My students enjoy Black Boy. Though they wouldn't want to admit it, what they like best is its conventionality; it is far less alien to them than King Lear or Oedipus the King or The Importance of Being Earnest, both in method and culture. It reassures them of what they already know: that racism is bad, and that there was a distant time (how distant, who knows or cares) in which nobody knew that. For my part, I find the absence of grumbling a relief. But I also find their comfort ironic, because Black Boy is essentially a novel of discomfort, of severe isolation from the social world, and I wonder if the years since its publication have robbed it of some of its strange and powerful loneliness.
The American South of the novel's first half is a place in which Wright is repeatedly assured from his childhood that he and others like him do not belong. Starved for civilized thought, he pretends to be on an errand from a white boss to check out books from a Memphis library. When other whites see him with a book of Mencken's, they warn him that he'll "addle his brains," not only denigrating his right to the skills, like reading, which produce social mobility, but his right to the participate in the medium of society. This tactic, Wright laments, has worked:
Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western civilization, that they lived somehow in it but not of it. And when I brooded upon the cultural barrenness of black life, I wondered if clean, positive tenderness, love, honor, loyalty, and the capacity to remember were native with man. I asked myself if these human qualities were not fostered, won, struggled and suffered for, preserved in ritual from one generation to another.
The young Richard's endless shuffle of new homes--the family bounces around Tennessee and Arkansas, never staying anywhere long enough for Richard to complete a year of school--becomes a symbol of Southern society's refusal to provide blacks with a spiritual or cultural home.
But what makes Black Boy most remarkable to me is its stark depiction of Wright's individual isolation. As a boy, he constantly clashes with authority, particularly his puritan grandmother and other assorted family members, whom he paints as selfish and vindictive. His agnosticism sets him against not only them but his community as a whole, though he yearns to be a part of it:
Nevertheless, I was so starved for association with people that I allowed myself to be seduced by it all, and for a few months I lived the life of an optimist. A revival began at the church and my classmates at school urged me to attend. More because I liked them than from any interest in religion, I consented. As the sermon progressed night after night, my mother tried to persuade me to join, to save my soul at last, to become a member of a responsible community church.
Gulled by the promise of inclusion, Richard allows himself to be baptized, but is unable to bring his heart and mind around. This is the fundamental tension of the book, the impossible negotiation between individuality and community, which requires some level of submission. Repeatedly Richard finds that he is unable to refashion himself into what's expected of him, whether as an obedient son, an ardent churchgoer, or an obsequious black.
In the book's second half, which follows him to Chicago, he casts his lot in with the Communist party for these very reasons. For Richard, the communists represent the ultimate vision of community. He begins an ambitious writing project profiling communist leaders, thinking:
At last, I thought, I would reveal dramas of hope, fear, love, and hate that existed in these humble people. I would make these lives merge with the lives of the mass of mankind. I knew I could. My life had prepared me for this.
But the Party turns out to be every bit as authoritarian as the society Richard had escaped. They squabble over petty differences, and pressure him to abandon his writing project in favor of community organizing, for which he has no passion or skill. In fact, many are suspicious of Richard's talent and erudition, deriding him as an "intellectual" despite his meager formal education. To be an intellectual is the antithesis of revolutionary fervor, which is reactionary and obedient. To be an intellectual is almost like being a Trotskyite. Branded with heresy, Richard reluctantly leaves the Party before he is forced out.
It seems to me that Wright is driven to agony by the essential futility of a writer's task. Though the goal is communitarian--to share some parcel of existence--the method is fundamentally individual. Society cannot write; a person can, yet the strength of his work relies on the depth of his originality. The individual-community tension cannot be resolved; the yearning for both cannot be satisfied. That makes Black Boy a very strange and troubling book, one that rejects its own ability to accomplish its most basic goals.