White cops stop a black man. They suspect him, arrest him. Hit him could kill him. Do that sometimes too. He doesn’t have a chance to fight back. What was commonplace in the US of “Jim Crow” laws before the civil rights movement of the 1960s is still a constant threat to black people today. Every cop and every black person knows the magic words that give violent police officers a clean bill of health: “I feared for my life.”
Richard Wright’s novel The Man Underground begins with just such a scenario. Saturday night: Fred Daniels, domestic worker for the (supposedly white) Wooten family, has been toiling there for a week and is now heading home. He counts the money he has just earned, thinks about his pregnant wife and the service on Sunday, is happy about his life – until three white police officers stop him. A couple was killed, the Peabodys, in the house next door. The fact that Daniels committed the murder is clear to the police from the start.
Daniels tries to convince the cops of his innocence – which to them only confirms his guilt. All the names he invokes—Reverend Davis, the church choir, the Wootens—do the opposite. “Did you figure it out exactly, didn’t you, boy?” At the police station, the police beat him unconscious, with fists, with batons. They cheer each other on, congratulate each other for the pain inflicted.
The publishers of Harper decided at the time that there was too much police violence for the white public
Richard Wright was one of America’s most influential black authors. With “Native Son” he had written a bestseller in 1940, and this follow-up novel was to build on that. However, “The Man Underground” promised less success than the fate of the black double murderer Bigger Thomas described by Wright in “Native Son”, who in the end reconciles his guilt. Because Daniels is not only innocent — he goes insane trying to make amends. After the torture, he signs a false confession. Due to the carelessness of the police officers, he is able to flee soon after. So that they don’t find him, he opens a manhole cover and lets himself fall “down into the rushing, watery blackness of the underground”.
This “underground” is a traditional motif in US literature. Essayist Imani Perry points out that the name Fred Daniels is similar to that of Frederick Douglass. He was an abolitionist and slave, freed himself with false papers and wrote an autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, to which many black authors refer. And the “underground” sounds like the “underground railroad”: a conspiratorial network that helped an estimated 100,000 slaves to escape. Colson Whitehead wrote a novel about it a few years ago.
The (literal) underground also protects Wright’s protagonist Fred Daniels, offering him a hiding place; however, he loses his identity there. “And then a strange new realization overwhelmed him: He was all men. In some unspeakable way he was everyone, and they were him.”
He forgets his wife, his child, his job; he wanders through the corridors and pipes, dazedly sees a black dead baby being washed past him, he robs a safe and papers the walls of his cave with the money. He discovers society from below and is never discovered himself.
In other stories, that would be a magical trick to lead the protagonist back to himself via the other. Here the counter-world leads into the splintered core of a broken human being. He no longer has a self.
His grandmother, who raised him, was a Seventh-day Adventist and expected the apocalypse at any moment, Wright writes in an essay accompanying the novel. Her faith collided with everyday objects, with blues music or secular books. “He was moody, torn, fragile, the daily necessities of life dismembering him. At the same time, he “connected the things in their environment to form a meaningful value structure”: paradise, salvation, hell. An allegorical way of life for which things have “no real meaning”. Who randomly assigns them one – because those who lived that way know “this world wasn’t for them.”
This is how Wright characterizes not only the thinking of his grandmother, but that of “millions of black people in America”. A story about her only really begins when she leaves behind the details of her individual life. In other words: “if my protagonist broke”.
Fred Daniels shatters from a beating. “He had a horrifying feeling that these men even knew what he was going to do in every future moment of his life, no matter how long he lived.” Daniels yields to her power — and ends up taking it more seriously than she takes herself . He transcends her madness and soon thinks everyone is guilty. The underground lets him detach the old meanings and rearrange them according to a crude messianism.
Wright understands this schizophrenic state as the basis for freedom, without making a plea for police violence. Rather, the dreamlike space of the underground serves Wright and his protagonist to overcome racist heteronomy; “throw oneself into a formless night and create a new world”. Art is the first place to defeat violence.