Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 618
At first glance, Black Boy is the story of the formative years of a young African-American man aspiring to become a professional writer in the context of Southern religious and racial bigotry. Set in the early twentieth century, it appears to be a period piece, introducing a particular minority perspective on the cultural and racial history of the region. In essence, however, it is far more.
Originally copyrighted in 1937 but not published in book form until 1945, Black Boy features events that took place in the American South, but it was not written in the South, nor is the writer’s perspective exclusively Southern, regional, or racial. The narrator points out repeatedly that he has been inspired to write by white authors and has felt as alienated from Southern blacks, his own family included, as he has from Southern whites.
If the book reflects a minority viewpoint, then it is essentially cultural, rather than racial. The protagonist of the book is remarkable not because he happens to be an African-American adolescent living in the segregated South but because he aspires to become a creative writer. The profession of writing has often been suspect—not only in the Southern Bible Belt but also in American society as a whole. In such a context, it is not surprising that, having written his first story, young Wright failed to find a sympathetic audience for it. Like his grandmother, who has dismissed all works of fiction as sinful lies, his one listener fails to comprehend the overall purpose of creative writing. Asked “What’s that for?” he can only respond by saying, “I just wanted to. I just thought it up.” In the absence of any justification for his favorite activity, the narrator is forced to conclude that his “environment contained nothing more alien than writing or the desire to express oneself in writing.”
Because Wright’s apparent purpose in his autobiography is to justify the value of the writer’s point of view as that of an exceptional individual, the isolation and loneliness of the narrator-protagonist is brought into relief. Yet, as some of Wright’s biographers—notably Keneth Kinnamon in The Emergence of Richard Wright (1972) and Michel Fabre in The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (1973)—have pointed out, the autobiographer has tended to exaggerate the theme of self-reliance in order to justify his chosen path of splendid isolation from his family and his native community later in life. Consequently, he has also tended to underplay the actual emotional and intellectual support bestowed on him by some of his relatives, particularly by his mother and her sister, his Aunt Maggie. Likewise, he has failed to mention in his account that, at one time, he was reputed to have been the leader of a group of adolescents called the “Dick Wright Gang.” His admission that he may have assumed a common identity with other African-American youths might have undermined his chosen role as the distant and misunderstood genius, whose talents alone prompted him to rise above the frustrations and limitations of his native habitat.
In the sequel to this volume, it is revealed that Wright’s escape from the South does not immediately bear the hoped-for results of his recognition as a writer and an individual. That part of his autobiography, which was contained in his original manuscript, was not published in book form until 1977, under the separate title American Hunger. Therefore, the two volumes of Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy and American Hunger, should be read consecutively. Looked upon as a whole, they constitute a more complex and more complete rendition of the author’s relation to the American scene than Black Boy alone, which is concerned exclusively with the Southern context.