TOPIC 4(B) : LITERATURE ANALYSIS(NOVEL) – UNCLE TOM’S CHILDREN – literature in english form three notes
NALYSIS OF UNCLE TOM’S CHILDREN
By Richard Wright
About the Author
Richard Nathaniel Wright (1908 – 1960) was an American author of novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction.
Much of his literature concerns racial themes, especially related to the plight of African Americans during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, who suffered discrimination and violence in the South and the North.
Literary critics believe his work helped change race relations in the United States in the mid-20th century.
Background of the Novel
Uncle Tom’s Children is a novel written by African-American author Richard Wright that was first published in 1938 and republished in 1940. As the reader may recognize, Wright titled his book after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was published in 1852. Wright was an African-American author who also wrote a few other books that addressed the lives of non-white people. At first, Uncle Tom’s Children only had four novellas, but when it was republished, he added a nonfiction introduction and a fictional story to the end to make six parts of the book, which are “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” “Big Boy Leaves Home,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Long Black Song,” “Fire and Cloud,” and “Bright and Morning Star.”
The introductory essay “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” is a nonfiction piece that describes Wright’s own experiences when he was growing up in his segregated and highly racist world in the South. Not only did racial issues arise during his adolescence, but they continued throughout his adulthood as well. As a child, he couldn’t play games with white children, much less a “war game” that his peers enjoyed playing. When he could start working, he experienced much friction between himself and his coworkers, who would physically abuse him for trying to learn things that would promote his position. In this essay as well as the five other fictional stories, Wright exposes the hypocrisy in social norms regarding black and white ethnic differences that are established to tear down the self worth of and impose the inequality against people of color.
Racism in America
This is a collection of six short pieces. Here is a brief overview of each of these six essays and stories.
The Ethics of Living Jim Crow
As a Black man during the Jim Crow era, Wright describes what that time was like, what the effects of racism were on his childhood perception of reality. He remembers that when he used to play fighting games with his friends, he would get in trouble, but the white children played those games within their own group and no one ever complained. He was ostracized. He remembers that there were entire businesses where white men could use Black women for sex, but if a white prostitute was caught with a Black man, they would castrate or kill him. He says his life lacked the dignity he deserved during that era.
Big Boy Leaves Home
This story is about Big Boy and his friends who go down to swim at a local swimming hole. There is a white man who will not allow them to swim, but they strip naked and play in the water anyway. While naked, a white woman finds them and panics, thinking they will rape her, so she summons her husband Jim who shoots two of Big Boy’s friends, and Big Boy fights him, takes the rifle and kills Jim. Big Boy escapes his lynch mob, but Bobo has his skin melted by hot tar.
Down by the Riverside
There is a flood and a man named Mann has to take his family up a hill to survive it. His wife Lulu is in labor, so he sends his cousin, Bob, to sell the donkey and buy a boat, but Bob steals a boat and spends all the money, bringing only $15 back. Mann mans the stolen boat and takes his wife to a hospital, but a white man sees the boat and starts shooting at him—it was his boat. He returns fire and murders the man in front of an audience, trying to save his wife, but when he arrives at the hospital, she and the baby are dead. He runs to the hills to avoid the law, but he can’t get far. They shoot him down by the river.
Long Black Song
Sarah is a young Black woman whose husband, Silas, works selling cotton. Her baby keeps her busy, and she is waiting for her husband when a man comes to the door to sell her a graphophone. He rapes her in her own home and leaves the graphophone. The next day, Silas returns and violently beats his wife for sleeping with a white man, though she was literally raped. When the salesman returns to collect payment for the graphophone that Sarah rejected, Silas pistol-whips him and shoots him in the head. He is killed brutally by a mob and Sarah runs to the hills with her baby.
Fire and Cloud
Taylor is a preacher whose congregation is hungry. The government won’t provide assistance, and the community is starving. He tries to rally their efforts to gain leverage to get help from the authorities, but no one will listen. He tries the Communists, but they aren’t interested. Meanwhile, a deacon has planned a coup to overthrow his ministry. Taylor is lynched randomly by white men who torture him. He decides to march for freedom and for food, deciding that his suffering is representative of his community.
