Black Boy/American Hunger Essay - Critical Context

Richard Wright

Critical Context

Black Boy and American Hunger take their place within a long list of autobiographies rooted in the African American slave narrative. Like this early literary form, both books indict a racist system based on ignorance, fear, and hate. At the same time, each text exaggerates its claims. Wright’s recollections of his unhappy childhood, for example, are emotionally charged and often distort the facts. He projects his bitterness toward his family onto all African Americans, leading at times to faulty generalizations and illogical conclusions.

The value of each autobiography, however, rests on its artistic merit. Both works are continuous with Wright’s famous fiction and focus on narrative voice, imagery, and dialogue as much as on social commentary. As in his early fiction, Wright is committed to detail. Relying on the journalistic skills he developed a decade earlier, he examines both rural and urban America, analyzing myriad aspects of African American society. He cleverly manipulates scenes; interpolates description, imagery, exposition, and theme; intersperses dialogue and annotation; carefully selects and controls syntax; and varies tone. Indeed, Wright’s autobiographical writings contain some of his most eloquent prose.

Wright was relatively young—in his mid-thirties—when he attempted to write his autobiography. Though he died in Paris at the age of only fifty-two, he still had some twenty years in which to reexamine the events that had affected him so profoundly during his youth. He also had plenty of time to experiment as a writer and to grow intellectually, which he did after befriending French existentialists and African expatriates while living in France. Despite what both texts might have been had Wright postponed their writing, Black Boy and, to a lesser extent, American Hunger stand as American classics. They provide not only a critical look at American life during the early twentieth century but also a vivid account of one individual’s determination to secure a permanent place in American letters.