The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 1984 v16 i2 p44(19)

Richard Wright's flood stories and the great Mississippi River flood of 1927: social and historical backgrounds. William Howard.

Growing up in the Mississippi Delta, Richard Wright must have observed flooding and heard stories and legends about floods all his young life. Constance Webb reports that, as a child, Wright heard the church bells of Natchez warning of possible disaster and watched as the townspeople "frenziedly pilled] sandbag offerings along the levees." (1) His autobiography indicates that, as a young man living and working on his own in Memphis, he read accounts of the worst Mississippi River flood in its recorded history--the Great Flood of 1927--which deluged millions of acres of land, left tens of thousands homeless, and attracted the attention of the world. (2) Because he had only limited information about the 1927 flood--and that information was supplied by white periodicals--he may not have read of its dire effects on black sharecropping families living along the river where he and his family had once resided. He may not have known of the segregation on rescue barges and in the refugee camps nor of the beating and occasional murdering of uncooperative black refugees. But from his own knowledge of the South, he could make an accurate guess at what transpired. Within a few years after the event he would combine the little he had learned from newspaper accounts with the recollections of Southern-born black friends whom he met in Chicago and his own memories of life in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee to compose two stories that not only create an authentic sense of the flood itself but also reach deeper beneath the historical accounts for the truth of the Southern black experience. What he had not read in the white press he added from his own experience, his family's and friends' experience, and the experience of his entire race.

One of the few benefits of the immensity of the 1927 flood was that it sparked interest in the South and drew the world's attention to it. Black leaders hoped to capitalize on this attention by pointing out the archaic social system still operating there and by revealing the black sharecroppers' suffering at the hands of it. They successfully influenced the Coolidge administration to appoint a Colored Advisory Commission on the flood which they hoped would not only gain aid for the refugees, most of whom were black, but also convince the federal government to invest enough money in the rebuilding of the South to enable black workers to become independent. (3) The black press supported these leaders' efforts by publishing many articles that portrayed the special plight of black flood victims and sought to show the world that their suffering stemmed not only from natural catastrophe but from the Southern social system and its labor practices as well. (4) The documented results of these efforts provide us with invaluable social and historical information about life in the Mississippi Delta as well as an accurate description of the bitter experience of black flood victims. Moreover, they offer a most interesting standard by which we can measure Wright's art and trace his development as an artist. With little likelihood that he read the numerous reports on the flood recorded by black periodicals, it is astonishing how closely his stories correspond with them.

Wright arrived in Memphis in the autumn of 1925 (5) seeking work so he could eventually pay for his mother and brother to join him. While employed by an optical company, he routinely stopped at the ground floor of his building to see a porter friend and to read the early edition of the Memphis Commerical Appeal before going to work. Not long after he began this ritual, he came upon a rejoinder to an editorial by H. L. Mencken, a discovery that interested him in Mencken and eventually led to his reading of several important novelists specializing in social realism, among them Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. (6) The Appeal editorial, "Another Mencken Absurdity," was a righteously indignant response to a satirical editorial by Mencken entitled "The Mississippi Flood." Mencken had remarked that it was difficult to take pity on the flood victims since none of them had enough intelligence to get out of the way of the water. (7) The dates of the two editorials suggest that Wright had access to news about the flood, perhaps from its beginning in April. From the day after the April 21 break in the levee at Mound Landing, Mississippi, through the recession of the flood in late May, then, he likely saw the banner headlines and numerous articles that the Appeal devoted to the disaster.

Yet his two stories about floods were probably not written until shortly before he left Chicago for New York, nearly ten years afterwards. "Silt," later reprinted in Eight Men as "The Man Who Saw the Flood," appeared in New Masses in 1937; "Down by the Riverside" was published in Uncle Tom's Children in 1938. (8) They were composed soon after he began attending meetings of the Chicago John Reed Club in which he met several Southern-born blacks whose tales of the South influenced the writing of the stories comprising Uncle Tom's Children. It is documented that the tales of David Pointdexter were particularly influential on "Big Boy Leaves Home"; and, given his experiences along the Mississippi River, Pointdexter could easily have influenced the writing of the flood stories as well. (9)

Both "Down by the Riverside" and "The Man Who Saw the Flood" are about a flood and its effects on black sharecroppers. As suggested by the title of the volume in which "Down by the Riverside" appears--Uncle Tom's Children--on one level the stories are written from the same impulse as Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Both the stories and the novel portray the plight of the black family. They appeal not only to the reader's sympathy as the family struggles with elemental problems--finding food, shelter, and medical supplies, giving birth, fleeing danger--but also elicit a sense of outrage at the social injustices done to that family. In both the stories and the novel, the black family risks the dual dangers of hostile natural forces and a racist society. Mann's rowing of his family through treacherous floodwaters while trying to avoid the racist Heartfield is reminiscent of Eliza's saving herself and baby from slave traders by jumping from ice floe to ice floe across the threatening waters of the Ohio River. In both cases, racism is as powerful and unpredictable--and as much to be feared--as the violence of nature itself, and the authors' juxtapositioning of the two forces is a means of illustrating social evil by measuring it against the more familiar concept of natural danger.

