by Adam Watson

        Midway through Richard Wright’s short story “The Man Who Lived Underground” (1942), the protagonist Fred Daniels “contemplate[s] his loot”:

He stood in the dark, wet with sweat, brooding about the diamonds, the rings, the watches, the money; he remembered the singing in the church, the people yelling in the movie, the dead baby, the nude man stretched out upon the white table…He saw these items hovering before his eyes and felt that some dim meaning linked them together . . . He [was] convinced that all of these images, with their tongueless reality, were striving to tell him something… (1431)

Daniels will be killed before he is able to fully discern the special relationship of the objects or make others understand their significance.  We must be the “tongues” to finish articulating his message of the true “reality.”  Through the story of Daniels’s sojourn underground, Wright (at the time of writing “Underground,” still a Communist Party member) makes a special critique of American materialism and capitalism.  To achieve this, Fred Daniels becomes an African-American martyr with strong biblical implications:  a rejected Christ whose message remains unheeded and will die for attempting to spread the Truth.  This Truth is not left for any characters in the story to further his message.  By reading “The Man Who Lived Underground,” however, we become Daniels’s disciples. We are the followers that continue his text and resurrect his story.

        Before we discuss several of Daniels’s significant encounters underground, we must analyze the story’s style and Daniels’s place in it.  “The Man Who Lived Underground” is acutely cinematic; specifically, a film noir sensibility pervades.  “I’ve got to hide, he told himself” is the opening sentence (1414).  We begin in medias res, a man on the run, “crouching in a dark corner” (1414).    Within a few paragraphs Daniels enters through a manhole into the sewer below, and the grime and grit of the world underground sets the atmosphere for the rest of the story.  Wright does not give the reader any clues whether Daniels is truly guilty of a crime until several pages later, when a film noir motif is revealed – Daniels is an innocent man unjustly persecuted:  “He had to leave this foul place, but leaving meant facing those policemen who had wrongly accused him” (1418).  (Indeed, we do not even know the crime itself until much later in the story.)  What is interesting is the story’s awareness of film.    At one point, Daniels sneaks into a theater:  “Sprawling below him was a stretch of human faces, tilted upward, chanting, whistling, screaming, laughing.  Dangling before the faces, high upon a screen of silver, were jerking shadows.  A movie, he said with slow laughter breaking from his lips” (1420).  Later, when he steals a night watchman’s gun, he “strutted about the room . . . then paused abruptly pulled the gun, and pointed it with grim face toward an imaginary foe.  ‘Boom!’ he whispered fiercely.  Then he bent forward with silent laughter.  That’s just like they do it in the movies, he said” (1431).  (Note  both scenes end in laughter; absurd humorous reactions to events are often used as a critique of “normal” conventions throughout the story.)  However, “Underground” is not “merely” a pulp tale.  By using a self-aware parody of noir conventions, Wright makes a clear inverted comparison to our so-called reality.  Nowhere is this more apparent than Daniels’s transformation into a Black Christ, or, more apt in the current context, a Christ Noir.

        The martyr imagery begins from the onset: Daniels is fleeing unjust persecution.  Going into the sewer itself suggest multiple meanings. The underground is an underworld, a Hell infested with the smell of rot and refuse.  In a Greek sense, the Styxian sludge of the sewers seems to wipe Daniels’s memory clean of the world aboveground; in a Christian sense, it is a vulgar kind of baptism.  The underground is a metaphorical Death for Daniels as well, where he will eventually leave and return to Life aboveground.   Daniels has “died” to the “real” world and goes into the sewer as a result of our sins: the wrongful accusation of a crime he did not commit.

         The Christ Noir symbolism continues throughout the story.  Soon after entering the sewer, Daniels sees “a metal pole nestling in the niche of the wall” (1416).  For the beginning of his journey, the pole functions as both a vehicle of salvation – it can judge water depth, or help “see” in the darkness – and as a instrument of death, sometimes with both uses occurring within a few sentences of each other:

He grabbed the pole and let it fly against the rat’s soft body; there was shrill piping and the grizzly body splashed into the dun-colored water and was snatched out of sight, spinning in the scuttling stream.
  He swallowed and pushed on, following the curve of the misty cavern, sounding the water with the pole.  (1416)

The pole, therefore, is Daniels’s cross to both bear and bare.  The idea of a pole as a crucifixion tool of black men is also suggested in other negative connotations such as the prejudice of “poll” taxes, as well as the lynching done on the metal poles of street signs and lamp posts.  Consider the torture of Thompson the night watchman and its lynching imagery:

“Thompson, your brains are in your feet,” one of the policeman said.  “We’re going to string you up and get them back into your skull.”
[Daniels] watched the policeman clamp handcuffs on the watchman’s wrists and ankles; then they lifted the watchman and swung him upside-down and hoisted his feet from the edge of a door.  The watchman hung, head down, his eyes bulging.  They’re crazy, he whispered to himself as he clung to the ridges of the pipe.  (1438, my italics)

