Richard Wright, “Black Boy” (1945) – In many respects, Richard Wright’s memoir is about the myriad obstacles in the way of its own creation. The sort of closely-observed, passionately-conveyed depictions of the inner life of black people, himself included, was the sort of thing many of the circumstances of Wright’s early life conspired to make impossible. Wright was born in 1908 in Mississippi, to a poor black family that held to a stern, unforgiving version of Seventh Day Adventism. Wright depicts his child self as sensitive, inquisitive, and given to impulsive behavior.
These were difficult traits for a poor, beaten-down family to encourage, dangerous ones for a black child in the Jim Crow south, and often seen as outrageous by his abusive, religious obscurantist grandmother and aunts. The child Wright takes blow after blow, literally and figuratively. Wright spares us little of the terror he lived through- of his family, of poverty and hunger, of white violence, of his own awareness of the damage that oppression was doing to his consciousness and those of the people around him. The story of his white coworkers setting him up to stab another black boy (whose coworkers in turn were trying to set him up to stab Wright) was the most effecting to me, in its multiple levels of sadism, but there are numerous others.
In Wright’s self-depiction, if he succeeded — became one of the great American writers of his time, before bad luck and ill health helped derail his career and prematurely end his life — it wasn’t because of any special qualities on his part beyond, perhaps, a persistence in engaging with the written word despite all kinds of discouragement. Racism, on top of everything else it deranges in society, renders the lives and fortunes of black people (and whites) largely illegible. If hard work and talent can be ignored because of race, or simply terrorized into submission or killed with impunity, then what kind of cause and effect can you trace between people and their fate? Beyond a cruel pragmatism — avoid white attention and concentrate on the present — Wright sees the community he grew up in as lacking in any answer for dilemmas such as these. These dilemmas don’t simply frame black life; in many respects, Wright shows us that they are the human condition. Wright was instrumental in making black American life, like Goethe’s Germany, a universal mirror to show humanity itself.
We also hear Wright’s account of his time trying out one of the answers to the human condition: Communism. In Chicago at the height of the depression, Wright joined the party through some of its cultural institutions as he began his writing career. Much has been written about Wright’s politics: his embrace and break with the communists, his self-imposed exile in France, his feud with James Baldwin and writers embracing a different type of black radicalism, and perhaps most troubling of all, his collaboration with anti-communist propagandists up to and including secretly informing on anticolonial movements to American officialdom. I’m not going to come up with all the answers here, most of which concerns stuff that happened well after the publication of “Black Boy.” The bulletpoint version appears to be that he was drawn to communism, like a lot of people, by the fact they were the only organized, multiracial group taking the fight against racism seriously at that time and place.
And it wasn’t hypocrisy on that score (which existed, but less so than one might think) that drove Wright to break with the party. In his telling, it was the endless paranoia and insistence on defining reality for its members that led the party to treat him sufficiently poorly that he had to leave. Whether this excuses anything that came after is another question. But even taking into account anti-communist exaggeration, and the ways in which state repression bolstered the worst behaviors, the evidence is pretty overwhelming that the party lacked a healthy democratic culture, to say the least. Its lack of effective power over much except for the lives of its members meant that its exercise of power in that arena was all the more intense and arbitrary. I disagree with Wright’s contention that true art is always unconcerned with politics and the social- that seems like overreaction to disappointment, to me. But the insistence on reordering the whole world according to an overarching vision — and Stalin-era communism was far from the only such vision — and a sensibility attuned to the world’s complexities are always going to be at odds, and Wright, in “Black Boy” and elsewhere, doesn’t fall easily into any given box. *****