On another level, however, Wright's stories are not at all like Stowe's novel. As suggested by the title of the volume in which "The Man Who Saw the Flood" appears--Eight Men--the two flood stories are about men, individuals, and the existential aloneness and numbness they feel as they are confronted with both an oppressive society and a frightening natural catastrophe. Although the existential phase of Wright's career did not come until later on in his life, there are signs in these stories that he is beginning to seek such a philosophy as an alternative to sentimental protest fiction. This aspect of the stories depends less on the familial appeal than on the harsh facts of solitary existence. After losing almost all his belongings to the flood, Tom of "The Man Who Saw the Flood" finds in the catastrophe's aftermath no prospect for the future except the same hard, daily existence; the same mounting debt; and the same fear of indignity and violence from white people. Similarly, at the end of a dogged struggle for survival, Mann, the protagonist of "Down by the Riverside," finds his wife and baby dead and himself helplessly facing the prospect of losing his own life. The fact that neither Tom nor Mann have any exceptional gifts with which to confront the hostilities of the world makes them quite different from their progenitor Uncle Tom, whose Christian patience is intended to redeem the nightmare of slavery and leave the reader with hope. Mann and Tom are ordinary--not unlikable but not particularly likable either--and are distinguished only by a determination to survive in a world whose unrelieved bleakness is symbolized by the endless waters of the flood or the silt-draped landscape left after it. Their virtues are not as easy to recognize or admire as Uncle Tom's are. Wright's removal of the sentimental pillow leaves the reader with only the nightmare, deprived of the comforts of consolation or hope, and as unsheltered from the harsh realities of Southern life as the stories' protagonists.

Implicitly, then, Wright's two stories contradict a truism so prevalent in popular literature and the press describing the flood experience of 1927: that the commonality of the experience led to unity, cooperation, and goodwill between the races. This comment by John Sharp Williams, former congressman and senator from Mississippi, exemplifies the view controverted by Wright:

   I sometimes think that God lets great calamities fall on us ... in order
   that we may see, realize and remember the goodness of the hearts and the
   generosity of the impulses of our fellow men and women--the spectacle of
   it, demonstrating in spite of our spells of pessimism and cynicism that we
   are all, after all, one--in spite of differences of section, politics,
   religion, and race. (10)

It is not that Wright was insensitive to the possibilities of a generous social consciousness aroused by natural catastrophe. In fact, he says that he got the idea for "Down by the Riverside" from reading a book entitled Basis of Social Consciousness in the Chicago Public Library. He was particularly struck by an incident cited in the book, in which a woman dived into Lake Geneva to save a complete stranger. As Wright remembered it, this example of the preeminence of the social consciousness over the individual's "own sense of self-preservation"

   was the spark that set going a whole train of thought--the Mississippi
   River, the excitement and the fear that accompany flood waters. I decided
   to use a flood to show the relationship between the two races in the South
   in a time of general tragedy. The story practically wrote itself. (11)

Of course, Wright's depiction of social consciousness is tempered by his knowledge of the society he is describing. In fact, it is tempered to the point that both stories seem designed less to depict the sort of consciousness that motivated the heroic woman of Geneva than to depict the lack of that consciousness in the South. The white townspeople in "Down by the Riverside" round up all the black males available and force them at gunpoint to pile sandbags on the levee; Heartfield's response to the distress of Mann and his family is to start shooting at the "nigger" whom he assumes stole his boat; Burgess's response to Tom's plea for relief after the deluge is to offer him yet another loan, a response as inflexible as the system of peonage it perpetuates. Wright's awareness that the flood represented an excellent opportunity to show the arousal of social consciousness did not supersede his knowledge and experience of the South and racial relations there.

Those periodicals closest to the black sufferers began their coverage of the 1927 flood with a hopeful attitude similar to that of Wright but, like him, soon came to a more pessimistic view. (12) Typical of that initial optimistic feeling are two front-page cartoons that appeared in the Chicago Defender early in the flood. The first depicts a black and a white woman holding each other as they ride some wooden beams through rough floodwaters. The caption reads, "No Color Line Here." (13) The second, entitled "Humanity Speaks," shows two white women in flowing Greek-goddess robes. One of the women, labelled "Humanity," is standing in the middle of the "Mississippi Flood" holding a black child in one arm and a white child in the other. The other woman, labelled "Charity," is standing on dry land holding bags of money. Humanity's words to Charity are, "Remember, the flood knows no racial differences--so act likewise." (14) Even as they were expressing cautious hopefulness, however, black periodicals, like the Defender, were also reporting that goodness of heart and generosity of impulse were by no means the order of the day and that black sharecroppers, like the families in Wright's stories, bore a disproportionate amount of the suffering. Although some of this suffering may have been caused by the simple fact of geography--more blacks than whites lived in the path of the water--much of it also lay in the social and economic segregation and peonage which were unmoved by the disaster.

