Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth

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 entire section contains 1914 words.)

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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 threats", of damnation and develops "a callousness toward all metaphysical preachments." Richard rejects religion in part because it finds otherworldly causes and solutions for the real-world suffering that he cannot escape. He believes that the religion of his Aunt Addie and Granny leads people to ignore or accept passively the pain of their lives. Even the school kids he meets at his Aunt's religious school seem to live flattened-out lives, almost as if they were mentally and emotionally unpaired by their religion. "These boys and girls were will-less, their speech flat, their gestures vague, their personalities devoid of anger, hope, laughter, enthusiasm, passion, or despair." Religion can also be coercive, Richard realizes, as when he is "trapped" by his mother and the entire community of her church into joining the church—or, as he puts it, into giving "the sign of allegiance" to the "tribe."

Richard understands the desire behind religious belief—as he puts it, "the hunger of the human heart for that which is not and can never be"— but his grandmother's religion offers nothing to satisfy his own "hunger," just as her sparse fare at home leaves him physically hungry to the point of sickness. What he doesn't find in religion Richard seeks elsewhere, and his "hunger" for something beyond mere food becomes a dominant motif throughout Black Boy. Of course, real, painful physical hunger haunts Richard at every turn, and six-year-old Richard's innocent thought—"Why could I not eat when I was hungry?"—lingers as an unanswered question throughout his narrative. Wright clearly wants the reader of Black Boy to feel Richard's "biting hunger, hunger that made my body aimlessly restless, hunger that kept me on edge," and to ask "why?" along with him. Physical hunger also causes considerable psychic suffering in Richard's life, as a sign of punishment at the orphanage, as a symbol of his father's desertion, and as a barrier between him and friends at school. But Richard also depicts ways in which deeper longings, more significant to him than physical need, define his experience of life.

At times these longings point to something healthy and positive in Richard's character, as when he senses "a new hunger" before he leaves the South for Chicago. This hunger inspires Richard's strong sense of self-reliance, his unwillingness to betray his deepest feelings, and his refusal to "surrender to what seemed wrong." But Richard also describes the longing he feels as hurtful and damaging to his personality. "Again and again," he writes, "I vowed that someday I would end this hunger of mine, this apartness, this eternal difference." Here and elsewhere Richard's hunger becomes a symbol not of his positive yearning but of his isolation and loneliness, his sense of exclusion from the world around him.

Richard doesn't always understand his sense of "eternal difference" from those around him, and clearly his temperament, his learning, and his willful separation from community institutions such as the church all play a part in his "apartness." But as he grows up, Richard increasingly sees that the racist environment of the South creates and sustains his feeling of exclusion. Richard's attitudes toward white people begin to form early on, when, for example, he watches from the kitchen as a white family eats from a "loaded table" while he and his brother wait for whatever food is leftover. Though at the time he feels only "vaguely angry" and decidedly hungry, such experiences eventually convince Richard that "white folks" are in some way responsible for his exclusion from literacy and education, from knowledge of the wider world, from justice and equality, from possibilities in life, even from meaningful relationships with other people. In his fight with Harrison, Richard realizes that the power of white people to limit his life even extends to his relationships with his black peers. He fights Harrison against his will, beating up another oppressed "black boy"—and himself—because he cannot express his shame, anger, and hatred directly to the white men responsible for his feelings.

