Sunday, March 12, 2017

Black Boy (American Hunger) by Richard Wright

Source of book: I own this.

My wife picked this up for me at a library sale, probably unread, in the Library of America non-boxed hardback edition. This was my original selection for Black History Month before I got seduced by the power of the library display, and ended up adding Remembering Jim Crow to the list. I actually did finish this one in February, but between the other reviews I had to write, and a couple of back to back concerts with the Bakersfield and Shafter Symphonies, I am just now getting to writing this post. 

The history of this book requires a little explanation, because there are two versions which are decidedly not the same book. When Richard Wright originally published the book, as Black Boy, he made a few changes at the request of the publisher because of obscenity law concerns, but perhaps more importantly, he cut the entire second half of the book, which tells of his experiences after moving out of the South to Chicago. Wright’s original title was American Hunger, and that title is often used for the full work. I read the “original” version, if you will: the one that Wright intended. That means it had both parts (and I think the second part is outstanding as well, but for different reasons), and the revised sections were restored to Wright’s intention. One section in particular is - in my view - a crucial scene in the book. While in an optical factory, among other experiences of racism and hostility, he is asked by a coworker how long his penis is. “I heard that a nigger can stick his prick in the ground and spin around on it like a top.” This stereotype both about size and the reduction of black males to sex animals certainly persist today, which is why I thought this incident was important. However, the publisher, probably correctly, believed it would be considered obscene at the time, and get the book banned.

Black Boy (American Hunger) is an autobiography. Wright spends the first half of the book describing his experiences from his early childhood to the point where, as an adult, he saved enough money to buy a train ticket for the North. The second half, as I noted, takes the story from there, telling the tale of his experiences for the first few years he spent in Chicago.

The first half is difficult to read. Wright grew up in a highly dysfunctional, abusive family. The physical and psychological violence he endured is heartrending, and his narrative skill makes for discomfort. It wasn’t just his family either. The danger he was constantly in living in the Jim Crow South meant that a wrong move could lead to his death - as it did for an uncle who had the audacity to be successful and get on the wrong side of the local whites.

Wright additionally suffered because of his inability to fit in anywhere. He was a peculiar and thoughtful child, sensitive to injustice, and determined to think and read even though no one around him seems to understand. Thus, he rejects religion at a very early age, chafes at the racism and injustice that are the normal state of his world, and spends his spare time reading voraciously even though throughout his life he got grief from every direction for it.

There are a couple of things that really struck me about Wright’s rejection of religion. First was that he observed its dysfunction both in his family and in the various churches his family members attended. In his experience, religion caused strife and always came with the need to control others.

Wherever I found religion in my life I found strife, the attempt of one individual or group to rule another in the name of God. The naked will to power always seemed to walk in the wake of a hymn.

Alas, there is a lot of truth in what Wright says. I too have experienced far too much of this, both institutionally and in my own family. To be fair, this is not the only experience one can have (or even that I have had) of religion. Furthermore, these problems certainly exist in spades outside of religion - as Wright experiences in the second half of the book. But if you want to understand why a substantial majority of young people do not return to church (whether or not they end up believing in a religion or a god), this is probably the best place to start. If it is about control and strife, then they will leave. If it is just about enforcing cultural preferences and fighting against others, what is the point?

The second one relates to my wife’s experience in a fundamentalist cult group. The young Richard (around Middle School age, I believe) writes a ghost horror story which he gets published in a local paper. Word gets around to his (mostly illiterate) family, and his fanatical grandmother has it out with him.

“Richard, what is this you’re putting in the papers?” she asked.
“A story,” I said.
“About what?”
“It’s just a story, granny.”
“But they tell me it’s been in three times.”
“It’s the same story. It’s in three parts.”
“But what is it about?” she insisted.
I hedged, fearful of getting into a religious argument.
“It’s just a story I made up,” I said.
“Then it’s a lie,” she said.
“Oh, Christ,” I said.
“You must get out of this house if you take the name of the Lord in vain,” she said.
“Granny, please...I’m sorry,” I pleaded. “But it’s hard to tell you about the story. You see, granny, everybody knows that the story isn’t true, but…”
“Then why write it?” she asked.
“Because people might want to read it.”
“That’s the Devil’s work.”

I mention this because there were people in the cult group that believed that fiction was evil for that very reason: things that are made up are lies. (Those are the ones whose kids could only read the Bible and missionary biographies. Others drew long skirts on illustrations - can’t have pants on girls - or kept their kids from reading anything where children did anything naughty or from books with fantasy elements like talking animals.) This hostility toward anything new or unknown runs throughout this book, and Wright experiences it over and over from different people and groups.

