Opposites Don’t Attract: Granny in “Black Boy”
Isaac Newton, a prominent English physicist and mathematician, devised his 3rd law of motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the autobiography Black Boy by Richard Wright, a key influence in Richard’s life is his grandmother, referred to as Granny throughout the book, who incessantly tries to make Richard embrace God; her attempts, though, are futile with someone as recalcitrant as Richard. In human terms, Granny and Richard’s interactions substantiate Newton’s 3rd law. When Granny tries to make Richard conform to her lifestyle, Richard retaliates and rebels just as vigorously.
Granny is fervently religious, her lifestyle metaphorically deemed a regime: a word which according to the Oxford Dictionary designates “a government, especially an authoritarian one”. While Granny is not the only family member to try to influence Richard, she is notable because she does so ceaselessly and formidably. Even though Richard’s mother is religious, she pales in comparison to Granny, who might be considered a religious fanatic. The first example of Granny’s imposition of religion onto her family members is when Richard’s mother “announced that we were going to to move, that we were going back to West Helena. She had since tired of the strict religious routine of Granny’s home” (Wright 59). From an early age, Richard is disillusioned towards Granny’s lifestyle; he is not fond of how she deems Ella’s storytelling and books the “Devil stuff” (39) and bans him from her books, which are his sole source of stimulation. He also dislikes Granny’s corporal punishment which is often doled out; this is portrayed when Granny,“with all the fury of her sixty-odd-year-old body”(41), beats Richard for mindlessly uttering a vulgar phrase. Richard believes that leaving West Helena will rid him of Granny, who is a thorn in his side and only one more adult to berate and beat him. But fate did not proclaim it so.
Unfortunately, Richard and his mother wind up back at Granny’s door when Richard’s mother suffers a inopportune stroke and is unable to support herself and her children. Granny still has not ceased her way of life and continues to urge Richard to accept God into his life. Richard however is indifferent to Granny’s rules and “[shirks] as many of the weekday services as possible” (111). Richard’s blatant disregard for Granny’s religious routine is displayed when he describes being hauled to church: “During the passionate prayers and the chanted hymns I would sit squirming on a bench, longing to grow up so I could run away, listening indifferently to the theme of cosmic annihilation, loving the hymns for their sensual caress but at last casting furtive glances at Granny and wondering when it would be safe for me to stretch out on the bench and go to sleep”(112). Richard gives up on Granny’s mandates when he finds praying “a nuisance” (120), and begins to write hymns to appease Granny to pass the time, but is unsuccessful. One day he writes a story, and feels extremely accomplished. Richard decides he wants to pursue writing, and is ecstatic when a local newspaper publishes one of his stories. When Granny finds out about this she calls Richard’s story “the Devil’s work”(168). Richard becomes even more encouraged to write and prove Granny wrong.
Granny pressuring Richard to give his life to God makes Richard more rebellious in turn, and he starts to assert himself rather than silently and discreetly defying Granny. Richard lives in poverty, and desperately wishes to get a job so he can support himself with more food, better clothing, and textbooks. Richard “argues that Saturdays were the only days on which I could earn any worth-while sum”(126). Granny responds to this by quoting Scripture and saying that working on Saturdays is taboo because it is the Lord’s Day. Another instance where Richard stands up for himself is when he refuses to accept a beating and “nimbly [ducks]” (134). This enrages Granny and other family members, as Granny falls backwards and gets herself lodged in the porch, but Richard declares himself innocent and says that it is Granny’s fault. Finally, in the ultimate act of opposition, Richard says,“That old church of your is messing up my life” (144), and leaves Granny’s house against her wishes in order to work. Richard reaching the last straw, leaving Granny, and expressing his distaste for her church shows the reader that Richard is becoming increasingly independent as soon as he breaks free of the suffocating noose Granny has confined him with.
Richard’s opposition towards Granny is like a forest fire. The flames start quietly and unnoticeably with Richard’s silent dissent and escalate into blatant objection, gaining more power and growing stronger. Going back to Newton’s 3rd Law, you could say that every time Granny tries to push Richard into listening to her rules, Richard pulls away in the opposite direction, much like two magnets of the same pole. Without Granny’s pushes, Richard never would’ve pulled away and become the unconstrained person he is. Even though Richard considers Granny’s influence negative, it is perversely positive because it sets Richard on a journey throughout his adolescence. By the end of this journey, Richard has bloomed and has found himself and his purpose earlier than most people do.
Constructing an Identity: James McBride and Richard Wright
The world is full of predispositions that favor the majority and hinder minorities. James McBride’s memoir, The Color of Water, and Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, both address the disadvantages that minorities face. In these narratives, Ruth McBride, James McBride, and Richard Wright are all surrounded by ignorant people who pressure them to conform to stereotypes. However, these individuals are able to combat the ignorance and construct their own identities using the power of education and knowledge. Through the growth of the characters in Black Boy and The Color of Water, it is evident that education is the key to self-discovery.
Ruth McBride is an immigrant from Poland, and she faces the pressure to conform to both her parents’ traditional ideologies and the standards of the American South. Ruth is considered an outcast by other whites in Suffolk, Virginia, because of her Jewish heritage. As a result, she is better able to identify with the African-Americans in her town, and she enters into a relationship with a black boy named Peter. Unfortunately, due to her own family’s racism as well as the popularity of the KKK, Ruth is forced to see Peter in secret. Ruth becomes pregnant with Peter’s child, and because such a pregnancy is deemed socially unacceptable, she is discreetly sent to New York City to live with her aunts. In describing Suffolk’s oppressive community, Ruth states, “It was always so hot, and everyone was so polite, and everything was all surface but underneath it was like a bomb waiting to go off” (McBride 184). Ruth learns the value of hard work and self-reliance because she is never afforded the luxury of sympathy, and she later passes her values of open-mindedness and education on to her children. Thus, Ruth’s new sense of self compels her to marry a black man despite her family’s threats to cut off all ties with her; it also drives her to convert to Christianity because, unlike Judaism, Christianity was never imposed upon her. Ultimately, Ruth is able to create her own identity by rejecting her family’s biases as well as her family’s religion.
