On the same day that the jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd, the Library Company of America released the late black author Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground. Inspired by the intersection of European surrealism and his grandmother’s Afro-Christian religion, the novel’s uncanny appearance on the day of the Chauvin verdict resonates with one of the novel’s themes of destiny. Written between his two most famous works, Native Son and Black Boy, the full version of Wright’s novel The Many Who Lived Underground did not see the light of day during Wright’s lifetime. His editor at Harper and Brothers rejected the full manuscript when he completed it in 1941-42. An abridged version appeared in 1944 in Cross-Section: An Anthology of New American Writing edited by Edwin Seaver. It appeared again in 1961, when Wright included the same abridged essay in his volume of short stories titled Eight Men. Seventy years after he finished the full manuscript, his full book has finally come out in print.
Set in New York City during World War II, The Man Who Lived Underground tells the story of a black man Fred Daniels who the NYPD falsely accused of a double murder. Wright opens the novel with graphic scenes of Daniels being subjected to a violent police interrogation during which the brutalized and disoriented Daniels signed a confession to murder. Not knowing what he was actually signing, Daniels understood his assent as a means to get out of police custody and return home to see his pregnant wife. Daniels managed to escape, finding a strange refuge in the city’s sewer system. In the face of violence at the hands of the police, Daniels went underground. In one intense moment before his escape, the protagonist thought as if “invisible hands seemed to be pressing some alien destiny upon him.”
Wright’s narrative and its treatment in literary circles in some ways operated in parallel with the politics of black protest against police violence in the 1940s and 1950s. During those decades, editors, publishers, and journalists in the black press used their periodicals to report about local police brutality cases. The Negro Star (Wichita, Kansas), Amsterdam News, Los Angeles Tribune, California Eagle and other black media outlets used the power of print to inform local black communities about police-community conflicts. Circulating through the wire service and in the living rooms, street corners, beauty salons, and barber shops of urban black communities, their journalistic work spoke up about police brutality while making broader claims about the rights of black people to movement and public space. During an era when mainstream media were either silent about or covered only the most high-profile cases, the black press continued to shine a light on police misconduct. Like Fred Daniels, the press made its observations by going underground.
They had good reason to stay vigilant, and they stood in a long line of black activists who used the pen to expose the violent enforcement of America’s caste system. From the earliest slave narratives to black abolitionists to the black progressives at the turn of the twentieth century, black leaders have created space to raise a collective voice against violence directed at black people. And they organized and marched. One of the most powerful displays of that was the 1917 New York City Silent Protest Parade that was organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to show solidarity with the black community of East St. Louis, which had been rampaged by a white mob earlier that year. Meanwhile, local police either stood by or enabled the pogrom.
So, Richard Wright’s novel tapped into a deep black historical memory. In one of its veins, it contains the story of violence that has stalked black people in this country, a shadow born of fear, suspicion, physical separation, possessiveness, and a deep-seated belief in black people as the other and having less value than white people. As the murder of George Floyd allowed the world to see, the ideology still hovers over us. How we can break loose from the surreal nature of black people’s “alien destiny” and create the conditions for black flourishing remains an open question.
Frederick Knight is associate professor of history at Morehouse College, where he is also director of the Institute for Research, Civic Engagement, and Policy at the Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership. Dr. Knight has published a number of book chapters and articles on black history, and he is the author of Working the Diaspora: The Impact of African Labor on the Anglo-American World, 1650-1850.