Black Boy is an autobiography written by Richard Wright, an African-American who lived in the South during the Great depression. Richard is a young black man who encounters the horrors of the dominant white South and faces a crisis in his life in which he does not connect with the world around him. Throughout the autobiography, Richard has an itching fear biting at him that propels him to overcome the boundaries set upon him and allows him to find his own identity. The fear that Richard faces relates with his physical hunger, which is a symbol for all the suffering that he endures throughout his daily life. His fear also relates with his thriving hunger for knowledge. The overwhelming feeling of fear eventually thrusts Richard to stop his idleness and to take action. Richard’s hunger for knowledge and for achieving a connection with the world around him, serves as his escape from his fears, allowing him to accept the physical suffering and finally giving him the courage and strength to find his own identity.
At just four years old, Richard Wright is living at his grandparents’ house in Mississippi. Richard decides to toy with a broom; removing the strays from it and watching them burn. Being just another curious kid, Richard wonders what it will look like if he burned the curtains in the living room. He sets the curtains on fire and although he marvels at the sight, he realizes that the fire is beyond his control and he runs out of the room. He hides under the house in hope that he would not be found and in turn not be punished for his actions. Despite his pleads to be left alone, Richard’s father Nathan retrieves him from under the burning house. His mother, Ella, is furious and beats him until he loses consciousness. He retreats into an extreme fever for about a week. After Richard recovers, his family moves to Memphis, Tennessee where his father finds work in a drugstore during the nighttime. One day, Richard finds a stray kitten that is so noisy it wakes Nathan who screams for Richard to kill the cat. Richard literally does that, knowing that his father did not actually mean it. Ella punishes Richard by making him dig a grave and bury the kitten. Soon after, Nathan deserts the family and leaves them without any money and in turn, without any food. This is the first case of physical hunger in Richard Wright’s autobiography. For the first time in his life, Richard is scared that he won’t be able to satisfy his hunger. However, the hunger that arises in Richard is not the hunger that he feels physically without food, but the hunger to adapt to his surroundings and communicate with them.
“Hunger stole upon me so slowly that at first I was not aware of what hunger really meant. Hunger had always been more or less at my elbow when I played, but now I began to wake up at night to find hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly. The hunger I had known before this had been no grim, hostile stranger; it had been an normal hunger that made me beg constantly for breadâ€¦But this new hunger baffled me, scared me, made me angry and insistent” (16).
The hunger that hung over Richard made him begin to question. He begins to question everything. He does not understand a massive amount of things, but at a young age he already has experienced so much. Since Richard Wright is writing this auto biography from a much later time, he is reflecting back on how he felt at this particular moment. The four year old Richard is no more than a mere child, however at that age he already has a desire for a variety of things. He states that he has a strong desire for food which can be satisfied temporarily, but what is not seen is Richard’s desire to have the ability to interact with his surroundings. Even at this age and later on in his life, Richard is unable to interact with his family and with society because he is refusing to do what they want him to do. Richard rebels and rebelling is his way of showing that he will not submit and that his self-pride and unique identity is extremely important to him.
Richard first experiences his hunger for knowledge when a schoolteacher named Ella, moves in. She rents a room at Richard’s grandmother’s house. One day, Richard stumbles upon Ella reading a book and he persuades her to read the book to him. The book, Bluebeard and his Seven Wives, is a novel filled with violence and murder and it utterly mystifies Richard. He is in a trance as Ella reads the beautiful flowing words to him. However, Ella is interrupted by Richard’s grandmother before she could finish. Richard’s grandmother firmly believes that fictional stories are on the same level as sins and lies. She opposes since she has an extreme hatred towards fiction which she calls “the devil’s work”. When Richard protests and argues against his grandmother he is ignored and she storms off leaving Richard alone. This experience sparks persistence in Richard that remains with him throughout the rest of his life. His hunger for intellectual knowledge pushes him to break free of his grandmother’s bonds and to pursue knowledge against all costs.
“I hungered for the sharp, frightening, breathtaking, almost painful excitement that the story had given me, and I vowed that as soon as I was old enough I would buy all the novels there were and read them to feed that thirstâ€¦I had tasted what to me was life, and I would have more of it, somehow, someway” (46-47).
Richard has a first experience with reading. This experience sparks a determination in which he states he “would have more of it, somehow, someway” (47). Richard’s first experience with physical hunger gave him a reason to question. Richard’s first experience with intellectual hunger pushes him to take that extra step forward. In this, it is easy to conclude that even at a very early stage in Richard’s mental and physical development he has come to his own self-imposed conclusion that his intellectual hunger must be nursed first. Reading becomes Richard’s first passion and allows him to survive. It gives him the push that he needs to break free of the boundaries set on him by his family as well as those of the society of the South, in order to further establish his identity.
