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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.

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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 South.

The second episode is set in Memphis and involves Wright’s gruesome killing of the family kitten. Wright had been playing with the noisy animal with his younger brother when their father, who had been trying to sleep, ordered his sons to “Kill that damn thing!” Wright knew that his father had only meant to quiet the pet, but his hatred for his father encouraged Wright to accept the statement literally. After he hanged the kitten, Wright realized that he had triumphed over his father. He was elated because he had finally discovered a way of throwing his criticism of his father into his father’s face. “I had made him feel that, if he whipped me for killing the kitten, I would never give serious weight to his words again,” Wright explains. “I had made him know that I felt he was cruel and I had done it without his punishing me.”

Wright recalls several other disturbing incidents in his troubled home: the day his father, who had deserted the family, humiliated his mother at a court hearing; his mother’s debilitating strokes, which left her paralyzed for months at a time; and the constant shufflings back and forth between distant relatives. He also details the numerous battles he had with Granny, his strict Seventh-day Adventist maternal grandmother, who repeatedly warned young Richard that he “would burn forever in the lake of fire” unless he converted and renounced his sinful ways. The family quarreled incessantly, and Wright often compared his living situation to that of a common criminal. “Wherever I found religion in my life I found strife,” Wright proclaims. He characterizes religion as “the attempt of one individual or group to rule another in the name of God.”

Black Boy is equally remembered for its depiction of Wright’s numerous encounters with racism and for the courage and dignity he tried to maintain while living in the oppressive South. In one gripping scene, Wright recalls how his Uncle Hoskins, who owned a thriving liquor business, was killed by a gang of jealous whites who coveted a share of his liquor profits. In order to avoid further danger, Wright’s family was forced to flee in the middle of the night. No matter where he lived in the South, Wright witnessed insult and false accusation, police brutality, rape, castration, and lynching—all at the hands of racist whites. Educated in the ethics of Jim Crow, he soon learned how to pitch his voice “to a low plane, trying to rob it of any suggestion of overtone or aggressiveness,” so that local whites would tolerate him.

Even in the more cosmopolitan Memphis, Wright experienced racial prejudice and quickly learned the numerous subjects that southern whites refused to discuss with African Americans. Despite its bigotry, however, the city environment did offer Wright new options, including the chance to discover the world of literature. In one of the book’s most memorable passages, Wright describes how, as an adolescent, he would forge notes in order to check out books from the city library. Each time he wanted new literature, he would hand the white librarian a sheet of paper that read, “Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by. . . .” Wright believed that the librarian would never suspect him of writing such a note if he actually referred to himself as a “nigger.” The trick worked. Wright read voraciously, and books by H. L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis taught him new ways of looking at the world. Convinced that his southern heritage would continue to terrorize him, Wright left Memphis for Chicago on December 27, 1927. He was nineteen years old.

American Hunger, a much shorter work of five chapters, begins with Wright’s arrival in “the flat black stretches” of Chicago. Initially, the northern city offered Wright little relief. As had been the case in Memphis, he had difficulty finding decent employment and had to take odd jobs washing dishes and delivering goods. By the following summer, he had acquired part-time work at a city post office; because of severe malnourishment, however, he failed his physical exam, and once again he had to seek menial employment to survive. Wright also experienced an unhealthy family environment. Shortly after his move north, he was forced to share a windowless, one-room apartment with his mother and younger brother. The “emotional atmosphere in the cramped quarters became tense, ugly, petty, bickering,” Wright remembers in American Hunger. The brutal hardships of the urban surroundings left him bewildered and lonely, as if he “had fled one insecurity and . . . embraced another.”

Wright comments extensively on his interactions with the Communist Party, which offered him a needed escape from some of his personal misery. As he recalls in the autobiography, he was invited one evening by a friend to attend his first John Reed Club meeting. At first he was skeptical, convinced that Communists cared little about minority rights and solicited African American membership merely to push a political agenda. When he finally accepted his friend’s offer, he decided to attend “in the capacity of an amused spectator.” After several meetings, however, Wright’s opinions started to change. He was impressed by “the scope and seriousness” of the club’s activities and quickly moved from the rank and file to group leadership. The club initiated Wright into the modern world and provided him sustainable relationships with both men and women for years to come.

