Richard Wright 1945Introduction
Richard Wright's masterful recording of his own life in the form of the work Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, earned him the significance of "father" of the post-WWII black work and precursor of the Black Arts movements of the 1960s. Published in 1945 as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, Black Boy was received enthusiastically by the reading public and topped the bestseller lists, with 400,000 copies sold. The commercial success of this work secured for Wright what his success of 1940, Native Son, had demanded. With these two works, Richard Wright is correctly said to be one of the most powerful forces in twentieth-century American literature. Without doubt, he is the most powerful influence on modern African-American writing due to his impact on James Baldwin (Another Country, 1962), and Ralph Ellison (The Invisible Man, 1953).
Black Boy is an autobiographical work in which Wright adapted formative episodes from his own life into a "coming of age" plot. In the work, Richard is a boy in the Jim Crow American South. This was a system of racial segregation practiced in some states of the United States, which treated blacks as second-class citizens. In his work, Wright emphasizes two environmental forces of this system: hunger and language. He shows how hunger drives the already oppressed to even more desperate acts, and his emphasis on language explains how he managed to survive Jim Crow, by developing an attention to language as a coping mechanism for the surface world of life. Meanwhile, literature offered him internal release from the tensions of living without the freedom to express his dignity as a human being. Thus, Wright's work is a powerful story of the individual struggle for the freedom of expression.
Richard Nathaniel Wright was born on September 4, 1908, at Rucker's Plantation in Roxie, Mississippi. His parents were Ellen Wilson, a school-teacher, and Nathan Wright, a sharecropper. His brother Leon was born in 1910 and one year later they moved to Ellen's parents house in Natchez. It is that house in which Wright's work Black Boy has its opening drama.
The family moved to Memphis in 1913 and soon thereafter Richard's father deserted them. For the next few years, Ellen did her best to feed and clothe the boys, but she suffered the first of many illnesses. At one point she moved her boys to the prosperous home of her sister Maggie and brother-in-law Silas Hoskins in Elaine, Arkansas. Unfortunately, Silas was murdered by a white mob, and Maggie, Ellen, and the boys fled to West Helena.
Over the next few years, Ellen's illness forced the extended family to shift Richard between them while she lay in bed at Grandma Wilson's. Richard eventually went to his grandmother's house to be near his mother. In 1920, Richard attended the Seventh-Day Adventist School taught by his Aunt Aggie. He later transferred to the Jim Hill School where he made friends and skipped the fifth grade. Next, he attended Smith-Robertson Junior High and published his first short story, "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre," in the Jackson Southern Register.
After graduating as valedictorian in 1925, he moved to Memphis where he was joined by his mother and brother in 1927. One year later, Richard moved his family to Chicago.
Over the next decade, Richard published various stories in magazines, supervised a black youth program, and wrote for communist newspapers. He started his first novel in 1935, but Cesspool was not successful (posthumously published as Lawd Today). By 1938, with a $500 prize for Fire and Cloud, Wright had embarked on a career as an author. That year, Uncle Tom's Children appeared to good reviews.
Wright became established as a writer in 1940 with the publication of Native Son. Personally, reconciliation with his father failed and he ended his marriage with his first wife, Dhima Rose Meadman. Almost immediately, he married Ellen Poplar and had two daughters—Julia in 1942 and Rachel in 1949.
After Native Son, Wright published some articles and left the Communist Party. In 1945, Black Boy was published and received excellent reviews while topping bestseller charts. After this, Richard left the United States.
Wright refused to return to racist America and the risk of subpoena by anti-communist investigations. In 1953, he published the first American existentialist novel, The Outsider. In 1956, he published The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference. He continued to write until he died of a heart attack on November 28, 1960, in Paris, but he never regained the acclaim awarded him by Black Boy.
Richard Wright's autobiographical account in Black Boy opens with his earliest memory, standing before a fireplace as a four-year-old child on a rural Mississippi plantation. Warned repeatedly to "keep quiet," young Richard instead plays with fire and nearly burns his family's house down, then unsuccessfully tries to avoid being severely punished by hiding under the burning house. After the family moves to a new home in Memphis, Richard again challenges parental authority by taking literally his father's exaggerated demand that he kill a noisy kitten. Richard lynches the cat and then feels triumphant over his stern father who can not beat Richard because he was just following orders. However, when his mother forces him to bury the animal and pray for forgiveness for his cruel act, he feels crushing guilt. These two incidents set the stage for various attempts by young Richard to express his powerful feelings and to test the limits placed on him by his family and his environment.
Richard begins to explore the world around him early on, sneaking into saloons and begging for pennies and drinks, learning to read from neighborhood school children and learning to count from the coal man, and above all, asking questions of everyone he encounters. He is witness to several disturbing scenes and events that do not make sense to his young mind. He hears that a "'black' boy had been severely beaten by a 'white' man" and he can only assume that it is because the "boy" is the white man's son, since in Richard's world fathers are allowed to beat their children and Richard does not know what "black" and "white" means. He sees a black military regiment and asks his mother to explain the meaning of "soldiers," "rifles," "Germans," "enemies," and "wars." He sees a group of "strange, striped animals" and learns that it is a chain gang of black prisoners and white guards. Finally, after learning that white men have murdered his Uncle Hoskins for his thriving business, Richard and his family flee to yet another home, trying "to avoid looking into that white-hot face of terror that we knew loomed somewhere above us."
As he grows older, Richard's life at home with his family causes him as much distress as his experience with the larger world of the South. After his mother is deserted by his father and falls ill, Richard's life becomes a continual struggle with poverty and hunger. After some time in an orphanage (from which he tries to run away), Richard and his family move from place to place, living in the cheapest lodgings they can find or with relatives. Richard begins to attend school and to develop friendships with other boys, but as his mother's health worsens, he feels more and more responsible for supporting the family by working. When his mother has a nearly-fatal stroke, Richard senses an end to his childhood. Over time, his mother's illness comes to represent all the pain and suffering of his life and shapes his outlook on the future.
My mother's suffering grew into a symbol in my mind, gathering to itself all the poverty, the ignorance, the helplessness; the painful, baffling, hunger-ridden days and hours; the restless moving, the futile seeking, the uncertainty, the fear, the dread; the meaningless pain and the endless suffering.… A somberness of spirit that I was never to lose settled over me during the slow years of my mother's unrelieved suffering, a somberness that was to make me stand apart and look upon excessive joy with suspicion, that was to make me self-conscious, that was to make me keep forever on the move, as though to escape a nameless fate seeking to overtake me.
At the age of twelve, before I had had one full year of formal schooling, I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.
After living with relatives for a short time after his mother's stroke, Richard returns to live with his mother at his grandparents' home in Jackson, Mississippi. Here the outlook on life that he has forged in response to his mother's suffering comes into conflict with his grandmother's religious belief. Although she "maintained a hard religious regime," Richard succeeds in resisting her attempts to make him "confess her God." After a more violent confrontation with his Aunt Addie, Richard finally promises his grandmother that he will try to pray to God, but try as he might, he fails: "I was convinced that if I ever succeeded in praying, my words would bound noiselessly against the ceiling and rain back down upon me like feathers." Instead, he begins to write, inventing stories full of "atmosphere and longing and death." Although he can find no one in his life who might appreciate what he has created, Richard senses that in his writing he has found a source of freedom from the pain of his life and a way of expressing himself, unhindered by the limitations of his environment or his family.
Richard's confrontations with his family over religion are reignited when his mother, recovered for a time, joins a Methodist church and pleads with him to be baptized. Forced into a position in which rejection of her Christian faith would constitute a visible and shameful rejection of his mother and the entire community, Richard relents and is baptized. Privately, however, he still finds his reading and writing of "pulp narrative" far more compelling than what the church, which he rejects as a "fraud," offers.