As Ruth’s biracial son, James McBride struggles to understand his own racial identity. When James is a young boy, his mother sends him to school in a Jewish neighborhood in order to grant him the best education possible, but as a consequence, he is subject to racial prejudice and begins to resent his mother’s race. One of James’ early pressures to conform to a stereotype arises when his classmates urge him to dance; while he wants his classmates’ approval, he is torn because he knows that dancing for them would perpetuate the notion that all blacks can dance. After the death of his stepfather, James goes down a slippery slope by skipping school and turning to drug use and crime. When Ruth finds out about his bad behavior, she sends him to live with his sister in Louisville, Kentucky. There, James meets the corner men, who embody the dead-end life James would lead if he continues down his current path. Although James befriends these men, he realizes that he needs to work hard and educate himself in order to escape their fate. It is only after completing his education that James feels compelled to research his mother’s past, and in doing so, he is able to accept both parts of his heritage. He states, “I felt like a Tinkertoy kid building my own self out of one of those toy building sets; for as she laid her life before me, I reassembled the tableau of her words like a picture puzzle, and as I did, so my own life was rebuilt” (McBride 292). Although James has never been able to fit in with his mother’s race, the knowledge of her past is essential for the construction of his own identity.
Throughout Richard Wright’s life, his identity is defined by his determination to escape the cycle of poverty. Hunger is such a prominent part of Richard’s childhood that it is present in all of his early memories. As a child, he is hardly able to attend school because he must earn money in order to provide for his family. Despite the fact that his religious grandmother believes that stories are evil, Richard develops a love for reading, which shapes his personal philosophy and motivates him to create a better life for himself. After reading H.L. Mencken’s A Book of Prefaces, he states, “I had once tried to write, had once reveled in feeling, had let my crude imagination roam, but the impulse to dream had been slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing” (Wright 249). Although his ascent from poverty continues to be an uphill battle due to racism and prejudice, Wright uses his reading as momentum to build his own identity. Therefore, Richard Wright’s reading is the basis for all of his beliefs and accomplishments.
Overall, the individuals who figure prominently in The Color of Water and Black Boy are able to overcome societal expectations through education and hard work. Ruth, James, and Richard all realize that they are not limited to the identities that are handed to them. There road of ignorance leads to a dead end, while the road of knowledge leads to infinitely many destinations.
McBride, James. The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. New York: Riverhead, 1997. Print.
Wright, Richard. Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth. New York: Harper & Bros., 1945. Print.
Hunger in Black Boy
In Richard Wright’s autobiographical novel Black Boy, the narrator frequently speaks about his severe physical hunger and the emptiness it brings him. While his physical hunger shapes his actions as a child, the gravity of the emotional and cultural hunger that Richard suffers from later in life overpowers these primitive urges. Throughout his story, Richard expresses his hardships with physical, mental, and societal hunger, the different reactions each evokes in him, and the ways in which he battles them. Fulfilling his physical malnourishment is what keeps him alive, but his efforts to cure his mental hunger are what keep the reader feeling Richard’s passion. This dichotomy exists throughout the novel, but Richard reacts to these hungers in different ways, and his different responses to physical hunger versus mental hunger shows his growth throughout the novel.Part One of Black Boy follows Richard from his early childhood through his young adult life. It traces his family’s personal and financial ups and downs, and tracks his journey of employment, learning, and societal understanding. In the beginning of the book, Richard is still a child, and primarily acts to satisfy his primitive needs—mainly, physical satiation. There are many incidences in which Richard must fight, both mentally and physically, to obtain food and remain not hungry. In one of the first scenes of the novel, Nathan, Richard’s father, leaves their family for another woman. His mother, Ella, blames the family’s sudden lack of food on his departure. Ella says that since he was the breadwinner, their options to support themselves are now limited. “’Your father isn’t here now,’ [Ella] said. ‘Where is he?’ ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘But I’m hungry,’ I whimpered, stomping my feet. ‘You’ll have to wait until I get a job and buy food,’ she said. As the days slid past the image of my father became associated with my pangs of hunger, and whenever I felt hunger I thought of him with a deep biological bitterness” (16). Richard’s father abandons his family, and they are forced to fight through his absence to not go hungry. This causes Richard to develop an unpleasant association between his father and hunger. In this instance, he has an emotional fight with the physical hunger that confronts him; he resents his father’s selfishness, and very quickly devalues his relationship with him. This mental conflict with his father and his quest to satisfy his hunger set the tone for his battle with food for the majority of his young life. With this initial bad experience already in memory, Richard’s instincts to desperately attain food whenever possible dramatically increase, along with his readiness to fight back. This strife continues when Ella later sends Richard to the grocery store, the group of boys attacks him. She sends him back and the boys rob him again, so she finally arms him with a stick to fight them off, and tells him that she will whip him if he comes back empty-handed. “I was baffled. My mother was telling me to fight, a thing that she had never done before… ’Don’t you come into this house until you’ve gotten those groceries,’ she said” (17). His mother’s sureness in encouraging him to fight shows him how dire and desperate the need for food was. He manages to injure the other boys, and thus demonstrates his willingness to physically fight for food. Richard suffers from their abuse in order to not go hungry, and takes threats from the boys’ parents, but fights regardless. This episode drives Richard’s guard to be up and ready, and subliminally trains his instinct to obtain food whenever, or however, possible, no matter how drastic the measures. This instinct is shown when he moves to his Aunt Maggie’s house in Arkansas, and he finally has the comfort of having food available to him. Even with this apparent sense of assurance, Richard still has the inclination to steal food for later. He takes measures to hide food for the imminent starving in the future, to ease his conditioned fear. Throughout his struggles with hunger, he told himself that he would be happy with even the smallest amount of food. However, when this opportunity to eat crossed his path, he was so used to starving and doing everything he needed to do to satiate himself later on, that he still hid the food even though it was not entirely