Many of these relationships were literary, and Wright soon discovered that club members and other leftists associated with the Communist Party provided him the encouragement he needed to pursue his writing career. Wright helped form literary support groups and engaged in political debate about the future of America’s oppressed. Just as relationships with his family suffered in the face of poverty, however, so too did his association with Communists deteriorate. Although they recruited him for public appearances, many Communists, especially African American Communists, suspected Wright’s motives and often challenged him to debate. Wherever he turned, Wright was subjected to deceit and harassment. He was soon branded an “intellectual” and accused of plotting to undermine the Communist Party. Convinced that the artist and the committed activist stood at “opposite poles,” Wright severed his ties with the Communist Party in 1944.

Wright details other episodes that affected him while he was living in Chicago, including a rare humorous moment when he and his fellow workers disrupted a downtown medical research institute. Wright remembers how two older attendants got into a fistfight and accidentally knocked over the steel tiers containing scores of animals used in scientific experiments. The frightened workers quickly straightened the tiers, but they were left with the unwanted task of placing the cancerous rats, diabetic dogs, and other infected animals into their respective cages. Luckily, Wright and his cohorts were never discovered. In fact, as Wright ironically points out, they were left to marvel at how the fate of the research institute rested in “ignorant, black hands.”

Form and Content

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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.

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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

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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 best-seller charts, the U.S. 9th Armored Division and the 1st Armored Division secured Ally control on the west bank of the Rhine, and U.S. B-24 bombers were bombing Tokyo. The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945. In the Pacific, the war dragged on until August when an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and then another was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. World War II ended, and the loss of life was estimated at 54.8 million.

The Cold War was still a few years away, and 1945 seemed to be a year of victory for the Allies and the ideology of democratic capitalism. The United States was approaching the zenith of its industrial-economic might due to trade imbalance caused by war. Hollywood was not shy to back up the tales of U.S. Army plenty with movies showing how rich and ideal life in America was. The reality, however, was quite different. Americans were wealthy as a nation, and had shown just how wealthy they were by the immensity of the resources they had thrown behind the Allied cause, but individually things were mediocre. For the minorities in America, it was just plain bad. Blacks lived under Jim Crow in the South of the United States; the Dakotan, Navajo, Apache, and other tribal groups lived in reservations little better than concentration camps; and Japanese-Americans were being released from internment camps where they had been held under suspicion while the U.S. fought Japan. For these minority groups, there was no possibility of the Hollywood image being real, and in some sense members of these minority groups who had fought in the war had it worse. Like Richard Wright's grandfather, they fought for America but had little to show for it when they came home.

In some sense these problems were only dawning in 1945, because the transition to unemployment resulting from the demobilization of the war's industrial complex into a peacetime economy had not yet arrived. During the year there were signs of the upcoming struggle. Workers in car factories went on strike and despite those strikes, the American Gross National Product approached $211 billion. New agricultural procedures increased food production both within the U.S. and around the world, and food rationing in the U.S. ceased, although it remained a reality in Europe. It was not, and never had been, a problem of wealth in America but, as evidenced in Wright's work, a problem of distribution. America was rich in 1945 but its minorities were very poor.

A societal revolution was beginning to evolve out of this economic inequality. As troops returned home throughout the year, America began a transition back to a peace time economy, thus shifting workers away from military jobs. To succeed at this transition, images changed from encouragement of the war effort to encouragement of family and consumption. In the case of women, this meant the image not of a female in a factory, but a female at home, in a dress, with a baby. This coincided with a media revolution as America increased its private ownership of televisions from only 5.000 sets to the near-universal presence it has today. The U.S. government began its most effective and profitable investment ever—the GI Bill—which allowed the returning soldiers to go back to school or buy a home. This had two effects. First, the already painful transition to a peacetime economy in the job market was not made worse by the soldiers because they instead filled the universities. Second, after a delay there was a tremendous increase in the available numbers of college-educated workers.

The ideal of a peaceful world seemed closer than ever after World War II. Atomic power promised to deter large scale military aggression and the establishment of the United Nations in June of 1945 provided the forum for nonviolent resolutions and concerted action between the world governments. This was the hope, but the reality was being displayed in Palestine by Jewish settlers as they escalated their harassment of British forces in control of the region, and in China where the Russians and the Americans attempted to pick the right side of a battle just beginning between the revolting Communists under Mao Tse-tung and Chiang Kai-shek and his followers.

