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A Review of Richard Wright’s Black Boy

A Review Of Richard Wright’s Black Boy

There are a number of reasons to read Richard Wright’s Black Boy.[1] One is that it is a fascinating, well written autobiography of an American life. Another is that it is informative of the Black experience during the Jim Crow era in the American South in the early 20th century. Beyond that, Black Boy presents stories, and creates a mood, that will help anyone understand what “systemic” racism is, and appreciate what the corrosive effects are for a person who grows up in a deeply racist society.

As I re-read the book, after leaving it on the shelf for twenty five years, I also began to wonder if one evocative element of this work is that the reader is able to witness the birth and formation of a philosopher. The dawning of consciousness in the young Wright, and the formation of that consciousness through self-guided study and soulful reflection, calls to mind Plato’s myth of the cave, and the breathless moment when one turns miraculously from the shadows in search of the ground of all. Out of necessity, Wright searched out the heights and depths of being to the best of his ability, within the circumstances of his life. This necessity was both a calling and an instinctive response to the suffocating atmosphere of the Jim Crow South, one that could leave a man, as he saw his father, “imprisoned by the slow flow of the seasons,” with actions and emotions “chained…to the direct, animalistic impulses of his withering body.” [2] Wright’s search was centered on experience and reading, and was refined by his writing. Furthermore, he remained focused by the realization that next to the white people he knew with their superficial dealings with the problems of life, as people who “knew nothing of hate and fear,” that black people “lived a truer and deeper life.” [3] In other words, there were few distractions for Wright, including the temptation to become self-centered and forgetful of the broader issues, which could have derailed him from his passionate search for truth, and for “struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.” [4] With his growing comprehension of black life in America, however, there also came for Wright the realization that after centuries of living under restrictive and brutal circumstances, black people suffered from “crossed up feeling” and psychological pain. [5] Interestingly and not surprisingly, this realization drove Wright from philosophical inquiry to the role of prophet, the man who turns back to the proverbial cave and seeks to rescue his fellow prisoners who continue to exist in shadow.

Wright was born on a Mississippi plantation in 1908. He possessed not only an inquisitive mind, but a heart filled with enough pride, or sense of self, to stand up for himself whenever he faced a threat to his mental and spiritual wellbeing. He also had a mystical sense of the world, and saw beauty beyond the surface of things. In Black Boy, he dedicates pages to beauty, to moments such as watching “a solitary ant carrying a burden upon a mysterious journey,” horses “clopping down a dusty road through clouds of powdered clay,” or “the aching glory in masses of clouds burning gold and purple from an invisible sun.” Wright was moved by what he understood was a “vague sense of the infinite.” [6]

In Black Boy, Wright shares stories of growing up in the Jim Crow South, from a dawning childhood awareness of ‘white’ and ‘black’ to the tensions of his late teens as he struggled to situate himself in a society where one misstep, from a word to a gesture, could bring violent repercussions. Through dumb luck or grace, Wright never developed the mental and physical reflexes necessary for a black man to survive the Jim Crow South. This he attributes to not growing up close to white people during his early, formative years. Whether it was casting his eyes down and suppressing speech, or humbly backing out of the way of white people on the sidewalk, he recognized the absence of some reflex not properly formed for a black man in the South that led him to constant trouble. [7] Numerous times, Wright would be fired from work merely for the look in his eye, which appraised the people and circumstances around him under the warm light of reason and a moral code universal in scope, where the dignity of all men was recognized.

The poverty Wright grew up in led to the experience of almost constant hunger, and his desire to learn and read to almost constant loneliness. The white people whom he lived amongst, and worked for, suppressed his freedom to even take a book out of a library. With a shocking casualness, he could be referred to with the ‘N’ word by an idle, white house wife, mistreated in a myriad number of inhuman ways by his white bosses and co-workers, and questioned by white employers as to why he was still in school for grade seven. After all, what was the point of a black boy getting an education? Even black friends and relations could not understand Wright’s need to read, ignored any success he found writing, as when he had a short story published by a black newspaper in his early teens, and scolded him for asking questions that could only lead to trouble.

