the theme of miscegenation as personally felt experience for Fishbelly, rather than as the background for character development, as is the case in Native Son. For The Long Dream, Wright would construct a twofold discourse racial reality and self-portrait – unified on the strength of the sexual theme, for the taboo of interracial sex is the product of socio-historical environment and personal desire.
Although the title The Long Dream suggests that the novel is concerned with an unrealistic quality which Wright finds in Fishbelly’s life, the book is based on solid facts and believable events. In fact, many of its episodes draw upon the young Wright as he is portrayed in Black Boy. Fishbelly does not come from a poor family, as Wright did, but both at an early age discover that their fathers are having extramarital affairs. Rejecting their home environments at a crucial point in their development, both seek an entirely new environment: For Fishbelly, it is another country, and Wright would go north. Although Fishbelly and Wright do not actually see lynching and castration, both hear about events that give their sexual initiation a traumatic impact. Fishbelly, in fact, witnesses the castrated body of his friend in his father’s undertaking parlor.
In some aspects The Long Dream differs from Black Boy: Fishbelly tries to become a rich businessman like his father but gives up such an ambition in favor of seeking his own dreams, whereas Wright, a talented, precocious youth, tries to survive the racial oppression in the South but leaves there with an ambition to become a writer. The most important difference between the two books involves Wright’s treatment of miscegenation, and this issue underlies Fishbelly’s initiation into manhood. In Black Boy Wright’s chief interest lies in the self-creation of an intellectual, and the discourse closely reflects the workings of a mind focused on the cultural, social, and political issues of the period. The Long Dream, on the other hand, deals with the self-creation of manhood by an adolescent, and much of its content is controlled by Fishbelly’s sexual instincts. Fishbelly is determined to cross “the line that the white world had dared him to cross under the threat of death” (165). Because the prerequisite to his manhood constitutes his freedom of sexual relationship with the white woman, this white-imposed taboo emerges as the central problem in his life. The Long Dream thus becomes a discourse of miscegenation in which the white woman is used as a sign. At crucial moments in the discourse, the narrative voice conveys the angers, fears, and frustrations Fishbelly and other black boys feel, as well as the psychological wounds they suffer because of the taboo.
Thematically, The Long Dream focuses on Fishbelly’s creation of himself through sexual initiation. Not only does the initiation mold his character, but the confrontation between the forces that buttress the sexual taboo and those that try to destroy it governs the structure of the novel. As the story begins, Fishbelly and his pals are enjoying pastoral scenes in the warm South, as they are in Black BOY and “Big Black Boy Leaves Home.” In contrast to these works, however, The Long Dream features a protagonist who is not overjoyed with such an environment, for behind the tranquil surface of a Southern town lurks an unwritten law that prohibits black men from consorting with white women. Since this novel is replete with social and political details, some of which are swiftly provided, Wright’s concentration on the psychological and overtly sexual implications of the taboo unifies the story. The unity is far more important to the effect of the story than to the racial views expressed by the characters, for the contentions of the protagonist and those of the white world are not only in direct opposition but irreconcilable. On the one hand, Fishbelly’s achievement of manhood is expressed in terms of a long dream; on the other, his violation of the taboo means his death, a penalty meted out through the most inhuman means.
Wright’s dialectic of freedom and oppression in The Long Dream is not so simple as it appears. In effect, Fishbelly’s personal freedom is realized, preserved, and fullfilled because of social oppression, for Tyree Tucker, Fishbelly’s father, is adamantly opposed to the manhood his son desires and continues to dream about. In Wright’s other books, such as Black Boy, Native Son, and The Outsider, the protagonist’s father is nonexistent or disappears, whereas Tyree plays a dominant role in attempting to shape his son’s future. In the process a generational riff arises between father and son. Tyree, obsequious as he is, uses and is used by the corrupted white politicians and officials for his materialistic gains. Fishbelly, a talented and sexually awake youth, loves the white world, as his father does, but Fishbelly is also enchanted with the white woman, with whom Tyree persistently warns him not to associate. Wright is showing here the differences between the two characters in their relationships to society. Because Fishbelly is young and idealistic, he has little control over his social environment.
The narrative structure of The Long Dream is as complex as Wright’s characterization. Wright tells the story in reference to the gradual progress Fishbelly makes from a racially well-protected childhood to the threshold of manhood and from a safe but confined black community to France, a less racist white society. From another point of view, the story is twofold. One aspect of its development focuses on a series of social, economic, and political events relating to Tyree’s business activities. Racism always plays a crucial role in these events, which involve corruption and intrigue. The other aspect deals with Fishbelly’s life. While Wright’s description of racial turmoil constitutes the surface structure of the novel, the deep structure consists of Fishbelly’s initiation into manhood, which Wright portrays in personal, psychological, and sexual terms. Fishbelly is indeed an innocent, shy black boy in the beginning, but in the end he is bound to be a robust cosmopolitan, as Wright himself became when he went to Paris.
