In "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," Richard Wright provided a brief autobiographical sketch of his life growing up in the segregated South. He described how he learned about the laws of Jim Crow in the South, and the unwritten code of ethics or manners that all blacks should follow in the presence of whites. Fox example, some informal rules held that blacks must always address a white man as sir, or that they always had to give up their seats to whites, while legal segregation required them to sit in separate sections of restaurants, theaters, busses and trains. Black men could not look at a white woman naked let alone have sex with her, and even the suspicion that they had might result in a lynching. Post-colonial theory is a vital part of "Living Jim Crow," in that it depicts a racial community segregated, brutalized and marginalized because of color, and the sense of repressed anger, powerlessness and alienation that the victims of this system felt. The purpose of this essay is to fully explain how post-colonial theory pervades Wright's book, by analyzing the numerous occasions when he learned a lesson about Jim Crow in his childhood, and how this applies to post-colonial theory as described by Edward Said, Franz Fanon, and especially W.E.B. Du Bois, a writer with whom Wright had a great deal in common, including eventual self-exile from the United States.
Edward Said rarely used the term post-colonialism and was in fact suspicious of the concept because it seemed to be too closely connected with Western liberal-pluralist thought, and perhaps served as the soft side of global capitalism. Said first described the construction of the colonial Other in Orientalism (1979) and how this caricature was "vilified, exoticized, or romanticized in the Western imagination" (Maver 11). Black writers and intellectuals like Richard Wright and W.E.B. Du Bois would have understood this immediately, since African-Americans had been receiving the same treatment constantly since the colonial period in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Post-colonialism is often used too loosely, particularly since many colonies still suffer from some form of neocolonialism or semi-colonialism, as Du Bois described it. In Britain and the U.S., post-colonialism even became trendy and politically correct, at least among privileged white academics, and its vocabulary of hybridization, marginalization, resistance and collaboration could be applied to any ethnic, religious or ethnic minority group.
Frantz Fanon's interpretation of post-colonial theory deals with the stripping of the identities of the colonized. When a group of people colonize another they impose rules, restrictions, regulations, and forbid certain practices and traditions of those being colonized, claiming that they are barbaric, backward or ludicrous. Because of this the colonized loses their sense of identity once they are forced to accept the ways of the metropolis over their own. This creates a feeling of inferiority in the colonial subjects, who think that their ways are inferior to those of the Western imperial powers. Fanon suggested that this mentality stayed with the people long after they were granted formal independence. Fanon wrote that all colonized peoples suffered from an "inferiority complex" especially when they assimilated into the metropolitan culture, while their own people distrust them for learning "to speak like a white man" (Fanon 5). Antillean blacks like Fanon, educated in France, came to hold their own culture in contempt as primitive and backward, which is also how black Antilleans regarded Africans (Fanon 9). Wright, Du Bois and other American blacks noted that their situation was similar, in that integrated black writers and intellectuals were never fully welcome in the white world and also distrusted by blacks.
In U.S. history, one of the leading post-colonial theorists was W.E.B. Du Bois, a contemporary of Richard Wright whose social and political thought was sometimes complex and sometimes confusing or contradictory, since like Wright he was a socialist for most of his adult life but at the same time a critic of socialism and Marxism. He was a member of the Socialist Party as early as 1911, for example, but also stated that socialism was "too narrow" for blacks in that they would always distrust all white radicals just the same as any other whites. Moreover, their version of socialism seemed to be designed by and for white workers (Rabaka 105). Like Richard Wright, he eventually joined the Communist Party as well, and lived at least part of his life in exile from the United States. Du Bois and Wright also agreed with Fanon and other post-colonial theorists that blacks in the United States had a Double Consciousness, both as American citizens as well as part of a race that had been enslaved, marginalized and segregated for centuries.
During World War I and the 1920s, Du Bois was still a liberal integrationist while Wright was already a Communist very early in his career. Although certainly Du Bois was a very militant liberal, unlike Wright he rejected communism, revolution and class warfare. To be sure, the race riots, violent suppression of strikes and Red Scare of 1919 had shown the limits of democracy in the United States, and over time Du Bois moved toward Marxism because he gradually began to perceive those limits more profoundly (Lewis 4). In the 1920s, he also opposed Marcus Garvey and his Back to Africa movement, although he was always in favor of independence for the African colonies (Okoth 312). Du Bois was a PhD and academic, while Wright was mostly self-educated, and most of his life was spent as an activist and his thought was linked to "strategic political action" (Reed 177). Unlike earlier sociologists, he always "focused on race," which he did not believe was biological but socially, politically end economically constructed. By the 1930s, he also "linked racial analysis with class analysis," and regarded blacks as both an oppressed people and a proletariat, but one that was divided from white workers by color. In addition, he understood that this color line was global and tied to imperialism (Zuckerman 10).
Du Bois was not only a supporter of Pan-Africanism, he was one of its founders, and held the first Pan-African Congress as early as 1900, and organized another in France in 1919. He was sent there as a journalist to cover the Versailles conference, but used this occasion to bring the attention of world leaders and public opinion to the plight of blacks everywhere. This first Pan-African Congress passed resolutions demanding equal citizenship rights and social and economic equality for blacks in every country, and for the right to bring their case before the League of nations -- which of course the U.S. never joined at all (Suri 39). He revived these Congresses again after World War II, when he also attended the Bretton Woods conference and the founding meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945, once again demanding independence for all colonies and representation for their peoples in the new international organizations (Lewis 504-07).
In earlier years, the Talented Tenth of educated, assimilated blacks had been his main readers when he edited The Crisis for the NAACP, while working class blacks had regarded it as a "snob affair" (Lewis 3). This was never true, of course, for Du Bois had consistently supported labor and political organizations for both rural and urban workers throughout his entire career. By the 1940s and 1950s, however, when Du Bois had moved to the far Left politically, his audiences and supporters began to change accordingly as well -- more working class and labor audiences than the Talented Tenth. These were the groups that stood by him when the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover persecuted him intensely and took away his passport (Lewis 517). Indeed, by the 1950s he was under "a barrage of black bourgeois and white conservative criticism," especially for opposing the Korean War and U.S. Cold War foreign policy in general (Rabaka 106). For this reason, he finally went into exile in 1961, although Wright had left the country eleven years earlier, largely for the same reasons. Neither Wright nor Du Bois ever returned to the United States.
Richard Wright's first lesson in Jim Crow 'ethics' occurred when he was young, and got into a 'war' with some white kids who lived across the tracks. He and his friends were throwing cinders while the white kids were throwing broken bottles, and at the end of this Richard ended up with a bad cut behind his ear. After this every decided to stop and go home, although Richard required three stitches in his neck. Sitting on the steps and waiting for his mother to comfort him, he was surprised when her reaction was not at all what he expected. As soon as she found out what happened she first yelled at him then beat him, saying that he was lucky the white people didn't kill him. She even went on to say that the white kids had the right to cut him while he did not have the right…