Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Uncle Tom's Children (copy)

This year marks the centennial of Richard Wright’s birth. In celebration the “Mississippi Reads” program, sponsored by the state, features his book, Uncle Tom’s Children. All across Mississippi curious citizens are opening his works and joining in heartfelt discussions.

Just last week, I bumped into my friend and neighbor at the local grocery store. As we were sharing good news, she told me she was currently reading Wright’s Black Boy. Not only was she reading it for an Ole Miss class, but her youngest was reading it for Senior's English! How exciting to hear two unrelated schools are reading Wright as part of the curriculum.

Uncle Tom’s Children is an accessible read for most adults and upper level students. Readers are treated to a short autobiography in Wright’s essay “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” which was not included in earlier versions but opens this book. (If one has read “Black Boy” it will seem familiar, although the tone is harsher.) Then readers face five short stories that emphasize the Jim Crow lifestyle. Each story is heart-breaking. Readers can discern early on that the main characters are all doomed.

In “Big Boy Leaves Home,” Big Boy and buddies skip school and trespass on property in order to swim in a pond. A white woman wanders down to the water. Within seconds, she lets out a scream as she perceives these naked boys running towards her as a threat. In reality, they are running to get their clothes which happen to be within six feet of her. Fiancée, with rifle in hand, comes to her rescue.

In “Down by the Riverside,” Mann’s pregnant wife is in labor as high waters threaten to cut them off from civilization. Uncle Bob is sent to trade the mule for a boat when the midwife declares she must have a doctor’s help. Bob returns with a stolen boat, and the family departs for the hospital. They get lost, and stop at one of the only homes with lights to ask for directions. It is the home of the white boat owners.

The violence that ensues makes this inaccessible to younger readers. May I suggest, Haiku: This Other World by Wright. In the tradition of real Japanese Haiku, Wright writes of the seasons and not racism. The 817 poems are perfect for teaching the art, and exposing young readers to a Mississippi treasure. Teachers could ask students to design a birthday card for the author with their own Haiku inside.