Two closely related challenges that Richard Wright faced when it came to reading were racial segregation, access to books, and social attitudes that discouraged Black literacy. As he recounts in Black Boy, Wright had an insatiable curiosity for information, especially about matters that were not part of his everyday world. Although he only finished the ninth grade, this curiosity never dissipated. When he encountered a newspaper article that disparaged a white, Northern author, H. L. Mencken, Wright was stimulated to find out more about a man who incurred the kind of negativity that white Southerners usually reserved for African Americans.
Wright’s access to books and other written materials was severely limited by the segregation of public institutions, which included not only schools but public libraries. He had sometimes been allowed admittance to the local library as a messenger, to assist white men by picking up books for them. Wright developed a ruse to use this practice for his own benefit. He enlisted the assistance of a white coworker named Falk, an Irish Catholic man that the other “anti-Negro” whites hated. Persuading this man to lend him his library card, he gave the librarians notes that were ostensibly the other man’s requests for books, referring to himself with the N-word, and thus was allowed to check them out. When the librarian suspected he was getting the books for himself, he claimed he could not read.