Literary Style

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Narration
Taking liberty with his own life's story, Richard Wright created a masterpiece in the story of Black Boy, a first-person ("I") narrative portraying a boy who grows up under the oppression of Southern racism. This narration demonstrated the principles of living within the Jim Crow system which Wright had previously laid out in "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," published in Uncle Tom's Children. He represented these ethics through the didactic story of Black Boy with the intention of altering white America's racism. Wright believed that a well-developed protagonist in a successful novel would do more for race relations than any political speech or ruling. Therefore, by the use of his own experience re-enforced by a first person persona, Black Boy exposes the reality of life for the black American realistically but without offering solutions.

Wright used the first-person narrative to provide an objective viewpoint that borders on the style that would come to be known as existentialism. He did this by portraying his own development in the same way that French writers like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre presented then-leading protagonists. Events and characters encountered by Richard are given only what depth is required to tell Richard's story, so that, in effect, Richard is the only character. The boy in the fourth chapter who wants to save Richard's soul is only an extension of Granny's "machinery," and Granny herself is but an incarnation of the repressive system of Christianity.

An example of how Richard glosses over every character, mentioning them only when they infringe on his consciousness, is the scene where he describes a confrontation among some unnamed boys in a school yard. He terms the associations of other black boys as a fraternity; not a conscious friendship, but a spontaneous gathering. The boys find themselves easily congregated together and are just as easily called away. No emotional links are described or maintained—not even with Griggs, who behaves in such a brotherly manner to Richard. For Richard, the only important things are his own awakening consciousness, his telling of his awakening, and his escape to the North.

Structure
Black Boy is structured as a series of spliced-together episodes in the life of Richard. Thus, the novel reads much like a movie, because in a very real way, Richard makes a documentary of himself. It is as if each chapter is a scene which is cut away from and moved into the next story. The finish of each chapter is punctuated with a sense of progress but not of ending. The novel is very easily visualized by the reader, not only because it is written in a naturalistic style, but also because there are no intrusions by other voices. Key to this structuring is the awareness that Richard has a growing appreciation and use for words. The whole world is filtered through Richard's growing consciousness into an existential Weltanschauung (world view) understandable only through his assignation of meaning.

This can be explained by noting that Richard was not allowed free motion—running, shouting, questioning—but had to stay quiet, avoid beatings, and answer his own ceaseless quest for explanation. As a result, Richard was formed by his conscious alienation: he knew he was under restraint but had no concept of an alternative. In reaction, he is very interested in life around him for the clues it reveals about the real world. However, he maintains his interest objectively and from a distance, just like when he is hungry but pretends disinterest in food because the eating of it would remind him of his shameful hunger.

Literary Techniques

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Taking liberty with his own life's story, Wright created a masterpiece in Black Boy, a first person narrative about a boy growing up under the oppression of Southern racism. His story demonstrated the principles of living within the Jim Crow system that Wright had previously laid out in "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," published in Uncle Tom's Children. He represented these ethics through the didactic story of Black Boy with the intention of altering white America's racism. Wright believed that a well-developed protagonist in a successful novel would do more for race relations than any political speech or ruling. He therefore used his own experiences, reinforced by a first person persona to realistically expose the life of black Americans without offering solutions.

Wright used first-person narrative to provide an objective viewpoint bordering on the style that would come to be known as existentialism. The portrayal of his development is similar to that used by French writers such as Albert Camus and Jean- Paul Sartre. Events and characters encountered by Richard are shown only to the depth required to tell the story, so that, in effect, Richard is the only character. The boy in the fourth chapter who wants to save Richard's soul is only an extension of Granny's "machinery," and Granny herself is but an incarnation of the repressive system of Christianity.

An example of how Richard glosses over every character, mentioning them only when they infringe on his consciousness, is the scene in which he describes a confrontation among some unnamed boys in a school yard. He calls the associations of other black boys a fraternity—not a conscious friendship, but a spontaneous gathering. The boys find themselves easily congregated together and just as easily called away. No emotional links are described or maintained— not even with Griggs who behaves in a brotherly manner to Richard. Important to Richard are only his own awakening consciousness, the story of his awakening, and his escape to the North.

