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The autobiography of Richard Wright, Black Boy, provides a wealth of information on the life of a black male growing up in the Jim Crow South. While this work is about Wright's youth which was spent in the 1920s and 1930s, his experiences are not dissimiliar from those who lived in the 1940s as can be verified by reading another autobiographical work written later by Ralph Ellison, entitled Invisible Man.
Like many African-Americans from the South, Wright and Ellison migrated to the North and both men lived for a time in New York City. Seeking freedom from the South's restrictions upon them, both Wright and Ellison fell victim to the rhetoric of Communism; later, both men were disillusioned and wrote about their negative experiences with an ideology which they had thought would bring them equality. Ellison's book, especially, is about this disillusion, while the second part of Wright's autobiographical novel addresses his disappointments in the North on individual jobs and his disillusion with the Communist party which exploited his talents for writing, but did not promote him.
As to their youthful experiences, there are, indeed, many commonalities. In one chapter of Black Boy, for instance, as a youth in the South, Richard works for a department store and works outside on the building. He is cautioned by another youth to not stare at the white people who pass by and to put up the facade of a jolly and simple negro, who laughs foolishly and smiles at everyone.
"This is what they want to see. You'll be fired if you look them in the eyes...Keep your head down when they pass."
This demeaning position was one that existed always when blacks were in public with white people in the 1940s. In another example of this, all blacks had to cross the street and walk on the other side if white people were coming down the sidewalk towards them. Parks were segregated, bathrooms, movie houses, taverns, etc. All blacks were not allowed in many places; if they were, they were served in the rear: a sign read "Colored Served in Rear." [see the link below for a visual of this sign] When they worked in white people's homes, they had to enter by a back entrance. Of course, many jobs were closed to blacks; only the menial positions of servants, elevator operators, or field workers were common.
In the Jim Crow South, all blacks were also affected by educational opportunities. The schools which they attended were, in fact, inferior to those of the whites. First of all, the teachers were not as well-educated since there were few opportunities for them to attend college or the colleges which they could attend were inferior--this fact is a matter of historical record. Secondly, the black primary and high schools were poorly funded in comparison to the others. Mildred Taylor's Rolling Thunder, Hear My Cry, a novel about a black family in the South, alludes to the historical fact that black schools were given old, worn-out textbooks discarded by the white schools. The children had to walk when the bus carried whites to their schools.
There is no question that there was a depression of the spirit of African-Americans as their environment constantly reminded them of their social inferiority. This reminder of the lack of opportunities for them is the main cause for the tremendous migration to the North. Even there, blacks were restricted. As evidence of the social disparities, one need only turn to historical records and the literature of African-Americans.
All of us as human beings are affected by the things that we experience as we live our lives. However, the way that things affect or influence us will depend on many things. This means that different black teens growing up during the era of segregation would have been influenced in different ways. Let us look at some possible influences.
We are often told that people become what we expect them to become. For some black teens, segregation would have sent the message that society did not expect them to be as good as white people. They would have internalized that message and would have acted according to that perception. They would have been hampered for life by feelings that they were not as good as whites.
However, not everyone reacts to outside expectations and pressures in that way. There are some people who decide to resist the expectations that society has for them. This means that some black teens could have become angrier and more determined because of segregation. They could have decided that they would show society that they were as good as anyone else. This would have meant that segregation motivated them to work hard and improve themselves.
We must recognize that different teens would have been influenced differently. Their personalities would have affected the way segregation influenced them. So would the attitudes and situations of their parents. So would the kind of education available to them. In short, there is no one way in which segregation would have affected all black teens.
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