2-28: a libretto

ACT ONE

Scene One 2/28/1945

Sudin, an advanced high school student, and his girlfriend Siuhua are looking at leaflets dropped by US planes.

Siuhua: God’s country promises us freedom when they have driven out the Japanese.

Sudin: Driving out the Japanese will not be easy.

Siuhua: The American president Wilson supported self determination everywhere.

Sudin: Even in Taiwan? Do you think the Americans are not fighting Japan for our freedom? No! It’s because the Japanese attacked them. The Americans want us to rebel against the Japanese, but they don’t care what happens to us.

Siuhua: Rebellionwould be suicide. The Japanese have all the guns.

Sudin: The Japanese will lose the war. Then we shall see whether the Americans really support our freedom. We’ll see if they their presidents just produce fine phrases or will do anything to ensure our right of self-determination.

Scene Two (10/12/1945)

Madame Jiang in a slinky nightgown with her black pearl slippers, Generalismo Jiang in uniform.

Mme J: There is very much wealth on Taiwan. Why are you letting Tan Ge and his gang of jackals clean its bones? You should know better than to trust him. You must know that he is feeding his gang and not us.

Gen. J: Of course they are collecting bribes. I know they are seizing what was Japanese, and not sending along all they should to the central government. Still, he has sent a lot from Taiwan since I appointed him. You must know that there are even greedier and less dependable generals than Tan Ge, and he has experience with keeping unruly semi-barbaric southerners in line.

Mme. J: At least I hope you have someone watching him and reporting back.

Gen J: Of course, of course. Don’t think that I trust Tan Ge. I barely trust you!

 

Scene Three (10/12/45)

A Chinese businessman and Tan Ge’s mistress are meeting in private.

Businessman: If the governor general appoints me head of the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau, I shall pay you ten percent of the profits on the tenth of every month.

Mistress: Ten percent of revenues.

Businessman: That’s a lot!

Mistress: You’ll be making much more.

Businessman: But there are others taking their cuts, and I’ll have to do some real work, not just sit back and collect a cut.

Mistress: There are others quite willing to accept my terms

Businessman: Alright: ten percent of revenues.

 

Scene Four (2/28/47)

A Ha, a middle-aged Taiwanese woman with a small supply of loose cigarettes is hawking them from a folding table under a banyan tree in Round Park.

A Ha: Life is hard and getting harder. I had a husband, but the Japanese took him and sent him off to fight for them in Burma, never to return. He didn’t want to go, I wanted him to stay and earn money to support our two young sons. Without him, I must try to make a little money. What can I sell but my old body or contraband? I don’t want to sell my body, so I risk having my small stock seized by the Chinese demons. I know it is dangerous, I know it is illegal, but food is more expensive every day. Life is hard and getting harder, food is more expensive every day, but my sons must eat to grow, and I must eat to earn some money for their food. Life is hard and getting harder, food is more expensive every day— (startled) Oh, no, demons have seen me.

Two Monopoly Bureau agents converge from both sides on A Ha’s table. One sweeps her stock of cigarettes off the table, the other knocks it over, and then knocks her down.

A Ha (pleadingly): My husband is dead, and I have two young sons to feed. I must make money so they may live. Please don’t take my sons’ food.

Agent 1: You know it is illegal for you to have these?

A Ha: Food is more expensive every day. My sons must eat to grow and I must sell something so they may eat.

Agent 1: That does not overrule the law.

A Ha: My husband was killed in the war.

Agent 1: Fighting for Japan.

A Ha: He was drafted, he had no choice. He did not want to go far away from his sons who needed him.

Agent 2: You are a collaborator’s widow. Your sons are collaborator bastards. Who cares what happens to them or you? It is our job to enforce the law and prevent profiteering in contraband goods.

A Ha: Have you no pity for a poor, desperate widow?

Agent 2 (striking her): You are a whore and a thief from the Chinese people.

A Ha (from ground): I have never stolen—

Agent 2: You steal from the government by selling contraband.

A Ha (nearly moaning): Life is hard and getting harder, food is more expensive every day.

Agent 2 strikes her again, knocking her flat. He begins to pistol-whip her.

Agent 1: Taiwanese whore and thief, how dare you lie. Things are getting better since we defeated and expelled the Japanese. Now it is a Chinese government that rightfully receives revenues from tobacco grown here.

Agent 2: Life is too good for you. You are still an enemy, like the father of your bastards.

Several men passing by pull Agent 2 back.

Passer-by 1: What are you doing beating up this defenseless woman?

Agent 2 (turning, glowering, ready to strike those interfering with his beating the prostrate woman): She is a criminal, selling contraband. We are doing our duty and do not require your approval.

Passer-by 1: You are beating her to death for that?

Agent 1 (moving toward the passers-by who are restraining his colleague): And you, too, Taiwanese trash!

Another passerby grabs Agent 1, pulls his hand behind his back. The passersby gag the two agents and tie them to a trunk of the banyan tree. Passer-by 1 cradles A Ha’s head.

Passer-by 1: The Chinese pigs have made life impossible for us.

A Ha: Life is hard and getting harder. What will happen to my orphaned sons. (With more determination:) My sons must eat to live and grow.

Passer-by 2 (to A Ha): Madame Jiang is the protector of orphans, you need not worry about their care.

(aside to audience or other passersby:) With such a protector they are doomed. What have we done to be damned to such a fate?

A Ha: Life is ending for me. Woe my sons. A curse on those who have made life impossible— (her head sinks).

Passer-by 1: Her life is over. It will not get any harder.

Passer-by 2: Woe this poor woman, woe her orphaned sons, woe Taiwan, beset by Chinese locusts. Our life is getting harder, food is more expensive every day.

A spotlight picks up Sudin, who is a ways away, and cries muffled by gags come from the two agents bound to banyan trunks.

Sudin: What a time we live in! A simple woman beaten to death for trying to support her fatherless sons, selling a few cigarettes in the park. The Japanese would have provided her a pension; the Chinese give her an unjust, summary execution for the pettiest of offenses. Her sons lives were hard and now are much harder. They must have food to grow, but it is all shipped to China or gobbled up by the Chinese who enslave us, the same plagye of idlers who sat out the war beyond where the Japanese cared to push. During the war, they lived on welfare payments from the United States. Why does the champion of democracy support so unpopular and incompetent an autocrat as Jiang? Taiwanese are far better educated and ready for democracy, yet now they claim to have won the war, and these uneducated, unruly pigs claim they will educate us to be Chinese.

Siuhua enters and pulls at Sudin.

Siuhua: You must get away from here. If the Chinese kill a woman for trying to sell a few cigarettes, what are they going to do when two of their agents are overpowered and beaten? There will be much more trouble, and the Chinese have all the guns.

Sudin: We should disarm them, as these flunkies were disarmed here tonight!

Siuhua: Still they live and an innocent Taiwanese does not. I am sure there will be reprisals.

Sudin: There should be reprisals. We should be making reprisals for the thieving Tan Ge and his greedy entourage.

Siuhua (even more worried): You must be careful, or you, too, will be killed.

