Sexism and racism both involve imposing a set of expectations on groups in society. Sexism has not been eliminated from American life any more than racism has. Sexism exists because we teach our children sex-role stereotyping, and children learn from their parents the conception of "feminine" and "masculine." Much about these conceptions is not biological at all but cultural. The way we tend to think about men and women and their gender roles in society constitute the prevailing paradigm that influences our thinking. In her book Women's Magazines 1940-1960, Nancy A. Walker notes how these women's magazines packaged a set of behaviors, roles, expectations, attitudes, and values related to domesticity and which, of followed, would enclose women in a relatively narrow range of choices. In writing about blacks and how they are treated in American society, Richard Wright in his book Black Boy also suggests ways in which blacks are given a packaged set of roles and attitudes to which they are expected to conform. How would Wright have viewed the expectations and attitudes imposed on women and how alike or how different would he have seen them from those imposed on blacks?
Walker suggests that the way women were depicted in the woman's magazines reflected the way society at large wanted women to be. In the first half of the 1940s, for instance, women were shown in roles of active participation in the national war effort; in the second half, however, they were shown in "containment in a private kitchen" (Walker 16). She cites William Graebner to the effect that this was not as big a change as it might seem:
Women spent the decade meeting the needs of men and capital; filling the factories as producers, then, after the war, soothing the fragile male ego. doing housework, and heading the family's department of consumer affairs (Walker 16-17).
In the 1950s, "the postwar emphases on consumerism, home ownership, and the nuclear family intensified" (Walker 17). The idealized family presented in these magazines was not part of a long tradition but was rather a "new phenomenon created by postwar America at least in part to celebrate democracy and capitalism in the face of the cold war threat of communism" (Walker 17-18). The world now presented to women was almost entirely domestic. This was the image presented in advertising and articles alike. Ann Griffith finds that these magazines had four major themes -- cleanliness, competitive cookery, improved romance, and devices for the kitchen (Walker 235-236).
Richard Wright would certainly recognize the underlying dynamic, that those with the most social control, namely white males, determine (however consciously or unconsciously) the roles to be played by those with less power. Wright's book Black Boy is a non-fiction work which recounts the early life of the author, pointing out many of his formative influences as a young black man in the South at a time when racism was rampant. America at the time was a land in which whites enjoyed all the advantages while the blacks were relegated to poverty and were discriminated against at every turn. Wright found that he had to behave in a certain way to survive, and yet in the long run he did not learn his lessons as well as did some others. A deep anger infuses his writing, and often it is directed as much at black society for allowing if not accepting this disparity as it is toward white society for creating it in the first place. Black Boy is both a personal account and a document detailing the social structure of a people in a certain time and place. In many ways, this autobiography has a subversive intent, undermining traditional notions of autobiography, setting the author forth as a rebellious spirit more by accident than design, and challenging the traditions of American autobiography in particular, which were usually books telling the reader how the author had pulled himself up by his bootstraps to succeed and so how the reader could do the same. Wright has also succeeded, but his anger is not something the reader would or is expected to emulate unless the reader is also black and has had the same experience. This autobiography is itself infused with this anger to such a degree that it shapes the way he tells his story and comes through to the reader as a palpable quality. The work is nontraditional in that it is novelistic in style, and though it is in the first person, it never announces itself as an autobiography but only allows the nature of the story to emerge through the anger and sensibility of the central consciousness, the narrator who is also the subject and the author.
Richard Wright was born in 1908 on a plantation outside Natchez, Mississippi. His father was a sharecropper, while his mother taught in a country school. Richard's childhood was spent in one of the most poverty-stricken and rigidly segregated regions of the South. When he was six, his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, so his father could get a better job, and the father then worked as a night porter in a hotel, while the mother worked as a cook for a white family. Richard's father left the family for another woman son after that, and in 1915 Richard's mother became ill to such a degree that she was an invalid for the rest of her life. Richard, his mother, and his brother then moved to Jackson, Mississippi to live with Richard's grandmother for a time. They later moved to Arkansas and lived with Richard's aunt and her husband. Another move came when the uncle was murdered by whites who also threatened to kill the rest of the family.
Wright became one of the leading black writers of his generation and remains a major figure today. His works expressed the theme of black alienation in white society and showed the effects of racism and discrimination in terms of the violence that was used by racists and the violence that racism created in others. It is Wright's early years that are addressed in Black Boy. The fact of racism is apparent as a shaping force in the life of the individual black person, though in the case of Wright this force shapes him into an artist, channeling his anger into his writing. The book opens with a challenge to traditional biography in a sequence in which the violence of the black family is also evident and in which the protagonist begins his story with an act of personal violence as he burns down the house. The fire spreads largely by accident, and the boy knows he will be beaten and would almost rather burn to death than take that beating. In the end, though, he comes out and takes his medicine:
was lashed so hard and long that I lost consciousness. I was beaten out of my sense and later I found myself in bed, screaming, determined to run away, tussling with my mother and father who were trying to keep me still (Wright 8).
Much of Wright's life as recounted in Black Boy can be seen as a series of social pressures, from the religion his grandmother imposed on him to the image he was forced to adopt as a black in a white society. Certain forms of expression were seen in one way in the black world and in another in the white.
Wright expresses the dichotomies of American society in vivid images, often without direct commentary, yet with great power. For instance, he talks to his mother about the chain gang going past the house with men in striped clothing, with the white guards and the black prisoners. Wright learns a lesson in power -- the white men may be fewer, but they have the guns, so the black men do not dare fight back. This causes the boy to remember the way black and white are mixed in the animal world much as are the stripes on the prisoners' clothing:
What had struck me most vividly were the striped zebras that looked as if someone had painted them. The other animals that had gripped my imagination were the elephants, and by association the zebras and the elephants had become linked and identified to such an extent that when I had seen the convicts dressed in the white and black stripes of zebras, I had thought they were elephants, beasts of the jungle (Wright 57).
They are being treated just like beasts of the jungle, of course, and the boy has hit on a truth that suffuses his thinking thereafter, showing how confused the world has become about color, about mixing black and white, and about identifying one or the other group as the only violent group in society.
Wright would recognize the societal dynamic involved in women's roles in the magazines of the 1950s but would also see clear differences with the way his people were treated. Women had broken out of their circumscribed roles…