This autobiography was originally published at a little over half its true size under the title Black Boy, being the story of Richard Wright’s childhood. Harper Brothers, who published it, only agreed to publish the story of his coming of age in the south, the story ending with Richard heading north. The impression this half-story gives is the traditional view of the north representing escape and salvation, a happy ending, while the south represents oppression and futility. This was no doubt true to some extent, and at the same time it was a soothing balm for northern whites.
The story of a poor black boy in the south gave northern whites the cover to feel superior to their southern compatriots, while also providing a heartrending tale to tickle their liberal guilt. A child in such poverty, well that is truly sad and requires only cutting a check to the charity of your choice and you can go on with your day. To read the tribulations and poverty an adult black male must face despite his best efforts at finding work, undermines the polite society that you’ve convinced yourself exists. One half of the story elicits sympathy; the other condemns you personally.
The first half of the book is also more traditional narrative, the stringing together of scenes typifying a child’s less reflective nature, a child’s memory of incident and spectacle. As the first half progresses, Richard becomes ever more inwardly focused, more meditative on his conditions and his situation. The book’s second half is more jazz riff on the motifs established, whole chapters devoted mostly to reflection.
The very first scene of the book doesn’t start with an anecdote designed to make us like young Richard Wright. He accidentally sets the house on fire while his grandmother lies sick in bed. It is partly ignorance that causes him to do that, a child’s natural fascination with fire, but there is also an element of willful disobedience in doing it. As I first listened, I suspected I might not like Richard Wright terribly much, a trick I think Wright employs deliberately. So much of the story involves Richard overcoming his destructive and self-destructive nature, as well as reflects on people overcoming their first impressions. The opening is both emblematic of his character and somewhat of an indictment of your own.
The second anecdote tells of how Richard’s hatred of his father made him hang a kitten by the neck until dead upon his father’s hyperbolic orders. We are meant to be shown the monstrous possibilities of ignorance, of fear, and of hatred. It is the horrific consequences we are meant to loathe. It is less Wright's criminality we are pointed toward than the atmosphere encouraging it.
Richard’s continuing waywardness eventually end him up as a five-year-old drunkard, whiskey being fed to him daily by saloon regulars who also gave him nickels to repeat obscenities to women in the bar. He is uncontrollable by family and other adults. Throughout a number of incidents like this, Richard demonstrates an appalling, though becoming-understandable selfishness. It is the selfishness of poverty-induced survival instinct; it is the walled off isolation of someone who must remain apart to keep from being weakened by openness and generosity. Wright himself touches briefly on this, wondering if kindness and generosity are natural inclinations or if they are learned behaviors that we of necessity pass on to future generations.
This selfishness is related, Wright implies without stating outright, with his becoming a writer. When he is told the story of Bluebeard by a young boarder, he becomes lost to the world around him, all his senses save hearing and imagination blurring and going quiet, his imagination and curiosity sent humming. The isolation is soothing, a retreat from the deplorable conditions of a black boy in the south, as well as from his family’s religiosity.
Within his family (and later within the white community wherein he works) Richard is constantly faced with the authoritarian stance that asking questions meant you were being bad and uppity. It is an aspect of adult authority that I have never understood and have never cottoned to myself — that curiosity corresponds to wickedness. That one would demonstrate this to someone you wished to oppress is one thing, but to do it to children is truly heartrending and monstrous. When Richard does get a short story published, it is to a puzzled audience of his peers and family. Why did you do that? his friends want to know. It’s the devil’s work, his grandmother declares. Your head is too filled with flightiness, his mother explains.
There is a beautiful moment near the end of part one whereupon reading a southern editorial denouncing Mencken, Richard develops a curiosity about the critics’ patron saint. If the southern whites hate him, Richard decides, he must be worth investigating. Reading the fabled critic is one of those sudden horizon-expanding moments, which Wright encapsulates, first amazed by the technique “I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? And how did one write like that?…Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon…maybe, perhaps I could use them as a weapon?…I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.”
