As part of an online discussion we are using as a reference an essay written by Richard Wright (Native Son), “The Blueprint for Negro Writing (other websites replace the word “Writing” for “Literature”). We invite you to visit the link below and then please read each of the selected segments which we’ll cover in our discussion.
Here are a few selections of Wright’s requirements for his blueprint which may be discussed.
4. Social Consciousness and the New Responsibility
Naturally, all of this places upon Negro writers, who seek to function within their race as purposeful agents, a new and fearful responsibility. In order to do justice to their 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.
Every short story, novel, poem, and play should carry within its lines, implied or explicit, a sense of the oppression of the Negro people, the danger of war, of fascism, of the threatened destruction of culture and civilization; and, too, the faith and necessity to build a new world.With the gradual decline of the moral authority of the Negro church, and the increasing irresolution which is paralyzing Negro middle-class leadership, there is devolving upon Negro writers this new role. They are being called upon to do no less than create values by which their race is to struggle, live and die. They are being called upon to furnish moral sanctions for action, to give a meaning to blighted lives, and to supply motives for mass movements of millions of people.
By their ability to fuse and make articulate the experience of men, because their art possesses the cunning to steal into the inmost recesses of the human heart, because they can create the myths and symbols that inspire a faith in life, they may expect to either to be consigned to oblivion by the silent judgment of workers who ignore their writing, or to be recognized for the valued agents that they are.
For the creation of a vigorous and forthright literature, the historical tide is running with Negro writers today. Electric and basic changes in social and economic conditions foreshadow commensurate changes in the arts. Since the World War a great many disturbances have broken the slumber of the Negro people. The period of migration, the boom, the Depression, the struggle for unionism, all these have created conditions which should complement the rise of a school of expression. The millions whose lives have been touched or moulded by these forces constitute an audience. The question no longer is will they respond, but can the need be filled. They are hungry for food of more than one kind.
This mandate, and it is nothing than that, raises the inescapable question of the personality of the writer. It means that in the lives of Negro writers must be found those materials and experiences which will create in them a meaningful and significant picture of the world today. Many young writers have grown to believe that a Marxist analysis of society presents such a picture. It creates a picture which, when placed squarely before the eyes of the writer, should unify his personality, organize his emotions, and buttress him with a tense and obdurate will to change the world.
And yet, for the writer, Marxism is but the starting point. No theory of life can take the place of life. After Marxism has laid bare the skeleton of society, there remains the task of the writer to plant flesh upon those bones out of the plenitude of his will to live. He may, with disgust and revulsion, say no and depict the horrors of capitalism encroaching upon the human being. Or he may, with hope and passion, say yes and depict the faint stirrings of a new and emerging life.
But in whatever social voice he chooses to speak, whether positive or negative, there should always be heard or overheard his faith his necessity. And this faith and necessity should not be simple or rendered in primer-like terms; for the life of the Negro people is not simple as some dyspeptic intellectuals contend. The presentation of their lives, should be simple, yes; but all the complexity, the strangeness, the magic wonder of life that plays like a bright sheen over even the most sordid existence, should be there.
To borrow a phrase from the Russians, it should have a complex simplicity. Eliot, Stein, Joyce, Hemingway, and Anderson; Gorky, Barbusse, Nexo, and Jack London no less than the folklore of the Negro himself form the heritage of Negro writers. Every iota of gain in human sensibility and thought should be ready grist for their mill, no matter how far-fetched they may seem in their immediate implications. It would be a sad brigade of Negro writers who would be afraid of this; and it would be a limited consciousness that could not assimilate these influences.
