Richard Wright's powerful and eloquent memoir of his journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South—at once an unashamed confession and a profound indictment, Black Boy is a poignant and disturbing record of social injustice and human suffering. This 75th anniversary edition will have a beautiful new cover and will include a new introduction.
When Black Boy exploded onto the literary scene in 1945, it caused a sensation. Orville Prescott of the New York Times wrote that “if enough such books are written, if enough millions of people read them maybe, someday, in the fullness of time, there will be a greater understanding and a more true democracy.” Opposing forces felt compelled to comment: addressing Congress, Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi argued that the purpose of this book “was to plant seeds of hate and devilment in the minds of every American.” From 1975 to 1978, Black Boy was banned in schools throughout the United States for “obscenity” and “instigating hatred between the races.”
The once controversial, now classic American autobiography measures the brutality and rawness of the Jim Crow South against the sheer desperate will it took to survive. Richard Wright grew up in the woods of Mississippi, with poverty, hunger, fear, and hatred. He lied, stole, and raged at those about him; at six he was a “drunkard,” hanging about in taverns. Surly, brutal, cold, suspicious, and self-pitying, he was surrounded on one side by whites who were either indifferent to him, pitying, or cruel, and on the other by blacks who resented anyone trying to rise above the common lot. The second half of the book focuses on Wright’s move north to Chicago, and his experiences with the Communist Party (a section that was pulled from the book’s original publication).
Black Boy is Richard Wright's compelling account of his journey. Deeply affecting and beautifully written, it is as timely today as when it was first published seventy-five years ago.
About the Author
Date of Birth:September 4, 1908
Date of Death:November 28, 1960
Place of Birth:Near Natchez, Mississippi
Place of Death:Paris, France
Education:Smith-Robertson Junior High in Jackson, Mississippi (1925)
Read an Excerpt
One winter morning in the long-ago, four-year-old days of my life I found myself standing before a fireplace, warming my hands over a mound of glowing coals, listening to the wind whistle past the house outside. All morning my mother had been scolding me, telling me to keep still, warning me that I must make no noise. And I was angry, fretful, and impatient. In the next room Granny lay ill and under the day and night care of a doctor and I knew that I would be punished if I did not obey. I crossed restlessly to the window and pushed back the long fluffy white curtains-which I had been forbidden to touch-and looked yearningly out into the empty street. I was dreaming of running and playing and shouting, but the vivid image of Granny's old, white, wrinkled, grim face, framed by a halo of tumbling black hair, lying upon a huge feather pillow, made me afraid.
The house was quiet. Behind me my brother-a year younger than I-was playing placidly upon the floor with a toy. A bird wheeled past the window and I greeted it with a glad shout.
"You better hush," my brother said.
"You shut up," I said.
My mother stepped briskly into the room and closed the door behind her. She came to me and shook her finger in my face.
"You stop that yelling, you hear?" she whispered. "You know Granny's sick and you better keep quiet!"
I hung my head and sulked. She left and I ached with boredom.
"I told you so," my brother gloated.
"You shut up," I told him again.
I wandered listlessly about the room, trying to think of something to do, dreading the return of my mother, resentful of being neglected. The room heldnothing of interest except the fire and finally I stood before the shimmering embers, fascinated by the quivering coals. An idea of a new kind of game grew and took root in my mind. Why not throw something into the fire and watch it burn? I looked about. There was only my picture book and MY mother would beat me if I burned that. Then what? I hunted around until I saw the broom leaning in a closet. That's it ... Who would bother about a few straws if I burned them? I pulled out the broom and tore out a batch of straws and tossed them into the fire and watched them smoke, turn black, blaze, and finally become white wisps of ghosts that vanished. Burning straws was a teasing kind of fun and I took more of them from the broom and cast them into the fire. My brother came to my side, his eyes drawn by the blazing straws.
"Don't do that," he said.
"How come?" I asked.
"You'll burn the whole broom," he said.
"You hush," I said.
"I'll tell," he said.
"And I'll hit you," I said.
My idea was growing, blooming. Now I was wondering just how the long fluffy white curtains would look if I lit a bunch of straws and held it under them. Would I try it? Sure. I pulled several straws from the broom and held them to the fire until they blazed; I rushed to the window and brought the flame in touch with the hems of the curtains. My brother shook his head.
"Naw," he said.
He spoke too late. Red circles were eating into the white cloth: then a flare of flames shot out. Startled, I backed away. The fire soared to the ceiling and I trembled with fright. Soon a sheet of saw her taut face peering under the edge of the house. She had found me! I held my breath and waited to hear her command me to come to her. Her face went away; no, she had not seen me huddled in the dark nook of the chimney. I tucked my head into my arms and my teeth chattered.