Sudin: There is no reason we should submit to Chinese rule. The Americans rebelled against unjust government and contemptuous colonial rule, why should we not? Why should we be a colony of the Chinese, going hungry to supply the incompetent ROC army and to fill the iron rice bowls of the Chinese officials? The Americans threw off British tyranny, they should understand our throwing off our heavier burden.

Siuhua: This is all very well in the abstract, but in the here and now, the should, the must, of the matter is that we must get away from here. Tell others what we saw, but there is no gain in staying here waiting for the slaughter to come.

Sudin: Alright! I’ll take you home. Then I will tell others of the officials murdering a defenseless old woman.

The two move across the stage. Light remains on Siuhua as Sudin exits.

Siuhua: Sudin is my love, my future, my life. I fear for his childish hot head. He is prone to get too involved in the dangerous turmoil of politics. He is too likely to endanger our future, to risk our happiness together. Yet, I know that it his passion that I love, so how can I expect a safe and easy life in endlessly turbulent times?

Scene Five (3/2/1947)

Sudin, now a Tai Da student, stops one of his professors, Lim.

Sudin: Professor, some of us are hoping you will guide us in disarming the Chinese butchers.

Lim: That is very dangerous and wholly unnecessary talk. The Chinese have had a hard time during the long war and do not find our climate easy to adjust to, but they are partners with the Americans who defeated the Japanese. The Americans will help guide us to democracy and prosperity.

Sudin: How can you possibly believe that? Before the war, China under the KMT was as badly governed as we are now. My father has told me that Taiwanese were much more prosperous during the early 1930s than the Chinese.

Lim: Are we not Chinese?

Sudin: No! What does China have to do with me? I’ve never been there. The world has been changed by the victories of democracy, and Taiwan must become a democracy.

Lim: I am sure that we are moving in that direction, but you must be patient.

Sudin: We are moving to more—and more blatant—Chinese corruption and away from any possibility of justice for our people.

Lim: You are engaging in very dangerous talk. There have been mistakes made by inexperienced, ignorant Chinese soldiers, but the government is eager to rectify the problems with our help. We do not want another civil war here.

Sudin: They don’t want another civil war, but their behavior provokes one. No wonder the Chinese people do not want to be ruled by these parasites!

Lim: We are working with Tan Ge to rectify the problems of the last few years.

Sudin: You believe Tan Ge wants to rectify the problems that he and his cronies have created?

Lim: Yes, I do. I am on my way to a Taipei Settlement Committee meeting, and then we will present reasonable proposals to the Governor General.

Sudin: Tan Ge is brutal and corrupt: that is why he was installed here, after looting Fujian.

Lim: I do not believe that Tan Ge has derived any personal profit from his position.

Sudin (rolls his eyes and turns to the audience): How can we learn from those so ignorant of the world? Taiwanese built prosperity here and these so-called leaders are content to watch it be dismantled and shipped to the mainland to make a few friends of Tan and Jiang rich.

(turning back to Lim) We have formed the Public Security Service Corp, but the Chinese soldiers still have their weapons in their barracks. They should be disarmed.

Lim: The Governor General has promised not to move troops from the south or from China, and we must not make demands that will make him look bad to his superiors in the national government.

Sudin: You should not believe such promises. We need the guns.

Lim: That is not going to happen. We seek reform, not to overthrow the ROC. There is no other desire except reformation of the governing. It is foolish to suppose that democracy can sprout over the course of one night.

Sudin (to the audience): If there is no other desire, there should be. Now is when we could take control of our destinies, but our elders do not see the chance. Meeting with the Governor General is enough to make them happy.

Scene Six (3.2.47)

Gen. and Mme. Jiang are seated. Lieutenant enters.

Lt.: Generalismo, I come from Tan Ge to report an insurrection on Taiwan and to request reinforcements to put down the rebellion.

Jiang: We need all the troops we have—and more—here to fight the communists and regain control of the fatherland.

Mme: Taiwan is too rich a plum to let drop and roll away,

Jiang: Are the rebels communists?

Lt.: Perhaps not, but many do not accept that they should be ruled by Chinese.

Mme. (sarcastically): They believe they can rule themselves after being Japanese slaves for two generations?

Lt.: It would seem so, Madame.

Jiang (mulling, more to himself, but aloud): We must preserve a safe place of exile, in case we some day need one.

Mme.: And the island’s rice and tea are needed by our troops here.

Pause

Jiang: Alright. I will order troops to deploy. Let them make an example of the rebels and ensure there will be no repetitions.

Lt.: General Tan is eager to punish the impudent rebels—

Mme.: — and to resume feathering his nest. (Turning to her husband:) I wish you would appoint me governor and sack that bloated idiot you have appointed!

Jiang: You can hardly be appointed governor of a province in which communists are challenging our rule! (Turning to the lieutenant:) Tell General Tan that troops are coming and I hope they will not need to remain there long. It is a difficult time for us, and we need them back here, as soon as possible. Indeed, we cannot afford to spare them at all, but he has made it necessary to spread our forces.

Lt.: The general is making promises to the Taiwanese vermin and keeping his troops temporarily in their barracks, waiting for reinforcements. But once reinforcements arrive, we are ready to round up everyone who challenged our rule. You can be assured that order will be swiftly and completely restored.

Mme: And the flow of food and goods from Taiwan will resume?

Lt.: Most assuredly, madame!

Jiang: Tell your commander that we understand the need to make promises. We have made a few in our day that we never intended to honor. We are sure he will use force as needed to regain control and tutor the treacherous barbarian to obedience.

Lt: Yes, my president, most certainly they will be put back in their place.

Jiang: It will take a few days to ferry troops to Taiwan, but you had best fly back at once.

Lt: Yes, sir. I will return at once. Thank you, sir (pause) and madame.

Scene Seven, 3/3/47

Taiwanese meeting with Tan Ge

Tan: It is most unfortunate that mistakes have been made and our troops have on occasion showed excess zeal and employed excessive force. I and the whole government regret such excesses and look forward to working together in ensuring an orderly province here, while combating communists. Please understand that our soldiers are fighting a war and may mistake protest and criticism as treason and aiding the enemy, that devil Mao Zhedong. I have ordered troops to remain in their barracks, both here and in Kaohsiung. I am willing to try letting the Public Security Service Corp maintain order among the people of Taipei. However, if violence against state officials and state enterprises persists, I shall have to proclaim martial law—

Professor 1 (aside): Haven’t we already had soldiers killing civilians in the streets?

Professor 2 (shushing him): Shhh! We must move ahead in a spirit of generous forgiveness for past mistakes that have been admitted and we must contribute all we can to the national struggle for survival.

Professor Lim (to Gen. Tan): We do not need martial law. We can police our own people and free soldiers to fight communists on the mainland.

Tan: I hope so. I hope you are right. We cannot tolerate attacks on officials, however.

Professor 1 (aside): What about attacks by locust officials.

Professor 2 (to 1): Shh! (To Tan:) Thank you, general. We are eager to work with you for the good of all.

Scene Eight

Sudin enters. Professor Lim is seated.

Lim: Tan Ge was eager to hear our suggestions and accepted your group policing the city. He seemed sincere about wanting our help and genuinely wants to rein-in greedy officials and insolent troops. He even promised to punish them. It is important that we help him save face with his superiors. He is reporting some officials’ misdeeds to President Jiang and assuring him that Taiwanese leaders support the government.

