In his fictionalized autobiography, Black Boy, Richard Wright recounts his life growing up in the Jim Crow South. Throughout the book, Wright unfolds a life of hostility, violence, and bleakness. Many times the reader learns that Wright had to fend for himself and learn important life lessons on his own. One of the most important things for a black boy growing up in Mississippi in the 1920s to learn as soon as possible was racial distinctions. Four events that truly showed the racial distinctions for Richard Wright were the murder of his uncle, his seeing a chain gang for the first time, his friend Griggs getting him a job in Jackson, and his conflicts at a later job with an optical company in Memphis.
Before Richard Wright’s mother, in 1916, took him and his brother from Jackson, Mississippi when he was six to live with her sister in Arkansas, the only racial violence that he had known was from stories. Until then he had only “heard that colored people were killed and beaten” and “it all had seemed remote” until the night that his uncle was killed (49).
The fact that Wright grew up with these stories shows the profound impact that racial violence had on the black community. His uncle, Uncle Hoskins, would always sleep with a pistol and when Wright asked his aunt why, she told him that “men had threatened to kill him, white men” (53). Wright, young and naïve, still did not fully appreciate the threat as his mother and aunt had, showing that it still “seemed remote.” When Wright learned that Uncle Hoskins “done been shot by a white man” and that “white folks say they’ll kill all his kinfolks,” his family packed their bags and left town (54).
After learning that the only reason his uncle had been killed was because whites wanted a part of his liquor business, young Richard Wright was shocked and described how he had simply “been plucked from our midst,” as if it was too surreal for him to grasp the true meanings behind it (54). Wright did not go into much detail in describing the impact of the murder on his family but one gets the point that it debilitated their morale and that his mother and aunt lost all faith in themselves. Though “this was as close as white terror had ever come to” (55) Wright, it was his first true experience in the white man’s world, one that would stick with him throughout his life.
When Richard Wright was seven and moved back to Jackson to his grandmother’s home in 1917, he experienced another event that, though much less violent, showed the racial boundaries in an even more significant manner. After seeing a chain gang for the first time, young Wright did not know what it was so he asked his mother. Their conversation about the chain gang as well as the way in which Wright describes the men that composed it delve into the very center of Jim Crow hierarchy and race expectations. When he first talked to one of the black men working the chain gang, the man “cast his eyes guardedly back at a white man [the overseer],” implying total subjugation of the black man and an unwillingness to cause trouble (57). When Wright’s mother explained to him what a chain gang really is, Wright asked why the white men were not wearing stripes like the black men, noticing a clear distinction but not understanding it. His mother told him that they were the guards, reinforcing their dominant position that was already starting to creep into Wright’s mind.
Although Wright’s mother told him that white men do wear the stripes sometimes, she conceded that she had never seen one. Curiously, Wright asked why there are so many blacks in the chain gang and learned from his mother that white people are just “harder on black people” (56). Unsatisfied with seeing so many blacks being controlled by so many whites, Wright asked his mother why they do not fight back. His mother, not seeming to see anything wrong with convicts ignoring the law and escaping their punishment, simply stated “but the white men have guns and the black men don’t” (58). Although Wright never mentioned this moment in the book again, it is clear that seeing a chain gang like this as well as having one’s own mother explain it in the manner that Wright’s mother did would stay in a person’s subconscious and influence the way he sees race for a long time to come.
The White Man’s World
The next important event that showed Richard Wright the true racial distinctions and expectations occurred after being driven off from numerous jobs. Wright ran into his classmate, Griggs, who attempted to help him “learn how to live in the South” (183). Griggs told Wright that it’s his own fault that he cannot keep a job because he does not act black. To Griggs, acting black entails not being impatient, letting white people tell you what to do, staying out of white people’s way, and hiding one’s true emotions and thoughts from white people. Griggs, who fancied himself a good Negro, explained to Wright that “white people make it their business to watch niggers” and the way that Wright acted was acceptable among blacks but not among whites (183). After Griggs told Wright how to navigate the world that the white man laid out for them he told him to “remember you’re black” (186).
This conversation made Wright feel uneasy and unnatural to the point that he even asks, “How could I ever learn this strange world of white people” (183)? After being run off of the job by two white men, Wright experienced his first major hopelessness at the result of racism. He described his condition as a “numb…loose, dissolved state…a non-man, something that knew vaguely that it was human but felt that it was not” (194). He took the lessons he learned at the optical company in Jackson with him to Memphis.
When Wright ran away to Memphis and got a job at an optical company, he had learned “to contain the tension [he] felt in [his] relations with whites” (224). The most significant event in Richard Wright’s life that showed how white people really thought of blacks as well as their expectations of blacks was the fight that the white men organized between Wright and another black boy, Harrison, who worked across the street from him. Wright had learned enough before this that when the white men at his office began fabricating stories to make him fight, he recognized that “white men did not often joke with Negroes.” When Wright decided to “talk face to face with a boy of [his] own color,” he realized what the white men really were trying to do (236).
To the white men, black boys were no more than dogs. They could still not refuse to let the whites influence their emotions, though. Wright and Harrison “felt the same shame, felt how foolish and weak [they] were in the face of the domination of the whites” but were unable to shake off those feelings. To his disgust, Wright discovered that blacks would allow themselves to be degraded just to get a few dollars and the fight “was on against [his] will” (243). After being duped into a display of total white domination, Wright describes how disgusted and shamed he was and how he hated Harrison and himself, the first time that racism made him feel anger towards himself and fellow blacks.
Effects of Racism
Racism felt like a wound to Wright that he had to carry with him at all times. He learned to maneuver through the white world in ways that increased his anxiety and made him forgetful. Racism had an impact on blacks in ways that very few of them were able to articulate as well as Richard Wright during the turn of the 20th century. He saw through the physical violence and was deeply disturbed, perhaps more so, at the emotional and spiritual degradation that Jim Crow era racism brought upon his people. He hated how blacks did not embrace education and saw it as a waste of time. He hated how he had feelings denied to him. He hated how blacks were reduced to living outside the white man’s law and finding their own ethics. He hated how racism gave blacks, including him, “vast ignorance” (250). He hated how blacks began to hate themselves and then transfer that hatred to other blacks. The most profound impact that racism had on Wright was the fact that it reduced them “roles that the white race had mapped out for them” (197).
His uncle’s murder showed the violence of racism, the chain gang showed the expected positions of the races, the first optical job in Jackson showed his expected, subservient behavior, and his forced boxing match showed the complete dominance of whites using blacks as no more than replaceable cogs for their own enjoyment. The events throughout Richard Wright’s life show that the racism in the Jim Crow South went much deeper and hit much harder than the ugly, violence seen only on the surface.
- Wright, Richard. Black Boy: (American Hunger). New York: Perennial Classics, 1998. Print.