Vol. LXII, No. 37
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
“I wanted to try and build a bridge of words between me and that world outside.”Richard Wright (1908-1960)
Born a hundred years ago tomorrow on September 4, 1908, Richard Wright was the first black author to reach a substantial audience. His “bridges” to hundreds of thousands of readers were Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), both critically acclaimed number-one best-sellers of immeasurable impact. “American culture was changed forever the day Native Son appeared,” said Irving Howe. In comparing Black Boy to the blues, Wright’s peer Ralph Ellison said that “in it thousands of Negroes will for the first time see their destiny in public print.”
When Barack Obama became the first black to receive the Democratic nomination for president, his “bridge of words” reached an audience of many millions. An hour before he delivered his historic acceptance speech, I was reading about another speech in the fully restored 60th-anniversary edition of Black Boy (American Hunger): A Record of Childhood and Youth (Harper Collins 2005). Like Obama, Wright wrote his own speech; he was to deliver it as class valedictorian during ninth-grade graduation ceremonies. The time, however, was 1925, and the place was Jackson, Mississippi, and the black principal wanted him to read a prewritten speech routinely handed to class valedictorians. Concerned that a black student might say something that would offend or anger the white community and the white superintendent of schools, the principal threatened to deny him his diploma if he insisted on giving the speech he’d written. When Wright refused to be intimidated and proceeded to read his own words, it wasn’t because he was taking a stand on principle or defying Jim Crow, it was because he resented the assumption that he was incapable of writing a suitable speech. The principal’s argument was based on a word candidate Obama has heard a lot of this year. “You’re going to speak to both white and colored people that night,” he was told. “What can you alone think of saying to them? You have no experience.”
At this point in Black Boy, Richard Wright’s pride and determination in refusing the set speech is the most tempered and telling expression of the fierce spirit of resistance that had alienated him from his own family and that would help make him a writer. After graduation he encountered racist abuse and humiliation as he went from one menial job to another, which should come as no surprise given the time and the place, and yet it does, if only because throughout the first third of the book he’s been embattled less by whites than by the relatives who have their hands full trying to control his willful, fear-driven, often downright bizarre behavior (among other things, he sets fire to the house, lynches a kitten to show up his father, arms himself with a knife and a razor to defy an uncle and an aunt, and mindlessly utters an insulting obscenity to his grandmother as she’s scrubbing his bottom).
Needless to say, even the merest hint of that contrarian attitude perceived or intuited by whites once he’s living and working among them puts him seriously at risk. A classmate who had tried to talk him into giving the principal’s speech warns him: “You’re marked …. Do you want to get killed? …. Then, for God’s sake, learn how to live in the South! …. You’re black, black, black, see? Can’t you understand that?’ …. You act around white people as if you didn’t know they were white.”
What the “black boy” finally comes to understand is that there’s no future for him in Jackson, so he escapes, first to Memphis, where he runs into more hostility and oppression, and then to Chicago, where he begins reading and writing in earnest while confronting the reality of the Depression and a brief, confused, ultimately harrowing involvement with the Communist Party. He finds relief in a job at the South Side Boys Club supervising youths who sound like prototypes for Native Son’s Bigger Thomas, “black boys between the ages of eight and twenty-five,” a “wild and homeless lot, culturally lost, spiritually disinherited, candidates for the clinics, morgues, prisons, reformatories, and the electric chair” who came “to swim, draw, and read” and whose counterparts could presumably be found in some of the families Barack Obama worked with 60 years later on the same South Side of Chicago.
My favorite moments in Black Boy are those where you see Wright being born both as a reader and as a writer who will emerge from squalor and prejudice to take his place in the pantheon of American literature, an accomplishment that seems no less miraculous than Senator Obama’s sudden ascent to the highest level of American politics. Throughout this election year Wright and his work have been the subject of centenary conferences and celebrations worldwide, from Zagreb to Paris to Okinawa to Hiroshima, and in this country, in Harlem, Philadelphia, at the University of North Carolina — and in Jackson, Mississippi, which will be celebrating Richard Wright week during this, the week of his birth.