Examples of the cruelty of the Southern status quo were present in the earliest reports on the flood. Following the first levee collapse, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger indicated that "several hundred negro plantation workers lost their lives." The Commercial Appeal reported that 400 black men were abandoned on top of the levee. (15) Black investigators charged that, although the break had been anticipated, black workers were forced at gunpoint to labor up to the last moment to ensure the safety of whites and their property. In a letter to President Coolidge, Sidney Dillon Redmond, a prominent black physician, lawyer, businessman, and member of the Colored Advisory Commission, complained that not only were whites taken from the levees before blacks but also "mules have been taken on board and Negroes left in peril." (16) Even where conscription and discrimination were less evident, the rescue of black families followed the rules of Southern status quo: without means to evacuate themselves and their belongings, they were left to the mercy of white rescue operations, which tended to ignore them.

In "Down by the Riverside," Wright parallels Redmond's and the Appeal's accounts of black conscription with his own conception of it. Through the force of Mann's description of the activity on the levee, Wright melds his artistic concerns with his concern for capturing the truth of the flood experience. As Mann is being transferred from the hospital to the levee, he sees "long, black lines of men weaving snake-fashion about the levee-top.... They were carrying heavy bags on their shoulders and when they reached a certain point the bags were dumped down. Then they turned around, slowly, with bent backs, going to get more bags." At the workers' backs, "soldiers with rifles" stood guard over them. Soon after he observes this scene, the levee breaks and "on the levee-top the long lines of men merged into one whirling black mass." (17) Although the latter description is reminiscent of the newspaper accounts of the first levee break, it is Wright the artist whose rhetoric forces us to see the lines of black men moving under the burden of their labor as if in the chains of slavery. The flood provides Wright with a means of epitomizing Southern racial relations.

Many factual accounts of the Great Flood remark that Delta landlords were fearful of their tenants abandoning the flood area, a migration that would not only deprive the community of low-cost clean-up crews but also leave the land without laborers to work it. In 1928, Crisis, the journal of the NAACP, ran a three-part series on the flood. Of particular interest is the section explaining the economic system that prevailed in the rural South before the catastrophe and defining peonage, an illegal state of partial slavery used to hold sharecroppers to the land. According to the journal, peonage followed naturally from the sharecropping system. The planter advanced credit to his tenants at the plantation store. When the crops were harvested, the amount owed was deducted from their share. Since their earnings were rarely enough to pay their debt, they were perpetually bound to the planter, unable to settle an account that grew progressively worse every season, and not permitted to leave until they could. If they tried to run away, they risked imprisonment, beating, or death. Denied the right of free movement, these sharecroppers became the victims of a kind of slavery that went far beyond legitimate sharecropping arrangements. The Crisis article makes the point that growing cotton was a gamble--the planter lost money as the result of a bad crop or a fluctuating market. He often had to go to local banks for a "furnish loan," a mortgage on a potential crop. This loan paid for the materials necessary to plant the crop and to provide his tenants with food, clothing, and medicine. In order to qualify for the loan, the planter had to prove that he had a tenant family for every twenty acres. It was essential, therefore, to retain a full number of tenants. It is easy to see why floods were a particularly anxious time for the landowner: in the general confusion, many tenants tried to run away. In addition, some states had laws freeing them from their contract in case the crop was destroyed by natural disaster, although a planter could easily sidestep these laws by keeping his tenants ignorant of them and by seeing that no other alternative presented itself, is [text missing]

Consequently, black refugee camps resembled concentration camps more than refuges from disaster: they were a convenient means of keeping sharecroppers in one place. The organization in charge of the camps, the Red Cross, aided by its enforcement agency, the National Guard, was unofficially obliged to return the refugees to their employers after the flood receded. Redmond reported that Mississippi National Guardsmen "with rifles on their shoulders" stood guard around the Negro camps but that "this was not true around the white camps." Thomas Campbell, field director of the Negro Agricultural Extension Service, sounded a similar note and also remarked on the whites' fear of letting outsiders into the camps: "The whole question seems to have been whether guards were stationed there to keep the refugees in or to keep the public out." In a request to Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to break up the camps, Walter White of the NAACP contended that they were slave labor penetentiaries where blacks were tagged with their names and the names of the plantation owners for whom they worked. (19) The Chicago Defender captured the dilemma of blacks in a quote from Dr. Felix J. Underwood, executive officer, Mississippi State Board of Health: "... it was necessary to guard the `Negroes' because after the flood they would be needed to get the plantations in shape. Every refugee must return to his respective town and do reconstruction work." (20) The cooperation and goodwill observed by John Sharp Williams may have been remarkable to him more because of the rarity of their occurrence than because they were the norm.

