Nearly 80 years ago, Richard Wright became one of the most famous Black writers in the United States with the publication of Native Son, a novel whose searing critique of systemic racism made it a best-seller and inspired a generation of Black writers. In 1941, Wright wrote a new novel titled The Man Who Lived Underground, but publishers refused to release it, in part because the book was filled with graphic descriptions of police brutality by white officers against a Black man. His manuscript was largely forgotten until his daughter Julia Wright unearthed it at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. The Man Who Lived Underground was not published in the 1940s because white publishers did not want to highlight “white supremacist police violence upon a Black man because it was too close to home,” says Julia Wright. “It’s a bit like lifting the stone and not wanting the worms, the racist worms underneath, to be seen.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: “Old Man River,” sung by Paul Robeson, who had his passport taken by the U.S. government, who was blacklisted in this country and was a friend of Richard Wright. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. By the way, you can watch, listen and read transcripts using our iOS and Android apps. Download them for free from the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store today.
Over 80 years ago, Richard Wright became one of the most famous Black writers in the United States with the publication of his novel Native Son. It sold over 200,000 copies in the first three weeks and inspired a generation of Black writers. Amiri Baraka once said, quote, “Wright was one of the people who made me conscious of the need to struggle.”
In 1941, Richard Wright wrote a follow-up novel titled The Man Who Lived Underground. It’s centered on a Black man who is forced to live in a city sewer system after being brutalized by white police officers who tortured him until he falsely admitted to murdering a white couple. But publishers rejected Wright’s book. Portions of the book were turned into a short story of the same name, but the full novel, including the graphic descriptions of police brutality, went unpublished — until now.
Richard Wright once said of the novel, quote, “I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from sheer inspiration or executed any piece of writing in a deeper feeling of imaginative freedom, or expressed myself in a way that flowed more naturally from my own personal background, reading, experiences and feelings.”
But his manuscript was largely forgotten, until his daughter, Julia Wright, unearthed it at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University and worked with the Library of America to have the book finally published, nearly 80 years after it was written and 60 years after Richard Wright died at the age of 52 in Paris, where he had taken his family to live since 1946.
Julia Wright is joining us now from Portugal, a longtime anti-death penalty activist, supporter of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and is writing a biography of her father. She is the executrix of his estate.
We welcome you back to Democracy Now!, Julia. It’s great to have you back after all of these years. Can you talk about the significance of what you found and how you finally have had it published?
JULIA WRIGHT: Thank you, Amy, for having me back on the show.
Yes, it was a very exciting discovery. I was living in Paris at the end of the ’90s and during the early years of 2000, and I was learning the ropes of the estate with my mother Ellen. I was also freelancing as a journalist there. And the time came, after my mother’s death, to publish another work by my father.
So, since I would travel to the United States to visit death row and visit death row prisoners there, like Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose human rights were being so systematically violated, I would take the plane, land in the United States, go through cities like New York or Philly, Philadelphia, and go to death row. But on my way to death row, I would encounter another type of death sentence. And that is the shootings of unarmed Black and Brown people in our streets, also of vulnerable minorities like mentally challenged people. And I remember being absolutely shocked, for instance, by what happened to James Byrd down in Texas, who was dragged behind a white — I believe there were three of them, three white supremacists’ van, until he was dismembered, alive, while he was still alive. I remember Abner Louima in New York and his sodomization. I remember in those years —
AMY GOODMAN: By police.
JULIA WRIGHT: — as I was going to death row — yes, absolutely, by the police, always by the police. And also I remember Amadou Diallo, shot by the police 40 times, not because he was the one suspected of rape — it was somebody else — but he was a convenient Black target.
So, when I got to Yale and to Beinecke and — I have this memory of entering this very plush, comfortable, air-conditioned library in July of 2010 to look for a manuscript to publish. And I saw the long version of The Man Who Lived Underground. It leapt out at me as — I don’t know what to say. A time bomb? A time machine? Something that had to be published yesterday. I was so driven about it that I took it back to Paris and approached Library of America by — well, in those days, it was still fax. And that’s how the idea began.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about — talk about the book. Talk about the descriptions of police violence. Talk about the man who went underground, who lived in the sewer system. Again, it was published as a short story but not as a book, because the publishers didn’t want those graphic descriptions.
JULIA WRIGHT: The publishers, who were white — it was controlled, white-controlled — did not want those descriptions of white supremacist police violence upon a Black man, because it was too close to home. As one editor who rejected the long version of the manuscript said, it is “too unbearable,” quote-unquote, “too untenable, too uncomfortable.” It’s a bit like, you know, lifting the stone and not wanting the worms, the racist worms underneath, to be seen.
