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.

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