How I discovered
I read Wright’s Native Son years ago and remember I loved it. Then recently a friend of mine, who is a teacher at a high school in southeastern Pennsylvania, mentioned that last summer he taught this during summer school in a school comprised mostly of black teenagers. He couldn’t stop talking about it whenever I talked to him (well, that and Dickens…of which he will be writing a guest review in a few weeks for me of Great Expectations). So when I saw the book on a list of books that had been challenged in the past, I knew I had to read it for last week as part of my Personal Banned Books Week Challenge.
The set up
In this once sensational, now classic autobiography, Richard Wright tells us with unforgettable fury and eloquence exactly what he thought and felt as a “black boy” in the Jim Crow South. Wright grew up with poverty, hunger, fear, and hatred. He lied, stole, and lashed out at those around him; he killed and tortured animals; at six he was a drunkard, hanging about the taverns. Surly, brutal, cold, suspicious, and self-pitying, he was surrounded on the one side by whites who were either indifferent to him, or pitying, or cruel; and on the other by Negroes who resented anyone trying to rise above the common lot. Wright’s powerful account is at once an indictment, an unashamed confession, a poignant and often disturbing account.
— from the bookjacket
In one of my recent reviews, I believe of The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, I used the word “brutal” to describe the book. However, that was before I read Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy. This one is truly brutal in not only its assessment of the Jim Crow South (as mentioned above) but in the author’s assessment of himself and his family life.
How brutal is it? Wright begins the story of his life at the age of four when he accidentally set his family’s home on fire and then after that is beaten senseless by his mother. Later, he is beaten not only by his mother, but his grandmother, whose cruelty is in stark contrast to her deep religious faith (which understandably makes him cynical toward religion). Then even later, when he gets a job at an optical shop, he is beaten by co-workers.
Yet for all the brutality, including his own where he threatens an uncle with razors, from the start, the reader also is drawn into a story beautifully told. For example, after his mother beats him, Wright breaks into a cadence that is poetic in its structure as he remembers his early days:
Each event spoke with a cryptic tongue. And the moments of living slowly revealed their coded meanings. There was the wonder I felt when I first saw a brace of mountainlike, spotted, black-and-white horses clopping down a dusty road through clouds of powdered clay.
There was the delight I caught in seeing long straight rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun to the bright horizon.
There was the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on to my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.
There was the vague sense of the infinite as I looked down upon the yellow, dreaming waters of the Mississippi River from the verdant bluffs of Natchez.
It is a cadence that goes on for a page and on to the next page, broken by his remembering how they moved to Memphis. In addition to the cruelty he experienced, his father left when he was young, forcing his mother to take care of the family and then his mother has a stroke. This brings me to one of my favorite sections in the book, with which I will end my review since it’s slightly longer than what I normally quote and because, in my humble estimation, if you don’t like this section, then you might as well skip the book:
My mother’s suffering grew into a symbol in my mind, gathering to itself all the poverty, the ignorance, the helplessness; the painful, baffling, hunger-ridden days and hours; the restless moving, the futile seeking, the uncertainty, the fear, the dread; the meaningless pain and suffering. Her life set the emotional tone of my life, colored the men and women I was to meet in the future, conditioned my relation to events that had not yet happened, determined my attitude to situations and circumstances I had yet to face. A somberness of spirit that I was never to lose settled over me during the slow years of my mother’s unrelieved suffering, a somberness that was to make me stand apart and look upon excessive joy with suspicion, that was to make me self-conscious, that was to make me keep forever on the move, as though to escape a nameless fate, seeking to overtake me.
At the age of twelve, before I had one full 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 one when was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.
At the age of twelve I had had an attitude toward life that was to endure, that was make me seek those areas of living that would keep it alive, that was to make me skeptical of everything while seeking everything, tolerant of all and yet critical. The spirit I had caught gave me insight into the sufferings of others, made me gravitate toward those whose feelings were like my own, made me sit for hours while others told me of their lives, made me strangely tender and cruel, violent and peaceful.
It made me want to drive coldly to the heart of every question and lay it open to the core of suffering I knew I would find there. It made me love burrowing into psychology, into realistic and naturalistic fiction and art, into those whirlpools of politics that had the power to claim the whole of men’s souls. It directed my loyalties to the side of men in rebellion; it made me love talk that sought answers to questions that could help nobody, that could only keep alive in me that enthralling sense of wonder and awe in the face of the drama of human feeling which is hidden by the external drama of life.
My final analysis: if you haven’t figured it out by now, after quoting the book at this great length, I loved it and give it a 5/5. It is a must read for people of all skin colors.
If you have read and reviewed this book and would like a link to your review to appear at the bottom of this post, please leave the link either in the comments or drop me an e-mail at justareadingfool (at) gmail (dot) com and I will be glad to add it.