Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Black Boy Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 1,334 words.)