Ella eventually moves out of the house as Richard’s grandmother is convinced Ella is the sole reason for Richard’s seemingly devil-like behavior. Richard’s mother also named Ella and her two sons begin to travel towards Arkansas where Richard’s Aunt Maggie and her husband live. However, when Hoskins, Aunt Maggie’s husband is murdered, they are forced to flee back to Granny’s house. Soon after though, Ella begins to consider Granny’s religious routines as a nuisance and she, her boys, and Aunt Maggie move out once again. In the meantime, Maggie begins to date a man named Professor Matthews, who they find out, is hiding from the police. After Professor Matthews commits a crime involving the death of a woman, he and Aunt Maggie go north to escape trouble. Richard’s family begins once again to have a lack of money due to the absence of Aunt Maggie’s income. Richard eventually becomes so hungry he tries to sell his poodle for a dollar. A white woman offers Richard ninety-seven cents but he refuses and a week later the poodle is struck and killed leaving Richard with nothing. Richard begins to nurture his own self-being, but only after he begins to question himself. Richard has questioned his surroundings in the past, primarily regarding his lasting hunger for food, but he has never questioned himself about anything. By taking a step forward and beginning to look inside of himself for the answers that he so truly desires, Richard is able to grow a strong personality and a strong willpower that leads him to a wider separation from the black community and a closer connection to his identity.
“Anything seemed possible, likely, feasible, because I wanted everything to be possibleâ€¦Because I had no power to make things happen outside of me in the objective world, I made things happen within. Because my environment was bare and bleak, I endowed it with unlimited potentialities, redeemed it for the sake of my own hungry and cloudy yearning” (85).
Richard understands that the oppression that is happening to him and to the black community cannot be helped. He realizes that, although he can fight, it would be pointless. Instead of physically fighting, he resorts to searching himself for the answers. He still continues to question ceaselessly, but instead of asking why something is happening or why he should not do something he begins to question how. The fear and the hunger no longer hold him back. In actuality, they now push him forward and enhance his learning process. Richard develops a keen sense of unique personality that no one else he knows seems to have. He senses that he is beginning to drift away from his family, from the community that he so desirably wanted to fit in with, and with the Jim Crow south. By acknowledging this fact and even accepting it, Richard furthermore nurtures his true identity and begins to close in on what he wants to do in his life.
Richard has just begun to read and he has already read many novels by a whole slew of different people. Reading was an absolute pleasure to Richard. He would stay in his rented room at night with a can of pork and beans and read. He continued to forge more and more notes and so his trips to the library became more and more frequent. Richard gave in to the magical land of reading without a fight. He does not resist it; he simply lets it seep in. One day, Richard decides that he would try to write once again. He had done it before; he should be able to do it again. Yet, the words are held from him. The ability to write, the ability to sense that thrilling feeling once again, is kept from him. At this point, Richard reminisces back at his childhood and regrets that he did not discover his own personality earlier, his identity that distinguished himself from the black community until now.
“I had once tried to write, had once reveled in feeling, had let my crude imagination roam, but the impulse to dream had been slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books new ways of looking and seeingâ€¦ it seemed a task impossible of achievement. I now knew what being a Negro meant. I could endure the hunger. I had learned to live with hate. But to feel that there were feelings denied me, that the very breath of life itself was beyond my reach, that more than anything else hurt, wounded me. I had a new hunger” (294-296).
Richard compares his hunger to write, to his physical hunger. During Richard’s childhood and growing up, he learned to deal with his hunger no matter how bleak it seemed. He went through days without a sufficient meal and it really hurt his physical growth. His desire for food however, was overshadowed early in his life by his hunger for knowledge. Richard has a stronger hunger for knowledge because he has an immense hunger to become unique, to extend beyond expectations and to just be himself. The hunger that he encounters physically will never equal his hunger for knowledge because he understands that it could not be helped during his childhood. He dealt with it because he knew that he had to. It happened everywhere, many black people were starving and Richard was no different in that way. Yet, in other senses Richard was different. He questioned, he asked, but he never truly pursued a life goal until now. There was a point in his life where he wrote but to his dissatisfaction the ability to speak through words was not present in his mind. He hungers to find them once again, because by finding them, he can find himself.
Towards the end of the first part of Richard’s autobiography, he finally realizes what he wants to do with the rest of his life and he finds out who he truly is on the inside. Through all of the physical pains that he suffered, all the horrors of the oppressing white south that he endured, and all the abuse and poverty, he was able to stand strong and slowly grow into who he was destined to become. Richard discovers his place in the world and he discovers his identity. He has an opinion and it is worth something. Richard is not just simply a black man living in a white supremacist world. He uses his voice and he uses the power of words to fight for everything that he believes in and to fight against the white south and the racism that is shown everywhere. Just like H.L. Mencken Richard plans on using words to fight. He knows that physical fighting will not get him anywhere, but maybe just maybe, the power of words would stun people just like they had stunned him in the past. He could use his life, he could use everything that he gained, and he could use his never-ending hunger to change the world for the greater good. At last, Richard’s life achieved a purpose. He finally has something to live for, something that he desired more than anything else and above all something that made him feel happy and at peace with the rest of the world.
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