Bright and Morning Star
Sue’s sons are Communists. Sug is already imprisoned and is only mentioned. The other son is Johnny-Boy. The family replaced their Christian faith with Communism. Over dinner, Sue describes her distrust of white Communists. She thinks their vision for total utopia still leaves Black people disenfranchised. A white Communist named Booker exploits her for information, which she gives him, not knowing his is a spy. Johnny-Boy is captured by the police, and when the family finds the sheriff with Johnny-Boy in the woods, the police murder them in cold blood.
In Big Boy Leaves Home, we meet a character named Big Boy who goes swimming in a natural spring, but some white guy tells him that since he is there, that Big Boy and his friends must leave because they are Black and bothersome to the white man—but they stay and swim. A woman finds them skinny-dipping and has an extremely hateful moment of panic, calling her husband, telling him that they were going to rape her, so that he would shoot them. Big Boy overwhelms him and kills him.
Mann is a nice guy, basically, who wants to do the best he can for his family. But he has a stupid cousin who is a criminal and a liar, and when a flood prevents Mann from getting his pregnant wife to a hospital, he gives that cousin the resources to buy a boat, but instead, he blows the money and steals a boat. Well, then the boat owner mistakes Mann for the thief and start firing at him, so Mann kills him.
Bob is Farmer Mann’s dishonorable cousin who betrays the family by spending the family’s resources on himself while Mann’s wife is dying of labor complications. He doesn’t care about that, and he certainly isn’t going to a boat. He decides to simply steal one instead. It is because of his short-sighted and corrupt ways that Mann and his wife dies.
Sarah is a young black mother who is raped by a salesman. To make matters worse, the salesman leaves his wares with the shattered, injured woman, and tells her he will be back in the morning to confront her husband about payment. When Silas, Sarah’s husband, shows up, he puts two and two together, but instead of listening to his wife, he beats her violently as if she had purposefully gotten herself raped. Then, when the salesman returns, he murders the man, so Sarah flees to the mountain with her baby.
A hot-tempered man whose life is still a little too close to the cotton-fields for comfort, and he takes that frustration out on his wife in a moment of panic, not realizing the severity of his betrayal—his own wife was raped by an entitled, scummy salesman, and he treats her as if it is her fault. Then, when he kills that man, the community treats him like it was all his fault all along, and he is killed by an incredibly violent mob.
This preacher has been trying to organize some kind of rally to help end the Jim Crow era, but he can only find Communists to help him, and he’s smart enough to know they’re trying to trick his church into being like pawns for their broader strategies. He plays it cool and leaves, but randomly, he is kidnapped and tortured by racists. He feels this martyrdom has allowed him to understand the true severity of the issue, so he marches anyway.
Racism is a theme in the stories. It is clear that even though Black people were free from slavery, they were still treated with hostility. Jim Crow and segregation represent that white people were disgusted by Black people. Perhaps it is their guilty conscience or their fear of powerful people that make them so unanimously complicit. Of course the people in the book would rather choose the status quo of racism, because to admit the truth would be to admit their own evil and hatred, which is difficult, so they make use of their privilege. There is simply no good reason for racism, nor has there ever been.
The novel focuses a tremendous amount of its attention on injustice, pointing out logical fallacies in the judgments of the characters. This happens for white people and Black people alike, especially Bob, who is a tremendous symbol of injustice, because he betrays his own family to profit himself, and his willingness to do crime literally leads to the deaths of his “loved” ones. Otherwise, the novel focuses on white oppression in Jim Crow.
Hope and the future
Although the stories are brutal and violent, and desperately heartbreaking sometimes, the tone of the stories is actually quite resilient, because they highlight the absolute absurdity of racism, celebrating our progress since Jim Crow. That is obviously not an indication that racism doesn’t exist or anything, but there is a sense of hope in the future, especially in “Fire and Cloud,” where the violence is seen to be more than trauma—the heinous nature of racism and the pain of violence and torture bring Taylor some spiritual enlightenment. That’s where he finds his hope, by uniting his suffering to the suffering of his community.