 Daniels  also dreams of himself as shadow-savior, where “suddenly he found himself walking upon the water how strange and delightful to walk upon the water” (1422).  He steals a “bloody meat cleaver” from “a meat market” (1424) and later performs a crucifixion of materialism; he uses a hammer to nail the cleaver, watches, rings and other objects upon the wall of his cave (1433).  The nails draw his own blood in an epiphanic act of revelation:

He lit a cigarette with shaking fingers; the match flame revealed the green-papered walls with militant distinctness; the purple on the gun barrel glinted like a threat; the meat cleaver brooded with its eloquent splotches of blood; the mound of silver and copper smoldered angrily; the diamonds winked at him from the floor; and the gold watches ticked and trembled, crowning time the king of consciousness, defining the limits of living…The match blaze died and he bolted from where he stood and collided brutally with the nails upon the walls.  The spell was broken.  He shuddered, feeling that, in spite of his fear, sooner or later he would go up into that dead sunshine and somehow say something to somebody about all this.  (1435)

And later:  “He would go there and clear up everything, make a statement.  What statement?  He did not know.  He was the statement, and since it was all so clear to him, surely he would be able to make it clear to others” (1441, my italics).  Daniels will be the Statement.  He will Resurrect to the world of the living and become the Word made flesh, the Christ Noir.  But what is the Statement?  From Daniels’s encounters, the message is a rejection of materialism, specifically of the kind produced by American capitalism combined with systemic racism.  Wright often portrays this critique by showing ironic juxtapositions of symbols, particularly of black versus white imagery.

        Early in the narrative, Daniels discovers a choir singing in a church whose walls are near the sewer.  They sing, “Jesus, take me to your home above”:

He edged to the crevice and saw a segment of black men and women, dressed in white robes, singing, holding tattered songbooks in their black palms.  His first impulse was to laugh, but he checked himself.
What was he doing?  Hew was crushed with a sense of guilt. Would God strike him dead for that?  . . . They oughtn’t to do that, he though.  But he could think of no reason why they should not do it.  Just singing with the air of the sewer blowing in on them… (1417)

Black men and women, seemingly happy with their “tattered songbooks” near “the air of the sewer,” “dressed” as white.  Happy to pass, perhaps?  Happy with their meager surroundings?  Daniels cannot understand how or why.  Later, when Daniels encounters the same church choir aboveground, they sing: “The Lamb, the Lamb, the Lamb / Tell me again your story / The Lamb, the Lamb, the Lamb / Flood my soul with your glory” (1440).  The Lamb, besides a reference to Christ, also suggests the Blood of the Lamb, connecting back to the butcher and the “bloody meat cleaver.”  Ironically, when Daniels enters the church to tell his story, still wet from the dank sewer, he is thrown out.

        Right after the first underground encounter with the choir, Daniels finds the dead baby.  It is not identified as black or white, or male or female.  However,  the infant’s “mouth gaped black in a soundless cry” (1418, my italics), an ominous foreshadow of when Daniels’s own “mouth gaped soundless” (1450) when he is murdered by Lawson the cop.  After Daniels pushes the baby away, he “shiver[s]” (1418).  Right after the dead baby, Daniels spies on a funeral home and discovers a dead white man.  Again, black imagery conflicts with the white:

He placed his eye to a keyhole and saw the nude waxen figure of a man stretched out upon a white table. . . . Above the naked figure . . . a white rubber tube dangled.  He . . . saw the tip end of a black object lined with pink satin.  A coffin, he breathed.  This is an undertaker’s establishment … A fine-spun lace of ice covered his body and he shuddered.  A throaty chuckle sounded in the depths of the yellow room (1419).

In death, Daniels may shiver or shudder, but the hidden “establishment” in power laughs.  When dead, black and white and male and female are equal.  Afterwards, when Daniels discovers a toolbox that includes a hammer and nails (a subtle carpentry reference?), he also finds a crowbar that helps open a coalbin; more suggestive imagery that pairs black  items with power, inherent or potential.

