A Lilac Sprig Dangling from a Horn
In the last eighteen months of his short life, Richard Wright became obsessed with haiku. Since Wright was a self-declared “protest writer,” readers have struggled to reconcile these (4,000 or so) delicate experiments in verse with the hard-hitting naturalism of works such as Black Boy (1945) and Native Son (1940). Wright, however, saw no radical shift, maintaining that all his work was informed by his belief that “human beings” should “truly see themselves.” By the time he came to write his haiku, in the late 1950s, Wright believed that this could occur only through the “utmost attention” to nature.
In the haiku tradition, each poem is required to identify its seasonal location, either directly or by reference to natural event: the emergence of the cherry blossom, the first frost, and so on. But Wright went beyond mere name checks. His late poems are filled with vivid images of the flowers of Normandy (where he lived) and Mississippi (where he was born): tulips receiving spring rain, plum trees apologizing with a profusion of blossom, wind fumbling in the apple blossom, violets dancing, the long shadow of a sunflower over water, a falling branch of magnolia breaking up a sparrow fight . . . and many more.
In some ways these word-portraits link directly back to Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices (1941), an essay written to accompany Edwin Rosskam’s selection of photographs from the Farm Security Administration files. Wright evokes the “beautiful” Mississippi Delta of his childhood as a place where “apple buds laugh into blossom” (spring), “magnolia trees fill the countryside with sweet scent for long miles” (summer), and “the land is afire with color” (autumn). Come winter, however, and the pastoral vanishes. In its place, instead of conventional scenes of nature at rest, we encounter wild destruction: Wright evokes the flooding of rivers, “steel axes eating into tall trees,” and the “snap and crack” of hunters’ guns. And then talk of seasonal change collapses completely as he tells his readers about the lives of sharecroppers “toiling from sun to sun,” “full of fear of the Lords of the Land.” Moreover, it is not only the Mississippi sharecroppers who live like this; for Black Americans more generally, Wright insists, “whether in spring or summer or autumn or winter, time slips past us remorselessly.”
That’s certainly the starting point for Native Son, a novel about one man’s struggle to flee the “day in and day out” restrictions of US racism. It ends with “the ring of steel against steel” as a prison door “clanged shut.” 12 Million Black Voices tries to be more hopeful. Its final pages suggest that, in 1941, the United States stands at a “crossroads,” and that the time is surely coming in which “the seasons of the plantation”—that is, the seasons that are no seasons at all—will no longer “dictate” so many Black lives.
For Wright, a turn to the haiku tradition offered an escape from relentlessness. To find seasonality was to find a world that both made sense and offered the possibility of change. But not everyone found relief in natural cycles. Later African American writers told stories of unseasonality to demonstrate the consequences of racism on nature itself—think, for example, of the way “the land of the entire country” becomes “hostile to marigolds” in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Others, meanwhile, more radically, introduced the possibility of invented seasons, moments of abrupt human flowering. One of Dudley Randall’s earliest poems finds him “musing on roses and revolutions,” while Gwendolyn Brooks welcomed Black Power and the Black Arts Movement as a “crack[ing] into furious flower.” Randall was writing in 1948, Brooks in 1968. By then she felt confident that time was no longer slipping past “remorselessly,” but finally lifting “its face/All unashamed.”
More than fifty years have passed since then, and for much of that period, Brooks’s belief in self transformation has had to contend with Wright’s understanding of the relentlessness of American racism. For the most part, the inexorable seasons of the plantation have continued to dictate Black lives. Every now and then, however, something breaks through. We might imagine the conjunction of beauty, power, and momentum in the current Black Lives Matter protests as a furious flowering. But I can’t help thinking, as well, of this haiku by Wright:
Coming from the woods,
A bull has a lilac sprig
Dangling from a horn.
Kasia Boddy teaches American literature at the University of Cambridge. Her books include Boxing: A Cultural History, The American Short Story Since 1950, and Geranium.