Hunger in Black Boy

May 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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