Friday, October 14, 2011

Black Boy

 My second reading of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, coming some 40 years after my first, was a much different experience than I expected it to be.  I probably should not have been surprised because I am not, of course, the same person I was four decades ago when I first read of Wright’s struggles to survive the Jim Crow South as a young black man with an “attitude problem.”  But, more importantly, the text I read in the late sixties did not include Wright’s complete manuscript.

The Library of America edition I read this time includes an additional six chapters (some 117 pages) under the subtitle “Part Two: The Horror and the Glory.”  In this section of the book, Wright describes his arrival in Chicago and his flirtation with the American Communist Party.  This new section of Wright’s autobiography does offer new insight into his life and politics but, frankly, it lessens the overall impact of Black Boy.  The book is much more powerful with its original open-ended final words than it is with the detailed revelations pertaining to the silliness and incompetence of Chicago’s Communist party.

“Part One: Southern Night,” particularly as it pertains to Wright’s early boyhood, is fascinating.   A portion of one paragraph on page 192, for instance, in which Wright addresses the ever-present tension he lived with, is unforgettable:        

            “I did not know when I would be thrown into a situation where I would say the wrong word to the wrong white man and find myself in trouble.  And, above all, I wanted to avoid trouble, for I feared that if I clashed with whites I would lose control of my emotions and spill out words that would be my sentence of death.  Time was not on my side and I had to make some move.”

Wright, an exceptionally bright child despite getting a slow start to any kind of formal education, had two strikes against him from the beginning.  Strike one was his geographic location – he grew up in the heart of Mississippi when Jim Crow was still king.  Strike two was that Wright was part of such a deeply conservatively religious extended family that he was not allowed to read much other than the Bible.  His maternal grandmother believed all fiction to be the devil’s work and severely punished Wright if he dared expose himself to it.

What Richard Wright accomplished despite these handicaps is striking.  Physical survival was not a given in the American South of those days for young black men as outspoken as Wright.  That he did survive, and that he accomplished as much as he did, is inspirational.  Black Boy deserves to be considered an American classic even in this complete version, but I believe that it is a better book as originally published.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. And THIS, right here, is why I love your blog. (Forgetting the fact that you were lovely about Not So Perfect of course!)

  2. While I sometime find the new additions or discoveries interesting, most things, books included, are in their original form for a reason. I've read so little Richard Wright, that I can't comment much about this edition. I should really read him sometime soon.

  3. I found a nice old copy at a library sale, and the book is on my reading list for next year, probably in a trifecta with James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston.

  4. James, I think the original cut of the second part was done by the Book of the Month editors. That made me a bit skeptical of their motives...but I think they were right to publish it that way.

  5. Pete, you've undoubtedly got a copy of the original shorter version...makes for a great trifecta. I've never read Hurston; I need to take a look...