Richard Wright’s Pagan Spain

By Mamoun F. Alzoubi

Although he felt that Spain “had just enough Western aspects of life to make [him] feel a little at home” (PS 192), Wright approached that country with great trepidation when he decided to travel through it in the torrid August of 1954. Just as he had cautioned himself about traveling in the Gold Coast a year earlier, so did he question his Spanish sojourn when he drove his Citroen through southern France toward the “humped and ragged peaks of the Pyrenees” (PS 1). “I wanted to go to Spain,” Wright writes in the beginning of Pagan Spain, “but something was holding me back. . . . I had been under an absolutistic racist regime in Mississippi; I had lived and worked for twelve years under the political dictatorship of the Communist party of the United States; and I had spent a year of my life under the police terror of Peron in Buenos Aires. So why avoid the reality of life under Franco?” (PS 1).

One noticeable obstacle Wright faced while traveling in Spain was a language barrier. Although he had visited Mexico in 1940 for three months and had lived in Argentina a decade later for a year while filming Native Son, Wright spoke little Spanish. The twenty-odd pages of Spanish grammar he learned before his trip provided him only minimal skills, and Wright often found himself mixing French with Spanish, unable to carry on a meaningful conversation without the help of an interpreter.

Despite his reservations, however, Wright remained haunted by the “solemn preachments” of Gertrude Stein. A few days before her death, Stein had told Wright:

Dick, you ought to go to Spain. . . . You’ll see

the past there. You’ll see what the Western

world is made of. Spain is primitive, but

lovely. And the people! There are no people

such as the Spanish anywhere. I’ve spent days in

Spain that I’ll never forget. See those

bullfights, see that wonderful landscape (PS 2).

       Heeding Stein’s advice, Wright traveled through Barcelona, Madrid, Grenada, and Seville, as well as innumerable small villages, talking to the people, studying the culture, and viewing scenic landscapes. And he did see the past there, a past so primitive and traditional, so bent upon irrationalism and mysticism that he openly declared: “Though Spain was geographically a part of Europe . . . it was not the West” (PS 192). At the end of Pagan Spain, Wright goes so far as to compare the traditions of the Akan Africans he had observed in the Gold Coast to those of the ignorant and closed-minded Catholic masses in Spain. He points out that the pagan traditions of Catholicism were both revered and honored. In fact “they were the political aims of the State,” a fact that made Wright feel “the naked African in the bush would make greater progress during the next fifty years than the proud, tradition-bound Spaniard!” (PS 193).

This realization led to the third and perhaps most compelling reason for Wright’s journey to Spain: to attempt to explain the enslavement of his people by Europe and America.  Indeed, he had drawn harsh criticism from influential Africans for his indictment of black ancestors being actively involved in the slave trade. In Pagan Spain Wright delved deeper into the past. As he writes on the jacket of the British edition of Pagan Spain,he wished to explain, by exploring the people and customsof Spain, why “the West sought and needed the Black”: I’m a self-conscious Negro and I’m the product of Western culture, living with white people far from my racial origins.

In other words, in Spain, Wright had seen everything before: It was as if he had never left Mississippi. As he had declared upon his arrival in Spain: “In one half hour I had plunged my hands into Spanish life and had brought up poverty, fear . . . [and] illiteracy” (PS 21). According to Wright, the difference between Spain and the rest of Western Europe “lay in the area of the secular that Western man, through the centuries and at tragic cost, had won and wrung from his own religious and irrational consciousness. In Spain, there was no lay, no secular life” (PS 192). Wright would show how working out “life problems” under a holy nation, a sacred state Wright termed pagan, often meant a nightmarish existence of hopelessness and despair.

Having established a major theme for his book, Wright researched Spanish history and 19th century travelogues before his return trip to Spain four months later. Besides brushing up on his Spanish, he also traveled to Geneva with Gunnar Myrdal, his close friend, in order to obtain current information from the United Nations on Spain’s economy under Franco. On November 8th Wright returned to Spain by way of Irun and San Sebastian. Traveling through Galicia, Burgos, and Avila, he reached Madrid, which he decided to use as his home base. An extended Christmas vacation kept Wright in Paris until late February. Upon his return to Madrid, he traveled once again to Barcelona, Valencia, Grenada, and Seville. He also traveled south to Tangiers, where he witnessed Spanish employees smuggling illegal goods in their clothing before crossing the border to return home.

