Richard Wright’s Black Boy

Richard Wright was born in 1908 on a plantation in Mississippi, the grandson of two black Civil War veterans who fought for, and won, their freedom. By 1945, the year of the publication of his memoir Black Boy, the young Southern child born into slavery had grown into a world-renowned author, the winner of a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, and one of America’s most accomplished and influential black artists, a trailblazer in whose steps both Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin would follow. How did a man born into abject poverty in the Jim Crow South rise to such heights? Black Boy recounts the story of his early life, from the age of four onwards, as he struggles to affirm his humanity in an environment hostile to his very life.

The memoir opens with a description of the young Richard accidentally setting fire to his family home, incurring the ire of his mother and father, and it’s difficult not to see in this action the beginnings of what will be one of the novel’s most painful insights: that the system of white racism has so permeated its black victims that what comes naturally to Richard – assertions of his own dignity and independence – are received with hostility by his black friends and family, who have been so cowed into submission that they would rather participate in their own dehumanization than risk destruction by challenging it. Richard is not unaware of the dangers of his environment; on the contrary, they inform his earliest memories, and so permeate his consciousness that he can never fully escape them:

The hostility of the whites had become so deeply implanted in my mind and feelings that it had list direct connection with the daily environment in which I lived; and my reactions to this hostility fed upon itself, grew or diminished according to the news that reached me about the whites, according to what I aspired or hoped for. Tension would set in at the mere mention of whites and a vast complex of emotions, involving the whole of my personality, would be aroused. It was as though I was continuously reacting to the threat of some natural force whose hostile behavior could not be predicted. I had never in my life been abused by whites, but I had already become as conditioned to their existence as though I had been the victim of a thousand lynchings.

What he is describing here is a system of oppression so far-reaching and pervasive that it can only be called totalitarian. He is told, again and again, that he must guard his emotions around white Southerners, and affect an air of ignorance and submission, the goofy demeanor of the harmless. Any deviation from this conduct will be perceived as a challenge, an open hostility to the entire social fabric of the racist South, and might very easily result in his death.

Richard’s home life is no less tragic, and equally stymying. His father abandons his mother and his children (Richard and his younger brother) when Richard is just six years old, forcing his mother to find what work she can to feed and cloth her family. Despite her best efforts, they are often hungry, subsisting on scraps for weeks at a time, and are frequently forced to live with friends and family when the patience of their landlords runs thin. Richard is even briefly placed in foster care. But the real blow comes when his mother suffers an early stroke, one that leaves her bedridden, near death, for months at a time, and would permanently disable her the rest of her life. For Richard, two major consequences arise out of his mother’s infirmity. The first is psychological, and would shape him for the rest of his life:

My mother’s suffering grew into a symbol in my mind, gathering to itself all the poverty, the ignorance, the helplessness; the painful, baffling, hunger-ridden days and hours; the restless moving, the futile seeking, the uncertainty, the fear, the dread; the meaningless pain and the endless suffering. Her life set the emotional tone of my life, colored the men and women I was to meet in the future, conditioned my relation to events that had not yet happened, determined my attitude to situations and circumstances I had yet to face. A somberness of spirit that I was never to lose settled over me during the slow years of my mother’s unrelieved suffering, a somberness that was to make me stand apart and look upon excessive joy with suspicion, that was to make me self-conscious, that was to make me keep forever on the move, as though to escape a nameless fate seeking to overtake me.

At this point in time, Richard is only twelve years old, and yet – the traumas of his family life being what they were – he has not had a single, unbroken year of schooling. The second consequence is more practical, yet no less consequential: without the support of his mother, he is forced to live with his grandmother and aunt, Seventh-day Adventists with a fanatical devotion to their faith and an unquestioned conviction that they are among the righteous and Richard – stubborn, wilful Richard – must be doomed to hellfire. Their devotion is so total that they prevent him from working on the Sabbath – Saturday being his only free day – even though their household could use what little money he might be able to provide for them. His observations on the hypocrisies of the pious deserve quoting:

There were more violent quarrels in our deeply religious home than in the home of a gangster, a burglar, or a prostitute, a fact which I used to hint gently to Granny and which did my cause no good. Granny bore the standard for God, but she was always fighting. The peace that passes understanding never dwelt with us. I, too, fought; but I fought because I felt I had to keep from being crushed, to fend off continuous attack. But Granny and Aunt Addie quarreled and fought not only with me, but with each other over minor points of religious doctrine, or over some imagined infraction of what they chose to call their moral code. Wherever I found religion in my life I found strife, the attempt of one individual or group to rule another in the name of God. The naked will to power seemed always to walk in the wake of a hymn.

Beset on all sides by the expectation of conformity and submission, Wright resolves to escape, first to Memphis and then, eventually, to Chicago, where he has heard whispers of a better life. I wish to quote one last observation he made of the system of white racism, because it so reminded me of something David Remnick observed about the Soviet Union: that dishonesty was an organic part of its social fabric, that the survival of the people was predicated on their being willing to cheat, lie and steal, or else starve. Wright notes something similar about the nature of black-white relationships in the Jim Crow South: that they are predicated on the same kind of dishonesty, that white Southerners have so negative a view of black Americans that the expectation that they will steal and lie and cheat does not really illicit genuine anger but rather a confirmation of their own racial superiority.

But I, who stole nothing, who wanted to look them straight in the face, who wanted to talk and act like a man, inspired fear in them. The southern whites would rather have had Negroes who stole, work for them than Negroes who knew, however dimly, the worth of their own humanity. Hence, whites placed a premium upon black deceit; they encouraged irresponsibility; and their rewards were bestowed upon us blacks in the degree that we could make them feel safe and superior.

Again and again he will observe his black peers performing to these expectations, deliberating masking their intelligence or perceptiveness to placate their white paymasters. And again and again he will choose to do otherwise, to defy the expectations placed on him, to “look them straight in the face.” His final recognition about the evils of his society sums up all he has learned thus far about the demands placed on black southerners to use guile and subterfuge to hide who they really are, what they’re really feeling:

[…] as I had lived in the South I had not had the change to learn who I was. The pressure of southern living kept me from being the kind of person that I might have been. I had been what my surroundings had demanded, what my family – conforming to the dictates of the whites above them – had exacted of me, and what the whites had said that I must be. Never being fully able to be myself, I had slowly learned that the South could recognize but a part of a man, and all the rest – the best and deepest things of heart and mind – were tossed away in blind ignorance and hate.

This is what Black Boy gives us, the “best and deepest” of Wright’s heart, and it is significant not merely because he can now tell it, but because he can compel us to listen.