84 of 87 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 2000
Like Richard Wright, I spent my teenage years reading only "classic" novels and therefore skipped over "Black Boy", which I assumed wouldn't be substantive enough for my tastes. Now that I've read it years later, I'm regretful that this stunning memoir wasn't a part of my consciousness when I was younger.
This is a story of racial dissonance-- and how horrifying it is to see the lengths that whites would go to to abuse and humiliate emancipated blacks!-- but it is also a story of a brilliant young man whose voice crosses racial bounds. I could identify with him completely, and I have little patience with those reviewers who've described him as "whiny" or "negative" or "hateful." I know what it feels like to grow up in a rural town and have people try to break you for having aspirations. I know what it's like to "feel and cultivate feelings" while others strive for "the trivial material prizes of American life," and I know that justifiable distrustfulness and resentment are not to be confused with hate.Most importantly, I know what it feels like to try to escape one's oppressive roots. The pain in this story was so real for me that I cried my way through many, many passages.
"Black Boy" should come as a revelation to black persons, white persons (like myself), and anyone who has ever hungered for their life to mean something more.
47 of 54 people found the following review helpful
Richard Wright is considered by many to be one of the premier Black American writers of the 20th century. He wrote a long string of books and essays before his death in 1960. Wright even wrote thousands of haiku poems and some plays. His best-known novel is probably "Native Son," a novel that takes a close look at Black America and it's relation to the penal system. Wright overcame huge obstacles to take a place among the great writers of his day, although I suspect he is more appreciated these days, when minority writers are all the rage. This book, aptly subtitled "American Hunger," is Wright's account of his tumultuous upbringing in the Jim Crow American South and his subsequent exodus to Chicago. The "Hunger" refers to both a physical hunger of poverty and a mental hunger for knowledge.
Most of the book concentrates on Wright's troubled childhood. His father abandoned the family at a young age, and for most of his youth Wright was bandied about amongst his frail mother, his psycho-religious grandmother, and a string of uncles and aunts. Wright rarely attended school, and when he did, he almost never stayed for more than two years in a row. His main occupation was trying to find work to feed his family and save for his trip to the North. Along the way Wright gives us many interesting stories about his youth and about the American South. Wright drank liquor heavily before he was seven, lived in a whorehouse, and even spent time in an orphanage. Despite all of these obstacles, Wright still managed to teach himself how to read and write. He was reading Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser in a time when to do so could spell disaster for a
Black man. His accounts of the discrimination he encountered while working in the South are pretty disturbing. Wright was threatened with bodily injury, pitted against his fellow Blacks, and forced to run errands for White workers during his lunch hour. Wright really brings home the dehumanization that a system like Jim Crow brings about. Wright himself had a tough time staying out of trouble because it was difficult for him to play "step `n fetchit." Whites seemed to sense his intelligence and most felt threatened by his mental faculties.
Wright left the South behind and headed North to what he felt would be a better life. It was, to some extent. It was easier to find work, although prejudice still followed him. Be sure and read about his job at the laboratory. It's a hoot! I can sympathize with him about people stepping on floors while they're being mopped. I've gone through that and felt the same rage Wright did. It was also in the North that Wright began his long dalliance with the Communist Party. This is the best part of the book, in my humble opinion. Wright candidly reveals the failings of Communism. According to Wright, the Communist party spent more time on internal bickering than trying to bring about revolution. There's even an incident where a certified lunatic ends up in a high position in a pro-Communist group. Wright himself suffered endless character assassination because he was an "intellectual," a big no-no in pro-Stalinist Communism. In short, Wright shows us that Communism, when taken from the ideal to reality, is a huge sham.
The biggest problem with this book is that it just seems to end with little fanfare. I would have been interested in hearing about Wright's trips to Europe and his stay in France. Still, this is an adequate book that gives a perspective that is often overlooked. I suspect that Wright would not be very impressed with the ghetto culture of today's world. Wright believed that Blacks have to lift themselves up and get out of poverty. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton would not be friends of Richard Wright. Overall, this book is well written and contains interesting anecdotes. Recommended.
45 of 54 people found the following review helpful
In my quest to either reread or read the first time some of the timeless classics by African American writers this year, I tried to avoid reading this one. I just wasn't up to reading about another downtrodden, poverty-stricken, living in the ghetto story. But it is more than that. This masterpiece is a commentary on a way of life in the early part of the 1900s, a life that many African Americans endured and survived coming through victorious.
Richard Wright recalls his poverty-stricken childhood, abandoned by a father, and physically abused and misunderstood by the adults in his life. Uncomfortable among his own people, he didn't fit in with the lifestyle of the blacks in his life nor could he abide the Jim Crow shuffling he had to do with whites. He found he could not compromise his values and knew he had to leave the south. The poverty was startling yet he chose to go back to live with his mother and grandmother when he could have stayed with an uncle where there was plenty of food.
With only an nine grade education, he was self-taught, reading and disciplining himself to pursue what he wanted most, to write. And write he did. He wrote stories and had them published when he was still in school and when he moved to Chicago he wrote for the Communist Party. With the Party, Wright thought he had found his niche, but again, he was the odd man out never conforming to their ideals.