Despite his overall emphasis on religion, Wright probed other aspects of life in Spain, particularly politics. As he tells us in Pagan Spain, “before going into Spain [his] ideas about its problems had been mainly political.” He had envisioned that he was “going to be deeply concerned about comparing the economic conditions under Franco with those that prevailed before and under the Republic” (PS 191). He was especially interested in Franco

and the Falange party, and quoted frequently from Formacion’ Politica: Lecciones para las Flechas to show how the government ruled over the Spanish people.

Wright believes in a shared destiny, but he realizes the futility in such a goal, especially when certain groups are denied a role in the future development of their country. That the Falange advocated “conquest” convinced Wright Spain had changed little in the last 500 years.

“Lesson Fourteen,” titled “Juvenile Heroism–Jesus Hernandez–The Young Fallangists of the Baleares,” speaks of heroism and ways Spanish youth could serve their country. The lesson points out examples of young heroes and maintains that because youths “in their tender years . . . have a greater capacity for admiration of heroic deeds and greater generosity for giving themselves” (PS 66), they make ideal martyrs. Carmen, the young Spanish girl who had smuggled the catechism to Wright, realized the blatant contradictions in the Falange hero. Not much older than Jesus Hernandez, she told Wright of numerous atrocities, among them punishment if she failed to memorize the fascist lessons. Carmen’s dream was to go abroad, but her movement was restricted because of her sex. For Wright a young woman like Carmen symbolized the true Spanish hero: adamant, unassuming, and brave, especially considering the risk of meeting secretly for long talks with a strange man like Wright.

Wright lets the catechism speak for itself. That is, rarely does he comment on the thirteen excerpts from the “Lessons,” which he randomly inserts at the end of chapters. The one time he does, he sums up his feelings for the entire book: “I sighed and closed the book. As yet I had not encountered a single practical idea. One thing was certain: Something was bothering these Spanish. . . . If Spain wanted to be great again, what I had read so far was the best guarantee that it would never happen” (PS 50). As Wright comments near the end of Pagan Spain: “To accept the idiotic assumptions of the Spanish Falange was, of course, out of the question, that is, if one accepted living in an even somewhat rational world” (PS 194).

But according to Wright there was more beneath the surface of things. The corrupt constitution of the Church lent itself to the kind of setup that would invariably establish an underground. And once an outsider explored the different channels of Catholicism, he would discover “in the end . . . one fact: totalitarianism” (PS 221).

Early in his travels Wright met two boys, Andre and Miguel, who offered to show him around a small village. The devoutly religious boys were bewildered when Wright told them that he was not Catholic; the author “was deeply moved and, at that moment, a little ashamed of not being Catholic” (PS 8). Wright surmises that, according to his new friends, he “was a heathen and these devout boys were graciously coming to [his] rescue. In their spontaneous embrace of [him] they were acting out a role that had been implanted in them since childhood. [He] was not only a stranger, but a lost one in dire need of being saved” (PS 9).

Actually, the ones who needed saving were Andre and Miguel. They, like so many other Spanish villagers, glorified a religion that had yet to establish contact with the modern world. They worshipped martyrs and ancient relics which Wright likened to the sacred rituals and irrationalism of the Akan in the African jungle.

Wright never did get used to the hundreds of prostitutes he encountered during his travels. Although he cites “archaic cultural values and endemic poverty” as reasons for prostitution, he still blamed the Church, as we have learned in Wright’s summation of Andre’s predicament, for the “walls of flesh” which lined the bars, cafes, pensions, parks, and churches. Sin existed, so declared Spanish Catholicism: “Prostitution [was] sin, and proof of sin. So prostitution [existed]” (PS 152). Acclaiming prostitution a social problem was flirting with liberalism which, according to the Spanish clergy, was a “mortal sin.” Thus Wright concludes:

Therefore this universal prostitution is not

something to be grappled with in terms of social

or economic engineering; it is not something to

be dismayed about or even astonished at; it is

not a blight to be eradicated; it is simply an

indication that the work of salvation is not yet

complete, and that a more strenuous effort must

be made to call men to God (and women too!).

