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Black Boy Richard Wright

Black Boy by Richard Wright Chapter One Analysis

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

This essay will critically analyse chapter one of Richard Wright’s Black Boy. It will be argued that Black Boy owes much to Naturalism and develops Wright’s interest in isolation and individualism, issues that were explored in The Man Who Lived Underground (Wright, 1942). Richard Lehan explains Naturalism as deriving “mainly from a biological model” (Lehan 1995 p. 69) that is based on the Darwinian theory of natural selection. Naturalism considers characters objectively, almost scientifically, as being products of their environment. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is an example of the genre showing the distorting effects environment has on his characters. Naturalism shows us that characters become more grotesque the further they are removed from nature.

Black Boy is based upon Wright’s experiences growing up in the South. It is set during the height of the Jim Crow Laws. Black Americans faced segregation and violent racism. The reality of segregation became deprivation and lynching. Black Boy, in the tradition of Frederick Douglas and W. E. B. Du Bois, has a purpose: enlightenment rather than entertainment. Black Boy is a protest novel. James Baldwin, Wright’s protégé, in Everybody’s Protest Novel says “Bigger is Uncle Tom’s descendant” (Baldwin, 1949, p 1659), a reference to the protagonist in Wright’s Native Son. His point being that “the avowed intention of the protest novel is to bring greater freedom to the oppressed” but its actual, unintentional, purpose is “to reduce all Americans to the compulsive, bloodless dimensions of a guy named Joe” (Baldwin, 1949, p.1657) – to become white.

Narrated from the perspective of Wright as an adult the text is not strictly autobiographical, the full title is Black Boy A Record of Childhood and Youth. Timothy Dow Adams argues that the version Wright creates of himself in Black Boy uses falsehood as a metaphor for survival. In a letter to W. D. Howells on 14th March 1904 Mark Twain wrote:

“An autobiography is the truest of all books; for while it inevitably consists mainly of extinctions of the truth, shirkings of the truth, partial revealments of the truth, with hardly an instance of plain straight truth, the remorseless truth is there, between the lines, where the author-cat is raking dust upon it which hides from the disinterested spectator neither it nor its smell (though I didn’t use that figure)–the result being that the reader knows the author in spite of his wily diligences.”

Despite the fictional aspects of the text the truth of it is that the South was poison for black people and the only sensible course was escape.

Wright’s first memory is of a four-year-old boy burning down his house, symbolic of the protagonist’s central developing characteristic of self-reliant individualism. Defying white authority, symbolised by his parents on pain of death, he states “… I was chastened whenever I remembered my mother came close to killing me” (Wright 1945 p5). The chapter’s dominant theme concerns the failure of his parents and ends showing his father a broken “my father was a black peasant who had gone to the city seeking life, but who had failed in the city” (Wright, 1945, p.33). Wright’s parents repeatedly fail him. Self sufficiency is a necessity due to his immediate environment. After the beating scene follows a list of imaginative, sensory experiences linked to nature, juxtaposing harsh reality against naturalist imagery is a naturalist technique. It reveals that Wright must interpret life himself: “Each event spoke with cryptic tongue. And the moments of living slowly revealed their coded meanings” (p. 5). Imagination is important for Richard’s understanding of reality; it gradually develops throughout the book to the point where he becomes aware that there is a different way to live, in the North. The reality of Wright’s environment limits his experience to boredom, hunger, fear, and hate so imagination becomes a defence against the effects of reality and assist his education. The importance of education is a recurring theme. The text itself, as a protest novel, informs and educates.

When talking about Memphis Richard asks a number of questions. His mother answers dismissively – he must discover reality for himself. The chapter’s purpose becomes clear: it is an explanation for Wright’s individuality and internalised isolation from family life and the black community.

Parental and familial violence occur frequently in the text; he refers to white violence as the “white threat”. The first chapter portrays violence as controlling, symbolised by parental violence. His father is a shadowy figure who he is frightened of; he is hungry after his father leaves home. Hunger becomes a dominant theme, symbolising deprivation and those environmental factors that have behavioural effect. Ironically, his mother is a cook. Awareness of the inequality and stark binary between white and black, an awareness that develops to a deep-rooted hate as the book progresses, begins here:

“Watching the white folk eat would make my empty stomach churn and I would grow vaguely hungry. Why could I not eat when I was hungry? Why did I always have to wait until others were through? I could not understand why some people had enough food and others did not.” (Wright, 1945, p. 19)

When the minister calls at the house, Wright goes hungry. He must fight for food, when his mother forces him to confront a gang. He overcomes the gang and feels safe to roam the streets of

Memphis only to become an alcoholic.

