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Black History, Uncensored: The GOP is wrong about Richard Wright

Richard Wright, the renowned novelist and essayist, has been frequently targeted by right-wing bans. His 1941 essay “Not My People’s War” helps explain why.


When conservatives speak of Black authors as an unpatriotic threat to the very concept of the United States, I suspect they have articles like Richard Wright’s “Not My People’s War” in mind. 

His 1941 essay is a provocative declaration that the premise of World War II being a battle for democracy was flawed, given that Black people in the U.S. still weren’t being granted equality.

Today, when political figures like Donald Trump speak of Black authors as insufficiently patriotic, they’re trying to delegitimize and warp the unique relationship that many Black people have with the United States of America, a nation whose laws once considered us virtually inhuman. But in many cases, Black patriotism means offering the sort of cutting criticism Wright provides in his essay.

That’s why Wright is the focus of today’s installment of “Black History, Uncensored,” our ongoing series focused on Black creators targeted by right-wing bans. Wright’s novels, including “Native Son,” are frequent targets for Republicans. But his nonfiction work would likely roil them, too. 

For example, in “Not My People’s War,” Wright highlights a 1918 memo from white U.S. military officials to France’s military during World War I, warning that the French — that is, America’s allies during the war — were becoming too friendly with Black U.S. soldiers. 

Fundamentally, “Not My People’s War” countered right-wing talking points framing the United States — and more specifically, the U.S. military — as an inarguable force for good.

“We must prevent the rise of any pronounced degree of intimacy between French officers and black officers,” the memo said. “We may be courteous and amiable with these last, but we cannot deal with them on the same plane as with the white American officers without deeply wounding the latter.” (Slate’s Rebecca Onion has a good writeup on the memo here.) 

Fundamentally, “Not My People’s War” countered right-wing talking points framing the United States — and more specifically, the U.S. military — as an inarguable force for good. 

And Wright knew this. 

“Negro memory still recollects the humiliations heaped upon the Gold Star Negro war mothers who were sent to France in cattle boats to see the graves of their dead in Flanders, while white war mothers sailed in first class on luxury liners,” he wrote. 

Reading things like that drives home why the U.S. military has a need for programs that promote diversity. And it might show why the GOP is so committed to stopping those programs, which many Republicans denounce as "woke." 

Wright had a response for that in his essay, too: 

Parenthetically, I’d like to ask this audience a question: If the United States is really anxious to stop Hitler, does it not seem logical that the morale of the Negro and white troops of the International Brigade, who beat back the fascists from the gates of Madrid, is a good morale for our troops? I’d like to ask, has there ever fought a more determined army than that wall of men, black and white, who, standing side by side for many months, endured all that Germany and Italy had to hurl at them? Evidently, that is not the kind of morale they are planning to instill into the United States Army, which is being created allegedly to fight fascism and spread the Four Freedoms.

Here, Wright is calling the United States’ seriousness and effectiveness as a global power into question. And he’s using the nation’s aversion to civil rights to do it.

Like many activists today, his argument is clear: America cannot be truly great if it is not truly equitable. That’s a reality Republicans don’t want to reckon with.

Read previous “Black History, Uncensored” posts on James BaldwinToni MorrisonAlice WalkerTa-Nehisi Coates, Kimberlé Crenshaw and bell hooks.