Black Boy, which was another immediate best seller, is often considered Wright’s most fully realized work. Ostensibly a description of the first twenty-one years of Wright’s life, the book derives its aesthetic design from two distinct but interwoven narrative skeins: the African American exodus motif, in which a character’s movement from south to north suggests a flight from oppression to freedom, and the Künstlerroman, or novelistic account of the birth of the artist—in this case, a “portrait of the artist as a young black American.” In the process, Wright analyzes how poverty, intolerance, and racism shaped his personality but also fed his creativity, enabling him to view his pain as an embodiment of the existential human condition.
As a chronicle of family life, Black Boy presents a grim portrait of violence, suffering, and disintegration. While the veracity of every event related in the text is questionable, one cannot deny the authenticity with which Wright has documented the emotional truths of his childhood and their devastating psychological consequences. The central motif of the work is the gnawing hunger defining every facet of Richard’s existence: physical hunger born of his family’s worsening poverty after his father’s abandonment; emotional hunger rooted in that abandonment, compounded by his mother’s prolonged illnesses, and resulting in his alienation from other black people; and intellectual hunger exacerbated by his limited formal schooling and the repressive religious fundamentalism of his maternal relatives. Wright had initially chosen “American Hunger” as his title, and it was later applied to the second volume of his autobiographical writings, published posthumously in 1977.
Richard’s responses to the conditions of his life are, from the first, a volatile combination of rebellion, anger, and fear. Black Boy opens with a bored and peevish four-year-old Richard retaliating against his mother’s demand for quiet by experimenting with fire until he sets the house ablaze. He then hides under the burning structure until he is pulled free by his enraged father and beaten unconscious. The episode provides a paradigm for Richard’s young life: willful self-assertion repeatedly produces self-destructive consequences and crushing rejection by those closest to him. His renegade or outlaw sensibility is in dangerous conflict with the arbitrary tyranny of the authority figures dominating his youth, particularly males. Rather than offering a buffer against the injustices of the Jim Crow South, Richard’s home is the crucible of his lifelong estrangement from the human community.
In childhood, Richard learns that the essential law of existence is struggle against forces deterministically operating to extinguish the weak; this view explains the pervasive naturalism of Black Boy. The lesson remains the same whether he is observing the casual violence of nature, confronting street urchins, or battling wits with prejudiced white people. Surrounded by hostility directed at him from all quarters, including the supposedly Christian adults who regularly beat and humiliate him, Richard rejects religion as fraudulent in its premises and hypocritical in its practices. He allows himself to be baptized only because of the emotional blackmail of his abject mother and the friends whose camaraderie he desperately seeks. He craves an analytic vantage point that will illuminate the random pointlessness of experience.
After he graduates from the ninth grade and begins working in Memphis, he finds in the works of H. L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis evidence not only that his own insights into the brutal nature of existence are valid but also that they are potentially the stuff of serious literature. Years earlier, he had discovered the explosive power of language and the raw emotional energy generated by melodramatic narrative, and he had vowed to become a writer. As a young man, he becomes consumed with literature’s promise to give him a voice in counterpoise to all those forces that have worked so systematically to silence him, and he finds therein the purpose that will save and direct his life after the nightmare of his southern childhood. Wright’s naturalism, Marxism, and existentialism coalesce in Black Boy, particularly in his analysis of American racism.
On the most basic level, Wright depicts the situation confronting the African American male in the first quarter of the twentieth century as literally life-threatening: By the age of fifteen, he had known an uncle lynched for being “too” successful and knew of a black youth murdered for forgetting the strict sexual taboos surrounding interchanges between black men and white women. He had been personally assaulted without provocation by white youths and had participated in street battles between white and black adolescents. His insistent pursuit of a way out of the South is thus a reaction to the physical terrorism exercised against the black community. It is also a repudiation of the psychological condition that racism fosters in its victims.
Richard has already suffered for years from the debilitating anxiety caused by trying to predict the behavior of white people, and he has often felt the impact of their displeasure, repeatedly losing jobs when they resent his manner or ambition. He chafes under the dehumanizing stereotypes they superimpose on him: “The White South said that it knew ’niggers,’ and I was what the white South called ’nigger.’ Well, the white South had never known me—never known what I thought, what I felt.” Richard’s exodus from the South is triggered as much by a spiritual hunger to define his own personhood, free of racist categorizations, as it is by a pursuit of greater material opportunity.
Wright asserts that his personality bears permanent scars as a southern black man—scars that explain his emotional and philosophical alienation as well as his unresolved anger. Significantly, however, they also serve as the creative wellspring of his powerful artistry.
Wright leaves no doubt about his resentment of the white racist social order that defined his youth; what is more difficult to resolve is the ambivalence toward black people that permeates Black Boy. By the time he reaches adulthood, Wright finds himself estranged from the black community by his dismissal of religion, his resistance to strategies for manipulating white people behind the mask of stereotype, and his contempt for passive acquiescence in response to white terrorism. That estrangement becomes central to his depiction of black people and explains his vacillation between analytic detachment and deeply personal condemnation.
Nevertheless, a key source of Black Boy’s narrative tension—and its author’s positioning of himself as existential outcast—lies in his antipathy to the world that failed to nourish him. One might also argue that Wright’s impulse to repudiate the past is very much in keeping with the American literary paradigm of “making oneself” anew in a new world. Richard sets out to define himself according to his own proclivities and talents in the unknown future of Chicago, toward which he is rushing by train at the close of the book.
Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth stands as a classic African American autobiography. It tells of Richard Wright’s escape from figurative slavery in the South to freedom in the North. The text opens in 1912 on Wright’s earliest memory at age four. Richard is living in Jackson, Mississippi, in the crowded home of his grandparents. The household includes Richard, his mother, father, brother, and his uncle, and it replicates the subhuman living conditions of slaves.
Richard’s father is illiterate and an unskilled laborer; in search of work, he moves his family to another state, which initiates Richard’s life of emotional and physical instability. These disruptions occur in three cycles. From age four to age twelve, Richard moves frequently from Mississippi to Tennessee to Arkansas and back again. From age twelve to age seventeen, he remains in Jackson. From age seventeen to age nineteen, he escapes, first to Tennessee and then to Illinois. Before age twelve, Richard suffers abandonment by his father, life in an orphanage, street life, heavy drinking, and the illness of his mother.
Wright employs the literary technique of naturalism to portray the racial and environmental factors that create a hostile world for Richard. Whites consider African Americans to be inferior because of their skin color, and Richard hears of violent acts against African Americans in the form of murders, lynchings, and beatings. He personally experiences verbal threats, physical assaults, and animal attacks. Whites pay African Americans low wages to keep them economically enslaved and unable to escape the mandated segregated housing, which is substandard. Richard consistently suffers from hunger, poor housing, insufficient clothing, and erratic schooling.
Richard grows up an isolated figure because he does not fit the servile demeanor required of African Americans to live in the South. He rejects religion since he cannot understand how a white God allows his mother, family, and community to suffer. In turn, they assail his reading and writing of fiction, which his grandmother charges is “Devil’s work.” The school principal even denounces Richard when he refuses to deliver the stock valedictory speech of humility at his graduation ceremony from ninth grade. Whites, too, attack Richard for being a “smart Negro” when he undertakes menial jobs in private homes or at businesses during his stay in the South.
Richard resists these oppressive forces in his quest for knowledge and for freedom. At nineteen, he discovers the writer H. L. Mencken, and decides that he, too, wants to become a writer to “wage war with words.” Black Boy concludes in 1927, with Richard’s flight to the North in the tradition of former slaves before him.