It is clear that, while the natural disaster altered the Mississippi landscape, the Mississippi social system remained intact. When black sharecroppers returned to their homes, they were materially worse off than before: what few possessions they had owned were washed away, and to start over required borrowing from their landlords and going further into debt. In "The Man Who Saw the Flood," Wright describes a black family's weary return to a silt-covered house. Except for a "tired cow," the returning refugees have lost all their farm animals. The barn, pigpen, and chickenhouse have washed away and so has the neighbor's house. They have no idea whether their neighbors have survived. As they discover the remnants of their old life--a plow, a box of matches and some tobacco, mud-covered spoons, an ax--there is an increasing optimism about the prospects ahead. But when one of the children says she is hungry, Tom knows he must go "back t Burgess," his landlord, and a deeper despair than that caused by the flood overtakes him: "Lawd, but Ah sho hate t start all over wid tha white man. Ah'd leave here ef Ah could. Ah owes im nigh eight hundred dollahs ... n a lot mo other things. Ef we keeps on like this tha white man'll own us body n soul." When Burgess arrives Tom asks if he will "knock somethin off" his debt, but Burgess cites an iron law of economics which Tom cannot contradict: "You ate that grub, and I got to pay for it, Tom." As further impetus to return to the old economic arrangement, Burgess says that "two of the boys" who "tried to run away ... and dodge their debts" have been picked up by the sheriff. When Burgess offers to "stake" him with supplies and negotiate a way to pay it back, Tom reluctantly submits, thus returning to a state of peonage. As Tom rides off in the buggy with Burgess, his wife calls to him: "... bring some 'lasses for Sal," repeating the hunger motif that pervades the story. Familial responsibility--the necessity of feeding his family--as well as the threat of the law forces Tom to endure a system that "is jus too hard." Despite the trauma and hardship caused by the disaster, life afterwards reverts inexorably to normal. The flood only serves to reinforce the dependence of sharecroppers on their landlords. (21)

To induce Tom to submit to his former economic arrangement, Burgess brings up the "boys" who tried to "dodge their debts," an illustration of how the South cemented together its institutionalized forms of oppression--peonage, segregation, manipulation--with the ever-present threat of racial violence. The NAACP estimated that between 1889 and 1922 over 3436 people were lynched in the United States; most of them in the South. (22) By 1927 the practice had not died. In fact, the Chicago Defender theorized that the Great Flood had brought on more violence than usual in the unusually violent South. Between May and mid-July of 1927 it and the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported seven major incidents of such violence. Three occurred in Arkansas; four in Mississippi. The most notorious of the Arkansas lynchings took place in Little Rock only a few days after the discovery that a twelve-year-old white girl, Floella McDonald, had been assaulted and killed by Lonnie Dixon, the sixteen-year-old son of a black janitor. A mob threatened, but failed, to lynch Dixon. The atmosphere was still volatile a few days later when John Carter supposedly attacked a white woman and her daughter on a deserted road. Carter was hanged, riddled with bullets, dragged through the town's business district behind an automobile to the black neighborhood, then burned on a funeral pyre. After Carter's lynching, so many blacks living in and around the town abandoned their homes that local officials worried about labor depletion and told the railroad not to issue any more tickets to blacks. (23)

In Mississippi, perhaps the most heated controversy of the 1927 flood occurred over the handling of black refugees in Greenville, and particularly over the shooting of a black man who resisted conscription. The Defender accused William Alexander Percy, head of the local Red Cross, of forcing blacks to clean up the white sections of town. One man refused to obey a police officer's summons to work and was shot and killed. (24)

Also in support of its theory that the flood had stirred an outbreak of Southern violence, the Defender cited the lynching of four more Mississippi black men. The first was killed reportedly for failing to tip his hat when speaking to a white girl. Two were burnt at the stake for killing a white man who had been threatening to shoot them. And a fourth, named Dan Anderson, was lynched for shooting his white landlord. They had been engaged in a dispute "over a debt of longstanding." The landlord pulled a gun, Anderson struggled with him and shot him. Anderson escaped to Alabama but was found and returned "to a point just across the state line" where, in the Defender's words, a mob of "more than 500 prominent city officials, clergymen, physicians and lawyers ... riddled his body with 200 bullets." According to the newspaper, this lynching was only one of many perpetrated "by whites whose wrath has been aroused over the recent flood." (25)

The newspaper's inference that the outbreak of lynchings in the South was related to the flood is further illustrated in two of its front-page cartoons appearing within two months of each other. (26) The first, entitled "Disaster Doesn't Interfere with His Business," shows a fiendish-looking white man labelled "The Mob Spirit" wading through floodwaters carrying a rope in one giant hand and the limp body of a black man and a piece of paper with "The Arkansas Lynching" inscribed on it in the other. The second shows a similarly fiendish white man returning to his flood-ravaged farm holding before him a bundle tagged "race hatred" and carrying a bag labelled "mob rule" over his shoulder. The caption reads, "Among the first to return when the flood waters recede." Certainly, the Defender's cause and effect theory had some supporting evidence: soon after the initial shock of the disaster, two of the three most severely hit states did report an inordinate number of violent racial incidents, a fact that correlates with John Hope Franklin's observation that racial violence has historically increased in times of social upheaval. (27) However, the newspaper overstates its case when it attributes lynchings in areas far from the Mississippi River--the Alabama/Mississippi state line, for example--to a flood.