Although the first story is technically a non-fiction essay, the reader should see it as the frame for the other five stories, of which one in particular stands out. There is the story “Fire and Cloud,” which serves as the major climax of the story collection. The last story, “Bright and Morning Star,” is almost like an epilogue, because it shows one other minor note, that although it might have made sense to partner with Communists during Jim Crow, they couldn’t even do that, because even the most liberal, utopic white people in town were still undeniably racist and openly hostile toward black people.
That shows that the problem truly isn’t racism. Racism is abominable, and it definitely defines the book, but the root problem of racism is disgust. Because white people exhibit disdain for black people in this book, the two communities are permanently separated. In “Long Black Song,” a white man rapes a black woman, and the husband is so disturbed by that, that he beats his own wife for getting raped—which is proof that at least sometimes, the hatred goes both ways. Therefore, if racism is to be fixed, then it must be fixed by tolerance and community, because only friendship can eliminate hatred and disgust.
The problem is that they are not perceiving the situation correctly in these stories. Each person is living a personal hell in the dysfunction and abuse of the Jim Crow era, which makes people extreme and frantic. So the stories have an epic quality, because they are about people who have their backs against the wall. No one can save a black person from racism, as Preacher Taylor discovers. By trying to overcome racism, he almost failed, but by becoming a victim of violence (he is randomly beaten by racists), he realizes that the true path to strength comes not in individual behavior, but in one’s ability to find community. With shared community, the horrors of racism and violence become passionate love within a family of people fighting for one another.
SYMBOLS, ALLEGORY AND MOTIFS
Big Boy’s decision
When Big Boy decides to strip naked with his buddies and go skinny dipping as they had planned, he does so despite a white man trying to intimidate them into leaving. Ultimately, he finds out that his friends’ lives are at stake, but his decision actually represents a kind of justice. It’s his way of saying that on God’s earth, all the animals are welcome. This is symbolized by their nakedness, as if they were just another breed animal making use of a natural body of water. In other words, the White man’s decision to harass them is an attempt to tell the Black kids that they are not even allowed in nature. Therefore, Big Boy’s decision is heroic, because who is that random white guy to tell them that their lives don’t even belong in nature?
There is a horrendous betrayal in the story Down by the Riverside that ends up with the whole family dying. Bob is given a donkey to sell so he can purchase a boat so his cousin Mann can take his wife to the hospital, because she’s dying of labor complications. But instead, Bob spends the money, steals a boat, and gets them all killed. This is a symbol representing the damage criminals inflict on their community. By being evil, they make everyone’s impression of Black people even more judgmental and unfair.
The symbolic betrayal of Sarah
Now, he’s another betrayal. It seems husbands can betray their wives by taking her suffering and playing the victim about it. That would hypothetically work backward as well, but in Long Black Song, Sarah is a literal rape victim. When her husband returns (whom she desperately loves and misses), he treats her like the villain, and he plays the victim and beats her. So not only is she raped, but her husband betrays her. He murders the man and gets himself killed, which leave Sarah and the Baby alone in the wilderness, another sign of betrayal.
The martyrdom of suffering
Preacher Taylor learns a lesson the hard way in Fire and Cloud. The beginning of the story is basically him trying to find the courage and strategy it would take to bring some real social change, but no one will help him, although some people lie to him and pretend they will help him. He is smart, so he sees through that, but he also sees something else—when he is beaten randomly by racists, he finds his courage. Having witnessed the pure terror of racism, he is now ready to face the challenges ahead of him, out of love for his community.
Communism as a motif
If Communism is a symbol in this book (it would be difficult to argue that it isn’t one), then the motif of the white Communists refusing to help Black people is a symbol for racism, because only racism would prevent a utopic person from realizing that, if one people group is complete subjugated to another by socioeconomic manipulation (AKA Jim Crow), then how could the theory of Communism be tenable? If Black people aren’t viewed as people, then the Communists feel no loyalty to extend their generous liberal philosophies to them. This symbolizes the ubiquity of racism.
