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Richard Wright’s Black Boy



Black Boy is a memoir by the great African-American author, Richard Wright, detailing his own upbringing. Wright describes his youth in the South: Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee, and his eventual move North to Chicago, where he establishes his writing career.

Richard Wright’s Black Boy is important to students of African-American literature and history as it picks the former American slave narratives story from where slave time narratives like that of Frederick Douglas leaves it. That makes Black Boy one of the key novels about black people’s series of predicaments after slavery and emancipation in the US.

Black Boy tends to suggest that after emancipation, slavery does not really end but it actually enters a new and more subtle phase.

Published in 1945, Black Boy has been called an autobiography and Richard Wright is on record confirming that this novel was his own fictionalised history. African American literature has tended to be autobiographical, capturing the lives of specific slaves or former slaves on their rough and tough road to freedom.

Black Boy is supposedly narrated by the author, Richard Wright, and tells the story of his life from early childhood to about age twenty-nine. As the text is written as a stylised memoir, the narrator always speaks in the first person point of view.

Although he occasionally speculates as to what another character thinks or feels, those speculations are always conditioned by the fact that the narrator is a real historical figure with limited knowledge.

Black Boy is easier understood when properly placed in the period that it is set; the post slave American society from 1900 to around 1920 of the South. The emancipation of the first American slave in the 1860’s caused celebration which was however short-lived. The former slaves had no land, no resources, no education and no adequate industrial skills.

The former slaves were excited and they flocked northwards. This became the archetypal journey as the North represented freedom, industry and modernity. For decades, the very few slaves who had managed to escape slavery had gone northwards. But the North was still part of racist American society and was no paradise. In this period the alternatives available to the freed slaves were baffling and for decades, they had to live with them.

There was the issue called share cropping; a situation where the freed slave got a portion of land from his former master to till. At harvest, they would share the proceeds with the master. This could be deeper and more complex exploitation than slavery itself. The image of Richard’s father standing in such a field dramatises the futility of sharecropping.

The passage reads: “I was to see him again, standing alone upon the red clay of a Mississippi plantation, a sharecropper, clad in ragged overalls, holding a mud in his gnarled, veined hands…I stood before him, poised, my mind aching as it embraced the simple nakedness of his life, feeling how completely his soul was imprisoned by the slow flow of the seasons, by wind and rain and sun, how fastened were his memories to a crude and raw past, how chained were his actions and emotions to the direct, animalistic impulses of his withering body.”

There was also the option for the former slave to go North. This was fantastic but the reality as seen through the escapades of Richard’s family, could be an exercise in futility. Either one got exploited in the industrial North or became a criminal or a prostitute.

As shown in Black Boy, there was also the Jim Crow matter to consider if you were black. Emancipation of the slaves in 1863 angered the defeated whites of the South who had benefitted immensely from slave labour. One of the white judges called Jim Crow, drafted laws that pretended to define the rights of the freed slaves and yet these laws limited the freedom of the former slaves.

For example, no blacks were allowed in white places. Blacks were not supposed to vote until further notice. It took up to the Second World War before blacks could vote in America. Blacks could not secure the same seats and carriages with the whites on the buses and trains.

These became normal American practices up to the 1960’s when they were abolished through the civil rights movements led by Correta Scott, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and others. Jim Crow issue shows that emancipation was only a historic political step which however did not provide permanent legal basis. Abraham Lincoln who had championed emancipation died soon after emancipation.

As shown in Black Boy, there was also the matter of the Ku-Klux clans which terrified former slaves. These were conservative militant armies of whites who used hit and run techniques to harass and eliminate successful black business men and women, educated blacks and the black leadership whom they considered cheeky.

These white on black attacks were called lynching. Lynching involved killing in cold blood, shooting, hangings, mutilations and savage horse-whipping of blacks. The case of Uncle Harrison in Black Boy is a case in point.

As shown through the novel, there were various ways in which blacks responded to these challenges. There was accommodationism, which was thinking amongst some blacks that; if they were to progress at all, they would accommodate the racist circumstances and by all means try to survive.

Richard’s friend, Griggs would neatly fit into this, especially his advice, “Learn how to live in the South.” Richard’s contemporary, Shorty, may also fit into this group as he tended to invite white people to give him a kick in the buttocks, for a fee.

He sometimes intentionally played the fool to amuse white people and get paid. There is also Harrison who would enact and set up fights between black men in search of some money to buy a suit.

Accommodationism ties up with the thinking of Booker T Washington in his book, Up From Slavery, in which he argues that as blacks, they needed “to cast our buckets where we are.” Such blacks were often called Uncle Tom, in reference to the archetypal character Uncle Tom in Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Another response to the challenge of the times was separatism. This was thinking amongst radical blacks in the US, like, the iconic Du-Bois, that the black community had rather develop quickly and separately. By this theory, the black community could embark on the talented tenth project whereby the best should become professionals such as teachers, lawyers, doctors and politicians, as a way of making effective scores in the black community.

