March 1, 1945
Richard Wright's autobiography, "Black Boy" may very possibly go down as one
of the most memorable books of our time, a kind of 20th century "Uncle Tom's
Though it may not cause the immediate sensation stirred up by the author's
lurid best-seller, "Native Son," it is in our judgment much the better book,
more potent more dramatic if less theatrical more accurate in its aim, more
telling in impact. Indeed it is the raw material out of which that unforgettable
novel was forged.
Subtitled "A record of Childhood and Youth," Wright's new work is quiveringly
animate. Life breathes in its pages with a reality and an intensity given
only to the great recorders of the human scene. The result is that "Black
Boy" is as intimate a personal story as you have ever read, fearlessly candid,
a revelation of the clockwork beneath the ticking of one man's heart. But
it is not an exhibitionist exposure, not self-exploitation, neither is it
the product of masochism, it is, instead, a laying open of personality, at
obviously great pain, in the interest of a cause, a cause greater than self
and worthy of the sacrifice of soul's peace and privacy, the cause of human
dignity, in this particular case the cause of the American Negro.
Wright is today recognized as both an outstanding member of his race and a
distinguished artist, and could easily coast along on the esteem and riches
which his talent has won him. But he is no coaster. He is a crusader. He does
not only dirge, he is hotly angry, he points, he speaks out, he challenges.
And on his feet, not his knees.
"Black Boy" is no Hollywood serving of magnolia and julep, it is a piece of
immediate Danteian reality made in the U.S.A., a candid-camera recording of
the virulent Fascist tumor that exists in our democratic body. The cure? Democracy
itself. Not the promulgation of ideals, but their acceptance; the practice
of all those attitudes which make for a decent respect between men, regardless
of race, color and creed.
As Wright unfolds the bleak story of his incredibly underprivileged life from
Mississippi odd-jobs man to Chicago writer nor in the telling of it does
he spare the sins of his people or minimize his own faults it reduce's itself
to a series of gnawing hungers, hunger for food, for friendship, for love,
for normality, for security, for the things of the spirit and mind, in the
end, in near-madness and dreams, for a totally different existence.
Living in one squalid house after another, starved for even subsistence sustenance
set upon by gangs, let to wander the streets (he was a drunkard at six), clutching
his rags, threatened with hell by religious fanatics, poorly schooled, never
medicated, brutally beaten by his own family, nearly killed by whites and
living in constant terror of their sadistic whimsies and coded arrogance,
Wright's miracle is that he did not end up as either the degraded, grinning
"non-man" caricature of humanity resignedly accepted by his fellows as the
typical Negro's lot, or a murderer. Yet more wonderful is that out of this
day-and-nightmare of a life he arose a commanding artist in realism (he details
his artistic and intellectual beginnings, crediting most to his mother and
H.L. Mencken), a man not softened but ennobled by suffering and dedicated,
in the belief that it can and must be won, to the battle for those educative,
economic and, fundamentally, spiritual conditions which are necessary to the
democratization of Negro life.
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