Although Fishbelly’s manhood provides the novel’s central theme, the surface structure of the novel is dominated by various ideas and impressions about racism. Some of the racial views expressed in the book are Wright’s own, but most of them derive not only from historical facts but from the prevailing sentiments held by the black and white people living in the deep South in the 1930s and 1940s.(2) Wright is often perceived as a protest novelist because of the power fill, factual statements he made in his early novels. In The Long Dream he expresses the same ideas, but he does so from the perspectives of various individuals. Even among the black characters, Tyree and Fishbelly express their racial views not only as men representative of two generations but as men with different outlooks on sexuality and love. Chief of Police Cantley, even though he is a confirmed racist who condones police brutality, is capable of placing himself in black people’s shoes.
The first part of the novel, as the title “Daydreams and Nightmares …” suggests, is mostly concerned with Fishbelly’s sexual initiation, which continues to have its development in the second part, called “Days and Nights….” On the other hand, the second part is filled with episodes that express the racial views held by Clintonville’s residents. This middle section of the novel opens with an expression of the frustrations felt by Maybelie, a black girl, who is jealous of Gladys, Fishbelly’s near-white girlfriend. Maybelie screams in a rage:” ‘Go to hell, you white-looking bitch! … I ain’t blind! I know they made their goddam choice!They want white meat! But you sluts ain’t white! You niggers like me! But you the nearest thing that they can git that looks white!’ “(177).Ironically, Maybelie is not only the spurned woman; Gladys’s father, a white man, refuses to see his daughter, and though Gladys is courted by Fishbelly, her problems seem insoluble. Wright explains her situation through his narrative voice:
A white man had a black woman; that black woman gave birth to a near-white bastard girl child; and, because it was known that that near-white bastard girl child had had a white father, black men ran after her. And that near-white bastard girl child, in turn, would have a bastard baby that could ask protection of neither whites nor blacks. Such a girl could find men, but rarely a husband. (184)
As narrator, Wright also interprets the social views expressed by the characters. Some of his ideas are shared with black intellectuals residing in Clintonville, but others are of his own making. When Fishbelly goes around the town to collect rent, he meets those who are eager to express their views on life, which are directly related to black life. Miss Hanson, a retired school teacher “living alone in one disinfectant-reeking room on a government pension,” responds to Fishbelly’s call with a sense of humor:
“Good morning, Miss Hanson,” he would greet her. “I’ll take the rent, if you don’t mind.”
“I do mind, but there it is,” Miss Hanson would cackle. (202)
His encounter with Miss Hanson reveals that she has serious thoughts about Tyree’s operation of a brothel. She makes it a ritual to wash her coins with a solution of disinfectant and snare her dollar bills with tweezers:
“That’s one thing I don’t understand about people,” Miss Hanson would wail. “They bathe, brush their teeth, wear nice clothes, want clean food, and then they touch money all day long, money that’s been in the hands of even those nigger whores on Bowman Street, with all their venereal diseases. Think of it! Mr. Tucker, money carries germs! Doesn’t your common sense tell you that?” (203)
She adds that he is putting a cigarette in his mouth with the same fingers he has used to give her change.
Not only are Miss Hanson’s comments on money closely related, but they also serve the idea of a dual narrative. On the one hand, they contribute to Wright’s discourse on race, because Tyree’s business of running a house of prostitution is intertwined with the racial bigotry rampant in the town. On the other, the well-respected retired school teacher’s commentary on money makes Wright’s discourse on sex a satire on Fishbelly’s initiation into manhood. In effect, this talk of sex becomes an indispensable thread to the narrative structure of Fishbelly’s growth and development. His education, moreover, reaches its apogee immediately after the Miss Hanson episode, when on another day his friend Sam’s father lectures him to have pride in his black heritage:
“The white man’s done conquered us ’cause he’s made us ‘shamed of our hair, our skin, our noses – ‘shamed of Africa. There was a time when the black man was high up! Read, Fish…. Did you know that the Egyptians was black? Did you know that an English king had a black wife? Did you know that Beethoven had black blood in ‘im? Read, Fish.” (204)
Despite Fishbelly’s rapid growth, his affluent family life prevents him from gaining an insight into racial oppression. He is not aware of corruption, let alone injustice, among the town officials, nor does he recognize that his father is a successful businessman only because he subserviently cooperates with powerful white people. What is worse, Tyree exploits black people by owning illicit establishments and rental property. It is Tyree who pampers Fishbelly and hinders him from becoming a man of honor and vision. Only the narrative voice suggests that black men like Tyree and Dr. Bruce are not really superior to their oppressors. Precocious though he is, Fishbelly has not yet grown up to be able to listen to such a voice.
