Reintroducing Sarah Wright
— Konstantina Mary Karageorgos
This Child’s Gonna Live is an overwhelming metaphor of the Black experience in these United States of North America. It is all the more powerful and truthful for having a protagonist who is a Black woman of unparalleled heroism in this white, racist, capitalistic, male-supremacist society. Which means of course that she is triply oppressed, as a working-class person, as a Black person, and as a woman. — John Oliver Killens
It was then, that I, then working strictly in verse, took the leap into the novel form and began working on This Child’s Gonna Live. — Sarah Wright, in response to the Cuban Revolution
ALTHOUGH LITLE KNOWN today, Sarah Elizabeth Wright’s first and only published novel, This Child’s Gonna Live (1969) was at the time of its publication something of a cultural event.
Celebrated by leading figures of the Black Marxist Left including novelists and co-founders of the Harlem Writers’ Guild (1951) Rosa Guy and John Oliver Killens, dramatist Alice Childress, acclaimed Africanist scholar Dr. John Henrik Clarke, and Jewish-American Marxist-feminist Tillie Olsen for its fearless exploration of the torment exacted on nonconformist Black women both within and outside Black communities, the novel posed a radical challenge to the cultural niche — Black women’s fiction — it was slated to join.
Though Sarah Wright (1928-2009) was not the first to dramatize Black women’s triple oppression using the novel form,(1) she was the first and to date the only Black writer of either gender to generate a palimpsest narrative linking two key moments of 20th century Black Marxism, the Great Depression and the Cuban Revolution.
Set in an all Black rural oystering community on Maryland’s Eastern shore on the dawn of the Great Depression, This Child’s Gonna Live does not immediately conjure memories of the 26th of July Movement’s victory over the oppressive Batista regime (nor should it, given the involuted nature of the palimpsestic narrative). Yet Wright, who visited Cuba at the invitation of Fidel Castro as part of an African-American delegation that included Robert F. Williams, Julian Mayfield and Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), credited both the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s reciprocal visit to Harlem in 1962 for the novel’s existence.(2)
In this essay, I’ll revisit Wright’s novel in light of its lesser-known context in order to restore both its historical context and prospective theoretical vision.
The novel opens on the dawn of the Great Depression, the economic crisis that produced the 20th century’s most hardened fascist regimes and its most extensive network of resistance. Yet the way in which the global economic crisis functions in the novel has little in common with traditional forms of U.S. Depression-era literature, such as Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited (1933), John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), narratives in which the Depression serves as an impetus for organizational change.
Nor does it quite fit into the cache of postwar fiction that revisits the Depression, such as Lloyd Brown’s Iron City (1951) and John Oliver Killens’ Youngblood (1954). Although the novel is set in the period of the Depression, and opens with descriptive language that unequivocally announces its political affiliation — [the sun] “was gonna come up blazing red and hot” (2) — the historical and political reach of This Child exceeds its dramatized chronology.
While Wright depicts the corporeality of poverty in all of its naturalistic misery — sallowed faces, atrophied limbs, and distended stomachs are ubiquitous; abuse is rampant, as are illiteracy and other brutal social realities — the novel’s naturalism, its determinacy, is challenged by the form of its telling.
Through syncopated rhythms, and jarring temporal juxtapositions, Wright chronicles two seasons in the life of Mariah Upshur, a poor, traumatized woman living in the “long tailed dismal swamp” (13) of Tangierneck, Maryland with her husband Jacob and three children Horace (Rabbit), William (Skeeter) and Gezee.
Mariah has already lost one child, Mary, shortly after birth, and is pregnant with another. Mariah’s pregnancy is laden with fear. A combination of postpartum depression, deep-seated religious guilt about its conception (the baby is not Jacob’s but the light skinned Dr. Greene’s), and general misery about her circumstance has spoiled the pregnancy.
Dialectic of Tensions
Wright deploys modernist techniques, especially those that distort the narrative’s temporal frame, including flashbacks and retrospective interjections where the traumatizing scene is either deferred or withheld to communicate an account of a life that would, were it to conform to the standards of the classic naturalism, otherwise go untold. Beyond what could, if formally isolated, be described in much the same language as William Faulkner or Toni Morrison, the psychological and political takeaway of This Child is suspended in a dialectic that dramatizes the political tensions between utopic-revolutionaries and cultural nationalists — a conflict that reached fever pitch in the United States in the wake of the Cuban Revolution.