Sudin: I do not believe that old crook can be trusted. Can you really believe that what he tells you he is reporting to Jiang is what he actually is reporting to him?

Lim (smugly): I was there. I could observe his sincere concern and his genuine contrition, and his eagerness to improve the governance of Taiwan.

Sudin: You underestimate Chinese duplicity. Tan Ge is in a position of weakness right now, “making nice,” playing reformer to gain time. When he can strike back, he will do so. He wants to reassert his power, not provide better government. It is imperative to disarm the garrison troops now.

Lim: Come, come, that is far too extreme a measure. How could he explain his troops being disarmed to President Jiang?

Sudin: Jiang is losing the war in China and can ill afford to open a second front to conquer us, if we are armed and able to resist. Tan Ge’s “face” should not be our primary concern.

Lim: You are young and hot-headed.

Sudin: Tan Ge cannot be trusted, must not be trusted.

Lim: Your elders—not just me—have decided to trust him and to work with him and a reformed provincial government.

Sudin: It is a mistake we will all regret. The opportunity to control our future will be lost if you co-operate with him, believing the tiger has changed his stripes!

 

ACT TWO

Scene One, night of 3/8/47

Sudin is sitting down when Siuhua knocks softly and slips inside.

Sudin: What is wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!

Siuhua: Ah— there will be many more ghosts. Many soldiers have landed at Keelung, their guns blazing as soon as they stepped ashore.

Sudin (not able to avoid the grim satisfaction of having been right): I knew Tan Ge was lying, playing for time, pretending a sudden commitment to reform, all the time planning to kill those who dared to criticize him.

Siuhua: There is no time to congratulate yourself for your foresight in the past. You must now foresee what is coming for you now, and get away from here at once.

Sudin: Away? Where? I live here.

Siuhua: And it is here they will come looking for you. You must leave at once!

Sudin (having quickly gone from grim self-satisfaction to confusion): Go into hiding? [pause] Where? In the mountains?

Siuhua: You must go away, away from Taiwan. My cousin will take you on his fishing boat.

Sudin: Are you kidding? To China? How can I hide among the enemy? How can I live among them, knowing no one?

Siuhua: Not to China! North, away from China and the Chinese.

Sudin: To Japan?

Siuhua: not that far. Only to the Ryukyus where the Americans are in control.

Sudin: Won’t they turn me over to their friend Jiang? I know no one there. No one knows me.

Siuhua: Well, then, no one there will have you on their list to round up or shoot down. Pack a few things you’ll need and can carry easily.

Sudin: Just like that?

Siuhua: Just like that.

Sudin hurriedly tosses some things into a small valise.

Siuhua: Hurry, will you? [He closes the clasp on the valise.] Follow me.

Sudin: It can’t be safe in the streets?

Siuhua: Not for long, but I know a back way.

Sudin: Could you warn Professor Lim. Although he was easily tricked and helped Tan Ge survive, he is probably in danger even for meekly advocating reforms.

Siuhua: I’ll try to warn him, but first I must get you to my cousin’s boat.

Sudin: He’s no afraid of the risk?

Siuhua: He is afraid of the risk, but he is willing to take it for our country’s future, and for me.

Sudin: Does our country have a future?

As soon as they have slipped out, soldiers appear from the other side, and beat on the door.

Soldier 1: Where is the rebel traitor?

Soldier 2: He lives here. We’ll take care of all of them and have no more traitors endangering this outpost.

Soldier 1: Should we hide and wait for him to return?

Soldier 2: Perhaps he is inside. Put on your bayonet.

Soldier 1: For the door?

Soldier 2: First the door, then the Taiwanese rebel. The government of General Tan will reward us if when we report his extinction.

Scene Two, later the same night.

Professor Lim is writing with a brush when two privates and a corporal burst in.

Lim: What is the meaning of this? How dare you burst in and disturb me—

Pvt 1(sarcastically): Oh, are we disturbing you? We did not mean to.

Lim (firmly, failing to realize his plight): Yes, you are. I am a member of the Settlement Committee that is governing Taipei. I am one of those meeting personally with the Governor General—

Pvt 2 slaps him. Lim looks more bewildered than hurt.

Lim: Are you communists?

Pvt 1 (laughing): Are we communists? No! We fight communists and Taiwanese rebels who help the communists.

Lim: I’m no rebel. I work with the government to promote smoother operations of the provincial government.

Corp: There is no provisional government, and your committee has been judged guilty of sedition for making outrageous, unreasonable demands.

Lim: What demands were unreasonable? Sedition? What sedition? We smooth the troubled waters.

Corp: You so-called leaders have stirred up the people here—

Lim (firmly, still a lecturer, annoyed but not understanding the lack of the deference with which he is usually addressed): Not at all! We calmed the people and prevented a rebellion.

Corp: There can be no rebellion—

Lim: There is none, General Tan agreed to self-policing.

Pvt 1: That’s all over.

Pvt 2: Yes. [short pause] I’m tired of this pretentious vermin. [Looking at corporal:} Permission to shut him up?

Corp: Yes, gag him.

Lim sputters as Private 2 gags him.

Corp: And make sure he can’t run away.

Private 1 hobbles Lim, tying his ankles so he can only take short steps. The corporal roughly jerks Lim’s hands behind him and binds them together.

Corp: OK, men, let’s take this rebel in and move on to pick off the next piece of Taiwanese scum.

The two privates prod Lim out with their rifle barrels. They pass Siuhua, dressed as an old lady.

Siuhua: If the moderate reformers are treated like this, what would they do with my hot-headed Sudin? He would struggle and they would surely kill him. Professor Lim went along and may be released. But Sudin clearly was right. The Chinese only say they are our brothers when they want to take things from us. They forget they ran awya from the Japanese until the Japanese tired of chasing them. Now they claim to have defeated Japan. What will become of Taiwan when there is nothing left to loot here? Thank heavens I got Sudin away in time. The Chinese would cut him down if they found him, but they will not find him. If only the whole island could float away from the Republic of the Chinese and the cruel louts besetting us. Woe is our future as a slave of the ROC? When will we be free? When can we seek our own happiness in safety? It was easier under Japanese guard dogs. Our freedom was limited and some of what we produced was taken away, but now we have no freedom and everything is shipped to China.

Scene Three, very early in the morning of 3/9/47

A prison cell with four Settlement Committee members. (Professor Lim is #4). They are disheveled from physical mistreatment, and shocked by being rounded up like violent criminals.

1: Why were we so naive? How could we have believed in good faith from Tan Ge?

2: Perhaps he does not know what the newly arrived troops have done.

3: More likely, he ordered it, begged for more troops, claimed communists were rising against him here.

4: Rebels against the kingdom of heaven—

1: — or hell.

2: Well, someone must have led President Jiang—

1: His only interest it Taiwan is in what can be extracted from us and shipped to enrich his circle.

2: I believe that if we could alert him about what is going on—

3: He would be pleased.

1: He must have ordered severe measures. Who do you think ordered troops to come here? You don’t think he knew how they would behave, how they behave?

2: But Tan Ge promised us a larger role. He promised not to bring in more troops.