Having once again started school and in need of money for clothes and food, Richard confronts his grandmother about her religious refusal to allow him to work on Saturdays. When he finally threatens to leave her home if not allowed to work, she yields to his demand and Richard immediately begins to seek out employment. His first job, selling newspapers to black neighbors, not only provides him with an income but also a "gateway to the world" beyond his own. However, he soon learns that the newspaper he sells endorses the doctrines of the Ku Klux Klan, and he quits the job in shame. Various other jobs—including work at a farm, a brickyard, a sawmill, a clothing store, an optical company, and a movie theater—give Richard firsthand experience of the ways that white people live in the South and, more importantly, the ways that they expect blacks to live and behave. Finding himself unable to act out the roles expected of him, Richard fears that a wrong word or action will cost him his life, and he finally resolves to leave Mississippi for Memphis.
Upon his arrival in Memphis, Richard quickly finds, to his surprise, a friendly family with whom he can lodge; but he is even more surprised when Mrs. Moss, the proprietor, pressures him to marry her daughter Bess. Richard comes to realize that the Mosses live by a "simple unaffected trust" that he knows to be "impossible" in his own life. Richard immediately begins looking for work and he finds it running errands for another optical company. While working there Richard meets several other black workers who discuss together "the ways of white folks toward Negroes," but he also recognizes that the ways of some blacks toward white folks—like Shorty, who acts like a degraded clown for money—fill him with "disgust and loathing." Against his own will, however, Richard is forced into playing a similar role when the white men he works with coerce him into fighting another black boy. The psychological tension he feels around whites makes him reject the kindness of a "Yankee" white man who wants to help him.
To feed his growing hunger for books, Richard cautiously borrows a white man's library card—something forbidden to Southern blacks—and then begins to read voraciously. Reading writers whose names he can not even pronounce, Richard finds "new ways of looking and seeing" and feels "a vast sense of distance between me and the world in which I lived." Believing that he could no longer survive in the South and inspired by his reading to seek a life of meaning and possibility in the North, Richard finally flees the South for Chicago.
Originally deleted by Wright's publisher and finally restored in the Library of America's 1991 edition of Black Boy, this section details Wright's experiences after arriving in Chicago. Continuing his quest for a meaningful way to "live a human life," Wright realizes that the lives of blacks and whites are less segregated in the North but are separated nonetheless by a great "psychological distance." For a time Wright finds meaning in the work of the Communist party, but eventually he becomes disillusioned with the party's limited role for him. He closes Part Two with the decision to write, "determined to look squarely at my life" and to "build a bridge of words between me and that world outside."
Mrs. Bibbs, like most white characters in the work, represents one facet of the oppressive society that confronts Richard from birth. In this case, she articulates the white assumption that blacks are inherently suited to menial labor. Therefore, when she hires Richard to do chores around her house, she is astounded to learn that Richard cannot milk a cow.
In the work, Mr. Crane stands for the liberal whites who are well-meaning, but ultimately too weak to stand up to the prevailing racism of their society. Mr. Crane is a Yankee business man who owns an optical company in Jackson and he wants to take on a black boy with the enlightened notion of teaching him the trade of optics. Richard shows promise because of his algebraic skill so Crane hires him as a shop boy saying that he will gradually learn the trade. Unfortunately, Crane's other workers do not want to find themselves eventually equal to a black boy. Rather than risk bodily harm, Richard leaves the job. Mr. Crane is sorry to see him go and though he promises protection in the future, Richard refuses to divulge what happened because he knows what the repercussions will be outside the shop.
Ella is a boarder at Grandma's house. A school-teacher with a "remote and dreamy and silent" manner, Richard is attracted to her mystery, though afraid. She is always reading and Richard desires very much to ask her about what in the books is so fascinating. After increasing antagonism from Grandma, Ella is blamed for Richard's swearing and is asked to leave the house. In this clash of characters is summed up the essence of Richard's emerging consciousness—the struggle between the conflicting power of personal expression, narrative, and storytelling versus stricter religious and cultural demands.
Richard's mother, also named Ella, tries her best to raise Richard after his father deserts the family. Unfortunately she falls ill and Grandma must care for her and the boys. Ella's illness forces the family to split up the boys but Richard eventually returns to Grandma's house to be near his ill mother. Her relationship with Richard is a difficult one since she is not well. At the end, she goes North because Richard sends for her.
Richard asks Mr. Falk if he might use his library card. This does not foster an alliance between them, only a light sympathy, but Mr. Falk does give Richard his library card without betraying him. Richard is then enabled to make regular trips to the "whites only" library.
See Richard Wilson
Griggs is Richard's friend who repeatedly tries to convince Richard to take the "easier" route of conforming to white expectations of black behavior. For Richard he represents the self-enslaving nature of so many of his contemporaries, whose example he can never bring himself to follow.
He is a shop boy who works across the street from Richard. He is beset by rumors that Richard wants to fight him while Richard is told that Harrison wants to fight him. Eventually they agree to fight, not because they have fallen for the rumors but because Harrison wants the $5. They fight once. In this episode, Wright sums up the ease with which blacks allow themselves to be pitted against other blacks for the entertainment of white society.
Richard rents a room from Mrs. Moss and finds that she is offering more than just shelter. Mrs. Moss tries to tempt him to marry her daughter Bess. Richard doesn't want to, even if it means inheriting the house. He finds Bess too simple in her emotional outlook. Desperate to have them leave him alone he threatens to leave. They back off and he continues to rent his room.
Mr. Olin is Richard's foreman at the Memphis Optical Company. He tries to befriend Richard by telling him that Harrison wants to fight him. He is suspicious of Mr. Olin so he talks to Harrison. Mr. Olin eventually gets his fight by paying them.
•A recording of Black Boy was made by Brock Peters. It was made available in 1989 by Caedmon/New York.
One of the black men that Richard meets working in Memphis is Shorty, who operates the elevator. Shorty is an intelligent man who would flee Jim Crow for the North if he could just save enough money. Richard thinks a great deal of Shorty because he is very conscious of racism as an environmental condition. However, one day Shorty says, "Just watch me get a quarter from the first white man I see." Shorty gets his quarter by letting the white man kick him. Richard is repulsed because Shorty knows the system too well and has allowed himself to be beaten by it.
As his name implies, Uncle Tom is an assimilationist who only seeks to get along with racist white society. From his entrance in the work, he views Richard as a fool by inferring that because Richard is not allowing himself to be brought up by the family in a "proper" manner he will end up at the mercy of a white mob, or a victim of the KKK. Richard refuses—with razors, no less—to learn this lesson.
Granny Wilson's youngest daughter Addie returns from her Seventh-Day Adventist religious school and immediately tries to rule Richard. First, she persuades Granny and Richard's mom that if Richard is to live in the house he ought to abide by religious guidance. He is enrolled in the new Seventh-Day Adventist school at which Addie is the only teacher. The showdown is quick in coming when Richard refuses to feel the pain of Addie's corporal punishment in front of the class. After school they fight again but Richard holds her off with a knife. Addie, like her mother, is in conflict with Richard because of her insistence on religious behavior.
Richard chooses to live with Uncle Clarke when his mother becomes too ill to care for her children. His choice is based solely on Clarke's proximity to Richard's mother. However, Aunt Jody's dislike of Richard as the product of a "broken home," plus the fright caused by the knowledge that a boy died in his bed, forces Richard back to his Grandma's house. Once more, prejudice determines his choices in life.