Although Wright never witnessed a lynching and had hardly come into personal contact with white people during his childhood, his very identity was bound up with them and the fear associated with them. In Black Boy, he writes:

   Nothing challenged the totality of my personality so much as this pressure
   of hate and threat that stemmed from the invisible whites. I would stand
   for hours on the doorsteps of neighbors' houses listening to their talk,
   learning how a white woman had slapped a black woman, how a white man had
   killed a black man. It filled me with awe, wonder, and fear.... It was as
   though I was continuously reacting to the threat of some natural force
   whose hostile behavior could not be predicted. I had never in my life been
   abused by whites, but I had already become as conditioned to their
   existence as though I had been the victim of a thousand lynchings. (28)

Wright's earliest and closest encounter with the danger of white people came in Arkansas when his Uncle Hoskins was shot and killed by a white man. According to the account in Black Boy, Hoskins had owned a "flourishing liquor business" which whites had coveted. Although he had been threatened many times and told to leave town, he had stayed in order "to amass more money." One night he went to his saloon without his gun and did not return the next morning. A boy brought news of his death and warned, "White folks say they'll kill all his kinfolks!" Before dawn the next morning, the Wrights and Aunt Maggie, Hoskins' wife, had packed and moved 25 miles away to West Helena where they "kept huddled in the house all day and night, afraid to be seen on the streets." They felt they were in too much danger even to claim the body. (29)

The death of Hoskins was not an isolated nor extraordinary incident in the Delta region. Racial violence was common, and it hung oppressively over the young Wright's consciousness for good reason. Less than one year after he and his family left Memphis the first time, a black man was lynched--burned alive and dismembered--by a mob of 5000 people five miles outside of town. In Elaine, Arkansas, not long after the Wrights left Phillips County, a riot erupted as a result of black sharecroppers' efforts to form a union. Over one hundred blacks were killed. (30) And Mississippi, the state in which Wright was born and lived much of his early life, had the highest lynching rate in the nation. (31)

No wonder, then, that Wright's youth had been ingrained with a continual fear and distrust of whites. Nor is it surprising that his fiction should attempt to portray the undercurrents of black fear and distrust. "Down by the Riverside" focuses more on blacks' apprehensions of whites than on their fear of the flood. As Mann waits for Bob to return with a boat, he hears shots in the distance and thinks to himself, "... in times like these theyll shoota nigger down jus lika dog n think nothin of it. Tha shootin might mean anything. But likely as not its jus some po black man gone...." Conditioned to believe whites were not to be trusted, especially in time of turmoil, Mann decides to take his pistol with him into the white world. It is this same intense fear and dread from which Grannie speaks when she at first refuses to "meet mah death today" in a stolen boat. So too, when she chastizes Bob, "Son, yuh a fool t go stealin them white folks boats in times like these." Her dread is instinctive and, in the following quotation, her recollections clearly intersect with a forboding prescience: "Sistah James boy got killed in a flood jus like this." At still another level, Wright's fiction brings to the surface an intimate function of the oral tradition, as Mann recalls "tales of whole black families being killed because some relative had done something wrong." (32) Grannie and Mann know that the flood will only make racial relations that much more perilous. Their knowledge is intuitive, inbred, as Wright's was, by the stories heard "on the doorsteps of neighbors' houses."

And yet, in a seemingly contradictory fashion, Wright has his characters believe that, somehow, whites will recognize their dilemma and show some mercy. This hope, of course, is against hope; for invariably the characters' instinctive distrust proves to have been the best directive for a course of action. Although Mann hopes Heartfield will recognize the extenuating circumstances and forgive the theft of his boat, although Elder Murray prays that the Lord will "soften the hard hearts of them white folks there in town," and although Mann hopes against hope that the whites will help rather than hinder him so his wife Lulu will not die ("they would not let a baby kill a woman"), both his and Grannie's original instincts suggest the more appropriate survival technique: it would be far better to shun whites. As it turns out, the theft of a boat is far more important than the impending and needless death of Lulu: Heartfield's reply to Mann's plea for help is "Nigger, where you steal that boat?" (33) The soldiers at the Red Cross hospital are more preoccupied with Mann's dexterity at rowing the swollen river than with his wife's suffering. When one of them does acknowledge that there is a problem, he refers to it brutally: "... his. bitch is sick. Having a picaninny." The doctor and soldier who witness Lulu's death offer Mann the assurance that he is "lucky": "You ought to be glad youre not dead in a flood like this." (34) The only degree of cooperation between Mann and white people occurs between him and the Colonel, and this involves a slave/master relationship. The Colonel's goodwill is at once condescending and paternalistic, and it is only fitting that this unwitting patron, completely ignorant of the trials Mann must face for his life, blithely hands him the slip of paper that dooms him. (35)

Inasmuch as Wright depicts the fear of whites in his black characters, he also depicts the fear of blacks in whites. During the Great Flood, white paranoia, more than any profound conviction about the sanctity of segregation, led to separation on rescue vessels, segregated refugee camps, beatings, and lynchings. Whites' fear of difference in color could quickly verge on the hysterical, with miscegenation and rape the nightmares of an inexplicable terror. The anodyne for this fear during times of social chaos was either to emasculate the black male (often through lynching) or to put his masculinity into service. On May 1, 1927, the Commercial Appeal described an example of this latter phenomenon in an article entitled, "`Trouble' His Favorite Dish: Jim Guards Refugees Alone." This front-page story told of Jim Hursey, "a huge black Samson," whose service to whites in quelling the rumblings of fellow blacks assuaged white fears and pandered to their need for a docile, "good nigger." Hursey was in charge of keeping order among 5000 Negroes in the Vicksburg refugee camps (evidently before the National Guard arrived). He took care of his "own kind" and disciplined "bad niggers." That it was necessary to make a legend of Big Jim indicates how deep-rooted was the whites' conviction that the black race was intimidating and required a Samson-like guard to restrain it. (36)