METAPHORS AND SIMILES
The first element described in “Big Boy Leaves Home” is the train the main characters see and hear while they are resting on the grass. The children look at the train and imagine it traveling North. Through this assumption, the children think about the freedom the North offers, many black people knowing the North was a place where racism was not as harsh as in the south. Because of this, the North becomes used here as a metaphor for freedom and for the possibility of living a normal and happy life.
The white boat
The characters in “Down by the Riverside” find themselves in a desperate situation when the area where they are living is flooding. The two main characters, Mann and his wife Lulu, are also expecting a baby and Lulu found herself in labor for a few days without being able to deliver the baby. Because Mann was desperate, he agreed to row a stolen boat so he could take his pregnant wife to a hospital where she could get the medical help she needed. The white boat is used here as a metaphor, standing for the basic human rights the black people were denied for a long time in America. The boat represents the difference between life and death in Lulu’s case thus making it an essential element.
In “Long Black Song”, the main character, a woman named Sarah is raped by a white unnamed man who got into her house by claiming to want to sell her a gramophone. After the man raped Sarah, he left the gramophone in her house and told her he will be returning the next day to talk with her husband about selling the gramophone to them. The gramophone is used in this novella as a metaphor, standing for the way in which the white people abused the blacks for centuries. The gramophone also represents the way in which many white people saw their abuse as something which helped the black people evolve and as such something they were not responsible for.
In “Fire and Cloud”, the pastor Taylor tries to get enough food for his congregation to ensure their survival. To do this, he talks both with the Communists and with the police force which, once they find out Tyler was also looking talking with the Communists to get help, get extremely angry and beat the pastor. The suffering endured by Taylor is compared with the way in which Jesus Christ suffered before his death. This comparison has the purpose of showing that the causes were similar and that the two men were fighting for a noble cause.
Inside the woods
Most of the characters who die in the story do so in a forest or near one. The black characters who find their ending there are either lured in by someone from the outside or try to find refuge there. Because of these events, the forest is used as a metaphor for suffering and death.
In the introductory essay “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” the narrator talk about his experiences as a young man living in a segregated society. The narrator mentions prostitution and admits that many black women resorted to sleeping with men for money to sustain themselves and their families. If a black woman was discovered as selling sex for money, she would be punished by being beaten by the police force. Ironically, when the opposite were to take place, that is a white prostitute being discovered servicing a black man, the person who was punished was the black man. As the narrator point out, some of those black men even risked losing their lives for sleeping with a white prostitute.
Killed for trying to save their own lives
Many characters in the novellas are killed after they kill or beat up a white person. This is mentioned in the novellas “Big Boy Leaves Home” and “Long Black Song”, both stories describing the tragic deaths of the main black characters. What is ironic is that the characters kill the other white person or injure him in an attempt to try and protect their own lives. Often, the death of another black person is caused by the injured or killed white person and so the remaining black character has no other choice but to try and protect himself.
Saving the family of the man he killed
In “Down by the Riverside”, the main character, a man named Mann, kills a white man who sees Mann rowing in his stolen boat. As time passes by and the area in which Mann and the white killed person lived becomes flooded, Mann is tasked with saving a family on the outskirts of the town. Ironically, Mann soon realizes the family he is supposed to save is the family of the man he killed a little while before.
Asking the enemy for help
On “Fire and Cloud”, the main character, a preacher named Taylor, is desperately trying to find a way to get enough food to feed his congregation. First, Taylor goes looking for help at the government but he is quickly turn away and refused. Taylor then asks the communists for help, even offering his support in exchange. The reason why this is ironic is because the communists were seen by the government as the enemy. Thus, through this, Taylor tried to fraternize with the people seen as the enemy by his country.
The character Sue in “Bright and Morning Star” is described in beginning as being a communist and as replacing her former Christian faith with a belief in Communist. An ironic element is presented in the beginning of the novella where Sue is described as singing hymns when she was feeling stressed and desperate, thus proving Sue never gave up her Christian beliefs.
In every novella in the collection, there is at least one character who is a police officer and who is tasked with maintaining the peace. These officers are universally portrayed as being extremely violent, as abusing their power and as causing the death of the black characters. By portraying the police officers in a negative light, the narrator transmits the idea that the black people were in an extremely dire situation, risking being killed by the people who were tasked with protecting every other person except for them.