Grandma Margaret Bolden Wilson
Richard opens his work with Granny's white, ill, face. This face disturbs Richard as a little boy because he fails to see how such a white-skinned person could be "black." The most important tension Richard holds with Grandma, however, is neatly summed up at the start of the fourth chapter: "Granny was an ardent member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and I was compelled to make a pretense of worshipping her God, which was her exaction for my keep." Ardent is not a strong enough word. Grandma is consumed by her belief in religion and its promise to reward her in the hereafter for the suffering of the Jim Crow now. Her zealotry, Richard claims, also means ruining his life. Grandma will not let him get a job that will mean his working on Saturday (their Sabbath) and thus Richard cannot buy food, clothes, and other things necessary amongst children his age. Grandma also prevents him from reading as he would like to or even hearing stories, like Bluebeard, because they are not the Bible. Indirectly, this teaches Richard all about the pretense and the hypocrisy of religion. More directly, due to a deal he makes with Grandma to pray every day, he writes his first short story when he should be quietly praying in his room and thus begins to harbor the idea of being a writer. Grandma sets the pace of the family as well as establishing its treatment of Richard. She tried to orchestrate his religious conversion but finally gives up, concluding that his inability to accept the religious view of things, the established view of things, will lead to his doom. For his questioning and intolerance of status quo, he is punished or ignored.
Grandpa was wounded while fighting for the Union Army in the Civil War. Due to his illiteracy, he asked a white officer for assistance with filling out the paperwork necessary to receive a disability pension. The officer misspelled his name as Richard Vinson. Not knowing of the mistake, Grandpa returned home. However, as time passed and he received no pension he applied to the War Department who had no trace of him. Eventually, the above story of the "mistake" formed but the War Department demanded proof that Grandpa was in fact deserving of the pension. In consequence, Grandpa spends the rest of his life trying to convince the government he is who he said he is. Grandpa, says Richard, is just "like 'K' in the Kafka novel, The Castle." He tries desperately to persuade the authorities of his true identity right up to the day of his death, and fails.
Grandpa is a strong male influence in Richard's life who only proves to him that "manliness" is impossible for black men in the Jim Crow South. As a warrior, Grandpa has fought and been wounded for his country, yet the army never pays him the respect—or the disability pension—he has earned. In the home, Richard is also taught that men are "impotent": despite the fact that Grandma calls Grandpa in to administer punishment, it soon becomes apparent that it is she, not he, who rules the house.
See Uncle Tom
Richard's brother plays a very minor role in Black Boy. He is a tag-along sibling when Richard sets fire to the house in the opening scene of the book, a witness to Richard hanging the cat, and present when the rest of the family shuns Richard once he is again back at Grandma's from Maggie's. At the close of the work though, Leon is brought north along with his mother.
Richard's father is his lawgiver and his exemplar. Nathan is the only character in the novel that Richard gives a future glimpse of. Furthermore, by granting this future view of his father, Richard also gives a view of his present, writing self. At the end of chapter 1 he defines his father and he defines his own conception of himself. Looking at his father twenty-five years after being deserted, Richard says:
"I forgave him and pitied him as my eyes looked past him to the unpainted wooden shack. From far beyond the horizons that bound this bleak plantation there had come to me through my living the knowledge that my father was a black peasant who had gone to the city seeking life, but who had failed in the city; a black peasant whose life had been hopelessly snarled in the city, and who had at last fled the city—that same city which had lifted my in its burning arms and borne me toward alien and undreamed-of shores of knowing."
Richard's father left the plantation hoping for a better life for his family, but being beaten by the city, he deserted his family, left them destitute, and fled back to the plantation. Richard is ultimately able to accomplish what his father failed by leaving the plantation clay behind.
Richard is the protagonist of the story—he is the "black boy." He tells his own story as if he is a victim of his surroundings, almost as if he is an existentialist given limited choice in every circumstance. There is really only one thing he is ever sure of throughout the work and which drives him to leave the South and tell his story. That one thing is a conception of himself as a person who individually can conceive of the world. In addition to this, he knows that his awareness of having this conception of himself in the world marks him out as different. His certainty of this subjectivity is settled by the age of twelve. By then, he says at the end of chapter 3, he had a, "notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering."
His father is a peasant who is little more than clay struggling to wrest a living out of the soil, whereas he, Richard, is aware of words, of the world, and insistent that it can be different if the difference is only that he not have to mop up after white people.
Ellen Wilson Wright
Race and Racism
Racism is not as much a theme in this work as it is an environmental condition—an integral part of the setting. The work tries to expose the ethical effect that the Jim Crow system had on its subjects—both black and white. Black Boy is a work about individual positions within a racist mind-set. That is, the world in which Richard must live is racist, and within that world prejudice against blacks is all-pervasive. However, Richard occasionally meets with tolerant persons. Furthermore, Richard himself must be tolerant with those around him who do not have the intellect to see the world like he does. He must also endure the Jim Crow system until he has enough money to escape or else he will be killed.
Richard, having realized that his options are either to play along by being dumb or to be tolerant and escape, chooses the route of escape. However, while awaiting the chance, he spends his time trying to figure out Jim Crow in his own head at least. The novel is his retrospective exploration of the way in which he learned the values and drawbacks that constitute both prejudice and tolerance. Richard may find the coping mechanism of Shorty and Griggs repulsive but in his role as passive observer he only amounts to a chronicler of the facts of Jim Crow. To be sure, to have done more than balk at the easy manner with which a girl handles sexual harassment by a constable would have found Richard strung up like the cat or Uncle Silas. It is worth noting, therefore, that young Richard comes to understand prejudices as opinions that readers hold no matter how incorrect they are and tolerance as that degree of openness they have to a world that does not accord with their opinions.
Richard never learns the lesson of how to be "black." Part of this is due to the confusion aroused early in Richard's consciousness by his grandmother. Her white appearance implicates that the different treatment of blacks is a treatment based on something other than color. With this hint, Richard decides that blackness is a social decision, not a real fact. For the same reason, he decides that whiteness is not a reality—just an invisible fright like a ghost or bogey. After Uncle Silas is lynched, Richard has evidence of the consequences of being seen as black, but he has not witnessed it himself. Therefore, it was not until he himself is run off a job that Richard understand that whites can be oppressors.
Topics for Further Study
- Read a novel by Ann Petry or any other member of the "Wright School" (Chester Himes, Willard Savoy, Philip B. Kaye, etc.) and compare with Black Boy. In the case of Petry's The Street, address the difference in terms of gender and the world of the urban black in the cities of post-WWII America.
- What difference does it make whether one reads Black Boy or American Hunger to one's understanding of Wright's critical view of America? Does America "get off" easy in Black Boy because, after all, Wright does escape to the better life in the north?
- Research the issue of Jim Crow and then compare that environment to race relations today: do we live in a more tolerant, egalitarian, society? Discuss current issues such as: Californian challenges to affirmative action; the declaration of English as the one and only language in some states; the unequal distribution of minorities and the effects on busing, services, insurance, health care, or any other issue.
- Think about perceptions: Wright repeatedly remarks about his refusal at first to adopt proper Jim Crow mannerisms and then the necessity of his having to do so—are there roles that we play based on gender, class, or racial perceptions and are these influenced or based upon information gathered from television sitcoms? Further, what are the perceptions taught us by media on this issue of behavior (think for example about programs like Cops versus a network 10 o'clock news program or Baywatch versus Martin) ?
- Find some images that were around during World War II and after; get a book of posters from the library showing the overt effort to get people behind the war effort. After viewing these images, consider the way in which Wright presents the same era. For example, the few white women he does encounter throughout the narrative (especially in the second part of "American Hunger") do not seem to fit the images you will find in the posters. Think about the aim of "urban realism" in light of these posters; think about Wright's struggle to write for people.