1: Obviously, he lied. How can you believe anything he said when he felt cornered? He knew reinforcements were on their way here.

3: He must have requested them.

2: So his only concern was to buy time for them to arrive? But what of the Americans here. Won’t they report what’s happening?

1: Come on! It was the Americans who brought the locust here.

4: What of the four freedoms. Did not the United Nations proclaim a universal right to self-determination?

1: That was all wartime propaganda. Now they’ve won the war, and they let the Chinese treat Taiwan as spoils of victory for their allies—

3: Little as Jiang’s armies did to defeat the Japanese.

4: I hope to breathe open air again, to see our beautiful homeland, not through prison bars. My hope whispers we shall be free.

Chorus of all four: Will freedom rescue us? Will freedom ever come to Taiwan? Will foreigners forever suppress us? Will we be free, or is imprisonment for believing Chinese promises our just punishment? Will we be free?

Two privates and a corporal enter.

Soldier 1: What is this caterwauling? Form a line and march!

Still hobbled, the prisoners shuffle rather than march, followed by smirking soldiers. They pass out the cell door.

Soldier 2: Pick up a shovel.

Professor 2: We are not ditch-diggers, we are teachers.

Soldier 2: You were ignorant and bad teachers. Probably you are not good ditch-diggers, either, but at least you will not be misleading students any more.

P2: We have been removed from our jobs?

Corporal: You could say that.

P2: This is not fair. We must be allowed to speak to Tan Ge.

Corporal: You are even more foolish than I supposed. Whose orders do you think we are following?

P2: We are going to do hard labor?

Soldier 1: Only for a short time.

P4 (Lim): We have been sentenced without a trial?

Corporal: There is no need for a trial. It is obvious that you are enemies of the republic.

P4: We are supporters of the republic, trying to make it work.

P2: Yes! Working in harmony with Tan Ge to improve its workings.

P1 (aside): It works only for thieves

Soldier 2: Tan Ge does not need your help.

P4(despairingly transposes words of earlier question to the same notes): Freedom will not rescue us. Perhaps some day freedom will rescue our people, but freedom will not rescue us. Hope whispered falsely.

The four professors simulate digging.

P2: This is not proper use of our abilities.

S1: You are not worth a bullet.

P2: What do you mean?

Soldier 1 strangles him and the other soldiers strangle the others, then go through the pockets, taking whatever they find in them.

Corporal: Taiwanese vermin will learn from their example that they have Chinese masters now. There will be no more rebellion here for a very long time.

S2: Or even any complaints.

Scene Four, evening of 3/10/47

Tan Ge is seated. The Lieutenant enters and salutes. Tan returns the salute.

Lt. Our face has been restored. The impudent traitors have been rounded up and have disappeared from the face of the earth forever.

Tan: They made me look bad. They made our glorious republic look bad and must be eliminated. How can our great nation lose control of a small, insignificant island that the Japanese turned to a profit?

Lt: The rebel Taiwanese have disappeared from the earth forever, my commander. The Keelung River ran red with rebel Taiwanese blood and the harbor is full of their stinking corpses. The corpses of the communist traitors will never be found and buried. Their ghosts will wander, desolate for ever.

Tan: You have done well and are overdue for a promotion. It is regrettable that we had to ask Jiang for help. I do not like to be deeper in his debt. His bitch will make sure to collect by debt with thousandfold interest.

Lt: Better that than to lose control. There are riches still to be drained, and profits will revive.

Scene Five, later in the evening of 3/10/47

Siuhua enters. Sudin is hidden in shadows.

Siuhua: Sudin? Were are you?

Sudin (quietly): Over here. Are you sure no one followed you?

Siuhua: I was very careful and changed directions many times. It is a terrible time to be Taiwanese. Our people are being slaughtered—shot in the streets, dragged out of their homes, tortured, humiliated— Your professor was taken away by soldiers before I could warn him.

Sudin: Professor Lim! He was so sure the Chinese would respect his sincerity, that Tan Ge and Jiang Kaishek really wanted good government and the help of Taiwanese leaders.

Siuhua: You were right not to trust them, but that only increases your danger. You really must flee our homeland tonight.

Sudin: But what happened to Professor Lim?

Siuhua: The Chinese soldiers treated him like a violent criminal, bound his hands and feet and took him away at gunpoint.

Sudin: Professor Lim, violent! We should have taken all the weapons from the Chinese who were here before—

Siuhua: It would not have helped. Armed soldiers poured in, shooting as soon as they got off the boats. What could you have done about that?

Sudin: Shot each one who tried to disembark on our homeland!

Siuhua: Of, Sudin! Sometimes you are such a child! [pause] Yet now you are in such very real danger! Will I ever see you after tonight?

Sudin: Of course you’ll see me again. We will marry and roast the last mountain pig for the wedding guests. Then we will start manufacturing little Sudins and Siuhuas.

Siuhua: More childish bravado! Sometimes you are such a child—though Professor Lim was sillier still to trust the Chinese who must have killed him by now.

Sudin: Are you sure? Did you see them kill him?

Siuhua: No, but I saw him stumbling along, his arms twisted behind his back, his ankles hobbled, only able to take baby steps. I didn’t dare follow him, but I doubt he will ever come back.

Sudin: You believe they killed him?

Siuhua: Yes, as they’d murder you, if the could find you.

Sudin: They won’t find me!

Siuhua: Only a few hours and you’ll be out of their reach.

Sudin (sighing): Back under Japanese rule.

Siuhua: The Japanese treated us better and protected us more than the Chinese have.

Sudin: But the Japanese are ruled by Americans now.

Siuhua: It would be better if we were, too.

Sudin: If the Americans believed in the democracy their leaflets promised, they would have done something to aid us, they would have supported the reformers, at least, but they continue to supply Jiang and Tan. The Americans have forgotten what it is like, what they rebelled against when they were misruled colonies of the British.

Siuhua: That was very long ago. Now they carry locusts and put them in our rice bowls.

Sudin: Yes, despite what they said, they have supported restoring colonies in Asia to Europeans and connived in making Taiwan a colony of Jiang’s misrule. They have forgotten their foundation, the challenges to injustice they once made in their own behalf.

Siuhua: I hear something. We must hide and be quiet.

Sudin: Ah, the Taiwanese fate!

The move into shadow as a patrol passes, shining flashlights here and there. The patrol exits.

Siuhua: You must go to the boatmen now.

Sudin: I don’t want to leave you with these pigs rutting.

Siuhua: I don’t want them to kill you.

Sudin: I want to stay and resist.

Siuhua: You cannot resist here. To resist you must leave. If things don’t improve in a year, I’ll follow you.

Sudin: Promise?

Siuhua: I promise we’ll be rejoined, come what may.

Sudin: Tormented Taiwan, cursed to renewed Chinese tyranny.

Siuhua: Robbed, exploited, mistreated., still someday Taiwan will be free.

Sudin: You’re sure?

Siuhua: I’m sure. I only hope it will be sooner rather than later.

Scene Six, years later on Okinawa.

Sudin: We are still here. Our neighbors are able to decide their fate. Are we condemned to permanent exile? Is Taiwan condemned to eternal Chinese misrule? Are Taiwanese damned to eternal mistreatment?