Black Boy is arguably a more significant work than Native Son because it represents, as one reviewer observed, “the raw material” out of which the other book “was forged.” And “raw” is the word for it. Wright’s personal history may not be as violent and lurid as the one he creates for Bigger Thomas, but it has an authenticity that shocks, repels, and moves you in a way that the fictional account of Native Son’s killer-victim rarely does. Again, what lifts the book out of the mire of poverty and despair are the author’s accounts of the boy’s heady, fitful glimpses of the promised land of literature.
According to Wright, the first moment of revelation in his “portrait of the artist” comes after he begs a schoolteacher boarding with his family to tell him about the book she’s reading and she recounts the story of Bluebeard and his seven wives. “As her words fell upon my new ears,” he recalls, “I endowed them with a reality that welled up from somewhere within me.” The tale makes the world around him “throb” as “reality changed” and “the look of things altered and became peopled with magical presences.” When his grandmother finds out what he was being told, she denounces the schoolteacher for exposing him to “that Devil stuff” and eventually evicts her for telling him “things he should not know.”
Unable to tame Richard with religion, his grandmother inadvertently prompts the composition of his first story by confining him to his room to pray (“for the sake of your soul”); he kills his “hour of prayer” by writing a tale about an Indian maiden. Since he can’t show it to his relatives (“they would think I’d gone crazy”), he tries it on a young woman who lives next door. Her reaction is to smile at him “oddly, her eyes baffled and astonished.” He finds her inability to grasp what she’s read immensely gratifying: “Afterwards whenever I thought of her reaction, I smiled happily for some unaccountable reason.” The reason can be at least partly explained by the way the writing in Black Boy becomes more vivid and more inspired whenever the subject is one of the explosive, “unaccountable” acts that marked his early childhood. The young woman’s bewildered response validates not only his dawning sense of a creative mission but reminds him of his family’s “baffled and astonished” response to his early wildness. It’s as if he realizes that with words to build with he can make effective use of the very actions and impulses that got him into trouble and caused him such misery.
The White House
Another still more stunning event in Richard’s unfolding discovery of himself as an artist (and a Negro) comes when he enters into that ritual of American boyhood, the paper route. His motive, however, is less about making money than gaining access to the stories in the magazine supplement, which he relishes for “outlandish exploits of outlandish men in faraway, outlandish cities.” The “cheap pulp tales” enlarge his knowledge of the world more than anything he’s encountered so far: they are “revolutionary,” his “gateway to the world.” His zeal blinds him to the overriding message of a paper geared for “rural, white Protestant readers” until a black adult shows him that it advocates lynching and is full of “brutally anti-Negro” propaganda. The first thing pointed out to him is a gruesomely repellent caricature of a “huge black man” with his feet propped on a desk. A big sign on the wall behind the cigar-smoking monster reads “The White House,” the gist of the caption being that a Negro’s “only dream is to be president and to sleep with white women.” The shock of what he sees gives the black boy goose pimples, but what shakes him up even more is realizing that the “racial propaganda” was produced in Chicago, the northern city that symbolized a new life for him, “the city to which Negroes were fleeing by the thousands.”
Almost a century later, with another black man who worked with youth on the South Side of Chicago running for president, it’s shocking to think that there are still people out there for whom the November election looms as the possible manifestation of one of their worst nightmares.
So here we are in September 2008, with the next generation of the Far Right’s Willie Horton smear brigade in full swing, two Obama-bashing books strongarmed onto the best-seller list, another hurricane slamming the Gulf Coast, and it’s Richard Wright Week in Jackson, Mississippi.
Note: The version of “Black Boy” I refer to is the one Richard Wright originally intended to publish until the Book of the Month Club mandated the elimination of the second half, which describes his experiences in Chicago. The Library of America restored the original text and added notes and a detailed chronology for the 2005 HarperCollins edition. According to the notes, the BOMC was reacting to the Communist Party’s objection to Wright’s portrayal of party activities. The omission works somewhat to the book’s advantage, since the second part is relatively prosy and unfocused.
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