Richard Wright was somewhat of an enigma. Celebrated as one of the great African-American writers of the nineteen forties and fifties, Wright was, according to some, a difficult, demanding character. Others saw him as cautious and fragile. For a Black writer fighting for exposure against a literary establishment thoroughly infected with racism, his sensitivities were understandable.
Like Ralph Ellison, another author to break through to the mainstream, Wright’s career began through his engagement with the left, specifically the Communist Party. As the most militant, leading anti-racist force in the US, the Communist Party nurtured the talents of numerous African-American artists well before they were able to break through the barriers restraining talented Blacks.
Wright and Ellison severed their ties with the Communist Party after their success, but Wright continued to maintain a radical posture towards his homeland despite an accommodation with McCarthyite anti-Communism. After World War II, he left the US taking French citizenship. The famed African-American cartoonist, a fellow expatriate and a Communist, Oliver Harrington, remained close to Wright until his early, suspicious death in 1960.
Wright published the following in The Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party, on December 27, 1937. It is taken from Earle V. Bryant’s Byline Richard Wright: Articles from The Daily Worker and New Masses.
Santa Claus Has a Hard Time Finding Way to Harlem Slums
“Merry Xmas--Rooms for Rent--White Only”
In a holly-bedecked window on 39 W. 120th Street, in Harlem, the above sign was displayed all day Christmas.
So even Christmas comes to segregated Harlem with irony. It seems that the slogan of”Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men” loses some of its magic when it reached the Negro area.
Harlem’s Christmas was poor and quiet. All the brightness and tinsel represented a sacrifice on the part of parents who felt honor-bound to fulfill the expectations of their children. Some way or other Santa Claus found the courage to leave a few paltry toys even in sub-basement flats which violated the Multiple Dwelling Law.
When heads of families were questioned regarding how they found means to create such a gay atmosphere amid squalor, they replied:
“They wanted things so bad we just couldn’t disappoint them. I reckon we’ll be two months catching up with our bills. Lord, I’ll be glad when Christmas is over.”
A survey revealed that the ERB [Emergency Relief Board] officials made no extra allowances for children in large families, and there were but few tables on with turkeys and cranberries were served.
At 18 W. 118th St., four flights up, is a typical Harlem tenant family. Though there was not much food in Mrs. Lily Grover’s home, there was the inevitable Christmas tree. Mrs. Grover’s husband deserted her over two years ago and she is raising her three children in a three-room flat on a $50 per month relief allowance.
After subtracting $25 for her monthly rent, she managed to eke out enough pennies above her other expenses to give one toy to each child. Ernest Grover, 8, Raymond, 5, and Doris, 3, had no conception of the sacrifice which gave them their toys and they were happy.
Mrs. Grover made her children go out of the room before she told of how she made Christmas for them. She did not want them to know how hard it was for Santa claus to stop at their home.
She did not want little Raymond, who has a chronic case of bronchitis, to know that his milk allowance was cut in order for Santa to stop.
“And he’s not getting enough milk now,” said Mrs. Grover. “The only hope for him to recover, so the doctors tell me, is for him to outgrow his bronchitis.”
Though the sun was shining Christmas Day, none of it reached Mrs. Grover’s apartment. The hallways smelled of stale air. Mrs. Grover knows that more than milk is needed in her budget to give Raymond a chance of life. But houses are scarce in Harlem and Mrs. Grover, like a quarter million other Negroes, can’t move out.
The mother was enthusiastic about the high hopes she had for her eight-year-old daughter, Ernet, who has maintained a B rating in all her grades up to 3B.
“Ernet sings, dances, and speaks on the stage well,” said Mrs. Grover. “But I can’t for the life of me figure out how I can give her the chance I know she needs.”
The newspapers carried slogans of “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men,” and for Mrs. Grover and millions like her that would mean that the conditions of life for one should be the conditions of life for all.
Nearly eighty years later, we are still fighting for the “Good Will Toward Men” that Richard Wright sought for all.