Explain how conflict and figurative language support the theme of Richard Wright's autobiography Black Boy ?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In his autobiographical novel, Black Boy Richard Wright makes splendid use of the abused male prototype.  As the subject of his own work and narrator, Wright employs many options as he becomes both the destructive and self-destructive rebel (exterior and interior conflicts) who travels through what Jerry Ward, Jr., calls a "spiraling quest for the safe space where integrity, balance, and wholeness might be achieved."  For Wright, this space is opened up by reading.  Thus, Wright's increasing literacy becomes a metaphor for his passage into other worlds and his exit from his stultifying environment in which his grandmother demands rigid conformity to ignorance.

Wright's literary masterpiece begins with the narration of the episode in which he inadvertently sets fire to the family home. Having destroyed their house, Wright, in a sense, destroys his confinement to the poor, ignorant black boy as the fire becomes a symbol of Wright's burning desire to become a real man who is respected for his abilities.  When he writes of his eagerness to read and learn, Wright describes his feelings in terms of fire:  "My imagination blazed."

Along with the symbolic fire, Wright employs his real, constant hunger for food as a metaphor for his cultural and mental starvation.  In fact, this hunger becomes a recurring motif throughout Wright's work as it exists within him and without as he is denied opportunities to work and learn because of Jim Crow in the South where he lives.  In several episodes of the book when Wright wishes to learn about something, he is prevented.  At the print shop owned by a Northern man, Wright is taught to run the presses, but the other workers aggressively deter him; when Wright works in a hospital, he tries to learn what the doctors are doing with their experiments, but no one will enlighten him.  After he succeeds in moving to the North in hopes of being free to be a man, Wright finds his growth as a writer stultified by the communist leaders who censor his work.  Again, Wright turns to his one love:  reading.  He writes, "I dulled the sense of los through reading, reading, writing and more writing"; he keeps his fires burning.  Finally, Wright reaches the point at which he declares, "I was a man now and master of my rage."  His fire is under control.  All those who have worked against him have not been able to conquer him, for he has an individuality "which life had seard into my blood and bones."

In the didactic story of his life, employing the symbol of fire, and the metaphor of hunger, Richard Wright narrates his constant struggle, both outwardly with the Jim Crow world and the Communist Party, and inwardly with his rebellion against stereotypic thought as he struggles for what he calls a "self-sufficiency" of his consciousness.


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