A Response to Patience Carter’s Interpretations of The Man Who Was Almost A

Man (published on: http:www.morrill.org/books/manalmostman.shtml)

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, society, etc.

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 social/political agenda.

I would like to address Ms. Carter’s first 10 assertions outlined in the first 10 paragraphs:

  1. 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 and stereotypes.

  2. 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.

  3. 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).

  4. 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 more authentic.

  5. 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 Wolf"?

  6. 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?

  7. Dave’s riding into the night shows he lacks the "signifiers of manhood".

  8. 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 concerns.

  9. 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.

  10. 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:

* 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.