necessary at the time. He was so used to having to be sneaky and deceiving to survive, that he automatically assumed that role even in a less dire circumstance.Richard demonstrates a new degree of desperation when he decides to sell his poodle, Betsy, for one dollar to buy himself some food. Betsy was a gift to him from Professor Matthews, and when his prospective client, a white woman, is unable to pay the full dollar he is charging, he takes Betsy home. “I took Betsy and ran all the way home, glad that I had not sold her. But my hunger returned. Maybe I ought to have taken the ninety-seven cents? But it was too late now” (70). He struggled with the dilemma regarding if he should sell Betsy for the partial ninety-seven cents or keep her, and doubted himself after he made his choice. A car soon hit Betsy, and Richard was torn between mourning and anger. While he loved the dog and was sad to see it die, he was also angry that he did not get to sell it. Richard suffers from these tough emotional consequences, and hates his hunger for causing him to lose his dog. In his hungry situation, a live dog meant a chance for money, and a dead dog is useless. This insensitivity that comes upon Richard frustrates him, because he wants to be emotionally sentient, but still feels that practicality is more important. These priorities are soon reversed, and Richard’s actions change as a result.This change in priorities shifts Richard’s focus from assuaging his physical needs to satisfying his societal desires. He takes measures to solve his physical hunger out of desperation, but attempts to solve his mental hunger out of passion. His hunger for societal relevance causes him to keep stepping out of the black social comfort zone—only doing things that are “socially acceptable” for African Americans to do—rather than shutting him down into a protective stupor like his lack of food did. Out of maturation, Richard starts sacrificing physical satiation to satisfy his mental, intellectual, and social hunger.Richard engages in a newfound passion for knowledge, which encourages his willingness to sacrifice his more primitive needs. When Richard’s mother puts an end to his six-year-old alcoholism, he begins to experience a new hunger for intellect. He teaches himself to read by flipping through children’s books and learns to count when a delivery man teaches him, but rather than satisfying him, these skills serve as merely a taster than increases his appetite for more knowledge and answers. Richard finds Ella, the schoolteacher who is renting a room from Granny, reading Bluebeard and His Seven Wives, and is very intrigued as she tells him about the novel. Granny, however, forbids this “Devil work” (39) in her house, because she thinks fiction is as morally bad as lying and sinning. In defiance to Granny, Richard becomes secretly determined to read as many novels as possible. “Not to know the end of the tale filled me with a sense of emptiness, loss. I hungered for the sharp, frightening, breathtaking, almost painful excitement that the story had given me, and I vowed that as soon as I was old enough I would buy all the novels there were and read them to feed that thirst for violence that was in me, for intrigue, for plotting, for secrecy, for bloody murders” (40). Reading gave him an escape into this world that seemed a lot more fantastic than his own, and he was willing to fight to hold on to that mystery. Even though Granny is physically violent towards him and threatens to withhold meals, he secretly borrows Ella’s books and tries to read them. Despite the prospect that he will go hungry, he greatly values the experience of reading and learning, and he deems devouring an intellectual feast more important than gratifying his physical hunger.When Richard’s mother becomes too sick to work, the neighbors offer Richard food, but he does not accept it, for he was “already so ashamed that so often in [his] life [he] had to be fed by strangers” (86). If this had happened in the beginning of the novel, it is almost certain that he would have gladly accepted the food, but now, he takes the method of acquisition and his integrity into account. He sacrifices the chance to be fed to maintain his pride. He realizes that if he wants people to socially accept him as not just a freeloading black boy, he has to prove to himself that he is better than that. This mature step to better himself in a social light shows that Richard is indeed changing, especially since the opportunity would have been at no physical or financial cost to him. Richard continues to renounce his income in place of his pride and social satisfaction. Richard’s more mature priorities are demonstrated when he discovers that the newspaper he is employed to sell prints propaganda from the Ku Klux Klan. As much as he values having an income to support his life with his peers, his social cognizance takes over, and he chooses to value easing his conscience’s pain caused by racism over his physical hunger pains. When he was younger, he would have likely looked beyond this degrading factor of the job, and continued to work to fund his grocery bill. When he works in the home of the white family, the woman in the family mocks Richard when he says he aspires to be a writer, and he quits immediately. “As I walked around her house to the street, I knew that I would not go back. The woman had assaulted my ego; she had assumed that she knew my place in life, what I felt, what I ought to be, and I resented it with all my heart” (147). Regardless of his knowledge of the likelihood that he will not become a writer, Richard does not appreciate his racist employer blatantly telling him this. He craves acceptance of his dreams and not ridiculing of his class, and sacrifices the payoff he receives from the job. Even though the job paid for his food, he chose to value his social desires and dignity over his paycheck. Earlier in the novel, he would have expectedly bit his lip and brushed off her comments, but now that he valued his dignity more than his health, Richard came to realize that her mockery was not worth the small salary he was making.However, he deems the payoff worth the cost at his next job, due to his motivation of filling his emotional hunger to fit in a society that accepts him. He works for an equally unpleasant family that aggravates much emotional stress by being extremely rude and ungrateful, but he deems it worth the effort when it allows him to become an active member of the populace of his peers. Since he now has enough money to moderately keep up with the lifestyle of with his classmates, he finally feels like a fitting component of society. Throughout his later childhood, all he wanted was to fit in as a dignified part of society, and once he made sacrifices of his finances and allowed himself to deal with undesirable circumstances, he was able to achieve his ultimate goal of being a part of something greater.When Richard’s mother dies, he says, “[T]he meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering” (100). This quote culminates his discovery that his struggles with physical hunger led to the awakening of his quest for a socially, mentally, and emotionally fulfilling life. Like most young children, Richard began his life (and novel) solely on the pursuit of entities necessary for survival, but once he grew older, his priorities shifted, and he pursued different types of satisfaction, taking a more mature stance on life. He finally realized the purpose of his lifelong struggle with poverty, and that in the end it caused him to pursue a greater goal in life.
