Black Boy: Essay Q&A

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Why do you think Richard Wright titled his autobiography
Black Boy

The simplicity of Wright’s two-word title, Black Boy, is somewhat misleading, as both terms contain connotations and meaning well beyond their obvious definitions. Although the period described in the book includes both Richard’s childhood and his adolescence, his choice to emphasize the youthful aspect of these years by referring to himself as a “boy” suggests an ongoing boyish immaturity. It seems likely that this view stems from the external world, primarily in the form of white adults in the South, who have deemed him incapable of growth due to his race. During this period, black male adults were commonly called “boy” by white adults who saw them not as equals, but rather as children in need of guidance. Richard’s decision to incorporate this word into the title of his autobiography in some way reclaims the power of naming. Black Americans have had to retake control over the language used to refer to them for many generations, and at the height of the civil rights era in the 1960s, terminology was no accident. Furthermore, Richard Wright modifies the loaded word “boy” with the even more complex term “black,” referring both to the color of his skin and to the way he is seen by society: a black boy, limited in his potential and constrained by his race and perceived immaturity as he attempts to grow beyond others’ perceptions and develop into a full-grown adult American male. His wish to be defined by aspects of his character rather than his skin color goes unfulfilled, for despite his stubborn qualities of determination and individuality, his family and both the black and white communities continue to see him as just his black skin wrapped around a young body. Despite the lack of guidance Richard experienced as a child, by the novel’s end he has reached a depth of worldly understanding uncommon among his peers, so the title also has an ironic ring. By using the title of his autobiography to call additional attention to his race, Richard Wright implies that his blackness was the main factor in defining him as a person. Had he been born white, it is unlikely he would have chosen to call his autobiography “White Boy.” In the 1960s, and ever since, Americans tend to assume whiteness if a race is not specified. This bias toward Caucasians has infiltrated American culture and language to such an extent that it is nearly invisible, and only by calling explicit attention to the many challenges this blindness has caused can Richard Wright truly tell his story.

How does writing figure in Richard’s life?

From an early age, Richard is drawn to books as both an escape and as an example of an alternative way of being. Even before he can read, he is desperate to hear all he can of the captivating story of Bluebeard, and this early fascination with the written word develops steadily over the course of his childhood. Reading and writing are recurring motifs in his own story, as he simultaneously learns to “read” words and the worlds they describe, those written on the page often represent a reality far more attractive than the one in which he lives.  Richard’s love of reading leads him to sell newspapers at one point, and he enjoys reading the magazine supplement until a customer points out the racist cartoons and articles being published in the paper itself.  As in most of his professional roles, Richard assesses the situation and decides he is unwilling to contribute to the humiliation of his race even for much-needed funds, and abandons the job without a second thought. He accurately “reads” his reality as perceptively as he scrutinizes the books and magazines he is able to obtain, and additionally learns to write.  While still in school, he publishes a story, “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half Acre.” Despite the lack of appreciation and even mockery from his peers and community, Richard felt compelled to write anyway and at some level liberated words locked inside him by taking pen to paper. Although his readers mostly obsessed about his use of the word “hell,” for Richard the act of writing became a lifelong passion and means for making sense of the world around him. Senseless as the violence and cruelty of this world towards him and others like him, whether due only to a similar race or position of vulnerability, Richard comes to terms with the limitations of his own family and community and continues to aspire to greater heights, though reachable only far from home. His first story, and later his autobiography and novels, gave Richard a measure of freedom he rarely felt in his own life, opening the world of the written word for infinite possibilities and happier endings than the degradation and injustice of the South.

How do Richard’s family relationships compare with his other relationships?

