Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)
When Black Boy first appeared in 1945, it was praised for its penetrating analysis of the effects of racial oppression. In fact, Wright admitted that his “main desire” in writing Black Boy “was to render a judgment on my environment.” From a sociological point of view, Black Boy is a significant document, for it bears witness to the experience of many oppressed blacks in the Jim Crow South who otherwise would not speak for themselves. Although Wright told his own story, he strove for an objectivity which would show the environmental forces determining the black experience in the South. From his perspective, blacks did adapt readily to their environment, but at the cost of their individuality and self-esteem. Black Boy shows how the social conformity resulting from racial oppression can be just as destructive as the intraracial strife engendered by white racism. Black Boy testifies clearly to the disintegration of family life under these environmental pressures. It protests religion’s appeal as an opiate, for making oppressed people submissive rather than courageous.
In the American literary tradition, Black Boy distinguishes itself in several ways. Certainly, it takes its place among the great works of American realism and naturalism which Wright admired. The influence of Theodore Dreiser, H. L. Mencken, Sherwood Anderson, and Sinclair Lewis (whom he celebrated near the end of Black Boy) is apparent in Wright’s own deterministic perspective. Black Boy has also been admired for its autobiographical artistry; in this genre, the literary craftsmanship of Black Boy is outstanding. Thematically, Black Boy is a distinctly American work for its vibrant portrayal of developing “self-reliance.” In this regard, Wright’s book occupies a prominent position in a long procession of writers descended from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman.
Black Boy is usually regarded as somewhat inferior to Wright’s literary masterpiece, Native Son (1940). Comparing these two works can yield fruitful insights into the relative strengths of autobiographical art and imaginative art. “The good lasting stuff,” William Faulkner wrote to Richard Wright, “comes out of one individual’s imagination . . . not out of the memory of his own grief.”
Finally, Black Boy is indispensable for an understanding of this one writer’s beginnings in particular, and of the development of black American literature in general.