- Paperback: 448 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics; Anniversary edition (March 27, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0061130249
- ISBN-13: 978-0061130243
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 450 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #15,397 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth Paperback – March 27, 2007
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“Superb....A great American writer speaks with his own voice about matters that still resonate at the center of our lives.” (Alfred Kazin, New York Times Book Review on Black Boy)
From the Back Cover
Richard Wright grew up in the woods of Mississippi amid poverty, hunger, fear, and hatred. He lied, stole, and raged at those around him; at six he was a "drunkard," hanging about in taverns. Surly, brutal, cold, suspicious, and self-pitying, he was surrounded on one side by whites who were either indifferent to him, pitying, or cruel, and on the other by blacks who resented anyone trying to rise above the common lot.
Black Boy is Richard Wright's powerful account of his journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. It is at once an unashamed confession and a profound indictment—a poignant and disturbing record of social injustice and human suffering.
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The word hardscrabble seems to fit Wright’s life with its definition, “getting a meager living from poor soil” (“Hardscrabble”). Here, the poor soil symbolizes the Jim Crow South. The Jim Crow laws, written and unwritten restrict African-Americans, hampering any progress in education, social, and employment opportunities. Wright experiences this repeatedly, questioning why it is and why it has to remain.
Like most children, Wright begins questioning life at a young age. When his brother tells him he shouldn’t burn a broom, Wright questions him, ignoring the dangers. He repeatedly asks his mother about race, such as when he questions why his grandmother is white (confused by her biracial identity), or why she married a black man. Wright does not take long to learn that whites treat African-Americans differently and that African-Americans must defer to this or face consequences, usually violent.
Richard Wright’s questioning nature is understood at the age of twelve when he realizes he has, “… a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter a conviction that the meaning of living only came when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering” (100). However, many questions lie ahead and any answers he finds, are usually not easy. Wright seeks answers to these questions but he must do so while navigating a dangerous society where questions can be risky.
The independent Wright’s question make him a target of a society dedicated to disempowering African-Americans but it also makes him a target of his fellow African-Americans. “As the outside world grew more meaningful, I became more concerned, tense; and my classmates and teachers would say: ‘Why do you ask so many questions?’ or ‘Keep quiet’” (169). Various family members try to stifle his curiosity, often striking him when he asks too many questions.
Wright’s fellow African-Americans see the dangers ahead for Wright due to his independent and questioning nature. Griggs warns Wright, “Your way of doing things is all right among our people, but not for white people. They won’t stand for it” (184). Wright’s way of doing things- making deliveries to white neighborhoods during the evening, forgetting to say sir to whites, and asking when he will learn a trade he was promised he was hired to learn, are just three instances where his blackness target him for unequal and dangerous treatment.
Wright not only questions how whites treat African-Americans but how some African-Americans put up with abuse. Working as a porter at a store that sells to African-Americans, Wright observes how they are overcharged for cheap merchandise and treated contemptuously by the store’s owner and staff. Wright cannot help but wonder, “No matter how often I witnessed it, I could not get used to it. How can they accept it? I asked myself” (179). Wright will not allow himself to become desensitized to injustice. This is seen again when Wright asks Shorty “How in God’s name can you do that?” (229) after Shorty encourages a white man to kick him for a quarter. Later, Wright wonders if justice is attainable. Wright’s genius and relentless questioning of injustice do not provide an easy path or easy answers. “But, as I listened to the Communist Negro speakers, I wondered if the Negro, blasted by three hundred years of oppression, could possibly cast off his fear and corruption and rise to the task” (298). Wright’s journey for truth seems to lead him to conclude that there will be no easy solution.
Questions can also be used as weapons as Wright shows when he employs questions to attack injustices he sees. Wright is only a child when he defends his decision to kill a cat at his father’s rhetorical request and when punished, asks, “Then why the hell did he tell me to do it?” (11). Wright seems to know he did wrong but questions his father’s authority with this question. Later, Wright uses a question to call out a Communist agitator about an erroneous prediction. “’What about that revolution you predicted if the bonus marchers were driven out?’ I asked” (296). Wright sees through Communism’s easy promises and realizes that people in general (not just African-Americans) are complacent in rising up against injustice. His question also shows his refusal to blindly follow someone.
Black Boy provides deep insight into living conditions in the Jim Crow South through Richard Wright’s non-stop questioning of economic, social, and political inequalities. Wright’s refusal to stop questioning things are a testament to his character but the answers he finds are a disturbing confirmation of the harsh reality of inhuman treatment suffered by African-Americans.
"Black Boy" is an autobiography and I think that that is why I found it so powerful. Just to read, first person, how it was to grow up as a Black male in the South during the 10's and 20's is riveting. I know, academically and cognitively that slavery existed as did the Jim Crow era--but to read first hand accounts of the physical, mental, economical, social and psychological torment that many Blacks faced--that's another thing entirely.
Richard Wright writes openly about his family life and his extra-family life in Mississippi. He faced daily abuses from both, his near-fanatically religious family as well as the Whites he had to work for. But more than the physical and verbal abuses that Richard detailed, I found myself as much bothered by the transformation he had to make whenever confronting White people. He was not allowed to be a man and therefore act like one, he was always expected to be a boy. Even the job titles were "cleaning boy", "elevator boy", or just simply "boy for..." when they were hiring adults with families. Like a method actor, he would have to transmogrify into a slumped shouldered, downcast, foot-shuffling, speech deficient "boy". He could not stand up straight like a man, or look another in the eyes, or speak like a man, or even display any emotions beyond stupid gaiety, fear, or humility.
I found out quickly that Richard was not constructed for that place or that era--that's why he journeyed North. Whereas other Black folks were able to seamlessly and automatically turn on the "Black Boy" act and compartmentalize that part of their life; Richard found himself hard pressed to do so--which was a problem because his life depended upon it.
I was enthralled by the book. This particular copy has the addition of his life in Chicago which used to be printed as a separate book. Part two of this published edition deals with Richard as an adult in Chicago and being a part of the Communist Party. Although not as compelling, it was an interesting read into how the Communist Party could be so appealing to Blacks at that time. This book is a real page turner and a must read for a real historical reference to a dark era in American history.