In the middle of the story, Wright provides the ironic insight that corruption is the only common ground where black and white people can meet. Otherwise, they do not want to share their lives in any way, an observation which the young Wright made while growing up in the deep South. Throughout the novel, but especially in “Days and Nights …,” Wright takes pains to show that the white people who fear the social progress the black people will make if given a chance know that the only way to prevent it from happening is to keep them intimidated and poor. The authenticity of the racial views expressed in The Long Dream can be validated by Black Boy and Uncle Tom’s Children, but the unique quality of Wright’s discourse in The Long Dream involves his judicious treatment of white characters. While some black people such as Tyree and Dr. Bruce, the leaders of the black community, are not worth saving, some of the white people are morally superior. McWilliams, a white lawyer, for example, is a staunch supporter of human values, the pillar of fairness and decency for Clintonville. Fighting against any form of injustice and exploitation, he opposes prostitution whether its victims are black or white. It is understandable that his defense of Tyree’s interest is half-hearted and thus unsuccessful. Despite a moral weakness on his part, Tyree tries to defend his position:
“But the white man took the bribes,” Tyree argued. “There ain’t no law but white law…. You say it’s against the law to take bribes, but the white man takes ’em.”
“And now you don’t want the white man to squeeze your money out of you?” McWilliams asked.
“Why should only we suffer and go to jail?” Dr. Bruce asked.
“That’s a fair question,” McWilliams said, nodding. “But don’t you realize that you were wrong in what you did?”
“There was nothing else to do,” Tyree spoke testily.
“That’s no defense in a court of law,” McWilliams told him. (288-89)
Though unwilling to compromise with principles, McWilliams nonetheless sympathizes with Tyree in his point of view that white corruption causes black corruption, and that therein lies injustice.
Just as McWilliams is portrayed as an individual who can feel sympathy for his fellow human beings, Wright in The Long Dream creates other characters, white and black, endowed not only with intelligence but with compassion. Fishbelly differs from Tyree, since Fishbelly can sympathize with a white motorist lying on the roadside seriously injured in an accident and calling for help. Even though the suffering man insults him, saying, “‘G-gogdammit, q-quick, nigger!'” Fishbelly does not shirk his duty in trying to save the man’s life (143). Chief of Police Cantley uses his position to oppress black people, and to the black world he is a symbol of intimidation and disrespect. But Wright does not make him a Ku Kluxer; instead Cantley is portrayed at times as a man capable of compassion and understanding. Frustrated by Fishbelly’s refusal to hand him the canceled checks which would acquit him, Cantley screams:
“Goddamn you, you black sonafabitch! I wish to hell I could believe you! … But you can’t tell me the truth! … Hell, no! You can’t speak what you feel! … I swear to God, I don’t know what we can do with you niggers…. We make you scared of us, and then we ask you to tell us the truth. And you can’t! Goddammit, you can’t!” (366)
However despicable a person Cantley may appear to the black people, he is nevertheless capable of understanding their plight and point of view.
As Fishbelly grows in stature in the final part of the novel, called “Waking Dreams …,” he challenges Cantley and surpasses him in wisdom and action. Cantley tells Fishbelly:” ‘You’re one of these new kind of niggers. I don’t understand you’ “(365). Now that Tyree is dead, Fishbelly attempts to create a self by severing himself from his father’s image of an ideal son. All his life he has been compelled to follow Tyree’s footsteps in business matters, but in his heart he has despised Tyree for cringing when talking to white people, for keeping a mistress and making his mother unhappy, and for getting rich by running a brothel. As he grows older, he realizes that by bribing the police Tyree receives for burial the corpses of black men, victims of police brutality. At an earlier age, described in the first part of the book, Fishbelly receives a lesson from his father:
“I make money by gitting black dreams ready for burial…. A black man’s a dream, son, a dream that can’t come true. Dream, Fish. But be careful what you dream. Dream only what can happen.” (80)
It is ironic that, by cooperating with corrupt officials and politicians, Tyree is destroying Fishbelly’s dream of becoming a man of courage and integrity. Ironically as well, Tyree warns Fishbelly: “‘Don’t force your dreams, son; if you do, you’ll die'” (80). By pursuing his own version of the dream of success, Tyree finds himself killed at the hands of corrupt police.
Some critics regard Wright’s portrayal of Tyree as far superior to that of Fishbelly.(3) Tyree is an impressive character in the middle section of the novel, where Fishbelly is initiated into manhood, because Tyree’s racial view is diametrically opposed to Fishbelly’s. Wright depicts the actions and skills with which Tyree asserts himself in realizing his dream of material success. As a result, Wright succeeds in creating a formidable character in Tyree, the father against whom Fishbelly must and does rebel in order to realize his own dream of manhood. Thematically, then, Tyree in this part of the story is playing the crucial role of a foil. The most significant achievement of this novel, however, is Wright’s ability to make dialogue and narration realistic and free of the Marxist language in Uncle Tom’s Children and of the existentialist statements in The Outsider. Although one may argue that Wright tends to be preoccupied with scenes of violence in The Long Dream, his portrayal can be defended just as Zola’s realistic description of the lives of miners and their children in Germinal can be defended.(4)
The interactions between father and son that take place in the middle part of the novel determine the kind of manhood Fishbelly eventually achieves. Because his feelings about racism in general and miscegenation in particular cannot be freely expressed, they are converted into his dreams. One might argue that what Wright considers realism in The Long Dream, especially in the middle section, is a surface realism, since Fishbelly, according to Granville Hicks, “is not merely alienated from the culture in which he has been born; he is alienated from reality” (325). But the narrative of Part II, “Days and Nights …,” consists of two layers. What appears to be a surface realism is filled with a series of racial incidents that directly influences Tyree’s business activities. The clashes that occur between black and white people result from the prevailing social, economic, and political views, and have little to do with the desires, fears, and doubts Fishbelly keeps within him. As the surface structure of the story thrives on the social details, the deep structure is immersed with his personal life. Though he is deeply involved in the social, economic, and political activities relating to his father’s business, he is more concerned about his sexual initiation into manhood than worried about school or society. In fact, he brings Tyree, not himself, to grief when he fails to pass his examinations at school because of his affair with a near-white girl.
