The Politics of Sympathy – 9/8

In “How Bigger was Born,” Richard Wright characterizes Uncle Tom’s Children ( the collection in which “Big Boy Leaves Home” appears) as ” an awfully naive mistake… a book which even banker’s daughters could read and weep over and feel good about”( 454). Do you agree that the short story  offers ” the consolation of tears”(454)? What do you see as the political/representations/ ethical/ etc. benefits and/or drawbacks of literature that solicits tears?

12 Responses to The Politics of Sympathy – 9/8

  1. Ryan Spencer says:

    I do agree that the story offers “the consolation of tears,” however, I am not sure that Wright was as naive as he accuses himself as being. Wright seems to view tears as sympathy with conclusion, once you have wept you are consoled and can feel good about yourself. Tears, he seems to suggest, allow a person to redeem themselves onto a higher moral ground. He suggests that in Native Son he didn’t want to make people cry because he wanted to leave people without any moral standing. While leaving people without moral standing is perhaps useful in its own way, I think he dismisses tears all too quickly. The tears which are brought about by “Big Boy Leaves Home” are tears of sympathy– something which Wright all to quickly disregards. Wright seems to only see the drawbacks of tears. By suggesting that Uncle Tom’s Children is a book which “even banker’s daughters could read and weep over and feel good about,” Wright suggests that someone’s good feelings about a text which depicts something terrible is not getting across its point. However, the good feeling which Wright suggests that the banker’s daughter feels I would describe as sympathy and compassion. As “Big Boy” faced many troubles I was rooting for him to survive and escape due to compassion and sympathy with his character. His ultimate survival made me feel good and sad at the same time. I felt bad for what he went through but I could feel good knowing that he survived. The crying solicitted “Big Boy Leaves Home” is a cry of sympathy. A uniting of tears — tears not meant just for the consolation of the reader but also for the consolation of the character. Sure a work such as Native Son which aims to not solicit tears is powerful in its own right but disregarding Uncle Tom’s Children because it solicits tears is powerful as well and in a different way; it invokes sympathy.

  2. Mia Edelstein says:

    Literature that solicit tears often solicits guilt, and in the context of this class, white guilt. This can be paralyzing for white readers, who then can’t get past their guilt and how bad they feel, and then the situation becomes about them. It distracts from the matter at hand and shifts attention to white “problems,” diverting from issues that should be addressed/benefit from the attention, such as a black teen’s experience with lynching. Tears can also be deceiving because the crier may think that they’ve reached a point of, as Ryan paraphrased Wright, higher moral ground and understanding. However, the crier may actually be only part of the way there because the author may want to solicit a different emotion, such as rage, and tears get in the way of further processing. Crying is not always bad, though. It puts readers in a vulnerable position, where walls are broken down and they can relate to characters or situations emotionally. When we expose ourselves like this we can discover sympathies that we didn’t think existed and feel connected to people we didn’t before.

  3. Gilberto Rosa says:

    I’m not too sure I understand the question so please forgive me if I go off topic and start talking about something completely irrelevant to what you are saying. I feel as though in Wright writing such a explicit novel that attempts to show what the quotidian experiences of black in American are like, he is also urging the reader to act. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t cry or shouldn’t feel emotional ties to the character but that with our emotions, action is being demanded. More so in this story, than in other ones, Wright is writing about a time within our American history in which black people were being lynched. Though many people such as Ida B. Wells spoke out against lynching, their efforts were not enough and lynching still continued for a while in this country. Richard Wright and many other contemporary black writers write these explicit novels that depict the everyday fears of black people all across the globe. While they effectively move us to tears, they should also function to make us work harder at whatever we do for a more just country and world. Especially considering the fact that in order to achieve liberation and racial justice in this country, it is going to take the strength, fight and determination of everyone.

  4. Noah says:

    As we discussed in class earlier, a possible drawback to eliciting tears is that crying allows for an immediate emotional release. It’s cathartic, and it lets pent-up emotions easily escape.