But Wright reads anyway. Denied the ability to check out whatever book he wishes from the library, he forges notes from a white ally purporting to ask for these books for this other man, and thus is able to skirt the segregated system. He reads voraciously, devouring fiction and non-fiction, and finds that his horizons have been expanded. He feels he understands the world and other people better.

The plots and stories in the novels did not interest me so much as the point of view revealed. I gave myself over to each novel without reserve, without trying to criticize it; it was enough for me to see and feel something different.

He concealed his books in newspaper so that others could not see what he was reading. Even so, white strangers would stop him and ask what he was reading, then warn him he would addle his brains if he tried to think too much.

Wright chafes against the condescension, even as he knows he has to tolerate it for his own safety. He finds odd the system that he finds himself in after moving to Memphis for a job. Many of the blacks he works with steal routinely, considering it their way to get ahead, and he is even more puzzled that the whites seem to accept and even like this. Of course, the idea of the thieving negro fits their preferred narrative of superiority, so the petty theft doesn’t challenge their racism the way that an outright challenge would. Wright was different, and thus he seemed to invite conflict with the whites in his world.

But I, who stole nothing, who wanted to look them straight in the face, who wanted to talk and act like a man, inspired fear in them. The southern whites would rather have had Negroes who stole, work for them than Negroes who knew, however dimly, the worth of their own humanity. Hence, whites placed a premium upon black deceit; they encouraged irresponsibility; and their rewards were bestowed upon us blacks in the degree that we could make them feel safe and superior.

I think this is still very much a factor in our nation today. We whites like comfortable blacks, ones that do not challenge us to think differently, who confirm our own feelings of superiority. We like to have someone to hate, such as an athlete with a bunch of children with different women; or someone who deflects blame away from us and the broken systems in our society, like a politician who lectures the black community rather than taking on institutionalized racism. The MLKs of the world are only popular in retrospect.

Turning to the second half of the book, Wright finds the north to be a rather different world. He enjoys finally having greatly diminished fear about his own safety, and finds that there are many who are willing to look him in the eye as a man. But still, despite his skills, the only jobs open to him are menial and low paying. Getting enough to eat is as much of a problem as it was in the south, alas. However, he does feel that it is a better world, as imperfect as it is. He eventually is befriended by a number of whites who are active in the Communist Party in Chicago. He attends meetings of the local John Reed Club, and writes for one of their magazines. Things start to go wrong, however, when the higher ups decide that the magazine is not under sufficient control. By the end of the book, Wright, who basically agrees with Communist ideas (this was in the early 1930s, when it was still possible to believe in Communism as reasonable and positive - Stalin’s purges wouldn’t come to light for another couple of decades) is blackballed for refusing to surrender his autonomy.

The parallel with the totalitarian religion of his childhood is unmistakeable. Both groups cannot embrace change or new ideas, and both have a pathological need for control.

This is something I have been saying for a long time. (And others too - it’s by no means an original idea of mine.) Nazism and Communism are fraternal twins. The inquisition and the purges come from the same dark place in our nature. The paranoias of Hugo Chavez and The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named are the same. The factor that connects them is the totalitarian instinct - the naked will to power and the need to control. And an ideology that is believed to be the source of all truth, the evidence be damned. Left versus Right isn’t the issue. It isn’t about how we distribute or re-distribute wealth and income. The Objectivist utopia would have far more in common with the Communist utopia than either would have with a modern social democracy like Canada or Sweden.

Wright hits on the crucial need of all totalitarian systems of thought to exclude contrary ideas. He describes the anti-intellectualism of the Communists:

An hour’s listening disclosed the fanatical intolerance of minds sealed against new ideas, new facts, new feelings, new attitudes, new hints at ways to live. They denounced books they had never read, people they had never known, ideas they could never understand, and doctrines whose names they could not pronounce.

Anyone who has read my blog for any length of time will understand that I have no love for Communism. (In fact, I recommend reading Raymond Aron’s outstanding book, The Opium of the Intellectuals, which makes a strong argument that Communism - and Nazism - are both religions with the “master race” or “the end of history” as the supreme beings.) But I also recognize that this fundamentalist and anti-intellectual instinct goes far beyond the two most “successful” examples of the 20th Century. Right now, I see this particularly strongly in two areas: in the Social Darwinist wing which is running the GOP right now, and in Evangelicalism here in the United States, both of which remain committed to “alternative facts” rather than face flaws in their dogma. Rather like the totalitarians of the past…

Wright tells later in the book of being confronted by another Communist over the fact he was reading books. This man warns Wright that reading from outside the bubble will only “confuse” him. He also darkly hints that the Soviet Union had trouble with people like that. It is this that scared Wright. He feared their “militant ignorance.”

