Last month’s publication of the fully restored version of Richard Wright’s novel The Man Who Lived Underground is big news. And for good reason. Against the background of Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd—and widespread protests against racist police brutality—Wright’s gripping tale resonates. It’s impossible to read these opening pages and not draw connections between Wright’s protagonist Fred Daniels—an innocent black man fingered by police for a crime he did not commit—and too many real-life cases today.
Daniels is systematically tortured by Chicago police into signing a false confession for murder, an act that shapes the rest of his life. Contemporary parallels abound: from the case of the “Central Park Five”; to Chicago Police commander Jon Berge’s infamous “Midnight Crew,” accused of torturing more than 200 innocent men between 1972 and 1991; to the case of Kalief Browder, jailed at Rikers Island for years awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit, only to be driven to mental health crisis and suicide soon after the charges were dropped.
The denial of due process, the presumption of guilt, the use of deadly force, the threat of lifelong prison sentences as a way to compel cooperation or confession—such abuses are now becoming common knowledge, and not just in the communities that bear the brunt of them (a fact testified to by the profoundly multiracial character of last summer’s George Floyd protests). It’s an increasingly well-publicized record of shame.
So it makes sense that initial reviews of Wright’s long-lost novel have focused on the theme of police brutality. Moreover, it seems likely that Wright’s detailed depiction of police torture was one reason The Man Who Lived Underground was rejected in 1942. Its publication thus gives us an opportunity to reckon with the role that the American literary establishment has played in stifling frank depictions of this long-standing problem.
As is often the case with Richard Wright’s work, however, an immediate focus on the shocking violence he uses to “hook” us threatens to obscure a deeper resonance. In The Man Who Lived Underground, as elsewhere, the gripping physical action forms the basis for a less obvious but equally vital existential struggle, extending well beyond the police interrogation room. As Elias Rodriques has noted, the book traces “the material and emotional effects of state violence on work, kinship, and sociality,” underscoring “how capitalism and the state ultimately assail our humanity and blind us to other ways of living and relating to people.” Such blindness can affect even those, like Fred Daniels, who seek to rebel against the ruling system.
The Man Who Lived Underground emerged after Wright’s blockbuster Native Son in 1940, and several years before the publication of Black Boy, Wright’s best-selling autobiography in 1945. The composition of the text thus overlaps with Wright’s creative and popular peak—but also with his growing estrangement from the Communist Party USA, the radical organization to which he had devoted the most productive decade of his life.
How interesting, then, to read Wright’s own account of how he came to write the novel, and to learn there that Wright’s personal knowledge of his protagonist Fred Daniels’ condition—the condition of being falsely accused, marked with “guilt,” and subsequently “driven underground”—stemmed not from encounters with police, but from his protracted and painful experience with… the political left.
In his fascinating and only recently published essay, “Memories of My Grandmother” (also included in the new volume), Wright makes clear that he came to understand the torturous position of Fred Daniels thanks to the mistreatment he received personally at the hands of his erstwhile comrades in the Communist Party, an organization that he was deeply involved with during the 1930s and early ’40s, but which by 1942 he was preparing to exit:
I shall not name any names or give any dates or any facts relating to geographical locations. I can only report that I know how it feels to be accused without cause, because once in my life I was accused without cause. And when you are a member of a minority group, or maybe I should put it this way, say, a member of a minority political party and you are suddenly and violently accused of holding notions you’ve never held, of having done something you’ve never dreamed of, I can tell you that it is one of the most agonizing, devastating, blasting, and brutal experiences conceivable.
Wright is explicit about the linkage between his life and the novel: “My memory of a period of two years in my life when people looked at me from day to day and suspected me of having done something dreadful, having uttered political notions about certain things, taught me how to depict those feelings in The Man Who Lived Underground.”
Was Richard Wright himself driven “underground” by an early version of what some now call “cancel culture”?
To be sure, “Memories of My Grandmother” discusses other influences as well, including, as one might expect, Wright’s grandmother, a believer in Seventh Day Adventism, whose militant devotion forged for Wright a lifelong puzzle. “She lived with all of us,” he wrote, yet “always she seemed to be peeping out of Heaven into the world.” Wright recounts his grandmother’s “inability to understand…anything about the nature of the social relationship obtaining to the world around her.” A “callousness towards others,” he adds, “was united with an abstract, all-embracing love for humanity.” This “surreal” split between an “abstract” love and a disregard for the actual people around her formed a template for grasping modern forms of social alienation. As Wright saw it, even the oppressed, through a mode of “abstract” protest, could became more disconnected from the world that oppressed them.
The language here suggests that even when he was discussing his grandmother, Wright was simultaneously ruminating on his falling out with the CPUSA.
