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'Black Boy' Still a Shock to The Old System

By Jonathan Yardley
Saturday, February 7, 2009

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

In 1944 Richard Wright, already celebrated (and in some quarters reviled) for his novel about African American life, "Native Son" (1940), delivered the manuscript of a memoir to Harper and Brothers, his publisher. It was submitted in turn to the Book-of-the-Month Club, which rejected its second section, dealing with Wright's life in Chicago and his involvement with the Communist Party. So the next year, Harper published only its first section, about Wright's youth in the segregated South, and called it "Black Boy."

The book went almost immediately onto the bestseller lists -- it held the No. 1 position for several weeks -- and was widely received as an American classic. It remains one to this day, kept steadily in print over more than six decades, taught in classes at many levels and read in book clubs, enshrined (though "entombed" often seems more like it) in the Library of America. It is no exaggeration to call it an essential American document, because it so powerfully depicts the lives of rural Southern blacks in the Jim Crow era and even more important because it tells a quintessential American story, of a youth pulled out of poverty and despair by his own fierce insistence on making the most of himself.

I quite clearly remember when I first read it. In the winter of 1962-63, I was put out of work by the infamous printers' strike against the New York newspapers -- I was working then at the New York Times -- and decided to try to write a magazine article about the increasing militancy of the civil rights movement and its accompanying rhetoric. I read everything I could get my hands on, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Gunnar Myrdal to James Baldwin, and spoke to a number of people active in the movement. The article that I wrote never saw the light of day -- I was much too young and inexperienced to have a firm grasp on the subject -- but I learned a lot, and have been grateful ever since for having read everything that I did.

The trouble with a reading binge, of course, is that you take in too much. It all becomes a big blur in which individual books tend to get lost. That was, for me, the case with "Black Boy." I was deeply impressed by it, but I was also deeply impressed by "The Souls of Black Folk" and "An American Dilemma" and "The Fire Next Time." Reading it in isolation 45 years later, I am far more moved by it than I was then. To be sure, it is a different book now, for the rejected second section, "The Horror and the Glory," has been restored and the book is finally what Wright meant it to be. But for me it is that first section, "Southern Nights," that is the heart of the story and probably the great achievement of his career.

Wright was born in rural Mississippi in 1908. The family moved to Memphis, where his father "worked as a night porter in a Beale Street drugstore" but abandoned his wife and two young sons for another woman when Richard was about 5 years old. His mother, Ella Wilson Wright, set off on a series of moves through Arkansas and Mississippi, in a desperate attempt to support her little family despite her own fragile health. Richard's schooling was erratic, but he was enchanted by storytelling and determined, at a very young age, to become a storyteller himself. He read constantly and perceptively, distancing himself from the world of bigotry and hatred into which he had been born. He made his way to Chicago when he was 19, and a dozen years later published "Native Son." He died of a heart attack in 1960 in Paris, where he had lived for many years.

Wright's literary reputation was not without its challengers, most particularly Baldwin, who in a withering essay called "Many Thousands Gone" (collected in "Notes of a Native Son" in 1955), attacked Wright for linking "the Negro" and "the worker" and turning one man's story into a parable of "that fantasy Americans hold in their minds when they speak of the Negro: that fantastic and fearful image which we have lived with since the first slave fell beneath the lash." It is indeed true that Wright was strongly drawn to social and political protest in the various forms it took during his lifetime, and though he eventually left the Communist Party, it was not a complete cutting of the cord. "I wanted to be a Communist," he says in the second section of "Black Boy," "but my kind of Communist. I wanted to shape people's feelings, awaken their hearts."

This he most certainly does in the "Southern Nights" section, i.e., the complete book as originally published. It is difficult to imagine how forcibly this 250-page narrative must have struck readers in 1945, when most of the nation was only dimly aware of the terrible conditions in which Southern blacks lived, but it strikes today's reader not significantly less so. Race relations in this country have scarcely reached millennial perfection and African Americans still frequently face daunting obstacles in their quest for better lives, but it comes as a shock nonetheless to be reminded of just how debased their condition was a mere eight or nine decades ago, especially when that reminder is couched in language as eloquent and passionate as Wright's.

At one point, when Wright was still a small boy, his mother worked as a cook for a white family. "Watching the white people eat would make my empty stomach churn," he writes, "and I would grow vaguely angry. Why could I not eat when I was hungry?" Hunger, both physical and intellectual, is a persistent theme in this memoir, "hunger that made my body aimlessly restless, hunger that kept me on edge, that made my temper flare, hunger that made hate leap out of my heart like the dart of a serpent's tongue."

While living in Memphis, he "first stumbled upon the relations between whites and blacks, and what I learned frightened me," but once his family moved to the country "a dread of white people now came to live permanently in my feelings and imagination." An uncle was murdered by whites "who had long coveted his flourishing liquor business," and the brother of a friend was killed by whites who "said he was fooling with a white prostitute."

Violence and death were all around him, but Wright had a means of escape. Living with his grandmother, he met a schoolteacher boarding there who told him the story of Bluebeard. His imagination was fired, and he was filled with "sharp, frightening, breathtaking, almost painful excitement." For a while he delivered newspapers that contained serialized stories by Zane Grey and others, which he read with wonder and delight: "For the first time in my life I became aware of the life of the modern world, of vast cities, and I was claimed by it; I loved it. Though they were merely stories, I accepted them as true because I wanted to believe them, because I hungered for a different life, for something new."

He had no encouragement from his grandmother, a hard, unforgiving religious zealot, and not much from his mother, who "had suffered a stroke of paralysis" when he was 10 or 11, but a couple of years later he was able to attend school regularly and "suddenly the future loomed tangibly for me, as tangible as a future can loom for a black boy in Mississippi." He studied hard, did well. As his education progressed, as he read more and more, as he wrote his own first stories and even had one published in "the local Negro newspaper," his sense of possibility strengthened:

"I was building up in me a dream which the entire educational system of the South had been rigged to stifle. I was feeling the very thing that the state of Mississippi had spent millions of dollars to make sure that I would never feel; I was becoming aware of the thing that the Jim Crow laws had been drafted and passed to keep out of my consciousness; I was acting on impulses that southern senators in the nation's capital had striven to keep out of Negro life; I was beginning to dream the dreams that the state had said were wrong, that the schools had said were taboo."

In the fall of 1925, Wright left Mississippi and began his slow northward trek. Two years later, while working in Memphis, he encountered the world of H.L. Mencken, then at the height of his fame and influence. He was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. What "amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it." Coming to the end of "A Book of Prefaces," he felt that "I had somehow overlooked something terribly important in life" and he "hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing." He read Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, everything he could get his hands on, and soon he "had a new hunger," to set down words of his own, and to do that he had to get away from everything he had known:

"I held my life in my mind, in my consciousness each day, feeling at times that I would stumble and drop it, spill it forever. My reading had created a vast sense of distance between me and the world in which I lived and tried to make a living, and that sense of distance was increasing each day. My days and nights were one long, quiet, continuously contained dream of terror, tension, and anxiety. I wondered how long I could bear it."

So he moved north, to Chicago, where he "felt lonely." He "had fled one insecurity and had embraced another." He found work, made friends, had his flirtation with communism, but his real world was "within the walls of my consciousness, contained and controlled." It was within this world that he began to write, trying to set down on paper the lives of African Americans. Success was slow in coming, but come it did, first with "Native Son" and then with "Black Boy," an extraordinary book that remains to this day a shock and an inspiration.

"Black Boy" is available in a Harper perennial paperback ($13.95).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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