The distress I sensed in her voice was as sharp and painful as the lash of a whip on my flesh.
"Richard! The house is on fire. Oh, find my child!"
Yes, the house was afire, but I was determined not to leave my place of safety. Finally I saw another face peering under the edge of the house; it was my father's. His eyes must have become accustomed to the shadows, for he was now pointing at me.
"There he is!"
"Naw!" I screamed.
"Come here, boy!"
"The house is on fire!"
"Leave me 'lone!"
He crawled to me and caught hold of one of my legs. I hugged the edge of the brick chimney with all of my strength. My father yanked my leg and I clawed at the chimney harder.
"Come outta there, you little fool!"
"Turn me loose!"
I could not withstand the tugging at my leg and my fingers relaxed. It was over. I would be beaten. I did not care any more. I knew what was coming. He dragged me into the back yard and the instant his hand left me I jumped to my feet and broke into a wild run, trying to elude the people who surrounded me, heading for the street. I was caught before I had gone ten paces.
From that moment on things became tangled for me. Out of the weeping and the shouting and the wild talk, I learned that no one had died in the fire. My brother, it seemed, had finally overcome enough of his panic to warn my mother, but not before more than half the house had been destroyed. Using the mattress as a stretcher, Grandpa and an uncle had lifted Granny from her bed and had rushed her to the safety of a neighbor's house. My long absence and silence had made everyone think, for a while, that I had perished in the blaze.Black Boy. Copyright (c) by Richard Wright . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Reading Group Guide
Black Boy is Richard Wright's memoir of his life from early childhood to the launching of his career as a writer. His father abandoned the family soon after they moved to Memphis, leaving Wright, his mother and brother in dire straits. Schooling throughout his childhood was erratic and often interrupted; he eventually completed the ninth grade. Domestic violence, neglect and hunger plagued him throughout his youth.
Wright's first prolonged contact with white people came when he began working odd jobs to earn enough money for food. The discrimination and violence he experienced in the Jim Crow South came as a terrible shock to him. Time and again, Richard was the target of white hatred because he failed to hide his true thoughts and feelings behind a mask of servility and humility. Finally, resolved to leave the South forever, Richard scraped together enough money to move north to Chicago.
Wright vividly describes the intellectual awakening he experienced in Chicago as he immersed himself in the works of Dreiser, Mencken, Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson and began his first serious efforts at writing. Black Boy ends with an image of Wright sitting poised with pencil in hand, determined to "hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo." He had arrived at the threshold of his professional literary career.Discussion Topics
1. In one of his first contacts with whites, Wright feels himself tensing up with confusion and suspicion over how to act. Discuss the various forms that tension takes in the course of Black Boy. Does Wright glimpse any relief from this tension?
2. Personal narratives like Zora NealeHurston's "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," and James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son have been among the most enduring and powerful modes of expression among African-American writers. What is it about the African-American experience that makes so many gifted writers tell their own stories? What influence has Black Boy had on this genre?
3. Wright writes: "I used to mull over the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes, how unstable was our tenderness, how lacking in genuine passion we were, how void of great hope, how timid our joy, how bare our traditions, how hollow our memories, how lacking we were in those intangible sentiments that bind man to man, and how shallow was even our despair." Taken out of context, this reads like a terrible damnation of the African-American soul. How does the meaning of these words change when read in the context of the book - and the context of Wright's own youth? Do you feel the book justifies this criticism of African-Americans - or is this passage a sign of Wright's self-hatred, his lack of sympathy with the essence of black culture?
4. When it was published in 1945, Black Boy was read primarily as an attack on the violence and oppression of the Jim Crow South; during the 1960s, critics began to focus on the sensibility of the narrator - how his experiences shaped him, how he found his voice and satisfied his yearning for expression. Which view of the novel feels most on target to you?
5. Several years before he died, Wright wrote, "I declare unabashedly that I like and even cherish the state of abandonment and aloneness...it seems the natural, inevitable condition of man, and I welcome it..." Discuss this statement in the light of Black Boy.
6. Compare the male and female characters as they are presented in Black Boy. To what extent is Richard rebelling against the powerful role of women in African-American families? Do you think Wright is a misogynist, as some critics have written? Are there any men in the book to whom Richard feels close or to whom he turns for guidance or mentoring?
About the Author: Richard Wright won international renown for his powerful and visceral depiction of the black experience. He stands today alongside such African-American luminaries as Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, and two of his novels, Native Son and Black Boy, are required reading in high schools and colleges across the nation. He died in 1960.