In this essay, I argue that Richard Wright's “Down by the Riverside” provides a way of examining the complex relationship between the citizen and the refugee during social breakdown. The federal government's lackluster response to Hurricane Katrina raised this issue, but it remains understudied. I turn to Wright's Depression-era story, originally published in Uncle Tom's Children: Four Novellas, because he explores a similar question regarding the 1927 Mississippi Flood, which many consider the precursor to Hurricane Katrina. Wright's story not only clues readers in to the racialized, gendered, and classed dynamics of exploitation operating before and during social upheaval catalyzed by natural disaster, but he also reveals a general potential among the dispossessed for critical thinking and action in overwhelming circumstances. This article has several implications: it recovers an understudied story from Wright on its own terms, thereby challenging the tendency to read his early work as premature versions of Native Son; second, it acknowledges black radical thought and aesthetics as a distinct tradition with fascinating convergences and divergences from European leftisms; third, it treats “Down by the Riverside” as a precursor to contemporary novels whose protagonists live outside the confines of the citizen or even the human; fourth, and most important, this article contributes to a materialist theory of trauma that I call thinking through crisis. While trauma theory implies that overwhelming experience halts thought and action, I argue that black radical aesthetics reveals how overwhelming experience engenders agency.

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