Analysis: Richard Wright / Black Boy Richard Wright was born in 1908 on a cotton plantation not far from Natchez, Mississippi. His father was a sharecropper, Nathan abandons the family to live with another woman while Richard and his brother, Alan, are still very young. Without Nathan’s financial support, the Wrights fall into poverty and perpetual hunger. Richard closely associates his family’s hardship and particularly their hunger with his father and therefore grows bitter toward him. His mother struggled as a cook and housemaid to raise two growing boys. When Wright was 11 his mother suffered a series of paralytic strokes.
Her chronic illness set the emotional tone of his life and his writing with a “somber cast”. (Wright) “At the age of twelve, before I had had one full year of formal schooling, I had a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering. At the age of twelve I had an attitude toward life that was to make me skeptical of everything while seeking everything, tolerant of all and yet critical that could only keep alive in me that enthralling sense of wonder and awe in the face of the drama of human feeling which is hidden by the external drama of life. (Wright) Richard’s most essential characteristic is his tremendous belief in his own worth and capabilities. This belief frequently renders him willful, stubborn, and disrespectful of authority, putting him at odds with his family and with those who expect him to accept his degraded position in society. Because almost everyone in Richard’s life thinks this way, he finds himself constantly punished for his nonconformity with varying degrees of physical violence and emotional isolation.
Though Richard shows signs of insecurity, inferiority, and shame around some whites, his self-assurance seems largely invulnerable, and his punishing childhood only serves to convince him of his own right to succeed in the world. Richard’s difficult and isolating experiences as a child fuel his intensely powerful imagination, his love of reading and writing, and his will to make his life feel meaningful through writing about his environment. Wright paints himself in several different shades throughout the course of Black Boy.
As a young boy, “Richard is simply unable to believe the publicly accepted notions that his blackness, lack of religion, and intellectual curiosity make him flawed”(Wright). Rather, we find in Richard a character determined to live according to his own principles, and willing to live with the consequences. This strong-willed nature, contrasts with Richard’s powerless position in society, the low social status that comes with being black and poor. Starting off removed from society and his family, Richard must learn to educate himself. Much of this education stems from his experiences, in the homes of sharecroppers, as a black in the Jim Crow South, as a resident of the cramped apartments of Depression-era Chicago”( Brigano) There are clearly negative aspects to the character Richard develops, as “we see him lie, steal, and turn violent numerous times”(Wright) in the book. In a sense, he is a victim of his poor upbringing, in both the black and white communities in the South; as a victim, he becomes contaminated by the oppressive forces working against him.
Despite his flaws, Richard remains intensely concerned with humanity, both in a universal sense and in the context of his concern for the individual people he meets on his journey. In this way, Richard overcomes the negative, debilitating, isolating aspects of his environment and channels them into a love for other people. He is an outsider who feels little connection to other people, yet who cares for these people nonetheless. Richard’s traits do not exist in perfect harmony, at certain points one trait will seem to dominate, only to give way to other traits at other times.
However, because “the character of Richard Wright so convincingly contains all these traits, albeit in imbalance, he has a self-contradictory appeal that transcends the simple biographical facts of his life”. (Richard) For the next few years, Ella struggles to raise her children in Memphis, Tennessee. Her long hours of work leave her little time to supervise Wright and his brother. With Wright’s mother not being around due to her health, this allows for Wright to get into all sorts of trouble.
Spying on people in outhouses and becoming a regular at the local saloon. An alcoholic by the age of six. Ella’s worsening health prevents her from raising two children by herself and often leaves her unable to work. During these times, Wright does whatever odd jobs a child can do to bring in some money for the family. With Wright doing all the work, school is hardly an option for him. At one point, the family’s troubles are so severe that Ella must place her children in an orphanage for a few weeks until she can get control over her health.
Life improves when Ella moves to Elaine, Arkansas, to live with her sister, Maggie, and her sister’s husband, Hoskins. Hoskins runs a successful saloon, so there is always plenty of food to eat, a condition that Richard greatly appreciates but to which he cannot accustom himself. However, soon white jealousy of Hoskins’s business success reaches a peak, as local white men kill Hoskins and threaten the rest of his family. Ella and Maggie flee with the two boys to West Helena, Arkansas. There, the two sisters’ combined wages make life easier than it had been in Memphis.
After only a short time, however, Maggie flees to Detroit with her lover, Professor Matthews, leaving Ella the sole support of the family. Hard economic times return to the family. Black Boy forces the reader to imagine southern life from a black man’s point of view. What readers discover from this harrowing perspective is that the entire society is mobilized to keep the black man in his place; to restrict his freedom of movement, discourage his ambition, and banish him forever to the nether regions of “subordination and inferiority” (Richard).
This attempt to mark off in advance the boundaries of human life is Wrights theme. “The white South said that I had a ‘place’ in life. Well, I had never felt my ‘place’; or, rather, my deepest instincts had always made me reject the ‘place’ to which the white South had assigned me. ” (Wright). The spiritual deprivations suffered under such a system are embedded in the language of the book. Wright describes himself as trapped, imprisoned, stifled, stunted, curbed, and condemned.
At the most elementary levels of human existence he is forbidden to touch, to look, to speak, to eat, to play, to read, to be curious, to dream, aspire, expand, or grow. Showered with prohibitions and taboos, he is denied the experience of the catalyst of spiritual growth. Assigned by tradition to a demeaning role, he is deprived of possibility, of what he might become. Defined by others, and manipulated by means of these twisted definitions, he is robbed of personality, identity, and most important a sense of self. Richard) Wright’s response to the circumstances of his life was “implacable rebellion”. (Richard) The more his society insisted on setting artificial bounds to his experience, the greater his compulsion to trespass, to taste forbidden fruit. The more his society conspired against his human weight and presence, the more determined he became to assert himself, to compel the recognition of his individuality. Thereupon his urge to write, which was born of a fierce desire to affirm his own reality. Work Cited Angelou, Maya. “Heritage/ AFRICA. ” New Worlds of Literature. 2nd ed.
New York: Norton &, 1994. 215-16. Print. Brigano, Russel Carl, ProQuest. “Richard Wright: An Introduction to The Man and His Works. ” Literature Resource Center. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970. Web. 22 Oct. 2012. “Richard Wright. ” American Writers A Collection of Literary Biographies. Vol. 4. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974. 474-97. Print. Wright, Richard. “Richard Wright’s Life. ” Richard Wright’s Life. Ed. Modern American Poetry. Council of Learned Societies. Oxford University Press, 2000. Web. 22 Oct. 2012. Wright, Richard. Black Boy. London: Vintage, 2000. Print