    But this kind of response can lead to inaction: the provoked reader has already responded emotionally, and is now deprived of the need to do anything about the problems that moved them. This is potentially very dangerous, because, in Wright’s time specifically, institutional racism (manifested through lynchings) was a very real and impending issue that need attention and action—not merely sympathy.

    Perhaps instead the writer would want to induce rage in their reader, a slowly built up anger that compels them to take action, and doesn’t offer the easy emotional gratification of crying. Inciting the reader, rather than moving them to tears, might produce more tangible sociopolitical change.

  5. Laura Katz says:

    I agree completely with the Writes statement about Big Boy Leaves home because there are moments of description that I found particularly heartbreaking. For example, the images of big boys mother wailing over the danger her son may soon face was an image that tugged at the heart strings. It conveyed and image of black motherhood which is often erased from African American narratives, especially those created by white society.
    Furthermore the pure fear evoked during big boy’s hiding created an empathetic feeling of despair that at times took my breath away. Finally, Wrights poetic style which includes alliteration such as “Silver spray in the sunlight” creates an atmosphere which fosters a more complete view of the scene and therefore allows the reader to feel as if they are witnessing the racism for themselves. Thus, most readers of the story will feel a personal connection with the characters and a compassion that may often move them to tears.

  6. Abigail Gardener says:

    I would agree that “Big Boy Leaves Home” offers “the consolation of tears.” Personally, I was emotionally moved by the by the story in multiple ways; mostly unsettled, disgusted, and saddened. However, I do not think this is a bad thing. Wright talks of making his next book so “hard and deep” that no one could ever cry over it. But in my opinion, if a work makes one feel such emotion that it elicits tears, then they have been truly affected. The writer was able to reach their audience in such a way that they empathetically felt the emotion of (mostly) fictional characters. Tears would not be a sign of weakness to me, but rather a sign that the author spoke to the soul of the reader and hopefully as a result moved them to take productive action.

  7. LaShawn Simmons says:

    I agree with the general consensus presented so far in this discussion that an impassioned and emotional text such as Big Boy Leaves Home ignites self reflection and even a call to action for its audience. I would like to expand more on the drawbacks of literature that solicits tears in the context of African American literature (generally speaking not specifically this text). In many (not all) cases, literature that solicits tears at least in African American literature in my opinion are not always taken as truly valuable to American literature and overall unworthy of canonization in eyes of the dominant culture (presumably white men). Instead the “rawness” or emotional tugging of the text is usually consumed and modified by the dominant culture.
    I believe that often times these readings especially written by African Americans are reduced to their emotional influence using languages such as “ very powerful”, or “heartbreaking”, They are credited for the emotion we feel in reading this text but not as a text that is worthy of true literary analysis/merit. This implicitly suggests that the quality of the text feels somewhat inferior to the canon of American literature as we know it. On the other hand, one could argue that the “emotion” overpowers the desire to critique, dissect or offer more literary insight in to a text. Toni Morrison herself investigates some of these dilemmas (and more ) in “Unspeakable Things Unspoken”.

  8. ccalimlim says:

    “The consolation of tears” doesn’t refer to the simple act of shedding tears, but the notion that shedding tears in reaction to a text is a sufficient reaction. I don’t think Wright is trying to shame people for having strong reactions to emotional texts. Rather, I think “the consolation of tears” refers to the idea that if you have a strong/emotional reaction to a text, you have fulfilled your duty as the audience.

    When reading an emotional text, especially one such as “Big Boy Leaves Home” which draws on horrific and real events in a nation’s history, it is not enough simply to feel. The text draws on strong and emotional reactions in order to provoke action and change.

  9. Conor Amrien says:

    I also think that it is important to acknowledge the varied effects that tears have. Societally, it is less acceptable for men to cry than women, because apparently men are never allowed to look vulnerable. If a work can uproot this social construct, then it has power to inflict change. I think of literature that can evoke tears as a potent weapon when used correctly and in a timely manner, as those tears can lead to action. It is up to the reader, however, to act on those feelings, so these tears can be volatile in terms of their effect. I believe that literature that will leave the reader feeling a detachment or lack of emotion can backfire just as easily as literature that creates tears.

