Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @GeneSeymour. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
On April 20, the same day that a Minneapolis jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd almost a year before, the Library of America released a long-lost novel that began with White policemen beating and torturing an innocent Black man into confessing to a double murder he didn’t commit.
Though this inhumane, horrific preamble triggers instantly recognizable parallels, ultimately a deeper resonance emerges between the legacy of Floyd’s killing and “The Man Who Lived Underground.”
Richard Wright, at that time the most famous Black novelist in America, had written the book 80 years before as a follow-up to “Native Son,” his 1940 best-seller chronicling the merciless passage of a poor Black youth from hardscrabble poverty in Chicago’s South Side to death row, awaiting execution for murder.
“Underground” likewise dealt with the dilemma of a poor Black man entangled in a cruelly racist criminal justice system. Its protagonist Fred Daniels is on his way home to his pregnant wife when he is scooped off the streets of Chicago by a police cruiser.
The more Daniels professes his innocence, the harsher his treatment by detectives trying to beat and torture him into signing a false confession. Shortly afterward, Daniels somehow flees custody, pries open a manhole cover and goes into hiding in the sewer system beneath the city’s streets.
The finished manuscript was evaluated by Wright’s publisher, one of whose editors found the often-graphic scenes of police brutality so “unbearable” that Wright was encouraged to revise the text. He cut it down by half and the novel became more of a novella, or long-form short story. In the version later included in “Eight Men,” a collection of Wright’s stories published a year after Wright’s death, at 52, in 1960, the narrative begins with Daniels’ escape from police and his harrowing plunge into a fetid subterranean hideout.
With the restoration of that opening aboveground sequence, whose atrocities can still be hard to read, Wright’s “The Man Who Lived Underground” retains its original identity and narrative integrity as a novel. It resounds with near-explosive force as a novel for our own time, especially in this week marking the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder.
Even in a time far removed from the book’s conception, when legally enforced racial segregation was often brutally enforced in the South and elsewhere in America, the scenes of Fred Daniels’ traumatic grilling come across as both socio-political history and dystopian nightmare, a cogent testament to White America’s stubbornly abiding dehumanization of people of color.
And yet, graphic depiction of police brutality alone doesn’t account for what makes “The Man Who Lived Underground” not just Wright’s masterwork, but also a milestone in African American literature. That all comes in the parts of the book that were already published, the parts that aren’t talked about as much since their republication: the time that Fred Daniels spends “underground.”
In hiding, Daniels achieves the autonomy and freedom of movement denied him in the aboveground world because of racism. He chips and burrows his way into a different world: a shady insurance office whose cash assets Daniels steals, then uses the $100 bills as wallpaper to decorate his hovel; a jewelry store from which he boosts rings and precious stones to add to his private décor – almost as a bitter mockery of the mindless pursuit of material wealth by those walking on the sidewalks above.
But as Daniels stays hidden and continues being a near-phantom presence in the lives he intrudes upon, he discovers in his solitude a kinship with all of humanity likewise unavailable to him while struggling for day-to-day survival as a working-class Black family man.
Wright describes this “strange and new knowledge” that “overwhelmed” Daniels:
“[I]n some unutterable fashion he was all people and they were he; by the identity of their emotion they were one and he was one with them. And this was the oneness that linked man to man, in life or death. Yet even with this knowledge, this identification with others, this obliteration of self, another knowledge swept through him, banishing all fear and doubt and loss. He now knew too the inexpressive value and importance of himself. He must assert himself; he was propelled to do something, to devise means of action by and through which he convinces those who lived aboveground of the death-like quality of their lives.”
Such epiphanies, though bookended in Wright’s novel between the bestial horrors of its first section and the abject bleakness of its third, are what give the novel its lasting glow. I would also argue that being able to find the common threads of our collective existence even in the loneliest and most dismal imaginable circumstances has as much to offer contemporary readers as Wright’s in-your-face depictions of racist White police.
However much the criminal justice system is reformed in the wake of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other casualties of excessive policing, it’s really the renewed insistence on humanity prompted by their killings that Wright anticipates with his novel – there’s much more to his visionary work here than an exposé of injustice.
“The Man Who Lived Underground” is one of those indispensable works that reminds all its readers that, whether we are in the flow of life or somehow separated from it, above- or belowground, we are all human.