Siuhua: Someday we shall return. Someday Taiwan will be free. Hope whispers we shall be free. Freedom will yet rescue Taiwan.

Sudin: What about us? Will we live to see a free Taiwan?

Siuhua: Defeated Japan has democracy now, why not Taiwan?

Sudin: Why never Taiwan? Why should we be after Japan? Japan was the enemy, not Taiwan, but the Americans helped Japan and gave Taiwan to the gangster pigs. Did not our ancestors flee China and the oppression of the Chinese? Why must Taiwan continue to swallow the bitterness of Chinese arrogance and incompetence?

Siuhua: You must keep on believing that freedom will come to our homeland.

Sudin: It is hard with the blood-sucking Jiangs and Soongs pretending to be emperors of the Middle Kingdom, but only able to extract tribute from Taiwan. America imposed them on us and now adds insult to injury by calling “Free China” part of a “free world.”

Siuhua: Taiwanese remain unfree, but not forever. Taiwanese persist. Taiwanese wait. Taiwanese persevere. Someday Taiwan will be free and our Taiwanese children will prosper.

Sudin: Only Taiwanese children born in exile. And what of those who murdered our brothers and sisters and teachers?

Siuhua: They will die badly, bleeding copiously from seven orifices.

Chorus: Freedom will yet rescue Taiwan. Someday we will be free.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

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New Park was rennamed 2-28 PeacePark

Also see American witness accounts here.

Black short fiction, 1899-1967

A book of 46 stories by as many authors is pretty certain to be uneven. Originally published in 1967 as The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers and retitled The Best Short Stories by Black Writers: The Classic Anthology from 1899-1967 includes some particularly good stories (some of them close to being parables) by more than a Who’s Who of African American writers active before the mid-1960s. It is easier to mention who is conspicuous by their absence than whose work editor Langston Hughes sampled: Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, and Bruce Nugent — the latter two part of the Harlem Renaissance faction whose poet Hughes was. Not that any of those three produced many short stories, but Hughes detached stories from novels by some other writers (including “Fern” from Jean Toomer’s Cane, a highly regarded classic by which I am underwhelmed.

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I also would have chosen different stories by Harlem Renaissance writers Arna Bontemps, Rudolph Fisher, Zora Neale Hurston, and Eric Walrond. Nonetheless, the choice of a story by Hughes himself (“Thank you, ma’me”) is excellent, and there are good representative stories by the two authors of contenders for the title Great African American Novel Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison (“Almos’ a man” from Eight Men and “Flying Home,” respectively), one that much later became the title piece in the collection of short fiction and nonfiction pieces by the youngest Harlem Renaissance writer, Dorothy West (The Richer, the Poorer) and a pointedly ironic story about political machines and getting ahead by Paul Laurence Dunbar from around the turn of the 20th century (The scapegoat). The earliest one by Charles W. Chestnutt (The sheriff’s children) is at least pretty good.

I particularly liked two stories by authors of whom I had not previous heard: Ted Poston (Revolt of the evil fairies) and Cyrus Colter (The beach umbrella). About half the stories are by writers who must have appeared promising around 1965 but whose promise was not fulfilled.

I was underwhelmed by the two longest stories in the volume, both written by celebrated authors: James Baldwin (This morning, this evening, so soon) and Ernest J. Gaines (A long day in November) and one of the weakest of the many stories written by Chester Himes (Marihuana and a pistol).

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I was also disappointed by Hughes’s brief (5-page) and bland introduction, which does little more than say that black writing talent is abundant but support was and is not, particularly from Hollywood. My rating is brought down by the superficial introduction more than by the dubious choices of some now-forgotten authors and of the stories by some authors with whose work I am familiar. There are, nonetheless, a number of interesting stories (tastes will differ on which ones, I realize). The book has some interest as a historical artifact (not least as a survey of African American writers who were little-celebrated than and are forgotten now.)

The bio-blurbs at the back are helpful, but it is annoying that it is impossible to tell when most of the stories were first published (let alone written) and that there is no discernible order to the copyright notice listing of stories.

©2008, Stephen O. Murray

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Dorothy West’s belated The Wedding

Ralph Ellison’s attempt to “top” his much-heralded masterpiece Invisible Man was the most long-awaited African American novel, one that was never achieved, though some of the sprawling manuscript was posthumously published as Juneteenth.

The pressures on Dorothy West (1907-1998) were less intense. A few years before Invisible Man, she had published a well-reviewed novel (The Living Is Easy, 1948). She was, however, primarily a short-story writer, not a novelist, and not expected by anyone to grab for the brass ring of writing The Great American Novel.

Still, this woman who, having been the youngest of the Harlem Renaissance’s “niggerati” faction, had become the last survivor was known to have long been working on a multi-generation novel. The project was brought to fruition by a New York acquisition editor by the name of Jaqueline Kennedy Onnasis (to whose memory the book was dedicated when it was published in 1995). During the summers of 1992-94, “Jackie” worked with West on organizing the book on weekly visits to Martha’s Vineyard, where the novel is (mostly) set, and where West had moved in 1947.

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Confronted with a six-generation genealogical chart on the first page (a welcome one to which I turned many times in reading the novel!), I wondered how such a large cast of characters could be encompassed in a not particularly bulky volume. I mean, did the whole shelf of Faulkner novels encompass six generations?

Compared to Faulkner, West was short-winded. Her old-fashioned sentences sometimes bring Faulkner to mind, and I could imagine Faulkner expanding each of the chapters set in the 1855-1920 span in the South into full-length novels. He wrote great short stories, too, but wove his characters into a narrative far better than West.

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In The Wedding, the burdens of the past are being slogged around on the day before a wedding taking place in August 1953 in a black bourgeoisie enclave on Cape Cod called “the Oval.” The bride-to-be, Shelby Coles, is from the most prominent family within the black bourgeoisie able to summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and is wedding (of all things) a white jazz musician, instead of a light-skinned African American professional with proper family and income. She, “who could have had her pick of the best of breed in her own race,” is marrying “a nameless, faceless white man who wrote jazz.”

Skin shade is exceptionally prominent in the book and likely to strike many readers (and Shelby’s sister, Liz, who eloped and married a dark-skinned husband, producing children too dark for their grandmother to want to touch) as black self-hatred. “Black is beautiful” was a pronouncement still a decade and a half in the future, though I suspect that this obsession is more 1920s than 1950s—the era of Nella Larsen and Jean Toomer rather than that of Richard Wright (whose career West had helped launch) and James Baldwin.

Also, for those familiar with the 1920s battles between the “niggerati” writers who were West’s friends (Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes) and the political correct demands of W. E. B. DuBois to portray the “talented tenth,” there is considerable irony in West’s focus on the Negro establishment rather than the struggling, downtrodden folk about whom her Harlem Renaissance friends wrote. I don’t know that she changed sides, but the families she wrote about were definitely among the strivers rather than those who felt hopeless (the physician with a Harvard degree and a Harlem practice, even lived on what was popularly called “Striver’s Row”).

There is a present-day (that is, 1953) plot that is more than a little contrived, involving a confident would-be seducer of Shelby, and race and pigmentation positions of Liz and of their grandmother are exhaustively covered in the novel.