In a racist society that wants him to be content with his spiritual as well as his physical hunger, Richard finally finds "vague glimpses of life's possibilities" only in literacy, reading, and writing. He realizes at a young age that in order to lay bare the secrets of the world around him, he must understand "the baffling black print" that he sees in the school children's books. When he does learn to read, Richard uses his ability to probe into "every happening in the neighborhood," and this includes the realities of racial prejudice and hatred: When he hears that "a 'black' boy had been severely beaten by a 'white' man," he interrogates his mother about the difference between "black" and "white," words whose full significance he cannot yet grasp. At the same time, reading stories of "outlandish exploits of outlandish men in faraway, outlandish cities" gives Richard access to an imaginary world beyond his own. When he is older, Richard's reading opens his eyes to "new ways of looking and seeing" that "made the look of the world different" and let him imagine his life under different circumstances. Richard eventually recognizes that the social system of the South strives to keep black Americans from just such ways of thinking. Thus, Richard must lie about being able to read in order to check out books with a white man's library card, and he carries his newfound knowledge with him like "a secret, criminal burden." In the end, Richard's reading and his writing do not merely open his eyes to the realities of his life in the South but also create "a vast sense of distance" between him and that world, motivating him to leave it forever.

Wright's record of his experiences after his move to the North did not appear in the initial publication of Black Boy, though it was part of his original manuscript. (In order to see his work published by the Book of the Month Club, Wright had to agree to print a shortened version that concludes with his flight from the South.) What Richard finds in Chicago is not, by any means, an environment free from the racism of the South but rather a more "perplexing" situation in certain ways. Wright discovers that while whites and blacks in the North may view each other as merely "part of the city landscape," this nonchalance only masks a great "psychological distance" between the races. Many of the themes he develops in the first part of his narrative reemerge in the latter part, including his feelings of emotional isolation from other people, his sense of the psychological damage caused by race—prejudice and hatred, and his hunger for knowledge and understanding of the world and of himself. But more importantly, just as reading and writing alone offer Richard both a source information about his environment and a means of escape from it, Wright seeks meaning and purpose in the North by way of books and the pen. He concludes his original version of Black Boy, significantly, not with the resolution of his deep hungers or the healing of his psychic wounds but with a vow to write—to "look squarely" at his life, to "build a bridge of words" between him and the world, to "hurl words into this darkness" that surrounds him. This, in a sense, is what Wright does in Black Boy, creating from words a "Record of Childhood and Youth" that speaks to all readers of that which is "inexpressibly human," "the hunger for life that gnaws in us all."

Source: Anthony Dykema-VanderArk, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale 1997.

Richard Wright: Wearing the Mask

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Like the autobiographies of Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson, Richard Wright's Black Boy, published in 1945, has confused readers because of its generic ambiguity. For many readers, the book is particularly honest, sincere, open, convincing, and accurate. But for others, Black Boy leaves a feeling of inauthenticity, a sense that the story or its author is not to be trusted. These conflicting reactions are best illustrated by the following representative observations by Ralph K. White and W. E. B. Du Bois. White, a psychologist, has identified [in "Black Boy"] "ruthless honesty" as "the outstanding quality which made the book not only moving but also intellectually satisfying." But Du Bois notes [in "Richard Wright Looks Back"] that although "nothing that Richard Wright says is in itself unbelievable or impossible; it is the total picture that is not convincing." Attempting to reconcile these opposing views, I wish to argue that both sides are correct; that the book is an especially truthful account of the black experience in America, even though the protagonist's story often does not ring true, and that this inability to tell the truth is Wright's major metaphor of self. A repeated pattern of misrepresentation becomes the author's way of making us believe that his personality, his family, his race—his whole childhood and youth—conspired to prevent him from hearing the truth, speaking the truth, or even being believed unless he lied.

For most readers, worries about Black Boy's trustworthiness stem from questions of genre. Although the book was clearly not called "The Autobiography of Richard Wright," its subtitle—"A Record of Childhood and Youth"—does suggest autobiography with some claim to documentary accuracy. The following descriptions of Black Boy reflect the confusion of readers: biography, autobiographical story, fictionalized biography, masterpiece of romanced facts, sort of autobiography, pseudoautobiography, part-fiction/part-truth autobiography, autobiography with the quality of fiction, and case history....

