Wednesday, May 26, 2010


The Color Curtain, Richard Wright, World Publishing Company, 1956, 175 pp

 I almost skipped this book from my 1956 reading list. Fortunately I tracked it down in a Harper Perennial Modern Classics reprint that also includes Black Power (1954) and White Man Listen (1957). The Color Curtain records a probably little known or remembered event in 20th century world history, while it predicts much about our early 21st century globalized society.

  At a time when the Iron Curtain dominated the news, a conference was held in Bandung, Indonesia, where delegates from twenty-nine free and independent nations of Asia and Africa met and discussed "racialism and colonialism." Richard Wright, then living in Paris and pursuing a life of intellectual journalism, heard about the conference and decided to attend. He recognized the startling importance of an event that would begin a conversation between the colored peoples of the world, who had just then freed themselves of Western colonialism and imperialism.

  Wright's method was to interview people of many of these nations and to attend all the events of the conference. Through the interviews he "found that many Asians hated the West with an absoluteness that no American Negro could ever muster." A Pakistani man told Wright, "The Asian-African Conference will be a great thing. In the past, the West always took the lead; now it is time for Asia and Africa to lead mankind. We have been objects; now we can be subjects."

  The Color Curtain examines the left and right politics of the day; the exotic blend of race and religion among Asian and African peoples; and the presence and role of communism as represented by China. He then makes predictions about the futures of Asia, Africa, and the West that are chillingly accurate. 

  So I learned that my growing perception of the 1950s as a pivotal decade in the history of the modern world was correct. Underneath the seeming banality and boredom of American life in that decade, the seeds had been sown and in fact were germinating towards a whole new world. I can't imagine a course in world history that would not include this book, yet I doubt that any of today's high school or college students have heard of it. (If you have, let me know!)

(The Harper Perennial Modern Classics volume, Black Power, which contains The Color Curtain is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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