Today’s recommendation is of an author I was first introduced to in high school and had the opportunity to examine once again in grad school:
Black Boy by Richard Wright
This is a book about more than race relations, growing up prior to the Civil Rights Movement, and black experience in America. It’s also a coming-of-age tale of which most any reader can relate. Themes of isolation and desolation in childhood run throughout the novel, and the thoughts running through the mind of young Wright (it’s his autobiography, often considered “fictionalized autobiography” – a fancy term for “creative nonfiction,” which itself is a fancy term for “I’m making solid craft choices to tell the truth, so back off and enjoy the story”) are the same thoughts of uncertainty, fear, and general desire to be understood which many have experienced, particularly in their teenage years. For these reasons, this is a novel adults can read with a broad understanding of all the stakes involved, while younger readers can still appreciate Wright’s emotional journey into manhood.
Here’s a brief excerpt in which Wright is chastised by his Uncle Tom (there couldn’t possibly be any hidden meaning in a name like that…). Note that while the predicament Wright creates for himself may be unique, his reflection on what just transpired is universal:
“Where’s Uncle Tom?” I asked.
“He’s sleeping,” she said.
I ran into his room, went to his bed and shook him.
“Uncle Tom, Granny says to come at once. Grandpa’s dead,” I panted.
He stared at me a long time.
“You certainly are a prize fool,” he said quietly. “Don’t you know that that’s no way to tell a person that his father’s dead?”
I stared at him, baffled, panting.
“I ran all the way out here,” I gasped. “I’m out of breath. I’m sorry.”
He rose slowly and began to dress, ignoring me; he did not utter a word for five minutes.
“What’re you waiting for?” he asked me.
“Nothing,” I said.
I walked home slowly, asking myself what on earth was the matter with me, why it was I never seemed to do things as people expected them to be done. Every word and gesture I made seemed to provoke hostility. I had never been able to talk to others, and I had to guess at their meanings and motives. I had not intentionally tried to shock Uncle Tom, and yet his anger at me seemed to outweigh his sorrow for his father. Finding no answer, I told myself that I was a fool to worry about it, that no matter what I did I would be wrong somehow as far as my family was concerned.
Wow. Now what teenage boy can’t relate to that on some level, no matter the color of their skin?
Aside from theme, the novel is just plain well-written in terms of craft. The most prominent craft choice I picked up on reading Black Boy is Wright’s use of language depicting heat. References to the hot are everywhere:
- Granny rose slowly and lifted the wet towel high above her head and brought it down across my naked back with all the outraged fury of her sixty-odd-year-old body, leaving an aching streak of fire burning and quivering on my skin.
- The long hot idle summer days palled on me.
- I burned at my studies.
- The church grew suddenly hot.
- As the first week of school drew to a close, the conflict that smoldered between Aunt Addie and me flared openly.
- The boy had no doubt conveyed to her my words of blasphemy, for she talked with me for hours, warning me I would forever burn in the lake of fire.
- I had whirled and and was staring at her with an open mouth and blazing eyes.
- I lit a cigarette and I heard a song floating out over the sunlit air.
That last example may seem like a stretch, but it comes toward the end of the novel, when Wright is taking control of his life and thus, controlling the heat, controlling the fire. He’s becoming a man, and in a novel that shows a boy at the mercy of so much figurative fire, to take control of literal fire is an important step in his coming-of-age. Plus, the novel begins with young Wright nearly burning down the family home – right away, he’s telling us that fire, and how to control it or be controlled by it, is going to play an important role in the story.
It’s been a long since I read Wright’s fiction novel Native Son in Mr. Marwitz’s high school English classroom, but my recollection is it was fascinating (I especially remember Bigger Thomas’s time spent as an elevator boy and the racial indignation he had to endure) and it’s likely worth another look. For now, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy Black Boy and give Richard Wright’s work a try.