While much of the action in The Long Dream is described in terms of racial oppression, Fishbelly’s development is portrayed in a sequence of dreams. He begins to dream about sexual relations with white girls when Chris, his best friend, accepts a white girl’s sexual advances but is caught sleeping with her in a hotel and, consequently, is lynched, castrated, and killed. Fishbelly’s dreams, focused on such a traumatic experience, initially appear in the first part of the novel and continue to appear in the second part, where they constitute the undercurrent of the story as the racial theme is developed on the surface. Part III, “Waking Dream …,” which depicts the denouement of Fishbelly’s manhood, unites the themes of sex and race, as developed earlier, into the final action of the story, his flight to Paris.
The crucial dimension in Wright’s work as a whole is the development of a social and personal discourse in telling a story. Native Son reads not merely as a protest novel but as a powerful narrative that dramatizes the polarities between oppression and rebellion as they impact Bigger. Black Boy is eloquently focused on the young Wright’s rejection of the South and his escape to the North. While Wright from time to time treats the problem of miscegenation throughout his writing, he makes a concentrated effort to probe this issue in The Long Dream. As a result, this novel polarizes Mississippi and France, America and Europe, where the protagonist’s eventual expatriation will take place. From the age of six, when he becomes curious about sex in relation to his parents, to eighteen, when he leaves home, Fishbelly gradually comes to realize that he cannot call himself a human being until he has the freedom to have sexual relations with a woman regardless of her skin color. Hence the sign “miscegenation” underlies and incites Fishbelly’s battle in achieving manhood.
How seriously Wright intended to deal with this problem in The Long Dream is suggested by what he says about it in Black Boy. That book does not focus on the hero’s sexual initiation, but there sex, like religion, tends to victimize rather than develop the adolescent protagonist. The only woman to whom the young Wright is sexually attracted is a church elder’s wife. His desires, however, are converted into “a concrete religious symbol,” depicted in grotesque and physical expressions instead of pleasant and spiritual images: “a black imp with two horns; … a scaly, naked body; wet, sticky fingers; moist sensual lips; and lascivious eyes” (125). Such a description indeed debases his attitude toward human sexuality. Even though Wright is not deeply concerned about his protagonist’s sexual awakening in Black Boy, he defines the following subjects as taboo:
American white women; the Ku Klux Klan; France, and how Negro soldiers fared while there; Frenchwomen; lack Johnson; the entire northern part of the United States; the Civil War; Abraham Lincoln; U.S. Grant; General Sherman; Catholics; the Pope; Jews; the Republican party; slavery; social equality; Communism; Socialism; the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. (253)
Among the twenty-one taboo topics listed, the first four are directly related to miscegenation.
It is beyond dispute that miscegenation occupied the mind of the young Wright as he came of age in the deep South. While Black Boy intimates that white men do not mind black men’s talking about sex as long as it is not interracial, The Long Dream powerfully demonstrates this fact. Wright takes pains to show in The Long Dream that miscegenation is the reason that white people have a preconceived notion of black people’s place in the South.
What has frightened Tyree all his life is that allowing Fishbelly to have white female companionship will ensure his son’s death. As Tyree can believe that miscegenation leads to the black man’s death, so can Fishbelly; but Fishbelly, discreet as he is, cannot help dreaming of having a white girlfriend. When he witnesses “the cruel crucifixion of Chris,” he is warned by what Wright calls “a harsh challenge: You are nothing because you are black, and proof of your being nothing is that if you touch a white woman, you’ll be killed!” (165). Despite this warning, as Wright portrays Fishbelly’s state of mind at the end of Part I,
… he knew deep in his heart that there would be no peace in his blood until he had defiantly violated the line that the white world had dared him to cross under the threat of death. He walked beside Tyree, verbally agreeing with him, but he was being magnetically pulled toward another and a more dangerous goal. A mandate more powerful than his conscious will was luring him on, subsuming the deepest layers of his being. (165)
Only through violating this inhuman white law can he justify his existence and hence achieve manhood.
