Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth Analysis

Richard Wright

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Black Boy traces the young Richard Wright’s troubled journey through the violence, ignorance, and poverty of the Jim Crow South. Originally intended as a much longer work, the autobiography focuses primarily on the racist attitudes Wright encountered as he moved from rural Mississippi and Arkansas to Memphis, Tennessee. It also highlights the turmoil he suffered growing up in a supposedly cruel and often overbearing family environment. The book ends in 1925 with the nineteen-year-old Wright, having begun his literary apprenticeship, determined to become a writer and escape the nightmarish turbulence of the oppressive South.

The posthumously published American Hunger takes up where the earlier autobiography left off. It chronicles not only Wright’s disillusionment with the Communist Party, which he joined near the end of 1933, but also the difficulties he experienced as a poor African American living in the urban North. “What had I got out of living in America?” Wright asks at the end of the book. “I paced the floor, knowing that all I possessed were words and a dim knowledge that my country had shown me no examples of how to live a human life.” Wright vows to “hurl words” at his country in order to make it a safer and more promising place for all Americans.

In the early 1940’s, Wright considered himself a militant novelist; he thought his own biography would be of little interest to the American public. Writing disturbing, violent fiction such as the acclaimed novel Native Son (1940), which put to rest the myth that American racism confined itself only to the Deep South, provided him the voice he needed to help resist American injustice. Only after he traveled to Fisk University in Nashville in 1943 to speak to a group of sociology students did Wright realize the potential of his own life story. The mixed group of white and African American admirers responded enthusiastically as he recalled what it was like growing up during the early decades of the twentieth century. That night, Wright decided to abandon fiction temporarily and to string together his own thoughts and memories into a candid, personal narrative.

Wright wrote his complete autobiography, which he originally entitled American Hunger, in less than eight months, relying partly on a sketch he had written about himself in 1937 called “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.” Eventually included in Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), his first collection of short stories, this early autobiographical piece recounts, in nine segments, the violence and resistance Wright had experienced in Jackson, Mississippi, and West Helena, Arkansas, where he spent most of his childhood, and in Memphis, where he spent his later adolescence and plotted his eventual journey north. The author’s expanded autobiography expounds on these episodes and more, including Wright’s flight from the South and his future assimilation into a Chicago slum. It also recalls his days as a young militant and the difficulties he encountered trying to make his living as a writer under the aegis of the Communist Party.

Edward Aswell, Wright’s editor at Harper & Brothers, praised the manuscript and agreed to publish it the following year. He suggested to Wright, however, that only the “Southern” section of the text be released. The Book-of-the-Month Club, which had agreed to feature the autobiography, objected to Wright’s criticism of the Communist Party and threatened to withdraw its support without specific revisions. Somewhat reluctantly, Wright accepted Aswell’s advice. Further delays postponed the publication until the following spring, when it appeared under the new title Black Boy: A Recollection of Childhood and Youth. Over the next several months, Wright’s recollections of his Chicago days were published separately as articles in various literary journals. They appeared collectively as American Hunger in 1977, seventeen years after the author’s death.

Black Boy is divided chronologically into fourteen chapters. It begins with two episodes that introduce most of the important people in Wright’s youth, including his parents and his Grandmother Wilson. On the opening page of the book, Wright recalls an accidental fire he set in his grandparents’ rural home and how he was beaten so severely afterward by his parents that he lost consciousness. The “fog of fear” that enveloped Wright following the beating stands as a fitting metaphor for the agonizing and painful relationship that he claims he experienced with his family while living in the...

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Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Richard Wright, a prominent black American writer, tells his story of growing up in the Jim Crow South during the early decades of the twentieth century. Written in the form of a novel, Black Boy describes the ordeal of being black in a world dominated by Southern whites; it also portrays the emotional turmoil of a child struggling for personal identity among domineering adults. Wright’s struggle to become a self-reliant individual and writer was a battle fought on two fronts: against the cultural barrenness of his own race, and against the tyranny of Southern whites.

Black Boy narrates the events of Richard Wright’s formative years chronologically. Beginning with his accidentally setting his house on fire at age four, this autobiography first tells how young Richard acquired an education from the streets, drinking at the age of six and fighting with others for autonomy. Expectations to conform, however, oppressed Richard throughout his life. Family members exacted slavish obedience to their arbitrary demands. The church attempted to coerce him into religious conviction. And whites, whenever he encountered them, demanded that he know, and keep, his “place.”

