Breaking the Black Mold: The Literary Empowerment of African Americans

March 27, 2019 by Essay Writer

Prior to the 1920s and the Harlem Renaissance, the voice of the African American narrative was relegated to stories derived from folk traditions. Tall tales, fables, trickster stories and preacher tales dominated the body of African American literature. And through these stories, a self-perpetuating stereotype of the black identity coursed through America, not only in the white communities, but in the African American community as well. Until the 1920s, African Americans knew their roles as subalterns well, and did little to overcome their prescribed status. However, the Harlem Renaissance and the works spawned from this era intrinsically changed the way African Americans viewed themselves. They struggled to find exactly what it meant to be black in America; they longed for a definition that could agree between being both American and black. As Addison Gayle noted in The Black Aesthetic, “One ever feels is twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (xxii). This black aesthetic was a design for African Americans to find identity and cultural value in a world that was still inherently foreign. This search for identity is mirrored in Richard Wright’s novel Black Boy. In this book, Wright embarks on a journey into adulthood searching for a place where he can be both black and at ease in his ethnicity. He searches to find a place in which to build his own experiences rather than remake them from the images of white culture. Through Black Boy, Wright illuminates the desire of African Americans to assert an existence of their own in the face of the dominant status quo of white America. Wright makes many references in his book to hunger. And indeed, throughout Black Boy, Richard and his family struggle with malnutrition. In the days following his father’s departure, Richard and his family are forced to go to bed without having eaten anything at all. The notion of hunger and malnutrition is repeated throughout the body of the text; however, this hunger is also metaphoric for Richard’s own deep desire to find his place in the world. It was this hunger for social engagement and unabated artistic expression that Richard chooses to fulfill instead of food. It was this type of sustenance that separates him from the other African Americans of the South and prompts his northward journey toward an identity he could call his own. Through his deep desire for personal intellectual freedom, Wright becomes the prototype for a new definition of the African American. This intellectual hunger however is not understood by those around him. Subsequently Richard is ostracized from not only other blacks, but also his family. Through his separation, Wright counters what Carolyn Gerald referred to as a “zero image”, or the stereotype established by the white community and propagated by the negative images of blacks in mainstream art, films, and literature (Dobie 198). Wright’s dissemination of the black identity was in stark contrast to the attitudes of other African Americans of the time. In Black Boy, Wright’s actions directly contradict the rest of the black community. For instance, in a passage where Richard converses with his friend Griggs, he tells Richard, “Dick, look, you’re black, black, black, see? … You don’t act a damn bit like it” (Wright 183). This dialogue reveals the inherent differences between Richard and the black community. They not only fail to understand Richard’s ambivalence toward the stratification of racial identity in the South, but also condemn him for it. He makes no apologies for his color, and even as Griggs teaches him how to “get out of white people’s way”, Richard fails to see any kind of superiority in white skin tone (184). Wright explains the origins for this attitude in Chapter Three in the passage:At the age of twelve, before I had one full year of formal schooling, I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering (100).This suffering is laid out for Richard as a boy, when he fully realizes the undeniable dangers of being black in the South. After his uncle is killed, Richard fully knows that his life is predicated upon the mercy of the dominant white class. However, his intellect prevents him from furthering his own subjugation. As Yoshinobu Kakutani states, Wright is most disturbed about the blacks’ “inability to recognize malice in the minds of white racists” (71). Having seen the viciousness of white supremacy, Richard is still not able to submit to the will of the South and all of its racial doctrines. Wright’s issue with other blacks is evident in his job with his neighbor, the insurance agent. He sees the manifestation of illiteracy and subjugation in the black families that he visits. He states, “I saw a bare, bleak pool of black life and I hated it; the people were alike, their homes were alike, and their farms were alike” (137). The thirst that drives Richard to out-step the boundaries of what a black teenager should be in the South was not afforded to these families. In their plight he sees a perpetual cycle of marginalization he despises. The fact that Wright is unable to find a home within his own culture leads him to create one of his own. His relationship with the other blacks of the South is a tenuous acquaintance of both pity and aberration. Therefore, his inability to find a home among the black community forces Richard to turn to himself for support. His hunger for something more than being “black” creates a rift between him and the definition of a black man in the South. Another example of Wright’s hunger driving him to be an outsider is his relationship with his family. With the exception of his mother, Richard is viewed as a sinner by his immediate family, and one whose intellect is a product of the Devil. His grandmother and aunts frequently hit him for his disrespectful speech and defiant mannerisms. Richard frequently finds himself running from relatives that want to punish him for various actions or inactions. His uncle, for example, wants to beat him for his tone of voice. Richard fights back saying, “…you’re not going to whip me. You’re a stranger to me. You don’t support me” (159). After going back and forth, his uncle finally tells him that someone one day will break his spirit. But, it is this spirit that remains undeterred and unapologetic. Even after his uncle announces that Richard will never amount to anything, he replies that he does not care about such a statement. The exchange between Richard and his uncle is in many ways symbolic of the battle over an African American’s place in the South. Wright denies anyone who tells him what he can and can not say or do. This passage further explains Richard’s sense of being a person without a home. Richard’s Aunt Addie and his grandmother also try to mold him into their image