I found the soap opera attempts to dissuade Shelby from going through with the wedding less interesting than the chapters involving earlier generations (in the South, in Harlem, and on Martha’s Vineyard).

The male characters are not very well-developed, and I’d like to have learned what happened to several of the forebearers. The dialogue is often stilted and programmatic, too (the class and pigmentation programs of the characters). Moreover, the novel is difficult to get into and has a too-pat (double-barreled) ending. Still, there was much of interest about the upward path of Shelby’s ancestors and I was not sorry that I made the effort to stay with the book. (In contrast, I did not feel that Cane, my original choice for a Black History Month review, was worth the effort. My second choice, Claude McKay’s Banjo did not require much effort, but was also disappointing: Claude McKay all too aptly subtitled it “a story without a plot.” Portraying schemers and ne’re-do-wells, it was taken as an exemplar and validation for the “niggerati” writing about non-elite Negros.)

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There was a 1998 Oprah Winfrey-sponsored miniseries based on The Wedding, starring Hale Berry as Shelby and Lynn Whitfield as her mother (and Shirley Knight as her white grandmother, not exactly the frail ancient of the book!),. It was not critically or commercially successful.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Fictions of Nella Larsen

I have read a lot of Harlem Renaissance literature. I had not read the work of Nella Larsen (1891-1964), who like Claude McKay was a decade older than the “niggerati” writers, because I thought that she was an exemplar of the more genteel “talented tenth” literature. I confused her with Jesse Fauset, though I was not completely wrong. In Larsen’s autobiographical first novel, Quicksand (published in 1928 at the urgings of “Negrotarian” Carl Van Vechten) there is a discussion between the heroine, Helga Crane, and the man she loves about the low fertility of educated Negroes in contrast to the high fertility of the black masses. The main characters in both her novels move within the black bourgeoisie in Harlem, and have a surface gentility… But beneath that surface, passions roil.

The short story “The Wrong Man” (1926) features a married woman seeing a former lover at a party, and going to a summerhouse on the property to plead with him not to reveal their past. I think it is Larsen’s most perfect work (though she regarded it as “hackwork”). The male stream of consciousness story “Freedom” (also from 1926) does not impress me.

Although there is much of interest in the peregrinations of Hazel in Quicksand, I don’t find her last stop convincing. Like Larsen, Helga fled a Southern black college (Fisk), had a Danish mother, spent some time as an exotic flower in Denmark, and lost the man she most wanted (she also spurned a prime catch in Copenhagen, to the disappointment of her aunt and uncle there).

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The more fully realized of her published novels (apparently, she wrote three more with all-white casts that were no published and are now lost) is Passing (1929). The narrator is a light-skinned South Side of Chicago mulatta, Irene Redfield, who runs into Clare Kendry, a childhood acquaintance who left the “hood” and is passing as white, married to an outspoken racist.

Irene says: “It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same tiem dondone it. It exceites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away form it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.” Shopping downtown, she shows a willingness not to embrace stigma, and passes. (I know how exhausting it is to correct assumptions, and from Erving Goffman’s Stigma, I also know that everyone is either discredited or discreditable, at least in their own eyes…)

The scene moves to New York City. Irene is married to a black physician who wants to move to the more racially equitable land of Brazil, but instead supports Irene in the manner to which she has become accustomed. Clare starts coming around, slumming at a Harlem ball (with a character who resembles Van Vechten), and interesting Dr. Redfield to Irene’s dismay and mounting suspicion. Some read lesbian undercurrents into the mutual fascination of the two women with the lives the other leads, one in an affluent white milieu, the other in the Harlem professional aristocracy. And how literally one causes the other to die is very open to interpretation.

Larsen lost her husband (the second African American to earn a Ph.D. in physics, who took up a position at Fisk, the very college from which Larsen had fled or been expelled years earlier) to a white woman rather than a passing-as-white one and the anguish about losing the economic support of a husband is presumably autobiographical. (Larsen lived on alimony until her ex-husband died in 1941, then worked as a nurse, writing nothing more.)

The DuBois (anti-nig-gerati and outraged by Van Vechten and the Harlem vogue) embrace of Larsen for portraying well-off Negroes seems ironic, given how dissatisfied Larsen’s heroines were with the black bourgeoisie. Hazel, Irene, Clare, none is a model of uplifting the race: Hazel and Clare flee its constraints, though both live an approach-avoidance pattern. And Irene’s smugness is far from admirable.

Van Vechten got Larsen and Langston Hughes published by Knopf, and Larsen dedicated Passing to him (and took some lines form Hughes to place before Quicksand). She was of his “tell it like it is” (“sensationalizing”) branch, even if she wrote about a “better class” of Negroes (not to mention the dilution of their “black blood,” a conception she did not reify in the Faulkner manner).

Novels about women’s concerns and romances are often dismissed as “soap operas” (in invidious contrast with works focused on male concerns and actions). Hazel Carby asserts that Quicksand provided “the first explicitly sexual black heroine in black women’s fiction. There is nothing remotely sexually graphic, but there is female sexual agency (whether there is in Zora Neale Hurston’s character Janie in her 1937 post-Renaissance (and post-Harlem) Their Eyes Are Watching God, is a matter of debate, but that it was later is not). And Passing is sometimes classified as a “murder mystery.

Larsen’s final published fiction, the short story, “Sanctuary” (1930), was, very untypically for her, set in the Deep South among racially solidarity-exemplifying black characters. I think it is a solid story and the author whom Larsen was accused of plagiarizing, Sheila Kaye-Smith, had based her story on one recorded centuries earlier by (Saint ) François de Sales. Accusations of plagiarism did not prevent Larsen getting a Guggenheim grant to return to Europe (southern rather than northern) but seem to have shaken her self-confidence (along with her losing her grip on her husband). Though she lived until 1964, she published no more, slipping into obscurity (to the literary world) even more than the most famous Black Renaissance writer, Zora Neale Hurston. (And the youngest, Dorothy West, published her first novel, The Living Is Easy, in 1948, her second, The Wedding, in 1995.)

Larsen’s Complete Fiction includes a very informative introduction by its editor, Charles R. Larson that includes the reader report recommending not publishing Mirage, the novel with an all-white cast (triangle) she wrote on her Guggenheim grant. The Knopf referee wrote that “the husband is the chief defect of the novel because of the passive and shadowy characterization,” a defect I also find in the two published novels.

 

©2011, Stephen O. Murray

 

Dorothy West’s The Richer, The Poorer

Dorothy West (1907-1998) was the youngest and — thus, not coincidentally — last survivor of the Harlem Renaissance writers. I don’t think that she ever lived in the Niggerati Manor (thinly fictionalized by Wallace Thurman in Infants of the Spring), but despite her decidedly bourgeois background, she associated with the “nlggerati” writers (Thurman, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston) rather than the racial uplift celebrators of “the talented tenth” following the image-polishing line of W. E. B. DuBois (as his secretary Nella Larsen and his gay son-in-law (for a time) Countee Cullen did). Nonetheless, her own writing is mostly about the upper crust of black society and she lived more than half her life in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard.

