Over the last month or so I have sent myself back to school, thanks to the wonders of the internet and the Yale Open Courses program. If you’re the type (like me) who sometimes misses the academic atmosphere of college but has no nostalgia whatsoever for the vomit troughs in frat basements, the long icy walk to the student parking lot, and the fact that everywhere you went there was always someone with a cold who was coughing all over your food, these MOOCs (massive open online courses) are a fantastic substitute. Each MOOC consists of a videotape of every class meeting of a certain Yale undergraduate course (other colleges and universities offer MOOCs, as do some private education companies), and in some cases Yale has even created course packs, containing all reading materials for the course, that are for sale on Amazon for much less than a load of college textbooks usually cost. And the courses themselves are free, as all MOOCs are. I’m currently “taking” three classes: one in literary theory (I’m gearing up for another stab at the Literature in English GRE in April, maybe), one in early medieval history, and one in the American novel since 1945. And the first novel I read for this last course is Richard Wright’s Black Boy.
I had never read Black Boy before, though I have read and taught Native Son many times and have long been aware that Black Boy is the autobiographical novel that gives context to Native Son. At my first high school teaching job, the freshmen were assigned to read Black Boy as their summer reading book. I didn’t teach freshmen, but the sophomores and juniors I taught still remembered it well and seemed to be somewhat traumatized by it. After reading it, I can understand why: the protagonist (who is supposedly Wright himself, of course) burns down his family house on page 4 (in a passage of descriptive language that echoes the burning of Mary Dalton in Native Son); on page 7 his mother whips him so long and hard that he loses consciousness and ends up with a serious infection, and on page 11, after a little interlude containing some of the most beautiful writing I have read in a long time, he kills a kitten with a noose. This novel is nothing if not attention-getting.
From this opening, the novel chronicles Wright’s rambling childhood. Wright’s father leaves the family soon after the incidents above. His mother takes him to court to sue for child support (which seems like a ballsy thing to do, given the circumstances, racial and otherwise) but never sees any assistance from him afterwards. She moves Richard and his brother to a variety of ramshackle apartments in progressively-scarier neighborhoods in Jackson, Mississippi, where eventually she has a stroke. Richard and his brother are split up for a while, living with different branches of his mother’s extensive family tree. Richard is never happy with any of his relatives (though he does pick up some education during these years) and eventually decides to go back to his grandmother’s house – even though he and his grandmother clash constantly about religion – because at least there he can be near his mother, who has recovered somewhat from her stroke but is still weak. Even though his education is curtailed once again, Richard does a lot of reading during these years and comes to see himself as a person whose life is given meaning through language (“So far I had managed to keep humanly alive through transfusions from books” , he writes. I love that). He also begins hesitantly informing others that he wants to be a writer – an ambition that troubles people who hear about it, for all the reasons you might expect.
The second half of the novel, “The Horror and the Glory” (the first half is “Southern Night”), follows Richard, his invalid mother, and his nondescript brother (whose name is never once mentioned in the novel) to Chicago, where they escape some of the dangers of the Jim Crow south, but only by exchanging them for other difficulties. By this point, Richard is actively writing, working on both his own projects and the assignments he receives from his local branch of the Communist party, which he joins but quickly becomes disillusioned by (both this novel and Native Son are members of a little-known literary genre I like to call “books whose endings are made boring by Communism”). Richard also becomes very self-aware and racially aware during these years. He blames some of his problems on the fact that in his earliest years he did not come into contact with white people at all. In Chicago, and before that in Jackson and Memphis, he sees black people groveling and scraping in front of whites (one man, an elevator operator, even bends over and lets a white businessman kick him in the butt in exchange for a daily quarter), but he feels incapable of doing so because he did not learn this habit as a young child. Chicago is in some ways less overtly racist than the south, but Richard still has trouble keeping jobs. He is always fired for some vague reason, and sometimes he is given a small severance payment, suggesting that his bosses don’t fully understand why they are firing him but just know that on some visceral level they don’t want him around. Soon he finds himself sort of blacklisted from most of the businesses in his neighborhood, even though many of his bosses admit that he is a good worker. Wright soon begins to learn that even in the north, relations between black people and white people are deeply charged with emotion – emotion that in some cases few people understand. After being fired from a job where his black co-workers were dishonest prompts Wright to recognize that many whites liked to employ blacks whose dishonest behavior tacitly reinforced white superiority: “But I, who stole nothing, who wanted to look them straight in the face, who wanted to talk and act like a man, inspired fear in them. The… whites would rather have had Negroes who stole work for them than Negroes who knew, however dimly, the worth of their own humanity. Hence, whites placed a premium on black deceit; they encouraged irresponsibility, and their rewards were bestowed upon us blacks in the degree to which we could make them feel secure and superior” (200).
Considering all of this, Wright states, “Slowly I began to forge in the depths of my mind a mechanism that repressed all the dreams and desires that the Chicago streets, the newspapers, and the movies were invoking in me” (267), a statement that to me echoes Joyce’s famous line from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which Stephen Dedalus wants “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” I know it’s just the word “forge” that connects the two passages (along with the general similarity of subject matter), but I think Wright, who is a very self-aware writer, likely intended the allusion. I remember long talks about that word, “forge,” in both my own college classes and in some high school classes in which I taught Portrait. “Forge” can mean a couple of different things: first, it can mean to make something by heating metal until it is so hot that it glows red – to make something under extreme heat and pressure, in other words. It can also mean to falsify something. I think both Joyce and Richard Wright were both deeply worried that their attempts to distill their cultural and racial identities down into something real would ultimately fail and produce only inauthenticity. Later in the same passage, Wright writes, “I sensed that Negro life was a sprawling land of unconscious suffering, and there were but few Negroes who knew the meaning of their lives, who could tell their story” (267).
I read this book a couple of weeks ago, when the two most compelling stories in the national news were the grand jury failure-to-indict decisions in the killings of two black men, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, by white policemen. Not only was I reading Black Boy, but I was also reading The Bonfire of the Vanities, which is about a confrontation in the South Bronx between a rich white couple and two young black men, one of whom does not survive the incident, and I was reading Richard Rodriguez’s memoir Days of Obligation, in which race and difference are central themes. I did not choose to read these three books at the same time on purpose, and I don’t have any fabulous insights about our nation and the legacy of racism and the incomplete nature of the Civil Rights movement and violence and poverty and the notion that – no matter what we say – the facts seem to suggest that Americans in the aggregate do seem to believe that white lives matter more than black ones. Again – I offer no insights or wisdom, only the fact that I was reading Black Boy, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and Days of Obligation all at once, while also watching the news several times a day in the immediate aftermaths of these collisions between black youth and white police officers – and it was unpleasant and overwhelming and sad.