Thursday, December 3, 2009

Richard Wright's Black Boy

Black Boy, by Richard Wright, is an important and frequently challenged book.  An author of note, Wright is himself the subject of several biographies and works of literary criticism.  Black Boy, and some of Wright's other books, are used as teaching tools in middle schools, high schools, and colleges.  The book is the subject of volumes of Cliff Notes and Spark Notes, and has it's own Wikipedia entry.

Often the center of controversy, the book is semi-autobiographical, describing the author's own experiences growing up poor and black in Mississippi in the 1920s.  The author shines a light on some of the darker recesses of recent American history, painting a gloomy picture of race relations and economic opportunity (or its lack) that is unflattering to all.

Censors try too often to claim that the books they object to are all worthless trash, and this certainly one of the works that resoundingly falsifies that claim. Once again, I must thank the censors for calling attention to a fine piece of literature.  I found this a fascinating and rewarding read, a deep and uncommonly honest look into a part of American culture many would prefer to forget, written by someone unusually gifted both as a social observer and an expressive writer.  Wright is an iconoclast, a burster of mythological bubbles, the one person in the room willing to say out loud that the emperor has no clothes.

Objections are sometimes raised, claiming that the book is too sexually explicit and contains foul language.  Having just read it, I can say that those constitute a very small part of the book, which contains nothing too serious or explicit for any teenage reader.

More honest objections to Black Boy have been political and social.  The author was at one point a member of the Communist party.  While he later repudiated the party, this fact was enough to provoke calls for the suppression of his writings.  The book portrays human beings as brutal, selfish, and exploitative.  It's portrayal of southern society of the 1920s is decidedly unflattering. It also violates major American cultural taboos in at least two ways.  First, it dares to suggest that lack of economic opportunity profoundly alters human character and behavior, challenging the Horatio Alger mythology of the downtrodden pulling themselves up by the bootstraps.  Second, it dares to suggest that religion can be part of the system of worldly power.

Speaking of censorship, I point out the 1945 remarks of Mr. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, sometimes Governor and sometimes US Senator, who condemned the book in no uncertain terms.  Bilbo was, according to Wikipedia, a segregationist, a white supremacist, member of the Ku Klux Klan, and author of a book titled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization.  He made these remarks in the US Senate, so they are included in the congressional record (June 27th, 1945, 79th Congress, 1st Session, Congressional Record Volume 91, page 6808):
There is another book which should be taken off the book racks of the nation; it should be removed from the book stores; its sales should be stopped.  It is the recent book of the month, which has had such great sale. . . . It is entitled "Black Boy,"  by Richard Wright. . . . He wrote the book Black Boy ostensibly as the story of his life.  Actually it is a damnable lie from beginning to end.  It is practically all fiction.  There is just enough truth to it to enable him to build his fabulous lies about his experiences in the South and his description of the people of the South and the culture, education, and life of the southern people.  The purpose of the book is to plant the seeds of hate in every Negro in America against the white men of the South or against the white race anywhere, for that matter.  That is the purpose.  Its purpose is to plant the seeds of devilment and trouble-breeding in the days to come in the mind and heart of every American Negro.  Read the book if you do not believe what I am telling you.  It is the dirtiest, filthiest, lousiest, most obscene piece of writing that I have ever seen in print.  I would hate to have a son or daughter of mine be permitted to read it; it is so filthy and so dirty.  But it comes from a Negro, and you cannot expect any better from a person of his type.

While the Senator provided some of the most vitriolic rhetoric against the book, he was not alone in challenging it.  Black Boy has it's own entry in Karolides' Literature Suppressed on Political Grounds, where just some of the censorship attempts against it are described.  The book was banned in Mississippi for a time.   Infamously, in the 1970s, the book was included among those that the Island Trees School Board tried to remove from their school library.  The Board characterized Black Boy, Vonnegut's Slaughter House Five, Morris' The Naked Ape, and other books as "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy," and they stole into the library at night and removed them.  This resulted in the Board v. Pico decision, in which the US Supreme court clarified that school boards cannot remove a book merely because they disagree with its message.  Attempts at censorship still crop up, mostly over the use of the book in classroom curricula.

I found the following two quotations especially striking.   More than the few and slight descriptions of sexual activity or the occasional use of strong language, these are the issues that motivate objections and challenges.  Each of these quotes addresses quite different issues, and each speaks volumes in a single paragraph:
I began to marvel at how smoothly the black boys acted out the roles that the white race had mapped out for them.  Most of them were not conscious of living a special, separate, stunted way of life.  Yet I knew that in some period of their growing up -- a period that they had no doubt forgotten -- there had been developed in them a delicate; sensitive controlling mechanism that shut off their minds and emotions from all that the white race had said was taboo.  Although they lived in an America where in theory there existed equality of opportunity, they knew unerringly what to aspire to and what not to aspire to.  Had a black boy announced that he aspired to be a writer, he would have been unhesitatingly called crazy by his pals.  Or had a black boy spoken of yearning to get a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, his friends -- in the boy's own interest -- would have reported his odd ambition to the white boss. [p. 172]

There were more violent quarrels in our deeply religious home than in the home of a gangster, a burglar, or a prostitute, a fact which I used to hint gently to Granny and which did my cause no good.  Granny bore the standard for God, but she was always fighting.  The peace that passes understanding never dwelt with us.  I, too, fought; but I fought because I felt I had to keep from being crushed, to fend off continuous attack.  But Granny and Aunt Addie quarreled and fought not only with me, but with each other over minor points of religious doctrine, or over some imagined infraction of what they chose to call their moral code.  Wherever I found religion in my life I found strife, the attempt of one individual or group to rule another in the name of God.  The naked will to power seemed always to walk in the wake of a hymn. [p. 119]