Earlier in the story Fishbelly is ashamed of having Tyree as his father, for he realizes, Wright says, “that no white man would ever need to threaten Tyree with castration; Tyree was already castrated” (151). Not only has Fishbelly been threatened by the police with a knife when caught watching white women, but he loses his confidence in Tyree’s ability to instruct him on sexual initiation.” ‘A woman’s just a woman,’ “Tyree tells his son in earnest,
“and the dumbest thing on earth for a man to do is to git into trouble about one. When you had one, you done had ’em all. And don’t git no screwy ideas about their color. I had ’em white as snow and black as tar and they all the same. The white ones feel just like the black ones. There ain’t a bit of difference, ‘less you make one, and that’s crazy.” (158)
Despite Tyree’s sincere effort to educate his son, Fishbelly is not entirely convinced of Tyree’s argument. For he has observed that Gladys, who is “willowy and almost white in color,” is more popular among the black boys than Maybelle, who is “short, fat, jet black” (176).
However, the most important reason for Fishbelly’s disagreement with his father is not because Fishbelly is sexually more attracted to white women than to black women, but because he feels that in a free, democratic society he has the right to associate with women of his choice. His state of mind is reminiscent of Cross Damon’s relationship with Eva, the wife of a Communist, in The Outsider. Cross falls in love with the white woman despite, and because of, the fact that a black man’s desire for a white woman is taboo. The problem of miscegenation Fishbelly faces is also similar to what happens to Bigger Thomas, for the image of forbidden sexual relations is as central to Fishbelly’s dream as it is to Bigger’s tragedy. As Wright shows in The Long Dream, interracial sexual relationships, however natural and spontaneous, are suppressed and condemned as socially unacceptable. Since a black man like Fishbelly can only dream about such an experience, the status of such relationships has become mythic.
But another kind of miscegenation is regarded not as myth but as history. The racial discourse throughout The Long Dream provides an account of a slave history in America that allowed plantation owners to exploit black women for sex. This kind of sexual relationship is both immoral and hypocritical, as Mark Twain points out in Pudd’nhead Wilson: White slave holders treated black people as property and a commodity, considering them animals rather than human beings, yet the slave holders themselves behaved like animals, taking advantage of black women for sex but refusing to take responsibility for their offspring.
The scene of miscegenation Wright describes in The Long Dream, as in Native Son, has the status of myth, not only because Fishbelly’s and his friends’ dream about this experience, but because such an experience evokes the memory of the historical fact that slave owners took advantage of black women for sex. Fishbelly and his friends, on the contrary, never exploit white women.
The Long Dream is, of course, not Wright’s first attempt to deal with miscegenation. “Long Black Song” (1938) deals with a sexual encounter between a black woman, the wife of a farmer, and a white phonograph salesman.(5) In contrast to The Long Dream, the short story features an interracial sexual relationship in which a man and a woman exploit each other for their own emotional and physical needs. Such a relationship, however, derives from an interracial mentality widely accepted and maintained in the system of slavery, as Silas, the wronged black husband, wails in protest:
“The white folks ain never gimme a chance! They ain never give no black man a chance! There ain nothin in yo whole life yuh kin keep from em! They take yo lan! They take yo freedom! They take yo women! N then they take yo life.” (125)
By contrast, Wright portrays the interracial sexual scenes in The Long Dream with genuinely human sentiments that come from the hearts of the Individuals concerned, rather than with social and economic motives that get in the way. Fishbelly in his dreams and Chris in reality involve themselves with white women in purely personal relationships, as does Bigger, who watches a white woman in a movie and has a sexual encounter with Mary Dalton. That the sexual feelings Bigger and Mary express are mutual is shown by the original portrayal of the scene, which Wright deleted from the galleys in fear of censorship. The original passages included a more explicit description of Mary’s sexual arousal: “He tightened his arms as his lips pressed tightly against hers and he felt her body moving strongly. The thought and conviction that Jan had had her a lot flashed through his mind. He kissed her again and felt the sharp bones of her hips move in a hard and veritable grind. Her mouth was open and her breath came slow and deep” (Early Works 524). For Bigger, not only is “the gay woman” first visualized in the movie and later realized in his own life as a symbol of success and power, but she also becomes a symbol of the fulfillment of his youthful dreams and desires. In The Long Dream, on the other hand, Wright incorporates into this symbol an image of human right and equality.
Within the racist context of the novel, Fishbelly’s dreams become even more idealistic and romantic. In direct opposition to the sensibility born and nurtured in Fishbelly, Wright reconstructs with subtlety a racist discourse in which a black youth like Chris dares to violate the taboo at the risk of his life. When Bigger is captured, the newspaper account of him reflects the warning that white women must be protected from a black man like Bigger. The Chicago Tribune prints a lengthy article in which a reporter describes him as “a beast utterly untouched by the softening influences of modern civilization” (Native Son 260). In The Long Dream, written two decades later, Wright does not have to use a journalistic technique to intimate the sexual taboo. Instead he portrays a scene in which Chris’s body is mutilated and his sexual organ is severed, a scene to which many white women flock together for their curiosity and interest. Not only is such a scene based upon historical facts of lynching in the South, but it also places the hero into a dilemma of life or death in The Long Dream, as it does not in Native Son.
