It occurred to me as I was listening to a wonderful reading of Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) that it should be included in my category of War Stories. Not because it has to do with any named wars. Wright was 6 years old when World War One began, but because the story he tells of his life, from five years to seventeen years old, in Natchez and Jackson, Mississippi, reads like a war story: constant beatings from multiple family members, everyday and growing fear of white violence, missed months at school, constant, gnawing hunger, exclusion from friendship of other boys, constant looking for work, and hard labor when he could find it. Yet, through all this, Wright is one of those rare souls, whom adversity doesn’t overcome but which he stands against. As the valedictorian of his 9th grade high school class – the last year for most of the children– he was told he would be giving a speech. He wrote it, practiced it, and was ready to give it when the principal called him in and handed him what he was to read, something by the principal — who knew more about life than young Richard, who knew “how to talk to the white folks listening.” Richard refused. In the face of threats from principal and family and incomprehension from his classmates, he continued to refuse, and gave his own speech.
On the night of graduation I was nervous and tense; I rose and faced the audience and my speech rolled out,. When my voice stopped there was some applause. I did not care if they liked it or not; I was through … I walked home, saying to myself: The hell with it! With almost seventeen years of baffled living behind me, I faced the world in 1925.
Wright is best known for his culture shattering novel, Native Son (1940). Shocking, scandalous, damned and praised, nothing like it had been seen in American letters, and almost never in world literature.Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) had previously brought a disturbing naturalism to the American reading public –dissolute lives, prostitution and murder. Wright’s protagonist, however, was a black man, making his murders far more alarming than those by Dreiser’s whites. Perhaps only Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) had been similar in its portrayal of a murder and the subsequent mental convulsions of the perpetrator. In Wrights’ case, however, the murderer had been black man and the white, female, victim had been not only smothered, but burned in a furnace; her murder then compounded by second, almost equally grotesque. Dostoevsky also reverses the class status. The victim was of a marginalized group, not of the admired bourgeois, a pawnbroker and if not Jewish, thought to be so – greedy, avaricious and all the tropes. Her death, thus, is less shocking, more recognizable as ‘one of those things that happen in the world.” Raskolnikov, though extremely poor, is of a slightly privileged group, a former student. Though condemned in everyone’s eyes, he presents less of an imagined personal threat to readers. Finally, he goes on to find spiritual rebirth in Siberian exile, thus, offering a vision of mitigation, and the comfort which repentance brings to observers. Bigger Thomas finds no such re-birth. His finding of an existentialist sort of freedom in recognizing and accepting his responsibility for the two deaths, leaves him, for many, morally unrepentant, and therefore still a danger, if only by implication. Even James Baldwin, once Wright’s protegee, was scathing about the stereotype he saw as being perpetuated by Wright’s Bigger Thomas.
Native Son sold 315,000 copies in the first three months, later becoming a (partially expurgated) selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and translated into French, German, Italian, Dutch, and Czech. A film adaptation was made, in Argentina, in 1951 with Wright himself playing Bigger Thomas which, despite heavy editing was still illegal to show it in many states, as “encouraging race hatred.” A full restoration was finally shown in 2016 at the New York Museum of Modern art. Since Wright’s death in 1960, two more film adaptations have been made, in 1986, and 2019
Irving Howe wrote, some years later that “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. No matter how much qualifying the book might later need, it made impossible a repetition of the old lies. In all its crudeness, melodrama, and claustrophobia of vision, Richard Wright’s novel brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear, and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture.”
Shortly after Native Son propelled Wright into the pantheon of name writers in America he released a short tale titled the “Man Who Lived Underground.” As was known to him and his publishers, but not to the reading world, this had originally been a novel nearing completion. Harper and Brothers claimed it did not like his turn to a more experimental style and passed on publishing it, though police violence and details of raw-running sewage may have had something to do with it as well. The short story he salvaged from it appeared in a small journal in 1942, titled “The Man Who Lived Underground.” That version can be found in the 1961 anthology, Eight Men. The full, reconstituted novel has recently been released as “The Man Who Lived Underground.” Seventy-five years later, and after many changes in society and in individual lives, it still resonates with the lives of Blacks in America , at the mercy of the police and the sense of looking on life from places unseen by the white majority.
After that truncated novel appeared Wright published Black Boy, truncated in turn, by both Harper and Sons and Book of the Month club. What he had originally called American Hunger, had been divided into two parts, the first of his youth in Mississippi, the second as a young adult in Chicago. What was published as Black Boy was the first half only, of his childhood, originally “Southern Night.” The second half, “The Horror and the Glory,” of his later years in Chicago and a member of the John Reed (Red) clubs were deemed not suitable. Buoyed by the notoriety of Native Son and by anticipation of what this dirty-laundry writer might do next, Black Boy sold very well, some 195,000 in its original edition and another 351,000 through the Book-of-the-Month Club, the fourth largest selling non-fiction title of 1945. No other Black writer had ever achieved such sales. The full, originally intended, novel was finally published by Harper and Row in 1977 as American Hunger. It can be found today as the full novel under both titles, and with both parts intact.