Even after the incident with Pease and Reynolds, Richard fails to understand racism. He doesn't begin to gain an understanding of prejudice and tolerance until he begins to play the system by borrowing Mr. Falk's library card. To use it, he writes the note in which he calls himself a nigger. The librarian questions him but he claims to be illiterate. Having fooled her, he checks out H. L. Mencken who viewed the South as "hell" on earth. The title of Mencken's work was Prejudices and this causes Richard to pause and wonder if he hadn't made a mistake in reading Mencken. Certainly, Richard thought to himself "a man who had prejudices must be wrong." However, he discovers that prejudice is a word for a category of thought, rather than simply another word for racism. That is, racism is but one of many prejudices.
For Richard the mind blocks of prejudice and tolerance are also applicable to religion. This discovery brings him a great deal of grief with family members who are prejudiced toward a certain way of understanding and refuse to budge. An example comes as soon as the start of the fourth chapter where Richard listens to a fire and brimstone sermon that Granny, for one, believes. However, when Richard leaves the church and feels "the throbbing of life" then the sermon inside the church is placed in perspective—it is but one of many ways of seeing the world but a way of seeing best left inside the church. As for the Jim Crow system, Richard would like to leave it in the South.
For Richard, a life's meaning is in the independence of the individual. That means that Richard sees life as a quest for truth. He stubbornly seeks answers where none—or no satisfactory ones—are given. Richard wants answers that will stand up to argument. Time and again, Richard finds himself at odds with the world: people beat him without justification; he has to be servile to whites; his love of words and stories that lead him to dream of writing brings him ridicule. Then there is religion that reveals to him how people amalgamate into groups driven by dogma—they give up, as in the case of Granny or Aunt Addie, their human rights in return for a heavenly inheritance.
Instead of certainty brought about by these beliefs, Richard finds he has something else by the end of the third chapter:
I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.
Richard goes on in the next paragraph to explain that this made him a good listener to any who would talk to him and it also made him the keen observer he needed to be in order to become the famous writer he would be. Armed with observations and experience, he relates the reality he has found in the form of words, and thus his identity is entwined with his search for the reason that people behave the way they do, especially why they behave so inhumanely. His conclusions are his novels.
Taking liberty with his own life's story, Richard Wright created a masterpiece in the story of Black Boy, a first person narrative portraying a boy who grows up under the oppression of Southern racism. This narration demonstrated the principles of living within the Jim Crow system that Wright had previously laid out in "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," published in Uncle Tom's Children. He represented these ethics through the didactic story of Black Boy with the intention of altering white America's racism. Wright believed that a well-developed protagonist in a successful novel would do more for race relations than any political speech or ruling. Therefore, by the use of his own experience re-enforced by a first person persona, Black Boy exposes the reality of life for the black American realistically but without offering solutions.
Wright used the first-person narrative to provide an objective viewpoint that borders on the style that would come to be known as existentialism. He did this by portraying his own development in the same way that French writers like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre presented their leading protagonists. Events and characters encountered by Richard are given only what depth is required to tell Richard's story, so that, in effect, Richard is the only character. The boy in the fourth chapter who wants to save Richard's soul is only an extension of Granny's "machinery," and Granny herself is but an incarnation of the repressive system of Christianity.
An example of how Richard glosses over every character, mentioning them only when they infringe on his consciousness, is the scene where he describes a confrontation amongst some unnamed boys in a school yard. He terms the associations of other black boys as a fraternity; not a conscious friendship, but a spontaneous gathering. The boys find themselves easily congregated together and are just as easily called away. No emotional links are described or maintained—not even with Griggs who behaves in such a brotherly manner to Richard. For Richard, the only important things are his own awakening consciousness, his telling of his awakening, and his escape to the North.
Black Boy is structured as a series of spliced-together episodes in the life of Richard. Thus, the work reads much like a movie, because in a very real way, Richard makes a documentary of himself. It is as if each chapter is a scene that is cut away from and moved into the next story. The finish of each chapter is punctuated with a sense of progress but not of ending. The work is very easily visualized by the reader, not only because it is written in a naturalistic style, but also because there are no intrusions by other voices. Key to this structuring is the awareness that Richard has a growing appreciation and use for words. The whole world is filtered through Richard's growing consciousness into an existential Weltanschauung (world view) understandable only through his assignation of meaning.
This can be explained by noting that Richard was not allowed free motion—running, shouting, questioning—but had to stay quiet, avoid beatings, and answer his own ceaseless quest for explanation. As a result, Richard was formed by his conscious alienation: he knew he was under restraint but had no concept of an alternative. In reaction, he is very interested in life around him for the clues it reveals about the real world. However, he maintains his interest objectively and from a distance, just like when he is hungry but pretends disinterest in food because the eating of it would remind him of his shameful hunger.
World War II was coming to an end when Black Boy was published in 1945. In fact, as the work topped the best-seller charts, the U.S. 9th Armored Division and the 1st Armored Division secured Ally control on the west bank of the Rhine, and U.S. B-24 bombers were bombing Tokyo. The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945. In the Pacific, the war dragged on until August when an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and then another was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. World War II ended, and the loss of life was estimated at 54.8 million.
The Cold War was still a few years away, and 1945 seemed to be a year of victory for the Allies and the ideology of democratic capitalism. The United States was approaching the zenith of its industrial-economic might due to trade imbalance caused by war. Hollywood was not shy to back up the tales of U.S. Army plenty with movies showing how rich and ideal life in America was. The reality, however, was quite different. Americans were wealthy as a nation, and had shown just how wealthy they were by the immensity of the resources they had thrown behind the Allied cause, but individually things were mediocre. For the minorities in America, it was just plain bad: blacks lived under Jim Crow in the South of the United States; the Dakotan, Navajo, Apache, and other tribal groups lived in reservations little better than concentration camps; and Japanese-Americans were being released from internment camps where they had been held under suspicion while the United States fought Japan. For these minority groups, there was no possibility of the Hollywood image being real, and in some sense members of these minority groups who had fought in the war had it worse. Like Richard Wright's grandfather, they fought for America but had little to show for it when they came home.
In some sense these problems were only dawning in 1945, because the transition to unemployment resulting from the demobilization of the war's industrial complex into a peacetime economy had not yet arrived. During the year there were signs of the upcoming struggle. Workers in car factories went on strike and despite those strikes, the American Gross National Product approached $211 billion. New agricultural procedures increased food production both within the United States and around the world, and food rationing in the United States ceased, although it remained a reality in Europe. It was not, and never had been, a problem of wealth in America but, as evidenced in Wright's work, a problem of distribution. America was rich in 1945 but its minorities were poor, very poor.
A societal revolution was beginning to evolve out of this economic inequality. As troops returned home throughout the year, America began a transition back to a peace time economy, thus shifting workers away from military complexes. To succeed at this transition, images changed from encouragement of the war effort to encouragement of family and consumption. In the case of women, this meant the image not of a female in a factory, but a female at home, in a dress, with a baby. This coincided with a media revolution as America increased its private ownership of televisions from only 5,000 sets to the ubiquity it has today. The U.S. government began its most effective and profitable investment ever—the GI Bill—which allowed the returning soldiers to go back to school or buy a home. This had two effects. First, the already painful transition to a peacetime economy in the job market was not made worse by the soldiers because they instead filled the universities. Second, after a delay there was a tremendous increase in the available numbers of college educated workers.