        But the ultimate rejection of materialism and the establishment is how Daniels uses the “loot” he steals from the jewelry store.  Earlier, he saw “the white hand” take cash out of the safe (1423).  He enjoys stealing it, but not for its intrinsic worth: “It was not the money that was luring him, but the mere fact that he could get it with impunity” (1427).  Indeed, earlier “[h]e flung the dime [given to him by the unsuspecting butchery customer] to the pavement with a gesture of contempt” (1426).  Daniels rejects the value that others give to the green stuff.  “Just like any other paper,” Daniels says (1429), so his decision to wallpaper the cave with the money is not madness but a way to show he has “triumphed over the world aboveground!” (1433)  Similarly, the “glass jars full of white pellets” (1429, my italics) that turn out to be diamonds are stomped into the cave’s floor (1434).  Wright seems to also make a subtle connection from the diamonds to the coal discovered earlier.  It takes Black (coal) to make White (pellets/diamonds); it takes exploited African Blacks to mine the diamonds.  What better revenge than for the Christ Noir to achieve a “glorious victory” (1434) by retaking the diamonds and treating them with such disdain?  We have already mentioned the nailing of the watches and rings onto the wall, but we may add further that Daniels not only rejects their material worth, but also their temporal aspect (the watch as chronometer, the ring as a circular symbol of eternity).  The typewriter is used in a parody of “their” capitalistic language:

He laughed, then pecked slowly: itwasalonghotday. . . . He took the sheet out of the machine and looked around with stiff neck and hard eyes and spoke to an imaginary person:
  “Yes, I’ll have the contracts ready tomorrow.”
  He laughed.  That’s just the way they talk, he said.  He grew weary of the game and pushed the machine aside.  (1432-1433, author’s italics)

Finally, it is worth noting that the gun Daniels steals is the only pistol in the story used without inflicting harm, unlike the guns used in the suicide of Thompson or the homicide of Lawson.  The gun is just a prop in a movie, a “toy”:  “He did not feel he was stealing, for the cleaver, . . . the money, and the typewriter were all on the same level of value, all meant the same thing to him.  They were the serious toys of the men who lived in the dead world of sunshine and rain he had left, the world that had condemned him, branded him guilty” (1429).

        When Daniels goes back to that “dead world of sunshine,” he eventually makes his way to the police station.  However, the transformed Daniels is unable to make anyone understand his message, nor is he able to speak in “their” language:

  “What’s your name?”
  He opened his lips to answer and no words came.  He had forgotten.  But what did it matter if he had?  It was not important.
  “Where do you live?”
  Where did he live?  It had been so long ago since he had lived up here in this strange world that he felt it was foolish even to try to remember.  (1442)

The first group of policemen believe he is “nuts” and “psycho” (1442), but Daniels mentions the murder of Mrs. Peabody, so they turn him over to Lawson, Murphy, and Johnson: the Three Unwise Men, the cops who were originally looking for him.  The Afric Messiah is unsure how they will react to his Resurrection, or if they’ll understand what he has to say: “He waited, smiling, wondering how they would react when they knew he had come back. . . . Panic filled him.  Yes, they were indifferent to what he would say!  They were waiting for him to speak and they would laugh at him.  He had to rescue himself from this bog; he had to force the reality of himself upon them” (1444).  His attempt to convince them of his message echoes an earlier passage when Daniels entered the movie theater:

He stood in a box in the reserved section of a movie house and the impulse he had had to tell the people in the church to stop singing seized him.   These people are laughing at their lives, he thought with amazement.  They were shouting and yelling at the animated shadows of themselves.  His compassion fired his imagination and he stepped out of the box, walked out upon thin air, walked on down to the audience; and, hovering in the air just above them, he stretched out his hand to touch them … His tension snapped and he found himself back in the box, looking down into the sea of faces.  No; it could not be done; he could not awaken them.  He sighed.  Yes, these people are children, sleeping in their living, awake in their dying.  (1420)

        By the end of the story, Daniels is fully transformed into the Christ Noir, and feels compelled to come aboveground to spread his message.  He must try to touch them, to awaken them.  We may ask why.  Was it naïve of Daniels to expect the world aboveground to listen?  Perhaps so; to the cynic, earnestness can often seem naïve.  Was Daniels deluded to think anyone would listen?  Perhaps so; but as the story makes clear, reality is often laughingly absurd.  So why leave the safety of his underground cave?  The only proper answer, and one that makes him worthy of martyr status, is that Daniels makes the choice to do so.  As in mythology, the person often becomes a hero for choosing to enter danger (even, or especially, if death is a possible risk), as opposed to becoming a victim of circumstance.  It is the act of choosing that matter here.  Christ chose the Cross to save humanity.  The Christ Noir chose to leave the safety of the underground to save them as well.  Whether he was deluded or naïve matters little to the act itself.  Daniels literally and figuratively rose to the occasion.

        Of course, the cops reject his reality and his message:  the shattering of their symbols of power; the deconstruction and denunciation of their racist, materialist, capitalist system; the failure of language to articulate what should be intuitive, the moral difference of what is truly right and wrong.   Instead of trying to understand Daniels, the cops kill him. “‘You’ve got to shoot his kind.  They’d wreck things,’” Lawson says (1450).  It is the fate of all revolutionary messiahs, black or white, male or female.

Richard Wright.  “The Man Who Lived Underground.” The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. Mckay.  W.W. Norton & Company, New York.  1997.


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