Richard first attempted to control his world by striking out against it, but fighting and confrontation proved to be ineffectual. “Because I had no power to make things happen outside of me in the objective world,” he noted, “I made things happen within.” Reading and writing began to evoke within him a deep emotional response, giving shape and meaning to an otherwise meaningless life.

Events described in Black Boy capture Richard’s early impression of life’s meaninglessness. The incomprehensibility of a distant war, the terrifying lynching of a friend, the exploitation of women, chain gangs, and the inexplicability of his mother’s suffering, all served to confirm his sense of living in an unpredictable world. By the age of twelve, he recalled, he had developed “a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.”

Richard’s quest to discover how to “live in a world in which one’s mind and perceptions meant nothing and authority and tradition meant everything” uncovered no positive role models. Instead, he found himself surrounded by countless examples of how he should not live: an emotionally exploitative grandmother obsessed by her religion, a father who had abandoned his responsibility, uncles and aunts who beat him and behaved childishly, girls who made love indiscriminately, classmates who accepted abuse to get ahead, workers who stole without conscience, and white employers who preferred that he conform to their own demeaning stereotypes. The cumulative effect of such an environment filled Richard with despair and a keen awareness of his separateness. In turn, Richard was rejected by those people for his persistent individualism and determination to live with integrity.

From childhood (on the opening page he is commanded to “hush up”), Richard was surrounded by people who were determined to control him and to keep him quiet. Disciplined for an ignorant use of profanity, harassed by the school principal for wanting to give his own speech, and ridiculed for writing a story, Richard grew up silent and reserved, unable to act out the roles his society thought he should meekly play. He found himself forced from several jobs and eventually forced to steal. He witnessed constant oppression and lamented the apparent passivity of Southern blacks.

Richard at last found affirmation through his writing. Having completed his first story, he realized, “I had made something, no matter how bad it was; and it was mine.” Later he recalled that the only encouragement he ever received as a boy was from the editor who published that first story.

Richard came to a turning point with the recognition that he would never alter his relationship with his environment. Determined, then, to change his environment, he left his home, convinced that he was beginning to run toward, rather than away from, some goals. In 1925, at the age of seventeen, Richard moved to Memphis, destined eventually for Chicago. His rediscovery of books in Memphis at last awakened in him a hope for life’s possibilities. Words, he discovered, could be used as weapons to effect change.

Black Boy, subtitled A Record of Childhood and Youth, reads like a novel. It could be the story of any precocious black boy growing up in the South, for Wright makes no reference to his later success as a writer. He simply presents the experience of his growing up, uncluttered by the sorts of historical facts and data one might expect from an autobiography. The chapters remain untitled and conclude with Wright’s decision to head north toward Chicago.

Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Presented as a chronological narrative of fourteen chapters, Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, already contains in its opening chapter the major theme of his work as a whole: the trauma of alienation and the need for personal emancipation. As a four-year-old, Wright succeeded in setting fire to the white curtains in the house of his forbidding grandmother, who appeared to him to be white. Wright’s mischievous rebel child charts out his defiance of the order of silence and submission imposed on him by family and culture. Although he is subsequently punished for his incendiary efforts, he continues to act as an “ethical criminal,” a phrase from one of his later works.

The narrator usually finds a way to justify his actions as an expression of his need for authenticity and freedom. He defies the authority of his schoolteacher, Aunt Addie, by refusing to inform on a schoolmate, thus taking the punishment himself. He also learns to defend himself against the personal attacks and physical assaults of his uncle, Tom Wilson. He turns down his principal’s offer to read a prepared text and instead chooses to compose and deliver his own valedictory graduation speech. Yet Wright also learns that, in the segregated South, the privileged action of open defiance can be practiced only against members of his own family and race.

It is in his confrontations with his religious fundamentalist grandmother that Wright first learns to substitute the art of subterfuge for his instinctive impulses toward open, childish defiance and rebellion. Because his grandmother not only looks white but also, like real white people, possesses the resources to impose obedience, Wright concludes that she must be deceived as if she were white. Because his addiction to the reading and ultimately the writing of fictional works cannot be admitted openly in a household in which every work of the imagination (except for the Bible) is considered to be a “work of the devil,” Wright earns the privilege of privacy in his room by pretending to practice religious study and prayer.

