Richard Wright's novel 'Black Boy', which was published in 1945. Black boy focuses on the life of the author in South where he witnessed devastating racial segregation and discrimination and realized that virtual slavery was still prevalent even after the Civil war. The paper also examines author's position in the novel and finds out to what extent he had been successful in creating awareness regarding the issue of racism.
BLACK BOY SYNOPSIS AND HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Black boy is one of the most successful and powerful novels to emerge out of Black literature of 1940s. The novel is actually an autobiographical account of the author's life and his struggle with racism that existed in American society of his days. The author has explicitly described the pain and anguish of growing up black in the South of early 1900s. Since the Civil war and its impact was still fresh in the minds of the South's feudal class, the blacks suffered from an even more intense and devastating racial discrimination and segregation during the Reconstruction era. The author explains how he lived with his blackness and tried to put some meaning into his life when all odds were against him as a young child with a crippled mother.
The author maintains that it was his mother's personality that taught him many valuable lessons in his childhood, and this was probably the one experience that taught him how important it was to believe in one's self and that instead of depending on anyone, man should learn to have faith in himself. These were the kind of lessons that Wright learned as a young child growing up in Mississippi and these helped him muster up enough courage to raise a voice against racial discrimination and segregation in South.
In this book, which focuses on authors life and his primary objective in life, Wright maintains that when he went to the North he discovered that slavery was not an exclusively luxury of the elite of the South. He wrote that the only difference between racial segregation in South and North was that in the North it was not officially sanctioned by the law and thus it was more subtle in nature whereas in the South, suppression and oppression of the black community was a norm.
The author in this novel maintains a special position with regard to slavery and his fight against racism. He was of the view that words could be a power and felt that one could achieve more by adopting an individualistic approach instead of a collective one. We need to understand what he actually meant by this. We notice that throughout the novel, the author has expressed his fascination with books and it was only when he went to Memphis that journalism attarcted him so much that he decided to use words as a weapon against racism. It was then that he realized how one man could influence the minds of so many provided he spoke with genuine desire to bring about a change and did so with conviction. He was not interested in collective approach, which was adopted by some other important black writers and later emerged in the form of Civil Rights Movement. Wright firmly believed that man lost the sight of his goal and purpose when he joined forces with others, even if others were like-minded people with the same goal. He felt that if desire was sincere and goal was a lofty one, no one could stop a man from speaking his mind and bringing about the desired change.
This was because writer was of the view that no one could truly understand another man's stand on a certain issue. He explained this in chapter 3 of his book,
At the age of twelve, before I had had one full year of formal schooling, I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, 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 came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering." (Pg. 100)
DEFENSE OF HIS POSITION
The author went through various painful experiences and made numerous valuable observations that helped him understand the psychology of slavery. He was of the view that if we delved deeper into the subject of slavery, we could learn how whites tried to suppress blacks through different means. After the Civil war, they had adopted slightly different techniques to show blacks that they were still superior to them. Wright narrates one disturbing incident in the novel when he was hit by a white man because he refused to drink, and in retrospect, the author wrote why he did not react harshly to the rude behavior of the white man:
was learning rapidly how to watch white people, to observe their every move, every fleeting expression, how to interpret what was said, and what was left unsaid"
His individualism approach for the resolution of the issue appears to be a rather effective one because we have noticed that the author was partially able to achieve his objective. That is even though the author could not possibly end racial discrimination, at least he created awareness among people and also made critics take serious notice of black writers and the issues that they wrote about. Secondly, it is unanimously maintained that Richard Wright was the first black writer to have been taken seriously by key figures in the American literary circle and this shows that the author was able to use his words effectively. I do however maintain that collective approach is not exactly any less effective than individual one but still I agree with the author that people often lose sight of the main objective when they start depending more on the strength of numbers and less on their own faith and conviction.
The author had learned through various incidents that in this world, every man was for himself and for this reason it was extremely important to fight for causes in one's own individual style. In other words, he learned that if man did not have the courage to overpower the oppressive forces in his immediate surroundings, he couldn't possibly think of changing the entire society. This type of thinking was what taught him to stand for himself and fight for his rights, and that was how he learned not to depend on others and always have faith in one's goals and aims.
The author convinces us again and again that individuals are always more powerful than groups and there is a rather interesting incident in the book which describes what made the author cultivate such views. The author narrates how he was once beaten by some white guys in his area, but the author's mother told him to go out in the streets and stand for himself. Wright describes how scared and baffled he was to know that his mother wanted him to go out in the streets and fight.
Take this money, this note, and this stick," she said. "Go to the store and buy those groceries. If those boys bother you, then fight." I was baffled. My mother was telling me to fight a thing that she had never done before. "But, I'm scared," I said. "Don't you come into this house until you've gotten those groceries," she said.
But his mother refused to let him in until he got those groceries that he had intended to buy when he was beaten twice by a white gang. Knowing his mother wouldn't allow him to get back in; Wright went out into the streets and…