6. Subject Matter and Theme
Once perspective has been gained, Negro writers face a new landscape of subject matter. Negro politicians and the social forces that shape their characters; Negro leaders and the tactics they employ in satisfying both the masses of their race who long for freedom and the whites who place them in positions of authority; the thousands of juvenile delinquents upon the streets of Chicago’s South Side and New York’s Harlem; the role of sluggish reaction Negro teachers play in moulding the minds of the young; Negro women who carry the triple burden of their sex, of their race, and of their class; the maneuverings of that vulture breed called the Negro lawyer; the strange doings of that sainted devil, the Negro preacher; the two million black John Does who trekked North in 1917; the battled thoughts of that Negro woman social worker who works in the slum areas of her race; and that sixteen-year-old Negro girl reading the True Story Magazine; all constitute a landscaping teeming with questions and meaning.
If this is the Negro writers’ subject matter, then it must be marshaled toward some goal, some critique; it must be linked with the imaginative representations of the rest of mankind. Negro writing must be placed somewhere in historical space and time; in short, it must have a theme.
This does not mean that Negro writers’ sole concern must be with rendering the social scene; but if their conception of the life of their people is broad and deep enough, if the sense of the whole life they are seeking is vivid and strong in them, then their writing will embrace all these social forms under which the life of their people is manifest.
And in speaking of theme, one must necessarily be general and abstract; the temperament of each writer moulds and colors the world he sees. Any one theme may be approached from a thousand angles, with no limit to technical and stylistic freedom. But at the core of the life of a people is one theme, one historic sense of life, one prismatic consciousness refracting aesthetic effort in a whirlwind of color.
Negro writers spring from a family, a clan, a class, and a nation; and the social units in which they are bound have a story, a record. Sense of theme will emerge in Negro writing when Negro writers try to fix this story about some pole of meaning, remembering as they do so that in the creative process meaning proceeds equally as much from the contemplation of the subject matter as from the hopes and apprehensions that rage in the heart of the writer.
Reduced to its simplest and most general terms, theme for Negro writers will rise from their understanding of their being transplanted from a “savage” to a “civilized” culture in all of its social, political, economic, and emotional aspects. It means that Negro writers must have in their consciousness the foreshortened picture of the whole nourishing culture from which they were torn in Africa, and the long, complex (and for the most part unconscious) struggle to regain in some form and under alien conditions of life a whole culture again.
And not only does this mean that they must have this picture, but also a knowledge of the social and emotional milieu that give it tone and solidity of detail. Theme for Negro writers will emerge when they have begun to feel the meaning of the history of their race as though they in one lifetime had lived it themselves throughout all the long centuries.
7. The Problem of Judgment and Criticism
As can be seen from the Negro writer’s subject matter and theme, his rebellion will be not only against the exploiting whites, but against all of that within his own race that retards decisive action and obscures clarity of vision. And his loyalties will be toward all those forces which help to shape the consciousness of his race toward a more heroic cast. His will be the task to arrange into significant artistic patterns all the experiences of his people, those experiences which converge toward death as well as those that converge toward life, and stamp them with his judgment of hate or love.
Hitherto, a cowardly sentimentality has deterred Negro writers from launching crusades against the evils which Negro ignorance and stupidity have spawned. Negro writers should not hesitate to tell the truth about their people for fear of harming them, or for fear that these truths may be used by belligerent whites against them. The problem of judgment for Negro writers is bound up with the problem of their becoming whole men, human beings.
There is but one searchlight that can help Negro writers to walk along this rocky ledge, and that is the pitiless glare of a criticism whose frame of reference is historical, political, and economic as well as aesthetic. Over and above all their achievements, Negro writers should never feel that their goal has been reached; always ahead should be the sense of areas of experience to be conquered; problems to be framed, pondered and solved; always in them should reside the sense of becoming. And out of this sense will, should, grow the need for criticism.
Only when Negro writing is bathed in the white light of a constant and responsible criticism and only when that criticism has become the conscience of Negro writing, can it be said that Negro writing has come of age.
1. Do you think contemporary writers have followed Wright’s blueprint?
2. Should contemporary writers focus on entertaining their readers, educating them or both? Is there a middle ground?
3. What responsibility does the contemporary writer have when writing a book or a particular piece of work?
Please add your voice in the discussion. We would like to know what you have to say!