The oppressive atmosphere of the Jim Crow South recalled for me the experiences of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in Communist Russia under Stalin, as recounted in The Gulag Archipelago. I cannot help thinking, however, that Wright’s experience of oppression carried a more thorough and extensive experience of imprisonment. There is an irony here. Solzhenitsyn experienced oppression specifically through the prison system of Soviet Russia, while Wright was technically always a free man who never graced a cell door. Yet Wright was not able to think free thoughts, work on a job with any sense of dignity, or carry himself publicly in a manner of his choosing. Like Solzhenitsyn, he was faced with absurdist notions of thought and morality, and existed in an atmosphere where it was difficult to find a trusting face. While Solzhenitsyn and Wright found trouble with authority in the ideas of their minds and the sense of freedom in their souls, both being ‘charged’ in some form with absurd notions of betrayal to the collective, Wright, unlike Solzhenitsyn, had not only his ideas and ‘loyalty’ questioned, but his entire sense of self. Solzhenitsyn, a military officer before his arrest, could face his accusers as a human equal, and could even feel superior to his accusers for the ill-logic guiding their actions, while Wright could not face his accusers on the soul crushing grounds that he was a sub-human, a “non-man, something that knew vaguely that it (sic) was human but felt that it was not.” [8] When abused by white men at a job, Wright could not even carry personal anger toward them, because he was aware of an entire world in which he lived and the roles it molded men to follow without any sense of self-conscious reflection. When a white man transplanted to the South ever tried to befriend Wright, he would be filled with fear, knowing he was being watched and knowing there would be repercussions for accepting friendship with a white man.

For Wright, the American North, understood to be the northern States such as Illinois or New York, represented a vague hope, a place where a black person could move in order to escape the oppressive atmosphere of the Jim Crow South. Wright moved to Chicago in 1927, and while the overt racism of the South was now a thing of the past, he realized that poverty induced hunger was still a reality to live with, as were the old fears and tensions deeply rooted in his mind and heart. These tensions were born from being unsure of what his place was in a white society, and how to communicate with white people. Wright, nevertheless much freer in Chicago, continued to pursue his self-guided studies and his writing, slowly liberating himself from the fear, tension and cynicism he was still burdened by, and reading everyone from Crane to Proust to Dostoyevsky.

It was during this time in late 1920’s Chicago that Wright joined the Communist Party, and due to his talents as a writer and thinker, began to quickly ascend the ranks of the Party in the United States. By Wright’s telling, it seems he was not motivated by a Communist revolution of an economic type as much as he was intrigued in a revolution that could bring about a society where race ceased to be a divisive social reality. This was not merely an abstract intrigue. In meetings of Party members Wright witnessed for the first time in his life solidarity between white and black people as they met to discuss issues both practical and theoretical. It makes one wonder where else in our society we can hope to find places that model harmony among people of every racial and cultural background. Perhaps in places of worship? In universities? The comfort found in Party meetings between people of every race inspired Wright to reach new heights in thinking and writing, and, as far as I can tell, led him to remain sympathetic to Communism for the rest of his life, even after resigning from the Party, having his character attacked by the Party, and being physically manhandled by Communist agitators.

In fact, after joining the Communist Party it did not take Wright long to understand the problems inherent to a revolutionary movement of this type. While there was clearly a sense of unity amongst racially diverse people within the Party, it was also obvious that the foibles of man—the limitations human beings live within—could not allow the ideals of the movement to ever be realized. At times Wright could only shake his head in disbelief over the obstinate refusals of Party leaders to allow creative expression of people like himself, and the public agitations of the Party combined with the ruthless searches for counter-revolutionaries within the Party, even if there were none, forced Wright to conclude on more than one occasion that his ‘comrades’ were play-acting, living out a fantasy with no basis in reality. Wright had to admit that if the Party had taken power in the United States, he himself on more than one occasion would have been charged with being a counter-revolutionary, tried in the Communist Courts, found guilty, and executed by firing squad.