And, of course, a prostitute can at any time

enter a church and gain absolution (PS 152).

Wright also blames the Church for the harsh treatment of Spanish Protestants. He condemns the “needless . . . and utterly barbarous” punishment this group suffered at the hands of both its Catholic neighbors and the highest officials of the Church and State. Once again Wright heard echoes of Mississippi. Just as the white Southerner had known nothing about the Negro, “the average Spaniard [knew] nothing of Protestantism; [did] not know what a Protestant [was]; [had] never, to his knowledge, met one; and would stare with more bewilderment than hostility if he heard someone declare that he was Protestant” (PS 137). Wright explains why this persecuted group held his “spontaneous and profound sympathy”:

I am an American Negro with a background of psychological suffering stemming from my previous position as a member of a persecuted minority. What drew my attention to the emotional plight of the Protestants in Spain was the undeniable and uncanny psychological affinities that they held in common with American Negroes, Jews, and other oppressed minorities. It is another proof, if any is needed today, that the main and decisive aspects of human reactions are conditioned and are not inborn (PS 138).

In perhaps the funniest scene in the book Wright recalls how he was cornered in a house he was boarding in by Ronnie, the pet dog of a disturbed girl named Lola who had witnessed the Communists kill her father during the Civil War:

Until that moment I had moved but a few inches. I turned and started toward my suitcase and Ronnie erupted a bark and shot like a bullet from the girl’s arms and came at me, snapping, snarling. I turned and faced him. He was crouched low on the floor, his teeth bared, his growl a low, vicious snarl, his body tense and ready to leap.

“What’s the matter with ‘im?” I asked her.

“Ronnie!” she was screaming. “Ronnie!” The dog snapped at me and I lifted my shoe

to ward off his attack. The dog continued to

growl.

“Ronnie, no!” she screamed.

She got to her knees and grabbed the dog, gathering him to her bosom. He quieted suddenly, but still glared at me.

“He thought you were leaving,” she

explained. She looked at Ronnie reprovingly. “He’s not going. See?” Then she smiled at me.

“He’s a good dog, really.”

“Yes, I see,” I agreed, edging to my chair to sit down, wanting to let Ronnie know that I was harmless would remain, was not leaving the apartment, and was no Communist. . . . (PS 53- 54).

These humorous passages reveal once again how Wright experienced moments of stasis in his lifelong flight. Although he was overwhelmed by the Franco regime and the countless hardships the poor suffered, he was able to absorb himself in the daily lives of the Spanish peasants and find comfort. “I love the people,” Wright tells a barber who asks him his thoughts on Spain. They possess “a shy sweetness, an open-handed hospitality that no other

people on earth [can] match” (PS 83). The same barber sums up the respect and peace Wright often discovered when Wright asks him his feelings on race:

You are a man, a human being. Why should I refuse to cut your hair? The cutting of hair is my profession. I’ve heard that in some countries such things happen. . . . Look, sir, the sun made your hair crinkly; the cold made mine straight. All right. Why should that make such a difference? (PS 79).

Wright’s most profound discovery, though, was the realization of his new found freedom. As he tells Carmen, the young woman he met at the beginning of his Spanish journey, “I have no race except that which is forced upon me. I have no country except that to which I’m obliged to belong. I have no tradition (PS 17).

In Pagan Spain, Wright works out the restlessness that had haunted him for almost fifty years. He articulates a philosophy that balanced the pressures which had propelled him to flight so many times before. Instead of a black man, he became a member of the human race; instead of an American, a citizen of the world. By the 1950′s he had shed religion, Communism, existentialism, and ties to an extended family. And ironically, he found the freedom that he had so long sought -in America, in Europe, in Africa-at the expense of the very race that had enslaved his own people.