Richard Wright grew up in the woods of Mississippi, with poverty, hunger, fear, and hatred. He lied, stole, and raged at those around him; at six he was a “drunkard,” hanging about taverns. Surly, brutal, cold, suspicious, and self-pitying, he was surrounded on one side by whites who were either indifferent to him, pitying, or cruel, and on the other by blacks who resented anyone trying to rise above the common lot.
Black Boy is Richard Wright’s powerful account of his journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. It is at once an unashamed confession and a profound indictment—a poignant and disturbing record of social injustice and human suffering.
Black Boy is a deeply horrifying and intelligent memoir from Richard Wright, a Mississippi black boy who became so much more than black boys were supposed to become. His earliest memories on a Southern plantation and the tough streets of Memphis become fantastic stories that he, unfortunately, had to live.
Richard is different, who knows why, but he’s different. All the black families living on his street are hungry, but Richard wonders why he’s hungry. Why can’t his mother, a cook at a restaurant serving heaping plates to white customers, give him enough to eat? He’s too young to understand, but this inquisitive behavior will follow him through various tragedies.
At the age of twelve, before I had one full year of formal schooling, 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.
At its core, the memoir is a book about a boy becoming a man. But Richard is a black boy who becomes a black man, and so instead of your basic coming-of-age story, you have a story about a boy coming of age in a society that hates him. And because Richard is so smart, he tries to learn why it hates him. This line of questioning is extraordinary given that the conditions of black people in Jim Crow South are almost like those of people living in pre-agricultural societies: they are so consumed with fulfilling basic human needs (the only constant through Richard’s numerous moves across the South is an everlasting hunger), that no time remains for them to develop things of worth and permanence.
Richard discovers the complicity of black people in their own subjugation. Indeed, this book is rarely about the oppressors, about the white people pushing the heads of black people into the ground. It’s about a culture where a white man doesn’t even have to push a black man down: he’s already lying there, starved and beaten. For the beginning of his life, white people are a hazy specter in Richard’s world. The racism of Richard’s time is so devastating and so complete because another race barely even needs to exist to perpetuate it. Almost every one of Richard’s friends refuses to shake the status quo, indeed sometimes doesn’t realize there’s a status quo to be shook.
But really what I learned from Richard’s wonderful evolution from a poor Mississippi boy with no schooling to a published Chicagoan author is the importance of compassion for others whose lives we cannot imagine. In the North Richard works as a dishwasher in a restaurant with a bunch of young white girls waitressing. They are not ill intentioned, but still they will never understand him, will never even seek to understand him, and will thus simply add to a culture that denies him basic personhood. This is bad. Imagining others is important. And that’s why Black Boy was so thrilling to me. Here is a man with a life story that I will literally never be able to fathom. And yet, he’s trying. He’s trying to make me fathom it, with every brilliant thought and sentence he’s got.
I fail. I cannot imagine living as a black boy in Mississippi in the 1910s. But gosh did this book get me close. And getting closer is what the world needs.