Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Black Boy by Richard Wright

"Could a Negro ever live halfway like a human being in this goddamn country?"

This is one of those classics that has never made it onto my nightstand which is a little strange because of my reading preferences. I have read what I would consider to be an inordinate amount of literature by African-American woman (compared to an average American reader) with a comparative lack when it comes to African-American men. I did read Native Son as an undergrad, and it took me a few years to get over the experience which my overly-privileged self felt I really didn't need to experience (I have a much greater appreciation for it now).

In choosing companion novels for To Kill a Mockingbird that are appropriate for freshman, I realized I didn't have a single book by a black male author that I wanted to offer as an option, so I decided to preview Black Boy and felt the way I almost always feel when reading a book I know I should have picked up earlier in my life: how have I not read this?

The quote above is striking because it's one of the VERY few times Wright utilizes a colorful word - he makes it clear early in the text that words are powerful and he is not interested in expressing himself with coarse words which of course makes this usage feel like the slap in the face that his whole life has felt like.

The autobiographical novel begins at around age 4. As someone who has almost no memories until I was well into elementary school, the early memories make me incredibly envious. The whole first part of the book which follows Wright growing up in an incredibly religious household that he doesn't fit in with, in an incredibly divisive school system that he doesn't fit in with, in an incredibly racist town that he doesn't fit in with. His family lives in poverty and he's constantly starving, hungry, and obsessed with food.

"I lived on what I did not eat."

It is maddening and frustrating and illuminating. Although I obviously graduated from high school and college with American history credits, took Modern African-American Lit as an undergrad, teach American Literature, and prepped for teaching TKAM, the details of his daily life were still a surprise. I wonder if it's just something that is impossible to get over? Today as my students read about Jim Crow laws and Jim Crow etiquette, I found myself paraphrasing Wright to them. One freshmen said that he couldn't imagine having to wait for white drivers to pass through intersections before him because he doesn't pay enough attention to people's race, and I said that's a luxury he has because he's a Caucasian appearing man in 2014, and if he were a black man in the early 20th century he would think about race every moment of every day.

"This was the culture from which I sprang. This was the terror from which I fled."

The second part of the book showcases Wright's migration to the North and the freedoms and difficulties found there. One of the most striking moments in this section is the desperate loveseeking that a young woman engages in and her mother encourages. They are tirelessly trying to convince Wright to marry the young woman, engage in sexual relations, connect with, etc, in spite of the fact that she is illiterate, they have just met, and it's unknown if they have anything in common. The mother tries to dangle the fact that they own their house as a prize for Wright to settle with her daughter. This economic carrot is one that appears later on in the text as well. 

"But people have to find their own way to each other."

As Wright becomes an insurance salesman he reveals that some women don't pay their insurance premiums, and the salespeople have sex with them in exchange for paying their dime or nickel premium. This ugliness is written about as though it were nothing, and Wright takes on a haughty tone against prostitutes as though his kept women are something besides women who are trading sex for money.

One critique a coworker said about the novel is that she gets to the point where she feels like "I get it, let's wrap this up." Although I feel like every aspect of the novel is there purposefully, and similar sections are included to show the nuance of experience, but he does get INCREDIBLY nuanced when it comes to what happened with him and the Communist party.

Throughout the novel I kept finding myself taken in by a perfect turn of phrase, and I wonder how much of the beauty of Native Son I missed because I was so disturbed by the content.

"I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human."


Christopher said...

I felt ambivalent about this book, then I taught it for a couple years and really began to love it.

Brittany said...

It's interesting how teaching a book changes your relationship with it. I was defending Great Expectations to my freshies today (it's one of their choices to pair with To Kill a Mockingbird) because a few had read it and disliked it, and then I realized that it was the fourth book I taught as a student teacher, and probably the first one where I halfway felt like I knew what I was doing, so I might have an inflated sense of it just because I felt so much better about myself teaching that book (as opposed to Macbeth and Gatsby, which were my first teaching experiences that happened at the same time in different classes).