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.
Posted by Jess