The Quest for Salvation: Religion in Wise Blood and Black Boy
The Christian religion plays a key role in both Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood and Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Despite the authors’ ideological differences, both Wright’s childhood self and O’Connor’s protagonist, Hazel Motes, share common objectives: to understand and overcome the traumatic religious experiences imposed upon them during their upbringings, and, ultimately, to achieve self-identity and peace. The ideologies and cultural contexts of the two texts stand in sharp contrast, yet they speak to one another in a number of significant ways. O’Connor was an outspoken Evangelist. Robert Drake explains, “Her vision of man in this world was uncompromisingly Christian: she saw all of life in Christian terms; she thought the gospels were really true; and she accepted the historic teachings of the church” (184). In his unsuccessful attempt to run away from Christ, Haze reveals to the reader the necessity of Christian redemption. In her Author’s Note to the second edition, O’ Connor makes her intentions clear:
That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them, Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure that moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to.Though frequently misinterpreted, the aim of Wise Blood is to warn the reader of the perils of a Godless world and the necessity of accepting Christ as the only legitimate form of redemption (Johnson). Wright, on the other hand, is perpetually skeptical of Christian beliefs and repelled by organized religion. Wright regards religion as irrational, and associates it with cultural backwardness (Johnson 172). Despite the pressure and alienation of those around him, Wright refuses to participate in his grandmother’s religion. The reader recognizes Wright’s reaction to his family’s radical practice of Christianity as rational — and applauds his ability to find personal salvation through such means as reading and writing, and ultimately, in his involvement with the Communist party, which in many ways served as Wright’s church (Caron 120).Both Wright and Haze become disillusioned by religion at a young age. The two protagonists are grandchildren of religious fanatics, and they learn to associate religion with fear and suffering. These experiences shape the protagonists’ conceptions of self and influence the ways in which they interact with the world around them. When his mother becomes sick after suffering a stroke, Wright must live in the house of his grandmother, a staunch Seventh-day Adventist. At first, he pretends to believe and obeys her strict religious restrictions — recognizing his “delicate” position in the home: “I was a minor, an uninvited dependent, a blood relative who professed no salvation and whose soul stood in mortal peril” (103). However, as time passes, Wright grows increasingly resentful of his grandmother’s religion, and rebels, refusing to go to church services or to be baptized. His lack of faith becomes a frightening burden for his grandmother, who firmly believes that “one sinful person in a household could bring down the wrath of God upon the entire establishment, damning both the innocent and the guilty” (103). As a consequence, his grandmother comes to blame Wright’s faithlessness for his mother’s inability to recover from her illness.Similarly, Haze is haunted by memories of his childhood, during which he was made to listen to the impassioned sermons of his Evangelical preacher grandfather, “a waspish old man who had ridden over three countries with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger” (14). Just as Wright rebels throughout his childhood and young adulthood against his grandmother’s religion, Haze spends his life fleeing from the Jesus his grandfather describes as a frightening, “soul-hungry” being that would “chase him over the waters of sin” and always “have him in the end” (16). Consequently, Haze remained disturbed by the image of Jesus “moving from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown” (18). The only lingering effect of his grandfather’s sermons seems to be an intense sense of fear of Jesus — and a conception of him as an evil, threatening being from which Haze must escape.Disillusioned by the conceptions of religion thrust upon them, Wright and Haze seek alternate forms of salvation and escape elsewhere. Robert Butler argues that Black Boy invokes two closely related stories: “an outward narrative documenting the injustices and brutalities of the deterministic social environment which traps Wright in both south and north, and an inward narrative which dramatizes his transcendence of that environment with his own spiritual energy and free will.” In Black Boy, the reader follows the development of Wright’s consciousness and conception of self from a young boy to a young adult. Simultaneously, Wright provides a cultural framework of the oppressive atmosphere in which he lived. Wright’s childhood south represents the “hell” of American racism. He is perpetually hungry, endures frequent physical abuse by his family members, and is constantly uprooted and relocated from home to home. Yet Wright ultimately experiences prosperity and upward mobility, nearly impossible achievements for a Southern black. It is Wright’s inward escape that allows him to transcend his environment through the harnessing of his own unearthly forces and self-determination.This duality of outward and inward narratives is clear during Wright’s early childhood in his approach to the strict practice of Seventh-day Adventism, which had been imposed upon him. While he explicitly denounces his grandmother’s religion, resents her strict authoritarian control over him, and claims not to believe, Wright is inwardly fascinated by the religion in many ways. At the most basic level, Wright is comforted by the religion’s assurances of spiritual healing, which brought him hope that his mother could recover from her ailment. More importantly, the sermons serve to arouse and heighten in Wright the keen sense of imagination that greatly influences his writing.
The elders of her church expounded a gospel clogged with images of vast lakes of eternal fire, of seas vanishing, of valleys of dried bones, of the sun burning to ashes, of the moon turning to blood, of stars falling to the earth, of a wooden staff being transformed into a serpent, of voices speaking out of clouds, of men walking upon water… dramas thronged with all the billions of human beings who had ever lived as God judged the quick and the dead. (Wright 102)Wright finds such powerful language and evocative images compelling enough to draw him “toward emotional belief.” However, his newly enervated faith dissolves when he reenters society: “As soon as I went out of the church and saw the bright sunshine and felt the throbbing life of the people in the streets I knew that none of it was true and that nothing would happen” (102). Haze’s relationship with Christianity is not as clearly discernible as is Wright’s and can be subject to a number of different interpretations. His actions often contradict his words and, at times, he seems to grow unwarrantedly angry. A certain level of speculation and psychoanalysis is required to understand how religion has affected Haze. The advantage for the reader of the first-person, autobiographical form of Wright’s novel is that the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings are transparent and presented in a way that is unmistakable and overt. Wright makes clear to the reader that the physical and emotional suffering he endured in his early life had already operated to establish in him a firm outlook on life that could not be penetrated or affected by faith:
Perhaps if I had caught my first sense of life from the church I would have been moved to complete acceptance, but the hymns and sermons of God came into my heart only long after my personality had been shaped and formed by uncharted conditions of life. I felt that I had in me a sense of living as deep as that which the church was trying to give me, and in the end I remained basically unaffected. (112)For Wright, religious influence comes into his life too late to affect him — rather than offering refuge, the religion imposed upon him is an inconvenience, a chore to appease his caretakers. Religion merely serves to offer more restrictions and obstacles in his already difficult life. Consequently, it is only logical that he seeks escape from his hellish reality elsewhere: in the refuge of reading and writing. Wright portrays his fascination with literature as having taken hold when Ella, a boarder at his grandmother’s house, read stories to him. As Wright continues to pursue reading and writing, he discovers a form of escape. The achievement of literacy in early 20th-century Mississippi was a rare feat for a young man of color — a “subversive activity that develops important human qualities which the social system is designed to destroy” (Butler). Literature provides for Wright a window into the world that had been deliberately sealed to him by the more powerful race. Reading and writing provide for Wright the ability to bring order and analysis to his experiences, and thus “transcend the narrow limits imposed upon him by a racist environment intent on reducing him to a soulless object” (Butler). In parallel, O’Connor’s Wise Blood also follows its protagonist’s quest for identity and salvation. In Black Boy, Wright is ostracized by his family for his inability to accept their religion. All of those around him seek salvation and all have invested in the church as its source. Each of O’Connor’s characters, on the other hand, seeks salvation and escape from sources independent of religion. Sabbath Hawks, who assumes the role of a pious and innocent preacher’s daughter, finds her exodus from the hardships of life through her sexual