Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth Essays and Criticism
by Richard Wright

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The Autobiographical Nature of Black Boy

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Richard Wright's reputation as one of the most influential figures in the tradition of African-American literature rests on two works in particular, his best-selling novel, Native Son (1940), and his autobiography, Black Boy (1945). In Native Son, Wright depicts in graphic physical and psychological detail the realities of a young black man's life under the pressures of a racist environment. In Black Boy, one might say that Wright turns the novelist's gaze to his own life, providing (as his subtitle indicates) "A Record of Childhood and Youth" that is at once informative as a historical account and gripping in the same way a novel can be. Blurring the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, Wright dramatizes various scenes from his early life, recreates dialogue that he could not possibly recall, and incorporates sections of poetic rumination that resemble haiku—but none of these inventions challenges the force and eloquence of Wright's truth-telling in Black Boy. Wright uses his autobiography not only to recount significant experiences in his life but also to record his emotional and psychological reactions to those experiences, his intellectual awakening, his "hunger" for a meaningful life, and his condemnation of American racism In his attempt to capture the significance of his own life, both for himself and for the reader, Wright creates in Black Boy a profoundly moving "record" of his remarkable life.

Because one of Richard Wright's primary interests in all of his writing is the influence of environment on a person's actions and attitudes, it is not surprising that he begins his own story by portraying the family environment of his childhood. His mother's injunction in the opening scene that Richard "keep quiet" and his father's similar demand in a following scene suggest, in one small way, the limits that were placed on his life within the family. His response in both cases—first, "accidentally" starting the house on fire, and second, killing a noisy kitten—attest to Richard's desire, even as a young child, to express his feelings and assert his presence in his family in strong terms. Richard's responses unsettle the reader because they seem excessive, out of proportion to the situations he is in. But the scene establishes two themes that run through the whole of Black Boy. First, that many things in Richard's Southern environment are in fact excessive, often dangerously and violently so; and second, that Richard will go to great lengths to resist limitations placed on him and to find some means of self-expression.

These opening scenes also portray the tensions that Richard feels within his family, the psychological distance that exists between them even when living close together in cramped quarters. Richard sees his father as "the lawgiver in our family," someone whose very presence stifles his voice and laughter, and someone who remains "a stranger ... always somehow alien and remote." After his father deserts the family, Richard associates him with the "pangs of hunger" he feels, hating him with "a deep biological bitterness." Richard's distance from his mother results not from abandonment but from her illness. It is because of his mother's sickness that Richard must stay in the orphanage and later with various relatives, and after she suffers a severe stroke he feels absolutely alone in the world, unable any longer to "feel" or "react as a child." Eventually, his mother's affliction becomes a powerful symbol in Richard's mind, producing a "somberness of spirit" that sets him apart from other people and inspiring "a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering."

This outlook shapes Richard's view of his Grandmother's religious belief, which he finds a poor substitute for his own rootedness in the hard realities of life. Although he responds to the drama and the emotion of the church service and its religious symbols, he rejects entirely its "cosmic...

(The entire section is 6,370 words.)