Before Ralph Ellison’s unnamed narrator took residence beneath the surface of the world in Invisible Man, there was Fred Daniels—the protagonist of Richard Wright’s long-awaited novel, The Man Who Lived Underground. The tragic tale of Daniels was borne from a lifetime of experiences, which Wright explains in the accompanying essay, “Memories of My Grandmother.” Wright’s love of “invisible man” films, his grandmother’s intense expression of her religion, Negro folk art, and the harsh reality of racism in America culminated into a work that, put mildly, he felt was his most purely inspired.
We meet Daniels at his highest point: heading home from work to his pregnant wife on payday. Unfortunately, the moment “the big white door closed after him” as he left work, Daniels began his painful plummet back to Earth. Before he makes it to the end of the block, the police approach and arrest him for a double homicide he did not commit. The moment the police ask his name is the moment Daniels begins to disappear. The three officers—Lawson, Johnson, and Murphy—gaslight, abuse, and torture Daniels into a forced confession. Everything that follows is a series of surreal events that strip Daniels of his humanity—turning him from man to child to Wright’s own version of invisible.
The policemen drag Daniels bloody and beaten to the scene of his “crime” to get him to admit the gruesome details. The officers are dissatisfied with his response but decide, “No one can say we mistreated him if we let ‘im see his old lady…” and they take him home to his apartment and his waiting and worried wife. The high-stress situation of three white policemen in their apartment chastising her husband triggers the woman into full-blown labor. The policemen unfathomably take the Black couple to the hospital in their marked car, and that is when Daniels escapes to the underground.
Daniels walks into the story with the pride of a man happy to have worked for an honest week’s pay. Between beatings and racial epithets, Wright captures Daniels as he cycles through feelings of fear, rage, and confusion. None of his childlike, raw emotions allow him to articulate anything beyond barely coherent pleading. This moment initiates the disintegration of his humanity, which Wright wants to highlight. In fact, Daniels’s wife calling out to him amid her fear and pain is perhaps the final time that he is named outright. The police refer to him as “boy” or worse. The character’s most effective response to the police was to slink away from his overseers and retreat into the sewer, where the narrator simply refers to Daniels as “he.” Here he becomes invisible to all of society—essentially free.
Once below the surface, Daniels looks at the world through a brand-new lens. With a bit of raw strength and ingenuity, he discovers the many basements on the other side of the walls in the underground tunnels. A church choir practices, a white security guard sleeps in his makeshift apartment beneath a jewelry-making shop, and a bank employee places and removes cash from their vault. These are all places that Daniels would have limited, if any, access to as a Black man on the surface. Below, he can come and go as he pleases, mocking God, stealing jewelry, and confiscating stacks of cash that hold no more value than as decorations on the wall of his new underground lair.
Wright’s prolific and prophetic use of language shows what happens when the tables are turned and an individual who is stripped of everything but his body can then, as an act of freedom, strip the value from everything else. The added layer of race further subverts the ideals that go along with what society alleges are the right things to desire—Christianity, money, and life. Daniels rejects these desires. While above ground, he anxiously awaited the birth of his child. While underground, Daniels sees a dead Black baby floating in the muck like a discarded doll. He pushes it away because it is too much of a reminder of the problems of Blackness on the surface. He seems to be pushing away the idea of the family awaiting him. At a certain point, Daniels is exhausted and rests and dreams of a naked, voiceless Black woman holding her baby as they sink into the sewer water. He saves the baby but cannot save the woman. One of the facilities he enters from beneath is a morgue where he sees a dead Black, male body on the cold metal table. The iconography of a dead man, woman, and child underground is ostensibly a mirror of the Hell that Daniel navigates.
Wright makes clear it is a precarious walk through life as a Black man. His criticism of this treacherous existence is made more prescient as America staggers from the real-life trauma of police shootings causing the deaths of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago and 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, MN, all while following the trial of Derek Chauvin, the white policeman responsible for the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. Floyd’s killing is a domino in a series of incidents that sparked a social justice movement that is too much like recent history repeating itself.
There is a point when Daniels resurfaces, but the world no longer makes sense to him. His adoption of the underground life cripples him in the “real world” and Wright’s statement about the cost of freedom is a powerful one:
Even though he stood knee-deep in hostile water, even though his entire body was drenched in what seemed to him a cloud of hot vapor, even though his throat gagged at the reeking odors, he felt that he was safe for the first time in many long and weary hours, felt that he was at last beyond the reach of the three men who had tortured him…
In other words, the idea of subterranean existence is still a more favorable possibility than the darkness of life under the shadow of racism and police brutality. Daniels chose, for a time, the uncertainty of the underground over the certainty of death on the surface. Because it meant that for a time he was free.
The Man Who Lived Underground
by Richard Wright
Library of America (Distributed by Penguin Random House)
Published April 20, 2021