Although Wright seemed unsure of his book's generic identity, he never referred to Black Boy as autobiography. His original title, American Hunger, later used for the portion of his life story that began after leaving Memphis for Chicago, came after he had rejected The Empty Box, Days of Famine, The Empty Houses, The Assassin, Bread and Water, and Black Confession, all of which sound like titles for novels. When his literary agent suggested the subtitle "The Biography of a Courageous Negro," Wright responded with "The Biography of an American Negro," then with eight other possibilities including "Coming of Age in the Black South," "A Record in Anguish," "A Study in Anguish," and "A Chronicle of Anxiety." Such titles indicate his feeling that the book he had written was less personal, more documentary—a study, a record, a chronicle, or even a biography—than autobiography. Constance Webb reports [in Richard Wright] that Wright was uneasy with the word autobiography, both because of "an inner distaste for revealing in first person instead of through a fictitious character the dread and fear and anguishing self-questioning of his life" and because he realized that he would write his story using "portions of his own childhood, stories told him by friends, things he had observed happening to others," and fictional techniques.

Although some readers believe Wright gave in to the "strong desire to alter facts" and "to dress up" his feelings, the book's tendency to intermix fiction and facts is clearly part of both Wright's personal literary history and the Afro-American literary tradition in which he was writing. The form of Black Boy in part imitates the traditional slave narrative, a literary type that allowed for a high degree of fictionality in the cause of abolition. A number of major works of literature by black Americans, such as Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folks, Toomer's Cane, and Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, feature mixtures of genres; and Wright, simultaneously a poet, novelist, essayist, journalist, playwright, and actor, often used the same material in different genres. For example, "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow " first appeared as an essay and was later attached to the stories of Uncle Tom's Children, one of which, "Bright and Morning Star," is retold in Black Boy as a tale that held the protagonist in thrall, even though he "did not know if the story was factually true or not." When "Black Boy" says that the story is emotionally true, he reflects exactly the kind of truth Wright wants his readers to respond to in Black Boy. Some of the characters in Black Boy have been given fictional names, whereas Bigger Thomas, the central character in the fictional Native Son, is the real name of one of Wright's acquaintances. That he used real names in fiction and fictional names in nonfiction is typical of Richard Wright, who further confounded the usual distinctions between author and persona by playing the role of Bigger Thomas in the first film version of Native Son.

Richard Wright makes clear that Black Boy is not meant as a traditional autobiography by presenting much of the story in the form of dialogue marked with quotation marks, a technique that suggests the unusual degree of fiction within the story. Although critics often point to Wright's first novel, Native Son (1940), as the other half of Black Boy, another model for this autobiographical work was his more recently completed Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the American Negro in the United States (1941). Writing Black Boy in the spirit of folk history seemed a reasonable thing to do, and Wright apparently saw no hypocrisy in omitting personal details that did not contribute to what he was simultaneously thinking of as his own story and the story of millions of others. Wright's claim to be composing the autobiography of a generic black child is reinforced by the narrator's particular reaction to racism: "The things that influenced my conduct as a Negro did not have to happen to me directly; I needed but to hear of them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of my consciousness."

[Most] of the omission in Black Boy is designed not to make the persona appear admirable but to make Richard Wright into "Black Boy," to underplay his own family's middle-class ways and more positive values. Wright does not mention that his mother was a successful school teacher and that many of his friends were children of college faculty members; he omits most of his father's family background and his own sexual experiences. Also mainly left out are reactions from sensitive southern whites, including those of the Wall family to whom, we learn from Michel Fabre's biography [The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright], "he sometimes submitted his problems and plans ... and soon considered their house a second home where he met with more understanding than from his own family."

In addition to omissions, name changes, poetic interludes, and extensive dialogue, Black Boy is replete with questionable events that biographical research has revealed to be exaggerated, inaccurate, mistaken, or invented. The section of Fabre's biography dealing with the Black Boy years is characterized by constant disclaimers about the factuality of the story. Some omissions can be explained because the urbane ex-Communist who began Black Boy "wanted to see himself as a child of the proletariat," though "in reality he attached greater importance to the honorable position of his grandparents in their town than he did to his peasant background." Although these distortions are acceptable to many, especially in light of Wright's intention of using his life to show the effects of racism, numerous other manipulations are less acceptable because they are more self-serving.

