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Wright, Ellison, Baldwin: Literary Voices of the Pre-Civil Rights Era

by Jessica Teisch
courtesy of Bookmarks Magazine

In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. Du Bois predicted that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” Jim Crow laws, Ku Klux Klan lynchings, the “separate but equal” doctrine, and the 1919 Chicago and 1943 Detroit riots anticipated the Harlem, Watts, and Detroit riots of the mid-’60s. They reaffirmed the racial bigotry of the previous century and reflected the general exclusion of blacks from the promises of the American dream, particularly in the South. But the post-war era also marked a time of unprecedented hostility toward racial segregation. In the mid-1950s, resistance to the second-class status of African Americans led to acts of civil disobedience, protests, marches, freedom rides, and successful challenges to the court.

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

On the eve of the Civil Rights era, a new generation of writers raised their voices against more than 100 years of injustices, the extant “problem of the color-line,” and the glimmering promise of equality. As early as 1940, Native Son made Southern-born author Richard Wright the “father of black American literature.” His “protest” novel exposed the bleakness and violence of America’s Jim Crow culture and, as critic Irving Howe noted, “prepared the way for the Negro writers to come” (Dissent, Autumn 1963). Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin followed. Both offered alternatives to Wright’s protest fiction and depiction of the “brute Negro.” Through their different approaches, these novelists, playwrights, and essayists explored their relationships to themselves, their communities, and a larger America. They confronted black culture, the “invisibility” of the self, and racial politics. In so doing, they inspired a generation of Civil Rights activists and leaders.



Wright was perhaps the most influential African-American writer of the pre-Civil Rights era. Native Son catapulted black leaders to action and introduced whites to a black culture no longer characterized by “mammy.” His novel–as well as his protest poetry of the 1930s–adhered to the idea that violence defined and crippled black culture. “No American Negro exists,” he wrote, “who does not have his private Bigger Thomas [from Native Son] living in the skull.” Wright’s work, which presaged the Black Arts Movement of the ’60s, shaped a younger generation of black writers. It also helped move “black” literature from the Harlem Renaissance into the Civil Rights era.

Born on a Mississippi plantation to an illiterate share-cropper father and schoolteacher mother, Wright wrote from a culture maimed by extreme poverty and oppression. Although he never graduated from high school, he read avidly. During the Great Depression, he worked at odd jobs in Chicago, where he became a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. He also researched Chicago’s “Black Belt” for the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project, which provided important background for Native Son. In 1937 he moved to New York to become the Harlem editor of the Daily Worker and start New Challenge magazine. Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), a collection of four stories about black Southern males, launched his career, just after his first marriage to a Russian-Jewish ballet dancer failed. A Guggenheim Fellowship allowed him to complete his masterpiece, Native Son. In 1946, with his second wife, a white member of the Communist Party (which Wright had abandoned in 1942, though he failed to escape an FBI investigation), he moved to Paris. He joined Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus‘s literary circle and, in 1947, became a French citizen. He continued to write novels, two autobiographies, and collections of sociological essays about his political activities in Asia, Africa, and Europe until his death.

  • The Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, #20
  • Book-of-the-Month Club Selection (First Black Writer)
  • NAACP Springarn Medal, 1941

Native Son, a work of brutal naturalism that denounced the prejudiced society that led African-Americans into violence and crime, sold 215,000 copies in its first three weeks of publication. It made Wright the wealthiest black writer and established him as the spokesman for African-American issues. Using a controversial, unsympathetic “brute Negro” to portray his experiences in the Jim Crow South and Chicago, he showed the constant presence of racism, violence, and debasement in black culture.

THE STORY: Racial injustices, poverty, and hopelessness shape Bigger Thomas, a 19-year-old black man living in Chicago in the 1930s. When, as chauffeur to a wealthy white family, he panics and accidentally kills the daughter, he is tried and sentenced to death. “‘I didn’t want to kill,’ Bigger shouted. ‘But what I killed for, I am! It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill!'” As he turns more violent, the environment that created Bigger threatens to produce more of him.



