Richard Wright: Forgotten Fugitive Poet
One of the most favored and eloquent Southern traditions in literature involves human’s relationship to nature. From 1922–1925, the Fugitive Poets exemplified this in their literary magazine, with each member’s unique perspective bringing something new to the table. In “The Fugitive Poets and the Formation of the New South,” I noted that the purpose of the Fugitive Poets was to begin a movement to rebuild Southern identity through the idea “that a person’s real satisfaction came from closeness with nature and the surrounding environment.” I also assert that a large focus of the collective sought to let “go of the sentimentality to which many Southerners continued to grasp.” Such sentimentalities included clinging to racism as a part of “heritage” and slavery as a part of “tradition.” As noble as the Fugitives’ efforts were, they unknowingly left out a key component to ensuring such ideals—the inclusion of African American voices.
One such voice, whose views and work manifested within the same decade as the Fugitives Poets, was Richard Wright. The Mississippi native and African American wrote plenty of noteworthy, controversial works, such as Black Boy, a memoir detailing how living in Southern states as an impoverished African American child shaped him. While his narrative fits perfectly into the Fugitive Poets’ ideology for the need to let go of the Southern glorification of racism and its past of slavery, his later works of poetry also speak to the Southern love of the human connection with nature. Adding the much-needed perspective of an African American man’s perception of this universally Southern theme, Wright’s collection of over 4,000 haikus paint subtle, diverse pictures of his own view of nature with nuanced and varied forms.
Terebess’s article “Haiku Poems by Richard Wright” notes that Wright’s focus on the human to nature relationship “bring(s) to it a universality that transcends both race and color without ever denying them.” This observation holds a deep significance, as accepting the full scope of diversity in Southern experience remains an issue in culture. The whitewashing of slavery, abuse of Native Americans, and negative experiences of immigrants hold strong evidence of this. Creating work that also unifies all demographics of the population is equally important. What better way to create this unity than through sharing individual experiences with nature?
We all know the phrase “stop and smell the roses.” Wright makes his readers do this through his haikus. Each verse serves as an observation of all the small, glittering things we ought to treasure, yet too often overlook in our busy lives. After a long winter with forbidding gray clouds, the resurrection of spring is a sight for sore eyes. Wright gives voice to this excitement with “Haiku 75”:
“Spring begins shyly
With one hairpin of green grass
In a flower pot.”
It describes a subtle yet cheerful encounter with the earth’s reawakening. Wright starts with a tease, but then takes readers from the next enticing bite of spring’s slight beginnings to its heavier grasp on the surrounding world:
“An apple blossom
Trembling on a sunlit branch
From the weight of bees.”
Wright also gives beauty to the nearly unbearable humid Southern summers, creating inviting imagery that tantilizes the reader to look beyond the heat swells. “Haiku 51” draws upon the flavor of summer with fruit beckoned to ripen by the heat:
“As the sun goes down,
a green melon splits open
And juice trickles out.”
“Haiku 58” draws further on this idea, adding more depth to it. Wright’s description of black cherries not only offers an appetizing glance at the season’s fruits but also perhaps of blackness itself:
“Heaps of black cherries
Glittering with drops of rain
In the evening sun.”
While this haiku appears as an innocuous observation, it may also offer a strikingly sneaky assertion that blackness is not only beautiful and worthy of poetry but also a kind of beauty that appears in nature.
In “Five Haikus,” Wright offers a less inconspicuous message about racial tensions.
“I am nobody:
A red sinking autumn sun
Took my name away.”
Both sets of Wright’s grandparents were born into slavery, which contextualizes his view of black identity. Slavery took names, culture, and lives from its victims, while simultaneously separating families. The “red sinking autumn sun” may well be his metaphor for slavery itself in relation to his ancestors. It could also imply his relationship as black man to the South.
In three lines, Wright says more about the detriment that “the sentimentality to which many Southerners continued to grasp” caused to African Americans than any amount of poetry written from the perspective of a white person could hope to. While his haikus are a nod to the Fugitive Poets’ push to man’s relationship to nature, they are also a glaring reality for people of color regarding the difficulty of creating an identity outside of skin color. In these ways, Richard Wright is the forgotten Fugitive Poet—a representation of who and what the collective should have included in its publications. He’s also a reminder of who each Southern individual is: A person living by their own name and personal experiences.
(Photo credit: Flickr.)