BOOK EXCERPT: Dancing in the Dark

The second selected passage from author Morris Dickstein's cultural history of the Great Depression.



Wright was far from sympathetic to the black church. With characters like Bigger’s God-fearing mother, he treats religion as a narcotic that allays black suffering without challenging it, but for 12 Million Black Voices he deploys the hypnotic rhythms of the pulpit to evoke the bare, exposed lives of black people. In a powerful passage on “kitchenettes”—the squalid one-room flats in which families like Bigger’s live—Wright punctuates the stomach-churning photos with a series of staccato paragraphs that continue for seven pages:


The kitchenette blights the personalities of our growing children, disorganizes them, blinds them to hope, creates problems whose effects can be traced in the characters of its child victims for years afterward.

The kitchenette jams our farm girls, while still in their teens, into rooms with men who are restless and stimulated by the noise and lights of the city; and more of our girls have bastard babies than the girls in any other sections of the city.

The kitchenette fills our black boys with longing and restlessness, urging them to run off from home, to join together with other restless black boys in gangs, that brutal form of city courage. (110–11)

This is almost a commentary on the beginning of Native Son, which unfolds in a room exactly like the ones pictured here, with a similar impact on Bigger and his peers.

Wright hit upon the opening scene only after he had written more than half the novel, but it struck exactly the right note. As a piece of urban realism and social criticism, it introduces us not just to the family’s poverty and pinched living conditions but also to Bigger’s violence, rebelliousness, and offhand cruelty. The scene could be described as a rude awakening. It opens with the crude, disruptive sound of an alarm clock; this stands in for the book itself, which Wright hopes will serve as a wake-up call to his genteel readers. The slum building is rat-infested, and the rat that scurries around the room highlights the vulnerability of the family and the squalor in which it is forced to live. But when Bigger chases and kills it we sympathize with the rat, for its trapped situation points us toward the family stuck in this room, the black community locked into the segregated world of the ghetto, and Bigger himself in his later flight from the law. When he is surrounded and hunted down, he will envy the freedom of a rat that can slip easily through a hole in the wall.