Review: Black Boy by Richard Wright

book cover of black boy by richard wright and quote: 'At the age of twelve, [...,] I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, [...], a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.'

Black Boy is Richard Wrights memoir about his childhood in the Southern States (part1: Southern Night) and his young adulthood in Chicago (part2: The Horror and the Glory). It is an account of the poverty, horror, fear, and hatred of growing up as a black boy in the Jim Crow South. The time period in which the book takes place in the decades between the two World Wars.

It is not a light read as at every turn we are witnesses of abuse, violence, discrimination, racism, segregation, lynching and inhumanity directed towards the black community.

It is a powerful book which will make you understand and feel the suffering of this little boy trying to keep true to who he is, a little boy trying to understand what the divide between the whites and blacks is all about.

‘At last we were at the railroad station with our bags, waiting for the train that would take us to Arkansas; and for the first time I noticed that there were two lines of people at the ticket window, a ‘’white” line and a “black” line. During my visit at Granny’s a sense of the two races had been born in me with the sharp concreteness that would never die until I died. When I boarded the train I was aware that we Negroes were in one part of the train and that the whites were in another. Naively I wanted to go and see how the whites looked while sitting in their part of the train.’

‘I had begun to notice that my mother became irritated when I questioned her about whites and blacks, and I could not quite understand it. I wanted to understand these two sets of people who lived side by side and never touched, it seemed, except in violence.’

Even though it is a work of nonfiction, the book reads like a novel and is easy to follow. After being abandoned by the father, Richard and his family need to move back and forth throughout the South so the mother can make ends meet. We see struggle at every step and bone-deep hunger no child should feel.

Richard is beaten constantly by his mother and grandmother for not conforming to theirs and societies’ rules regarding how a black person should behave. These beatings are administered to serve a purpose. They are supposed to teach him and frighten him into submission. They are meant to erase all spark of intelligence and wanting for something else from him. Only in this way can a black man survive in the South. Richard feels that he has to give up his very soul and he refuses.

‘I did not object to being called colored, but I knew that there was something my mother was holding back. She was not concealing facts, but feelings, attitudes, convictions which she did not want me to know; and she became angry when I prodded her. All right, I would find out someday. Just wait. All right, I was colored. It was fine. I did not know enough to be afraid or to anticipate in a concrete manner. True, I had heard that people were killed and beaten, but so far it all has seemed remote. There was, of course, a vague uneasiness about it all, but I would be able to handle that when I came to it. It would be simple. If anybody tried to kill me, then I would kill the first.’

The ways a black man can live in the south is by acting the part of a simpleminded servile idiot. This will not do for Richard. The other two paths are criminality and exaggerated religiousness, the latter being the path her grandmother, aunt and to a certain degree his mother chose. None of these paths require any inquisitiveness and thought from his part and he hungers for knowledge and understanding.

We see in him the curiosity so innate in children, the need to know and learn. Living in a world in which all this curiosity is curbed at every single step is a degradation of human nature itself.

We see Richard’s struggle to learn, his insatiable thirst for knowledge and books. Only through books can he find the answers to all of his questions. Education, even though a possibility, was not something constant due to his circumstances.

‘At the age of twelve, before I had had one full year of formal education, I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.’

As a bildungsroman, this book shows how Richard Wright turned from a hungry black boy into a man. It is a great book to teach us how to be confident and how to strive to be your best against all odds. It is a book which teaches you to be strong.

Richard Wright’s salvation came through books and writing.

‘I wanted a life in which there was a constant oneness of feelings with others, in which the basic emotions of life were shared, in which common memory formed a common past, in which collective hope reflected a national future. But I knew that no such thing was possible in my environment. The only ways in which I felt that my feelings could go outward without fear of rude rebuff or searing reprisal was in writing or reading, and to me they were ways of living.’

The last part of the book recounts his days serving in the Communist party. All his life he felt the need to belong to a group and when he encountered the Communist party he was pulled in by their ideas and values. But ultimately the party did not live up to the ideals they represented as a man with a strong morality he felt cheated and disappointed.

Even though this last part was not my favorite, I understand its meaning. Richard could not walk a path another carved, he needed to make its own. As we all do…

There are so many amazing passages in this book, I could mark them all as I find meaning and I something to learn from almost every single line. Black Boy is a must read. I highly recommend it.

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