Moving beyond orthodox and outdated class divisions that pitted the working classes against the bourgeoisie, Wright emphasized the Black working class’s acquiescence to the needs of capital. Impressed by the cultural risks taken in Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, Wright dramatizes the limitations of an insular Black community with a cultural psychology consonant with the interests of capital.
This tension is represented primarily through Tangierneck’s obsession with the land as an economic abstraction — as property. Comprehending their relationship as one marked by their “lack of property” or ownership of “property” rather than as one marked by the transparent antithesis of “labor” and “capital,”(3) the majority Black citizens of Tangierneck sacrifice everything to own the plots of land on which they live and work. In their striving for what they perceive to be a more complete and secure existence, they not only fail to grasp the extent of their oppression, but nurture a system that would suffer by their indifference.
While Wright, who was well versed in DuBois’ Black Reconstruction if not Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, sought to represent this striving (and Mariah’s disinterest) for the land as a central contradiction to Black existence, her complex representations put her at risk for accusations of race trading from Black artists less concerned with complex representation. Rather than succumb to the growing number of voices who warned that such representation would reinforce cultural stigmas already in place, Wright retained a negative utopic sensibility.
Instead of picturing an ideal world, she would instead foreground ideological divisions in Black culture, focusing especially on under-discussed clashes within the ostensibly unified Black working class.
Internal Oppressions and Imagining Change
Further risking accusations of cultural betrayal, Wright indicts both men and women for perpetuating the oppressive ideals of capital onto their people. Although Wright faults both men and women for their complicity, she sustains a gendered distinction between social and political acquiescence. The novel’s male characters, due to their greater integration into the American labor force and cultural dominance over Black women, tend to represent the greatest political threat to a socialist overhaul; but socially, women police the attendant cultural values that result in the reproduction of compliant ideological subjects.
One of the most oppressive alliances in the novel is an all female church sect identified as the “Committee of her [Mariah’s] Judgment.” Comprised of more prominent members of the church, the committee’s sole responsibility is to publicly shame and cast out female members of the congregation who have committed adultery.
With the accused men left untouched (“boys is the first choice of God,” 263), the women are physically abused inside the church, where they are made to confess their sin only to leave the ceremony unpardoned and dispossessed of any social value. In sharp contrast to her female literary forbears, especially Zora Neale Hurston, and in anticipation of the next wave of Black female writers, including Toni Morrison, Wright indicts oppression among the female constituents of an all Black community.
Although Wright rejected the revanchist impulse of male and female cultural Black nationalists on humanist and political grounds, her criticism must not be mistaken for denunciation. In the novel, Wright favors a dialectical, if occasionally tortuous approach to the conflict between these two sects within the Black working class.
Nowhere is this dialectic more prominent than in the marriage of Mariah and Jacob Upshur. The two characters in This Child who convey the most sophisticated principles of Black nationalism and utopic Marxism, Mariah and Jacob remain committed despite unremitting ideological opposition. Aside from routine disagreements that afflict any marriage, the two are at odds over the twinned issues of land and property.
While the communication between the couple approximates abuse, Wright employs a formal device, parallel inner monologues, to reveal the extent of their understanding through their anger and disappointment. Alternating from chapter to chapter, Wright explores the inner lives of a couple beaten down by systematic abuse.
Wright also uses these occasions to expose the limits of each position. While Jacob occasionally imagines a life free of the grime and pain of The Neck, he refuses to think beyond or outside of dichotomous pairings. Any attempt to go further ends with Jacob comforting himself by reciting inherited patriarchal verse from the Bible and from the oral tradition within his culture, such as the one below, which is directed at Mariah.
Pull off them shoes I bought you
Pull off them socks I bought you
Pull off that hat I bought you
You know you mistreated me
Pull off that wig I bought you
Let your devilish head go bald. (103)
Unafraid to confront the contradictions that have marked her life, Mariah’s intellectual and affective resources permit her to examine exit strategies only insofar as they are attended by the potential repercussions to follow.
