Black Boy by Richard Wright
I had to explain to my mother what a blog is this morning. I told here it’s like a journal or diary that people write online instead of on paper. She didn’t seem to understand why somebody would want to do that. I also explained to her that people use blogs for a variety of reasons, not just to post their personal business. Like mine, for example, I only talk about books. She seemed comfortable with that, but I guess today’s introduction crosses the line. Ok, so I let you all in on some personal information, I have a mother.
Inspired by the book, I asked her what life was like during the 50s and 60s. She went on to tell me about how she wore her hair, why she raised me the way she did, and what she was doing in 1964 when MLK was shot. She didn’t know if any of her ancestors were slaves. Couldn’t even recall any family history beyond her grandmother.
So I finished Black Boy yesterday, mostly while sitting in the beauty shop. I always find it strange that certain women don’t read books or magazines while they wait for their spin in the chair. How can you sit under the dryer for nearly an hour just staring through a wall? Or even watching as kinks and waves turn to silk? I don’t get it. Reading helps me pin down some of the anger I feel concerning the 4-5 hours it takes for them to rotate through the various hair-dos before finally finishing mine. When my boyfriend called yesterday he questioned whether the frustration/anger he sensed in my voice came from Black Boy or some other reason. When I told him I was at the beauty shop he chuckled, letting me know I need say no more.
Book: Black Boy by Richard Wright
Publisher: Perennial Classics edition published 1998 (1944 orginal publishing)
Previous Titles: Black Confession & American Hunger
Pages: 384 (With chronology and notes – 419)
Opening Lines: One winter morning in the long-ago, four-year-old days of my life I found myself standing before a fireplace, warming my hands over a mound of glowing coals, listening to the wind whistle past the house outside. All morning my mother had been scolding me, telling me to keep still, warning me that I must make no noise.
Publisher’s Description: Richard Wright grew up in the woods of Mississippi amid poverty, hunger, fear, and hatred. He lied, stole, and raged at those around him; at six he was a “drunkard,” hanging about in taverns. Surly, brutal, cold, suspicious, and self-pitying, he was surrounded on one side by whites who were either indifferent to him, pitying, or cruel, and on the other by blacks who resented anyone trying to rise above the common lot.
Black Boy is Richard Wright’s powerful account of his journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. It is at once an unashamed confession and a profound indictment—a poignant and disturbing record of social injustice and human suffering.
Reason book was selected: I noticed a student reading the novel at school (i.e. my job) and was inspired to read it myself. Since that time she’s gone on to complete Native Son.
Cover Art: Out of all the covers featured above, the one that does not work for me is the first selection. For starters, the artist/publisher depicted a modern city bus scene. Even the featured time period is incorrect for this book.
The Good: After reading this autobiography, I found myself curious to learn more about other African-Americans who lived in the south during the Jim Crow era. I also wondered what other black writers biographies would teach me. It was interesting witnessing Wright attempt to fit into the constraints of how society wanted a “black boy” to behave, talk, think, and act. Even when Wright felt he had mastered this role, sometimes with the assistance of other blacks, nobody ever appeared satisfied. I don’t know why, but I expected blacks to encourage Wright’s aspirations. Instead, everyone pulled him down. After reading about several incidents where he was forced to verbally/physically fight family members, I began to wonder what their true opinions were about the situations he described. Was he always truly that innocent? Did they always just happen to misunderstand the words he expressed? What things had he done that weren’t mentioned in the book that maybe these family members held against him? How did these incidents effect how they felt about his words/actions in other situations?
Like Wright when he makes it north, I believe that the reader is fooled into believing that things will actually get better for him. Interestingly enough, Wright is so brainwashed by the “yessuh” roles he had to play in the south that it’s difficult for him to step away from it. Even during moments where he could possibly trust whites, he thouroughly questions their motives and actions in his mind.
The Bad: Page after page it was hard for me to swallow the fact that not only did Whites expect for Wright to play his role, but his own people encouraged him to do the same. When he published a short story, black people in his own community expressed their negative religious and racist thoughts. When he couldn’t hold down a job, black people in his own community instructed him on what he was doing wrong and how to better please da white folks. Even when Wright escaped to Chicago, blacks in the Communist party had issues with him, supposedly insulting him by calling him an “intellectual.”
Although I’ve read several analyses stating that Wright joined the Communist party because he thought it would help uplift his community, change America for the better even–I simply have to disagree. Maybe Wright even convinced himself that he was joining for these reasons. In my opinion, Wright selfishly joined so that he could promote his own writing. Sure he claimed that his stories would shed some light on Communist beliefs, but in the end it was still his name and his writing attached to those stories. Wright seemed to use the Communist party as a platform for his own talent and future publishing endevours.
The Ugly: Part Two: The Horror and the Glory just wasn’t that interesting. Sometimes Wright’s insight on the world around him was too much. The Communist meetings and issues surrounding his membership seemed to drag on. By the time I pushed myself to the final page, I couldn’t help but close my eyes and go to sleep (although I did dream about some of the things I read).
What was up with Wright’s brother Alan? At one point, Wright’s mother becomes sick and the brothers are forced to live with family members in other cities. When his brother returns home, Wright mentions that they weren’t close since his brother adopted negative thoughts about him from other family members. But I mean, dang. Can Alan get a little dialogue? Can we find out what jobs he worked and how his life may have been different. Did he like to read? Was he educated? I guess he’s lucky to get his name mentioned at all, huh? Even Wright’s mother…I mean, I understand she was sick and this wasn’t really her story, but I wanted to know more about what she was doing and thinking.
Favorite Part: Wright finds a job with a white family and is excited about the promise of having meals available to quench the constant hunger that lurks within. After finding unedible food on his plate, the white woman approaches him with an attitude, believing that he is the one that has nerve. The following scene picks up as she dumps part of the food he left into the trash.
“”What grade are you in school?”
“Then why are you going to school?” she asked in surprise.
“Well, I want to be a writer,” I mumbled, unsure of myself; I had not planned to tell her that, but she had made me feel so utterly wrong and of no account that I needed to bolster myself.
“A what?” she demanded.
“A writer,” I mumbled.
“To write stories,” I mumbled defensively.
“You’ll never be a writer,” she said. “Who on earth put such ideas into your nigger head?”
“Nobody,” I said.
“I didn’t think anybody ever would,” she declared indignantly.
As I walked around her house to the street, I knew that I would not go back. The woman had assaulted my ego; she had assumed that she knew my place in life, what I felt, what I ought to be, and I resented it with all my heart. Perhaps she was right; perhaps I would neve be a writer; but I did not want her to say so.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 (I am forced to deduct points for Part Two’s yawnable sections)