“Black Boy” by Richard Wright

Black Boy

Black Boy was an instant best-seller when it was published in 1945, and has remained one of the best-selling books by the pioneering African-American writer, Richard Wright, who lived from 1908 until 1960. It is classed as an autobiography but it reads more like a novel. Wright was already famous as a writer of stories and essays, and his first novel, Native Son, had been an immediate best seller when it was published in 1941.

Notably, the version of Black Boy that became the best-seller is not the book we read today. Wright composed the book in two parts. Part One, called “Southern Night,” covers his youth in the South, and Part Two, called “The Horror and the Glory” and only half as long, covers his young adulthood in Chicago. Wright’s major point is that life in the South did not prepare him for life in the North; he had to go through a second childhood to learn the ways of the city.

The two parts are very different. The first part strives for mythic status; Richard presents himself as a stand-in for every poor black boy in the South who wanted to be respected as an individual. The second part is increasingly specific to his own life and loses its mythic status, as Richard tries to understand and justify his actions in Chicago. Because of this, his publisher persuaded him to release the first part on its own in 1945. This is justifiable on the grounds that it is a coherent and complete work of art, but for Richard it meant that his story was brutally truncated. In the 1990s, Wright’s original work was published whole as he had intended, and that is the version people read nowadays.

The book’s full title is Black Boy (American Hunger), and in it, Wright depicts spiritual and emotional hunger as well as the constant physical hunger of his youth. One of his major points is that racial discrimination deprives African-Americans of opportunities for self-realization and self-respect. He asserts that racism limits the emotional and cultural development of black people, so they have no idea of their own worth. Fortunately there has been enough progress toward equality that Wright’s depiction of racism in the South in the first half of the 20th century seems dated now, but in its time, it was incendiary because it was shocking to see a secret aspect of American society depicted so vividly.

Racism is not the book’s only subject. The boy Richard was permanently scarred by a peculiarly nightmarish childhood that deprived him of any form of worth. He defined the problem as one of racial discrimination, but I think his warped family situation made him dwell on this issue.

As a child, Richard is almost completely deprived of love and support. His closest relationship is with his mother, who routinely slaps him for asking too many questions or bringing up forbidden subjects. After she suffers a series of paralyzing strokes, the best she can do is to nag him weakly to do his best in school. As she becomes more helpless, he loses his sense of connection with her. Richard’s father abandons the family when Richard is 6, leaving them in abject poverty. His mother’s family takes them in, but they treat Richard like a little heathen.

The most excruciating part of his situation concerns religion. Richard’s grandparents and an aunt who lives with them are ardent 7th-Day Adventists who insist on a host of forbidding rules and are determined that Richard join their sect. As a boy who had experienced little in life beyond hunger and disrespect, Richard can’t accept any religious belief. Long passages are devoted to the Adventists’ efforts to recruit him, and the thoughts he has about spiritual beliefs as a child. In fact, one of his earliest experiences of self-realization is his unwillingness to accept their beliefs, and his inability to pretend that he does in order to fit in. This condemns him to total rejection by his mother’s family. After his mother converts to Methodism, she too tries to save his soul, and resorts to emotional pressure to get him to be baptized, but he soon returns to bitter skepticism.

Richard’s family sees him as a wayward boy whose actions are always bad, and you can see their point. At the age of 4, he burns the house down. Soon after, he kills a kitten. At age 6, he becomes an alcoholic. He learns to talk dirty before he learns to read. He taunts the Jewish store owner with the same kind of prejudice he is subjected to. He is paralyzed by shyness in school. He unwittingly sells racist tracts. He refuses to be punished for things he didn’t do, and uses a knife or straight razors to protect himself from his abusive relatives. When he graduates from 8th grade, he insists on giving the Valedictorian speech that he wrote himself rather than the one the principal wrote for him. As he grows older, he wants to read novels and write stories, the work of the devil in his families’ view. He wants to work on Saturdays, a holy day for the Adventists. After he gets old enough to work full time, he finds he will never be able to save enough money to escape North, so he resorts to participating in a scam for extra money, and finally engages in theft to get a stake. Wright presents all these incidents in novelistic detail, including his thoughts and feelings at the time.

