Black Boy is Richard Wright’s memoir about growing up black in America. Born in 1908 near Roxie, Mississippi, his early life was marked by frequent moves, his mother’s illness, and his strict, extremely religious grandmother.
He lacked supervision for much of his early years, which may well have contributed to his inability to conform his behavior to what society at large expected from a black boy. He did not have institutions and authority figures over him from the start. When he and his mother moved into his grandmother’s house, he frequently clashed with her and other family members over his inability and unwillingness to play the submissive.
The clashes with his family aren’t the only ones Wright experiences. Violence and the threat of violence are constant companions to him and those he knows. You can sense the fear that his fellow black Americans feel as they so desperately try to get Wright to conform. They are acting at least partly out of real concern for his safety.
After years of work and struggle in the south, he makes the move to Chicago. Along the way, he discovers that there are actually white people that care about the way blacks are treated. I had to grimly smile a bit to myself, as the dominant cultural narrative of today sometimes feels more like this:
Did I mention I wasn’t a big fan of The Help?
In Chicago, Wright learns about Communism, and eventually joins the party. He’s impressed by their views and actions on race, but comes to realize that eliminating racism will not eliminate all the world’s ills. The conclusions he reaches and they way he presents them at the end of the book are just heart-wrenching.
I’ll end with this passage:
“I was building up in me a dream in which the entire educational system of the South had been rigged to stifle. I was feeling the very thing that the state of Mississippi had spent millions of dollars to make sure that I would never feel; I was becoming aware of the thing that the Jim Crow laws had been drafted and passed to keep out of my consciousness I was acting on impulses that southern senators in the nation’s capital had striven to keep out of Negro life; I was beginning to dream the dreams that the state had said were wrong, that the schools had said were taboo.“
Want more like this? Try:
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley. Another prominent black leader, this time from the North. One thing that really impressed me with this book was the ability of Malcolm X to revisit his head space and recreate the way he felt at different times in his life. So often as a reader, you get the sense that the author is who zie is at the time of writing the book, and zie is telling their life story only from that vantage point.
- How Racism is Bad for Our Bodies, Jason Silverstein. A recent article in The Atlantic that discusses what the constant strain of living with the threat of racist action can do to your health.
- Lessons on What it Must Be, Not What it Could: Growing Up Black and Boy in America, Hashkin Pipkin. I was taking a break from writing this review when I (completely coincidentally) stumbled across this post in my feed reader. Apt, no?