Provocations of Discontent
Reviewed by Alexandra Johnson
May 5, 2008
Amidst the harsh social climate of the early 20th century, Richard Wright dictates his struggle to sustain life. Although he aspires to become a writer, he is met firstly each day with the predominant plague of hunger and the overwhelmingly severe, unwritten laws that subject him and all other African-Americans to oppression by their white counterparts.
Through reading any excerpt of this work, the undeniable presence of physical, psychological, and moral torment becomes painfully evident. Richard Wright strives to portray the various aspects of his seemingly unendurable life within his autobiographical narrative Black Boy.
He commences his work with what we can discern as his earliest memory: the evening he lit their family home ablaze. In supplying this relatively arbitrary anecdote, the reader quickly gains insight about Wright’s strong-headed personality. His younger brother pleads him to stop setting the miscellaneous objects on fire, but Wright had no problem in disregarding his brother’s advice. Only after the house stared back meekly in a pile of ashes did Wright understand he had done something wrong. We can infer another possible motive for including the tale was to illustrate the personality of his father; who would soon dismiss himself from life with Wright and his mother. Though this story may have seemed out of place, his striking audacity at the mere age of four easily astonishes the reader and serves to make us cognizant of the determined character he possessed from birth.
With his assortment of anecdotes from each period of his life, Wright informs us of the unimaginable hardships which accompanied even the smallest of tasks. Granted he was forced to move countless times throughout his life, during his youth he lived solely in the south. Wright’s account of life in the American south during the early 1900s (he was born in 1908) was absolutely chilling. Much like the average high school student, I have studied much of the racial sentiments attached to the antebellum, Civil War, Jim Crow Laws, and pre-14th amendment eras. However, I can honestly state that it was not until the completion of this narrative that I can speak to at least partially understanding the extent of racial hatred expressed towards the minorities of the time. Unlike America’s beloved Gone with the Wind, Wright does not gloss over the life of African-Americans as Margaret Mitchell did, even when she was writing about the era before “freedom” from slavery.
This autobiography provided a sense of true severity that neither any textbook nor Ken Burns documentary could even attempt. Reading each powerful sentence articulated by Wright dredges every moral fiber within an individual to the point where I often found myself in tears after an evening of reading. But I would seriously question the individual who didn’t shed tears.
Wright was faced with an array of hardships, much to the point where they seemed inescapable. At home, he had suffered with a father who had left his family for a prostitute and never looked back, not even to say the simplest of hellos. Consequently, Wright’s mother struggled to raise him and his infant brother. Even whilst working three labor-intensive jobs, his mother could barely scrounge up rent each month let alone food.
The detailed descriptions of hunger were like none I’ve ever read. His mother soon fell ill and they were forced to move in with their grandmother and aunt. Both of the women were ardently religious. Wright could not bring himself to believe in a God when He had never aided his family during times of struggle. Consequently, Wright was beaten each day at his religious school and each evening at home when he failed to subject himself to faith. The white family that employed him beat him each morning and he was beaten each afternoon by gangs of boys obstructing his path home from school. Wright’s life continued in this manner for the grueling extent of his childhood, but his thirst for knowledge and longing to write never left his hardened soul.
Wright’s work is incredibly intriguing because of his depth of perspective. After reading the hardships of life from his point of view, his never-ending hunger, his societal torment, he would provide us with views of other blacks in his society. Sometimes it proved to us that he was not unique in his thoughts and sufferings while at other times it drew us to perceive him as far more rational than the average African-American. For instance, Wright met a black individual who stated that we should solve the race issue by giving everyone in the nation a gun and five bullets, whoever remained in the end was obviously superior and the world would finally be at peace. Inarguably an extremely radical idea, after the circumstances Wright described for African-Americans it does not seem as bold.
Later on in life, through Wright we see the impacts of individuals such as Garvey, Lenin, and Trotsky amongst the black community when they rallied for support. The novel dispels so many ideas bred into us from our current societal combine. The idea that communism is an awful, un-capitalistic, un-American endeavor whose reasons for support we cannot discern. Through his explanations, we can see why masses of blacks eagerly joined the Communist party. It was an opportunity to make friends with the right (synonymous to white) people in order to obtain jobs, a party claiming all impoverished persons would no longer live in starvation, and a venue in which writers were writers regardless of color. Wright admits to being a member of the party for a time being but then justifies his allegiance by stating it was exclusively for the purpose of beginning his career in writing; a reason fortified with his resignation post collapse of the magazine he contributed towards.
The sole possible flaw that other critics may derive from this narrative is the lack of a dramatic, conclusive ending equal to that expressed throughout the work. Wright concludes his piece with a criticism of American culture; “If this country can’t find its way to a human path, if it can’t inform conduct with a deep sense of life, then all of us, black as well as white, are going down the same drain”. Furthermore, he makes a quasi-pledge in which he states his commitment to fulfilling his dream of becoming a writer and his revelation that he would only be content when his love of writing coincided with his attempts toward the betterment of society. In my opinion, his articulation was the most paramount conclusion perceivable. This very work, Black Boy, has succeeded in doing just what Richard Wright had sought his whole life: to become and remain a principled legacy in American literature.