The ideal of a peaceful world seemed closer than ever after World War II. Atomic power promised to deter large scale military aggression and the establishment of the United Nations in June of 1945 provided the forum for nonviolent resolutions and concerted action between the world governments. This was the hope, but the reality was being displayed in Palestine by Jewish settlers as they escalated their harassment of British forces in control of the region, and in China where the Russians and the Americans attempted to pick the right side of a battle just beginning between the revolting communists under Mao Tse-tung and Chiang Kai-shek and his followers.
Compare & Contrast
1940s: Race relations are tense, at best, with Jim Crowism sanctioned in several states of the union as well as being practiced by the U.S. military.
Today: Jim Crowism was killed by the Civil Rights movement. Anti-hate legislation and human rights laws are being instituted around the country and rendering the justice system intolerant of all forms of discrimination. Thus, legally things look very good, but, as a recent series of black church burnings and challenges in California to affirmative action show, race relations are still imperfect.
1940s: In the South, $17 of tuition is spent per black student per year and $35 per white child. Richard is not obligated nor able to go beyond the ninth grade (which, he says, is really the eighth grade).
Today: Cuts in tuition assistance put college almost beyond the reach of the poorest students. At the grade school level, no racial distinctions are made in public schools in the matter of spending. Instead, educational spending is decreasing due to congressional cuts. Furthermore, spending is not equally distributed; wealthy districts can afford to, and do, spend a lot more on their children's educations than less wealthy ones.
1940s: America attempts to keep its people working and begins to build a safety net so that no person goes hungry, without care, or is unable to retire.
Today: From Wisconsin to California, U.S. legislators are removing the threads that make up the American safety net.
When considering the critical reputation of Black Boy it is important to note that the work was available only in a truncated version until 1977. In that year, the full text, American Hunger, was published. This work gives the reader a very different view of Richard because the hope granted by the escape to the North at the "end" of the first section is undercut by the broken American dream found in Chicago in the second part. However, Black Boy in its 1945 version was well received and remains a popular work to this day. Critically, the work has been viewed as Wright's masterpiece, a twentieth-century version of the slave narrative, and a work of protest against racism, censorship, and intolerance. More recently, criticism has been focused on the restored work (the version established by the Library of America) as cultural critique and a weapon against censorship. Such recent reviews have also looked more closely at the novel as pure sociology or, as Ellison previously suggested, at the Joycean quality of Wright's writing. This latter view sees Richard as a black version of Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Ralph Ellison reviewed Wright's work for the Antioch Review in 1945 in an essay entitled "Richard Wright's Blues." To him the work was a "blues-tempered" lyric such as Bessie Smith might sing. Richard Wright, Ellison went on, had given himself a duplicitous role: "to discover and depict the meaning of Negro Experience; and to reveal to both Negroes and whites those problems of a psychological and emotional nature which arise between them when they strive for mutual understanding." This became the aim of the "Wright School of Urban Realism." They were a group of authors inspired by Wright to use writing, as Robert A. Bone put it in The Negro Novel in America (1965), as a "means of dispelling inner tensions of race … [and through a fictional protagonist] alter [white] attitude toward race."
In addition to Ellison, the work was reviewed by Lionel Trilling for The Nation, on April 7, 1945. Trilling applauded Wright's effort, saying, "He has the objectivity which comes from refusing to be an object." A few months later, in an article for Esquire (June 23, 1945), Sinclair Lewis took a more direct approach. His review took the opportunity not to be critical of Wright but of America. Lewis defended the book against those who were made uncomfortable by it. He said there could be no reason to doubt the veracity of the book's report on living conditions for blacks given the echo found in official reports made by the NAACP, the daughter of a white Navy officer (Ruth Donenhower Wilson) in a book on Jim Crow, the U.S. government itself, and others. All told, he said, the South does in fact practice Jim Crowism and the North is not much better. Why, Lewis wonders with the NAACP, should Jim Crowism exist even within the troops and the Red Cross in the European war—within the "Army of Democracy" itself?
In the 1950s, the reputation of Wright ebbed as Ellison and Baldwin came into popularity. However, in the 1960s, black militancy preferred the forthright attitude of Wright, and his popularity rose to new heights. Ronald Sanders, in "Richard Wright and the Sixties" (Midstream (1968)), had nothing but praise for Wright. Saunders called Black Boy Wright's masterpiece but also his swan song. Critically, the work was regarded for what it was doing as a sociological study. For example, in The Art of Richard Wright, Edward Margolies portrays Wright as a generalist who extrapolates a blanket statement about American minorities based on his life. Margolies goes so far as to criticize Wright for playing the innocent too much: "[Wright's] theme is freedom and he skillfully arranges and selects his scene in such a way that he is constantly made to appear the innocent victim of … tyranny." That may be, but in the 1970s, critics begin to make greater comparisons and even, as Martha Stephens does, place the pre-Native Son works ahead of the greater commercial successes. Stephens also returns to the questions of Ellison and Baldwin as to whether Wright has a picture of "real" negroes. The answer, she says, lies in the whole of his oeuvre.
Roger Whitlow, in his 1973 book entitled Black American Literature, shows Wright as a cultural mirror of blacks before the era of Civil Rights. Wright, for Whitlow, is a portrait of the blacks who made the same journey North making the same critical discoveries. Black Boy, according to Whitlow, echoes the theme of Native Son:
A man must have enough control over his environment to feel that he can mold it, if only slightly, so that it can provide him with at least a part of the realization of his dreams. When he has no such control, he ceases to be a functioning member of that environment; and he thereby divorces himself from its mores and its legal restrictions.
Further, just as Richard discovered that neither the North nor South wanted the black man, he had to force his way in. Forcibly black writers, protesters, and speakers have hurled "words into darkness" though many assert that they are still waiting for the full echo of the dream of equality.
Recent views of Wright's work include an article by Maryemma Graham and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. written in 1993. There, in " Black Boy (American Hunger): Freedom to Remember" published in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, the authors says that American Hunger is a statement against censorship of all forms. The inclusiveness of Wright's stance can be seen in the novel itself where Richard reflects on how he prefers the Southerner's outright rejection of him to the Northerner's polite tolerance. This article places Wright with Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, and other writers of anti-censorship works by saying that "these books invite us to imaginatively recreate the experience of living within closed systems. It tells us much about social breakdown and disorder in American life with a vividness sociological writing cannot provide." In other words, Graham and Ward nicely tie together the artistic place of the writer with his responsibility (that responsibility that the "Wright school" focused on) to alter the consciousness of America for the better. In Wright's specific capacity as a survivor of Jim Crow and as a black man, they say, " Black Boy (American Hunger) is a critique of American optimism betrayed." The work is a display of how the American dream as product fails to live up to the claims of the advertisement. Such critique is noted but needs to be acted upon.
Mahony is an English instructor at Wayne County Community College in Detroit, Michigan. In this essay, she discusses Wright's portrayal of the influence that language exerts on personal and societal roles. Richard Wright's Black Boy contains two distinct yet interrelated themes. The first reveals the development of his literary and artistic skills, tracing their emergence from a set of fragile roots to the eventual fruition that Wright depicts in the second section of his autobiography, American Hunger. The second theme revolves around the difficulty of becoming a responsible and articulate black man in an oppressive and racist culture that has organized its social, political, and educational structure to prevent that from happening. These two themes are interwoven throughout both sections of Wright's autobiography in a chain of incidents that exposes the devastating consequences of racism.
One of the methods Wright uses to develop these themes involves focusing the attention of the reader on the enormous potential of language. Words, grammar, sentences, and the ideas that they contain are central to almost every episode in the autobiography. For Wright, language is a complex and multifaceted tool. He depicts it not only as a positive element that can enable an individual to transcend his environment but also as a dangerous and even a deadly one. This emphasis on language becomes apparent as early as the opening scene, which takes place when Wright is only four years old. After being told to keep quiet because his grandmother is ill, he reacts with resentment since he longs to shout and play. In his anger, he accidentally sets the house on fire. As a result, he is scolded and severely beaten.
