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Essay: Black Boy: The Maltreatment of a Young Child Negatively Affects his Worldview

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  • Black Boy: The Maltreatment of a Young Child Negatively Affects his Worldview
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The rare combination of imagination and self-determination are two very powerful forces that can empower the individual to transcend a lived experience mired in racial oppression and poverty. Although for some, the emotional suffering from constant subjection to the effects of hunger and inhumane treatment makes it nearly impossible to see the world objectively and understand the true complexity of humankind. In this sense, the novel Black Boy, by Richard Wright can be read and its bleak narrative understood against the backdrop of racial inequality and severe poverty that exists in America during Jim Crow. However, other Black writers, such as Stephanie Shaw, offer a more tempered image of life in the South and it is critical to consider both opposing views in order to get a more accurate historical assessment of the period. One that looks beyond Wright’s subjective experience of a reality that takes into account those individuals who were able to transcend the blackness of their oppression to lead meaningful productive lives.

Wright calls upon his readers to accept the myth that African Americans are a “monolithic group with a collective poverty experience,” as well as creating characters that solely reflect their oppressive conditions; a criticism of the author’s work leveled by James Baldwin. Moreover, he writes that Blacks have a “strange absence of real kindness…lacking in genuine passion…void of great hope…bare [of] traditions…[and] lacking…in those intangible sentiments that bind man to man.” The author characterizes the people in his life by their lack of imagination and empathy, their violent behavior, as well as an inability to overcome adversity and acceptance of the wretched social conditions surrounding them. He projects a strictly one-dimensional negative view of southern Black culture in order to focus the reader’s attention on the devastating effects of racist laws and the lack of opportunity in the Negro community. Simply stated therefore, Wright’s raison d’etre is primarily a protest against entrenched white supremacy and the hold it has on the southern Black population in America.
Written during the 1940’s, Wright’s novel is a depiction of an earlier time in the rural South when most people were unable to come to terms with the effects of racial inequality, nor deal with a disillusionment which stems from an inability to eke out a living for themselves and their family. This is the brutal environment that young Richard inhabits as he struggles to make sense of the world around him. After a beating from his mother which nearly kills him and the abandonment of his father, the young boy was “rapidly learning to distrust everything and everybody.” The author’s account of his childhood is void of any fond memories, happiness or familial love and this tragic upbringing shapes the person he will become. In his book review W.E.B. Dubois states that, “One reads and rereads this novel with the growing realization that there is not a single loveable person within its pages.” Moreover, the deep resentment he feels from the maltreatment received by those close to him, goes to the root of his reluctance to render an impartial account of life in the South.

Black Boy represents a fictionalized account of the author’s life, not strictly a factual retelling of events as they happened. Dubois writes that the “story makes one wonder what exactly its relation to the truth is?”…“At any rate, the reader must regard it as creative writing rather than as simply a record of life.” His criticism is important to note in order to differentiate between truth and fiction as it relates to the underlying intention behind the author’s choice of narrative. Also, in reference to his writing style, he mentions that, “All my life had shaped me for the realism, the naturalism.” This literary approach is evident from a lack of character development and a portrayal of Blacks as racial stereotypes, lacking in depth and void of human qualities. They are merely caricatures, stripped of their humanity. For example, his brother Alan serves only to criticize Richard, otherwise he is hardly mentioned. Wright is drawn to naturalism as a way to confront oppression in an effort to transform his way of being in the world. Through the use of this literary genre, the author shapes his story in a predetermined way, creating characters that simply react to those natural forces around them. In the novel, only Richard has the ability, through the power of his imagination, to exert control over an inhospitable environment. However, the downside is an increase in his sense of alienation from the black community, further separating him from his roots. Wright is willing to pay the price for this freedom allowing himself to take charge of his life and pursue a career as a writer.

Early in the novel, the reader gets a glimpse of young Richard’s budding imagination and his fascination for reading and books. On one occasion, when meeting Ella for the first time, he becomes envious of her ability to lose herself in the descriptions of far away places, “She whispered to me the story…and I ceased to see the porch, the sunshine, her face, everything. As her words fell upon my new ears, I endowed them with a reality that welled up from somewhere within me.” Richard begins to understand the liberating power of the written word and believes reading to be a way to transcend his desperate circumstance. It is an escape from the everyday problems he faces as well as a way to access his innermost feelings. Similarly, he adds that, “It would have been impossible for me to have told anyone what I derived from these novels, for it was nothing less than a sense of life itself.” Powerlessness and human isolation plague the author throughout his young life and only through literature does he ultimately find the solace he seeks.