This is followed by Richard wondering who the men Mencken was writing about were, and what follows is a paragraph long list of the luminaries of the Western literary tradition of the day. It is that moment, in just a simple list, that Wright captures almost effortlessly how one author, amazing and audacious, can turn you on to a whole new world of other authors.
While the second half makes good on the metaphorical promise of the parenthetical title (Wright’s original title of the entire autobiography as written), the first half focuses repeatedly, obsessively, on the all too often quite literal and material physical hunger he experienced. As he ages, there intrude upon his life more hungers, more desires that remain unslaked. Money is always the obstacle to the basic needs, and their unsatisfied nature exacerbates the others. There is a remarkably disturbing incident in which to make some money, Richard begins selling a paper solely based around his love of its fiction supplemental magazine including Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. Another boy talks him into it, a boy his age who is also rather smitten with the fiction supplements. After two months of Richard selling the paper, one of his customers stops him and asks him if he knows what he’s selling. Richard is dumbfounded to learn that the magazine is a Ku Klux Klan paper, replete with articles advocating lynching.
What was also perhaps behind the decision for the rejection of the second half of the book is how favorable to communism it is. At the book’s publication in 1945, the House Committee on Un-American Activities was only one year away from being instituted as a standing committee. Wright was a member of the party and the openness of the communists to blacks instilled in him a lifelong love for it, a love that remained even after he was kicked out for unorthodox opinions.
What Wright finds in the communist party is, however, not painted as solely positive social uplift, but often a different kind of prejudice. Richard is often upbraided by other comrades for being an intellectual, for reading books about or by the bourgeoisie. One scene in which he is asked what he’s reading then told such books will confuse him is not so dissimilar from the patronizing attitudes of whites, southern and northern, who find it absurd that a black man should read such deep literature and philosophy.
He also learns that the communist party, as yet another oppressed group, is filled with a somewhat different kind of paranoia than the blacks felt regarding whites. Communists worried about whether they were orthodox enough, whether other people were orthodox enough, whether people were spies for the police, infiltrators. Richard fought against these all-too-familiar self-destructive tendencies to no avail.
This second half, focussing as it does so much on the political ins and outs of the underground communist organization, is a bit drier than his struggles growing up. There are fewer dramatic incidents and those that do occur are less tinged with violence than with political maneuvering, artistic temperament, personal inconvenience. This makes the second half more bearable, but far less compelling. We are thankfully spared the casual commonality of white people calling blacks “niggers,” an almost impossibility to get used to. It is a jolt and a jar each time it happens, even when presented as nothing more than an everyday occurrence, and among less prejudiced people its use virtually disappears.
While many considerations surely went into motivation for rejection of the second half, Black Boy (American Hunger) would be a poorer book without it. Wright’s motif of the various natures of the hungers that drove him to live the life he did, to experience the things he had, would have remained undeveloped. We would be left without a notion of what made him a man and a writer, all of which is encapsulated in the book’s final paragraph:
I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send out words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.
Recorded Books manages to get all kinds of extra work out of their narrators. A short introduction to this book is read by Richard Ferrone, the nasal white reader of the Left Behind series. When I first heard his voice, I panicked that he would be the narrator, which would have been jarring, a bad meeting, a honky at a Marcus Garvey rally. When the real reader started, I relaxed.
When Peter Francis James reads the narration parts, he has a clipped, regulation cadence. Each sentence snaps to a close. His performance really comes to life in the dialogue where he captures an amazing range of characterization, embracing the varieties of rhythm. He nails black idiomatic speech with broad accents, “bwaaw” for “boy,” and pins down white characters without resort to the nasally whiners who tend to populate black comedy sketches like Richard Pryor’s. When he reads young Richard Wright’s dialogue, his voice is broadly southern, uneducated, but as the novel progresses there is a subtle shift of Richard’s voice more and more toward the same voice as that of the narrator. It is a masterful performance of character growth and just naturally subtle enough to be missed.