On a drive downtown the other morning, I took the back way to avoid traffic. I threaded through streets where life looked difficult, what some might call a “bad” area. A couple of houses were boarded up. Others looked like they hadn’t been cleaned up in decades. I’ve taken the route before, and an inner fear alarm never went off, except this day, when one of the houses I drove past flew a Confederate flag from its porch. That was the middle flag. It was flanked by two American flags, also attached to the same house. There it was — that fierce, irrational American darkness that won’t go away, history’s monster in the closet that doesn’t die, even though the lights got turned on with the American Civil War and Civil Rights Movement.
Richard Wright published his childhood memoir Black Boy in 1945, sub-titled “A Record of Childhood and Youth.” It’s much more than a dry record of fact, however; Wright reveals his coming of age in the Jim Crow South with vivid, unsentimental scenes and a pure lens of personal experience. It’s a kind of time machine taking us into the American South when racism drove a large part of the culture, treating blacks with violent discrimination. It’s not just an unforgettable story from the eloquent pen of a major American writer, but also a raw exposure of despicable human behavior long before Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on Washington.
The book takes place roughly between 1908 and 1927. In the opening scene, a bored, obstreperous four-year-old Wright creates a fire that accidentally burns down the family house, showcasing his wild, strong-willed, creative nature. Through the upcoming years, he’s shifted between family homes in Roxie and Jackson, Mississippi; Elaine and West Helena, Arkansas; and Memphis, Tennessee, as his mother tries to support him and his brother. Much of that time takes place at his grandmother’s home, where the young Wright is subjected to a strict, religious routine. Meanwhile, he takes odd jobs to earn money to support his impoverished family and buy school clothes for himself. Also, he develops a dread of white people.
What stands out about Richard Wright is his bold and bright self-esteem, even in the face of that dread. He struggles to behave as the southern culture requires, unable to get with the program of bowing his head with inferiority, shuffling his feet and grinning like an idiot when approached by white people. He doesn’t understand why it’s necessary.
It had never occurred to me that I was in any way an inferior being. And no word that I had ever heard fall from the lips of southern white men had ever made me really doubt the worth of my own humanity. True, I had lied. I had stolen, I had struggled to contain my seething anger. I had fought. And it was perhaps a mere accident that I had never killed … But in what other ways had the South allowed me to be natural, to be real, to be myself, except in rejection, rebellion, and aggression?
Not only had the southern whites not known me, but, more important still, as I had lived in the South I had not had the chance to learn who I was. The pressure of southern living kept me from being the kind of person that I might have been. I had been what my surroundings had demanded, what my family — conforming to the dictates of the whites above them — had exacted of me, and what the whites had said that I must be. Never being fully able to be myself, I had slowly learned that the South could recognize but a part of a man, could accept but a fragment of his personality, and all the rest — the best and deepest things of heart and mind — were tossed away in blind ignorance and hate.
Richard Wright left his Mississippi family to strike out on his own in Memphis when he was 17 years old in 1925. He wanted to go north and needed serious money to do so. He accomplished his goal, and left Memphis to settle in Chicago in 1927. This is where Black Boy ends. Wright moved permanently to Paris in 1946, where he died at age 52 in 1960.
Before he wrote his childhood memoir, Wright had published his novel Native Son (1940) to high acclaim and popularity. It became a best-seller and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Anyone who’s read that novel cannot possibly forget the protagonist Bigger Thomas, who’s morally damaged by the racism that oppresses his life in Chicago. Similarly, once you’ve read Black Boy, you cannot forget the irrational brutality and cold discrimination exacted on black Americans in the Jim Crow South. It’s all so real in these pages — and it’s why my fear alarm went off over that Confederate flag flying from a porch on a neighborhood street.