1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 26: Black Boy, by Richard Wright

Richard Wright’s autobiographical narrative, Black Boy is at time a labourious, but interesting and worthwhile read which details Wright’s almost tragically clichéd, even by contemporary standards, upbringing. An absent father, ill mother, a maternal grandmother handling much of the rearing, destitute and uneducated. These are themes which still plague contemporary Black culture. But Wright’s story is not one of complete dejected and submissiveness. It is one of longing to find a connection to the world around him and freedom from the shackles of life of a Black man in a capitalist systems drenched in bigotry and prejudice.

Wright is not entirely sympathetic throughout the narrative. In his early childhood he admittedly burnt his house down whilst allowing himself to be overcome by the curiosity of fire. He also hung a cat when his father had shouted at he and his brother to get rid of the cat, and both instances made it hard for me to empathize with Wright from the onset of the book. But as Wright continues and develops as a person, it becomes clear that there is something more to Wright. He is like a Depression Era Frederick Douglas in that educates himself and finds ways to learn in an abrasive, Southern environment that does whatever it can to keep Blacks uneducated. Wright witnesses first hand how the Whites do not want to see any advancements of Blacks when a man close to his family is lynched by Whites who were jealous of his successful liquor store.

The narrative is overwhelmingly depressing, and offers a snapshot of not just Black life, but working-class life. Mere dollars a week are split up to support, house, feed and clothe a family, and Wright fights through a perpetual war with starvation, whilst walking on a tight rope between the Whites around him, monitoring his behaviour so that he does not come across as anything other than appreciative and submissive for fear of being lynched or beat himself.

Eventually Wright does find his way to a northern city, and though much of his early adult life take place during the Depression, his personal finances seem to improve slightly upon his arrival to Chicago, though life is not without trials and poverty, but upon reading and taking an interest in politics, Wright finds himself a member of the communist party, and affiliation that would see Wright Black-Listed in Hollywood throughout the 50’s. He finds work through public arts programs and manages to get his writing career under way, despite a rift with the communist party who eventually ostracizes Wright and makes attempts both physical and economic to make him suffer for the paranoia that festered among the party.

In reading the absence of the narrative, there are things that become very clear. Wright seems, throughout the book, completely detached from those around him. His brother, for example, is mentioned throughout the book, but his name is not mentioned once, nor does Wright ever suggest that his brother is older or younger than he. Also absent, most notably at the communist party meetings, are women. Wright seems to be very much in tune with the Black “Man’s” struggle, but not so much with the struggle of Black women, and though he does mention some White women who have various secretarial jobs within the communist party, he never mentions a single woman, Black or White, taking on a role of importance. History tells us that the communist movement in the Depression era America did not move along very well and it is perhaps this absence of women that caused it to suffer its failure. Examining the civil rights movement in the 50’s and 60’s it is clear that Black women played a key role in organizing and participating in boycotts and protests. It is a flaw in Wright’s work that women were not included in the struggle for equality. I have only read two books by Wright, but in neither do Black women play a prominent role and often they are passive victims or enemies of progress. The absent of women and progress are a testament to the importance of the knocking down gender barriers. Women like Diane Nash and Ella Jo Baker important to the civil rights movement, and because the presence of such women are absent from Wright’s narrative, so is the progress that he desired to see. The patriarchal bias, though not explicitly embraced, is still ever present.

Up next: The History Of Mary Prince

If you like this, try:

Native Son, by Richard Wright: While his autobiographical work details many of the key aspect of the Black, working-class struggle, Wright’s fictional narrative, Native Son, it more calculated and articulate and seems to be sharper overall. It speaks to the social panopticon, and how false perceptions can serve to alter our reality and actions, and reminds me of Milton’s assessment that the mind is a world unto itself and can make a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell.

Narrative Of The Life Or Frederick Douglas: Among the slave narratives that I have read, none are more articulate than Douglas’s. There are parallels between Douglas and Wright, and while Douglas’s autobiographical work is much shorter, it is just a potent.

The Colour Purple: Curious about the Black struggle, but unimpressed with Wright’s gender bias? Try Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple, which focuses on the life of a Black woman from a rural community that streches from the 1920’s to the mid century.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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