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Photos in “12 Million Black Voices” by Richard Wright Essay

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Updated: Aug 16th, 2020

African Americans as Victims

Richard Wright depicts the life of the most vulnerable groups of African Americans. These are poor people who have to work hard and live in inhumane conditions. The author stresses that there are millions of such people. He reveals their story from the days of slavery to the 20th century. It is clear that the author believes that African Americans are victims of the development of the US society. He claims that Africans were brought to the Americas as tools of white people’s enrichment. The author notes, “Our Black bodies were good tools that had to be kept efficient for toil” (Wright 25). The picture on page 24 illustrates this opinion. Three people gathering cotton are depicted. They are bent, and they have to drag enormous sacks filled with cotton.

The author notes that African Americans “rose and struck angrily for freedom… in two’s and three’s” or they “rose by thousands” (Wright 25). However, ‘the Lords of the Land’ had the necessary mechanisms to suppress the revolts and make African Americans work hard and be silent.

White Americans had numerous tools to achieve such goals. They had mobs, and they also had numerous laws that justified the world order established. The photograph mentioned above reveals this world order as the poor workers are bent under the pressure of landowners. African Americans have no other choice than to work hard and hope. They see nothing more than the field and their wretched dwellings.

Admittedly, poor African Americans are victims of the system and the world order that existed in the past. They were brought to another continent with established rules. They did not have any tools to struggle against landowners. They could only try to commit suicide or run away and hope that they would never be caught. These people were in constant fear as landowners, mobs, and even white American laborers were ready to attack them. Poor slaves and their descendants did not have anyone to trust or rely on in the hostile American society. They remained absolutely armless for more than a century.

Living Conditions in the North

It is necessary to note that the author also depicts the life of African Americans who lived in the North. Those were free people, but they were as vulnerable as slaves in the South were. The author provides many facts that reveal the wretched life of African Americans in urban settings. Numerous photographs provide clearer insights into the life and vulnerability of poor people. The photographs on pages 76 and 77 as well as the one on page 65 show the conditions African Americans had to live in.

Poor people had to live in tiny and crammed rooms and houses. The furniture was hard enough, and it was all very old and deteriorated. The boy depicted in the photograph on page 77 has to sleep in the bed that is likely to go to pieces within days. The photograph revealing children sitting at the table that is covered with newspapers instead of a tablecloth is also quite suggestive. More so, newspapers are used instead of wallpaper as well. It is clear that African Americans did not have appropriate conditions for living. They hardly had money to buy food and pay rent for the horrible apartments.

The author provides certain data and facts. Thus, it is noted that in 1920, 3,500,000 African Americans lived in the cities, and their number increased as more and more people were leaving the South (Wright 93). Those people were trying to escape from the Lords of the Land, and they believed that they would find a better life in the North. However, they had to deal with unemployment and “Bosses of the Buildings” (Wright 111). It is necessary to add that African Americans were seen as aliens, and many white laborers (Americans as well as new immigrants) were often aggressive towards them. Clearly, the beginning of the 20th century was a very difficult time for the USA and African Americans who tried to find any work for any money. They were starving.

A specific attention in the book is paid to the kitchenette. It can be seen as a symbolic representation of the life of African Americans. The author states, “The kitchenette is the funnel through which our pulverized lives flow to ruin and death on the city pavements, at a profit” (Wright 111). The author stresses that these rotten houses made up big parts of American cities, and the owners of those buildings did nothing to repair or build better houses as that would mean less profit to them. The owners of such buildings did not want to pay taxes that could improve the quality of life of African Americans, as that would mean less profit.

Of course, photographs used to illustrate life in the kitchenette are extremely valuable. Without the photographs, it could be impossible to understand what the kitchenette really was. The photographs on pages 110 and 111 depict people living in kitchenettes. It is clear that the rooms are deteriorating, but people do not have money to repair at least something. People are doomed to live in that kind of poverty.

It is necessary to add that the use of photographs is crucial for the book and the section concerning the life of African Americans in urban settings. The author provides facts and his own observations. He tells stories of his people, which are very appealing. However, photographs make a great emotional impact on the reader, who can actually see what life for African Americans was. No imagination could create such wretched conditions, but it turns out that people had to live in such environment.

Central Message

The book in question tells a story of African Americans who were brought to the Americas and had to be oppressed for centuries in the new world until they managed to be freed from slavery but remained under financial oppression. The central message of the book is hard work and inhumane living conditions of African Americans. The titles of the chapters and especially photographs make the central message quite explicit.

The author stresses that African Americans had to work hard since the first of them were brought to the Americas. It is also clear that the author sees African Americans as victims and those who could not possibly change things. The title of part one, “Our Strange Birth”, shows that the author sees appearance of Africans in the Americas as something unnatural and wrong (Wright 9). The author stresses that his people did not choose to live in the New World and they did not get equal opportunities with other newcomers to the new lands. They were powerless and they had to be submissive. The photograph emphasizes the idea as it reveals working hands of an African American. It is clear that these poor people were only seen as tools. White people exploited hard labor of African slaves.

The title of part three of the book is entitled, “Death on the City Pavements”, and it dwells upon the outcomes of the rotten system that existed in the first part of the 20th century (Wright 91). African Americans were starving, they were victimized, they had to join gangs and were often put behind the bars, as they simply did not have an opportunity to assess resources that were available for White Americans. Of course, many African Americans died in poverty and only a few people seemed to care. The photograph of a common dwelling of African Americans in the first part of the 20th century underlines the message of the section.

It is possible to conclude that the author believes that African Americans have been victims of the system and the rest of the population seems to undermine the role they played in the development of the country. People often fail to understand the horrible conditions African Americans had to live in. Richard Wright tries to fix that and he tells the story of millions of African Americans who suffered, lived and hoped as well as contributed greatly to the development of the nation.

The book, filled with photographs reflecting the bitter reality, helps the reader see the path of African Americans and understand their needs and dreams. Admittedly, this book is extremely important as it can help diminish prejudice and bias in the American society.

Works Cited

Wright, Richard. 12 Million Black Voices. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Photos in "12 Million Black Voices" by Richard Wright'. 16 August.

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