By Donna Ledbetter
It seems the police have always been at odds with oppressed people. At a time when misgivings about the police run rampant through the minds of poor, racially diverse, and politically ostracized people, Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground, feels like a contemporary narrative even though it was penned in 1942. Wright’s story details an incident of unethical police behavior that was as plausible many decades ago as it is today. And as a story comprising men in its primary roles, The Man Who Lived Underground is further a strange account of how emasculating oppression can be.
Wright tells the story of a black man who is wrongly accused of a crime. The story begins with the man walking home from work when he is picked up by a squad car of policemen, then hauled off to the station and interrogated, coerced, and then tortured into signing a confession for this crime he didn’t commit. The police are not concerned that he isn’t the man they’re looking for. Any man, especially any black man, in the wrong place at the wrong time will do.
All the man wants is to go home to his pregnant wife. When they finally do allow him to see her, she goes into labor. Reluctantly, the officers take them to the hospital, but while there, the man escapes. Out the hospital doors and through a manhole in the ground the man finds refuge from the crime of which he was accused. He finds respite from the racism that abounds in the free world. And he becomes, like Ralph Ellison’s hero, an invisible man.
Read in isolation, The Man Who Lived Underground is confusing. Not because it is impossible to understand, but because the man’s motivations for the things he does underground are hard to explain. Why, for example, does the man choose high jinx over doing things that might prove his innocence? Why does he give no thought to his newborn child or to his wife, who only a day ago he was beaten over for pleading to see?
To his credit, Wright attempts to explain some of the mysteries in an essay titled Memories of My Grandmother, which is included with The Man Who Lived Underground. Wright mentions how the story was fashioned around his grandmother who suffered from a cognitive dissonance between reality and religion, a condition not so uncommon among a generation of black people for whom religion was used to support their enslavement.
Interestingly, Wright makes little mention of the men who influenced his life. Yet, the Man Who Lived Underground is overwrought with masculine themes. To write as a man is to necessarily have a strong grasp on the things that men care about. To write primarily with male characters as Wright has signifies a particular interest in relationships among men.
Wright’s story suggests a lot about manhood. Besides the alpha male dynamics among the police officers, most notable were the numerous times that the man, who is 29 years old, was referred to as “boy.” No one but his wife called him by his name, yet she and her child were of the least significance to him. It is as if being seen in a white man’s world was more important to him than being loved and needed by his own family. This plays out most clearly at the end of the story.
The Man Who Lived Underground is one of Richard Wright’s last works to be published posthumously. It is a searing account of unethical police behavior and a disturbing psychological tale that illustrates how racism can rob decent people of their humanity. While not one of Richard Wright’s exemplary and more celebrated works, it is a noteworthy contribution to his cannon. It is a story that should not be ignored from a writer who gave voice to people who were.