Most of these incidents are relatively minor and might be judged unimportant; however, the misrepresentations in two of the book's most important episodes—the high school graduation speech and the story of Uncle Hoskins and the Mississippi River—might be less acceptable. "Black Boy's" refusal to deliver the principal's graduation speech rather than his own is apparently based on truth, but the version in Black Boy leaves out the important fact that Wright rewrote his speech, cutting out more volatile passages, as a compromise. The story of Uncle Hoskins does not ring true, for how could a boy whose life had been so violent to that point be scared of his uncle's relatively harmless trick? He says of his Uncle Hoskins, "I never trusted him after that. Whenever I saw his face the memory of my terror upon the river would come back, vivid and strong, and it stood as a barrier between us." One reason the tale feels false is that the whole story—complete with the above revelations about Uncle Hoskins—actually happened to Ralph Ellison, who told it to Richard Wright [see Webb, p. 419].

For many critics, including Edward Margolies, these deliberate manipulations reduce Black Boy's authenticity as autobiography because they set up doubts about everything, the same doubts that resonate through the remarks of black writers from Du Bois to Baldwin to David Bradley, all of whom have persisted in taking Black Boy's protagonist to be Richard Wright. But, "Richard Wright is not the same person as the hero of that book, not the same as T or 'Richard' or the 'Black boy,' not by several light years," argues James Olney, [in "Some Versions of Memory/Some Versions of Bios"], who refers to the book's chief character as "black boy," explaining that "by means of an encompassing and creative memory, Richard Wright imagines it all, and he is as much the creator of the figure that he calls 'Richard' as he is of the figure that, in Native Son, he calls 'Bigger.'" Olney's idea that the central figure be treated as a single person referred to as "black boy," a literary character representing the actual author both as a child and as an adult—the famous writer imagining himself as representative of inarticulate black children—is finally convincing. That seems to be what Richard Wright meant to do, what he said he had done, and what he did...

The opening scene suggests the whole atmosphere of the book—a desperate fear of meaningless visitations of violence without context, a life of deliberate misrepresentations of the truth and complete distrust of all people, a world in which "each event spoke with a cryptic tongue." Throughout Black Boy, Wright presents a lonely figure whose life does not ring true because "that's the way things were between whites and blacks in the South; many of the most important things were never openly said; they were understated and left to seep through to one." Thus all actions are tempered by a subtext, which is obvious to everyone, a strategy that the author claimed to have discovered when he delivered his Fisk University oration.

Whenever the narrator questions his mother about racial relationships, she is defensive and evasive. "I knew that there was something my mother was holding back," he notes. "She was not concealing facts, but feelings, attitudes, convictions which she did not want me to know," a misrepresentation that disturbs "black boy" who later says, "My personality was lopsided; my knowledge of feeling was far greater than my knowledge of fact." Although the narrator holds back or conceals facts, he is usually straightforward about emotional feelings, even though he can say, "The safety of my life in the South depended upon how well I concealed from all whites what I felt." Worrying less about factual truth, Wright was determined to stress the emotional truth of southern life to counteract the stereotypical myths shown in the song that prefaced Uncle Tom's Children: "Is it true what they say about Dixie? Does the sun really shine all the time?".

The actual audience must narrow the gap between the narrative and authorial audiences; the reader of Black Boy must strive to be like the narrator of Black Boy, must keep what is happening at a particular moment and the entire history of black-white relations—the content and the context—together in his or her mind. Wright's context includes the need to speak simultaneously as an adult and as a child and to remove everything from his story that, even if it happened to be true, would allow white readers to maintain their distorted stereotype of southern blacks. He was searching for a way to confess his personal history of lying, forced on him by his childhood, while still demonstrating that he could be trusted by both black and white.