Giving up hope
In “Long Black Song”, the narrator describes Silas as a powerful man who refuses to accept he has no power over his life. Because of this, Silas does everything he can to provide for his family. His attitude changes drastically when he comes home one day to find his wife was raped by a white man. Upon learning about this, Silas transforms and gives up every shred of hope he had for the future. This loss of hope makes Silas act irrational which start a chain of events culminating in his death.
While the black community is portrayed as a whole as being abused by the white population, the black women suffer a lot more when compared to their male counterparts. Black women are portrayed as suffering both at the hands of the white people and at the hands of their own husbands who abuse them in a number of ways. Because of this, women are portrayed here as being the most disadvantaged and abused group.
Never losing hope
While most characters in the novellas as described as having given up on the possibility of a better life, there are still a few characters, like preacher Taylor, who refuse to accept they have to live a life filled with pain and suffering. Even though preacher Taylor is abused by the authorities, he continues to fight for what is right. The way in which preacher Taylor is portrayed is important because it shows that no matter the abuses which many blacks had to endure, there were still many who refused to give up hope, no matter what.
The book is a collection comprising of one critical essay and 5 novellas, each novella having a different plot and characters.
Setting and Context
The action described in the novellas takes place between 1930 and 1949 in unnamed cities and villages in the south.
Narrator and Point of View
The novellas are told from the perspective of a third person subjective point of view. The introductory essay however is told from the perspective of a first person subjective narrator, the author wanting to transmit through this piece of writing his own personal feelings and experience.
Tone and Mood
The tone and mood in the novella “Fire and Cloud” is a violent one, the narrator describing the violent way in which the main character was killed by the white people living in the same community as he did.
Protagonist and Antagonist
The protagonists in “Bright and Morning Star” are Sue and her sons and the antagonists are the police men who kill Sue and her family.
The major conflict in “Down by the Riverside” is between the will to live and the impossibility of getting health care because of the characters’ race.
The novella “Fire and Cloud” reaches its climax when the main character, Revered Taylor, is killed by a white group of men for the simple reason he was trying to provide food for his congregation.
In “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow”, the narrator describes the way in which the Jim Crow laws affected the way in which black people lived all over America. The narrator also describes the way in which these laws affected his life directly and how the laws produced him and his family a lot of pain and suffering. This description which appears in the essay at the beginning of the book can also be seen as foreshadowing the deaths of the black people described in the later novellas included in the book.
In “Big Boy Leaves Home”, the narrator describes a group of children going to a swimming whole owned by a racist white man. While there, the white man’s wife discovers the children swimming and then goes to her husband to claim the boys are trying to rape her. This is an understatement as the boys only went to the swimming whole to cool off and have fun. Still, this understatement has catastrophic consequences both for the white husband and for the black children.
In “Long Black Song” the narrator describes the husband beating his wife after finding out she was raped by a white man. The reason why the husband beats his wife remains uncertain but it may be because the narrator alludes the idea that black people had prejudiced ideas as well when it came to their white counterparts and thus the black husband was trying to express his dissatisfaction with the white people by beating his wife.
We have an important image in “Big Boy Leaves Home” at the end of the novella. At that point, some of the black children were already dead and Big Boy killef the white husband. The person left behind is Bobo who is then captured by an angry mob. To punish him, the angry mob thrown hot tar on him and eventually Bobo dies. This is a disturbing image which shows the cruelty with which the black community were treated, be it adults or children.
A paradoxical element appears in the novella “Long Black Song”. In this novella, Sarah, a black woman, is raped by a white man while her husband is away. When the husband comes back home, Sarah tells him what happed while he was gone. Paradoxically, instead of trying to help his wife, the husband beats Sarah for sleeping with another man, even though she was the victim of rape.
Metonymy and Synecdoche
The term “Jim Crow” is used in the novellas to make reference to the racial laws which tried to segregate the black community and also to make reference to the whole black community as a whole.
We find a personification in the novella “Big Boy Leaves Home” in the sentence “a train whistled mournfully”.