As I read I kept saying, this is enough already. The poverty, the abuse, the Jim Crow and racism was a wearing me down. But this was a man who rose above his circumstances to have a life that was worth pursuing and living. I am intrigued by this man and his life and look forward to reading his most recent biography.
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 1999
Black Metropolis is perhaps the founding document of African-American studies, a classic work of sociology that still resonates today. It is a paradigmatic expression of the Chicago School of sociology, however, a school that today stands in some disrepute, at least in some circles. Indirectly, it was the target of James Baldwin's famous attack on Richard Wright in his essay, Everybody's Protest Novel. The claim of the criticism has been that the Chicago School, due to its insistance upon using a "scientific approach", merely reproduces the very terms under which African-Americans have been oppressed--a claim that has proceeded under the warrant of European intellectuals such as Theodor Adorno. Still, Black Metropolis is a landmark study, and, unfortunately, many if not most of its observations and conclusions remain true today, and in fact it could be argued that conditions in the Black Belt of Chicago have gotten worse, not better, since 1945, the year of Black Metropolis' publication--which lends a certain credence to the criticisms mentioned above, though perhaps it should be qualified by saying that they are not so much criticisms of the Chicago School as they are criticisms of American society. Since then, as we know, we have witnessed a great shift in American public opinion away from what some consider to be the excesses of those days; so much so, in fact, that the work of Black Metropolis may again be regarded as a profoundly useful book. Embodying American liberalism as it does--which counted as a grave sin thirty years ago--Black Metropolis may possibly be due for a fresh look.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2002
When I first picked up this book all I thought was just another reading assignment. However, Black Boy by Richard Wright affected me in ways no book ever has. This book is a touching autobiography describing the life of a young African American boy who struggles to find himself in such a prejudice society. He overcomes obstacles of religious, racial, and cultural segregation in the 20th century United States. During Richard's childhood, he faced many hardships with his family because of their low income, lack of a father figure in his life, and being raised in such a racist society. As he grew older the racism only continued to get worse and Richard began to learn how to cope with his surroundings. Whether with jobs or schooling, he began to alter his lifestyle to accommodate the changes of his environment.
This book is an integral depiction of what American society was like during this time period. The hardships and injustices that the African American race faced each day has become a significant part of our history. All of the incidents that occurred in this book represent the struggles that African American citizens did their best to conquer each and every day. The harsh and unjust treatment of African Americans is revealed through the author's own life experiences, all of which are reflected in Black Boy.
I found this book to be one of the best books I have ever read. It touched me and saddened me to know that this was a part of my history as an American. In comparison to a few books I have read about segregation, I have found Black Boy to be the most personal. This is because the way the author expresses the sentiment of human emotions and the intimate details of characters thoughts and beliefs. I would definitely recommend this book for those who are interested in the racial progress of our country.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on August 17, 2000
In a way, Richard Wright is the ultimate American success story. Born into unbelievable poverty and racism, denied access to a complete education, victimized by a family that couldn't understand him, he nonetheless rose to become of the most acclaimed writers in the history of this country. Can anyone reading this book today in the US possibly understand what its like to always, always be hungry? More than merely recounting his life, he recounts the development of his understanding of his life and the life of African Americans in the early part of the century. His involvement with the communist party, while not as interesting to me as his childhood, is still quite interesting. As you read you see the changes he undergoes and among other things, you kind of wish he'd find a bit of happiness. This book was declared obscene in the 1950's by a congressman from the south, it was banned in Mississippi, if a better endorsement for the truth it represent is to be found, I have not come across it.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2003
Several years ago, I was assigned the first half of this book in an American History class. I sat down expecting it to be only mildly interesting, but by the end of the first chapter I was hooked. I read the whole thing straight through, from cover to cover, in about sixteen hours, furiously scribbling notes on every page. The narrative itself is vivid and compelling, and the style, structure, and ideas in Wright's autobiography subtly echo a fascinating variety of sources, from slave narratives to contemporary sociology to classic British coming-of-age stories (such as Gosse's "Father and Son" and Butler's "The Way of All Flesh").
The book is written in two parts. The first half details Wright's hardscrabble existence and deeply unhappy childhood in the rural & urban South. He is bullied & abandoned by his feckless father, tormented by his sadistic uncles & aunts, taunted & ostracized by his resentful schoolmates, and patronised & menaced by most of the whites he meets. Throughout all these depressing experiences, Wright perserveres in educating himself and planning his escape North. (One thing I learned from the book is how determined Southern whites were to prevent blacks from moving North and trying to better themselves: Apparently, many whites had some weird psychological need to keep a people they despised close at hand for perpetual abuse!)