The structure of Black Boy is a series of spliced-together episodes in Richard's life. The novel reads like a movie because Richard has made a documentary of himself. Each chapter is a scene and a story, and each chapter ends with a sense of progress but not closure. The reader can easily visualize the novel, not only because it is written in a naturalistic style, but also because no other voices intrude. Key to this structure is an awareness of Richard's growing appreciation for and use of words. The whole world is filtered through Richard's growing consciousness into an existential Weltanschauung (world view), understandable only through his assignation of meaning.

This can be explained by noting that Richard was not allowed free motion— running, shouting, questioning—but had to be quiet, avoid beatings, and answer his questions for himself. As a result, Richard was formed in conscious alienation: he knew he was under restraint, but knew of no alternative. In reaction, he is exceptionally interested in the life around him because of the clues it reveals to him about the real world. However, he maintains his interest objectively and from a distance, for example, when he is hungry, he pretends disinterest in food because eating would remind him of his shameful hunger.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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

1. Read a novel by Ann Petry or another member of the "Wright School" (Chester Himes, Willard Savoy, Philip B. Kaye, etc.) and compare it with Black Boy. In the case of Petry's The Street, address the difference in terms of gender and the world of the urban black in the cities of post-World War II America.

2. Is Wright less critical of America than he could be in Black Boy since Richard escapes to a better life in the north?

3. Think about perceptions: Wright repeatedly remarks about his refusal, at first, to adopt proper Jim Crow mannerisms and then the necessity of his having to do so? Are there roles that we play based on gender, class, or racial perceptions? Are these influenced or based upon information gathered from television? What perceptions about behavior are taught to us by the media?

4. Jim Crow was killed by the Civil Rights movement. Anti-hate legislation and human rights laws are being instituted around the country and rendering the justice system intolerant of all forms of discrimination. Legally, things seem to have changed dramatically since the time of the novel. In the matter of racial discrimination, have attitudes and behaviors kept pace with legislation?

5. Does it matter that Wright uses his own name and the real names of his family in this novel? To what degree is Black Boy autobiography; to what degree fiction?

6. Discuss images of light and dark in the novel. How are white characters portrayed?

Social Concerns

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When Richard Wright wrote his masterful autobiographical novel Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, he created a new genre of the post-World War II black novel and became a precursor of the Black Arts movements of the 1960s. Published in 1945 as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, Black Boy was received enthusiastically by the reading public and led the best-seller lists, with sales of 400,000 copies. The commercial success of his novel secured for Wright the reputation he had gained from his 1940 novel, Native Son. Because of these two works, Wright is considered one of the most important figures in twentieth-century American literature. His powerful influence on modern African American writing can be seen in the works of James Baldwin (Another Country, 1962) and Ralph Ellison (The Invisible Man, 1953).

Because Black Boy is an autobiographical novel, the story of Wright's early life is germane to analysis of the work. Wright was born on September 4,1908, at Rucker's Plantation in Roxie, Mississippi. His parents were Ellen Wilson, a school teacher, and Nathan Wright, a sharecropper. His brother Leon was born in 1910, and one year later the family moved to Ellen's parents' house in Natchez, the setting for the opening of Black Boy.

Shortly after the family moved to Memphis in 1913, Wright's father deserted them. During the next few years, Ellen did her best to feed and clothe her sons, but she became the victim of a devastating cycle of illness. She moved her boys to the home of her prosperous sister and brother-in-law, Maggie and Silas Hoskins, in Elaine, Arkansas, but when Hoskins was murdered by a white mob, Maggie, Ellen, and the children fled to West Helena.

Because of Ellen's illness, the responsibility of caring for her sons was passed around extended family, but Wright eventually went to his grandmother's house so that he could be near his mother. In 1920, he attended the Seventh-Day Adventist School taught by his Aunt Aggie, and later transferred to the Jim Hill School, where he made new friends and skipped the fifth grade. While attending Smith-Robertson Junior High School, he published his first short story in the Jackson Southern Register, "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre". After graduating as valedictorian in 1925, Wright moved to Memphis where his mother and brother joined him in 1927. He moved his family to Chicago one year later.
Black Boy adapts formative episodes from Wright's early life into a coming-of-age plot. The protagonist of the novel, Richard, is a boy growing up in the American South, where black life is limited by "Jim Crow" laws. These laws were a system of institutional racial segregation under which blacks were treated as second-class citizens. In his novel, Wright emphasizes two primary forces that supported this system: hunger and language. He shows how hunger drives those already oppressed to even more desperate acts, and he shows how he survives Jim Crow by developing language as a coping mechanism. Literature, meanwhile, offers him an internal release from the tensions that come from having to live without the freedom to express his human dignity. Thus, Wright's novel is a powerful story about an individual struggle for freedom of expression.