In the orphanage, he learns to distrust authority, symbolised by Miss Simon. When she tries to win his confidence, he rejects her:

“Distrust had already become a daily part of my being and my memory grew sharp, my senses more impressionable; I began to be aware of myself as a distinct personality striving against others”.

As hungry in the orphanage as when outside he runs away. Associating the orphanage, symbolic of the state, with deprivation: “Ought I go back? No; hunger was back there and fear.” He is aware that he has nothing to run to, “In a confused and vague way I knew that I was doing more running away from than running toward something.” The theme of escape runs through the text. The family constantly seek an escape from events: culminating in Richard’s escape from the South.

His Father “was always a stranger … always somehow alien and remote” (Wright, 1945, p 8). Wright “never laughed in his presence” (Wright, 1945, p 8). Portrayed graphically in the scenes involving the kitten, is the distorting effect of Wright’s environment, its lynching is symbolic of Wright’s strength of will, capacity for extreme violence and the white practice of lynching blacks for minor misdemeanours. Wright’s literal interpretation of his Father’s words is judicial in application and horrific in effect. Symbolising how words, like those abolishing slavery, can create horror, like the Jim Crow laws. Wright asserts his own power but its may have contributed to his father’s departure.

In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin explains parental violence in the context of environment and the “poison” of racism and seems to excuse severe chastisement:

“When one slapped one’s child in anger the recoil in the heart reverberated through heaven and became part of the pain of the universe.” (Baldwin, 1955, 1690)

He maintains “tough love” was necessary to prepare one’s child for the unnatural life of coping with white “poison”:

“It was the Lord who knew of the impossibility every parent in that room faced: how to prepare the child for the day when the child would be despised and how to create

In the child – by what means? – a stronger antidote to this poison than one had found for oneself.” (Baldwin, 1955, 1690)

In Nobody Knows My Name (

Baldwin, 1961) he seems to contradict this and disputes the idea that Black African Americans cannot transcend their teleological view of the world. He criticises Wright’s portrayal of black people as victims. In Notes of a Native Son (Baldwin 1955) he portrays himself as aggressive, throwing a water mug at a diner waitress who refuses to serve him – in other words he fights back. Wright portrays himself as a victim of his environment which caused parental rejection (as he sees it). Wright clearly says “How could I have turned out differently?” (Wright, 1945, ?)

In a scene at the end of the chapter, in a time beyond the end of the text, Wright describes a meeting with his father, twenty-five years after he saw him with that “strange woman”:

“…when I tried to talk to him I realized that though ties of blood made us kin, though there was an echo of my voice in his voice, we were forever strangers speaking a different language, living on vastly different planes of reality.” (Wright, 1945, 32)

The last two scenes explain Wright’s isolation within his own community and highlight its significance to the text. Parental rejection is one explanation for Wright’s feelings of difference and developing desire to escape the South. He rejects his father at the end of the chapter, telling how he succeeded where his father failed. His opinion of his father is the justification for his escape:

“…my father was a black peasant who had gone to the city seeking life, but who had failed in the city; a black peasant whose life had been hopelessly snarled in the city, who had at last fled the city – that same city which had lifted me in its burning arms borne me toward alien and undreamed-of shores of knowing.” (Wright, 1945, p.33)

Portrayed as a victim of white landowners, his father is unable to learn the meaning of loyalty, sentiment, tradition, joy or despair; he is a product of his environment, a metaphor for the shortcomings of blacks in the South, victims of a racist and segregationist environment. His father is “a creature of the earth” (Wright, 1945, p. 33).

The first chapter sets the scene for Wright’s isolation from others in his environment. He cannot rely on parents or wider family. His brother rarely figures in his life. This chapter symbolises Wright’s future resistance to the white South’s attempt to impose an identity upon him. This is symbolised in his refusal to accept the authority of his parents, family and wider community. This resistance features throughout the text. The remainder of the novel completes the story outlined in this chapter: charting the assertion of Wright’s own sense of self, individuality and ultimate escape from the distorting environment of the South.

Word Count 1500


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