Wright’s imagination is evident through his recollection of the “long straight rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun to the bright horizon,” and the “vague sense of the infinite as I looked down upon the yellow, dreaming waters of the Mississippi River from the verdant bluffs of Natchez.” These images are wrapped up in his dreams and evoke in him a nostalgic desire to be whisked away to another time and place. His natural inclination to imagine and dream make it inevitable that one day he would journey north for a second chance at life. Even at a young age, there was always the realization that the social world he inhabited in the South could never live up to his expectations.

It is easy to understand then, the manner in which the author formulates his unfavorable world view. In Black Boy, Richard admits that, “I knew of no Negroes who read books I liked and I wondered if any Negroes ever thought of them. I knew that there were Negro doctors, lawyers, newspapermen,” but he concedes that, “I never saw any of them.” Nonetheless, there were opportunities in higher education, due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, to train southern teachers for positions opening up in the black school system, as well as other professional and trade school options for black students. According to Stephanie Shaw, even “though these women were a product of a racist and sexist society, they were also products of strong family traditions that prepared and encouraged them to resist, wherever possible, the constraints the larger society sought to impose on them.” However, for Richard, this path is not available to him as his formal education to this point is virtually nonexistent. Consequently, he is forced to deal with racial discrimination and hatred which are at odds with his pride and individuality making it difficult to hold down a job. After being forced from his job by white racists, Wright recalls, staring “bleakly into the morning sun. I was nearing my seventeenth birthday and I was wondering if I would ever be free of this plague”…“I could feel no hate for the men who had driven me from the job. They did not seem to be individual men, but part of a huge, implacable, elemental design toward which hate was futile.” It becomes untenable for Richard to continue in his subservient role after being cautioned by his friend, Griggs, on the proper way to act around the white race. His ex classmate advises him that, “When you’re in front of white people, think before you act, think before you speak. Your way of doing things is all right among our people, but not for white people. They won’t stand for it.” This insistence on strict conformity and compliance to white societal norms causes Richard to internalize his mental frustration which undermines his individualistic nature. Moreover, he now views Griggs as someone who never made it off the plantation, weak and resigned to his fate. Other black workers like Shorty and Harrison, for example, seem more concerned with getting along, not upsetting whites and acceptance of their lot in life. Wright’s rejection of these black attitudes finally motivate him to break free from the repressive culture and move to Chicago.

Richard’s journey north was neither unique nor of any special importance in the larger picture. It is estimated that “1.5 million African Americans migrated between 1910 and 1940” for opportunities in northern cities. Although, some were unable to leave behind the legacy of racism and those pathologies of bigotry that beset the Black culture, many more found the existence of an established and active black community able to assist new arrivals to settle and adjust to urban life. At any rate, social activist organizations like the National Urban League and the NAACP combined with black churches to ease the transition.

There were many reasons why the migration took place at this time, not least of which was the outbreak of World War I.The North realized a shortage of factory and industrial labor and found it necessary to draw workers from the South as immigration to the United States came to an end. The South lost a considerable part of their workforce due to the Migration which must have had a positive effect on the economic outlook and employment prospects for young black men in the South. Wright never mentions this phenomenon or the effect it may have had on the people around him. According to Isabel Wilkerson on the reason behind the Great Migration,

“They left on their own accord for as many reasons as there are people who left. They made a choice that they were not going to live under the system into which they were born anymore and in some ways, it was the first step that the nation’s servant class ever took without asking.”

It is reasonable to assume that Black culture in the South was much more complex and nuanced than its depiction in Black Boy, as Dubois notes, “Nothing that Wright says is in itself unbelievable or impossible; it is the total picture that is false.” However, as a novel dedicated to exposing racism and social injustice, it certainly accomplishes what it sets out to do.

Certainly, the contention by Wright that Black people in the Jim Crow South were overwhelmed by the obdurate forces of white supremacy cannot be ignored, and it is truly remarkable that the author somehow manages to escape this process. Nevertheless, one realizes that the author’s depiction of Blacks adversely affects the entire community by perpetuating a negative image, and as such, the racial stereotype that exists and reinforced over centuries is almost impossible to overcome. Yet, the abundance of historical information available that chronicles the lives of so many successful Black southerners, puts a positive light on the culture and its progress during the first half of the 20th century.


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