Wright's words are not self-pitying; instead, he is presenting a naive youth who was never good at lying or exaggerating. The misrepresentation is so obvious that only a particularly inept liar would attempt it, a child who did not want to be good at lying. Only an outsider, such as "black boy," to the established systems of lying by both races, a representative of the many black adolescents then coming of age—what Wright hoped would be a new generation of the children of Uncle Tom, no longer willing to accept the old lie that the best way to fight racism was to lie through both omission and commission—could fail to distinguish between melodrama and genuine oppression and could be so surprised at the power of his words.

Black Boy should not be read as historical truth, which strives to report those incontrovertible facts that can be somehow corroborated, but as narrative truth. The story that Richard Wright creates in Black Boy, whatever its value as an exact historical record, is important both in telling us how the author remembers life in the pre-Depression South and in showing us what kind of person the author was in order to have written his story as he did. Although he is often deliberately false to historical truth, he seldom deviates from narrative truth. In Black Boy, Wright has made both the horrifyingly dramatic and the ordinary events of his life fit into a pattern, shaped by a consistent, metaphoric use of lying.

Source: Timothy Dow Adams, "Richard Wright: 'Wearing the Mask,'" in his Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography, The University of North Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 69-83.

The Quest for Pure Motion in Richard Wright's Black Boy

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Richard Wright is noted for his trapped heroes, especially figures such as Bigger Thomas, Fred Daniels, and Cross Damon, but he has also written powerfully of the quest for open motion. Both "The Man Who Was Almos' a Man" and "Big Boy Leaves Home" end with bittersweet images of the heroes moving vaguely North in search of new lives which may or may not be available to them. The Long Journey concludes with its central character on "a journey that would take him far, far away" from a restrictive past toward new possibilities. These narratives evoke simultaneously allusions to the journey across the River Jordan celebrated by the spirituals, the odyssey down the road extolled by the blues, and the search for open space which resonates through our classic literature. All of these works, to use Whitman's phrase [from Leaves of Grass], "tramp a perpetual journey" toward varying degrees of freedom and independence.

Although Wright is often described as a natural genius who wrote about raw experiences unfiltered through any literary traditions, he was, as Michel Fabre has cogently argued [in CLA Journal, June 1973], a very well-read man who was acutely aware of the "dual heritage of the Black writer in America." Black Boy, which is essentially structured as a search for an open journey, drinks thirstily from the deep streams of Black folk literature and American picaresque literature. As a result, it portrays Wright's own life as very different from Bigger Thomas' trapped existence. Although he had to struggle hard against the racist environment which paralyzed many of his characters, Wright was able to liberate himself and thus give free play to what Ellison has called [in Shadow and Act] his "almost manic restlessness." Far from being a sign of purposelessness and incoherence, Wright's pursuit of open motion endowed his life with real energy and purpose. Indeed, it helps to account for his triumph as a man and an artist.

In its most basic terms, Black Boy presents a world with two basic options: 1) human suffocation which is dramatized with images of stasis, and 2) human possibility which is rendered by images of constant movement. To emphasize this polarity, Wright repeatedly contrasts scenes of motion and stasis throughout the book. For example, the terrifying opening scene of entrapment is artfully counterpointed with the Whitmanesque prose poem which immediately follows it. Unlike Native Son, which is telescoped by the opening scene of paralysis, Black Boy begins with two scenes which define the book's central drives.

