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12 Million Black Voices Essay Topics

12 million black voices; a folk history of the Negro in the United States

Wright, Richard

New York: The Viking Press, 1941. First edition. First edition. Presumed first printing. Hardcover. Good. Rosskam, Edwin (Photo-Direction). 152 p 26 cm. Illustrations. No dust jacket. Cover has some wear and soiling. Farm Security photographers represented include Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Ben Shahn, Jack Delano, and Richard Wright. 86 photographs From Wikipedia: "Richard Nathaniel Wright (September 4, 1908 November 28, 1960) was an African-American author of sometimes controversial novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction. Much of his literature concerns racial themes, especially those involving the plight of African Americans during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. His work helped change race relations in the United States in the mid-20th century....In 1937, Richard Wright moved to New York, where he forged new ties with Communist Party members. He worked on the WPA Writers' Project guidebook to the city, New York Panorama (1938), and wrote the book's essay on Harlem. Wright became the Harlem editor of the Daily Worker. In the summer and fall he wrote over two hundred articles for the Daily Worker and helped edit a short-lived literary magazine New Challenge. The year was also a landmark for Wright because he met and developed a friendship with Ralph Ellison that would last for years, and he learned that he would receive the Story magazine first prize of five hundred dollars for his short story "Fire and Cloud". After Wright received the Story magazine prize in early 1938, he shelved his manuscript of Lawd Today and dismissed his literary agent, John Troustine. He hired Paul Reynolds, the well-known agent of Paul Laurence Dunbar, to represent him. Meanwhile, the Story Press offered Harper all of Wright's prize-entry stories for a book, and Harper agreed to publish them. Wright gained national attention for the collection of four short stories entitled Uncle Tom's Children (1938). He based some stories on lynching in the Deep South. The publication and favorable reception of Uncle Tom's Children improved Wright's status with the Communist party and enabled him to establish a reasonable degree of financial stability. He was appointed to the editorial board of New Masses, and Granville Hicks, prominent literary critic and Communist sympathizer, introduced him at leftist teas in Boston. By May 6, 1938, excellent sales had provided Wright with enough money to move to Harlem, where he began writing the novel Native Son (1940). The collection also earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to complete Native Son. It was selected by the Book of the Month Club as its first book by an African-American author. The lead character, Bigger Thomas, represented the limitations that society placed on African Americans as he could only gain his own agency and self-knowledge by committing heinous acts. Wright was criticized for his works' concentration on violence. In the case of Native Son, people complained that he portrayed a black man in ways that seemed to confirm whites' worst fears. The period following publication of Native Son was a busy time for Wright. In July 1940 he went to Chicago to do research for a folk history of blacks to accompany photographs selected by Edwin Rosskam. While in Chicago he visited the American Negro Exhibition with Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps and Claude McKay. He then went to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he and Paul Green collaborated on a dramatic version of Native Son. In January 1941 Wright received the prestigious Spingarn Medal for noteworthy achievement by a black. Native Son opened on Broadway, with Orson Welles as director, to generally favorable reviews in March 1941. A volume of photographs almost completely drawn from the files of the Farm Security Administration, with text by Wright, Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, was published in October 1941 to wide critical acclaim." Also from Wikipedia: "Louise Rosskam (born Louise Rosenbaum) (March 27, 1910-April 1, 2003) was a photographer for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the Standard Oil Company during the mid-20th century. Together with her.

  • Seller: Ground Zero Books, Ltd.
  • Published: 1941
  • Condition: Good
  • Edition: First edition. First edition. Presumed first printing


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Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices

Richard Wright's 12 Million Black Voices, first published in 1941, is an impassioned essay on the African-American experience: the highs and lows, the triumph and the tragedy, from slavery to Emancipation and sharecropping, to the great Northern migration and life in the urban ghetto. One wouldn't think it possible to distill over two hundred years of African-American life into roughly seventy pages of text, and in such a beautifully poetic manner, but Wright succeeds brilliantly.

