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Black Boy by Richard Wright

Black Boy

Black Boy, a true American autobiography of the struggle to be raised in a racist community with little guidance and a bleak hope for the future, tells the execrable tale of Richard Wright; a boy with the hopes to aspire above the expectations Southern society sets for African Americans. Even before the reader opens the book, from the title of the novel, the reader is given a small look at the mold that Wright is continuously trying to break free from. His heart-wrenching account shows how he slowly, but surely, detaches himself from others due to the hypocrisy, partisanship, and the limitations that not only society binds him with, but also his family and peers.

Hypocrisy is shown throughout Wright’s accounts; it is an underlying idea that every American is familiar with, and also, an entity that Wright struggles with as he continues to grow into a person and as he sees how his small portion of the world works. The autobiography starts after the Civil War-in which his grandfather fought- in a world that is suppose to be equal to anyone of any race. Of course, it is the South, though, and the South is an entirely different world that manages to hold a hostility towards people of color. It is the first hypocorism in the book, even if it isn’t told. Wright gives hints to the social boundary that is set between two races, from when he is too young to realize it, to when he is given advice by a friend to act like whites are better than them- even if they don’t believe it to be true. It is one of the major detachments in the novel, the mood of the book clearly changing as he becomes desperate to move North and lets his own spirit be broken in order to do so. He watches as boys who believe they will never be crushed into subjugation become men who do so in order to simply survive; men who unlike Wright, don’t realize-or perhaps don’t care- that they are no longer living, but being allowed to live. There is also the matter of religion. Religion is suppose to be a pure choice that one chooses for himself because of the simple devotion to one’s God; devotees are suppose to lead a life through God’s actions and sympathize with others. Wright doesn’t believe in God; yet, it is undeniably frightful that he is the only just person in the novel. People who consider themselves faithful, are undoubtedly the villains in his life. His grandmother, a zealot who is constantly praying and not even allowing people under her household to work on Saturdays, is abusive towards him; as well his aunt who publicly humiliates and strikes at him in her classroom and emotionally abuses him. His uncle is just as despicable; he is judgmental, has a quick temper, and is swift in inflicting his punishments. Once, Wright even overheard him talking to his daughter about him, saying, “I told you to stay away from that boy….tell your friends to stay away from him”. His mother, the best influence over him, isn’t even adequate. When he is six years old, she beats him till he has to be bedridden and almost dies. It is a miracle that Wright developed into the honorable man who is able to account these horrible and tragic events, and a shame that this isn’t all that he faced.

Even the title of the book, Black Boy, highlights a struggle that is huge in the book and is still a major problem in today’s society. The title only gives a taste to what prejudices African Americans faced in a racist community. From the beginning of Wright’s accounts, the reader is able to see the social boundaries the separates “blacks” from “whites”. As a child, Wright has trouble comprehending why anyone could possibly judge a person on the color of the skin and not on their actions, and justly so. He grows into stories of horror; lynching, beating, cheating. Soon, white people become a nightmare that never truly had a face before. Wright is so terrified that once when he is trying to sell his beloved dog, Betsey, he refuses to sell it to a white girl who offers him only three cents below his asking price. As he becomes an adult, that fear becomes hatred as cruelty is bestowed upon him. Working in white households, stores, and companies show how whites truly feel about him. He is knocked down, threatened, and insulted. The worst part is, Wright can do nothing about it, scared that he will be murdered. It kills him to have no voice, and that is what writing eventually becomes for him; a voice that can speak to people that he cannot. The reader sits back in horror as he is fed moldy food and his boss can’t understand why he won’t eat it; as he is knocked down and told he is lucky to be alive, only after he just looked a white man in the face; as he is terrorized at his job and forced to quit; as he is treated as nothing more than an animal. “My personality was numb, reduced to a lumpish, loose, dissolved state. I was a non-man, something that knew vaguely that it was human but felt that it was not,” (pg. 194). To survive, Wright hides his dignity, swallows his pride, and allows himself to be treated like no other human being should be; and that is perhaps the most desperate act that anyone could do.

In current society, there is a delicate balance, a social etiquette, that is known and followed: treat people fairly and justly, give everyone equal rights, and not to judge people by the color of their skin. Sure, there is always a few people who stray from these rules, like with anything; but in Richard Wright’s world, his entire society follows this rebellion. In the South, Wrights’ family and peers are faced with constant cruelty and racism, and they do nothing about it. They have fit themselves into the fragile role of a person with no power, and stay in it through the fear of death and social shunning. No one seems to try to be more and Wright cannot stand it. This is perhaps the most considerable reason why he began to detach himself from other people. He simply can’t stand what they live for and what they are trying to mold him into. As the account develops, the reader is able to see what a passion for life Wright has. They can see as they read his words, that he doesn’t want the future that everyone else has accepted. He is the rare type of person that is able to disregard social regulations for the sake of himself. Wright takes risks that other people around him do not, even when he knows that there will be punishment on his behalf. He writes stories and publishes one- The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre- only to receive criticism from everyone but the publisher: his grandmother and aunt believe that fiction is the work of the devil; his mother thinks that future employers may read it and think that his mind is full of nonsense; his uncle- a retired teacher- downgrades it; his peers don’t understand why he would do something that is not required of him. He graduates at the head of class and writes a speech in which he will give, only to be told by his principal to read one that he prepared, because there will be white people attending. Wright is given the choice to give the principal’s or not graduate, and still refuses to falsely give a speech he did not write. Wright also refuses to be baptized because it goes against his current beliefs; even though he faces hostility from his family and peers. It is when he is older that he begins to bend to society, only for the sake of retreating from it and making to his salvation in the North. “I felt that I had been emotionally cast out of the world,” (pg. 203-204). To keep a job, he acts as if he has no emotions and becomes detached from society. He learns to blend in, even though he never truly does, and plans his way to a future in which he is able to accomplish his dreams.

Black Boy is an emotional reminder of how the United States used to be and an example of what society needs to stay away from. It tells Richard Wrights real accounts of the challenges he faced and gives his readers hope that will lead them to overcome any obstacle in their way. It shows his slow and painful detachment from himself and society, so he may get to the North; a place where he heard anything can happen; a place where he hopes to become the person he wants to be and not what people expect him to be. This book should be read by anyone who wants to experience how the world really works and how to overcome it.

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