Most of Richard’s family members have little hope of him amounting to anything, and throughout his life treat him violently both physically and emotionally. These early formative relationships affect Richard’s later relationships with both peers and co-workers, nearly all of whom also look down on Richard and assume he is not capable of overcoming their racial stereotypes. Richard’s own mother, by far the most compassionate character towards him, beats him for small infractions. He is so afraid of her that in the opening scene, at only four years old, he prefers to hide under the burning house rather than face her punishment for setting it afire. His father is even more brutal in his meting out of punishment, disciplining Richard so harshly that he feels compelled to take his father at his word and kill a bothersome cat as a sort of revenge. Richard’s brother, witness to both of these disturbing and defining episodes, is sent to live with Aunt Maggie soon after their mother falls ill, so the brothers are separated before forming much of a bond. Richard’s grandmother is an especially formidable character, cruel in her treatment of her grandson to the point he lives only for the day he can leave the confines of her suffocating home. She believes her grandson is innately bad and punishes him for perceived misbehavior with both physical beatings and verbal abuse. Other than his Aunt Maggie, all of Richard’s uncles and aunts make life harder rather than easier for him. Even his Uncle Clarke, who seems to mean well in accepting his nephew’s decision to live with him and his wife Jody, winds up doing more harm than good. The couple seems convinced that Richard is unable to overcome his beginnings and become anyone of importance, and their preconceived notions of him become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Richard seems to carry these unspoken but evident expectations with him as he experiences more of the world. When his landlady in Memphis takes a liking to him and expresses her hope that he marry her equally affectionate daughter, Richard is at a loss for how to respond. All his life he has maintained distance from those around him in an attempt at self-preservation. His white employers, some well meaning and others less so, treat him with little respect. Even his black peers similarly have low expectations for both him and for themselves. The physical and emotional violence within Richard’s family is mirrored in the structural and cultural violence of the racist South, and the relationships he describes are limited and unfulfilling, unable to support or sustain him in his quest to make sense of the world and to become someone of consequence in it.

Describe the role of race and racism in shaping Richard’s formative years.

Color are important in both the beginning of Richard Wright’s life and of his autobiography. In the opening scene, he vividly describes the black smoking straws of the burning broom, the red circles of flames leaping, and the white cloth curtains that start the blaze that burns the house down. This emphasis on colors and the relationships among them is to be echoed throughout the novel and the life it represents. At an early age, Richard notices and comment on the difference between his own skin tone, and that of his mother and brother and father, with his maternal grandmother’s pallor. She is ill, and her white skin is somehow identified with her ailment, whether only physical or perhaps also psychological. Richard does not know any white people, and there is such division between the racial communities of Memphis that he is curious to learn more about his grandmother’s racial affiliations. However, all of his questions about this sensitive topic are rebuked by his mother, who evades his inquiries and avoids answering him directly, only serving to heighten his interest in the topic. But race and race relations remain taboo throughout his childhood and adolescence, and Richard’s interactions with white employers confirm their difference. One white woman is shocked he does not know how to milk a cow, a white man from the North hopes to teach him a trade only to meet with violent resistance from his Southern white staff.  Race is a defining element in all of these characters’ lives, and the racism embedded in Southern society limits all of their learning of the “other.” Rumors and stereotypes run rampant, and there is little opportunity for direct interaction, let alone friendship. In an era of segregated spaces and “whites-only” libraries, it is little wonder that Richard learns to fear whites just as they learn to fear him. Although this is disabling to blacks and whites alike, the sad fact of racism forced even relatively open-minded individuals to revert to base assumptions that put even more distance between the races, already living literally worlds apart.

Describe how physical and emotional hunger affect Richard’s development.

Richard’s early experience of not having enough food to eat generates a lifelong tendency to hunger, at first for adequate food, and later for enough intellectual and emotional stimulation. At a very early age, his body becomes accustomed to near starvation, and he must overcome his fear of bullies to bring home the bread his mother has sent him to buy. Since his father’s abandonment, money, and therefore food, is scarce, and the boys must assume roles beyond their years, Richard being designated the new family shopper. The alternative is to face further hunger pangs from the street outside the barred house, a suggested fate he finds unbearable. Thus violence enters Richard’s life as a means to combat the twinges of hunger that become only more familiar until he and his brother are sent to live in an orphanage because his mother cannot afford to feed them. Although their residence at the orphanage is brief, the very fact that he was sent there for the reasons he was causes Richard significant pain.  He would rather live hungry but free, and makes this preference clear when he runs away, only to tell all to a policeman who offers him food.

Richard longs for sustenance of another kind as well, for human warmth and depth of relationships he seems only to find in fiction. Largely because members of his own family treat him with such hostility, Richard comes to expect only disappointment in his search for emotional fulfillment. His need for love and compassion goes unmet during the period described in his autobiography, and he moves northward hoping to find what his body, mind and soul hunger for without knowing exactly what “it” is. Without any model from his own family or community, Richard is alone in his quest for spiritual fulfillment, and time and again faces fear and oppression where he dares hope for an equal opportunity or decent wage for the hard work he is willing to perform. He aches to be given a chance to prove himself worthy, yet due to the cultural and legalized racism of the South he is unable to advance. Instead he only hungers harder for what seems beyond his reach. The physical hunger he describes in his earliest memories is thus echoed throughout his life by the hunger Richard experiences for more resources than are available to him due to the simple fact of being born black in the time and place he was.

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