In this case, the two are not exclusive--I read Black Boy because I thought it was going to be the next book I would read in my senior class; but when we discovered that there was only one full class set I had to turn my attention (not without some pleasure) to Pride and Prejudice.
Which is not to say I didn't like Black Boy--I did. But I didn't connect with it like many do. Why not, I wondered? I briefly considered that it may be because I simply don't have a point of reference for Wright's narrative; I can't relate to it, as my students often say.
It is the quintessential outsider narrative: Wright grows up in the Jim Crow South, a place and time not amenable to the ambitions of young blacks. Richard is fiercely intelligent, but his poverty means that his schooling is intermittent and he never connects with his classmates. Work is scarce and demeaning, and usually involves submitting to the tyranny of a white boss who fails to even imagine that a black child may have aspirations, or can write. At home, things are not much better: Richard fails to grow into the religious mold his grandmother and aunts and uncles expect of him; his father is absent from his earliest days. Wright subtitled the memoir American Hunger, and recalls that he is perpetually starving:
Hunger stole upon me so slowly that at first I was not aware of what hunger really meant. Hunger had always been more or less at my elbow when I played, but now I began to wake up at night with hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly.
First he associates the hunger with the absence of his father, but it is more; it is the starvation of all that it means to be human, the deprivation of the things which sustain life and thought. He survives meagerly, snatching at scraps of knowledge as he does scraps at food.
But I am not an outsider. I am not so progressive to admit that, in the great scheme of things, I am a have and not a have-not. Though I thought this, I rejected it: I had forgotten that relatability is one of the great smokescreens of reading. (As if we should never stoop to understand what we do not recognize as like ourselves.)
Instead, I think that Black Boy failed to resonate with me because I suspect there is some measure of airbrushing in Wright's accounts of himself. It isn't a self-hagiography; he hardly paints himself as a saint, but his sins are sins of youthful ignorance. For example, he takes a job delivering a newspaper because he likes the serials printed on the back, but fails to notice that the paper itself is militantly pro-Jim Crow. Contrast the scene in which Richard, desperate to please his grandmother, tells her that he would believe if he saw an angel--which she mishears as fact and tells the church that her grandson has had a vision. These misunderstandings lead to Richard being beaten, but always through the intolerance and narrow-mindedness of his family; he admits to no malice or ill intention. This pattern continues into the book's restored second half, which traces Wright's dalliances with the Chicago Communist community, which finds his free-thinking suspicious and seeks to eradicate it as his family did.
Ultimately, I think we are meant to see Wright as a victim. Not a victim to be pitied, but to be championed because of his ultimate success, but a victim all the same. I think this is the source of ambivalence for this book--yet it makes me want to read Native Son, whose protagonist seems more conflicted. That's the kind I like.