World War II was coming to an end when Black Boy was published in 1945. The war in Europe ended on May 8,1945. In the Pacific, the war continued until August. The Cold War had not yet begun, and 1945 was a year of victory for the Allies and the ideology of democratic capitalism. The United States was approaching the zenith of its industrial-economic might, the result of trade imbalances caused by war. Hollywood promoted the mythology of plenty with movies showing American life as rich and ideal. The reality, however, was quite different. America was a wealthy nation that could afford to spend an immense amount of resources to support the Allied cause, but for individuals, life was more moderate. For the minorities in America, it was just plain bad: blacks lived under a system of segregation in the South; the Dakotan, Navajo, Apache, and other tribal groups lived in reservations little better than concentration camps; and Japanese- Americans were being released from internment camps where they had been held while the United States fought Japan. For these minority groups, there was no possibility of the Hollywood image being real, and for members of these groups who had fought in the war, it was worse. Like Richard Wright's grandfather—who was wounded in the Civil War and later denied benefits because of a clerical error—they fought for America, but when they came home had little benefit from their sacrifices.

These problems were just beginning to surface in 1945 because the unemployment that came as a result of the transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy had not yet arrived. During that year, there were signs of the upcoming struggle. Workers in automobile factories went on strike, but despite those strikes the American Gross National Product approached $211 billion. New agricultural procedures increased food production both within the United States and around the world, and food rationing in the United States ceased, although it remained a reality in Europe. The problem in America was not, and never had been, a question of abundance, but, as evidenced in Wright's work, a question of distribution. America was rich in 1945, but its minorities were poor.

Compare and Contrast

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

Today: Jim Crowism was killed by the Civil Rights movement. Anti-hate legislation and human rights laws are being instituted around the country and rendering the justice system intolerant of all forms of discrimination. Thus, legally things look very good but, as a recent series of black church burnings and challenges in California to affirmative action show, race relations are still imperfect.

1940s: In the South, $17 of tuition was spent per black student per year and $35 per white child. Richard was not obligated nor able to go beyond the ninth grade (which, he says, was really the eighth grade).

Today: Cuts in tuition assistance put college almost beyond the reach of the poorest students. At the grade school level, no racial distinctions are made in public schools in the matter of spending. Instead, educational spending is decreasing due to congressional cuts. Furthermore, spending is not equally distributed, wealthy districts can afford to, and do, spend a lot more on their children's educations than less wealthy ones

1940s: America attempts to keep its people working and begins to build a safety net so that no person goes hungry, without care, or is unable to retire.

Today: From Wisconsin to California, U.S. legislators are erasing the threads which make up the American safety net.

Literary Precedents

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Wright's works have been associated with those of Chicago Realists Nelson Algren (1909-1981) and James T. Farrell (1904-1979) who wrote novels about life in the slums of Chicago. Additionally, Wright is counted among the most prominent African American writers of the first half of the twentieth century, along with such figures as W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963), James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), and the leading writers of the Harlem Renaissance, notably Alain Locke (1886-1954), Langston Hughes (1902- 1967), Jean Toomer (1894-1967), and Zora Neale Hurston (1901-1960).

Adaptations

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

Media Adaptations

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

Bibliography

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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

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

Ralph Ellison, "Richard Wright's Blues," in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, ed. John F. Callahan, Modern Library, 1995, pp 128-44.

Maryemma Graham and Jerry W Ward, Jr., "Black Boy (American Hunger): Freedom to Remember," in Censored Books Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karohdes, Less Burress, and John M. Kean, Scarecrow Press, 1993, pp. 109-16.

Sinclair Lewis, review in Esquire, June 23,1945.

Edward Margolies, The Art of Richard Wright, Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

Ronald Sanders, "Richard Wright and the Sixties," in Midstream, Vol. XXV, No 7, August/September, 1968, pp 28-40.

Lionel Trilling, review in The Nation, April 7, 1945.

Roger Whitlow, "Chapter 4. 1940-1960 Urban Realism and Beyond" in Black American Literature: A Critical History. Nelson Hall, 1973, pp 107-46.