In both "The Man Who Saw the Flood" and "Down by the Riverside," Wright counteracts the rigid stereotypes of black males by imbuing his black male characters with a range of complex emotions and motivations. A species of white fear of blacks is nevertheless a crucial part of the stories. It is best illustrated in "Down by the Riverside": one of the white people in the Red Cross camp, hearing that a white woman is accusing a black man of something, immediately asks, "Did he bother a white woman?" Later, in the kangaroo court set up to try Mann, Mrs. Heartfield is asked three times if he "bothered" her and her little girl. That he could have had other motives for his behavior seems unimportant in the wake of white preoccupation with the idea that he may have raped a white woman and her child. In other words, the whites' obsessive belief that the black male posed a threat to white women and children and their eagerness to make his crime more heinous by making his victims less able to defend themselves were more the cause of his destruction than was the crime for which he was actually charged. (37)

The final report of the Colored Advisory Commission noted that black flood refugees suffered low morale and a deep despair. Because they were not as well-informed, as the white population, the flood came as a terrible shock. Many barely escaped with their lives and perhaps lost relatives or neighbors to the waters. (38) By reporting on the bleakness of conditions in the South before the flood as well as on the hardships caused by it, the Commission hoped to elicit a generous response from the federal government to rebuild the flooded areas: it hoped the government would invest its money to improve the lives of the poor, not merely to restore the status quo. The report stated that the Delta Negroes "lived not only in a state of fear but a state of abject poverty although they work from year to year." The homes they lost to the floodwaters were usually nothing more than shacks. They were financially bound to their white landlords and dependent on their good graces, and if the landlords were unscrupulous, as in the case of those, who, upon receiving free supplies from the Red Cross, made their tenants pay for them, nothing could be done about it. The report argued that it would be cruel to make devastated black refugees return to this same life after the floodwaters receded and noted that the sharecroppers commonly expressed their aspirations for a better life in a refugee-camp song which proclaimed "that the flood had washed away the old account ... {and} had emancipated them from a condition of peonage." (39)

Wright's fictional depiction of despair in "The Man Who Saw the Flood" parallels the desolation of real victims described in the Commission report. It is the despair of the sharecropping family returning home to live and work "under the lion's paw" with the futile, though fervent, hope that somehow the account will be erased. Overshadowing the events of the story is the characters' consciousness of what has recently happened to them. They are not only tired from their siege with the flood, but are also apprehensive and even a little hopeful about the future. It's as if the flood has given them a new perspective; and, for a moment, returning home has some of the novelty of starting afresh. Their instincts tell them that the extraordinary occurrence of disaster has changed things, and they allow themselves to hope that the flood's aftermath will bring with it some improvements: if not the promise of a more comfortable life at least the promise of some relief from their debt. Of course, they are wrong. They must return to the squalor of their former life even less equipped than before to meet the needs of a family, and not only is there no relief from past debts but there are extensive new ones to be paid as well. If it was a shock to face the flood, so is it shocking to realize that such a shattering experience to them personally should have absolutely no effect on the hard regulations of the white world. The story's title suggests that seeing the flood led Tom to some awakening, some epiphany. It certainly implies a change of some kind in Tom's life. Yet, in the end, Tom submits to Burgess and returns to his former lifestyle. The only manifestation of a change is depicted very subtly when he hesitates to follow Burgess after being offered a loan to start over:

   Tom said nothing. He rested his back against the post and looked at the
   mud-filled fields.

   "Well," asked Burgess. "You coming?" Tom said nothing. He got slowly to the
   ground and pulled himself into the buggy. (40)

By "saying nothing" after being questioned by a white man, Tom reveals as much of his altered state of mind as he dares. He views the mud-filled fields from a different perspective, but he submits because no other option is available. Unlike the Biblical story, in which not only the flood but also its aftermath have significance, the fact that Tom has seen the flood has little bearing on his life. It is as if his economic situation renders everything in his life but his poverty and dependence valueless.

"Down by the Riverside," concentrating on the flood itself, illustrates how the shock of it, along with the oppressiveness of a society aroused by danger, leads a Southern black man to despair and death. Early in the story, Wright paraphrases Mann's thoughts: "It just did not seem fair that one man should be hit so hard and on so many sides at once." All the seeds for spring planting--the only hope he has of ever getting ahead--are wet and rotting. "Ef it ain one thing its ernother. When it rains it pos." His despair is caused not only by the immediate situation--fear of the levee breaking, Lulu's pregnancy, how to salvage his household--but also by the grim prospects for the future: no seeds, the mule sold, no money, no food. The flood forces the action of the story, making usually routine difficulties take on frightening dimensions and making it imperative that Mann act. Put in an almost impossible situation of poverty and immobility, he has no choice if he wants to succeed but to take chances. He takes a chance in refusing to leave on the Red Cross boat, hoping that when the water recedes "he [will] be the first to get back to the fields and start spring plowing." But with the water continuing to rise, he is forced to send Bob to sell his mule in order to buy a boat. He chances Bob finding a boat. He chances that the whites will be sympathetic: that Heartfield will understand why he had to commandeer his boat, that the Red Cross hospital will take care of Lulu. He even chances shooting Heartfield to save Lulu's and his family's lives. Once he has reached this stage, he knows that there is "no use in his rowing any longer." At this point, he knows an absolute despair: he knows his life is no longer his own. The South has taught that to kill a white man, even in self-defense, is automatically to forfeit one's own life.