The second half of the book details Wright's escape north to Chicago and his brief, bizarre career there as a Communist Party organizer and propagandist. As in Ralph Ellison's great novel "Invisible Man," our protagonist finally realizes that the Communists don't give a damn about improving blacks' wretched condition--in fact they want to aggravate blacks' misery in order to exploit it for political gain. The great disillusionment comes for Wright when an escaped lunatic arrives at CP headquarters and successfully impersonates a high-ranking party official. In short order, the impostor turns everyone viciously against each other and the true back-stabbing nature of the CP is revealed to Wright. He quits in disgust and sets out on his own to become a free-lance professional writer.
Wright's character, as revealed in this autobiography, inspires (in me, at least) admiration for his courage & ambition, annoyance at his contempt for other blacks (the only positive black character is Wright's mother), and ultimately sympathy for a difficult but essentially decent fellow. His vividly detailed account of the constant humiliation and fear suffered by blacks in the Jim Crow South is unforgettable. His insightful depiction of the way blacks often internalized white racism and turned on each other is heartbreaking. I am very glad my professor assigned this book.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on September 15, 2007
Much as I love and admire this book--a must-read in American literature--this is not the best edition to have. Wright originally wrote the book in two parts: "Southern Night," about his experiences in the South; and "The Horror and the Glory." His original title for the two-part book was AMERICAN HUNGER.
When it was selected as a primary selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club--a great honor at that time, which tripled the sales of the book--he was asked to remove "The Horror and the Glory" and just publish the first section, "Southern Night." That was the book he retitled BLACK BOY. It is a pure memoir of his life as an aspirational but deeply alienated black growing up in the South.
Recent editions of the book have restored "The Horror and the Glory" to the text, and you might think this is a good thing. I don't think it is, in this case. That section purports to continue his memoir with his experiences in Chicago. However, unfortunately--and ironically--the Book of the Month Club editors were right from an artistic standpoint. "The Horror and the Glory" is completely different in tone. It largely recounts Wright's involvement in the Communist Party of the 1930s, and is deeply enmeshed in party politics. It embodies Wright's own feelings of devotion to Communism and Communist ideals even as it recounts his repudiation of the party.
I have nothing against Wright having been a Communist per se; my objections are not political at all but purely artistic. This second part of the book has none of the directness and immediacy of the first part; it is far less entertaining, and much more of a chore to read. Actually, the first part of the book (about two-thirds of its length) does indeed stand alone as a cohesive, coherent narrative. This is how it was issued, and, actually, it's how it should be read. The second part merely dilutes the artistic impact of the first part, rather than adding to it.
"The Horror and the Glory" was published originally in a motley of smaller articles, in the Atlantic Monthly and elsewhere. The issues it raises--internal Communist party politics and their relationships to the John Reed Clubs and their associated writers' groups--are somewhat interesting historically, but dated and ultimately irrelevant. It feels very much like commentary on facts and events you're expected to know about, but don't.
I suggest readers either purchase an edition that is true to the first edition, and contains only what in this edition is called "Southern Night," or else consider just reading the first part and letting the second part go. I think it's a better book the way it was originally issued.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
If I could use only one word to describe this autobiography of Richard Wright, it is POWERFUL, very powerful. Wright's descriptions of growing up in the deep South are some of the best I've seen. He lays everything bare and lets readers see what a vulnerable situation he was forced to be in. More interesting is his mistaken view of the North, where people didn't believe in oppression or slavery, but they simply just didn't want anything to do with you (the same portrayal set forth in Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin).
Wright is a boy/man who is forced to stand alone. He can never truly be part of the milieu by which he is surrounded, and he is angry. It is the anger that fuels this book and makes the reading of it (like the writing of it) so passionate. His lack of faith in a cruel God makes him unpopular with his family. His need for learning and reading deems him an outcast in Southern society where a "boy" must do what his "betters" tell him. And perhaps most frustrating, he tries to become a member of the Communist party, to find brotherhood at last, only to be shunned as an intellectual and a Trotskyite.
It is my opinion that this book should be read in conjunction with Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi. These two autobiographies represent two eras of the fight for civil rights in Mississippi, perhaps the most volatile state concerning the problem of race. Both of these books offer us a chunk of American history that you simply won't find in your school textbooks.
Black Boy, in a nutshell, should be compulsory reading. It is amazing.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 11, 2000
Because I am bi-racial (Black and Filipino)and was raised by my grandparents, I never knew anything about the "African American Experience" other than the mini-series Roots. I stumbled across Black Boy while hoping to find a book to hold me over until a book from my favorite author was out. I came across Black Boy, read a few pages, bought it, and fell in love with it. This book opened my eyes to a world I never knew existed. I found myself feeling every emotion while reading this book. For the five days it took me to read this wonderful book, I felt like I was actually experiencing the hunger, the embarassment, anger, frustration, pride, and confusion that is so wonderfully written about in the book. This book changed my life becuase I now have a real person's perspective of the way the world USED to be, which brought me to the understanding that both my Black and Filipino ancestors had struggles to find their place in this country...and I am so greatful to be a part of this county. To me, reading this book as like having a conversation with an older uncle sharing his life's experiences with me so that I might be able to appreciate the dramatic differences in our lives. This book is a really interesting and amusing read. I made room for it on my aready packed bookshelf.It sits right beside another of my favorites, To Kill A Mockingbird.