Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices

EACH DAY when you see us black folk upon the dusty land of the farms or upon the hard pavement of the city streets, you usually take us for granted and think you know us, but our history is far stranger than you suspect, and we are not what we seem.” (Wright 2002, p 10)

The problem with this publication is that it is not 12 million voices but one, that of Wright himself, who assumes to speak for all Black Americans. Possibly at the time it would have been considered empowering (apparently it is still banned since it contains a lot of communist ideology), but to my mind it doesn’t actually do the job of allowing people to speak for themselves. By standing on a soapbox, Wright actually denigrates the people he purports to represent, since he assumes they cannot speak for themselves (here we come back to Marx and his 18th Brumaire – who has the right to speak on someone else’s behalf?). Unfortunately, Wright seems to have hit a raw nerve:

I have been clothed with no authority to speak for others, and what I have to say can be final only for myself. I hasten to say this at the start, for I remember my anger at the effrontery of one who few years ago undertook to speak for me and twelve million others. I concurred with practically nothing he said. This was not important in itself, but when one presumes to speak for me he must reflect my mind so accurately that I find no source of disagreement with him. To do this, he must be either a lack-brain parrot or a god.” (Redding 1951, p 9)

Two of the text’s most outspoken critics are William Stott and Nicholas Natanson:

Wright’s use of the first person plural conflates the present with the past so that all American Negroes of all time are made to share his opinions” (Stott, 1986 p 235)

Most problematical, however, was Wright’s adoption of the “we” voice for the masses, past and present, northern and southern. It was a flawed “we” in practice… Ironically, the white tendency which had proven so stultifying over the years, that of treating the black millions as a monolithic mass, was repeated in 1941 by a black author who knew much better” (Natanson, 1992 p 247).

Natanson then goes on to argue that the use of Dorothea Lange’s picture of sharecroppers hands as evidence of Wright’s outright fraudulence, citing it as an example of “the use of a nonblack photograph for a vital black reference” (Natanson, 1992 p 251):

As with many of the FSA images, the discussion of ‘truth’ rears its head again.

On the other hand, Joel Woller (1999) argues that the book was treated unfairly:

“…the vast gap between the past and present cultural status of Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices and that of Lorentz’s documentary films of the late 1930s reflects a bias against attributing agency to oppressed races and exploited classes rather than to paternalistic government and a heroic nation: a bias against dialectical, utopian, and identity-transforming ways of representing community and agency, and for fixed, mythic, and identity-confirming ways of seeing the same.” (1999, 341)

He goes on to argue that although Lorentz and Wright used similar narrative techniques (third person plural to denote involvement, responsibility, inclusion as well as choral form), the former was treated with great acclaim while Wright’s tome has fallen into relative obscurity. The reason for this, he posits, is that Lorentz was in fact working under the auspices of a government programme, while Wright was an outspoken communist and black to boot (this was 1941, before the civil rights movement had gained any real momentum): “…Wright and Lorentz thus employ first-person plural narration to divergent political effect: Lorentz in favor of radical New Deal programs and visions, Wright on behalf of a Communist interpretation of the meaning of black mass migration.” (ibid, p 359)

The point is that the voice of the masses is employed by each in a slightly different way: Lorentz doesn’t assume that his masses (the others, the migrants) are empowered, he is merely their apologist, hoping that through government agency their lot can be changed, and he is appealing to the audience to permit that to happen; Wright is calling on the masses to join together, regardless of race or class, and transform the nation. Read in this way, it would seem that Wright’s book has been suppressed out of quite obvious political fear: “what is absolutely prohibited by critical tradition is neither the choral form of first-person plural collective narration in and of itself, nor even Communist thinking per se, but such thinking expressed in the form of a voice of the masses.” (ibid, p 362)

Woller points out that the specific use of the first person narrative at that time was a direct reaction to Caldwell & Bourke-White’s publication “You Have Seen Their Faces“, where the reader is not invited to be in solidarity with the subjects depicted:

Both Wright and Lorentz rely most of all on first-person plural narration to counter the touristic tendency epitomized by Caldwell and Bourke-White; that is, Wright and Lorentz both endeavor to collapse as much as possible the rhetorical distance between representer and audience (us/you), on the one hand, and represented (them), on the other.” (ibid, p 345)

It is interesting to note that Evans & Agee also viewed the Caldwell Bourke-White album with some disdain, and that’s what prompted them to produce Famous Men: “Whereas Caldwell and Bourke-White establish a seemingly unobstructed and unmediated line of sight between viewer and viewed, Wright (not unlike Agee and Evans) asks the viewer to reflect on the limitations of her or his own vision.” (ibid, p 345)

Look at us and know us and you will know yourselves, for we are you, looking back at you from the dark mirror of our lives! (Wright 2002, p 146.) Such exhortation, Wollen asserts, is pushing forth a romantic Hegelian idea of unity-in-difference, but when racial experience is unconcernedly cast into the melting pot of American universality, this tends towards vulgar liberalism, since “the Hegelian scheme always flirts with the possibility that unity-in-difference will collapse into an indifferent unity” (1999, p 351). However, as Wollen points out (with reference to Barbara Foley) this radical emphasis on ‘racially-identified working-class masses’ possessing some kind of unity-in-difference is more activist than any previous communist doctrine or liberalist tolerance. It is for this reason that he claims Wright’s work has been unjustly criticised, and at the same time, he insists that this is precisely where the danger lies in this work, since the readers are invited to mobilise and form a new breed of masses, and as such it remains suppressed to this day.