In one sense, it is Mann's own mental attitude--the defeatist, fatalistic belief instilled by Southern society that one can only function within the limits prescribed by that society--that sends him inexorably to his death. Either his inability to explain his situation or his resigned belief that it will not do any good to explain keeps him from confiding his secret to Elder Murray or to Brinkley, the enthusiastic black youth who drives the rescue boat, either one of whom might save him. Once at Heartfield's for the second time, his instinct to murder the Heartfield family in order to preserve the secret of his shooting of the white postmaster is easily sidetracked when Brinkley calls to him. He could not murder "if someone were looking." Instead, he obeys Heartfield's adolescent son "like a little child" and leads the Heartfields to the rescue boat, knowing that their survival means his own death. Finally, when he arrives at the refugee camp he feels the whites behind him and knows "they got me now." He gives up, resigning his fate to God: "Lawd, save me now!" (41) That Mann, in trying to save his family, is successful in overcoming the violent forces of nature but fails to survive the obstacles erected by white society is a bleak commentary on the South. It suggests that an unthinking force like a flood is less malevolent to a troubled black family than other human beings.

With instinct telling him not to use the stolen boat and not to go into town, Mann doggedly does what he has to--what any human being would have to do. He is killed for not being what Southern society wants him to be. He might have met its expectations if he had acted superhumanly and renounced the stolen boat, letting Lulu, and perhaps the rest of the family, die in the flood; or he could have acted subhumanly and grovelled at the feet of Heartfield, perhaps to have been beaten or killed and probably also to have let Lulu die unattended. He does neither. Resigned to his own fate, he does what he can to save his family and is punished for it. With "Down by the Riverside" in mind, one can better understand Crisis' description of the black refugees of Mississippi: "They had come from scenes of horror, many of them, greater than any white refugee knew, as the helplessness of the Negro in Mississippi exceeds anything known to whites." (42)

According to one estimate, of the 608,000 who lost their homes in the Great Flood of 1927, 555,000 were black. (43) To the Chicago Defender, black refugees were "double sufferers," attempting to save themselves, their families, and their belongings at the same time as they were trying to keep from being enslaved by white people. (44) Wright, although he must have read some newspaper accounts of the flood, relied mostly on his own recollections of the South to portray the suffering, despair, and fear common to the black people living there. His fiction conveys social truths that correspond surprisingly with the reports of black journalists and social critics. His portrayal of the peculiarly Southern relationship between whites and blacks and the intricate web of power and dependence between them is grounded in his personal experiences in the Delta, and yet corresponds uncannily with recorded facts of which he was mostly unaware. His stories clearly reveal the effects of an oppressive social system in which aspiration is thwarted by an economy biased against the laborer. In addition, they bring alive his childhood perception that white people were like a natural force--indifferent, powerful, and unpredictable--threatening to intrude into black life when and to the extent that they pleased.

Writing the flood stories must have been a painful but necessary experience for Wright. It forced him to draw upon, and come to terms with, memories of his life in the South--recollections dominated by unhappiness, hunger, and fear. Coming at a time when he was particularly receptive to writings critical of a society that had caused him, his family, and his race so much pain, the flurry of journalistic activity attending the flood of 1927 exposed him to alternative points of view (like those of Mencken) that must have spurred his imagination as much as the flood itself. It seems appropriate that, when he did finally come to write fiction, he turned to a natural and social setting with which he was familiar. He captialized on the flood, then, using it as a vehicle to express the vivid and haunting impressions of his youth within the context of his newly found social consciousness. The result is a compelling and remarkably accurate portrait of the Southern black experience.

(1) Constance Webb, Richard Wright: A Biography (New York: Putnam's, 1968), p. 20.

(2) For an account of the Great Flood with particular emphasis on its effects on refugees, see Pete Daniel, Deep'n as It Come: The 1927 Mississippi River Flood (New York: Oxford, 1977).

