Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth

by Richard Wright

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Does the original title of Wright's book, "American Hunger," fit with the tone and events in "Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth"?

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Richard Wright did not so much change the title of his autobiography and sociological examination of race in America from American Hunger to Black Boy as he simply divided his literary work into two sections.  Wright’s experiences as a black child and then man in a deeply racist society pushed him politically to the fringes of left-wing politics, specifically, to the Communist Party, which, in turn, attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  In short, Wright became a polarizing figure, and, according to one history of his life and work, appended to an edition of Black Boy, the Book-of-the-Month Club, which had agreed with the book’s publisher, Harper, to include Wright’s memoir among its offerings, refused to do so unless the book was divided into two parts. The Club would agree only to publish the first part of Wright’s book, which described his life growing up in Mississippi, as virulently racist as any region of the country, under the title Black Boy.  The Book-of-the-Month Club wanted no part of the second phase of Wright’s life and memoir, where he moves with his aunt to Chicago, matures into an adult, and adopts a decidedly unconformist political ideology.  It is that section of Wright’s work that is titled American Hunger.  [See: “Chronology,” Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth,]  Prior to the book’s division into two volumes to accommodate the Book-of-the-Month Club, the single volume titled American Hunger was itself divided into two main sections, “Southern Night,” which described his childhood in the South, and “The Horror and the Glory,” which continued the story of his life upon his move to Chicago.

The choice of the title American Hunger for the adulthood phase of Wright’s life (at least up to the date of its publication in 1945; Wright died in 1960 in Paris) was to emphasize the spiritual and physical emptiness and that he experienced in white America.  He is quoted in another section of the volume of Black Boy cited as explaining his choice of this latter title.  In a letter requesting the title be changed to Black Boy, Wright wrote:

“Now, this is not very original, but I think it covers the book.  It is honest.  Straight.  And many people say it to themselves when they see a Negro and wonder how he lives.  Black Boy seems to me to be not only a title, but also a kind of heading of the whole general theme.” [“Note on the Text”]

In short, the confusion over the book’s title stems from its history as a manuscript seeking approval in a white world concerned over the author’s polarizing reputation based solely upon his political affiliation.  Had the Book-of-the-Month Club not objected to marketing Wright’s memoir with his adulthood included, the entire volume would have been published as American Hunger.

With respect to the question of whether the original title fits with the tone of the book, the answer can only be in the affirmative.  Wright chose that title, after rejecting an earlier option, because he felt it captured the emptiness that he felt defined black life in America.  As he wrote in his memoir,

“I used to mull over the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes, how unstable was our tenderness, how lacking in genuine passion we were, how void of great hope, how timid our joy, how bare our traditions, how hollow our memories, how lacking we were in those intangible sentiments that bind man to man, and how shallow was even our despair."

Physical, cultural and spiritual deprivation is a theme throughout Wright's autobiography, and it was in that frame of mind that he employed the word "hunger."  Not only were his childhood memories dominated by feelings of physical hunger because his family rarely had money for food, but blacks had been so ground down into the dirt that he metaphorically hungered for a mental salvation that never really materialized.

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