A Response to Patience Carter’s Interpretations of
The Man Who Was Almost A
Man (published on:
By Van G. Garrett
After reading Ms. Carter’s interpretations of Richard
Wright’s The Man Who Was Almost A Man, I felt
that the need to provide additional information that explores why this
text is worthy of scholarship.
Originally published in the January 1940 issue of Harper’s Bazaar
under the title "Almos’ A Man", Richard Wright comments on social and
political concerns that have historically affected many—more
specifically, African-Americans. Through his protagonist Dave Saunders,
we see a naïve 17-year-old who seeks to define "manhood" in
conventions that show he lacks the sensibilities that one would
subscribe to being a "man". However, we gain more than the poor choices
of a confused boy; we get a well-constructed narrative that lends
itself to literary criticism and scholarship. The text contains, but is
not limited to, the following criticism: the "Big Idea Theory" (that of
masculinity and/or "coming of age"). It is cultural literature, as it
is literature written by an African-American about an African-American
experience, and it can be categorized as "oral" literature, as it
supplies a rich and descriptive narrative.
However, what is key in surveying this text is that it functions as
minor literature, a compressed literature that shows how a family
triangle connects to other triangles that comment on economics,
Wright’s text, according to the aforementioned, subscribes to this
definition: it has a compressed narrative, it addresses personal,
political, and economic concerns, and it metaphorically has a family
triangle that connects to other triangles. A way the family triangle
manifest itself in a personal way is as follows: 1) Dave (a young
African-American male) wants a gun to prove he is a man. 2) Dave’s mom
(after much deliberation) gives Dave the money to purchase a gun. 3)
Dave’s dad is unaware of the secret his wife and son are hiding from
him. Next, the family triangle vibrates and connects to a political and
economic triangle: 1) Dave purchases a gun from Joe (white man). 2)
Dave accidentally kill’s his (white) boss’s mule and is forced to
become an indentured servant for two years to work off his debt. 3)
Dave and his father are publicly humiliated and ostracized by Blacks
and non-Blacks. The overlapping of these triangles in essence
highlights how Dave and his experiences are symbolic of a much larger
I would like to address Ms. Carter’s first 10 assertions outlined
in the first 10 paragraphs:
To say [referring to the text] "It’s too bad" is to
discredit the author and his work, which is anthologized as a tool to
illustrate the complex conceits presented in this short story. The text
has been contained and recommended in college texts because of the way
in which it lends itself to criticism. I feel that a creative public or
alternative school teacher can use this text (even if it means
paraphrasing or orally presenting it) to address issues about race and
other politically charged topics, as a means of deconstructing myths
What is wrong with presenting material that is not
cliché? Dave Saunders is a character that is challenging and he
causes readers to look beyond the text. While I acknowledge Ms.
Carter’s stance about how many school principals would probably object
to a story about an "angry, confused black man with a gun," I assert
there is more to the text. With regards to comparing the character of
Dave Saunders to George Washington Carver, I am confused: one man is a
fictional character and the other is obviously not. If I am reading her
premise correctly, she is suggesting Carver would be accepted by most
school principals because he is a protagonist that is [to use her words
describing Dave] not " a liar and comically stupid". I would argue from
the belief system of Jacques Derrida and those that subscribe to
deconstruction: we can learn more about our world and others by
studying "opposites" (good/ evil, black/white, Malcolm/ Martin, Carter/
Garrett, etc.). Studying Dave Saunders shows readers the opposite of
"manhood" and illustrates he is almost a man.
Mr. Hawkins is white. If one views him as the "only
reasonable character without any glaring vices" then Wright has
masterfully plotted his conceit (s).
I agree with Ms. Carter that this text is not an
easy piece to read (because of its dialect); however, Wright wanted to
narrate in the African-inspired and slavery promoted vernacular
commonly utilized in the South by Black laborers and non-laborers in
the early to mid 20th Century. Wright, like Zora Neale
Hurston and Sterling A. Brown, deliberately uses Black dialect, as it
is faithful to his characters and locales. The language makes the text
I understand why Ms. Carter might want to address or
rewrite some of the characters flaws; however, Wright constructs
conceits that are supposed to make readers uneasy—he is doing his job,
as he has a larger agenda than "just telling a story". With regards to
the "habitual lying", what about "Pinocchio" and "The Boy That Cried
Is this text found in seventh grade curriculums? Should
this text be anthologized in 7th grade texts, as opposed to
being housed in college texts?
Dave’s riding into the night shows he lacks the
"signifiers of manhood".
Wright wants readers to feel the oppression Saunders
feels; however, he also wants readers to see how the text is minor
literature, commenting about political and societal issues and
I fail to understand how the treatment from Dave’s
parents causes him to have lowered expectations. The parents’
expectations are maintained. His mother is concerned about his
management of money, as she saves his wages so he will have proper
clothing. His dad is a laborer and although he is upset with his son
about the poor choices he made (regarding the mule incident), he stands
in the gap and tries to teach Dave how he must learn to become a man on
his own, as only he can repay his debt to Mr. Hawkins.
The old construct of power = weaponry is a conceit Wright
also highlights under the "Big Idea Theory" umbrella. True a gun does
not constitute masculinity; hence, the reason Wright makes this the
dominant signifier for "manhood" and maturity.
If I were to teach this story to seventh grade students, I, too,
would have them to research the text and make a list of:
- The incidents that show Dave Saunders’ immaturity.
- The incidents where he is treated like a child.
- All the incidents where he lies.
- All of the insults he receives from his mother and father.
- Additionally, I would find instances where Dave is pondering
"manhood" and solicit responses as to what "should" follow in his
* Van G. Garrett was awarded
a 2004 and a 2002 Callaloo Creative Writing Fellowship for
poetry and the Danny Lee Lawrence prize for poetry in 1999. His poems
have appeared in DFW Poetry Review, Spiky Palm, The
Pittsburgh Quarterly, ChickenBones, Life Imitating Art,
Swirl, Drumvoices Review, Curbside Review,
Shank’s Mare, Urban Beat, E! Scene and elsewhere.
Additionally, his reviews and articles have appeared or will appear in African
American Review, Moria, and ChickenBones.