In 1938, when Richard Wright published Bright and Morning Star in the magazine New Masses, and in 1940, when he added it as the last of the stories in a collection entitled Uncle Tom’s Children, he did not yet anticipate the fame and critical acclaim he would later garner for his novel Native Son (1940) or his autobiography Black Boy (1945). In fact, he knew he had written the story to declare that Uncle Tom—the leading and sympathetic, deferential, self-sacrificing slave character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851)—was dead and that racism in America had become a plague, but he felt the story had failed. He feared he had relied too heavily upon sentiment and had missed his intended aim: to announce that a necessary change would occur in America, that African Americans needed to and would reject the past roles and traditions that helped propagate oppression. Yet critics agreed that he had judged his work too harshly, that the story—and the collection—contained a satisfying unity and did successfully use literature as protest. It displayed what ultimately became Richard Wright’s trademark techniques: a use of religion in a way that applied not to the afterlife but to life in this world, a use of allusion to religious songs and hymns (one of which provides the title of this story), a use of black folklore, a use of naturalism, and a use of the tension between nationalism and integrationism. In employing these literary tropes, Wright hoped to convey a sense of creative resistance grounded in a communal spirit and to break the silence surrounding the racism and exploitive economic forces that prevailed in America.
The America of Richard Wright’s era becomes vividly portrayed through the tale of Sue, Johnny-Boy, Reva, and Booker as they grapple with life in a South free of slavery but not free of the Jim Crow laws that prescribe how African Americans can live and make legal white advantage over and abuse of black citizens. Johnny-Boy, like the brother now in jail for his participation in such a group—and like Richard Wright, himself—serves as an organizer of a Communist Party group that believes the principles and practices of the party will give all Americans equality and economic parity and will finally topple “a cold white mountain, the white folks and their laws” (224). The members of the group are blacks and whites, including the white Reva, a young woman devoted to Johnny-Boy and whose relationship with Johnny-Boy represents the tension surrounding interracial relationships. Johnny’s aging and tired mother, Sue, already grieving because of the loss of her first son, Sug, fears for Johnny-Boy but nonetheless tries to help him. When Johnny discovers a spy has infiltrated their ranks and has told the white authorities about a planned meeting, Johnny-Boy knows he must go back out into the driving rainstorm and warn his compatriots not to attend the meeting.
While Johnny-Boy tries to prevent attendance at that meeting, a group of white men led by a sheriff arrives looking for him, and Sue must face them alone. Years of resentment about mistreatment by the whites suddenly boil over in her, and she resists them by standing up for herself, by taunting them and demanding they leave her property. She suffers a brutal beating for what they label her sass, and after they have left, as she regains some level of consciousness, the white Booker, a new member of the Communist Party group, questions her. Fearful because the sheriff and his men have told her Johnny-Boy will be caught and killed, she mistakenly trusts Booker and gives him the names of the party members who must be warned. Only a few minutes after Booker leaves does Sue realize her mistake when Reva visits and tells her that Booker is the spy, whom Sue labels “ ‘somebody done turned Judas’ ” (228).
At this point, Sue has an epiphany. She moves from fear to a realization that she must act; she converts fully from Christianity to communism and truly views the party as “another resurrection” (225), the solid hope for poor black people. Battered, bruised, and ailing in every possible way, she forms a plan to beat Booker to the group of white men hounding her son. She conquers a hostile nature—the pelting rain and the flooding river—to get to her son and to triumph over Booker by hiding a gun underneath a sheet she has taken ostensibly to cover her dying son. After a torturous witnessing of the brutality the men inflict on her son, she finally achieves her goal and shoots Booker before he can reveal the party members’ names. As she and her son lie dying, Sue murmurs her final words of defiance: “ ‘Yuh didn’t git whut yuh wanted! N yuh ain gonna nevah get it!’ ” (263). Though she and her son die, they stand as martyrs to the cause, and in their deaths, by refusing to talk, they keep that cause alive. They represent a racial solidarity that matters more than any individual life. As the story ends, Sue gazes up to the sky and feels not the hard rain of most of the setting for this story but a soft, gentle rain that symbolizes both her triumph over nature and her spiritual triumph over oppression. She has found her salvation not in an afterlife but in the here and now. She has become the bright and shining star of a hope for an improved future for her people.
Brignano, Russell C. Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Works. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970. Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. New York: Morrow, 1973. Giles, James R. “Richard Wright’s Successful Failure: A New Look at Uncle Tom’s Children.” Phylon 34, no. 3 (1973): 256–266. Graves, Neil. “Richard Wright’s Unheard Melodies: The Songs of Uncle Tom’s Children.” Phylon 40, no. 3 (1979): 278–290. Hakutani, Yoshinobu, ed. Critical Essays on Richard Wright. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. Jan Mohammed, Abdul R. The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright’s Archeology of Death. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005. Kinnamon, Keneth. The Emergence of Richard Wright. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. Maxwell, William J. “ ‘Is It True What They Say about Dixie?’: Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Rural/Urban Exchange in Modern African-American Literature.” In Knowing Your Place: Rural Identity and Cultural Hierarchy, edited by Barbara Ching and Gerald W. Creed, 71–104. New York: Routledge, 1997. Reed, Brian D. “Wright Turns the Bible Left: Rewriting the Christian Parable in Uncle Tom’s Children.” Xavier Review 24, no. 2 (2004): 56–65. Wright, Richard. “Bright and Morning Star.” In Uncle Tom’s Children. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993. Yarborough, Richard. “Introduction.” In Uncle Tom’s Children. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993, ix–xxix.