The final section of The Long Dream, entitled “Waking Dreams …,” shows not only that Fishbelly’s desire for white women remains a dream that cannot be fulfilled in Mississippi, but also that he is between a dream which has turned into a nightmare and still another dream which he has yet to visualize. Unlike Bigger and Cross, Fishbelly does not have to resort to violence and killing to justify his existence. Much like Melville’s Bartleby, he prefers not to live in the world that dictates his way of life. Fishbelly is neither an erudite existentialist like Cross nor a defiant rebel like Bigger, but he is endowed with intelligence and common sense. At the funeral for the victims of the Grove fire, the Reverend Ragland delivers a moving sermon in which he says in part:” ‘The men who run this town can be white as snow, but we know who’s boss! GAWD’S THE BOSS! And He’s more powerful than the president, the governor, the mayor, the chief of police …'” (348). The sermon sounds cogent to the black congregation, but Fishbelly is not convinced that God has the power to overrule the segregationists or help him realize his dreams. What Wright is demonstrating here is the fact that the segregationists maintained their unjust power during the 1920s, when he grew up in the South, and still did as strongly three decades later, when he wrote The Long Dream.
The only way to resolve Fishbelly’s dilemma at the end of the novel is for Wight to let his hero leave the very environment that has long suppressed Fishbelly’s yearning for manhood and self-creation. On the surface, Fishbelly has wavered between his acceptance of Tyree’s advice, which demands acquiescence to white power, and his rebellion against his father. Deep in his heart, however, he feels compelled to act on his own instincts in search of a new life. Once Tyree dies, not only is he forced to chart his own course of action and create a self, but also his true feelings about himself as an adult overwhelm him. He now envisions a new world in which to live like a human being. The reader might think that Fishbelly is expressing Wright’s ideas instead of his own, but Fishbelly’s decision to leave Mississippi for Paris comes neither from Wright’s ideas nor from Fishbelly’s.(6) Fishbelly’s decision clearly results from an agonizing battle he has waged against society, a confrontation between his dreams and the forces of racial oppression. Only through Fishbelly’s ordeal and dream is Wright able to define Fishbelly’s ideals, and in the process Wright’s ideas and Fishbelly’s feelings become intertwined. In defining the word consciousness as “the experience of thought,” William James wrote that consciousness is “inseparable from the world of things of which we speak of being conscious of” (qtd. in McDermott 184-93). Fishbelly’s consciousness is indeed the product of his experience, not of Wright’s.
Throughout Fishbelly’s adolescent life, society and his parents, especially Tyree, have indoctrinated him with racial separation and inequality. He has constantly been warned not to stare at the white woman, a symbol of the Blessed Virgin which Wright associates, in Pagan Spain, with “the purity of white womanhood” the Ku Kluxers try to protect in the South.(7) And yet Fishbelly finds himself falsely charged with raping a white girl and put in jail. It is in jail that he receives a letter from Zeke, his army friend stationed in France. “France ain’t no heaven,” Zeke writes, “but folks don’t kill you for crazy things. These white folks just more like real human beings than them crackers back there in Mississippi” (398). This optimistic report convinces Fishbelly that there is another world where he will be able to realize his dreams. Although expatriation implies the denunciation of one’s country, Fishbelly’s decision to go to France echoes the twin traits of the American national character: individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness, as guaranteed in the Constitution.
An interesting aspect of Fishbelly’s new dream is how such a dream is perceived by different characters in the book. Chief of Police Cantley, who recognizes a generation gap between Fishbelly and Tyree, attempts to dissuade Fishbelly from pursuing his dream by saying emphatically, “‘Those French are dirty…. You’re better off here, Fish'” (400). Commenting on the letters Fishbelly has received from his friends in France, Chief Murphy appears less opinionated about France than Cantley and says, “‘Sounds like they don’t like our Mississippi'” (400). What Murphy says is an ironic understatement because it does not simply signal that Fishbelly’s friends were unhappy living in Mississippi, but it means that history condemns racism in America, whether it is in the South or in the North. Less concerned about Fishbelly’s new dream than his present plight in jail, his mother can only say,” ‘Pray, son … Gawd’ll deliver you'” (395).(8) For Fishbelly, then, the most exciting account of the new world is provided by Zeke, who writes him frequently. In one letter, he writes in part:
Man, we are stationed at Orleans, not far from Paris. It rains here most of the time, but we got good old cognac to keep us warm…. Both me and Tony’s learning a little French and we get to Paris almost every weekend. Man, Paris is cool. Paris is crazy. These frogs over here even know about rock and roll. And what they don’t know about jazz you can put in a thimble. Man, you ought to see these French cats go. These frenchies can jitterbug from away back…. Man, these blond chicks will go to bed with a guy who’s black as the ace of spades and laugh and call it Black Market. Man, it’s mad. You know what I mean. (383-84)
Toward the end of the novel Wright carefully incorporates a more serious racial discourse. In his last letter Zeke argues: “If somebody would prove to me that God’s white, I don’t think I would ever go to church no more. God just can’t be like these goddamned white folks” (398). If this were said by Fishbelly, it would not sound true, for he has not acquired the perspective Zeke has by contrasting American life with French life. Wright’s achievement in the final section of the novel is the creation of a unified vision in which Zeke’s informed point of view and Fishbelly’s new dream intensify each other. This new vision, moreover, is buttressed by an existentialist view Wright has earlier stated in characterizing Fishbelly as an emerging hero. When Fishbelly is asked by McWilliams, his lawyer, whether he supports Cantley or Tyree, whom Cantley had killed, he becomes confused, but Wright replies on his behalf: “‘Yessir,’ he confessed finally, realizing for the first time that he did not know whose side he was on. He was on nobody’s side. He was for himself because he felt he had to be. He was black” (357).