His extreme poverty forced Richard to seek work at a very young age, and this is when he begins to encounter racial prejudice. Wright catalogs every sort of racial indignity that a boy could experience in the heart of the South, and he analyzes just how these experiences affected his development. White people expect black people to be totally and smilingly subservient, like slaves. No matter how hard Richard tries to conform, he seems uppity to the whites, who frequently bully him into leaving his job.

Wright’s childhood was so deprived— emotionally, spiritually, and economically—that his pursuit of knowledge and self-realization seems miraculous, totally inexplicable. He becomes an ardent reader despite the disapproval of his family and the scarcity of reading materials. His formal education is patchy due to poverty, but he is passionate about seeking knowledge, and adventure as well, through reading. Where did he get that passion? Where did he get the massive intelligence to digest all that material? Wright shows very few positive influences on his life.

Not surprisingly, Wright’s adult life in Chicago is considerably more complicated than his childhood in the South. No longer can he encapsulate his experience into a string of deftly drawn episodes; various aspects of his life overlap and intersect, and learning takes place over longer arcs. On the plus side, there is less public racial discrimination; he can sit anywhere on public transportation, and he doesn’t have to defer to white folks. But racial prejudices remain at a deeper level. This is true for Richard as well, who notices that even when white people try to treat him respectfully, he still assumes they are the same as white people in the South. His personality is so hardened that it is hard for him to form relationships.

Career-wise, Wright does rather well, though he never acknowledges this. He starts out as an errand boy and dishwasher, but he soon passes the exam for postal clerk. Meanwhile he reads all the important novels of his day and tons of sociology and psychology. During the Depression he becomes an agent for insurance and burial societies, discouraging work that nevertheless gives him access to the lives of a wide variety of poor black people. When that job dries up, a relief organization assigns him to be an orderly in a medical research institute. Finally he gets a job with the South Side Boys’ Club that he finds deeply engrossing. Later he is assigned to do publicity for the Federal Negro Theater, which is a writing job, at least; when that fails, he is assigned to do publicity for a white experimental theatrical company.

What really muddies his narrative is his relationship with the Communist party. Richard finally meets some people with similar social and philosophical views, and through them he gets drawn into the John Reed Club, a group of artists and writers which was associated with the Communist party. At first the theory of Communism, and its version of history, enthrall Wright, but he realizes the idealistic Communist activists are deeply ignorant of the life of ordinary black people. He is suspicious of them, but he is drawn in when they offer to publish some of his stories. From this point, his memoir becomes a messy recital of political manipulation, group rivalries, and Communist tactics as he is unexpectedly propelled into a leadership position in Chicago’s Communist party and just as unexpectedly demoted and reviled, as the international party becomes more rigid. After two chapters of ups and downs in the party, his relationship is finally ended definitively, and he concludes the book in a state of deep disillusionment, though nevertheless determined to continue writing.

In addition to racism, Wright struggles with rampant anti-intellectualism. His ardent and wide-ranging self-education plays a painfully ambivalent role in his life. On the positive side, reading is his only escape from his frustrating life; on the other, it automatically makes him unusual and suspect, not only among his family, but also his friends. As an adult, he talks like a person with a college education. This is an advantage in building his career, but it makes him suspect among other Negro members of the Communist party, who are mostly unlettered new arrivals to the North, because it identifies him with their white oppressors.

The first time I read this book, I was disdainful of the long passages of explanation and analysis, considering them to be artless. But the second time, the composition sounded seamless, and I realized that the development of the author’s understanding of life is an important part of the story. Wright desperately wanted to understand himself and to make himself understood, and his voice rings with probing sincerity in every word. Many critics believe Wright helped change racial relationships in America.

Black Boy
Author: Richard Wright
Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Publication Date: March 2007 (first published in 1945)

Contributor: Jan Looper Smith is an art educator who writes about her culture experiences for a blog called “In the Loop.”

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