The legendary James Baldwin and Richard Wright notoriously never saw eye-to-eye on what it means to be Black in America. These two authors have fostered some of our most memorable, nostalgic, and liberating moments by telling stories that we emotionally connect to, however, they fundamentally disagreed on how to talk about the Black experience.
Baldwin and Wright are both world-renowned best-selling authors who articulated the plight of African-Americans in their work. Each writer’s unique perspective has contributed to the diversity of voices represented within Black literature. However, these two had serious “beef.” Baldwin despised how Wright characterized the Black community in his famous novel “Native Son” so much so that he wrote an entire book of criticism called “Notes of a Native Son” detesting Wright’s work.
Baldwin’s main critique of “Native Son” was that it reinforced dangerous racial stereotypes about Black people. He argued that Wright used these disgusting depictions of Blacks to appease his white audience and sell more books. In essence, Wright “sold out” his own community by giving his characters stereotypical traits to make them palatable for whites in hopes to elicit their sympathy. Bigger Thomas, the story’s protagonist, was a murderer and rapist motivated by animal-like impulses while his supporting characters were petty criminals, mammies, and Negroes satisfied with an average life in the ghetto.
According to Baldwin, “Native Son” stripped Black people of our humanity in a time when we needed to be affirming our humanity the most. Baldwin even compared the damage done by “Native Son” to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which famously degraded Blacks and made us appear subservient to whites. The difference being Wright is a Black writer perpetuating these negative images, which arguably is even more problematic.
Representation matters in more than just novels, and that is why Baldwin took the time to address Wright. He understood that these were more than mere words on a page; these words carried consequences. If Blacks are perpetually portrayed as urban, criminal, lazy, and aggressive, people may truly believe that all Blacks fit those descriptions. This leads to a public that devalues the lives of Blacks and sees us as expendable. And ultimately, Baldwin believed Wright contributed to these destructive narratives.
Who was right – Baldwin or Wright? Were Baldwin’s criticisms warranted? Was Wright simply reflecting his authentic experiences?
What we know for certain is Black people have a collective image that nobody is going to protect but us. Although this image is highly influenced by books, music, movies, and even popular culture, we as individuals each have the power to contribute to ensuring it remains positive. Our words and actions can either uplift or tear down barriers created by racial stereotypes so we must choose them wisely.