Day 211 1/22/14: The White Shark in Literature Vol 1: Richard Wright

imagesI just discovered a great short story by Richard Wright (the last one he ever wrote) called “Big Black Good Man.” The main character is a white man named Olaf, a night porter in Copenhagen hotel. Olaf considers himself a broad-minded & fair sort of fellow until a sailor named Jim, “the biggest, strangest and blackest man” Olaf has ever seen, asks to rent a room.

I love literature that explores psychic states and attempts to imitate the impossible rhythms and trajectories of thought,  but I’ve never read a story that plunges straight into the fearful and obsessive nightmare of racism. Wright’s story has very little external action, but takes the reader on a twisted ride through Olaf’s paranoid imagination. After an extremely tense and bizarre encounter with Jim, Olaf curses and says, “I hope the ship he’s on sinks…I hope he drowns and the sharks eat ‘im.” That night Olaf lies awake in bed imagining that the freighter Jim is due to sail out on springs a leak:

“Ah, yes, the foamy surging waters would surprise that sleeping black bastard of a giant and he would drown, gasping and choking like a trapped rat, his tiny eyes bulging until they glittered red, the bitter water of the sea pounding his lungs until they ached and finally burst…The ship would sink slowly to the bottom of the cold, black, silent depths of these and a shark, a white one, would glide aimlessly about the shut  portholes until it found an open one and it would filter inside and nose about  until it found that swollen, rotten, stinking carcass of the black beast and it would then begin to nibble at the decomposing mass of tarlike flesh, eating the bones clean…Olaf always pictured the giant’s bones as being jet black and shining.

Once or twice, during these fantasies of cannibalistic revenge, Olaf felt a little guilty about all the many innocent people, women and children, all white and blonde who would have to go down into watery graves in order that that white shark could devour the evil giant’s black flesh…But, despite feelings of remorse, the fantasy lived persistently on, and when Olaf found himself alone, it would crowd and cloud his mind to the exclusion of all else, affording him the only revenge he knew.”

Wright’s italicizing of the word “white” makes the shark into an Aryan messenger of the deep, meting out the violent racial “justice” that the impotent Olaf cannot, and unfortunately killing a few innocent blondes in the process.  I’m sure some scholars find the anthropomorphism too extreme, but I like the shark-as-ethnic-cleanser metaphor. It’s original and eccentric, obvious and preachy at the same time. And do we know that “a white one” is actually a great white shark, or is it some super white albino style that is as white as Jim is black, the only creature capable of vanquishing this “mountain” of a man?

But however wild Olaf’s fantasies become,  Wright doesn’t really exaggerate the fear that drives them, and all the wild and furious ways that fear can metastasize. Thinking about racism led to thinking about speciesism and all the hate doled out to sharks in Australia, to the wolves of Idaho, all the creatures made “other” by human beings.  Alice Walker’s essay “Am I Blue?” is the first piece of lit I read that links racism and speciesism. Please check it out here.