Further Reading
Harold Bloom, editor, Richard Wright (Modem Critical Views), Chelsea, 1987.
A collection of essays on all of Wright's work, including an analysis of Black Boy's place in the black literary tradition.

Edward D Clark, "Richard Wright," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 76: Afro-American Writers, 1940-1955, Gale Research, 1988, pp 199-221.
Clark describes Wright's position in the history of American literature as that of a father to the post-World War II black novel.

Ralph Ellison, "The World and the Jug," in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F Callahan, Modern Librady, 1995, pp. 155-88
Ellison's powerful rejoinder to Irving Howe's commentary in "Black Boys and Native Sons."

Michel Fabre, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, William Morrow, 1973.
A lengthy biography, translated from French, that evaluates Wright as a "representative man" and an important spokesperson of his age.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K A. Appiah, editors, Richard Wright. Critical Perspectives Past and Present, Amistad, 1993.
A collection of critical essays on Wright's work written with knowledge of the untruncated version. In this collection is an essay by Horace A. Porter exploring in greater depth the similarity of Richard and Stephen Dedalus.

Donald B. Gibson, "Richard Wright: Aspects of His Afro-American Literary Relations," in Critical Essays on Richard Wright, ed. Yoshinobu Hakutani, G. K. Hall, 1982.
Gibson examines why Wright's work is "so clearly distinguished" from other literature by black authors, comparing Wright in particular to Charles Chesnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Irving Howe, "Black Boys and Native Sons," in A World More Attractive, Horizon, 1963.
Howe's well-known essay in which he examines and compares the element of "protest" in the works of Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison.

David Ray and Robert M. Famsworth, Richard Wright Impressions and Perspectives, University of Michigan Press, 1971.
A unique collection of writings by and about Wright, including personal impressions, reminiscences, and correspondence.

John M. Reilly, editor, Richard Wright: The Critical Reception, Burt Franklin, 1978.
An overview of original critical responses to Wright's work, including excerpts of more than sixty early reviews of Black Boy.

Sidonie Ann Smith, "Richard Wright's Black Boy: The Creative Impulse as Rebellion," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. V, No 1, Fall, 1972, pp. 123-36.
In this essay, Smith presents Wright's autobiography as a slave narrative because of the commonalities of themes which the novel has with such pre-Civil War accounts.

Martha Stephens, "Richard Wright's Fiction. A Reassessment," Georgia Review, 1971, pp 450-70.
Looking at all of Wright's works, Stephens ranks the works written before Native Son as a better display of Wright' s'mastery than his more profitable or later works.

Ellen Wright, and Michel Fabre, editors, Richard Wright Reader, Harper and Row, 1978.
A collection of some of Wright's best writings, including excerpts from his fiction, poetry, essays, and criticism.

Bibliography

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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 generally.

Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. Translated by Isabel Barzun. New York: William Morrow, 1973. Generally considered the definitive biography of Wright. Details the period in which Wright wrote the autobiographies. Also offers an in-depth critical evaluation of each text.

Gibson, Donald B. “Richard Wright’s Black Boy and the Trauma of Autobiographical Rebirth.” Calloloo 9 (Summer, 1986): 492-498. Offers a short but informative analysis of Black Boy, arguing that the first chapter, in which Wright distances himself from his environment, sets up an outline for the rest of the text.

Mechling, Jay. “The Failure of Folklore in Richard Wright’s Black Boy.” Journal of American Folklore 104 (Summer, 1991): 275-294. Points out several passages in Black Boy that highlight Wright’s use of songs, riddles, and stories, but generally argues that Wright’s text fails as authentic folklore.

Stepto, Robert. “Literacy and Ascent: Black Boy.” In Richard Wright, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Shows how Black Boy “revoices” Wright’s own Native Son and borrows from various tropes in African American narrative literature.

Wright, Richard. Later Works. Vol. 2 in Works. Edited by Arnold Rampersad. New York: Library of America, 1991. Includes an informative section of notes by Rampersad pertaining to Black Boy and American Hunger. Rampersad argues that the Library of America edition is the “complete text” that Wright presented to his publishers. Points out how the Book-of-the-Month Club influenced Wright’s editor and persuaded him to convince Wright to publish his autobiography in two volumes.

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