When Black Boy was first published in 1945, it did not include Wright’s conclusion, intended to be a critical part of the book. This section, published separately in 1977 under the title American Hunger, focuses on an important theme of the book—Richard’s growth as a writer—and places the first part of the book—his challenging adventures en route to his acceptance of himself as a writer—within this context. The complete edition of the autobiography is now published as two parts, the first titled “Southern Night” and the second titled “The Horror and the Glory.” In the concluding paragraph of this self-portrait, Wright announces his vocation as a writer and points, with hope, to the strength of his language: I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.
Quotations from the book of Job signal this theme, serving as epigraphs for the entire book and for the first part of the autobiography. The first quotation suggests the struggle that will characterize Richard’s flight from the South to the North and his fight to find himself: “They meet with darkness in the daytime/ And they grope at noonday as in the night.” The second quotation suggests that “Southern Night” will narrate the Job-like struggle Richard will endure as he moves from adventure to adventure, from home to home, from one stage of his childhood and youth to the next: “His strength shall be hunger-bitten/ And destruction shall be ready at his side.” The subtitle of Black Boy captures this movement, for the book is indeed “A Record of Childhood and Youth” that is also a portrait of an artist as a young man.
This developing artist re-creates his childhood and youth through dialogue, the use of details, and the selection of symbolic scenes. All these techniques combine to demonstrate the ability of the child and youth to survive, to endure the challenges of his environment so that he can emerge from those surroundings a thoughtful, sensitive writer.
An example of Wright’s effective use of dialogue is the conversation between Richard and a white woman whom Richard approaches about doing chores for her. The woman asks if he wants the job, and, learning that he does, poses what she believes is an important question: “Do you steal?” Richard bursts into a laugh and tells the woman that if he were a thief, he would never tell anyone. The woman is enraged by this response, and Richard realizes that he has made a terrible mistake, that he has demonstrated to the woman that he is “sassy,” and that he must resume the mask that white people expect of blacks, the mask of respect and deference. Through the dialogue between the woman and Richard, the issue of black-white relations is revealed dramatically and without any need for editorial comment by the narrator.
The use of details also reveals thematic ideas, one of which is the paradoxical situation of destruction as a means of bringing about new growth. The detailed use of fire suggests this paradox, beginning with the opening scene in which Richard sets fire to the house, nearly destroying it and, more important, nearly destroying himself, because his mother had come close to killing him for his action. This act of potential destruction serves as a paradoxical opportunity for growth insofar as Richard learns, at the age of four, that his family is a destructive force in his life, one from which he must flee if he is to be free to pursue his dreams. He is reminded of this lesson at the end of the chapter, when he goes to see his father to request money so that he, his brother, and his mother can go to Arkansas. When Richard arrives at his father’s house, he sees not only his father but also a strange woman with him, both sitting before a fire. Once again, detailed use of the image of fire reinforces the theme of destruction and its role in the education process. Richard sees the fire and understands that it represents the destructive force of his father, a force from which he must run if he is to mature.
Wright uses dialogue and details as techniques to plot the journey of his childhood and youth; symbolic scenes act as markers along the trip to self-knowledge. The opening scene and the conversation with the white woman who gives Richard a job doing chores for her are powerful markers. Another symbolic scene occurs in the second half of the self-portrait, when Richard describes his job in a medical research institute in a large, wealthy hospital in Chicago. On Saturday mornings, Richard assists a doctor in slitting the vocal cords of dogs, so that their howling will not disturb the hospital patients. Richard describes the sight of the dogs being rendered unconscious as the result of an injection, then having their vocal cords severed, and finally awakening and being unable to wail. Wright calls this “a symbol of silent suffering,” clearly not confined to the canines.
As a book that gives testimony to the transformation of silent suffering into creative growth and as an autobiography that shows the development of a struggling artist who seeks to find words to describe that suffering, Black Boy is one of the most significant autobiographies created by an American, black or white. When it was first published in 1945, it was the fourth best-selling nonfiction title that year, and it has continued to be read, reviewed, and respected as a classic study of the growth of a young man and the environment in which he develops. It is both a portrait of an individual and a portrait of a culture, the two struggling with each other and meeting each other “with darkness in the daytime” to illustrate a way to survive, to endure, and to thrive.