Note that this incident foreshadows many others in the novel by setting a pattern of behavior. First Wright is forbidden to express himself. Sometimes it is the restrictions of the white-dominated society that force this restraint; at other times, members of his own family attempt to curb his speech. In either case, such denials only arouse his anger and resentment. His response to the situation is perceived as hostile, threatening, or inappropriate. The eventual result of these incidents is some sort of verbal or even physical assault; as Wright matures, he discovers that the threat of violence is at times more potent than an actual physical wound. Through these incidents, both Wright and the reader discover the controlling force that language serves in organizing family relationships, in defining an individual's goals and dreams, and in determining one's role in the social order.
Several events in Wright's early childhood help to build his understanding of the power of words. At the age of six, he is taught to repeat obscenities by the drunks in the local bar. After a performance, they reward him with drinks. Later, after hearing these same words in the schoolyard, he writes them on the neighborhood windows with soap. In both of these cases, he learns that language may bring the reward of an attention that is frequently enticing enough to outweigh the unpleasantness of punishment.
What Do I Read Next?
- Wright's first success was Native Son (1940). It is the tragic tale of Bigger Thomas and explores many of the same themes as Black Boy.
- The 1963 novel entitled Lawd Today is in many ways Richard Wright's best work, although it was never as successful as Black Boy or Native Son. This story began as "Cesspool" in 1935 and tells the story of the futile life of Jake Jackson, who lives in Chicago as a postal worker.
- A member of the "Wright School," Ann Petry wrote about the trials of life on 116th Street, Harlem, in The Street. In that 1946 novel, Petry explores the relationship of environment and a black woman's effort to live with self-respect in the ghetto. Written both by and about a woman, it is a nice companion to Richard Wright's work.
- Invisible Man, the 1953 novel by Ralph Ellison, has become a classic portrayal of black experience in America.
- For a nonfictional view of what actually constituted Jim Crow, see Jim Crow Guide: The Way It Was that has been recently re-published by Florida Atlantic University Press. In this work by Stetson Kennedy, the legal basis as well as the civic rules that created the system of legal discrimination are displayed. The book is highly informative and very readable.
- An account of black experience in the "democratic army" that fought in World War II has been recorded by Mary Patrick Motley in The Invisible Soldier: The Experience of the Black Soldiers, WWII. Motley's work is a collection of interviews with veterans of the war who told her about the fighting as well as the unfortunate existence of Jim Crow in the United States—a practice that other armies did not mirror.
- For further reading on race relations in the United States at the time of the novel, see R. Polenberg's One Nation Divisible: Class, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States since 1938.
In one of the most powerful of these early tales, Wright manipulates his father by deliberately acting on the literal meaning of his father's words rather than on the intended meaning. After his father is awakened by the crying of a small kitten, he orders his sons, "Kill that damn thing! … Do anything, but get it away from here." Wright resents his father's yelling at him. In fact, he feels that his father's presence is little more than a brooding and tyrannical shadow over the entire household. Although he knows that his father does not really wish for his children to harm the animal, Wright deliberately strangles it with a noose since he sees this as an opportunity to retaliate against his father's continual demands. For the first time, he is able to undermine his father's oppressive dominance. Even though he is still a child, Wright intuits that his father will not punish him for obeying so specific a request. If his father does so, it will prove that his word is worthless. Although Wright correctly surmises that his father will be rendered impotent by this strategy, the boy is not held blameless for the incident, however. Interestingly, his chastisement is verbal rather than physical. His mother first describes the horrors of taking a life, which "spawned in my mind a horde of invisible demons bent on exacting vengeance." She later terrifies him with prayers over the kitten's grave. Continually throughout this passage, Wright uses imagery to reinforce the impact of his mother's speech. Her words are "calculating," her voice "floating" and "disembodied," her injunctions "paralyzing."
The previous incidents focus primarily on Wright's discovery of various methods through which language can influence behavior and roles within the family and in interpersonal relationships. A second series of tales deals with the social role of communication as he struggles to acquire the unique vocabulary that was required for African Americans to survive in the South in the first half of the twentieth century. Wright demonstrates that clear patterns of communication were demanded by the dominant white culture. This included rules not only about when to speak and when to remain silent, but which type of words were allowed as well. Body language was equally important; the proper response could be negated by an unacceptable look or gesture. These lessons were extremely important to survival, since failure to behave in an appropriately subservient manner could have potentially deadly consequences.
Wright's initial introduction to the social role of words occurs while he is a young child. He notes that he "stumbled" in his attempts to understand the difference between black and white. While he later recognizes that these terms determine almost every aspect of life in the United States, he is unable, as a child, to connect the societal definition of the word "white" with his own perceptions, since his grandmother "was as 'white' as any white person." From this point on, Wright becomes aware that much of the language around him contains a code—one that puzzles him. Since he senses that there is an entire realm of awareness that is being hidden from him, he continually questions his mother about this. However, her answers do not satisfy him. "She was not concealing facts, but feelings, attitudes, connections which she did not want me to know." Gradually, of course, Wright becomes fully aware of the dangers that may befall a young black male in the world in which he lives. As a series of racial conflicts erupts throughout the United States in the years following World War I, he is necessarily exposed to many stories of the atrocities that have taken place. Eventually, as a result of this, he notes that an uncomfortable tension would set in at the mere mention of "whites."
"His first attempt at writing his own fiction, an adventure called The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre, springs up in three days out of his eighth- grade dreams and fantasies."
This reaction occurs even when Wright's activities are relatively remote from daily contact with white society. Once he begins to work, he discovers that he is in constant turmoil trying to behave in the expected manner. He is quickly fired from one of his first jobs, at a clothing store, because he can't "laugh and talk like the other niggers." He continually has to move on to a new job because his employers are threatened by his speech and by his way of looking at them. While his words are "innocent" by themselves, they indicate an awareness that continually infuriates the white people he encounters. Wright describes this inability to conform to the stereotype demanded by the world around him, saying that while he recognizes that white people are expecting him to behave in what is a clearly established manner, he finds that their speech and behaviors are "baffling signs to me.… Mis-reading the reactions of whites around me made me say and do the wrong things … I could not make subservience an automatic part of my behavior." This meant that he was forced to carefully analyze every word and every action. Even then he frequently found himself saying one sentence too few or one too many.
Wright then becomes aware that most of the blacks he knows operate on two different levels. In actuality, they have learned two different vocabularies. They adopt the role in which society forces them into using one set of words and gestures, while at the same time they enjoy a private and often completely contrasting life and language among other blacks. Wright's friend Griggs reminds him that he will get killed if he doesn't learn to adapt to these rules of life in the South. Griggs continues by saying that he, also, hates white people, but he has learned never to let it be seen. While Wright understands the wisdom of this advice, he continually forgets to follow it. More importantly, he rebels against the limits that this type of life automatically sets, realizing that to accept these boundaries means that any aspirations to a richer and more unified existence would have to be abandoned.
