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Book Cover Image: Black Boy by Richard WrightTitle: Black Boy

Author: Richard Wright

Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “Richard Wright grew up in the woods of Mississippi, with poverty, hunger, fear, and hatred. He lied, stole, and raged at those around him; at six he was a “drunkard,” hanging about taverns. Surly, brutal, cold, suspicious, and self-pitying, he was surrounded on one side by whites who were either indifferent to him, pitying, or cruel, and on the other by blacks who resented anyone trying to rise above the common lot.

Black Boy is Richard Wright’s powerful account of his journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. It is at once an unashamed confession and a profound indictment—a poignant and disturbing record of social injustice and human suffering.”

Thoughts: Black Boy is one that I read in high school without ever truly appreciating it. This re-read definitely corrected my ignorance and failure at respect, for Mr. Wright is more than worthy of a reader’s respect. Surrounded by ignorance, abject poverty, and an entire society that considered him less than human, Mr. Wright was able to overcome all odds and escaped to the North without ever allowing the Jim Crow South to beat him. Even more worthy of accolades is the fact that Black Boy was first published in 1945, a time when racial relations were still not discussed and were not going to improve for another twenty-plus years. The fact that he took a chance at sharing his poignant, painful and shocking story, and that Harper was willing to publish it, shows a level of bravery most people can only dream of obtaining.

Any bibliophile can appreciate the power of the written word. As expressed by Mr. Wright, one can understand why education is such an important experience for the poverty-stricken. Without the written word, one could even argue that Mr. Wright would have never gathered the courage to leave the South.

“Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as weapons, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon?” (pg. 272)

Without this exposure to novels that he obtains through his illegal library card, he very literally would not become the man that he did. He very literally uses novels as a method of obtaining hope. What makes his story all the more special, as if it needs any further reason, is the sheer reverence he expresses towards the written word. Any fellow reader can appreciate the otherworldly awareness that Mr. Wright experiences when hearing his first real novel:

“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 and the feel of things was different, somehow.” (pg. 47)

Mr. Wright shares his story with a forthrightness that a reader can appreciate, even when his story is painful or just downright uncomfortable. He confronts the truth directly, not shying away from sharing the hard lessons he faced. A reader is left both shocked and awed by his prose, as well as his story.

As I was reading, I could not help but consider the lessons of Black Boy and the lessons to be learned by today’s children. While racial inequalities still exist, they are no where as severe as they were in the 1930s. Would today’s younger generations understand? Would they get the importance of the novel? Would they appreciate the struggles depicted? Can they glean an understanding of today’s racial divide just by looking to the past? When put into this perspective, it becomes clear just how little time separates Mr. Wright’s South from Rosa Parks’ South from the South of today. Has enough really been accomplished?

“Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western civilization, that they lived somehow in it but not of it. And when I brooded upon the cultural barrenness of black life, I wondered if clean, positive tenderness, love, honor, loyalty, and the capacity to remember were native with man. I asked myself if these human qualities were not fostered, won, struggled and suffered for, preserved in ritual from one generation to another.” (pg. 45)

These are great questions that still have relevance today.

Mr. Wright’s story is remarkable in his depictions of his struggles. He fought not only to survive but to be an individual at a time and in a society where individuality was a deadly trait. His family tried to beat this individuality out of him; society tried to scare it out of him. Yet, he prevailed. Mr Wright could have easily succumbed to the pressures of society, but he stood firm. This is a lesson people of all ages and races can learn.

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