Confined in a house with a bed-ridden grandmother, Wright as a four-year-old boy looks "yearningly" out into the empty street, all the while "dreaming of running and playing and shouting." From the beginning, his protean imagination is set in opposition to a flat, enervated environment which denies his impulses any creative outlet. Wandering "listlessly" about the room, he can find nothing interesting except the "shimmering embers" and "quivering coals" of the fire. Even after he has been cautioned by his mother not to play with the fire, he feels irresistibly drawn to this fluid medium and soon sets the curtains ablaze. Although his immediate reaction is "to run away and never come back," he merely hides under the house which he falsely regards as "a place of safety." He breaks into "a wild run" when his father pulls him out of the crawl space but is easily caught and then severely beaten by his mother, to the extent that he is bed-ridden for five days. This scene ends on a note of painful ambivalence with Wright "determined to run away" but "lost in a fog of fear." As Fabre has observed [in The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright], this episode left lasting scars on Wright, shattering his emotional security and initiating an "estrangement" which deepened as Wright grew older. Indeed, the "red circles" of flame which consume the curtains can be seen as a revealing symbol of Wright's early life—a trap of spreading violence which can easily destroy him if he fails to understand and find alternatives to it.

In addition, the prose poem which immediately follows this scene, gives some clues about what these alternatives might be. Here Wright is outdoors, moving in a world of imaginative, physical, and emotional freedom. Whereas in the previous scene his consciousness was blocked by fear, he now relaxes and expands his sensibilities, as experience reveals its "coded meanings" to him. Significantly, the poem is suffused with lyrical images of indefinite motion: horses clopping down a dusty road; Wright himself running through wet garden paths in the early morning; the Mississippi River winding past the bluffs of Natchez; wild geese flying South for the winter; a solitary ant moving on "a mysterious journey"; and "vast hazes of gold" which "washed earthward from star-heavy skies on silent nights." The implications of this startling juxtaposition of scenes are clear. Even in the harshly restrictive world of segregated Mississippi there are avenues of escape and development. Once liberated from society, which in Black Boy is always a trap, Wright can discover a protean world offering human possibilities.

As is the case in much American writing, the physical liberation literally described by the poem almost always generates emotional and spiritual freedom. Although the net effect of the opening scene is to bottle up Wright's feelings, here he feels wonder at the horses, nostalgia for the geese, and languor from the rustling leaves. These images also spring meanings which have significant spiritual overtones. The waters of the Mississippi evoke "a sense of the infinite," the movements of the lone ant are described as "mysterious," and the motion of the stars instills in him a deep religious awe. In short, motion endows life with vitality and meaning, transforming a dead world of routine into a dynamic realm of beauty where the self can be transformed.

Wright carefully develops this contrast between motion and stasis throughout Black Boy. The Memphis tenement in which he lives as a young man is set in opposition to the steamboat ride on the Mississippi which fires his imagination. The terror he initially feels at being locked out of his house is dissolved into fascination by his "irresistible" impulse to roam the streets of the city. The scene where he again hides under his bed to avoid a beating from his grandmother is likewise contrasted with a second prose poem filled with images of movement—chasing butterflies, observing the "rolling sweep of tall green grass," and enjoying "nights of drizzling rain." The closed world of Mississippi is always sharply differentiated from the open world of his developing spirit.

Black Boy, therefore, has a narrative structure which is complexly double, giving us two opposite but thematically related plot patterns. Wright's outer journey takes the form of a series of apparently random moves which end in paralysis. In contrast to this naturalistic fable, strongly resembling the plots of works such as Maggie- A Girl of the Streets and McTeague, is an inward narrative which is centered around the development of the hero's consciousness which will enable him eventually to move in freer, more productive ways. As such, it is a story of awakening and is closely related to Dreiser's Dawn and Farrell's autobiographical novels about Danny O'Neill.

