Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Black Boy by Richard Wright

Published in 1945, the autobiography of Richard Wright Black Boy was originally going to be told in two parts. The first part chronicled Richards upbringing in Mississippi and his eventual realisation that in order to make something of himself he needed to leave the south. The second part of the book followed Richard in Chicago as he establishes himself as a writer.

Just when Black Boy was going to be published, the book was picked up by the Book of the Month club (which was the equivalent of the Oprah Winfrey book club today.) But the Book Club would only accept the first part of the book and this is how the book was originally published. Today you can buy the full version of Richards life in the south and the north but for some reason my copy only contains the first part of his life in the south.

Born in 1908 I am sure you can imagine the kind of life that a black boy born in Mississippi at that time had, and you'd be right. The book starts in a very dramatic way when Richard accidentally burns down his family home and then we follow his childhood as he deals with his father leaving, poverty, racial hatred and his family forcing their religion on him.

Wright is an incredibility talented writer and he attempts to explain how he has turned out the way he has and why he ultimately had to leave the south in order to pursue his dreams as a writer. He explains how the culture in the south at that time among black people forced him to behave in a certain way in order to avoid being noticed or lynched and how attitudes and nervousness towards white people were ingrained from a very early age (with good reason). All this meant was that he was unable to truly be himself within the communities that he lived in.

“Although they lived in America where in theory there existed equality of opportunity, they knew unerringly what to aspire to and what not to aspire to. Had a black boy announced that he aspired to be a writer, he would have been unhesitatingly called crazy by his pals.”

This is a brutal book in places but it is also incredibility compelling, warm and funny and of course this doesn't make the south at that time look good. Even when Richard does meet a non racist white man, he is still suspicious and nervous and cannot wait to get away from the man purely because of the way that he has been conditioned. His own family constantly give him beatings in what they see as his own good and in an attempt to make him learn to adapt to a white-dominant black-subservient society.

Its a beautifully written book and I think this passage perfectly demonstrates this as well as showing how Richard explains why he had to leave.

"Not only had the southern whites not known me, but more important still, as I had lived in the South I had not had the chance to learn who I was. The pressure of southern living kept me from being the kind of person that I might have been. I had been what my surroundings had demanded, what my family – conforming to the dictates of the whites above them had exacted of me, and what the whites had said that I must be. Never being fully able to be myself, I had slowly learned that the south could recognize but a part of a man, could accept but a fragment of his personality, and all the rest – the best and deepest things of heart and mind – were tossed away in blind ignorance and hate".

Would I recommend this? Absolutely, this is now one of my favourite books. Aside from it being a well written and thought provoking book, it also tells the story of racial tensions in that south at that time from a black boys perceptive. But try to get the full version as I have only read half the story.

Verdict 5/5

Posted by Jess


  1. I read Native Son earlier this year and it was so tough. I'm not sure yet if I can handle another book by Richard Wright.

  2. I hadn't heard of this but it sounds incredible. I must add it to my wish list.

  3. Richard Wright is one of my absolute favorites. Black Boy is amazing, but--if possible--I like Native Son even better. Amanda's right's reeeally tough.

  4. I'd like to read this, it sounds interesting although everyone in the comments mentioning that it is a tought read makes me more hesitant. Are you planning to read the second half of this book as well?

  5. Amanda - I didnt find Black Boy that differcult to read so I think it might be his fiction that is? Although if native son is tough then I dont blame you for not wanting to pick up another book by the same guy.

    Amy - I hope you enjoy it, it really was a very good read.

    Emily Jame - was Black Boy an easier read then to Native Son? I will read other books by this author but its goo to be prepared :)

    irisonbooks - I will certainly read the other half as Ive only read half the story. I the passages above are quite typical of the book which should give you an idea on what the prose is like.

  6. Native Son is one of the few books I own in a nice hardcover edition because it was one of my favorite reads in high school, but I've never reread it because I have wanted to read Black Boy (and The Outsider) first. It sounds excellent so hopefully I'll get to it sooner rather than later.

  7. Catching up with all the blogger buddies I haven’t had a chance to visit in a while, it was good to hear all your latest news.

    High praise indeed, thanks for the recommendation. I have several friends who are doing a book challenge on race and this sounds ideal, I'll pass on your details.

  8. By tough I mean--not to read--but emotionally. It takes a toll. But it's worth it.

  9. Shelley (Book Clutter - I think Im going to make Native Son my next Wright read. I had never heard of this author before I read this but Im a huge fan now.

    Petty Witter - Lovely to hear from you Petty - I think this would make an ideal book for that challenge.

    Emily Jane - LOL ah ok, sorry I got confused there.

  10. I like the quote you included where Wright talks about how the racist culture prevented him from knowing his true self and identity.

  11. Christy - there were loads of quotes I could have used as there are so many good ones but I think that sums up what he was trying to say for most of it