promiscuity. Her father, Asa Hawks, dramatically attempts to achieve salvation by feigning self-induced blindness and exhibiting a false image of repentance. Despite Enoch Emory’s claim to know “a whole heap about Jesus,” he lacks faith in Christian redemption and seeks salvation in his search for a “new Jesus,” which he identifies in the shrunken shriveled mummy at the museum. When Haze rejects Enoch’s “new Jesus,” Enoch seeks his savior through Ganga, the gorilla. Enoch believes that he has achieved a new identity by assuming the gorilla costume. Enoch has, in his own way, escaped his humanity. Time and time again, Haze futilely attempts to deny Jesus. When he first arrives in Taulkinham, he feels the need to constantly remind those around him that he is not a preacher — yet he is unable to separate himself from his association with Christ. The cab driver tells him, “You look like a preacher. That looks like a preacher’s hat” (27). Later, Asa Hawks, in referring to Haze, says he can “hear the urge for Jesus in his voice.” These are the first indications to the reader of Haze’s struggle to separate himself from Jesus. Haze is unable even to shed the mere appearance of a Christian preacher.Haze maintains from the beginning that Jesus does not exist, and therefore, there is no sin and no need for redemption. In his first public address outside the theatre, he says, “Maybe you think you’re not clean because you don’t believe… every one of you people are clean and let me tell you why if you think it’s because of Jesus Christ Crucified you’re wrong” (51). Haze reaffirms his contention that all of humanity is clean and not in need of redemption, and that nor does humankind require the assistance of Christ for salvation, when he repeatedly tells the waitress at the zoo “I AM clean” (87). He repeats the mantra to the owl at the zoo to reinforce to himself that Christ does not exist. But his doubts about both his cleanliness and his lack of need for Christ to assist him plague him, as evidenced by his reaction to the roadside signs on one of his trips out of the city. Haze sees a gray boulder beside the road: “White letters on the boulder read, WOE TO THE BLASPHEMER AND WHOREMONGER! WILL HELL SWALLOW YOU UP?” (71). The message on the boulder is particularly relevant to Haze because of his preaching for the Church Without Christ and his sexual involvement with Leora Watts. Haze’s car comes to a stop and he is forced to regard two words at the bottom of the sign that say, in smaller letters, “Jesus saves.” Haze angrily pronounces, “I don’t have to run from anything because I don’t believe in anything” (72). While he directs these words to the truck driver who questions him, it is clear that in fact, Haze’s words are directed at himself — and indicate that he is conscious that he is, in fact, running from something: from his acceptance of Jesus. As Wright transcends his surroundings, Haze likewise eventually achieves salvation when at last he gives in to Jesus, but not before seeking salvation in the wrong places. Haze’s connection with his car could be interpreted as deeply religious. Haze has unconditional faith in the enduring functionality of the car, despite its obvious mechanical failures. For Haze, the car is a source of refuge and escape. The car, however, does not prove to be an enduring source of salvation inasmuch as, as a material object, its ultimate destruction was inevitable. It is only when, at last, Haze establishes his own faith in Jesus that he is at peace. This dramatic transformation was brought about by three key events (Caren 46). First, Haze violently destroys the mummy that Enoch has delivered after he sees Sabbath cradle the doll like her own child. According to Caren, this outburst stems from a deep-seated apprehension that drove his harsh and violent response to the mummy’s presence: “Haze recognizes that he has indeed been presented with a new Jesus — a Jesus shrunken to the size to which Haze’s unbelief would tailor him; a Jesus that is a continuing sign of our mortality, that lives on in a mummified eternity only to proclaim the impossibility of resurrection” (45). The next significant event is Haze’s murder of Solace Layfield, the prophet who imitates him for financial gain. Haze ceremoniously strips off the fraud’s clothing and then runs him over with his car. The killing was earlier foreshadowed when one member of the crowd asks if he and Layfield, the impostor preacher, were twins. He responds, “If you don’t hunt it down and kill it, it’ll hunt you down and kill you” (168). Finally, something clearly breaks in Haze when the patrolman pushes his car off of the cliff, destroying it before Haze can escape Taulkinham. Suddenly, the entity in which Haze had invested all of his faith and dependence had simply vanished. Haze returns to town and immediately blinds himself — perhaps as repentance, or to demonstrate his newfound faith in Jesus. The blindness brings him closer to Jesus in that it erases any distractions that would have hindered his faith. Additionally, he gains a stronger spiritual vision, allowing him to understand that he should be running toward, not away from (O’Connor’s conception of) the only true savior (Caron 50). Mrs. Flood, the landlady, notices a meaningful change in Haze’s demeanor: “To her, the blind man had the look of seeing something. His face had a peculiar pushing look, as if it were going forward after something it could just distinguish in the distance” (218). Ironically, it is only after Haze blinds himself that he can truly see the path to salvation.Although Wright and Haze find solace in vastly different sources, their paths to finding themselves are similar. Both initially turn to a sort of organized religion — Haze attempts to organize his “Church Without Christ,” and to gain public support and following. Wright also seeks comfort as a member of an organized group by becoming an active participant and leader within the Communist party. Impressed with their apparently progressive ideals when it comes to race, Wright says of the party’s willingness to accept a black member, “How had these people, denying profit and home and God, made that hurdle that even the churches of America had not been able to make?” (321). Wright initially devotes all of his energy to the party’s pursuits until he discovers that the party is not as morally upstanding and open-minded as it had initially seemed. Wright is cast out of the party and finds that he is more successful operating independently and developing his own writing and ideology separate from the organized group. In much the same way, Haze is unable to discover his ideals within an organized group. He is unable to sustain support for his religious movement because of the fraudulent competition of Hoover Shoats. In the end, like Wright, Haze discovers that there is no organized church that can show him the way to salvation — it is something he must discover on his own, independently from any organized group. Perhaps the most significant difference in the religious ideologies of O’Connor and Wright is in their opposing perceptions of religion’s role within society. In Black Boy, Wright criticizes the excessive proliferation of Christianity among Southern blacks, postulating that religion provides them with “fantasies that distract them from addressing political and social problems in the real world” (Butler). Additionally, Christianity promises salvation in the afterlife for the faithful — leading some to passively endure suffering in this life on the assumption that they will be rewarded in the future, rather than taking positive action to remedy their situations (Caron). O’Connor, on the other hand, subtly advocates in Wise Blood a reacceptance of traditional Christian values in a decidedly “post-Christian world” (Drake 184). Her protagonist, and those with whom he interacts, fail to find true salvation in such modern sources as sex or material goods — Haze is only at peace when he at last devotes himself to Jesus. While racial inequality is the central issue in Wright’s narrative and the theme of religion is merely tangential, O’Connor’s Wise Blood centers completely on religion, and racial inequality is never even mentioned. Timothy Caren criticizes this omission, which he identifies as reminiscent of the “the white south’s response to racial inequality: Why concern ourselves with racial inequality in the here-and-now when everything will be remedied in the hereafter? … O’Connor might have been forced to live in the world, but she zealously refuses to be of the world, especially the South’s racial struggles, which Wise Blood so studiously avoids” (51). Both Wright and O’Connor describe independent-thinking protagonists who exist in dismal worlds from which they find the need to escape. Wright’s refusal to conform to his family’s set of beliefs presents his opportunity to escape — through the development of his intellect. Haze, on the other hand, at last finds salvation when he is able to give in to the dominant set of beliefs around him — when he surrenders to and understands Christ. In the end, each manages to achieve his own form of escape. Works CitedButler, Robert. “Seeking Salvation in a Naturalistic Universe: Richard Wright’s Use of His Southern Religious Background in Black Boy.” Vol. 46.2 (2009): 46-60.Caron, Timothy P. Struggles over the Word: Race and Religion in O’Connor, Faulkner, Hurston, and Wright. Macon, GA: Mercer Univ., 2000. Print. Drake, Robert. “‘The Bleeding Stinking Mad Shadow of Jesus’ in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor.” Comparative Literature Studies 3.2 (1966): 183-96. Johnson, Sylvester. “Tribalism and Religious Identity in the Work of Richard Wright.” Literature & Theology 20.2 (2006). O’Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1962. Print.Wright, Richard. Black Boy: (American Hunger): a Record of Childhood and Youth. New York: Harper Collins, 2005. Print.