Though Black Boy has been called “one of of the great memoirs of American literature,” it met, from the time of its publication, with fierce opposition in school districts across America –as anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, overly sexual and obscene. It has been challenged, banned and excoriated from New York City to Louisiana. According to the American Library Association, between 2000-2009 it held 81st place as the most banned and challenged book. Mostly it seems it was unpopular for doing what James Baldwin said was the prime task of all: to look at ourselves without nostalgia, or denial, or sentimental stories about history and race and the crushing of souls our lies engendered.
In page after page of Black Boy, we read of unimaginable privations and experiences -made imaginable in his spare, unsentimental prose: being given whiskey to the point of drunkenness as a five year old, religious rigidity enforced by beatings, and hunger, hunger, hunger. Here as a small boy:
“I’m hungry, I want to eat.”
“You’ll have to wait.”
“But I want to eat now.”
“But there’s nothing to eat,” [mama] told me
“Just because there’s none,” she explained.
“But I want to eat,” I said, beginning to cry.
“You’ll just have to wait,” she said again.
“For God to send some food.”
“When is he going to send it?”
“I don’t know.”
“But, I’m hungry!”
A few years later, when he can work before going to school.
“Your breakfast is in the kitchen” (Says a white woman employer.)
“Thank you ma’am.”
I saw a plate of thick, black molasses and a hunk of white bread on the table. Would I get no more than this? They had had eggs, bacon, coffee … I picked up the bread and tried to break it; it was stale and hard. Well, I would drink the molasses. I lifted the plate and brought it to my lips and saw floating on the surface of the black liquid green and white bits of mold… I can’t eat this I told myself.
“I don’t know what’s happening to you niggers nowadays,” she said …. “It’s a sin to throw out molasses like that. I’ll put it up for you this evening.”
Time and time again, white men threaten Wright, for the way he answers them, the way he looks or doesn’t look at them, for not stepping out the way fast enough, for not lowering his eyes before a white woman, for aspiring to learn “what man’s work.” (You may be ashamed for ever thinking well of “Southern hospitality” or gentility.) After graduation from ninth grade, standing on the running board of a speeding car, holding his flat-tired bike with one hand, a white man in the car asks,
“Wanna drink, boy?”
I laughed, the wind whipping my face.
“Oh, no!” I said.
The words were barely out of my mouth before I felt something cold and hard smash me between the eyes. … I fell backwards from the speeding car into the dust of the road. … The car stopped and the white men piled out and stood over me….
“Nigger, ain’t you learned no better sense’n that yet?” asked the man who hit me. “Aint’ you learned to say sir to a white man yet?”
The book affects us by the direct, reported experiences such as these, not at all in a child’s language, but with a direct connection to childhood itself, often –as when a six year old is punished for something he has said but doesn’t understand, or with the repeated contemptuous white use of “nigger” — difficult to bear. Wright transfers these experiences to us and then, from time to time, slides effortlessly into adult recognition and reflection on them, his larger human understanding.
At the age of twelve, before I had had one year of formal schooling, I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.
At the end of the first part of the book, that which had been sold as the original Black Boy, as he finally has enough money to leave Jackson, he says:
I had begun coping with the white world too late. I could not make subservience an automatic part of my behavior. I had to feel and think out each tiny item of racial experience in the light of the whole race problem, and to each item I brought the whole of my life. While standing before a white man I had to figure out how to perform each act and how to say each word. I could not help it. I could not grin.”
Shortly after writing that, in 1947, Wright and his wife packed their bags and moved to Paris to escape the humiliation they faced as an interracial couple in New York City. There he became friends with Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, he already exemplifying the lived-in Existentialist sense they were in the process of inventing. From those years came another book, The Outsider, which he was in a triple sense: outside America as a Black man, outside the comfort of his family, severe Seventh Day Adventist practitioners, and outside those who might be friends by his own determination to make his way, and not be held back by opinion and custom.
Except for brief visits in 1949 and 1950, he never returned to the United States.
The audio I listened to is remarkably well read by Peter Francis James for HarperAudio, which is available on Scribd.com, a service I am in constant use of. I can’t say enough about his locution, dialects, tonal registers and appropriate emphasis. One feels perfectly drawn into rural Mississippi and seeing with a boy of that time and place.
Audio of Black Boy at Scribd
Text of Black Boy at Scribd
Review of the 1951/2016 film Native Son
Review of the 2016 film Native Son – Literary Hub
2016 Native Son at YouTube
Review of The Man Who Lived Underground, Novel