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She was the darkest-skinned of 22 children (ranging considerably in coloration) of a former slave who became a successful Boston businessman, Isaac Christopher West, and Rachel Pease Benson. Her parents pop up often in her writing, her siblings hardly at all.

West started writing at the age of seven and came to the notice of Harlem Renaissance writers when “The Typewriter,” a story about a young woman whose ambition to become a businessman’s secretary afforded her father fantasies of being a successful businessmen dictating letters for her to practice on (when she gets a job and doesn’t need anticipatory practice, her father shrivels), tied with a story by Hurston for second prize in a writing contest sponsored by Opportunity, the magazine published by the National Urban League.

Hurston decided to encourage West rather than be miffed at sharing a prize with a newcomer. Langston Hughes dubbed West “the kid.” During the Depression, West worked some for the Works Project Administration and as a welfare investigator (which provided material for several stories). In 1934 with an outlay of $40 she started a magazine for black writing called Challenge. It folded and she started another in 1937 called New Challenge with Richard Wright as an associate editor (he published “Blueprint for Negro Writing” in it; Ralph Ellison also appeared in its pages).

West published a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful novel, The Living Is Easy, in 1948. She and it were largely forgotten when a feminist press brought The Living Is Easy back into print in 1982, a time in which there was also renewed interest in the Harlem Renaissance. Prodded by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, West finished her second novel The Wedding in 1995. It became a best-seller and was the basis for an Oprah Winfrey-sponsored television miniseries (that I have not seen).

She had been writing occasional pieces for the Vineyard Gazette, some of which were included along with seventeen pieces of short fiction in The Richer, The Poorer.

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The title story — a parable really — is not about a marriage, but about two sisters, one who saved for the future, the other who lived in the moment… and eventually landed on the frugal sister’s doorstep. At first Lottie felt “trapped by the blood tie, [and] knew that she would not only have to send for her sister, but take her in when she returned. It didn’t seem fair that Bess should reap the harvest of Lottie’s lifetime of self denial.” After a welcoming feast for the prodigal sister, the ne’re-do-well Bess asks Lottie how the years have treated her.

“It was me who didn’t use them, said Lottie wistfully. “I saved for them. I saved for them. I forgot the best of them would go without my every spending a day or a dollar enjoying them.”

This story affected me more when I reread it recently, after my Lottie-like father’s death than when I first read it in Langston Hughes’s The Best Short Stories by Black Writers. The longer story “The Funeral” told from the perspective of a young black child (named Judy, as in other stories told from a perspective that seems West’s vision of her own childhood perspective as a dark daughter of a light-hued, hue-obsessed mother in The Living Is Easy) does not resonate as well for me, and her attempt to write a long story, “An Unimportant Man” from a male perspective is a failure in my view (as the male characters in The Living Is Easy were for me).

Other pieces of short fiction that I thought stood out as particularly deft were “Fluff and Mr. Ripley,” “Jack in the Pot,” and “Mammy.”

The fiction is augmented by thirteen “Sketches and Reminiscences.” I wish that West had written reminiscences of the young Richard Wright from the New Challenge days and of Hurston and Hughes. (A story about the Harlemite visit to the Soviet Union mentions Hughes in passing, but the main character other than the shy author is Sergei Eisenstein.) She did write a biographical sketch with some personal recollections (and more judgments) of Wallace Thurman. That piece, “Elephant’s Dance” is what most interests me, but there are also childhood reminiscences hardly distinguishable from her Judy stories that I think are quite good: “Rachel,” “Fond Memories of a Black Childhood,” (with very pointed contrast of the black Boston bourgeoisie and the black New York bourgeoisie), and “The Purse.” I also especially like her self-flagellating “Sun Parlor” (very much in her parable style).

I wish that there was more from more than sixty years of writing. My main frustration is that there is information on when only some of the pieces was published. I don’t understand why the short stories are not in chronological order of publication or of composition and would have liked to know (at least approximately) when each was written.

A preface by Mary Helen Washington provides useful biographical information, but is only four pages.

Though not a great book — aspiring to be more than a collection of occasional pieces — most of the stories (including the nonfictional ones) are enjoyable and well-crafted. More are affectionate than biting. One that has a bite (and a convincing male character) is the seemingly most frivolously titled: “Fluff and Mr. Ripley.”

 

©2018, Stephen O.Murray

Rudolph Fisher’s Walls of Jericho

Although my interest flagged in the middle (with long pedantic explanations of the forensic applications of medical knowledge), I finished Rudolf Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies, the first African American mystery novel, originally published in 1932, and much celebrated by Walter Mosley, the most successful African American writer of mystery novels.

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I was impressed by the section of Rudolph Fisher’s (1928) novel The Walls of Jericho in The Portable Harlem Renaissance, and picked up a remaindered hardcover copy (University of Michigan, 1992). I don’t know to what extent Fisher was stung by W. E. B. Du Bois’s complaint about Walls that Fisher didn’t write about black professionals like himself. Fisher was a member in good standing (contributor to Fire!) of the niggerati faction writing about what Du Bois termed “the debauched tenth.” The protagonists of Conjure-Man are drawn instead from DuBois’s much-touted “talented tenth,” including a physician (like Fisher himself), a policeman who is the only black who has risen to the rank of detective, and an African prince with a princely sense of noblesse oblige. And an important part is played by a mortician, a kind of professional.

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The main lower-status participants, who liven things up with a running game of the dozens, are not debauched, and the “conjure man” turns out to be not paranoid, not a murderer, and not preying on the poor. If he is an infusion of mumbo-jumbo direct from Africa, he is extremely sophisticated, possessing much knowledge about medicine, electronic, and, most importantly, human nature. Like Du Bois, he is a Harvard graduate.

There’s not a lot of “local color,” though there are a series of Harlem types (there are no white characters in the book). The novel has a typically convoluted mystery plot. As it turns out that Frimbo’s lack of interest in women is only apparent, not real, my main interest in the book is as one that focused on the responsibility of “the talented tenth” for the rest, while bringing some of the lively quotidian reality (including numbers running and other forms of gambling) of Harlem to the page without condescension (I can’t say without sensationalism, but isn’t that a genre convention for books focused on solving murders?). And if Frimbo is “primitivism,” it is of a kind of which Du Bois must have approved. (I have no idea if he commented on the book.)

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

I wonder if teenagers who are assigned to read Ralph Ellison’s (1952) Invisible Man or who pick it up on their own (as I did when I was a teenager) have the experience necessary to “get it.” There is the exhilarating language, which I know I appreciated when I first read the book long ago, and enough happens to keep the pages turning… And even on rereading I remain unsure what happened at the end of the narrator’s employment at the paint factory, so longer life experience does not make everything in the book clear…

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Besides being certified (immediately) as one of the greatest 20th-century American novel (it received a National Book Award and has appeared high on every list of the canon of 20th-century literature written in English), Invisible Man is a particularly good choice as an object of contemplation for Black History Month, because it was a historical novel even when Ellison began to write it, during World War II. I don’t mean to say that it fails to deal with timeless themes of alienation, self discovery, discovery of the duplicity of others, racisms (black and white), etc. But the events in the novel occur before World War II and the multiple social effects on the United States and, especially, on its South related to the mobilization to fight fascism(s). The particular forms of racism portrayed in the book are hard to imagine occurring now. Moreover, the fall of Soviet communism has made the sustained portrayal of the American Communist Party (“the Brotherhood” in the novel) and its zigzag lurches following changes in policies and alliances commanded by Stalin’s politburo a matter of historical interest, whereas American communists dabbling with encouraging and discouraging black rage was a “current event” when Ellison was writing the book.