Breaking the Black Mold: The Literary Empowerment of African Americans
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.
The Quest for Knowledge in Wright’s Black Boy
In his autobiographical account, Black Boy, Richard Wright instills in the reader the hunger that he felt for knowledge, as this drive had been suppressed by his environment. Wright’s quest for knowledge and literacy parallels that of W. E. B. DuBois, a contemporary who had many of the same goals for all African-Americans that Wright had. Whereas DuBois wrote his essays in a persuasive plea to the American people, Wright’s novel simply relays the trials and tribulations of a black man who fought against the system of prejudice from whites, as well as the conflicts that he has with members of his own race as a result of their inability to rise above these prejudices. Philosopher René Descartes said, “I think, therefore, I am,” and this sentiment is shown throughout the book by the young Wright. He sees that since colonial times, blacks were treated as nothing, only property that could be bought and sold for the benefit of the white men who had owned them; therefore, the black population, especially in the deep South, believed that they, though freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, were still bound by shackles of slavery. As a result of their disenfranchisement, many blacks developed a negative self-image, in which they removed many necessary components of the human soul, such as the knowledge that they were equal to their white oppressors, complete with the same passions, feelings, and needs. As a means of surviving in an imposing environment, blacks followed the path that they had known since before the Civil War, that of the “inferior” laborer, hoping that one day their physical work efforts would give them enough financial support to change the system. In following a path such as this, blacks were forced to abandon many of the dreams which Wright and DuBois held strongly, such as the ability to be intellects and hold positions as writers, doctors, and professors and allowed themselves to be treated as they had been before the Civil War. By examining history, we realize that the social or political powers of the past have always feared literacy amongst the laity, for with knowledge comes power. This is a struggle that we see in Black Boy. We this struggle to stifle intelligence in both sections of the book, but by two very different and opposing groups. First, as a child, Richard’s attempts at literacy are stifled by his grandmother, a pawn of white society. In the second section of the book, we see how the Communist party shares the same fear that the Deep South holds, that the blind followers of the Communist party will rebel against authority. Wright vehemently disagrees with both doctrines of illiteracy, for he can see the motives behind them, as he is a self-educated man, and being so, finds flaws in the systems that rule the world around him. He sees that intelligence is the key to an efficiently run society, one in which everyone can make their own decisions based upon the facts and their feelings, rather than being misled.Though Richard is unaware why at the time, he finds this desire to achieve a heightened intellectual level at a young age. When his mother moves the family to Jackson to live with Richard’s grandmother, the young boy becomes interested in the novel that the young schoolteacher is reading for pleasure. Intrigued to see someone of his own color reading, he questions Ella about her book, only to witness what the older generation, one which was raised in slavery, thought of leisure reading. Granny, so enraged by the difference in values between herself and the young schoolteacher, immediately scolds both Richard and Ella for reading. By hanging on to the doctrines that slave owners taught to slaves, that they were not intelligent enough to learn, Granny, a typical representative of the black community then, helps to contribute to the ignorance that is see in many blacks at the time. She is unaware that the reason that she had been taught about the “evils” of reading was for the sole purpose of holding blacks at their current level of thinking. She does not understand that the material possessed in many books could help blacks to prove their equality and provide ammunition for the fight against racism and injustice. Richard, for reasons unknown even to him, is drawn to the knowledge contained in the books, and looking back on his life, understands how important those first novels were to him. Although they served as a means to entertain him with their stories of brave heroes and violence, they also provided him with the power to understand many issues that many of his peers could not see. This hobby that he found as a child was the basis for his ability to decipher the dense materials he read as a young adult, when he borrowed books from the library which dealt with political theory and the problems that authors were seeing in society. After reading, he realizes that if known by the black community, these concepts would give them the power to rise above the blanket of prejudice in the South. The Communist Party that Richard writes for as a young man also shares this sentiment that knowledge is bad for the general public. The leaders of the party understood that many of its followers would be interested in reading, and for this purpose, put out its own publications. If members were caught reading materials that were of a different opinion than that of the leaders, those members were chastised. Whether or not the reader was influenced was of no importance, as Richard learns when he asks one of the members what would it mean if he were reading Trotsky, for there was so much fear that readers could possibly be influenced that the option had to be eliminated. The majority of the blacks that Wright introduces us to in the book all seem to hold onto the values that were given to them by the same power that they were fighting against. This was a common practice at this time, for many blacks felt that they were too powerless to fight yet. They felt that if they followed the plans that white men had set out for them, then they would one day be able to break free of the bars of discrimination found in the South. This was a major argument at the time, whether blacks should be laborers and attempt to accumulate wealth, one day being rich enough to have power, or whether they should become educated, and able to lead an intellectual revolution, proving to doubters that they were equal to whites in their ability. This doctrine of working and waiting for the day when everyone would be free is the exact type of doctrine that Wright despised. We see this in many instances, but two in particular. First, his experiences with Shorty at the hotel and second with his attitudes towards religion. He becomes utterly dismayed by Shorty’s actions, for not only does Shorty permit the white men to beat him like a slave, but also because this is just an example of blacks allowing whites to rule them in order to gain immediate gratification. Religion, another example of the black’s willingness to endure pain and strife is a very important aspect of the novel, for we see Richard disregarding its worth altogether. His attitude towards religion stems from many different directions, but most importantly, his contempt is fueled by the fact that many blacks were using religion as a symbol of real life. Blacks used stories in the Bible as a means of justifying the pain around them. They were preached sermons declaring how much suffering that Jesus and his disciples or Moses and his people endured, and how great the benefits were when they died and went to Heaven. This parallels their ideas that they were willing to endure all the pain and suffering on Earth, so long as they would live a good life in Heaven after death. They ignored the fact that their oppressors followed the same religion, expecting the same rewards, yet were also enjoying the benefits of living happily on Earth. Black Boy presents a very convincing argument for the cultivation of the black man’s intelligence, though it never explicitly advocates it. The message lies under the surface, that knowledge is the best weapon that we have in any fight. This is expressed by example, as we see how easy it is for the uneducated to be manipulated by those with more knowledge. We see how easy it is for Richard to sell insurance to them. We see how easy it is for the Communists to rally support for the party, even though many members do not even understand much of the doctrine. Wright simply shows us the evidence, and in doing so, makes it blatantly clear his position on where blacks stood at the time of the book’s publication. He sees the start of the racial equality movement and sees its potential, provided that both the leaders and followers are educated. He tells the story of his own life so that readers can understand his attitudes by learning what experiences shaped them. He knows that the path toward progress is a trial and error process, and he is showing us what he has seen work and what he has seen fail. In doing so, he tries to guide readers make change by arming themselves with knowledge rather than wealth, to try to make a difference now instead of waiting for the future.