    “Big Boy Leaves Home” is definitely a text that “provides the consolation of tears”, but that does not make the tale any less real. Black men were lynched. It happened. Sometimes they were killed in even more gruesome ways. I definitely agree with Chris that the text’s raw emotional power can instigate change. I think that those tears are like a springboard for actual change. While many will hide behind these tears, choosing to wallow in guilt, the sight of people crying at these atrocities will still have a domino effect, causing others to act upon those tears for themselves.

  10. Michaela Cabral says:

    I certainly believe that “Big Boy Leaves Home” inspires great emotion in the reader. I think that, in some cases, this could be a “consolation of tears,” meaning that the reader is not inspired to action but rather simply experiences catharsis through the pain of others. By presenting stories where the treatment is so unimaginably horrific, it makes the situation seem less “real.” Although a person may feel and cry for the horrors of the story, the extremeness of it allows them to detach themselves because it seems that something like that is inconceivable and something which they have never participated in. This erases the small, systematic wrongs people do that contribute to a narrative and atmosphere that makes these atrocities possible. This also allows people to view these atrocities in a similar way to, say, a story about child kidnapping: while no one is disputing how terrible and saddening it is, it is viewed as something that happens only sometimes, as irregular isolated incidents, and something that doesn’t have any effect in their personal sphere. They are able to weep because they feel so far-removed from what is being described; they have that luxury of sympathizing while also remaining emotionally distant. This causes this type of writing to be dangerous, in that it doesn’t always inspire the intended emotions and reactions. There is also something to be said, though, for shocking people out of complacency and apathy, in terms of angering people so that they take action. In terms of politics, extremeness is often used as a tactic to convince people to support a certain position and detest another. One drawback is that it is ethically questionable whether it is okay to torture black bodies in stories for a particular agenda. Overall, I think there are some potential drawbacks and benefits from literature that causes tears, which may or may not apply to “Big Boy Leaves Home.”

  11. Alex Bordona says:

    I think the story definitely offers “the consolation of tears,” but I do not see this as a wholly bad thing. I think to move people to action (against injustices, etc) you must make them feel something. Even the phrase “moving people to action” is tied with “moving” people emotionally. I think that most people who participate in movements, etc do so because they feel passionately about what they are fighting for. White Americans do not know what it feels like to experience injustice and pain at the hands of both the government and your fellow citizens. By creating a work in which white Americans are forced to see and grapple with some of this pain, Wright may very well have moved some to action.
    However, I do see how the “consolation of tears” can be counterproductive. As some others have mentioned, white Americans may read something like Big Boy Leaves Home and feel they’ve done enough simply because they’ve been made to feel something; they think they’ve done their part, that they simply cannot act in racist ways because they’ve cried over the plight of a Black community, or one Black boy in particular. I’m not sure that this is even the audience that Wright should be concerned with. People who are consoled by their own tears are probably not of the revolutionary sort, anyways.
    It is also impossible, or at least very difficult, to elicit tears from a reader with essentially no connection to the protagonist(s) without humanizing the protagonist(s). I think that the beginning steps of awakening white America involve humanizing Blackness, especially in a culture and society that constantly and consistently does the opposite. Wright humanizes these boys who would not be deemed “respectable” by the white mainstream, thus firmly establishing that regardless of where a Black person is from or how they interact with the world they are not any less deserving of basic human rights. I think this was (and continues to be) important in a society that pushes “respectability politics” as the key to “redemption,” especially coming from a Black man that, as an educated writer, fits into the narrow category of what it means to be “respectable” in the racist eyes of white America.

  12. jkoslofsky says:

    The problem with the literature that makes the reader cry, with stories that solicit tears, is that they accomplish nothing more than said tears. Once the reader wipes their eyes, they aren’t obligated or supposed to do anything more. The stories that solicit tears, or specifically those with the singular aim to make you cry, are one dimensional and thus immediately forgettable. It’s easy to make someone scared or sad, but it’s much harder to force a reader to remember you. Wright’s thoughts on naturalism in Native Son have stuck with me and deeply affected my understanding in the two years since I first read the novel, despite the novel never asking me to cry.

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