Richard Wright, a prominent black American writer, tells his story of growing up in the Jim Crow South during the early decades of the twentieth century. Written in the form of a novel, Black Boy describes the ordeal of being black in a world dominated by Southern whites; it also portrays the emotional turmoil of a child struggling for personal identity among domineering adults. Wright’s struggle to become a self-reliant individual and writer was a battle fought on two fronts: against the cultural barrenness of his own race, and against the tyranny of Southern whites.
Black Boy narrates the events of Richard Wright’s formative years chronologically. Beginning with his accidentally setting his house on fire at age four, this autobiography first tells how young Richard acquired an education from the streets, drinking at the age of six and fighting with others for autonomy. Expectations to conform, however, oppressed Richard throughout his life. Family members exacted slavish obedience to their arbitrary demands. The church attempted to coerce him into religious conviction. And whites, whenever he encountered them, demanded that he know, and keep, his “place.”
Richard first attempted to control his world by striking out against it, but fighting and confrontation proved to be ineffectual. “Because I had no power to make things happen outside of me in the objective world,” he noted, “I made things happen within.” Reading and writing began to evoke within him a deep emotional response, giving shape and meaning to an otherwise meaningless life.
Events described in Black Boy capture Richard’s early impression of life’s meaninglessness. The incomprehensibility of a distant war, the terrifying lynching of a friend, the exploitation of women, chain gangs, and the inexplicability of his mother’s suffering, all served to confirm his sense of living in an unpredictable world. By the age of twelve, he recalled, he had developed “a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.”
Richard’s quest to discover how to “live in a world in which one’s mind and perceptions meant nothing and authority and tradition meant everything” uncovered no positive role models. Instead, he found himself surrounded by countless examples of how he should not live: an emotionally exploitative grandmother obsessed by her religion, a father who had abandoned his responsibility, uncles and aunts who beat him and behaved childishly, girls who made love indiscriminately, classmates who accepted abuse to get ahead, workers who stole without conscience, and white employers who preferred that he conform to their own demeaning stereotypes. The cumulative effect of such an environment filled Richard with despair and a keen awareness of his separateness. In turn, Richard was rejected by those people for his persistent individualism and determination to live with integrity.
From childhood (on the opening page he is commanded to “hush up”), Richard was surrounded by people who were determined to control him and to keep him quiet. Disciplined for an ignorant use of profanity, harassed by the school principal for wanting to give his own speech, and ridiculed for writing a story, Richard grew up silent and reserved, unable to act out the roles his society thought he should meekly play. He found himself forced from several jobs and eventually forced to steal. He witnessed constant oppression and lamented the apparent passivity of Southern blacks.
Richard at last found affirmation through his writing. Having completed his first story, he realized, “I had made something, no matter how bad it was; and it was mine.” Later he recalled that the only encouragement he ever received as a boy was from the editor who published that first story.
Richard came to a turning point with the recognition that he would never alter his relationship with his environment. Determined, then, to change his environment, he left his home, convinced that he was beginning to run toward, rather than away from, some goals. In 1925, at the age of seventeen, Richard moved to Memphis, destined eventually for Chicago. His rediscovery of books in Memphis at last awakened in him a hope for life’s possibilities. Words, he discovered, could be used as weapons to effect change.
Black Boy, subtitled A Record of Childhood and Youth, reads like a novel. It could be the story of any precocious black boy growing up in the South, for Wright makes no reference to his later success as a writer. He simply presents the experience of his growing up, uncluttered by the sorts of historical facts and data one might expect from an autobiography. The chapters remain untitled and conclude with Wright’s decision to head north toward Chicago.