The Dialectics of Race: Proletarian Literature, Richard Wright, and the Making of Revolutionary Subjectivity

In: Historical Materialism
Benjamin Balthaser Associate Professor, Department of English, Indiana University South Bend South Bend, Indiana United States

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As the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács noted, class has both an objective and a subjective quality: workers are reified as alienated commodities while at the same time they perceive their interests as qualitatively different from those of the capitalist who purchases their labour-power. This essay will argue that one of the most complex theorisations of the material production of working-class subjectivity emerges from Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices, a second-person collective narrative of the African-American Great Migration. Wright locates African-American subjectivity in the contradiction of its formation, at once trapped in the neo-feudal relations of the Jim Crow South, and brutally thrust into the matrix of Northern racialised and ghettoised industrial production. This produces for Wright acute misery, but also a proletarian revision of Du Bois’s Hegelian concept of ‘double consciousness’, as Black workers have a unique insight into the totality of the capitalist world-system.

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