Ralph Ellison developed a new form of literary modernism. Influenced by his strong black community and interest in blues, jazz, and cultural traditions, he used metaphors to explore his major theme: humankind’s universal search for identity. “To think that a writer must think about his Negroness is to fall into a trap,” he said (New York Times, 11/20/66). Called a “militant integrationist” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Ellison rejected Wright’s portrait of a downtrodden, oppressed black culture. Instead, his international bestseller Invisible Man (1952) introduced a self-aware, sophisticated protagonist shaped by unique black traditions and part of a larger America. Above all, Ellison considered himself an artist. By endowing his characters and scenes with an eloquence denied in previous “black” fiction, he tried to fulfill his responsibility as an American Novelist. Ellison grew up in a poor but close-knit black community in Oklahoma City, a place that offered more possibilities to blacks than Wright’s Mississippi. “Anything and everything,” he wrote in Shadow and Act (1964), “was to be found in the chaos of Oklahoma; thus the concept of the Renaissance Man has lurked long within the shadow of my past.” He pursued a career in classical music at the Tuskegee Institute between 1933 and 1936, but turned to modern literature. In 1936, he moved to New York City to study sculpture, where he met Langston Hughes and Wright, who involved him in the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project working on African-American speech patterns. In the mid-1940s, after publishing several short stories, he began Invisible Man. Fire destroyed his long-anticipated second novel in 1967. In the decades following Invisible Man‘s great success, he taught at Bard, Rutgers, and Yale. He received the National Medal of Freedom Award in 1969 and National Medal of Arts in 1985. He died in New York before completing his second novel, Juneteenth.

  • National Book Award, 1953 (First Black Writer)
  • The Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, #19

Written during the McCarthy era, this escapist novel remained on the bestseller list for 16 weeks. It established Ellison as a key American writer, but one who refused to make art serve politics. “How,” Irving Howe asked, “could a Negro put pen to paper…without some impulsion to protest”(Dissent, Autumn 1963)? Others defended Ellison’s approach. While Saul Bellow conceded that black writers addressed their problems just as Jews and Italians did, he argued that if Ellison had adopted a minority tone, “he would have failed to establish a true middle-of-consciousness for everyone” (Commentary, 6/52). The National Book Award jury conceded that everyone is, in fact, invisible. The novel’s concluding remark: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

THE STORY: A nameless black narrator, educated but native, leaves his Southern home after being expelled from his all-black college. As he encounters New York City’s dan-gerous freedoms, he becomes “invisible.” “Some [whites] were friendly and some were not,” he says. “Still I felt that even when they were polite they hardly saw me.” He allows different people, from duplicitous members of the Brotherhood (Communist Party) to black nationalists, to shape him. When he escapes from a riot in Harlem, he discovers that he must look to his heritage for his own “infinite possibilities.”



Baldwin began his career under Wright’s shadow. While admitting that Wright paved the way for modern black literature, he criticized his naturalistic protest fiction, which presented an absolute black culture trapped by its own violence. Instead, Baldwin portrayed a diverse and rich African-American culture that, even when deprived, rejoiced in its common humanity. Rather than writing from a direct political viewpoint, he gave his subjects a spiritual and psychological freedom lacking in Native Son. Perhaps, for this reason, Baldwin was the most popular black literary voice with both black and white audiences between the mid-1950s and ’60s. The eldest of nine children, Baldwin was born in Harlem to a domestic worker mother and an unknown father. He became a preacher at age 14. “Those three years at the pulpit,” he later recalled, “…that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty.” After graduating from high school, he took several odd jobs, started to write full time, and moved to New York. With the help of Wright, whom he met while living in Greenwich Village, Baldwin secured a grant and began to publish essays and book reviews. His open homosexuality, a friend’s suicide, and racism spurred a move to France in 1948. His semi-autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) received excellent reviews. Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Giovanni’s Room (1956) followed, though his homosexual and interracial themes drew criticism. When he returned in 1957 to teach (and live half-time) in New York City, he became involved in the Civil Rights movement, resulting in a 1,750-page FBI file on him. His pacifist stance and call for universal brotherhood, which, in Eldridge Cleaver’s words exhibited an “agonizing, total hatred of blacks,” inspired Fire Next Time (1963). After the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, Baldwin returned to France, where he continued to write until his death.

  • The Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, #39

Baldwin remarked, “Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” He based his first novel on his experiences as a teenage preacher in a Pentecostal church in Harlem in the 1930s. The novel discusses racial conflicts, but focuses more on religious fanaticism, a family’s psychological problems, the black migration from the rural South to the urban North, and the way Americans understand their lives.

THE STORY: The stepson of a preacher of a storefront revivalist church in Harlem, John Grimes is a religious, sensitive, and smart 14-year-old who expects that he’ll become a minister. Yet repressive Calvinism, family secrets, and fights with his brutal stepfather lead to a painful self-realization over the course of one day. They also create new possibilities: “He was filled with a joy, a joy unspeakable, whose roots, though he would not trace them on this new day of his life, were nourished by the wellspring of a despair not yet discovered.”

This abridged article provided courtesy of BookMarks Magazine. All rights reserved. For more information on the magazine, please visit their website.)


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