Wright, Richard. Black Boy.
(by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.)
The first edition of the novel (1945) is a classic autobiography of a young man's coming of age and his journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. The novel reinforces the belief that South was a socially unreconstructed region where blacks who asserted their basic human rights invited retribution or death.
American Hunger (1977), the unused portion of the original manuscript, reveals the author's recognition that the Promised Land in America was nowhere. American Hunger describes the author's experience of the North as variations of what was happening to him in the South. Black Boy belongs to the tradition of blues, while American Hunger moves towards a jazz mode; in other words, it is a movement from optimism to tested knowledge.
All of Wright's work is determined by autobiographical impulses. He is preoccupied with the motif of hunger: as a young boy he suffers physical hunger and identifies the absence of food with the absence of father; when gaining financial security after the publication of Native Son (1940), he suffers spiritual hunger, which for him is implacable. He does not assume the position of a distanced narrator, he acts rather as a brother in suffering who has the strength to speak.
The aim of Wright's writing is not to scandalize or blaspheme, but simply to illuminate the obscenity of excluding blacks from full participation in democracy. He subverts the discourse of the dominant culture and brings it under the terms of his own control (in Black Boy, this is manifested e.g. in his strategy for borrowing books from a segregated library). Wright names the lie of democratic theories of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and shows that they are often replaced by death, unfreedom and the flight from despair. His work is a critique of American optimism betrayed and a deconstruction of the myth.
"Part One: Southern Night"
Wright offers a retrospective account of his life, starting at the age of four. His grandmother lies ill and Richard must keep quiet. Not realizing the consequences, he puts curtains in the house on fire. The house burns down. The family moves to a tenement in Memphis and soon afterwards his father abandons them. Richard is taught by his mother to fight against boys who attack him. He develops an early interest in learning to read, write and count. Unable to support Richard and his brother on her own, his mother places Richard in an orphan home. At the age of six, he is a problematic child who defies authorities, enjoys his newly gained literacy by writing four-letter words on shop windows and finally he runs away from the hated orphan house.
The family moves to Richard's aunt living in Elaine, Arkansas. On their way, they stop by the grandmother in Jackson, Mississippi. The grandmother is relatively well off. She is of mixed origin, but chiefly white. Her husband is chiefly black. Richard learns that there are differences between whites and black when travelling in separated compartments in a train. Aunt Maggie and her husband Hoskins are even better off than the grandmother.
At the age of nine, Richard moves house again. Uncle Hoskins is shot to death by white men and the family repairs back to the grandmother. Later the family returns to West Helena because the mother gets tired of the strict religious routine in the grandmother's house. Aunt Maggie gets involved with a mysterious "uncle", probably a social and political activist, who is eventually forced to flee from persecution. There is unrest, lynching and fear of whites.
Richard joins a children's gang and learns to hate whites and challenge them in street fights. His mother suffers a stroke and is bound to bed. His brother is sent to aunt Maggie to Detroit, and Richard is to stay with Uncle Clark and Aunt Jody in Greenwood, Mississippi. He does not get well along with neither his uncle nor aunt and returns to stay with his sick mother at his grandmother's. At the age of twelve, he has been in and out of school and never had one full year of formal education.
At his grandmother's, Richard is forced to obey the discipline of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church whose ardent member his grandmother is. The family spends much money on trying to regain health for the mother, but she does not recover, and the family suffers from hunger. Richard attends a religious school, but has no religious sentiments at all, much to the despair of his grandmother. After a year at the church school, his grandmother gives him up for lost and sends him to a public school.
Richard starts selling a newspaper to feed himself, but on being told that the newspapers spreads racist ideas of the Ku Klux Klan, he gives up the job. Later he obtains a job of reading and counting for an illiterate man who sells insurance. Richard studies hard at school and supports the family with what he earns. Then he starts serving in a white family and his results at school decline because of the demanding job. Facing emotional blackmailing by the priest in a black Protestant church, he receives his baptism to please his mother.
At the age of fifteen, Richard both attends school and works in various odd jobs. His dream is to become a writer and he eventually gets a story published in a local paper. When seventeen, Richard finishes his ninth grade. He is offered to hold a graduation speech written by the principal, but he refuses, having written his own speech. Richard is too proud to accept the principal's speech, though he knows his action cuts him off from a teaching career which his school's principal could have enabled him.
Richard hopes to get to use his education, but he is allowed to do manual work only, this being supposedly the only proper occupation for a black man. Facing abuse, exploitation and humiliation in his jobs, he seeks to escape to the North. He goes through a variety of odd jobs to earn enough to be able to leave the South, but is unable to accept the subservience expected in blacks by white employees. He eventually gets involved with crime, stealing in his job and making a burglary in a shop, which however makes him able to head off for the North immediately.
When seventeen, Richard leaves his home. He finds himself a lodging and a job in Memphis, Tennessee, and supports his mother and family with what he earns. He is pursued by Bess, the daughter of his landlady, who thinks him a nice and decent man which is enough for her to wish to marry him instantly. Obtaining a permanent job in an optical factory, he persuades his white fellow worker to lend him his library card. First he reads A Book of Prefaces and Prejudices by H. L. Mencken about whom he has read an indicting article in a newspaper, then he reads more books. His mother and brother arrive to join him and they prepare themselves to leave for Chicago.
"Part Two: The Horror and the Glory"
When Richard is nineteen, he moves with his mother, brother and Aunt Maggie to Chicago. Richard is depressed by the coldness of the city, by its strange language and by the realization that blacks are not welcome in the North either. They may not face open violence, but a sense of thread pervades the air nonetheless. Richard finds himself a job, reads frantically (e.g. Gertrude Stein's Three Lives) and prepares himself for a writing career. He uses black dialect to convey the experience of blacks as he envisions it.
There comes the year 1929 and the Depression. To earn his living, Richard now works as an insurance salesman and is forced to cheat on his customers. As the Depression deepens, Richard must overcome his shame and use one of relief stations newly opened in the city to be able to feed his mother. Richard gets a work in a medical institution, his job is to care for the laboratory animals, not to bother doctors with questions about their research and not to mingle with white people.
Communism spreads. Richard does not incline towards its politics, but he is fascinated by the possibility of human communion. For him, involvement with left-wing magazines (e.g. the Masses) means a way to get published. He is labelled as an intellectual by his fellow Negro Communists and is therefore a subject to mistrust. He keeps on writing and publishes the story Big Boy Leaves Home, which is concerned with the question of black man's dignity. He is asked by the party to produce political pamphlets, but he refuses because this would interfere with his novel in progress. It is the year 1935 and the Party is torn by internal fractions. Forced to choose between politics and art, he chooses writing and quits the Party.
Richard works for a black theatre. On finding out that the actors refuse to play realistic drama because it might offend the audience, he quits the job. On May Day 1936, Richard joins the public procession of the Communist Party, but is assaulted by its members who call him a Trotskyite. The procession goes on and Richard returns home, discarding all what was yet remaining of his sympathies for the Communist ideals.
AuthorRichard Wright. (1908 - 1960).
Full TitleBlack Boy. A Record of Childhood and Youth.
First PublishedNY: Harper & Brothers, 1945.
Ward, Jerry W., Jr. "Introduction to Black Boy". Black Boy. NY: HarperPerennial, 1998.
Wright, Richard. Black Boy. (1945). NY: HarperPerennial, 1998.