Review: Black Boy by Richard Wright
Stirring, insightful, and beautiful. So many memorable and powerful vignettes. I do see why the Book of the Month Club dropped the second part, but I was glad to read it, too.
I did keep feeling as if Wright portrayed himself in a somewhat more favorable light than was truly just—though it’s difficult to blame someone who suffered so much for so long, and from such a tender age. I did sometimes wonder if the apparent deadness of other people’s inner lives (the white waitresses at the restaurant where he worked, the elderly black orderlies who worked with him at the hospital) was due more to his inability to see than to their inability to think and feel as he did:
During my lunch hour, which I spent on a bench in a near-by park, the waitresses would come and sit beside me, talking at random, laughing, joking, smoking cigarettes. I learned about their tawdry dreams, their simple hopes, their home lives, their fear of feeling anything deeply, their sex problems, their husbands. They were an eager, restless, talkative, ignorant bunch, but casually kind and impersonal for all that. They knew nothing of hate and fear, and strove instinctively to avoid all passion. I often wondered what they were trying to get out of life, but I never stumbled upon a clue, and I doubt if they themselves had any notion. They lived on the surface of their days; their smiles were surface smiles, and their tears were surface tears. Negroes lived a truer and deeper life than they, but I wished that Negroes, too, could live as thoughtlessly, serenely as they. The girls never talked of their feelings; none of them possessed the insight or the emotional equipment to understand themselves or others. How far apart in culture we stood! All my life I had done nothing but feel and cultivate my feelings; all their lives they had done nothing but strive for petty goals, the trivial material prizes of American life. We shared a common tongue, but my language was a different language from theirs.
Wright really may have been accurate here, even charitable for all I know. But he gave a pretty damning indictment, and it makes one wonder whether one of those waitresses was playing the same game he was—and thought of him as he did of her. It’s easy to be proud of one’s deep thoughts.
But Wright was surely gifted with a deep inner life, and one he cultivated in ways I realize I have not. I do admire him greatly. I also cringe to think of the most damning indictment in the book, the one he gave of me and mine:
Still suspicious, my eyes watching for the slightest anti-Negro gesture, I attended the next meeting of the [almost all white John Reed] club. In the end I had to admit that they were glad to have me with them. But I still doubted their motives. Were they trying to get my head bashed in a picket line so that they could capitalize on the publicity? Or did the discipline of the club demand that they be friendly with me? If that was true, then those who did not want a Negro in the club could resign. But no one made a move to resign. How had these people, denying profit and home and God, made that hurdle that even the churches of America had not been able to make?
It is hard to kick against the pricks of culture and love your neighbor as yourself. It’s impossible without divine grace. Stories like Wright’s can be a tool in God’s hands for promoting that love. We need to listen to this Good Samaritan:
For white America to understand the significance of the problem of the Negro will take a bigger and tougher America than any we have yet known. I feel that America’s past is too shallow, her national character too superficially optimistic, her very morality too suffused with color hate for her to accomplish so vast and complex a task. Culturally the Negro represents a paradox: Though he is an organic part of the nation, he is excluded by the entire tide and direction of American culture. Frankly, it is felt to be right to exclude him, and it is felt to be wrong to admit him freely. Therefore if, within the confines of its present culture, the nation ever seeks to purge itself of its color hate, it will find itself at war with itself, convulsed by a spasm of emotional and moral confusion. If the nation ever finds itself examining its real relation to the Negro, it will find itself doing infinitely more than that; for the anti-Negro attitude of whites represents but a tiny part—though a symbolically significant one—of the moral attitude of the nation. Our too-young and too-new America, lusty because it is lonely, aggressive because it is afraid, insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black; our America is frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of necessity. It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness. Am I damning my native land? No; for I, too, share these faults of character! And I really do not think that America, adolescent and cocksure, a stranger to suffering and travail, an enemy of passion and sacrifice, is ready to probe into its most fundamental beliefs.
This I find to be true. It took me an embarrassingly long time to see how empty are the American values of Freedom, Equality, and Justice, the words we choose to adorn our very postal stamps. It is painful and difficult, the work of a lifetime, to examine one’s fundamental beliefs. We need people like Wright, with deep inner lives, Christian or not, to help us do so.