of Black Boy
by Orville Prescott
The New York Times
February 28, 1945
Richard Wright is a famous writer now, the author of one of the most widely
read and hotly debated novels of recent years, "Native Son," an acknowledged
leader of his race. But the way was long, and the road was rocky. Not very
many years ago he was just "a black boy in Mississippi," which means few men
in the world have begun life under a burden of graver handicaps or faced more
difficult obstacles. That he has gone so far, accomplished so much, entitles
Mr. Wright to an honored rank among that traditionally American select group,
the "self-made men." His success story does him great credit. The troubles
he knew in his childhood and youth were terrible, the wounds he received deep.
He carries indelible scars and still burns with bitter fury. The life he knew
as a child is not over. It has not changed. Hundreds of thousands of other
little black boys are enduring it today. Such a life is usually completely
outside the comprehension of white Americans, either Southern or Northern.
But those who care to can now share it in Mr. Wright's "Black Boy: A Record
of Childhood and Youth."
This is a story from America's own lower depths. No nostalgic memories of
childhood are these, no sentimental yearnings for innocent years when the
hills were so much higher. Mr. Wright's childhood was an obscene and monstrous
nightmare, a malign inferno that might well have destroyed him utterly. He
survived, but not unscathed. "Black Boy" is not the work of an objective artist
or of an open mind. It could not have been. The neuroses, the overemphasis,
the lack of balance and the emotion recollected in turmoil are the bitter
fruit of an old injustice.
Mr. Wright in this explosive autobiography does not suggest any constructive
means for improving the lot of the Negro in this country. Like Lillian Smith,
he can only display suffering and cruelty with harsh dramatic power, he can
only arouse anger and sympathy. If enough such books are written, if enough
millions of people read them maybe, some day, in the fullness of time, there
will be a greater understanding and a more true democracy.
Richard Wright grew up in the slums of Memphis and in the rural slums of Arkansas
and of Mississippi near Jackson. His father deserted his mother, so the poverty
he knew was double the usual lot. The two dominant influences of his childhood
were hunger and fear, a gnawing hunger that kept him weak and half-starved
and a fear that grew and multiplied and filled his entire life. He feared
his mother's anger, the whippings of his uncles and aunts, the abuse of other
children, ghosts, white men with their inexplicable and capricious cruelties,
fear itself. Terror was his companion night and day, violence the norm of
all experience. Foul language and foul habits, ignorance and superstition,
primitive religious fanaticism surrounded him on all sides. The proud sensitive,
intelligent child looked up from below at a grotesque, outrageous world.
Some of the evils he knew were caused by poverty and ignorance alone and would
not have been much different in Ireland or Iran. But even these evils were
intensified by the shibboleth of color and many others were caused by race
alone. Mr. Wright's uncle was murdered by a white man and no one dared even
to protest.- A boyhood acquaintance was lynched. He learned to be servile
and obsequious, to say "sir" to drunken and contemptible white men, to conceal
his thoughts and emotions beneath a mask of humble good humor and deference.
Not to do so, to forget the "sir" or the "mister," to aspire to learn a skilled
trade, to show resentment of sneers, condescension and abuse, was to invite
"trouble." And trouble could mean death.
"Black Boy" only takes Mr. Wright into his late teens when he escaped to Chicago
His experiences there and in radical politics will doubtless be material for
another book. It could conceivably be an intellectually more interesting book,
one more concerned with thought and ideas. But it could hardly be a more emotionally
dreadful one. Part of the raw shock of "Black Boy" is caused by Mr. Wright's
excessive determination to omit nothing, to emphasize mere filth, This springs
from a lack of artistic discrimination and selectivity. He has not added to
the bleak tragedy of his story; he has only distorted it and confused it with
It is also obvious in reading "Black Boy," and Mr. Wright admits it, that
his is not a typical story. He felt isolated from Negroes as well as from
whites; other Negroes resented their lot but did not feel at all so acutely
as he did. Perhaps with the hindsight of the years in which he has brooded
and with a natural literary instinct to capitalize and dramatize his emotions
Mr. Wright has exaggerated his sufferings. It would be only human if he had.
"Black Boy" has little subtlety, little light and shade, no restraint. It
is written in a continuously strained and feverish manner. It is over-written.
But it is powerful moving and horrifying. It is certain to be extravagantly
praised and roundly condemned. It will be widely read.
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