Another method of responding to the times was militarism. This was championed by Marcus Garvey and later, by Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. The black community had such people who felt that they would rather fight back by all means necessary in order to be recognised. It seems that Richard Wright borrowed tenets from this group. He learnt to hit back both in the family and outside.

In Black Boy, he stands up to Auntie Addie, Uncle Tom and the bullies at every new school that he went to.
In his other novel, Native Son, Richard Wright’s character, Bigger Thomas, tries to fight the American system single handed and the system cages him. Wright’s major critic and fellow writer,

James Baldwin, felt that Wright had taken an action that was futile. In one essay he attacks Wright and entitles the essay, “Ah, poor Richard.”
The characters in Richard’s family are also archetypes of black characters after emancipation. The constant migration of members of the black family around the South and sometimes into the

North is typical of the black family at the time. The black family has no anchor. Richard’s father, brother, mother, Auntie Addy, Uncle Tom and Uncle Clark, are in constant quest for a comfortable job and base with little or no success at all.

As shown in the novel, the work place and many other institutions in the South are extremely racist and derive a lot of anti-black attitudes from slavery. The stock statements are as follows:

“Nigger, what in hell are you looking at?” and “If I was a nigger, I’d kill myself.”

When seen from afar, Grandpa is sharp, active fierce and all knowing. But seen from close by, he is pathetic and henpecked. He is the first generation of former slaves. When the civil war breaks out, he escapes from his master in the South to fight on the side of the Northern soldiers who were against slavery.

He is wounded in this war but he never receives his disability pension because his name had been misspelt. In their books, there is the name Richard Vinson instead of Richard Wilson. He keeps a loaded gun by his bed, as he believes that civil war hostilities could resurface at any moment.

Grandmother is permanently angry with the world. This is seen through her savage blows at Richard at the slightest provocation. One day, she misses Richard with a blow and the inertia from it fatally downs her. Richard had childishly requested that she wipes his anus as she is bathing him! He also tells her that when she is done she could kiss him “back there.”

That unfortunate request reminds grandmother of slavery and her own unfortunate conditions. She has a kind of permanent grudge against the system that ranks her amongst the blacks when she is near white. In the American system, anyone with a drop of black blood is considered black.

The dialogue between Richard and her mother about Granny’s colour is both amusing and telling. She is clearly in Frederick Douglas dilemma where one’s white father rapes a slave but does not claim the child into masterhood. In her helplessness, grandmother throws herself into Christianity.

Ironically she thinks that Richard is inherently sinful.
Ella, Richard’s mother is defined by her infirmity which is a symbol of a deprived black woman in the South, who is destined to struggle without success. That her husband leaves her so easily is typical of African-American women who remain behind to raise children in the absence of their father.

Ella is strict and pious but she harbours, like her mother, some frustrated anger. As the novel begins, she comes close to murdering Richard for causing a fire that nearly guts down the house.

Richard’s father, Nathan is physically intimidating and frequently beats Richard. He abandons his family and proves to have no any long standing attachment to anyone. He is constantly wandering across the South.

Ella’s siblings; Auntie Addie, Uncle Tom and Uncle Clark, are best remembered for the phrase “Come here, Richard” and their regular physical assault on Richard. You can see that they do so as a way of venting their fury. They are frustrated by a community that does not offer them equal opportunities.

Richard’s hunger shows that Black Boy is a story about a long life’s struggle with hunger in its various forms. Richard hungers for food, acceptance, love and knowledge. As a boy, there is never enough to eat in the house.

He begins to associate his hunger with his father’s absence. He associates good food with the white people for whom his mother works. When he visits Auntie Maggie, the mere presence of abundant food almost shocks Richard to death. Richard’s hunger is synonymous with the hunger of the black people in the South.

In fact, the title of the novel was originally named American Hunger until it was changed to Black Boy a year later. Richard says about his hunger: “Hunger had always been more or less at my elbow when I played but now I began to wake up at night to find hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly.”

Richard is deeply individual and he expresses a desire to join the society on his own terms rather than be formed into categories that the white society wishes him to fill in. He struggles against a dorminant white culture both in the South and the North. He is even against the black culture of subservience which is a carryover from slavery. However, neither white nor black culture knows how to handle a strong willed and self respecting man like Richard. He rejects the call to blindly conform.

Through the story in Black Boy, Richard Wright demonstrates that he learns to grow up, violently, from being an ordinary black boy, to being a free man.

Memory Chirere

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