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Richard Wright on being “caught by the white death”

In Black Boy, a memoir of youth spent in racist terror and poverty in the American South, the African-American novelist Richard Wright recalls learning as a teenager of the murder of a friend’s older brother by whites. In describing his own reaction some twenty years later, Wright provides chilling language to explain the rippling effects of racist violence. We offer an excerpt here in memory of George Floyd, and in solidarity with all who continue to live under the threat of such violence today.

“You’ve heard, haven’t you?” he asked.

“About what?”

“My brother, Bob?”

“No, what happened?”

Ned began to weep softly.

“They killed him,” he managed to say.

“The white folks?” I asked in a whisper, guessing.

He sobbed his answer. Bob was dead; I had met him only a few times, but I felt that I had known him through his brother.

“What happened?”

“Th-they t-took him in a c-car … Out on a c-country road … Th-they shot h-him,” Ned whimpered.

I had heard that Bob was working at one of the hotels in town.

“Why?”

“Th-they said he was fooling with a white prostitute there in the hotel,” Ned said.

Inside of me my world crashed and my body felt heavy. I stood looking down the quiet, sun-filled street. Bob had been caught by the white death, the threat of which hung over every male black in the South. I had heard whispered tales of black boys having sex relations with white prostitutes in the hotels in town, but I had never paid any close attention to them; now those tales came home to me in the form of the death of a man I knew.

I did not search for a job that day; I returned home and sat on my porch too, and stared. What I had heard altered the look of the world, induced in me a temporary paralysis of will and impulse. The penalty of death awaited me if I made a false move and I wondered if it was worth-while to make any move at all. The things that influenced my conduct as a Negro did not have to happen to me directly; I needed but to hear of them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of my consciousness. Indeed, the white brutality that I had not seen was a more effective control of my behavior than that which I knew. The actual experience would have let me see the realistic outlines of what was really happening, but as long as it remained something terrible and yet remote, something whose horror and blood might descend upon me at any moment, I was compelled to give my entire imagination over to it, an act which blocked the springs of thought and feeling in me, creating a sense of distance between me and the world in which I lived.

Richard Wright, Black Boy (1945)

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Writing Center:  An Introduction

Why is writing so difficult?  There are probably as many reasons as there are authors, but one of the biggest is that it is impossible to write clearly about an idea until you have had it clearly, and that itself can be extraordinarily difficult.  Our best and deepest thoughts arrive from a thousand directions and often in surprising moments, and they don’t work very hard to keep themselves in line.  Some may even arrive as wordless feelings or intuitions that language seems sorely inadequate to capture.  Once we start herding these mental experiences into a reasonable order on the page, new thoughts come along out of nowhere and disrupt the whole business again.  In short, even for its best practitioners, writing is usually a messy process; for the rest of us, it can seem absolutely hopeless.

How We Can Help

The Writing Center understands these frustrations and is prepared to help you through them while also thinking more about where they originate.  We offer guidance on everything from the most basic components of style and grammar to your highest aspirations to clarity, elegance, and originality.  While we don’t offer direct editing or proofreading on papers about to be submitted – in the end, the work must be yours, not ours – we are happy to read anything you have written, assess strengths and weaknesses, and identify ways you can improve, both short-term and long-term.  This is not just for remedial help.  Everyone can benefit from thinking more about their writing, and the best writers sometimes get the least feedback. Whatever your current talents as a writer, we are here to help you improve.

We are prepared to work with you on many aspects of writing, including:

  • conceiving ideas for a paper (please feel free to meet with us even before you have a draft)
  • writing a strong thesis statement
  • developing a clear and logical structure
  • finding support for an argument
  • developing creativity and finding your “voice” as an author
  • honing your writing process to make it more productive
  • proofreading skills and basic mechanics
  • proper citation

As we work on these kinds of practical skills and methods, we are also here to encourage more abstract reflection on different kinds of writing and the social and historical conditions that influence how we evaluate them. Whether we look at academic journals, literary fiction, technical writing, screenplays, or advertising slogans, almost nothing we read looks the way it did a few decades ago.  The Writing Center encourages reflection about these changes and the forces that drive them, not only to help us notice, but also to help us think more carefully about what we value in the written word and why.  In the end, we want to help you develop the skills to succeed as a writer by contemporary standards, but also the critical faculties to question whether those standards are the ones you wish to associate with success.  

Two Ways to Work with Us

  • Make an appointment with John!  He is available most weekdays — just schedule a consultation through the link on the top-right side of this page.  
  • See a Peer Tutor!  Peer tutoring is available Sundays through Thursdays, 3-10 pm.  No appointment necessary — just drop by! 

Where to Find Us

The Center is located on the main floor of Watzek Library, to the right of the reference desk and behind the reference book stacks.  Our offices are against the west wall.  Here’s a map. 

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