1. Black Boy
by Richard Wright
The first reading of the term is Richard Wright’s Black Boy, which was published in 1944, then called American Hunger.
Wright was already a successful writer at that time with his first novel Native Son.
I didn’t expect R. Wright, once member of the American Communist Party (from 1932 to 1944), to be a writer to study about, at Yale University.
I listened to Professor A. Hungerford’s lecture about the problems the author had in publishing his book and she very proudly –because the letters are kept at Yale- read to us parts of his correspondence with a member of the editorial board of the Book of the Month Club (a mail-order book club, which was “a powerful engine for selling books, just like Oprah’s Book Club is today”) who really pressed Richard Wright to make serious changes to his story, which by the way is titled as autobiography, and at the end there was a compromise between the two sides leaving the second part of the book out!
So Black Boy is an autobiography, whatever that means. He received a lot of criticism from both sides about the autobiographical issues of his book, me finding my preferences on the side of what William Faulkner wrote to him upon reading Black Boy. He said to R. Wright:
“The good, lasting stuff comes out of one’s individual imagination, and sensitivity to, and comprehension of, the sufferings of Everyman-Any Man- not out of the memory of one’s own grief. I hope you will keep on saying it, but I hope you will say it as an artist, as in Native Son.”
Richard Wright was born in 1908, on a plantation in Mississippi, the racist south of the USA.
The social and economic conditions deprived a black boy like him of any hope to get out of the pit.
In the first part of the book his childhood in Mississippi at the beginning of the 20th century, is described. Excellent literature, no matter biographical or not. Although they are not slaves anymore in his family, the economic conditions are so filthy and the racism of the white people so harsh, that little Richard is abused in several ways BUT he finds a way to escape literally and figuratively from the hell of the South to “freedom” in Chicago, in the North.
“What was it that made me conscious of possibilities? From where had I caught a sense of freedom?”
He wonders, asking himself how he managed to get out of the pit and fly towards freedom.
And he gives the answer himself “From books”!
Borrowing books from the local library was not a piece of cake for ex-slaves and he had to create a whole secret situation to be able to do it. He had to hide that he wanted to get educated from both the blacks and the whites. The first would make fun of him and the second would think suspiciously "what should a negro need education for?"
And that’s how he managed to become conscious of his situation, like Camy’s Sisyphos who had the opportunity to think,-if he got the opportunity, no books for him though, on his way down from the top of the hill, to take the rock and start climbing up again.
So that’s the first part of the initial copy that Richard Wright gave to his publishers in 1944.
The second part with the title The Horror and the Glory was about his life in Chicago, his being a member of the Communist Party of America and his disillusionment.
Its six chapters weren’t published until 1977!
Richard Wright was the first black writer to enter the Book of the Month Club and he was a great influence to the coming black writers.
He moved to Paris in 1946 and lived there as an American expatriate, until his death in 1960.
In Paris, he became friends with French writers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and lots of the intellectuals living in Paris at that time.
That’s a long trajectory for the “black boy” from the American South.
I recommend this book, not only because it’s an interesting story but also because it is narrated in a beautiful literary way that leaves you satisfied when you close the book and you start thinking of it.
To be continued, with the next American novel of the second half of the 20th century, which professor Amy Hungerford has chosen for her course for Yale students and which can also be attended online by anyone interested in the subject. Which novel is also by a southern American writer:
Flannery O' Connor's
Yale University [MOOC = Massive Open Online Course]
Professor Amy Hungerford