I must admit, I unknowingly stood unprepared as this book emotionally and essentially intruded upon me. I now feel an acute fear in realizing the damage. It will likely haunt me, or dictate any future understanding I have of myself, and may signify a definitive point in my everlasting development. Forgive me, as the following will not implicate the kind of perversity which this work played in my mind. I have to embrace it before you can. And this may never come to pass.
History will undoubtedly memorialize Richard Wright as a race writer, alongside Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, etc. These writers speak for the scorned and neglected of America. Their experiences as black intellectuals beckons them to dictate their ideas through the perspective of their lives. In a sense, their stories and ideas symbolize the plight of the marginalized, the systemic outcast, the undesired – the proverbial black sheep, a cliche indicative of more than just the color of its wool. But again, this is not a perspective of transcendence, since cultural heritage should be gloriously celebrated, proudly embraced and joyously proclaimed. Yet understanding this experience holistically, as an experience shared, in varying degrees, by many outsiders, leads to a communal bliss of brotherhood discovered in the depths of despair and hatred.
Of course, America acknowledges these outsiders, yet in most cases they choose to confer a comforting identity upon them. Insiders mechanically grind through life oblivious to the true consciousness of these people. Why? Because the insider desires a bearable and clean conscience; not the kind of conscience free of guilt, but the kind of conscience blissfully ignorant of the existence of outsiders who feel disenfranchised in a world preaching brotherhood and equality.
Wright compacts the psyche of the outsider into his main character, Cross Damon, who, in the very fabric of his name, embodies a dualistic conflict of good and evil. Yet Cross disregards the pretense of good and evil, bars caging the human psyche, and seizes his desire for a mold-shattering freedom. Rather than good, there exists himself, and rather than evil, there exists the world. And vice versa. Because of his disillusionment, his enlightened vision into the nature of man’s worldly existence, he learns to hate both that which lies within him and that which the powerful constructed around him. He needs neither angel nor demon to aid him. He would rather live without needing them.
Like Dostoevsky, Wright possesses a keen insight into the psyche of his characters. Native Son struck the world dumb as it witnessed the psychological depth of a man we might have carelessly called a simple beast. Now Cross Damon, notably unconcerned with the color of his skin, exhibits the psychological ache of a man outside the accepted and encouraged processes of thought and existence. If “man is nothing in particular…”, a characteristic feared by man, a reality hidden behind and compensated by the constructs of civilization and her systems, Cross seeks meaning by abandoning the imprisoning perspectives of institutionalized marginalization and embraces the full potential of life uninhibited. Insiders seek power and spend their days maintaining it. Cross seeks meaning and life; the potential of which men fear because it cannot be overpowered and controlled.
Throughout the story, Cross rarely plans events and circumstances. He simply reacts to them. One of the most devastating blows to his psyche occurs when he realizes how his actions represent an insider’s will to power. Cross’ life is not a crusade, but a will to live; and live fully. Yet along his journey of actionable existentialism he suffers mightily. His life regurgitates the horrors of his existence onto every new circumstance. Then he wades in the simmering bile as his soul caramelizes. The conflict of Self and World wage a brutal campaign simply because Cross desires freedom from the effects of an outsider’s status. But in pursuing this dream he realizes the inescapable connectedness of men and the world, how men constitute the world and the world constitutes men, and how even the conscious outsider, desiring freedom from the yokes of religion, social and political aspirations, civil promises, cannot stand loneliness. Whatever meaning Cross discovers rests in the ironic connectedness of people; people who seek nothing more than the organization of life and a will to power.
What fate awaits the outsider? Perhaps a choice. To yearn for the enslavement of institutionalized illusion and exist, or to find purpose and freedom and live, though perhaps alone. The outsider either suffers an ignorant consciousness of the world around him, or an awakened, damning consciousness of the soul within himself and how it cannot exist as fully human within a system bent on power and afraid of its people’s own potential and propensity toward life.