During the 1930s (the era of the Harlem portion of Invisible Man), no group other than the communists was pressing for equal rights for what were then politely known as “colored people” (as in the name NAACP). “Equal rights” is an overstatement of what the CPUSA was pressing. Before anything like equal access to public accommodations, efforts were made to enact anti-lynching laws and end kangaroo court proceedings against colored defendants. A major cause célèbre was the mockery of a trial of the “Scottsboro boys” for alleged rape of white prostitutes.

In the North, the avant-garde of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” sought to include Negroes (as they were increasingly frequently called) in nonmenial jobs, often in the face of bitter opposition from white unionized workers. The issue the never-named narrator of Invisible Man happens upon is eviction of aged Negroes from white-owned Harlem tenements. It is an ad hoc speech by the narrator (henceforth designated as Y) that attracts the attention of a communist official looking for Harlem organizers. The narrator is groomed for leadership, but when he takes initiative is slapped down (subjected to “party discipline”), told that he was not hired to think and put in his inferior place, just as he was for trying to please patronizing whites in the South (first in being added to the blindfolded “boxing” mêlée staged for businessmen of his native town, then in showing a Northern patron of the thinly fictionalized Tuskeegee Institute some of the underbelly of Southern black life).

Presumably at start of the Popular Front era (though possibly as late as the notorious Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact), Y is supposed to channel the rage he has been mobilizing away from racial issues to neighborhood beautification (prefiguring Giuliani?). Those whom Y has helped to stir up turn to his black nationalist enemy, Ras, in a race riot. The immediate historical point here, is that in such riots, imaginary or momentary gains, including looting, were followed by real losses, including the loss of homes and personal property of those in the tenements set afire. The wider historical point is that the CPUSA was not committed to equal rights for Negroes (or, for that matter, for the “universal class,” the proletariat) but used and dropped mobilization of black disaffections as they suited Stalin’s jockeying for position in the world.

Everyone whom Y trusts, even conditionally, uses and betrays him, including his role model, Dr. Bledsoe who has succeeded The Founder (Booker T. Washington) at Tuskeegee, and his “brothers” (Clifton, who is black, and Jack, the one-eyed white brother who is the local commissar and more equal than others). Well, not quite everyone: there is the maternal Harlem landlady who shelters Y after his industrial adventures and the elderly “brother” who entrusts the shackle from his chain gang days. Still, betrayal and abuse comes from blacks as well as whites, until the Candide-like Y tumbles down a hole and makes it his home there. Like his forerunner, Dosteovesky’s The Man Who Lived Underground who deliberately collides with others in the street, Y continues to have near-violent collisions above ground (in the novel’s prologue).

There is considerable latitude for interpreting how much of Y’s alienation comes from his experiences of racism in America, how much from the experiences of an initially trusting (and almost unbelievably naive) youth in the harsh world of postagrarian anomie, how much is the existential condition of human beings. In addition to Dosteovesky’s underground man, Richard Wright, who encouraged Ellison’s vocation as a writer, had published a novella “The Man Who Lived Underground” in 1944… and existentialism was very much in vogue in Francophile American literary circles after the Second World War.

Wright had also written about communism as a “God that failed” black liberation (and Wright) in the second half of the memoir he completed in 1943, a much-edited version of which what was published in 1944 as Black Boy (and not published as he wrote it until 1977, as American Hunger), “I Tried to be a Communist” (1944), etc. Chester Himes (who was encouraged by Wright and by Ellison) sketched the duplicity of Communist championing of black workers in If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1945) and made it central in his 1948 novel The Lonely Crusade.

Invisible Man is a peak in a chain of novels about black alienation from its communist would-be tutors in the science of history (the functionaries who believe that “the trick is to take advantage of them [the masses] in their own interest”). Invisible Man is not an isolated outcropping, rising from a plain (like Mount Lassen or Devil’s Tower). Similarly, it is the highest peak in a chain of novels about the absurdities faced by black males trying to survive amidst the fantasies and fears of black virility that haunt many white men and women (including the businessmen watching the Battle Royale and the drunken white woman who wants to be violently taken by Y) and to survive the complex strategies of black entrepreneurs like Dr. Bledsoe and Rinehart to get and stay ahead, often by exploiting other blacks.

Invisible Man is a long book (568+xx pages in the Vintage edition), and there is a lot going on in it. I suspect that I understood little of the political context when I read the book as a high school student, and I had not read related work by Wright and Himes.

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There is much to admire in Ellison’s creation of characters and milieux and in his often exhilarating language and shifting style. (Ellison himself characterized it as moving from naturalism (à la Richard Wright) to expressionism to surrealism — though the Battle Royale seems already quite surrealist/absurdist to me.) I don’t question that it is a great book, but great books (e.g., Moby Dick, The Charterhouse of Parma) are often not perfectly crafted books. I’ve already suggested that Y is a little too naive to have survived to junior year in college, so that there is some sense in Dr. Bledsoe’s shock and irritation at having to tell Y

You let the white folk worry about pride and dignity—you learn where you are and get yourself power, influence, contacts with powerful and influential people—then stay in the dark and use it.,,, Play the game but don’t believe in it—that much you owe yourself.

Ther novel contains too many long speeches (in particular, I’d cut the blind speaker at a Founder’s Day assembly) and Y seems to lack any sexual desire of any sort. Defining himself as “invisible” seems a dead end (although many is the life that goes into a dead end), and Ellison himself seems not to have known where to go after Y embraces his condition (which he considers externally imposed, but which has to be to some extent a choice as existence becomes essence).

In focusing on the political context of communist Negro-mobilizing, what I’ve written gives little indication of the pleasures of the text. I think that rather a lot of the book is intended as satire, like much in the fiction of Chester Himes (and not nearly enough in the fiction of James Baldwin…) and in Soviet writers in the Bulgakov tradition. For a work of High Modernism, Invisible Man is more fun to read than might be imagined from what I (or many others) have written about it.

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After the acclaim for Invisible Man

There was a successor “Work in Progress” that was overdue before the grandchildren of Ras (black nationalists of the 1960s) attacked Ellison. I have my doubts of how finished a project the manuscript that was lost in a fire was. Ellison only somewhat pulled together the strands of Invisible Man, and it’s easy to extrapolate that he would have had problems bringing together the strands of a more epic project than the story of one disillusioned Southern black boy gone north to new confusions. Ellison worked on it for forty years (he died in 1994). Part of it was assembled posthumously by John F. Callahan as Juneteenth and there is also a posthumous collection of interesting and mostly accomplished short fiction written between 1937 and 1954, Flying Home and Other Stories and the collection of pithy essays Ellison published, Shadow and Act (incorporated into the Modern Library’s Collected Essays). Still, Ellison was something of a “one-hit wonder,” like Lorraine Hansberry and Eric Waldron.

©2003, Stephen O. Murray