As an avid reader, I take every opportunity to point people toward a cadre of writers that are relevant to not only a universal audience, but more importantly a Black audience. So I feel compelled to tell this story about Richard Wright, undoubtedly one of the greatest novelist, regardless of race or language, to ever exist, on the anniversary of his death.
One of the more consistent refrains that you will hear thrown out into the public is that we must teach our children their history. Although I agree that African-American children learning the history of their ancestors is a pre-requisite to “the liberation and salvation of the Black nation,” I have come to understand that the need for historical knowledge does not stop there. There are droves of adults/elders within our community that are operating within what can be best termed multiple interlocking illiteracies: educational, cultural, social, historical, and political. One of the most often unspoken realities is that many of these individuals are actually in charge of teaching or leading our people in educational endeavors. I am certain that you may be thinking that such is impossible; however, I would like to share with you a story that will illuminate my point.
One of the more frustrating duties that I am required to perform as a college professor includes serving on myriad committees; predictably, I always serve on the university committee charged with selecting the keynote address speaker for the annual Black History Month event that occurs on my campus. Of all the committees that I participate on, this is by far my most enjoyable as I can not only see the fruits of my labor, but also it permits me to have a voice in selecting the voice that our university community will hear during this annual event. Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West, and Dick Gregory are a few of the individuals who have graced the stage for this program.
The combination of my actually enjoying this committee assignment and the reality that those selected for this duty are supposed to be conversant in Black Studies sent my emotions and expectations soaring to rare heights, unfortunately, they would not only crash to earth, but also lead me to view so-called enlightened Black educators through a different lens. The events occurred as follows.
After everyone had arrived and been seated at the meeting and all of the pleasantries were shared, the matter of who would we like to be this year’s keynote address speaker arose. One particular professor, an older brother who taught in the Art department, eagerly jumped in with a question of “what is it the 65th anniversary of?” I was a bit taken aback when I was the only one who realized that it was the 65th anniversary of the publishing of Richard Wright’s, Black Boy. Without any debate regarding the matter, this room full of Ph.D.’s and academic administrators agreed with this particular individuals aggressive suggestion that Wright would be a suitable individual to bring to our campus. I was aghast!
My concern turned to incredulous disbelief as I heard these degree holding Negroes, notice that I did not use the word educated, pledge $3,000 – $5,000 of their departmental budget for the event. Not only was the process swift, but also completed within 5 minutes. Someone even joked, “now this is the pace that I like to see a meet conducted,” as they rose to leave the room.
My mind was quite simply blown! Here I was sitting in the midst of so-called ‘educated people’ with multiple degrees, million dollar academic budgets, and real decision-making power in regards to the curricular content and the direction that the next generation of Black minds should travel; and not a single one of them realized that Richard Wright had died 50 years prior.
Although I was partially amused at the entire scene and would have liked to listened in on the obligatory call to Mr. Wright, or his representatives, regarding his delivering the keynote address to that year’s Black History Month. I could not restrain my laughter any longer and began to laugh hysterically. Everyone turned to see what was so funny. It was then that the following exchange occurred with a campus religious leader.
Me: Do you talk to God on a daily basis?
Preacher: Most certainly brother Jones! Is there something that you need for me to speak with him about on your behalf?
Me: Is he still in the miracle business?
Preacher: Yes, sir! He is an on time God. Is there something that you would like for me to issue a petition to the Lord regarding?
Me: Yes, sir! When you talk to God tonight tell him that he is going to need to go into his old time bag of tricks and breath life back into Richard Wright, like he did with Lazarus. And while he’s at it, have him raise Malcolm and Martin as well. That would really set our Black History Month celebration out.
It was only then that a few of the others in the room began to shake their heads. A few still failed to understand what I was attempting to tell them. So I was finally forced to reveal to them that Richard Wright died in 1960. I could not help but laugh as I asked them, “When was the last time you read something by Richard Wright? Saw him in an interview? Speak publicly about Black Boy or Native Son?” As expected, these Negroes had the audacity to get mad at me regarding their collective ignorance.
With today November 28, 2014, being the anniversary of Richard Wrights death, I think that it critically important that we all, including those educated Negroes who sit on high issuing dictates regarding the future direction of the race, reflect upon not only writings of Richard Wright, but also other intellectuals (James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, J. California Cooper, Maya Angelou, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Anna Julia Cooper, Frederick Douglass, David Walker, Maria Stewart, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Marcus Garvey, Claude Anderson, Huey P. Newton, Assata Shakur, Claude McKay, Kwame Nkrumah, John Henrik Clarke, Nikki Giovanni, Pearl Cleage, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, etc.) who have illuminated a path to liberation for our people. I think that it is critical that persons of African, regardless of their profession — factory worker, day care worker, politician, educator, etc. — develop a politicized mind that informs the necessary steps to liberation for the masses of Black folk. The failure to do so, regardless of the degrees that you have received, may very well leave you looking like a fool before the rest of the world, especially the politicized individuals within your own race.
Rest in peace, Richard Wright; despite the ignorance of a chosen few, the brother is most certainly resting with the ancestors, albeit shaking his head at the ignorance of our so-called educated class.
James Thomas Jones III, Ph.D., M.A., M.A.