He had to kill a mule so he wouldn't be one.

The Man Who Was Almost A Man
A short story by Richard Wright
 

Reflected upon by Patience Carter of Morrill Books
 

There is no way I could use this wonderful story in a public school classroom. It runs counter to the politically sensitive rules about how we talk about race. It's too bad.

It's not just that there's the word "nigger." The protagonist is a liar and he's comically stupid. I think most school principals would prefer a story about George Washington Carver rather than an angry, confused black man with a gun.

The only reasonable character in the story without any glaring vices is white Mr. Hawkins. Dave, the protagonist, wishes he had an extra bullet to shoot at this decent man's "white house."

If I could rewrite this story without the black dialect and the references to race, it might fly. It would probably be better if I retold the story orally.

If I retold it, I'd consider making the protagonist more sympathetic. I would emphasize his dysfunctional family and downplay his stupidity and his habitual lying.

Of course, it's a better story the way Richard Wright wrote it, but it's value wouldn't be accessible to my 7th grade students.

On the surface, the message of the story is that black people are stupid, deceitful, unkind, violent and a threat to white people. This man who was almost a man, but not quite, deserves to be called "boy" at 17 and forever. The story ends with a kindly white man being cheating out of $50 and Dave, the black boy-man, riding off into the night with nothing but anger, a gun and a long track record of poor judgment.

But upon further examination, Dave appears to be less responsible for his shortcomings. His poverty is deep and his parents are awful and he has no future. His desire to get a gun so he can become a man is ignorant, but what other recourse does he have? In his environment there is practically no way he could grow up and develop self respect and the respect of others. Dave is treated just like a mule. He's given no responsibility, not even the chance to hold on to part of his earnings.

At first we might think he's on such a short leash because he's semi-retarded but when taking a look at the treatment from his parents and his future prospects, it's not hard to see that it could be the result of lowered expectations.

Dave doesn't want a gun, he wants to be a man, which is a natural, healthy desire that hasn't yet been beat out of him. The fact that he thinks a gun will do the trick is the only solution his environment can have him imagine. Dave's belief that having a gun will make him a man is ridiculous and repellent but as the story turns out, his pursuit of having a gun is his ticket out of town, his only hope for becoming a man.

Dave stumbles forward in this story, not backward. He's placing trust not in his solutions, but in his burning desire to become a man. And that's what pushes him forward.

Some protagonists struggle with their situations and their conflict creates light along with the heat. They learn a lesson, they have a realization, and they take a step forward.

Not so for Dave. He burns with desire and the most critical action he takes is one with his eyes closed. He kills the mule and though he doesn't realize it, this sets in motion his liberation, his chance to become a man.

His environment was too oppressive for him to leave in daylight, with his eyes wide open, knowing exactly what he was doing.

Growing up, maturing, becoming a man, is not a smooth process. It is not an even series of progressive steps. The past doesn't always fade away. Often you have to kill it before the future can be born.

Our school counselor says that to grow up you need to have a "parentectomy." And another colleague of mine has a poster which reads, "The truth will make you free. But first it will make you miserable."

Dave had to kill a mule so that he would not forever be one himself.

A first glance, it looks like Mr. Hawkins is just a fairly nice fellow. But when Dave inexplicably arrives early for work, Mr. Hawkins just gives him more work to do. In a way, that's what you'd do with a beast of burden that exhibited extra energy and willingness to work. When it is revealed that Dave shot the mule, Mr. Hawkins isn't emotional. Dave didn't disappoint him--he doesn't think of Dave in those terms. He sees Dave as a mule. If he fires him it would be like shooting his own mule. The point is to keep Dave working. Dave senses this and that's why he talks about taking a goodbye shot at his "white house" to put a little fear in him. At least he would be reacting to him with a little human emotion and the fear would serve him right.

If I did figure out a way to share this story with my students, I'd have them go through the text and make lists of
 



A response to this reflection was written by Van G. Garrett.


Patience Carter is a school teacher, a writer, a critic and a permanent fixture at  Morrill Books