A third group of incidents details the steps through which Wright develops a recognition of the power of language, not simply to convey emotions and feelings but to become a transforming element into a new way of thinking and living, a "gateway to a forbidden and enchanting land." As early as six, he describes himself as fascinated by words and stories. Although he is not yet in school, he borrows the books of children in the neighborhood. During this period, he demands that his mother read to him from newspapers and any other available source. Even at this age, his hunger for words has begun. However, it is not until he meets Ella, the school-teacher who is living with his grandmother, that he first gets a sense of the enormous potential for fiction to enrich his life. In spite of the fact that his grandmother views secular books as sinful, he eventually convinces Ella to read one of her novels to him. The tale of Bluebeard and His Seven Wives immediately enthralls him. Wright vividly describes how the story grasped his imagination, as "reality changed" and "my sense of life deepened." Even when his grandmother interrupts the session and forbids him to have anything more to do with books, he is unable to stop, sensing that somehow reading is essential to his spirit.
Several other events also reveal Wright's growing sensitivity to words and ideas. He tells of his emotional response to the symbolism of the religion that his grandmother pushes upon him, although he is unable to adhere to its teachings intellectually. His first attempt at writing his own fiction, an adventure called The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre, springs up in three days out of his eighth-grade dreams and fantasies. While the story is interesting enough to be published in the neighborhood newspaper, Wright does not receive any encouragement from his family or his friends. Instead, his grandmother calls it the devil's work, while his classmates view him with suspicion for behavior that is inexplicable to them. Later, when he is selected as valedictorian for his ninth-grade graduation, he refuses to deliver the speech that the principal has written for him. Although he agrees that his own manuscript is more poorly composed, he resists all threats and pleas to change his mind because, for all its weaknesses, his speech contains a message while the principal's is made up of pretty but empty words. The accumulation of these incidents begins to stimulate his dreams of going north and becoming a writer.
It is not until the end of the first part of the autobiography, however, that Wright fully recognizes the power of language. When he reads a virulent denunciation of the writer H. L. Mencken in the newspaper, he contrives an elaborate scheme to get access to Mencken's work. It is a revelation to him when he discovers that Mencken is attacking society with "words as a weapon." This experience reminds him of the passion he had previously experienced when he was reading and writing. His hunger for literature is reborn and he begins reading as frequently as he can; in fact, he refers to reading as a drug. The revelations he receives are as often devastating as they are informative or pleasurable. While he becomes more fully aware of the possibilities the world might hold, he is also made even more conscious of the barriers around him. He begins to fully realize the hostility of the Southern culture, recognizing now that his goals have set him in direct conflict with the expectations of the society around him.
"I was building up a dream in me which the entire educational system in the South has been rigged to stifle. I was feeling the very thing that the state of Mississippi has spent millions of dollars to make sure that I never would feel; I was becoming aware of the thing that the Jim Crow laws had been drafted and passed to keep out of my consciousness."
The first section of the autobiography ends with Wright returning his borrowed library card and beginning his trip to Chicago. However, once he is there, he discovers no promised land. Instead, his struggle continues as he searches to develop his potential as a writer while adjusting to the confusing and contradictory demands of both family and society.
Mary Mahony, Critical Essay on Black Boy, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Dykema-VanderArk is a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University. In the following essay, he examines the autobiographical nature of Wright's Black Boy and how it shows Wright's belief in "the influence of environment on a person's actions and attitudes."
Richard Wright's reputation as one of the most influential figures in the tradition of African-American literature rests on two works in particular, his best-selling novel, Native Son (1940), and his autobiography, Black Boy (1945). In Native Son, Wright depicts in graphic physical and psychological detail the realities of a young black man's life under the pressures of a racist environment. In Black Boy, one might say that Wright turns the novelist's gaze to his own life, providing (as his subtitle indicates) "A Record of Childhood and Youth" that is at once informative as a historical account and gripping in the way a novel can be. Blurring the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, Wright dramatizes various scenes from his early life, recreates dialogue that he could not possibly recall, and incorporates sections of poetic rumination that resemble haiku—but none of these inventions challenges the force and eloquence of Wright's truth-telling in Black Boy. Wright uses his autobiography not only to recount significant experiences in his life but also to record his emotional and psychological reactions to those experiences, his intellectual awakening, his "hunger" for a meaningful life, and his condemnation of American racism. In his attempt to capture the significance of his own life, both for himself and for the reader, Wright creates in Black Boy a profoundly moving "record" of his remarkable life.
Because one of Richard Wright's primary interests in all of his writing is the influence of environment on a person's actions and attitudes, it is not surprising that he begins his own story by portraying the family environment of his childhood. His mother's injunction in the opening scene that Richard "keep quiet" and his father's similar demand in a following scene suggest, in one small way, the limits that were placed on his life within the family. His response in both cases—first, "accidentally" starting the house on fire, and second, killing a noisy kitten—attest to Richard's desire, even as a young child, to express his feelings and assert his presence in his family in strong terms. Richard's responses unsettle the reader because they seem excessive, out of proportion to the situations he is in. But the scene establishes two themes that run through the whole of Black Boy: First, that many things in Richard's Southern environment are in fact excessive, often dangerously and violently so; and second, that Richard will go to great lengths to resist limitations placed on him and to find some means of self-expression.
These opening scenes also portray the tensions that Richard feels within his family, the psychological distance that exists between them even when living close together in cramped quarters. Richard sees his father as "the lawgiver in our family," someone whose very presence stifles his voice and laughter, and someone who remains "a stranger … always somehow alien and remote." After his father deserts the family, Richard associates him with the "pangs of hunger" he feels, hating him with "a deep biological bitterness." Richard's distance from his mother results not from abandonment but from her illness. It is because of his mother's sickness that Richard must stay in the orphanage and later with various relatives, and after she suffers a severe stroke he feels absolutely alone in the world, unable any longer to "feel" or "react as a child." Eventually, his mother's affliction becomes a powerful symbol in Richard's mind, producing a "somberness of spirit" that sets him apart from other people and inspiring "a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering."
This outlook shapes Richard's view of his Grandmother's religious belief, which he finds a poor substitute for his own rootedness in the hard realities of life. Although he responds to the drama and the emotion of the church service and its religious symbols, he rejects entirely its "cosmic threats" of damnation and develops "a callousness toward all metaphysical preachments." Richard rejects religion in part because it finds otherworldly causes and solutions for the real-world suffering that he cannot escape. He believes that the religion of his Aunt Addie and Granny leads people to ignore or accept passively the pain of their lives. Even the schoolkids he meets at his Aunt's religious school seem to live flattened-out lives, almost as if they were mentally and emotionally impaired by their religion: "These boys and girls were will-less, their speech flat, their gestures vague, their personalities devoid of anger, hope, laughter, enthusiasm, passion, or despair." Religion can also be coercive, Richard realizes, as when he is "trapped" by his mother and the entire community of her church into joining the church—or, as he puts it, into giving "the sign of allegiance" to the "tribe."
Richard understands the desire behind religious belief—as he puts it, "the hunger of the human heart for that which is not and can never be"—but his grandmother's religion offers nothing to satisfy his own "hunger," just as her sparse fare at home leaves him physically hungry to the point of sickness. What he doesn't find in religion Richard seeks elsewhere, and his "hunger" for something beyond mere food becomes a dominant motif throughout Black Boy. Of course, real, painful physical hunger haunts Richard at every turn, and six-year-old Richard's innocent thought—"Why could I not eat when I was hungry?"—lingers as an unanswered question throughout his narrative. Wright clearly wants the reader of Black Boy to feel Richard's "biting hunger, hunger that made my body aimlessly restless, hunger that kept me on edge," and to ask "why?" along with him. Physical hunger also causes considerable psychic suffering in Richard's life, as a sign of punishment at the orphanage, as a symbol of his father's desertion, and as a barrier between him and friends at school. But Richard also depicts ways in which deeper longings, more significant to him than physical need, define his experience of life.
