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Uncle Tom's Children

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A collection published in 1938 of four of Richard Wright's short stories (two of which had appeared previously) and the earliest of Wright's major publications. The book we know as Uncle Tom's Children is a somewhat different book from the original because two extraordinarily important additions were made in 1940 in a new edition. These two additions, “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” a preface to the collection, and “Bright and Morning Star,” a new story, changed the shape of the book, giving it a different form and focus. “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” is an extended essay describing events, largely from Wright's own life, outlining the unspoken rules and regulations governing interaction between blacks and whites in Richard Wright's Mississippi and in the South in general. All of the stories in Uncle Tom's Children are about some aspect of racial repression and black response to it.

The first, “Big Boy Leaves Home,” is the story of a young, innocent adolescent boy who is forced by circumstances to shoot in self-defense a white man who threatens to take his life. Big Boy, while he hides waiting to escape with his friend on a truck headed north, sees that friend brutally lynched, burned alive, and his body mutilated.

“Down by the Riverside” takes its title from a spiritual of that name. It tells of Mann, who in attempting to save his family during a flood steals a boat and must in self-defense kill the boat's white owner. It is discovered that he killed a white man, and rather than be lynched, he chooses to run for the river knowing he will be killed by soldiers armed with rifles.

“Long Black Song,” the third story, tells of a farmer, Silas, and his wife, Sarah. It opens with Sarah tending her baby while Silas has gone to town. A young salesman appears who wants to sell Sarah a clock. Sarah, after a complicated series of events, has sexual relations with him. Silas discovers her infidelity and kills the salesman. A mob forms and Silas is burned to death defending himself with his rifle to the end.

“Fire and Cloud” recounts the experience of Reverend Taylor, a black minister who discovers the necessity of uniting political action with religion as he leads his congregation together with whites on a march to City Hall to obtain the promise of food. The story ends with the assertion, “Freedom belongs to the strong.”

The final story in Uncle Tom's Children “Bright and Morning Star,” explores the possibility of union between black and white communists in order to achieve common political ends. The story reveals the heroism of an ordinary black Southerner, Johnny-Boy, who fights to organize across racial lines to bring about political and social change. Johnny-Boy's mother, Ant Sue, gives up her life to kill an informer before he is able to impart his information to the sheriff. The story ends with the deaths of both mother and son.

Donald B. Gibson, The Politics of Literary Expression: Essays on Major Black Writers, 1981, pp. 25–35.Edward Margolies, “Wright's Craft: The Short Stories,” in Critical Essays on Richard Wright, ed. Yoshinobu Hakutani, 1982, pp. 128–138.


Subjects: Literature

Reference entries

Richard Wright (1908—1960)