In reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy, the autobiographical novel of the childhood and youth of the prominent Afro-American author of the first half of the last century, I was struck by the America that was depicted. It is not the American I am so fond of, the America that prides itself in being the land of freedom, hope and opportunity for all; on the contrary, it is an America where racism, discrimination and gross injustice abound, even a century after the end of slavery. I’ve always had some notion of how difficult it would’ve been for blacks to live in a world of segregation and constant humiliation, but Wright’s book made it all come to life in a much more disturbing way. It made me reflect on the psychological damage American society effected on “Negros” from the day they were born: not only poverty, lack of opportunity, indecent living conditions… but sheer helplessness and lack of dignity. Wright makes it clear that blacks were regarded as second class citizens, who had to constantly pay homage to the “superiority” of whites. In this process of perpetual self-degrading, they ended up loosing respect for themselves, as individuals and as a race.
Indeed, the most poignant passages are not so much those in which Richard is abused by whites as the ones where he is abused by “his own”, starting with his family. The book opens with the infamous scene of four year-old Richard being beaten unconscious by his mother (for accidentally burning down the house). This is the first of a long series of beatings, in the course of the book, by his mom, his dad, his aunt, his uncles, his grandmother, his grandfather (did I miss anyone?). In Wright’s analysis, whites had created a society that trapped blacks in their own underworld of misery, with very little possibility of escaping this stunted existence.
The novel is about Richard’s attempt to break free from this condition of servitude and humiliation. He first struggles to make his family, his black peers and his white counterparts respect him. Wright portrays himself as willful, always bent on rejecting the behaviors his family and society try to impose on him. He will not let himself be molded into the archetypical “black boy” that everyone wants him to be: he shuns religion, gratuitous deference to older people and, more importantly, subjection to whites… until he realizes that, in order to survive, a certain dose of hypocrisy is needed. When he starts “respecting” whites as his black friends teach him to do, he feels like he is betraying himself, his rebellious, freedom-seeking nature. The only thing that allows him to keep on pretending is his overwhelming desire to leave the South.
I say “leave” the South and not “go North” because his goal is a negative one – escape hell – and not the positive one you would expect from the American dream narrative, a.k.a. the pursuit of happiness. Wright is running away from a dreadful existence, not running towards a compelling one. And sure enough, the second half of the book, about his life in Chicago, is not the “happy ending” we would expect. The North is no paradise, and what Richard gains in dignity (the Yankees do treat him with more respect and less discrimination than the Rednecks) he seems to loose in serenity: life in Chicago is enticing and glamorous… for those who can afford living it. The protagonist finds himself living a second class life, similar to that of the South, even though, formally, he is not discriminated against: it seems as though “class awareness” has somehow merged and even trumped “race awareness”. Wright becomes a member of the Communist party and gives his contribution to the fight against injustice, although he quickly understands that such a profound and structural problem can in no way be solved by a dogmatic and stifling ideology.
As I mentioned, Black Boy is a disturbing account not only of Richard Wright’s life, but, more importantly, of America’s recent past which, as events in Ferguson remind us, in some way continues to bleed into the present. I have enormous respect for America, and I believe in the principles on which it was founded. However, even America’s most enthusiastic proponents should never forget or downplay the tragedies it has allowed on its soil, which negate the very principles it professes to uphold. Two centuries of discrimination, mistreatment and even de-humanization have left scars on a Nation that prides itself on being the world’s beacon of freedom, democracy and human rights. What strikes me even more is that the events that Wright describes took place during the period Hitler was in power in Germany. In other words, World War II America – the America that saved Europe from nazism and fought in the name of human dignity – is also the America that oppressed an entire category of its own citizens with laws, norms and behaviors that were anything but civilized.
Having said all this, I think Wright – who died in Paris in 1960 – would be pleased with how America has since corrected its course. The Civil Rights act and all the atonement that came with it marked a milestone in American history. I believe that for all its misdeeds, America has a redeeming feature that trumps everything else: the capacity to reflect on its actions and reverse them when they are found to be contrary to its core values. This does not in any way erase the damage done to countless generations of African-Americans, but it does show that the professed goal of building “a more perfect Union” based on the inalienable rights of every human being actually means something, at least in the long term.