Most interestingly, in 1941 Russell Lee was sent to Chicago to shoot a series of images specifically for the publication under the direction of Edwin Rosskam. Apparently Rosskam convinced Stryker that the project was too southern and rural focused and needed the inclusion of more urban material. As such, the text and image already enjoyed a mutual relationship even before they met on the printed page.

As many as 30% of the images were made specifically for the publication, such as this image of black people roller skating. The photographs were given captions different from the FSA wordings so as to paint a different picture of the lives of blacks (“gloomy”, “overly sentimental”).

Rosskam used extracts of Wright’s prose as titles to the photographs. In that sense, the text is not so much a commentary of the photographs, or the photos merely illustrative of the text, they collaboratively create an intended meaning.” (Cossu-Beaumont 2014, p 8)

Collaboratively intended a meaning – I like that! The signification of meaning is illustrated by the following image:

The point that the photographs hanging above the couple are of themselves 20 years earlier is undermined by the caption, which makes us believe that they are portraits of their ancestors. The original FSA caption: “Negro preacher and his wife sitting under photos taken of them twenty years ago. They live in an old converted schoolhouse with two grandchildren. The rest of their children have moved out of the county” yet another example of deliberate direction through text/image combination, but not one that Wright alone is guilty of.

Apparently what it has going for it is that it “…reconnects the African American experience with American history at large and, conversely, draws the link between that particular history and the reality of the Great Depression, more hardly felt by African American communities whose precariousness as sharecroppers or urban dwellers far preceded 1929.” So why has the book been slated so?

The problem is that Wright worked according to Beaumont Newhall’s advocation that an image is given more leverage when combined with a caption, and the truth that is reached is therefore questionable: “More useful to our perspective in this paper is the question of which truth is being conveyed by, not just the photographer’s, but the editor’s and narrator’s of Twelve Million Black Voices. The deliberate choice of a partial truth that seems to be suggested by some of the readers and commentators may not be a flaw of Twelve Million Black Voices but its very essence.” (Cossu-Beaumont 2014, p 12)


Using the visual gap as a logical device to ensure intended understanding of the narrative. And this is something that all photographers engage in. The bottom line?

The pictures alone could not suffice to illustrate that the black experience is both the same as that of other Americans and strikingly different, both part of and on the margin of the American story. The narrative subverts the “truth” of these Depression pictures whose original purpose was to document the need for and the effects of New Deal relief policies. The narrative creates a new “truth” to the origin of the misery, grimness and poverty–not the Great Depression, universally experienced by Americans but the results of centuries of oppression and exclusion, of a nation’s choice to ignore the faces and voices of twelve million Americans.” (ibid, p 20)

The polemics of Wright’s prose is all too clear, and quite possibly the book could have been regarded as inciting some sort of subversion.

On the other hand, Benjamin Balthaser argues that 12 Million Black Voices needs to be understood within the context of Wright’s greater oeuvre, and he employs the dialectical mode of documentary photography (with its dual technologies of domination and liberation, historical trauma and revolutionary progress) to explore his own contradictory ideas about modernity’s “deadly web of slavery” and its “higher human consciousness”. Wright exploits photography’s history in claiming and constructing racial difference to critique the very means by which this visualization of scientific knowledge was carried out. Thus, Balthaser posits, the use of the white sharecropper’s hands (which are soiled and thus appear black) was a deliberate device to show that photographic images cannot be relied upon to reveal racial difference: “suggesting limitations to the understanding one can gain through visual representations of race.” In other words, Wright appropriated the FSA images not as truthful documentary images to illustrate his text, but rather by juxtaposing the images with his text, he questions the camera’s ability to “capture and produce knowledge about a racial subject.” Wright understood that he needed to embrace the medium of oppression to be able to bring about racial liberation:

“Eschewing a biological or essential understanding of race, Wright attempts to undermine the modern history of documentary photography to do just that: to deploy photography as a means to claim the inherent primitivism of classed and raced subjects.”

Balthaser posits that Wright used documentary images not to fix meaning, but rather as a Benjaminian means to analyse the present black position, simultaneously offering a radically altered racial future by “facing the wreckage of the past.” In this way:

“Wright transforms a documentary project conceived to discipline and marginalize black bodies and does so not simply to claim a black documentary voice, but rather to reclaim a modernist project of transformation for black people.”

Once again this idea of using the means of oppression as a way of liberating, of reclaiming the black ‘racialised‘ body; Wright does not negate the history of hegemonic images, but rather employs the same to demonstrate their own limitations and inability to record ‘objective’ scientific or medical truths, thus undermining the very foundation upon which racial difference is constructed.

Some of Wright’s statements, although he is speaking of the repression of Blacks, could be applied to disabled people by substituting the words in the following extracts:

The word ‘negro’… is not really a name at all nor a description, but a psychological island… This island, within whose confines we live, is anchored in the feelings of millions of people” (Wright 2002, p 30)

The steep cliffs of this island are manifest, on the whole, in the conduct of whites toward us hour by hour, a conduct which tells us that we possess no rights commanding respect, that we have no claim to pursue happiness in our own fashion, that our progress toward civilization constitutes an insult, that our behavior must be kept firmly within an orbit branded as inferior” (Wright 2002, p 31)


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