Wright’s pursuit of understanding the world he lived in would drive him out of the Communist Party, but there could be no easy landing for him. There was no intellectual, political or religious tradition that could help him find a community of like-minded people able to articulate the problems of his day. For example, he could not settle comfortably into the Christian tradition in part because of his experience of Christianity growing up in his grandmother’s house. A strictly devout Seventh Day Adventist, she lived by a rigidity of doctrine and worship that included the prohibition of reading anything that was not the Bible, with an inordinate focus on the apocalyptic. Wright admitted that many of the religious symbols appealed to his sensibilities, and he “responded to the dramatic vision of life held by the church, feeling that to live day by day with death as one’s sole thought was to be…compassionately sensitive toward all life.” When the young Wright exited the church and saw the bright sunshine, however, he knew a greater life was beckoning him than to live in dread of the apocalypse, and when he reflected on the familial pressure he faced to join a Christian congregation, knew that he had within his soul “a sense of living as deep as that which the church was trying to give me.” [9]

Throughout his life Wright studied and read, pursuits that would eventually see him move to France. His interest in America, and his experience as a black man, would never leave him, however. He felt that the “…plight of the Negro in America…is that he is doomed to live in isolation while those who condemn him seek the basest goals of any people on the face of the earth.” In Wright’s view, crass materialism was what drove much of America’s movement, “a lust for trash” in the form of new radios, cars and trinkets that blinded the nation to the concerns of Black people. In Wright’s view, white America’s blinding focus on riches and material possessions set the storms rolling in the soul of black people, for black people may well have reconciled themselves to their plight “…if (they) could be made to believe that their sufferings were for some remote, high, sacrificial end.” As it was, black people had not been exposed to the hopes and enthusiasm of Western culture and were thus left burdened by “unconscious suffering.” [10]

Wright suggested there was a “psychological distance between the races” that represented the largest obstacle to a possible end to American racism. He felt a revolution was required in the mind of all Americans, the term “revolution” referring to the inner work required to overcome old fears and to bring about new understandings of one’s neighbour. To deal with the problems of race in America would require a “bigger and tougher America… America’s past is too shallow, her national character too superficially optimistic, her very morality too suffused with color hate…” In order to deal with this color hate, America “…will find itself at war with itself.” And what would this war confront in American culture? First and foremost would be its moral attitude, which Wright saw as too simple, with the “…world as good and bad, hugging the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand.” With this in mind, Wright suggested that if black people in America found a cure for their old fears and tensions, and if racism in America was overcome to some clear degree, more than the problems of just black people would be solved; American civilization could also experience a cure of sorts, not only from a confused materialism, but in new growth toward a higher understanding of the purpose and destiny of an American life. [11] It is possible that this “higher understanding” was experienced by America to some degree in post-World War Two politics and culture, when the United States rose to become a beacon and protector of human freedom in the world while experiencing the civil rights movement, and the dismantling of the Jim Crow laws, at home.

As Wright liberated himself from the Jim Crow South, from poverty, and from the Communist Party, he continued with his studies and his writing. It was in reading from the sources of Western Civilization that he found an inescapable excitement for life and freedom. In other words, despite times of reactionary and revolutionary fervour, in the end Wright followed the road where seeking truth and exploring the depths of being guided his route. “The last known factor of living was the human heart, the least-sought goal of being was a way to live a human life,” he wrote. In the end, Wright realized this philosophical tension between the call to truth and pursuing truth, offering ”out of my tortured longings,” to “fling a spark into this darkness…not because I wanted to but because I felt that I had to if I were to live at all.” [12] Wright desired unity of feeling amongst people, and at the same time came to realize that he could not dream of achieving this goal in his lifetime. Still, he wanted to participate in building a bridge toward this unity, and Black Boy is an important work in spanning the divide between people.

 

Notes

1.—Black Boy (American Hunger), Wright, Richard. The original text, shorter than the reissued text, was published in 1945. The text used for this essay was published in 1993, by Harper Perennial, New York, USA. It includes an introduction by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

2. Black Boy (American Hunger). Page 40.

3. Ibid. Page 319.

4. Ibid. Page 118.

5. Ibid. Page 314.

6. Ibid. Page 8.

7. Ibid. Page 231-2.

8. Ibid. Page 229.

9. Ibid. Page 130-131.

10. Ibid. Page 314.

11. Ibid. Page 350.

12. Ibid. Page 452.

Michael BuhlerMichael Buhler

Michael Buhler

Michael Buhler is the Pastoral Care Worker for the Northeastern Catholic District School Board in Timmins, Canada. He has a B.A. from the University of Alberta in History and Comparative Religious Studies, and a M.A. from Wilfrid Laurier University in Religious Studies. His studies included two year of work for a M. Div. at Newman Theological College, Edmonton.

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