The Horror and the Glory of Language
Richard Wright’s novel Black Boy is not only a story about one man’s struggle to find freedom and intellectual happiness, it is a story about his discovery of language’s inherent strengths and weaknesses. And the ways in which its power can separate one soul from another and one class from another. Throughout the novel, he moves from fear to respect, to abuse, to fear of language in a cycle of education which might be likened to a tumultuous love affair.From the very beginning of the novel we see young Richard realize the power of language when he follows his father’s literal directions and kills a cat he has befriended(12). Although he knows that this is not really what his father wants him to do, following these directions explicitly temporarily gives him a sort of power over his father’s wishes. At the same time it reveals a weakness in his father, ie., his lack of control over language gives him less power. Later, when Richard must defend himself against attackers who repeatedly try to steal his mother’s money(21), he learns a new and symbolic lesson: Victory can come when one has money, words (the grocery list), and a big stick to defend one’s self.His next experience with language frightens him away from it. He becomes “blind with anger”(29) when he is forced to clean four letter words from places he has written them. He does not understand how, in his innocence, he could have misused something which had only done him good in the past. After this experience, Richard shies away from the use of powerful language for many years. In one scene he refuses to blot the ink from a stack of envelopes(36), fearing, perhaps, the power of the written word, and in some way fearing that this action will bring back memories of the hateful day he had to blot out his own words from walls of his town.Although his love of language is soon reinforced when Ella reads him the wonderful story of Bluebeard and His Seven Wives(44), he is severely rebuked for it-which proves to him again that language can be dangerous. He says that his response to the story Ella reads him is an “emotional response”(47), and that it carries a “sharp, frightening, and almost painful excitement”(48) with it. This gives him further respect for language and its power. At the same time it again brings fear, because his aunt tells him that novels are the “Devil’s work.”This fear stays with him through the next few years. So much so that he cannot even write his name on the blackboard. When he raises his arm to write his name, his mind goes blank and empty-he cannot even remember his name at this point, much less write it. He continues to ignore in language that which he does not like, does not understand, or does not agree with. He uses its power sparingly: writing letters to relatives when his mother is sick, and reading only sporadically, until a new job teaches him that ignorance of language does not work in his interests either. When he is selling newspapers that he has not been reading, he is advised by an older black man that he should read what he is selling. It seems impossible that in all the time he has been selling these papers he has not yet read one of them, and so one must believe that he has unconsciously been ignoring the fact that these papers are written by the Ku Klux Klan(153).Now that he can no longer ignore language and its power, it seems that once again he must turn the written word to his own uses, abusing it in order to fend for himself. To this end he begins selling insurance to black sharecroppers who are too illiterate and uneducated to know that they do not need it. He does this knowingly, understanding that he is robbing these people through his use of language, of power-he is using a power against the powerless that they cannot resist because they do not understand.Despite his self-loathing over these incidences of fraud, he continues to pursue a use of language for his own benefit. He publishes a story in three installments (even though he is not paid for these stories, this is a success), and decides he wants to write novels for a living. As he moves along this course he finds himself faced again with the fear of language. This time though, it is others who fear language-his language. The case in point is a speech which he wishes to deliver at his graduation from school (207). The principal summons him to his office and informs Richard that he must give a speech which is pre-written, and that he cannot give his own. Richard claims that he has the right to give the speech he has written, and when the principal balks, Richard realizes that he has actually frightened him with the power his words may have over the whites who are coming to the graduation. Richard does not want to face the fact that his words may have an adverse effect on the audience, he still shies away from fully understanding the power of language, saying he wants to learn, but there are some things he’d rather not know(208).This power over language puts Richard outside of the law, or so he feels. As he says later in the story, “I no longer felt bound by the laws which whites and blacks were supposed to obey in common, I was outside those laws”(237). In this new form Richard begins to devour reading material, as if he is forming within himself a new sort of creature, a creature who wishes only to read and read more. He uses a co-worker’s library card and checks out book after book, something alien to not only the blacks who surround him, but the whites as well. His suspicion that words are the ultimate power is confirmed when he reads a book by H.L. Mencken and realizes that the man is fighting with his words, using them as weapons, “as one would use a club”(193).When he finally escapes to the North, and leaves the “Southern Night[s]” behind, we see a new Richard. This new Richard is now fully exploiting his use of language. We see this when he takes an exam to enter the Postal Service. He no longer tries to hide his knowledge of language in the North, but instead begins to fully explore it. Even the whites around him don’t read, and are amazed to find that he reads the American Mercury. He also begins to use language to learn about other things. He studies books on social issues which are addressed through studies of sociology and psychology and calls these his “most important discoveries”(327). They are his most important discoveries in this second half of the book because they will soon lead him to embrace new social concepts.This latest immersion in reading isolates Richard, as he is sucked deeper into language and further away from the common people who surround him. Of this condition he writes “Emotionally, I was withdrawn from the objective world; my desires floated loosely within the walls of my consciousness, contained and controlled”(328). He enters an almost mystical realm, and he is “stupefied by its dazzling magic,” and “awed by [its] vast, delicate, intricate, and psychological structure”(332).He joins a black literary group and finds that even they are far below the realm in which he resides. He finds them to be completely preoccupied with sex, as if they are a baser form of life than himself. He despises them for this and feels that they will never really live the way they should. With this more arrogant attitude he again turns to language for money, abusing his knowledge of it to rip off insurance customers who themselves can barely survive. At this point his arrogance reaches a penultimate height. He considers a woman he has been sleeping with: “I stared at her and wondered just what a life like