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Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth Paperback – March 27, 2007
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Autobiography by Richard Wright, published in 1945 and considered to be one of his finest works. The book is sometimes considered a fictionalized autobiography or an autobiographical novel because of its use of novelistic techniques. Black Boy describes vividly Wright's often harsh, hardscrabble boyhood and youth in rural Mississippi and in Memphis, Tenn. When the work was first published, many white critics viewed Black Boy primarily as an attack on racist Southern white society. From the 1960s the work came to be understood as the story of Wright's coming of age and development as a writer whose race, though a primary component of his life, was but one of many that formed him as an artist. --The Merriam-Webster Encylopedia of Literature --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Richard Wright won international renown for his powerful and visceral depiction of the black experience. He stands today alongside such African-American luminaries as Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, and two of his novels, Native Son and Black Boy, are required reading in high schools and colleges across the nation. He died in 1960.
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Top customer reviews
"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.
Many reviewers claim that it isn't "interesting" because this is what every black American was going through during the Jim Crow period. Even if most black children during this era were drunks at age six, it's still interesting because it gives an insight as to what this race had to go through during this terrible time in history. Others say that it's a horrible book because Wright is blaming everyone around him, or thinks that he's superior to everyone else; the truth is, he has a right to feel that way. Wright grew up neglected (through no fault of his mother), hated by whites, and was abused by his grandmother because of his craving for literature. When everyone around him is suppressing him in some way, he's going to feel bitter and angry-- it's natural human emotion. And while his neighbors and friends were more concerned with getting jobs or playing in the woods, Wright wanted to discover literature and become an intellectual-- of course he's going to feel superior to them on an academic scale.
Overall, I believe this book is a very interesting read and recommend it to all who are interested in seeing how harsh the Jim Crow era was for people of color.
Indeed, the most poignant passages are not so much those in which Richard is abused by whites as the ones where he is abused by “his own”, starting with his family. The book opens with the infamous scene of four year-old Richard being beaten unconscious by his mother (for accidentally burning down the house). This is the first of a long series of beatings, in the course of the book, by his mom, his dad, his aunt, his uncles, his grandmother, his grandfather (did I miss anyone?). In Wright’s analysis, whites had created a society that trapped blacks in their own underworld of misery, with very little possibility of escaping this stunted existence.
The novel is about Richard’s attempt to break free from this condition of servitude and humiliation. He first struggles to make his family, his black peers and his white counterparts respect him. Wright portrays himself as willful, always bent on rejecting the behaviors his family and society try to impose on him. He will not let himself be molded into the archetypical “black boy” that everyone wants him to be: he shuns religion, gratuitous deference to older people and, more importantly, subjection to whites… until he realizes that, in order to survive, a certain dose of hypocrisy is needed. When he starts “respecting” whites as his black friends teach him to do, he feels like he is betraying himself, his rebellious, freedom-seeking nature. The only thing that allows him to keep on pretending is his overwhelming desire to leave the South.
I say “leave” the South and not “go North” because his goal is a negative one – escape hell – and not the positive one you would expect from the American dream narrative, a.k.a. the pursuit of happiness. Wright is running away from a dreadful existence, not running towards a compelling one. And sure enough, the second half of the book, about his life in Chicago, is not the “happy ending” we would expect. The North is no paradise, and what Richard gains in dignity (the Yankees do treat him with more respect and less discrimination than the Rednecks) he seems to loose in serenity: life in Chicago is enticing and glamorous… for those who can afford living it. The protagonist finds himself living a second class life, similar to that of the South, even though, formally, he is not discriminated against: it seems as though “class awareness” has somehow merged and even trumped “race awareness”. Wright becomes a member of the Communist party and gives his contribution to the fight against injustice, although he quickly understands that such a profound and structural problem can in no way be solved by a dogmatic and stifling ideology.
As I mentioned, Black Boy is a disturbing account not only of Richard Wright’s life, but, more importantly, of America’s recent past which, as events in Ferguson remind us, in some way continues to bleed into the present. I have enormous respect for America, and I believe in the principles on which it was founded. However, even America’s most enthusiastic proponents should never forget or downplay the tragedies it has allowed on its soil, which negate the very principles it professes to uphold. Two centuries of discrimination, mistreatment and even de-humanization have left scars on a Nation that prides itself on being the world’s beacon of freedom, democracy and human rights. What strikes me even more is that the events that Wright describes took place during the period Hitler was in power in Germany. In other words, World War II America – the America that saved Europe from nazism and fought in the name of human dignity – is also the America that oppressed an entire category of its own citizens with laws, norms and behaviors that were anything but civilized.
Having said all this, I think Wright – who died in Paris in 1960 – would be pleased with how America has since corrected its course. The Civil Rights act and all the atonement that came with it marked a milestone in American history. I believe that for all its misdeeds, America has a redeeming feature that trumps everything else: the capacity to reflect on its actions and reverse them when they are found to be contrary to its core values. This does not in any way erase the damage done to countless generations of African-Americans, but it does show that the professed goal of building “a more perfect Union” based on the inalienable rights of every human being actually means something, at least in the long term.