Far from offering a neat calculation where the information is checked, balanced and neatly synthesized, Mariah’s imagined conglomerate is one of dreamworld and catastrophe. The previous image is one offered by Susan Buck-Morss in her brilliant study, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (2000), which attempts to dislodge the concept of utopia from the Stalinist project. Wright, herself engaged in such a project while writing This Child, appears to share Buck-Morss’ thesis: that although the image of collective utopia must be maintained, its association to any form of state or national advancement must be severed.
In contrast to the complex dialectic that exists between Jacob and Mariah is the traditionally oppressive hierarchy maintained by the couple’s parents, Momma Effie and Pop Rogie Harmon, Percy and Bertha Ann Upshur. Mariah’s parents ridicule their daughter for her prospective political vision and abuse her for her suspected infidelity.
The following lines, spoken by Mariah’s mother in response to Mariah’s desire to leave The Neck to forge a better life for herself and her children, evoke all three forms of censure:
“All of this talk about you going away to the cities to make something of yourself don’t mean a thing, cause you still don’t see nothing but the flowers on the bushes. Ain’t a decent woman enough for you to be? You’d better pray for God to send us a pretty day tomorrow so we can get out of here and pull some holly out of this swamp. We got to pay off this land.” (10)
What begins as a generic reproach of Mariah’s personal and political naïveté quickly becomes a misdirected confession about the family’s inability to pay off Tangierneck’s wealthy and corrupt landowner, Bannie Upshire. Momma Effie cloaks her own obsession with the family’s debtor status in a principled harangue against Mariah’s irresponsible utopic scheming.
The proximity of the mother’s fear-based confession to her daughter’s inspired suspension of oppressive truths offers a dialectic look at a traditionally bifurcated issue: the political function of utopia. For Momma Effie, utopia is a position of luxury, one that must be earned; as such, it is a position unavailable to the working classes. Yet Effie’s thought process, laid bare in her interpretation of the possibility of historical difference as a personal and cultural affront, reveals both her own political and cultural nescience and her latent desire for systematic otherness.
Through such scenes, Wright emphasizes the socio-historical contrast between the preceding and the rising generations of Tangierneck residents. While Mariah and Jacob possess a relatively simple utopic vision — imagining themselves in an urban environment away from green winters and, perhaps more importantly, from constraints of cultural and familial allegiance — their capacity to do so, even where their imagining is saddled with doubt, indicates Wright’s unwavering belief in historical progress outside reified understandings of this progress as continuous and causal.
A relatively orthodox Marxist in this respect, Wright is not interested in the elaboration of a “future politics,” but in foregrounding the possibility of radical change in the present moment.
In view of Wright’s painstaking, and painful, exploration of utopia in the face of extreme poverty, utter joylessness and death, the novel’s enigmatic end is something of a surprise. Comprised of a series of reversals that, were the reader not habituated to the interruptive logic of Mariah’s traumatized brain, would read like a game of fort-da, begins with Mariah’s return to Tangierneck from a season working in the Hillards’ prosperous strawberry fields located miles from the hellish marshes of her people.
Clear that her homecoming is not permanent — her first words, also the chapter’s opening lines, are “I ain’t come back for to stay” — she has returned for the funeral of her best friend, Jacob’s half sister Vyella Upshur.
Just days before Vyella’s death, Mariah received a letter from her sister-in-law wherein the latter, also a well respected member of the Tangierneck church, confesses to multiple abortions and to having committed at least one act of incest with Jacob that resulted in the birth of Ned, her eight year old child. Well aware that her friend was excommunicated for lesser sins, Vyella urges Mariah to share the news with the congregation at her wake.
Mariah, whose dream it has been to condemn her oppressors in the moment of her own absolution, returns with full intent to fulfill Vyella’s request. Almost immediately, she is met with resistance from the “Committee” who senses both her remove and resolve. For a time, Mariah is able to ignore their incessant threat that she do “Vyella’s memory no harm.” Turning into herself, Mariah engages in a familiar dialog with a part of herself untouched by the world:
“Don’t answer her back, Mariah. Go on. Go on. You ain’t even answered Jacob’s question about what was in that letter… Gonna answer them all when you get in that church. Gonna tear out your breasts on the streets of Jerusalem. Gonna rip them from the sockets in the church of Tangierneck. They gonna be surprised what I say.” (261-2)
Even as she maintains her position of strength throughout the long funeral march, Mariah’s incessant narration of the scene of which she is a part — the line that “wound on, moaned, hesitated” and alternated between “crying sorrow” and “chattering” (264) about Vyella’s efforts to build up Tangierneck’s infrastructure — forecasts her fragility.