hers meant in the scheme of things, and I came to the conclusion that it meant absolutely nothing”(341). To be fair, he has also decided that his own life means nothing. But his actions give the lie to this statement. With an objective view that could only seem to come from on high he continues to place himself above the rest of America, implying that he alone knows that the “Negro” and white worlds cannot live a full and human life until the white world can come to terms with the black one.At this point in the novel Richard begins to discover communism and its wide open arms in the black community. He begins reading communist magazines with the same vigor he once read the great white authors of the past. Their message entrances him and he seems to go through a sea change-he feels that he has at last found something good he can do with his power over language. But he finds, in the end, that even these communists he wants so badly to help fear language more than anyone-seeing it as a tool of the intellectual and not as something which can reach the common people. He panders to their belief and agrees that “writing is not important”(388) even though he knows better. But even this will not convince them that he is one them; they accuse him of “talking like a book”(389). Even though he tells them he is a common man and sweeps streets for a living, they will not truly accept him within their group.In the end, Richard Wright finds that he is isolated from the rest of society by his love of, and power over, language. He finds that those who write are individuals who can never truly be part of the larger family which is their culture. And although he truly wants to be a part of his culture and brought into the fold, he will be forever separated from the common people by vast gulfs of understanding and reality. His trail of discovery has led him down a path of no return. Now that he has power over language, he can never go back.
The Lessons of Loneliness and Isolation in ‘Black Boy’
There is an incomprehensible secret embodied in the highly intimate affair of someone else’s emotions. Even when the thoughts of others come fully into the orbit of one’s concern, they are often difficult to dissect and subsequently understand. This is true of all emotions, but notably that of loneliness. Usually characterized by the depressing feeling of being alone when one is destitute of companionship or affection, loneliness is one of the many psychological symptoms of exclusion. This phenomenon is brought to light in Richard Wright’s autobiographical novel Black Boy. As Wright grows older, his constant exclusion from society informs his development as a character and further informs the person that he is to become, by virtue of the light he shines on his isolation from his family, the White world, and African American society. In doing so, Wright teaches his readers about the emotional repercussions of isolation.
From the onset of the novel, Wright deliniates himself as an outcast from his family. The first way in which this is seen is when as a young child, he has hallucinations that his family does not take seriously. In the middle of the night, Wright would find himself “Shaking with terror because no one saw them but me.” (7) Richard brings to the forefront of the consciousness of his readers that he is an alien in his own home. This is further bolstered by the passage during which Wright skips forward 25 years in time to the moment when he first sees his father again after having deserted him at the age of 5. Richard, in a moment of insight informs his readers that “[His] father was a black peasant who had gone to the city seeking life, but who had failed in the city…- that same city which had lifted me in its burning arms and borne me toward alien and undreamed shores of knowing.” (35) By saying so, Richard is effectively communicating that he and his father, though ties of blood made them kin and there is shadow of his own voice in that of his father, they are forever strangers, “speaking a different language, living on vastly distant planes of reality.” ( 35) Subsequently, as Richard grows older, the divide between him and his family grows to unprecedented levels, and as an adult he describes his feelings towards his mother as “frozen.” (100) Because for the entirety of his childhood and adolescence Richard was seen as different from the rest of his family, his psyche suffers and thus his emotions towards his family are altered as well. Rather than holding his kin in the high esteem that one would expect, he sees them as a burden standing between him and his goals.
This emotional disillusionment may very well have been the catalyst for Wright’s family that later on feeds into a lack of trust for those around Wright himself. By portraying it as so, Wright teaches his readers about the emotional repercussions of isolation. Wright is further emotionally influenced by the divide that he observes between himself and the White American middle class which he amicably refers to as “the white world.” (145) His cognisance of the separation between himself and the bourgeoisie is chronicled by a moment of perspicacity saying: “ I liked it and I did not like it; I longed to be among them, yet when with them I looked at them as if I were a million miles away. I had been kept out of their world too long ever to be able to become a real part of it.” (151) Richard seems to be hyper aware of the fact that he is not a part of the society in which he longs to belong. He is overtly excluded from eating pancakes and eggs with the white family he works for, and is forced to eat stale bread and mouldy molasses instead.
Further catalyzing Wright’s loneliness is the fact that he seems to be the only one who sees himself as removed from society in the way that he does. Even within the African American community, he is excluded and isolated because of his way of thinking. During an argument with one of his peers, Richard is told to“learn to live in the South!” (183) because his actions are not reflective of the social role to which he was prescribed; publishing a short story for example. This is most notably because of the widespread Jim Crow segregation contemporary to Wright. Because there was an intrinsic feeling of inferiority within the African American community, by way of the system, Richard is already removed from white society simply because of the colour of his skin, but is also excommunicated from his own community when he attempts to resist the system that is oppressing him. In describing his exclusion and isolation, Wright is able to highlight the pervasiveness of the system of segregation, as it becomes clear to readers that there is a mechanism in place that is meant to systematically break those who wish to diverge from the social standards which have been set, thus disincentivizing any kind of rebellion against the status quo.
In his descriptions of isolation and exclusion, Wright chronicles the emotional impact of his loneliness, while concurrently bringing to light the systematic breaking of the minds of the African American people. Right is not only speaking of his own isolation, but the isolation of every single one of his contemporary revolutionaries, fighting against a totality of oppression. The emotional toll that the exclusion causes is excruciating, but then again, it has to be, because if it were easy, then everyone would be fighting against the widespread oppression and suffering that they find themselves surrounded by. Wright teaches his readers about his need to struggle and the need to struggle for those around him.