Black Boy is regarded by many critics as the finest autobiography written by a black American. Admired for its energetic prose and vibrant dialogue, this loosely knit narrative reads like fiction. Much of its strength comes from the resonant associations set up by its images and words. While Black Boy is, on one level, a record of Richard Wright’s own childhood experience, it is also the story of one’s quest for identity and self-affirmation. Its themes are so universal that readers from all backgrounds continue to find it engaging.
The opening chapter sets the tone for the whole book. “Finding himself” one day, at the age of four, confined indoors, Richard stared through the white curtains at a bird wheeling past and shouted. He was promptly silenced. Later, having set the curtains on fire, he hid for fear that he would be found out. Images and themes established in this first chapter persist throughout the autobiography. Richard’s life is torn between his efforts to “find himself” and his fears of being “found out.” Those phrases recur throughout his narrative. Whenever he speaks, he is silenced; when he is commanded to speak, he finds that he cannot. Like the white curtains he set on fire, recurring images of whiteness represent for him his own helplessness: Granny’s white, wrinkled face, the white chalk he cannot use, the white envelopes he cannot move, the ghosts he dreads, the threatening white bags of his dreams, and the white race itself—all represent the various oppressions which paralyze and confine him. Finding himself repeatedly running away, he longs to be running toward certain goals.
The power of language becomes a prominent theme as Richard learns how to make things happen with words. Obscenities, he first discovers, wield a dramatic, though undesirable, sort of power. Words hastily chosen are dangerous. In time he learns to control language, giving shape and meaning to his experience through writing.
Black Boy shows Wright to be a master of language, creating a rich tapestry of expression. In chapter 2, for example, he presents a vibrant catalog of sensory impressions quite similar to the poetry of Whitman:There was the slow, fresh, saliva-stimulating smell of cooking cotton seeds. There was the excitement of fishing in muddy country creeks with my grandpa on cloudy days. There was the fear and awe I felt when Grandpa took me to a sawmill to watch the giant whirring steel blades whine and scream as they bit into wet green logs.
In chapter 3, he shows how youthful dialogue embodies certain attitudes and assumptions which remain unspoken:“Man, you reckon these white folks is ever gonna change?” Timid, questioning hope. “Hell, no! They just born that way.” Rejecting hope for fear that it could never come true. “Shucks, man. I’m going north when I get grown.” Rebelling against futile hope and embracing flight.
And Wright’s own vigorous style at the beginning of chapter 4 captures the sonorous rhythms and cadences of the sermons which once had compelled him.
Wright originally planned to call his book “American Hunger.” When the manuscript was cut, shortly before publication, he renamed the shortened work Black Boy. Both titles offer significant insights into the work. Images of hunger recur throughout the book, not merely because Richard’s home was impoverished; hunger describes a yearning he experienced which, in his mind, set him apart from other blacks who did not seem to be “hungry.” Others found their needs satisfied easily, he thought—sometimes too easily. Richard hungered for independence, for knowledge and understanding; failing to be satisfied, he often found himself alone, alienated from his own family and culture.
Similarly, the title Black Boy suggests a deeper resonance. To be sure, Richard’s autobiography is limited to an account of his boyhood. Surrounded by adults who acted more childish than he, Richard observed, “I ached to be of an age to take care of myself.” He was repeatedly taunted for being just a “boy,” or for acting like a “baby” when fears overcame him. As he grew older, however, Richard discovered that his being “black” was, in the minds of Southern whites, equivalent to being a “boy.” Whites maintained their illusion of superiority by regarding blacks as being children, as having undeveloped minds and emotions. One glaring example of this form of oppression occurred when he was called to a room in the hotel where he worked as a bellhop. The couple within did not bother to dress, assuming that he should have no interest at all in their being naked. Again, in an interview for a job, he was bluntly asked, “Do you steal?” Richard grew critical not so much of the whites who treated blacks like children, but of blacks who willingly demeaned themselves—an elevator operator who let himself be kicked for a quarter, a hotel maid who allowed white men to slap her buttocks. Forced from his job at an optical company, Richard was told, “Niggers don’t mind being niggers.” Throughout Black Boy, Wright expresses more frustration with the meekness and humility of blacks who confirm that misconception.
Stifled by such an environment, Richard became certain that he could never grow beyond boyhood if he remained in the South. This persistent conviction that his environment had failed to nourish him gives Black Boy its deterministic tone. Like the writers of naturalistic fiction whom he admired (Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and others), Wright seems to have distanced himself from his subject (his childhood) in order to tell his story with objectivity and to make poignant his sense of alienation from his environment.
Black Boy occupies a prominent position in the tradition of American autobiography. It is often compared to such slave narratives as The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845, revised 1892) because of its similar narrative development. Like Douglass, Wright fought against, and finally fled, an oppressive environment; he educated himself through sheer effort of will. Black Boy, however, more clearly attempts to create a “self” through writing. In that sense, it bears a closer resemblance to such works as The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1791). Indeed, Franklin’s “model” American life throws Richard Wright’s experience into relief. While Wright “hungered for books,” Franklin satiated himself with them. Wright spoke out boldly; Franklin spoke modestly and diffidently. Wright submitted his first manuscript audaciously; Franklin slipped his surreptitiously under the door. Wright’s writing served to alienate him from his own culture; Franklin won immediate acceptance through his writing. Religion proved not to be meaningful to Wright; to Franklin it simply was not useful. Such sustained comparisons, in short, show just how counter Wright’s life runs to the prototypical American experience that Franklin describes. Franklin’s is an autobiography which confidently declares, “This is who I am,” while Wright’s persistently questions, “Who am I?”
For all the courage and conviction it projects, Black Boy nevertheless presents a serious indictment of the American Dream. Wright is looking not so much for success as he is for a meaningful life. It is through books which “seemed defensively critical of the straitened American environment” that Wright glimpses the possibility for a meaningful life. Such books, he observes, both discouraged him and gave him hope, for while they made him see what was possible, they also showed him what he had missed. So it is that Black Boy itself embodies the same sort of ambivalence. Sorrowfully depicting his own alienation, Wright also laments the easy conformity of other blacks. While Black Boy on one side portrays a tenacious individual who dreams, it also bears witness to an entire subculture that cannot dream—blacks who, though “they lived in an America where in theory there existed equality of opportunity, they knew unerringly what to aspire to and what not to aspire to.” Black Boy is, at its deepest level, neither a book about boyhood nor a book about being black, but a work which offers a penetrating insight into our common humanity.