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Richard Wright’s BLACK BOY and Seven Decades of Wisdom

[by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Published by Harper and Brothers  in 1945 as Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth and by the Library of America in 1991 as Black Boy (American Hunger), Richard Wright’s classic autobiography has been a monument to intelligence, discipline, the exercise of relatively free will, and admirable use of self-reliance for 70 years. It has provided us with the racial wisdom that is most definitely needed in 2015 as we resist Cosmic Evil and conduct an endless quest for harmony in our lives.

Non-scholars and scholars alike have given critical attention to Wright’s masterpiece since 1945. They have applauded Black Boy; they have quarreled with it. It has existed as a superb instance of black writing, of American literature, and of work that people from many nations have translated into their native languages. It will continue throughout the twenty-first century to be a source for cautious hope, as well as, to borrow wording from Wright’s novel The Outsider, “that baleful gift of the sense of dread.”

Black Boy is one of Richard Wright’s major gifts to time past, present, and future. It is a gift to be treasured. It is a gift for everyday use and equipment for living and for dealing with one’s “trublems.”

Black Boy is a powerful model of how to think about one’s location in historical time and complex environments and of how to write about one’s location with an honesty that is at once aesthetic and didactic. Teachers of rhetoric and composition can use the text to help adolescent writers, in particular, to gain mastery of grammar, syntax, vocabulary, images, and figures of speech as they struggle with the problems of narrating their life histories.

All writers, of course, can learn valuable lessons about perspective from Richard Wright, just as visual artists can learn about excellence in drawing from Charles White and musicians can absorb how to use physics in the composition of sounds from John Coltrane. All of us can learn from Richard Wright what Chinese sages have known for several thousand years–the flow of dao and tian and yin and yang that gives positive meaning to our suffering beneath the stars.

Readers have given a substantial amount of critical attention to Native Son, a novel that is essential for understanding how American fiction of the twentieth century so often embraced the primal ingredients of what escapes specific time and drives change in the United States of America. 15 years prior to the publication of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man (1955), Richard Wright was shining the light of disquietude upon a thankless world. The world of 1940 did not listen carefully enough to what Wright was saying in Native Son (nor the world of 1945 in Black Boy). Thus, in 1953, he issued another communiqué in the form of The Outsider. Read in tandem, Native Son and The Outsider provide us with the strongest clues that pure fiction can deliver about why our world seems to be swimming like a shark in butter-milk toward its Omega Point.

In the post-whatsoeverness of 2015, only an insignificant number of people will fail to hear Wright’s messages.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
January 25, 2015

This piece was originally posted on Ward’s blog.  It is re-posted here by permission of the author.