What exactly were the nature of the party accusations to which Wright poignantly alludes? He does not specify the charges here, nor their falsity. (We may never know exactly what happened, though the Wright archives contain tantalizing clues. For instance, one chapter deleted from Wright’s autobiography details a false rumor circulated after he gave a public reading of his story of Southern lynching “Big Boy Leaves Home” to a group of African American college students. Wright notes the middle-class discomfort of an audience that chafed against his gritty depiction of black working-class life, especially in the presence of Wright’s interracial entourage. Soon after the event, Wright finds himself accused of having insulted black people by reading them “pornography.” This false rumor is then weaponized against him by members of the Chicago party, including the party leadership.)
But of course, false accusation didn’t begin or end with the CPUSA. Wright also recounts the story of being falsely blamed in his youth for stealing biscuits from the family dinner table—no small offense in an impoverished family. Again, the family episode sheds light on Wright’s later account of his party fall-out. “I was not trying to defend myself so much against the charge of stealing biscuits,” he reflects, “but against being pushed out from that warm circle of trust that exists in all families if they are families at all. As I look back upon it now, my whole conduct, my reaction to their accusations, must have convinced them that I was guilty.”
The paradox here is worth underlining: The very disturbance that false accusation produces—and that subsequent group ostracism tends to compound—makes the innocent appear as guilty. Here, as so often in Wright, appearances deceive; the critical task thus becomes to grasp the ways in which one thing (in this case, “guilt”) comes to appear as true—even as it is fundamentally not.
Wright was intensely attuned to the desperate spirals that false accusation could provoke:
There is really no way in which [the falsely accused] can convincingly defend himself. His shocked and outraged attitude toward the charges throws him into an emotional stew which makes him blind to what he is being accused of. Every word he utters can be used against him, for he is trying not so much to refute the charges as he is trying to fight for his status as a human being, trying to keep his worth and value in the eyes of others, just because he is innocent. The first thing an innocent man feels when he is accused is that those who know him have let him down. Because he is innocent, he does not really know the terms of the accusation. In order to deal with the charges or accusation adequately, he must wrench his mind loose from his innocent way of thinking and begin thinking cunningly and craftily, begin to think in terms that he has never dreamed of before, guilty terms.
Wright’s words call our attention to the psychological strain faced by the persecuted. Even if they are not formally found guilty—or when they are denied due process—lasting effects remain: betrayal by friends; doubts where once was trust; the prospect that, whatever the facts say, there are former comrades who have come to see them as morally capable of such offending acts in the first place. Even the innocent must learn to think in “guilty terms” if they are to survive or navigate such false charges. But what can remain of family, or friendship—or comradeship—once people begin to relate to one another in such a suspicious and self-defensive manner? And how much is lost—not just for the targeted individual, but for the movement as a whole—when such critical insights are driven “underground”?
It would be too much to say that false accusation alone drove Wright out of the CPUSA. There were underlying political differences, personality conflicts, and clear dissatisfaction on Wright’s part about how some in the party were responding to his literary work—in particular his 1940 novel, Native Son, whose “pessimism” provoked sharp debates. Wright had disputes with comrades around the race question, around the Popular Front Against Fascism and World War II, around the question of art’s relationship to politics. Nonetheless, the intensely emotional language Wright uses to describe these episodes in “Memories” makes clear that this experience was no minor sidenote. It’s tempting to see in this newly published revelation one reason that Wright’s public break with the party became so rancorous and so protracted. Such false accusation, after all, he noted, has “the power of upsetting [the accused’s] entire way of life, coloring his feelings about people for a lifetime, and sowing seeds of distrust so deep that they will grow and bear fruit for years afterwards.”
It’s worth underscoring that it was not communism per se that Wright blamed for the hostility he fled. He saw his own mistreatment on the left as a symptom of deeper maladies within American society: a tendency toward suspicion of dissenters, a willingness to instrumentalize individuals to achieve institutional ends, an impatience with the slow process of creative thought, and a tendency to substitute moral panic and purge for the complicated work of investigation and collective critical reflection. He described his comrades later in a climactic moment of his memoir Black Boy (American Hunger) in similar terms: “The blindness of their limited lives, lives truncated and impoverished by the oppression they had suffered long before they ever heard of Communism—made them think I was with their enemies. American life had so corrupted their consciousness that they were unable to recognize their friends.” Police torture chambers certainly helped perpetuate such trauma and suspicion, but they were by no means its only source.
It is long past time that Richard Wright’s vivid depiction of police brutality was brought to light—and that such real-life police abuses were rooted out for good. The biographical understanding made possible by the publication of “Memories of My Grandmother,” however, reminds us that, for Richard Wright, the police were not just a literal horror but also allegorical figures, representing life- and left-wrecking tendencies that afflicted the racist-capitalist state—and also many of its victims. As Wright knew painfully well, revolutionary aspirations alone did not inoculate comrades from reproducing the very evils that, when perpetrated by cops, they so rightly decried. To truly transcend the carceral state, then, would require uprooting not only blatant police abuses—and the institutions that enable them—but also suspect and punitive practices in the left’s own ranks.