I absolutely am stealing that line. Because “militant ignorance” is exactly the right term. I have, as a result of my writing about the election, been called “elitist.” I too have been warned about reading outside the approved political and religious bubble. And yes, “confusion” might result, if by “confusion” you really mean that I might not be able to continue to adhere to the approved party line.

Perhaps worst, though, is the general mood on the Right at this time, which is a general approval of ignorance, and distrust of knowledge and expertise. It wasn’t this way when I was a kid - or even eight years ago. But Militant Ignorance has gained the upper hand for the moment, and it remains to be seen if it will dominate the political Right the way it has the Religious Right.

But ignorance is not virtue. As the prophet Hosea said about a nation where unfaithfulness and unkindness ruled the day, “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.”

I want to return just a bit to the issue of racism too - this is one area in which Militant Ignorance is rampant. Wright was an excellent writer - and thinker - and a few of his lines really hit home. The first comes when he is reading some of the better Communist writing. In it, he finds, for really the first time, a group that actually seems to consider blacks as equals in the same struggle. He is thrilled that he finds none of “the lame lispings of the missionary” in it.

It did not say, “Be like us and we will like you, maybe.”

Yes! This is exactly the attitude that plagues our nation. “Be like us.” Adopt our culture in every possible way. Talk like us, dress like us, vote like us, affirm that our values and culture are superior. And maybe, just maybe, we might possibly like you. But not until then. And maybe not even then.

At another point in the book, Wright takes a parenthetical digression after describing the white waitresses he works alongside in Chicago: rather shallow and fluttery sorts, who have never known prejudice. They are nice enough to him, but he felt they would never have as deep of life as blacks, just as he would never have as serene and thoughtless life as they did. And he realizes that they would have to have a “vast revolution” in their lives for them to even understand his. And that this applied to all of White America.

As I, in memory, think back now upon those girls and their lives I feel that for white America to understand the significance of the problem of the Negro will take a bigger and tougher American than any we have yet known. I feel that America’s past is too shallow, her national character too superficially optimistic, her very morality too suffused with color hate for her to accomplish so vast and complex a task. Culturally, the Negro represents a paradox: Though he is an organic part of the nation, he is excluded by the entire tide and direction of American culture. Frankly, it is felt to be right to exclude him, and it is felt to be wrong to admit him freely. Therefore if, within the confines of its present culture, the nation ever seeks to purge itself of its color hate, it will find itself at war with itself, convulsed by a spasm of emotional and moral confusion. If the nation ever finds itself examining its real relation to the Negro, it will find itself doing infinitely more than that; for the anti-Negro attitude of whites represents but a tiny part - though a symbolically significant one - of the moral attitude of the nation. Our too-young and too-new America, lusty because it is lonely, aggressive because it is afraid, insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black; our America is frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of necessity. It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness.

At that point, you drop the mic and walk away.

Yes, we are crippled by a need for black and white thinking, and our fear of inconvenient facts, history, and the fix that is a long process. And yes, we take the easy way out of damning and excluding others and covering it all with a cloak of self-righteousness. It’s why we must believe that poverty is a moral failing rather than actually look at the hard facts and the hard task of making it better. Yeah, just better to build a ‘yuge wall and blame the gays.

Wright also notes, though, that the culture around him is obsessed with attaining stuff - trash, as he calls it. And the thing that makes the plight of the black man so frustrating is that he must be exploited and despised so that whites can own just a little more trash. This book was written in 1945, but it definitely describes the national character of 2017 just fine.

Wright is a fantastic writer. I truthfully wanted to keep reading on, even though I knew I should stop after each chapter and digest a bit. The story itself is compelling, and his writing really makes the scenes come alive. That is why it was so painful to read, because you can taste the fear and anger and hopelessness of the young boy. You feel his outrage at the unjust accusations of the Communists as well as the seething resentment at the humiliating treatment by the southern whites. Despite all of this, though, Wright ends the book on an optimistic note. He has been full of hunger for a new and better way to live his entire life. He has been feed by that dream, and by his dream of writing, of using words to make the world better, to connect with the world and express himself. And he believed that we all shared that hunger. He ends the book with these words:

I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human. 


For further reading:

Black History Month selections:

2016:   Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin

Other notable books by African American or African authors:

Poems by Phillis Wheatley
Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Books on Black History by other authors:

1 comment:

  1. What a great post. Reminds me why I added you to my blog reader to start with.