(3) Pete Daniel, The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901-1969 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972), p. 161.
(4) For example, see these Chicago Defender articles: "Use Troops in Flood Area to Imprison Farm Hands; Herd Refugees Like Cattle," 7 May 1927, p. 1; "Troops Drive Refugees to Forced Labor," 21 May 1927, p. 1; "Work or Die of Hunger Is Dixie Order," 4 June 1927, p. 1; "Work or Go Hungry Edict Perils Race," 11 June 1927, p. 1; "`Work or Die' Edict Perils Race: Flood Refugee Shot to Death by Cop," 16 July 1927, p. 1. Also see Walter White, "The Negro and the Flood," The Nation 124 (22 June 1927), 688-89; and "The Flood, the Red Cross and the National Guard," Crisis 35 (January, February, and March 1928), 5-7, 41-43, 80-81.
(5) Black Boy (New York: Perennial, 1966), p. 228; Michel Fabre, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, tr. Isabel Barzun (New York: Morrow, 1973), p. 60. Addison Gayle, in Richard Wright: Ordeal of a Native Son (Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1980), p. 41, identifies 1926 as the year of Wright's arrival. He does not explain why his date differs from Fabre's biography or from Wright's autobiography.
(6) Black Boy, pp. 267-77; Keneth Kinnamon, The Emergence of Richard Wright (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972), pp. 41-43.
(7) "Another Mencken Absurdity," Memphis Commercial Appeal, 28 May 1927, p. 6; "The Mississippi Flood," The Baltimore Sun, 23 May 1927. See also, Kinnamon, pp. 41-42.
(8) Kinnamon, p. 82. Eight Men (Cleveland: World, 1961); Uncle Tom's Children (New York: Harper and Row, 1938); "Silt," New Masses, XXIV (24 August 1937), 19-20.
(9) Fabre, pp. 106-07, 113. See also Wright's account of Pointdexter's influence in The God That Failed, ed. Richard Crossman (New York: Bantam Books, 1965), pp. 103-46.
(10) Deep's as it Come, pp. 5445.
(11) From Writers' Club Bulletin, I (Columbia University, 1938), 15. Cited by Fabre, pp. 121-22.
(12) See, for example, Jesse O. Thomas, "In the Path of the Flood," Opportunity, 5 (August 1927), 236; White, 688-89; and "The Flood, the Red Cross and the National Guard," 5-7, 41-43, 80-81.
(13) Chicago Defender, 30 April 1927.
(14) Chicago Defender, 7 May 1927.
(15) Jackson Clarion-Ledger, 24 April 1927, p. 1; Memphis Commercial Appeal, 22 April 1927, pp. 1, 15. Cited by Daniel, The Shadow of Slavery, p. 151.
(16) The Shadow, of Slavery, pp. 153-54.
(17) "Down by the Riverside," pp. 126-27.
(18) "The Flood, the Red Cross and the National Guard," 5, 41.
(19) Daniel, The Shadow of Slavery, pp. 153, 155, 162, 164.
(20) "Use Troops in Flood Area to Imprison Farm Hands; Herd Refugees like Cattle," Chicago Defender, 7 May 1927, p. 1.
(21) "The Man Who Saw the Flood," pp. 114-116.
(22) John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom, 4th ed.(New York: Knopf, 1974), p. 363.
(23) "Arkansas Mob Sets Record for Savagery," Chicago Defender, p. 1. See also "Troops Patrol Little Rock after Lynching," Memphis Commercial Appeal, 5 May 1927, p. 1.
(24) William Alexander Percy, Lanterns on the Levee (New York: Knopf, 1941), pp. 259-68. Percy explains the incident in this way: "The details were obscure and irrelevant. The Negro was a good man, the policeman young and inexperienced. It was no consolation to remember that we were not the first who with the best meaning had incurred the worst."
It is interesting to note the way in which Percy explained the incident to the black community of Greenville in a Negro church on the evening after the murder. He told them that "every white man in town regrets this from his heart and is ashamed" and that the policeman would be tried. He then went on to accuse the black assemblage of ingratitude ("For 4 months I have struggled and worried and done without sleep in order to help you Negroes. Every white man in this town has done the same thing."), sloth ("During all this time you Negroes did nothing, nothing foe yourselves or for us."), and of the murder itself ("The murderer is you! ... Down on your knees, murderers, and beg your God not to punish you as you deserve"). Not surprisingly, at the end of his speech, only four members of the audience volunteered to cooperate.
(25) "Mississippi Mob Lynches Another One," 9 July 1927, p. 1; "Mississippi Mob Burns Two at the Stake," 18 June 1927, p. 1; "Mississippi Mob Stages Lynching Bee," 28 May 1927, p. 2.
(26) 14 May 1927; 9 July 1927.
(27) Franklin, pp. 351, 357, 454.
(28) Black Boy, pp. 83-84.
(29) Black Boy, pp. 63-64; Kinnamon, p. 10.
(30) Kinnamon, pp. 9, 11.
(31) W.J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Knopf, 1941), p. 306. Cash attributes its high lynching rate to the fact that it was the most rural and least progressive of all the Southern states as well as the home of the highest relative black population in the country.
(32) "Down by the Riverside," pp. 76, 82-85, 85, 104.
(33) "Down by the Riverside," pp. 79, 89, 99.
(34) "Down by the Riverside," pp. 109, 114, 122.
(35) "Down by the Riverside," p. 137.
(36) "`Trouble' His Favorite Dish; Jim Guards Refugees Alone," Memphis Commercial Appeal, 1 May 1927, p. 1.
(37) "Down by the Riverside," pp. 161-62.
(38) Daniel, Deep's as It Come, pp. 109-110.
(39) Cited by Daniel in The Shadow of Slavery, p. 161.
(40) "The Man Who Saw the Flood," p. 116.
(41) "Down by the Riverside," pp. 75, 101, 149, 151.
(42) "The Flood, the Red Cross and the National Guard," 5.
(43) Thomas, 236.
(44) "Refugees Cry for Help in Hunger Zone," Chicago Defender, 30 April 1927, p. 1.


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