Fishbelly’s new vision of life reaches its height as he flies to Paris. On the plane from Memphis to New York, he lets a blond air hostess strap his seat belt as he watches her golden hair and white skin. On the plane from New York to Paris he nervously sits among the white passengers for over two hours, but finally he is attracted to a young white woman with dark brown hair sitting just two feet ahead of him. Imagining “the exciting, hidden geography of her body,” he wonders why this woman, a simple image of the forbidden fruit, had caused “his deepest fears of death…. The woman,” Wright says, “was as unreal and remote as had been that bleeding white man he had left to die under that overturned Oldsmobile on that far-off summer day when fear had robbed the world of its human meaning” (405). But all this brooding ceases, for he feels for the first time in his life that he is treated as an equal.
One might read the story, as does Earle V. Bryant, to imply that Fishbelly’s sexual initiation through the white woman is “an absolute prerequisite for his survival in the white world” (424) and that his quest is unfulfilled. Bryant’s first observation proves true, but his second depends on a point of view. The problem with the second judgment lies in Bryant’s reading of Fishbelly’s flight to Paris as a sign of his ultimate failure in sexual initiation. Fishbelly at the end of the novel, Bryant says, “is a man riddled with self-loathing, consumed by disgust for his own race, and paralyzed with dread of a racist white society” (430-31). Surely this is not Wright’s portrayal of Fishbelly on the plane, nor is it Zeke’s and Fishbelly’s imagined portrayal of Fishbelly in France. “As Fish sees it,” Bryant further remarks, “white women are decidedly different from – indeed, even better than – black ones” (428). The difference between white and black women is obvious, but it remains only a sign or, to borrow a linguistic term, a matter of “surface structure.” What is signified – the deep structure – in Fishbelly’s mind is the notion that white women and black women should be equal and that their counterparts, white and black men, should be treated equally.
The last scene on the plane, furthermore, creates irony for the novel. For the first time in his life, Fishbelly meets a Northerner, an Italian American who is on his way to Italy to pay homage to his father’s birthplace. Ironically, the Italian American recalls in conversation with Fishbelly that his father used to talk to him about America “‘like a man describing a beautiful woman'” and that his father called America his “‘Wonderful Romance.'” (406). “That man’s father,” Wright says, “had come to America and had found a dream; [Fishbelly] had been born in America and had found a nightmare” (407). It is also ironic that, when the Italian American inquires about life in Mississippi, Fishbelly, too embarrassed to tell the truth, says that “‘we live just like anybody else'” (406).
However persistent his self-consciousness may be, Fishbelly is now able to convert the feelings he has gained on the plane into “the bud of a new possible life that was pressing ardently but timidly against the shell of the old to shatter it and be free” (410). He thus leaves America behind him, brooding that a man’s worth as a sexual being should be determined by any quality of his own other than the color of his skin. This rationale is buttressed by Zeke’s experience with French girls, to whom Zeke is more attractive than a French rival just as, to Eva Blount, Cross Damon is more attractive than her white husband. Bryant’s reading that white women to Fishbelly are, “indeed, even better than” black women may be true on the surface of the narrative, but it does not tell what Fishbelly is dreaming or Wright was thinking.
As the conversion of his feelings about himself occurs, the theme of sexual initiation is united with that of racial relationship. To Fishbelly, leaving Mississippi for Paris means leaving a society where sex and race are intertwined, as if black people were less than human. Though he is fully aware that Paris is no heaven, as Zeke has told him, he is convinced that the French will not be so obsessed with miscegenation as Southerners are. His mother would like to have him back, but he will not go back. Nor would Huck Finn, as Mark Twain had shown half a century earlier, for Aunt Sally was going to adopt him and civilize him, and he couldn’t stand it. He said, “‘I been there before'” (288). Like Huck Finn, and unlike many of the American expatriates in Europe in the 1920s, Richard Wright did not return home.