Very interestingly, Kevin Powell, a New York writer, very promising writer, commented on the long version the other day: What if those first 50 pages on police brutality had been accepted back in the day? All the discourse around that narrative that would have taken place all those years ago would perhaps have changed something. But it didn’t.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a quote from The Man Who Lived Underground, your father’s book. He says, “Outside of time and space, he looked down upon the earth and saw that each fleeting day was a day of dying, that men died slowly with each passing moment as much as they did in war, that human grief and sorrow were utterly insufficient to this vast, dreary spectacle.” And I’m thinking about the time we live in, Julia, right now, as you look across the Atlantic at your country, the United States, what happened to George Floyd last year, the police murder of George Floyd, and then the trial. Your thoughts?
JULIA WRIGHT: My thoughts about the video that was taken by Darnella Frazier, such a young girl, fearlessly, even while she was being threatened, is a central, fundamental thing to our culture, because, as Benjamin Crump said, as she did it, she recaptured part of our narrative that escaped us. And that narrative is the narrative of our death, because that goes back to slavery. It goes back to the lynchings. It goes back to Black Boy chapter two, when Richard, aged 8 or 9, realizes that the grown-ups who were whispering above him are whispering about the lynching of his uncle, Silas Hoskins. And he doesn’t understand. He wonders where the body is. He wonders why there are no flowers, why there’s no funeral. And he says to his mother, “Why didn’t we do anything about it?” And those words reverberate through all these decades and seem to have reached Darnella as she filmed George Floyd’s last moments. She did something about it. She filmed his last moments. She gave us a new narrative.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Julia Wright, the daughter of the literary giant Richard Wright, so famous for his books Native Son and Black Boy. In 1951, Richard Wright actually starred in a film version of Native Son. He played the main character, Bigger Thomas. This is just a clip from the trailer.
BIGGER THOMAS: [played by Richard Wright] All my life I heard of Black men being killed because of white girls. And there I was.
BESSIE MEARS: [played by Gloria Madison] Darling, give up. It might make it easier.
BIGGER THOMAS: I felt free and wasn’t scared no more. I was back home again. And there was my father the white folks had killed when I was a kid.
MAX: [played by Don Dean] How can I help you now?
BIGGER THOMAS: You don’t have to help me, Mr. Max. Go home. Now you can hate me like the others.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, that is Richard Wright playing Bigger Thomas in the film version of his book, the blockbuster best-seller at the time, Native Son, and then his kind of literary biography, Black Boy. Julia, especially for the younger generation, if you could give us a thumbnail biography of your father, of where your father grew up, how he moved north, how he wrote these books, and ultimately — I don’t know if you’d describe it as fleed, but fled the United States with you and your mother — right? — fled New York, fled the racism, as James Baldwin would do later, and ended up in Paris?
JULIA WRIGHT: Difficult. Because I’m so close to what he did, I don’t have that bird’s-eye view that I would like to have. But I would say that maybe he would prefer the word “expatriate” to “exile,” and he would prefer the word “escape” to “flight,” because they’re more active words, and he thought of himself as more endowed with agency as time went on. Everything he did was to gain more freedom in his ability to create. You showed a clip of the film he invested so much of his energy into — writing, co-writing the script, being part producer of, acting Bigger. And in the end, that film was censored, because it came out during McCarthyism. That was one of the reasons why he could not stay and create freely in a land where the pages he wrote about police brutality would be dismembered from his book, a bit in the way James Byrd would be dismembered. I mean, I use the word a bit violently, but, in a way, it is the same thing. He needed freedom, in all senses, in all meanings of the term. And so he went where he felt he could find it.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, if you could talk about what he experienced here; also the HUAC hearings, watching Paul Robeson being destroyed by the U.S. government, this enormous talent, this giant figure, them taking his passport, the anti-communist fervor of the time; not wanting the FBI to come to try to get him to spy on his colleagues; his relationships with James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison and Paul Robeson; the significance of this period?
JULIA WRIGHT: It was the Cold War. And culture, academics, writers were used in the Cold War against one another. It was a terrible cloak-and-dagger period, but it was to the death, to the death of creativity, but also to the death of life. It was terrible. I remember my father’s best friend, Ollie Harrington, who was a member of the CPUSA and the creator of Bootsie, the cartoon —
AMY GOODMAN: The Communist Party U.S.A.
JULIA WRIGHT: Yes, yes, yes. And he was the creator of Bootsie, a very famous cartoon. And he was my father’s best friend to the end. My father used to tell Ollie, “Ollie, the apartment is bugged. It’s bugged.” And Ollie used to laugh at my father. This was in Paris, at the end, during his [inaudible] here.
AMY GOODMAN: Julia, we just have 20 seconds.
JULIA WRIGHT: And Ollie would laugh and say, “No. No way. You’re being paranoid, Richard.” But Richard insisted, so Ollie brought technicians in. And they found bugs. So —
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to — we have to leave it there, but people can pick up this latest book of the great literary giant Richard Wright. Thank you so much to his daughter, Julia Wright. The Man Who Lived Underground, just published. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.