through force. On multiple occasions, his relatives force him into religion in the hope of saving his soul. His reading and writing escapades are viewed as heretical, and Richard receives no support from his family. Through his unwillingness to submit to their religious practices, his worth as a human being becomes devalued. He therefore becomes a subaltern in his own house. His Granny’s whiteness is symbolic of her stance in the house in regard to Richard. Her dominance brings out the defiant side in him, much in the same manner as his interactions with white people. His refusal to submit to her religious demands symbolizes his own unwavering intellectual worth in the face of hostility. Another example of Wright’s ambivalence toward the status quo is in his refusal to give the graduation speech prepared for him. Because white people were to be in attendance at the ceremony, Wright was to read a speech prepared by the principle. However, he refuses to read the speech, which put his peers in an uproar. His principle rescinds his offer to allow Richard to teach at the school because of his defiance. Even his uncle attempts to persuade him into reading the speech, but Richard still refuses. This refusal is not merely a refusal to adhere to the wishes of others, but also a refusal to submit to the will of a culture trying to assert its superiority. Aside from Wright’s relationships with the characters in the text, the language of Black Boy also presents a challenge to the marginalization of African Americans and creates a prototype black identity. Black Boy is rather accessible because of its lack of direct profanity and violence, which in turn enables a broad reader base. According to Jennifer Poulos, the availability and accessibility of the novel created an altruistic form of self expression which challenged the racist status quo (54). The fact that the black community could indeed read was itself a challenge to the racist paradigms of the South who felt that such intellectual outlets were a danger to their dominant status. In this sense, when Wright did indeed use profanity in the text, the outcome was one of personal empowerment; Richard had control over what was said. For example, when Richard was caught cursing by his Aunt Jodi, the dialogue was in response to an inanimate object, and therefore in context, somewhat justified. However, in earlier portion of the text when Richard was used as a source of amusement by the bar patrons, the actual text of the dialogue was missing from the book. This absence again asserted power over the dialogue. Richard had no idea what the words he was saying actually signified, and therefore would have diminished his character if the profanity had been recalled accurately. This strategy, according to Poulos, kept the text earnest, and placed the power firmly in the hands of Wright to foil critics from dismissing the work as profane or obscene (55). However, Wright did not shy away from the profane in the description of white people. For example, when Richard took the job in the optical shop, one of the employees stops him and asks him “…how long is your thing … the thing the bull uses on the cow … I heard a nigger can stick his prick in the ground and spin around on it like a top” (Wright 188). This dialogue infuriates the character, but also shows the type of low class used in the dialect of the whites. The passage between Richard and his co-workers culminates in a physical threat, where Reynolds screams, “If you say you didn’t, I’ll rip your gut string loose with this f-k-g bar, you black granny dodger! You can’t call a white man a liar and get away with it!” (190). This declaration mirrors the imagery Wright gives the reader when he states that whites viewed blacks as animals. This exchange is ironic in that in this case the white co-workers are behaving as barbarians. The profane dialogue used by the white characters emphasizes the calm, cool speech of Richard. This chasm in dialogue between the whites and blacks in Black Boy serves to portray whites in a darker, more barbaric way. The fact that there was no reprimand for the obscenities gives value to the way Richard’s family raised him. Finally, Wright used this novel as a device to put an African American in a setting where one should not have been at the time. African Americans were not supposed to have the ability to be self expressive. Wright wrote himself as an intellectual with aspirations to be a writer in a time where only whites dictated art and culture. This paradox prompted his friends to ask him why he wanted to write his stories. His response was, “I just wanted to” (Wright 121). Without any role models, Richard forged ahead of his own accord, writing of fantasy worlds where there was always enough food to eat. Without the support of his family or community, Richard struggled to find a purpose for his musings, just as his hunger drove him for a personal identity. In this way, Black Boy was an example of rogue literature by a misguided man Richard Wright used this novel as an unofficial biography of one boy’s journey to adulthood in a very racist South. From the beginning of his novel, Wright took cover under the burning house rather than accept responsibility for his actions. In a similar manner, Richard Wright refused to be held accountable for being black in the South. He aspired to do things that the blacks had no business doing. He did these things in the supportive vacuum of his house that would rather him be invisible than an intellectual. Wright had no apologies for his actions. And as soon as he learned to defend himself from the bullies on the street, he defended himself in every way possible by being black in a white world. Black Boy challenges the establishments of art and intellectualism in ways that still echo in other cultures today. And as he closes his novel, Wright says: I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressively human (Wright 384).This passage sums up the hunger that echoes through his novel with the voracity of angry drumbeats. Wright challenges not only the identities of the whites and the blacks, but the very definition of humanity.Works CitedDobie, Ann. Theory Into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. London: Thomson, 2002.Gayle, Addison. The Black Aesthetic. New York: Doubleday, 1971.Hakutani, Yoshinobu. “Creation of the Self in Richard Wright’s Black Boy.” Black American Literature Forum. 19, 2 (1985): 71. JSTOR. UMUC’s Information And Library Services. 25 July 2006. www.umuc.edu/library.Poulos, Jennifer. “‘Shouting Curses’: The Politics of ‘Bad’ Language in Richard Wright’s Black Boy.” Journal of Negro History. 82, 1 (1997): 54-66. JSTOR. UMUC’s Information and Library Services. 23 July 2006. www.umuc.edu/library.Wright, Richard. Black Boy. New York: Harper, 1998.

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