1. Edward Margolies takes a highly sympathetic attitude toward The Long Dream and provides a discerning analysis in The Art of Richard Wright. But, arguing that any dream must be related to an authentic environment, he concludes that “Fishbelly’s removal from that environment somehow alloys the dream” (166). Similarly, Katherine Spandel interprets the novel in terms of Wright’s own life. Spandel’s observation is valuable, since she cogently relates the hero’s quest to what actually happened to Wright. She, however, notes: “As early as his childhood Wright could find little love in his own people, and he surely found little in whites. It is not surprising, then, although it is disappointing, that Wright leaves his last hero literally up in the air” (95).
2. Many of the incidents and episodes in The Long Dream, as in Wright’s other works, are based on his experiences and historical facts. The lynching of Chris derives from Wright’s observation of such an incident when Wright worked as a bellboy, as told in Black Boy. Pastor Ragland’s funeral sermon for the victims of the Grove fire, as Michel Fabre shows in The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (48), derives from Wright’s hearing such sermons. The fire at the Grove that victimize forty-two black persons is based on the nightclub fire in Natchez, Mississippi, which killed 215 persons, many of them black teenagers (337).
3. Edward Margolies observes: “The most singular achievement of this section is not, however, Wright’s facility in moving Fishbelly from a subjective world to an external world – but rather the very remarkable portrait of Tyree. Indeed, though it is obviously not Wright’s intention, it is Tyree who runs away with the novel – and it is Tyree one remembers most vividly after one has finished the novel” (158). Katherine Fishburn writes: “The most significant scenes in Part II are those where Tyree plays his role as ‘nigger,’ since the acting is witnessed by Fish who is amazed at Tyree’s versatility in exploiting the white man’s preconceived notions of blacks” (36).
4. Granville Hicks maintains in his review of The Long Dream that the novel is overly melodramatic because Wright “displays a preoccupation with scenes of violence that can be understood but cannot be fully defended” (324).
5. While her husband is away, the salesman visits her home and seduces the black woman, who allows him to leave a phonograph at a discount. Because she is unhappy with her current husband and dreams about her former lover, now gone from her in the war, she willingly makes love with the stranger (“Long”).
6. Granville Hicks, for example, writes: “One ought to feel, as I do not, that the ideas Fish expresses are his ideas and not Richard Wright’s” (324).
7. Wright observes in Pagan Spain: “Those hooded penitents had been protecting the Virgin, and in the Old American South hooded Ku Kluxers had been protecting ‘the purity of white womanhood.’ … Some underlying reality more powerful than the glittering Virgin or southern white women had gripped these undeniably primitive minds. They were following some ancient pattern of behavior and were justifying their actions in terms that had nothing whatever to do with that pattern” (237).
8. The religious attitude Fishbelly’s mother takes is reminiscent of that of the black mother Wright deplores in his other works, such as Black Boy, Native Son, and The Outsider.
Bryant, Earle V. “Sexual Initiation and Survival in The Long Dream.” Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993. 424-32.
Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. New York: Morrow, 1973.
Fishburn, Katherine. Richard Wright’s Hero: The Faces of a Rebel-Victim. Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1977.
Ford, Nick Aaron. “A Long Way from Home.” 1958. Reilly 335-36.
Geismar, Maxwell. “Growing Up in Fear’s Grip.” 1958. Reilly 333.
Kiniery, Paul. Rev. of The Long Dream. 1958. Reilly 327.
McDermott, John J., ed. William James: A Comprehensive Edition. New York: Random, 1967.
Margolies, Edward. The Art of Richard Wright. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1969.
Ottley, Roi. “Wright’s New Novel Isn’t for Squeamish.” 1958. Reilly 333.
Redding, Saunders. “The Way It Was.” 1958. Reilly 329.
Reilly, John M., ed. Richard Wright: The Critical Reception. New York: Burt Franklin, 1978.
Shapiro, Charles. “A Slow Burn in the South.” 1958. Reilly 334.
Spandel, Katherine. “The Long Dream.” New Letters 38 (1971): 88-96.
Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1884. Ed. Henry Nash Smith. Boston: Houghton, 1958.
Wright, Richard. Black Boy: A Record of Childhood end Youth. 1945. New York: Harper, 1966.
—–. Early Works. Ed. Arnold Rampersad. New York: Library of America, 1991.
—–. “Long Black Song.” Uncle Tom’s Children. 1940. New York: Harper, 1965, 103-28.
—–. The Long Dream, 1958. New York: Harper, 1987.
—–. Native Son. 1940. New York: Harper, 1966.
—–. Pagan Spain. New York: Harper, 1957.
Yoshinobu Hakutani is Professor of English at Kent Slate University. His books include Richard Wright and Racial Discourse, Critical Essays on Richard Wright, The City in African-American Literature (with Robert J. Butter), and Selected Magazine Articles of Theodore Dreiser: Life and Art in the American 1890s, which won a Choice award in 1987.
COPYRIGHT 1996 African American Review
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group