Book review: Its not when you die, but how

When I started Richard Wright’s book Uncle Tom’s Children, I expected it to be much like Black Boy, which I had read as a child. But this work, a collection of five mid-length stories, was nothing like the story of my memory.

Each story ends with death or violence, and as you read you expect death to come – it is inevitable. However, these deaths never seem to be in vain, rather they strike the reader as being downpayments and investments to progress that has yet to come. Each story leaves you with the feeling, the certainty, that the future cannot be the same as the past.

In fact, through each short work, you can see the real movement of history, you see progress. The first story, one of the only two in which no one dies, sets the stage, it tells you clearly and in no uncertain terms what the law is. It ends with a warning. The second story tells you how even children simply having fun can easily break the rules, leaving three out of four dead. In the third story even a righteous, hardworking, property-owning life leads to rape, war and murder. But in the fourth, we finally see the rewards of organizing and fighting back, although even here blood does flow. And in the final story, organizing comes only at a cost, sacrifice is not enough; here we see that no battle is easily won. But organizing will win in the long run.

Throughout the course of the book, not only do the stories change, but the depth and dedication of the characters grow. This leaves one to realize that the cost of freedom is never too high a price, in death you will be free, so long as you choose how to die, and stand to face your murderers. Merely fighting is not enough, as the work shows, you must build, the community must grow and all poor people must unity.

The real beauty of this work is not simply in the way it communicates suffering. But in the way it details a cure for that suffering, a solution is offered. The cure does not come all at once, it comes slowly as the ground is prepared for a healthy society to take root. The seeds of this better society are seen in its fight to conquer the corrupt and oppressive system it is destined to replace. Unity, education and investment are the beginnings that will grow.

Richard Wright does not portray each Black character as perfect, nor is each white evil. Rather, everyone carries a degree of responsibility for maintaining and changing our world. As each character begins to realize the potential of their power, their personalities deepen. In the last story death is not an end, but a beginning of a movement. This book educates, not just about the harm of racism infecting a society, but how indifference corrupts the soul, destroys all relationships, and cannot continue forever. Progress is inevitable, even when it is slow.

The author can be reached at brandikishner@yahoo.com