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Amos a Man - the American Short Story

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  • 摘自:The American Short Story Volume 2, Laurel, 1977.

 "Amos a Man" tells the story of David, a black farm laborer of seventeen who is ridiculed by his elders because he wants to be treated like a man. Being a "man", to Dave, would mean being free to make his own decisions, being treated as an equal by other laborers, and being no longer obliged to obliterate his personality in obeying his so-called superiors.

We immediately sympathize with Dave's desire to be treated with decency and respect. At the same time, however, we are torn with anguish because Dave is so naive, fervently believing that he can achieve manhood merely by owning a gun! The very sight of firearms in a catalogue stirs in him a glowing faith that somehow a gun will release him from all frustrations and endow him with the self assurance of maturity.

 After Dave's first experiment with a cheap pistol results in a pathetic blunder that subjects him to fresh ridicule, he runs away, jumping onto a passing freight train. We last see him lying atop a box car, with no money, no knowledge of the world, and only an unloaded gun in his pocket staring ahead at the ralls that are "glinting in the moonlight, stretching away, away, to somewhere, somewhere where he could be a man. " Our hearts sink, for we realize that Dave has little sense of the terrible ordeals and responsibilities of manhood which lie ahead. Yet we also applaud his desire to grow up and live his own life.

 This moving psychological study of an adolescent, written early in Richard Wrights literary career, embodies a theme central to all his work: the search for that personal freedom which enables one to discover his own identity as a human being. This search was also a central feature of Wright's own life.

 Born in 1908 on a cotton plantation in Mississippi where his father was a tenant farmer, he grew up in conditions of squalor and poverty much like those we glimpse in "Almos' a Man." But poverty was only one of the forces which threatened to crush Wright's spirit. For in the early years of this century many Southern whites, determined to retain their power despite the abolition of slavery, ruthlessly imposed Jim Crow standards of conduct on all black people dictating exactly where blacks could or could not eat, ride on trolleys and buses, or walk, as well as what kind of speech they must use A black male could not say "Yes" or “No” to a white adult, for example, without adding “Sir or Ma'am." Furthermore, he must Passively accept the degrading treatment of black women by whites, nor could he expect equal protection for blacks under the law. In an illuminating essay called "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow", Wright later pointed out that certain subjects must never be mentioned in conversations with whites:

 American white women: the Ku Klux Klan: France and how Negro soldiers fared while there: .., the entire northern part of the United States: the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln: U.S. Grant: General Sherman, Catholics; the Pope; Jews, the Republican Party slavery, social equality, .. the I3th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution, or any topic calling for positive knowledge or manly self-assertion on the part of the Negro.

 Wright resented not only the terroristic methods by which these restrictions were enforced but also the cringing fear in his fellow blacks which often caused them to beat their own children into adopting the submissive attitude whites demanded. In "Almos' a Man," for example, we notice how Dave's mother and father keep their son a "boy". Neither of them tries to understand his desire for mature self-realization

 Still another repressive force in young Wright's life was the religious fanaticism of his grandmother, with whom be spent a crucial Period of his childhood. Pleasure was for. bidden. No baseball. No marbles. Above all, no reading of fiction. All literature, except for the Bible and religious tracts, was denounced as the work of the Devil. Though a well-meaning woman, his grandmother was a raging tyrant.

 Hence he eventually rebelled against all conventional reli- gious teachings. And he was already reading in secret any- thing he could lay hands on, including (when he was eighteen the writings of H. L. Mencken, who demon- strated for young Richard the amazing fact that unpopular ideas could find expression in print.

 In 1927, when Wright was nineteen, he moved to Chicago, learning there the special problems that plagued a black living in a northern city. And when the Depression hit Chicago, he learned at first-hand both the humiliations of unemployment and the effects of poverty---more painful than anything he had known in the rural South.

 Wright thus became persuaded that there was something deeply wrong with a society which preached freedom and equality of opportunity for all men, but actually denied these to a large percentage of the population. Believing that not only Individual people but the very structure of society was responsible for the suffering around him, he joined the Communist Party in the early 1930s; a decade later he broke from the Party, having discovered that the Communists requirement of absolute adherence to the party line was intolerable.

 Meanwhile he had begun to write, and in 1937 he moved to New York in order to join the staff of the Daily Worker as Harlem Editor. He published several stories in the late 1930s, but achieved no major success until 1940, when his brilliant novel, Native Son, made him famous.

 Because it so eloquently expressed the frustrations and resentments of millions of American blacks, Native Son spoke for black America much as Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939 )spoke for the nations dispossessed whites These two novels continue to stand out as the most pow- erful fiction that emerged from the Depression years, and Native on is recognized as Wrights finest novel-as well as his most controversial.

 Native Son features the blood-curdling murder of a white woman by a black man, Bigger Thomas. The novel's searing power is not derived, however, from the shocking description of the act itself, but from the detailed and subtle portrayal of the social, economic, and (especially) psychological forces which are ultimately responsible for this act. The title suggests that Bigger is symbolic of all Americans, and that his fate may well serve as a warning of the possible fate of anyone born into Ameriean society.

 Although the novel has been praised for its effectiveness as social protest, its main concern is not the external conditions which shape Bigger's behavior but what goes on n his mind as a result of these conditions. "Almos' a Man" published in the same year as Native Son, shares this concern. Although Dave's need to be a man has clearly been stimulated by the degradation in which he lives, the wory deals more directly with Dave's state of mind than with the social and economic forces producing this state, Both novel and story offer psychological portraits; in both we learn what it feels like to be a black male seeking to realize his own identity.



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