Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth

by Richard Wright

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Critical Context (Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

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Wright’s autobiography is most obviously descended from its generic prototype, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1868). Like Franklin, Wright finds his freedom and pursuit of happiness inexorably linked with his readiness to abandon established family ties and to escape the narrow confines of his native community. Like Franklin, he learns to exercise his skills as a role player, assuming the mask of humility as if he had no higher aspirations than to remain forever at the bottom of society. Just as Franklin reached Philadelphia virtually resourceless, so was Wright upon his arrival in Chicago. As an African-American account of the road to freedom, Black Boy could also be related to the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Malcolm X.

Black Boy is destined to remain a source of inspiration for any young person who has felt too constrained to dare to do anything extraordinary. It also teaches young people that, in a world dominated by all-powerful and uncompromising adults, one sometimes must agree to do their will in order to be able to accomplish one’s ultimate goals. The latter message appears to have been understood and fully appropriated by the nameless narrator-protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). Unlike Wright, who had to depend exclusively on white writers as his literary mod-els, later writers, such as Ellison, had the option of following his example. Black Boy remains a classic sourcebook for all future writers, be they black or white.

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