At times these longings point to something healthy and positive in Richard's character, as when he senses "a new hunger" before he leaves the South for Chicago. This hunger inspires Richard's strong sense of self-reliance, his unwillingness to betray his deepest feelings, and his refusal to "surrender to what seemed wrong." But Richard also describes the longing he feels as hurtful and damaging to his personality. "Again and again," he writes, "I vowed that someday I would end this hunger of mine, this apartness, this eternal difference." Here and elsewhere Richard's hunger becomes a symbol not of his positive yearning but of his isolation and loneliness, his sense of exclusion from the world around him.
Richard doesn't always understand his sense of "eternal difference" from those around him, and clearly his temperament, his learning, and his willful separation from community institutions such as the church all play a part in his "apartness." But as he grows up, Richard increasingly sees that the racist environment of the South creates and sustains his feeling of exclusion. Richard's attitudes toward white people begin to form early on, when, for example, he watches from the kitchen as a white family eats from a "loaded table" while he and his brother wait for whatever food is leftover. Though at the time he feels only "vaguely angry" and decidedly hungry, such experiences eventually convince Richard that "white folks" are in some way responsible for his exclusion from literacy and education, from knowledge of the wider world, from justice and equality, from possibilities in life, even from meaningful relationships with other people. In his fight with Harrison, Richard realizes that the power of white people to limit his life even extends to his relationships with his black peers. He fights Harrison against his will, beating up another oppressed "black boy"—and himself—because he cannot express his shame, anger, and hatred directly to the white men responsible for his feelings.
"In a racist society that wants him to be content with his spiritual as well as his physical hunger, Richard finally finds 'vague glimpses of life's possibilities' only in literacy, reading, and writing."
In a racist society that wants him to be content with his spiritual as well as his physical hunger, Richard finally finds "vague glimpses of life's possibilities" only in literacy, reading, and writing. He realizes at a young age that in order to lay bare the secrets of the world around him, he must understand "the baffling black print" that he sees in the school children's books. When he does learn to read, Richard uses his ability to probe into "every happening in the neighborhood," and this includes the realities of racial prejudice and hatred. When he hears that "a 'black' boy had been severely beaten by a 'white' man," he interrogates his mother about the difference between "black" and "white," words whose full significance he cannot yet grasp. At the same time, reading stories of "outlandish exploits of outlandish men in faraway, outlandish cities" gives Richard access to an imaginary world beyond his own. When he is older, Richard's reading opens his eyes to "new ways of looking and seeing" that "made the look of the world different" and let him imagine his life under different circumstances. Richard eventually recognizes that the social system of the South strives to keep black Americans from just such ways of thinking. Thus, Richard must lie about being able to read in order to check out books with a white man's library card, and he carries his new-found knowledge with him like "a secret, criminal burden." In the end, Richard's reading and his writing do not merely open his eyes to the realities of his life in the South but also create "a vast sense of distance" between him and that world, motivating him to leave it forever.
Wright's record of his experiences after his move to the North did not appear in the initial publication of Black Boy, though it was part of his original manuscript. (In order to see his work published by the Book of the Month Club, Wright had to agree to print a shortened version that concludes with his flight from the South.) What Richard finds in Chicago is not, by any means, an environment free from the racism of the South but rather a more "perplexing" situation in certain ways. Wright discovers that while whites and blacks in the North may view each other as merely "part of the city landscape," this nonchalance only masks a great "psychological distance" between the races. Many of the themes he develops in the first part of his narrative reemerge in the latter part, including his feelings of emotional isolation from other people, his sense of the psychological damage caused by race—prejudice and hatred, and his hunger for knowledge and understanding of the world and of himself. But more importantly, just as reading and writing alone offer Richard both a source information about his environment and a means of escape from it, Wright seeks meaning and purpose in the North by way of books and the pen. He concludes his original version of Black Boy, significantly, not with the resolution of his deep hungers or the healing of his psychic wounds but with a vow to write—to "look squarely" at his life, to "build a bridge of words" between him and the world, to "hurl words into this darkness" that surrounds him. This, in a sense, is what Wright does in Black Boy, creating from words a "Record of Childhood and Youth" that speaks to all readers of that which is "inexpressibly human," "the hunger for life that gnaws in us all."
Anthony Dykema-VanderArk, Critical Essay on Black Boy, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Bone, Robert A., The Negro Novel in America, rev. ed., Yale University Press, 1965, pp. 141-52.
Ellison, Ralph, "Richard Wright's Blues," in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan, Modern Library, 1995, pp. 128-44.
Graham, Maryemma, and Jerry W. Ward Jr., " Black Boy (American Hunger): Freedom to Remember," in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Less Burress, and John M. Kean, Scarecrow Press, 1993, pp. 109-16.
Lewis, Sinclair, Review in Esquire, June 23, 1945.
Margolies, Edward, The Art of Richard Wright, 1969.
Sanders, Ronald, "Richard Wright and the Sixties," in Midstream, Vol. XIV, No. 7, August/September 1968, pp. 28-40.
Stephens, Martha, "Richard Wright's Fiction: A Reassessment," in Georgia Review, 1971, pp. 450-70.
Trilling, Lionel, Review in Nation, April 7, 1945.
Whitlow, Roger, "Chapter 4: 1940-1960: Urban Realism and Beyond" in Black American Literature: A Critical History, Nelson Hall, 1973, pp. 107-46.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Richard Wright, Modern Critical Views, Chelsea, 1987.
This collection of essays on all of Wright's work includes an analysis of Black Boy's place in the black literary tradition.
Clark, Edward D., "Richard Wright," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 76: Afro-American Writers, 1940-1955, Gale Research, 1988, pp. 199-221.
Clark describes Wright's position in the history of American literature as that of a father to the post-World War II black novel.
Ellison, Ralph, "The World and the Jug," in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan, Modern Library, 1995, pp. 155-88.
In this essay, Ellison makes a powerful rejoinder to Irving Howe's commentary in "Black Boys and Native Sons."
Fabre, Michel, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, William Morrow, 1973.
This lengthy biography, translated from French, evaluates Wright as a "representative man" and an important spokesperson of his age.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds., Richard Wright: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, Amistad, 1993.
This collection of critical essays on Wright's work, written with knowledge of the untruncated version, includes an essay by Horace A. Porter exploring in greater depth the similarity of Richard and Stephen Dedalus.
Gibson, Donald B., "Richard Wright: Aspects of His Afro-American Literary Relations," in Critical Essays on Richard Wright, edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani, G. K. Hall, 1982.
Gibson examines why Wright's work is "so clearly distinguished" from other literature by black authors, comparing Wright in particular to Charles Chesnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Howe, Irving, "Black Boys and Native Sons," in A World More Attractive, Horizon, 1963.
Howe's well-known essay examines and compares the element of "protest" in the works of Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison.
Ray, David, and Robert M. Farnsworth, Richard Wright: Impressions and Perspectives, University of Michigan Press, 1971.
This unique collection of writings by and about Wright includes personal impressions, reminiscences, and correspondence.
Reilly, John M., ed., Richard Wright: The Critical Reception, Burt Franklin, 1978.
This overview of original critical responses to Wright's work includes excerpts of more than sixty early reviews of Black Boy.
Smith, Sidonie Ann, "Richard Wright's Black Boy: The Creative Impulse as Rebellion," in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. V, No. 1, Fall 1972, pp. 123-36.
In this essay, Smith presents Wright's autobiography as a slave narrative because of the commonalities of themes that the novel has with such pre-Civil War accounts.
Wright, Ellen, and Michel Fabre, eds., Richard Wright Reader, Harper and Row, 1978.
This collection of some of Wright's best writings includes excerpts from his fiction, poetry, essays, and criticism.