Despite her efforts to keep a critical distance from the event, the walk through Cleveland Field, Tangierneck’s burial ground where her son Rabbit was recently laid to rest, causes Mariah to dissociate. Lost in the grievous “madness tugging at her brain,” Mariah exits the field and enters the church from which she has been excommunicated.
Upon entering, she is met by her mother who grabs her violently and warns that if she makes trouble, she’ll “make mincemeat out of [her] on this church aisle.” With the “church a-looking at her” (268) Mariah attempts to conserve what remains of her resolve but ultimately folds. Standing at the nave, the site of her beating eight years earlier, Mariah returns Vyella’s letter to its place in her pocketbook, where her fingers come into contact with the thick stack of puckered and grimy cash saved from working the strawberry fields.
Mariah strokes the money that was to afford her move to the city, and, despite every impulse in her body to do otherwise, vows to contribute to the town pool to build a new school in Vyella’s name.
In the little space left, Wright has Mariah undergo the most dramatic of the final chapter’s reversals. After Mariah has fled the church and evaded all attempts to usher her to the burial site, she returns to her old shack.
Initially, she imagines that the interminable toil will “help her to forget and keep on marching.” (268) But as she tries to settle into her duties, she is confronted by Jacob who once again admits that he has not saved the money he has promised, and needs to borrow from her savings “for the land.” Jacob’s mention of “the land,” the primary source of conflict between them, causes Mariah to disconnect.
Clearly in the mood for confession, he follows this with another, non sequitur, admission: “You know Vyella was nothing but my adopted sister. Why would I have anything to do with her.” (269) The proximity of these two confessions causes Mariah to dissociate. Leaving her money on the table, Mariah issues a set of instructions to her children for the following week, exits the house and, as if in a trance, makes her way to the Gut, the river where she goes to end her life.
In a scene that appropriates the descriptive language of Kate Chopin’s gorgeous tragedy of domestic naturalism, The Awakening (reissued in 1964 by Capricorn after being out of print for 50 years and thus in major circulation during the period of This Child’s production), Wright describes Mariah’s submergence into the Gut.
Like Edna Pontellier, Mariah imagines herself “going on and on out to the ocean,” but in contrast to the bourgeois depressive, Mariah cannot expel her children from her thoughts, and, with “tears mixed all up in the Water of the Gut” begs for her children to live. (270, 272) With no transition to indicate her emergence from the water, Mariah returns home.
Encountering Jacob en route, who declares his shock and concern at Mariah’s waterlogged hair and clothes, Mariah refuses to communicate with him and speaks only to herself. Her final words: Kiss my ass, Jacob.
Given my proposition that the novel operates on multiple levels as an allegorical critique of cultural Black nationalism, Mariah’s return home risks being read an act of resignation. Yet what may be perceived as a lack of resolve, or more gravely a betrayal of the novel’s utopic impulse, is a temporary retrogression within the novel’s dialectical hermeneutic.
Although Mariah has not acted on her utopic wish to flee the country for the city, the utopic form of her thought, evidenced by her desire for self-determination for herself and her children and her capacity to think beyond her material circumstance, has endured. For Wright, utopic representation is not a matter of wish fulfillment, nor does it necessitate the reflection of incremental change.
Ultimately, Wright’s purpose in This Child is not to promote a viable political or economic strategy. The novel’s utopic finish can be gleaned by Wright’s final message: a reminder to the reader that the productive force of art is qualitatively different from that of labor: “its essentially subjective qualities assert themselves against the hard objectivity of the class struggle.”(4)
- Within the Cold War milieu, This Child’s Gonna Live was preceded by Ann Petry’s powerful novel The Street, 1946 and Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha (1953).
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- Sarah Wright, “The Lower East Side: A Rebirth of World Vision” in African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter, 1993), 593-596.
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- Karl Marx, “Private Property and Communism” in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. xxxix.
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- Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension (New York: Beacon Books, 1979), 37.
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May/June 2014, ATC 170