Later, he applied the same art of deception by displaying tacit submission to white authority, agreeing to fill his predetermined role in segregated society. By pretending to be illiterate and obtuse, he succeeded in hiding his true identity, his forbidden aspirations and tastes. In the end, through deception, he gained access to many volumes of forbidden literature from the local library and obtained the blessing of his white bosses for his departure for the North.

Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

World War II
World War II was coming to an end when Black Boy was published in 1945. In fact, as the novel topped the...

(The entire section is 727 words.)

Literary Style

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Narration
Taking liberty with his own life's story, Richard Wright created a masterpiece in the story of Black Boy, a...

(The entire section is 595 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Taking liberty with his own life's story, Wright created a masterpiece in Black Boy, a first person narrative about a boy growing up...

(The entire section is 540 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Wright's Black Boy is a novel about individual positions within a racist mind-set.

1. Read a novel by Ann Petry or another...

(The entire section is 256 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

When Richard Wright wrote his masterful autobiographical novel Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, he created a new genre of...

(The entire section is 879 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

1940s: Race relations were tense, at best, with Jim Crowism sanctioned in several states of the union as well as being practiced by...

(The entire section is 239 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Read a novel by Ann Petty or any other member of the "Wright School" (Chester Himes, Willard Savoy, Philip B. Kaye etc.) and compare with...

(The entire section is 346 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Wright's works have been associated with those of Chicago Realists Nelson Algren (1909-1981) and James T. Farrell (1904-1979) who wrote...

(The entire section is 84 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Wright's first success was Native Son (1940). It is the tragic tale of Bigger Thomas and explores many of the same themes as Black...

(The entire section is 204 words.)

Adaptations

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

An audio recording of Black Boy by Brock Peters was issued in 1989 by Caedmon/ New York.

(The entire section is 16 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

A recording of Black Boy was made by Brock Peters. It was made available in 1989 by Caedmon/New York.

(The entire section is 19 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Wright's first success was Native Son (1940). It is the tragic tale of Bigger Thomas and explores many of the same themes as Black...

(The entire section is 312 words.)

Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Andrews, William L., and Douglas Taylor, eds. Richard Wright’s “Black Boy” (“American Hunger”): A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Compilation of responses to Black Boy that includes contemporary criticism by such writers as W. E. B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison, as well as later academic evaluations.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Richard Wright’s “Black Boy.” New York: Chelsea House, 2006. Collects essays on Wright’s autobiography by leading scholars. Includes thematic studies, as well as comparisons of Wright’s work to that of Maya Angelou and to the African American autobiographical tradition...

(The entire section is 340 words.)

Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Suggested Readings

Butterfield, Stephen. Black Autobiography in America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974. Essays on slave narratives and other influences upon black autobiography as well as essays on specific writers including Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Frederick Douglass.

Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. Translated by Isabel Barzun. Rev. ed. New York: William Morrow, 1973. A significant, and probably the definitive, biography, with much useful information about Wright’s literary works, including Black Boy.

Felgar, Robert. Richard Wright. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A useful overview of the author and his works.

Gibson, Donald B. “Richard Wright’s Black Boy and the Trauma of Autobiographical Rebirth,” in Callaloo. IX (Summer, 1986), pp. 492-498.

Howland, Jacob. “Black Boy: A Story of Soul-Making and a Quest for the Real,” in Phylon. XLVII (June, 1986), pp. 117-127.

Mack, Richard, and Frank E. Moorer. Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1984. A collection of essays examining the writer and his works, including a chronology of important dates in Wright’s life.

Margolies, Edward. The Art of Richard Wright. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. A general study, including a brief discussion of Black Boy as a film documentary.

Porter, Horace A. “The Horror and the Glory: Richard Wright’s Portrait of the Artist in Black Boy and American Hunger,” in Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1984. Edited by Frank E. Moorer.

Stepto, Robert T. Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. 2d ed. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

Thaddeus, Janice. “The Metamorphosis of Richard Wright’s Black Boy,” in American Literature. LVII (May, 1985), pp. 199-214.

Wright, Richard. Conversations with Richard Wright. Edited by Keneth Kinnamon and Michel Fabre. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Sources
Robert A Bone, The Negro Novel in America, revised edition, Yale University Press, 1965, pp 141-52.

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(The entire section is 583 words.)