“…Our history is far stranger than you suspect, and we are not what we seem” –Richard Wright
This year marks the 70th Anniversary of the publication of 12 Million Black Voices. Being that it is Black History Month, I feel as though now would be a good time to reflect on this work from not only one of Black America’s greatest writer’s but among the greatest American writer’s of the 20th century. The 1941 book is a chronicle of the realities of the African-American experience from the vantage point of the masses of the people. As the subtitle states, this work is a folk history of Black America.
Entailing African American history from Jamestown to the Great Migration, Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices is a work of great scope. It alludes to history in beautiful prose, and characterized social forces in a creative way. He describes how Black people were caught between the indifferent relations of the North and the overbearing Jim Crow system in the South. Wright who himself left Mississippi for Chicago, captures many of the reasons this took place. All the factors are discussed in the text, from the rise of industrialized farming that eliminated the need for sharecroppers to the confining race caste system that millions would flee over the course of six decades.
Wright does not pull any punches in describing urban conditions either. In fact, he outlines what the Black migrants faced in the North. This was better than being in the South, but it wasn’t paradise. He mentions kitchenettes, which would today be known as the matchbox apartments in far too many tenement buildings.
I would be remiss if I did not make mention of the pictures that accompany the text of this classic work. These photos were taken during the Depression by the Farm Security Administration and are preserved in the Library of Congress. In fact this book represents a synthesis of the work of writers and photographers commissioned to document the conditions of America at the time. Wright, who was a part of the Federal Writer’s Program used the access to FSA files to bolster his historical narrative. The photos depict rural poverty, the social caste system and the social lives of those in the so called “silent generation” Although they are at times difficult to look at, it is a vital thing to see what things were like back then.
This book is an uncompromising look into the condition of Black America of almost three generations ago. My second time re-reading it, I pick up on new things each time. As important as I feel this book is, I have to end this by saying that conditions are not as stark today as they were 70 years ago. There are no more “riding bosses” , and the old model Jim Crow is no more. However, I think we must be careful not to be driven back into those conditions. This is exactly what this current push for austerity coming from the federal government and the states threaten. If we don’t watch ourselves, we will be back to the squalid conditions of the late 1930’s, just with modern technology. Who cares if you have the latest I-pod if you can’t have a warm house in the winter? We should not allow things to revert to the point where our grandparents and our lives look similar.
We need to remember, so we won’t go backwards. This book is a scant 4 chapters, and comes in at just under 150 pages. Get it for cheap online. Or get it from the library. There is so much more in this book, including a nice breakdown of the origins of “Negro Dialect”. Don’t feel compelled to read it this month. (It was actually published in Oct of ’41) But don’t skip out on a classic. There are far more reviews out there, but I felt the need to drop this one for the folks reading this blog. This one I must say is one which influenced me a great deal. I feel as though it will influence you as well. For more information on Richard Wright, consult the links below. Peace.
P.S. I think we should revive the use of the term gangster-politician. It’s so descriptive of what we have to this day. #yeahIsaidit