Wright’s story “Bright and Morning Star” begins with Sue standing at the window of her house, looking for her son, worried that he might have been caught by local officials and beaten. Sue’s son is not doing anything illegal; he is merely trying to organize a group of oppressed people (mostly black people). Fearful of the power of African Americans, should they organize, white officials have terrorized black citizens, threatening physical abuse, torture, and ultimately death. One of Sue’s sons has already been beaten and then thrown into jail because he would not tell the officials the names of everyone who had signed up to become members in the Communist Party.
Sue herself experiences racial violence when a group of white men enter her house without warrants or even without the customary politeness of knocking on her door. Once inside her house, they begin eating her food, and when she confronts them, they insult her. One white man throws Sue’s food in her face and asks, “How they taste, ol [b ]?” When Sue talks back to the white men, one of them says, “You need somebody t teach yuh how t be a good nigger!?” A few minutes later, the sheriff, in an attempt to teach Sue to act according to his definition of how a black person should respond to a white person, punches her in the face, and when she falls down, he kicks her.
In the end, when Sue appears with a sheet in her arms to recover her son’s body, the sheriff comments, “Looks like them slaps we gave yuh learned yuh some sense, didnt they?” When Sue refuses to ask her son to divulge the names, the sheriff orders his men to crush her son’s legs with a crowbar. To confirm that the legs are broken, one of the men lifts one of the legs, which drops “rearward from the kneecaps.” “Just lika broke sparrow wing,” the man states. A few minutes later, the sheriff threatens to break the son’s eardrums. One of his men confirms, “he knows how t do it, too!” Then another man states, “He busted a Jew boy tha way once!?”
These passages are used to give a realistic portrayal of the conditions under which African Americans had to live. Because of the constant threat of racial violence, just as often coming from legal authorities as well as angry mobs, many blacks learned to submit to the degradation of unvarying humiliation at the hands of white people.
Death is a theme that appears in most of Wright’s works. In “Bright and Morning Star,” death is portrayed as a form of martyrdom. Sue is proud of her sons’ silence. She knows that her sons will not ever divulge the names of the people who are involved in the Communist Party. At one point Sue claims, “Po Sug! They sho musta beat the boy somethin awful! But, thank Gawd, he didnt talk! He ain no weaklin, Sug ain! Hes been lion-hearted all his life long.” Sug is Sue’s son, the one who has been in jail for a year.
Sue gets caught up in her sons’ valiance, and when the sheriff threatens to beat her, she thinks, “There was nothing on this earth. . . that they could not do to her but that she could take.” A little later, the narrator comments that Sue was willing to sacrifice her sons, knowing that they were as good as dead once the sheriff had them, because she wanted the sheriff and all the white people to know that “they could not get what they wanted by bluffing and killing.” Then she thinks, exultingly, “N yuh ain gonna never git it!”
Wright’s use of the word “exultingly” is telling. The word has overtones of rejoicing and being triumphant. It exposes Sue’s (and thus Wright’s) sense of offering up her sons’ lives in the fight toward freedom. Her sons will die, and their deaths will symbolize the strength needed for others to face their white oppressors without fear. Their deaths are not random or wasted. They have suffered and died for a cause. As Wright’s last words in this story emphasize, these martyrs are ‘the dead that never die.’
The philosophy of the Communist Party offered hope to Wright. It was through the Communist Party that he met other radical intellectuals. It was also through the Communist publications that his first stories were set in print. The party’s promise of strength through unionizing workers was very appealing. Workers’ rights and financial security were privileges that Wright had never experienced. The dream of socialism, which the Communist Party proffered, inspired Wright to conceive of a time when all people would experience equality. It was toward these ends that Wright’s works would take on the theme of socialism, especially as portrayed in “Bright and Morning Star,” which put forth the concept that strength would be found if white people and black people could come together in a common cause.
Although it might be argued that giving one’s children up to a cause is a very different measure of maternal love, there is no doubt that Wright’s protagonist, Sue, loves her children. Her life appears to be driven by her passion for them. She worries about their whereabouts. She considers their needs above her own. She even changes her philosophy of life to better align herself with her children’s beliefs. By the end of the story, she has, in essence, become her sons, taking up their fervor, sacrificing her own life to protect their interests in the cause of organizing their people when their plight prohibits them from doing so. Her last words are ”Yuh didnt git whut yuh wanted,” from which the reader can infer that she made sure that her sons did not die in vain.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Richard Wright, Published by Gale, 2002.