Richard Wright’s Newly Restored Novel Is a Tale for Today

The tragedy here is not what ultimately befalls Daniels, but how a single interaction with the police causes him to profoundly question his own identity. For a time, Daniels is optimistic. He believes the ordeal is “a dream, but soon he would awaken and marvel at how real it had seemed.” And then, once he enters the interrogation room, the confession feels inevitable. As much as I wanted the officers to believe some evidence that Daniels offers, I expected the brutal beatdown and forced admission of guilt that follows.

There is something of a lie in every confession. Within the confines of a small room that feels so much like a cell, with handcuffs making it feel even more so, a person will say anything to return to the world that seems so far away. For Daniels, an hourslong beating culminates in his signing an invented statement that he is too battered and sleep-deprived to even read. Then he goes from the police station to one last embrace in his wife’s arms, to the hospital, to a daring escape. One imagines him finding his way back to his wife and his newly born child. But by some cruel Kafkaesque twist, Daniels’s escape is into a manhole, where he retreats into darkness and is nearly washed away by currents.

Underground, Daniels becomes truly invisible. He is no longer a husband. Never thinks of himself as a father. The underground strips the markers of his identity just as any prison sentence does. And so, while the book is no longer concerned with the police and arrests and beatdowns, Wright forces readers to ask what the cost of this freedom is.

A world opens to Daniels; the canals and passages beneath the earth give him unimpeded access to buildings and stores. He pilfers money from a safe, pockets gems and diamonds from a jewelry store, lifts a gun off a sleeping security guard. But these things matter little to him. He uses the currency to paper the walls of his chosen cell in the sewer. The jewels to amuse himself. Deprivation has made him no longer value material wealth. And yet, deprivation has also made him, for a time, feel less morally culpable for what he does. When he takes a workingman’s sandwiches, he feels no qualms about it. And when others take the fall for his theft, he shakes it off.

Yet when a Baptist choir’s soulful “Glad, glad, glad, oh, so glad / I got Jesus in my soul” reaches Daniels through the cracks in a wall, he is troubled. He imagines that “their search for a happiness they could never find made them feel that they had committed a great wrong which they could not remember or understand.” They sing as though they are “pleading guilty, wallowing sensually in their despair.”

My grandmother has been singing in churches my entire life, and through all the minor and major troubles of her babies and grandbabies, she ain’t never felt us guilty, not guilty as Daniels means, which is to believe that you’re condemned to suffer, and deserving. But maybe all of this is Wright’s point. This country pushes some of us to always imagine ourselves through the lens of those who hate us, and when we do, there is no escape, even underground.

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