Wright's prose is accompanied by classic Depression-era photos from the Farm Security Administration, flawlessly selected by Edwin Rosskam and including the works of the usual FSA heavyweights--Jack Delano, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, et al. The photos are seamlessly integrated into the text, echoing and amplifying Wright's various phrases.

For me, the book bogged down momentarily while Wright discussed the plight of the sharecroppers, but perked up considerably when he described the Great Migration to the cities of the north.

Night and day, in rain and in sun, in winter and in summer, we leave the land. Already, as we sit and look broodingly out over the turning fields, we notice with attention and hope that the dense southern swamps give way to broad, cultivated wheat farms. The spick-and-span farmhouses done in red and green and white crowd out the casual, unpainted gingerbread shacks. Silos take the place of straggling piles of hay. Macadam highways now wind over the horizon instead of dirt roads. The cheeks of farm people are full and ruddy, not sunken and withered like soda crackers. The slow southern drawl, which in legend is so sweet and hospitable but which in fact has brought down our black bodies suffering untold, is superseded by clipped Yankee phrases spoken with such rapidity and neutrality that we, with our slow ears, have difficulty in understanding. And the foreigners--Poles, Germans, Swedes and Italians--we never dreamed that there were so many in the world! Yes, coming north for a Negro sharecropper involves more strangeness than going to another country. It is the beginning of living on a new and terrifying plane of consciousness.

Despite the optimism, note the ominous tone of that last phrase. Wright is startled by the casual and non-venomous behavior of northern whites that he encounters on the northbound train.

Even though we have been told that we need not be afraid, we have lived so long in fear of all white faces that we cannot help but sit and wait. We look around the train and we do not see the old familiar signs: FOR COLORED and FOR WHITE. The train speeds north and we cannot sleep. Our heads sink in a doze, and then we sit bolt-upright, prodded by the thought that we must watch these strange surroundings. But nothing happens; these white men seem impersonal and their very neutrality reassures us--for a while. Almost against our deeper judgment, we try to force ourselves to relax, for these brisk men give no sign of what they feel. They are indifferent. O sweet and welcome indifference!

However, the promise of the Promised Land proves to be short-lived, as the African-American pilgrims find a new kind of discrimination which, while not as blatant as that of the plantation, proves to be no less cruel in its quiet invisibility.

So, under the black mourning pall of smoke from the stacks of American industry, our observing Negro eyes watch a thousand rivulets of blood melt, fuse, blend and flow in a common stream of human unity as it merges with the great American tide. But we never mix with that stream; we are not allowed to. For years we watch the timid faces of poor white peasants--Turks, Czechs, Croats, Finns and Greeks--pass through this curtain of smoke and emerge with the sensitive features of modern men. But our faces do not change. Our cheek-bones remain as unaltered as the stony countenance of the Sphinx.

But despite the degradations of ghetto life--fifty people crammed into an apartment which was built for five, limited job opportunity and virtually no upward mobility, young people turning away from family life and the church--Wright concludes on a positive note, after noting several examples of tenuous progress.

We are with the new tide. We stand at the crossroads. We watch with each new procession. The hot wires carry urgent appeals. Print compels us. Voices are speaking. Men are moving! And we shall be with them...

This concluding passage is followed by a striking photograph by Carl Mydans in which a young African American man stands at the rear door of his tenement. The building is poor, worn, unpainted, and the man is somewhat shabbily dressed. He stands, with a mangy dog lying at his feet, squinting into the late-day sun, not exactly smiling but with a look of mild optimism on his face. Looking at his surroundings, one wouldn't think he has much to be optimistic about, but it is none the less an image of unquestionable hope and positivity. This memorable image of simultaneous deprivation and hope is perfectly emblematic of 12 Million Black Voices as a whole.

December 17, 2004 in Books | Permalink



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