An even cursory examination of the outer narrative of Black Boy vividly demonstrates that Wright's physical movements during his early life were a bewildering road leading nowhere. As Keneth Kinnamon has revealed [in The Emergence of Richard Wright], Wright lived in no less than nineteen residences in his first nineteen years. The result of this incoherent movement from one racist place to another was to strip Wright of both familial bonds and a meaningful self image, thus depriving him of any emotional center to his life. The results of such a life of perpetual drifting are clear to Wright as he observes the people around him. His father's life is an especially painful object lesson, for he sees it as environmentally-controlled movement leading to eventual depletion:

I stood before him, poised, my mind aching as it embraced the simple nakedness of his life, feeling how completely his soul was imprisoned by the slow flow of the seasons, by wind and rain and sun, how fastened were his memories to a crude and raw past, how chained were his actions and emotions to the direct, animalistic impulses of his withering body, (italics added)

Since nothing directs the father's life but the restrictive motions of nature, his movements eventually wind down to a terrifying stasis. After deserting the family and wandering restlessly around the North where he becomes "hopelessly snarled" in the city, he returns to the South to live out his days in a form of slavery, sharecropping. His life then is very much like the flame described in Chapter One, a circle of necessity which consumes him.

Wright's view of his grandmother and mother are also portrayed with images of futility. Unlike his father who was associated with blind movement, the grandmother is always described in terms of an equally disastrous inertia. Initially presented as immobilized in a sick bed, she is throughout the novel mentally and spiritually imprisoned by an absolute commitment to a fundamentalist religion which separates her from anything vital in life. Her house in Jackson provides a kind of locus for Wright since it is the place to which he keeps returning after his various moves, but it is always a dead center of repression and he usually feels a sense of claustrophobia there. His deepest wish is simply to run away from such a "home" as soon as he grows old enough to do so.

An even more important image of futility is provided by his mother, whose suffering becomes a tragic epiphany of the wasted life. After a stroke leaves her partially paralyzed, she is often seen in bed or, like Dreiser's Hurstwood, rocking in a chair while gazing blankly into oblivion. Indeed, one of the central passages in Black Boy is Wright's agonized meditation on his mother's condition:

That night I ceased to react to my mother; my feelings were frozen. Her illness gradually became an accepted thing in the house, something that could not be stopped or helped.

My mother's suffering grew into a symbol in my mind, gathering to itself all the poverty, the ignorance, the helplessness, the painful, baffling, hunger-ridden hours, the restless moving, the futile seeking, the uncertainty, the fear, the dread, the meaningless pain and endless suffering. Her life set an emotional tone for my life.

The forms of moral and physical paralysis characterizing the lives of his parents and grandmother become for Wright an index of the roles assigned to Blacks in Southern society, all of which result in "meaningless suffering."

It is his task to "wring a meaning" out of such suffering. Although he eventually comes to see the South as a Dantean hell where he is "forever condemned, ringed by walls," he nevertheless is able to achieve salvation of sorts by moving along his "own strange and separate road." Caught in a society which is intent on reducing his life to random drifting, disintegration, and paralysis, he is able to find a meaningful alternative in his own inwardness: "Because I had no power to make things happen outside me, I made things happen within me." Crucial to this purposeful inward narrative is Wright's gradual mastery of language through reading and writing, a process which is always associated with images of motion and release. Even the cheap pulp thrillers he reads as a boy become "a gateway to the world" because they transport him from the locked room in which he reads to "outlandish men in faraway, outlandish cities." Energizing his imagination, they provide Wright access to an open world Ella, the boarder at his grandmother's house, can feed his starved imagination on the literature which serves as an alternative to his grandmother's mind-numbing religiosity:

As her words fell upon my ears I endowed them with a reality that welled up somewhere within me.... The tale made the world around me be, throb, live. As she spoke, reality changed, the look of things altered, and the world became peopled with magical presences. My sense of life deepened... My imagination blazed. (italics added)

This rich proliferation of motion images, which portrays his mind bubbling, the world throbbing and his imagination blazing, suggests that his active use of language has dissolved the harshly fixed limits of Southern life. Restrictive place has been turned into open space—a universe of growth.

Source: Robert J. Butler, "The Quest for Pure Motion in Richard Wright's Black Boy," in MELUS, Vol. 10, No. 3, Fall, 1983, pp. 5-17.


Critical Overview