Richard Wright’s social themes (e.g., racism) in any one of his short stories. Specifically it will discuss “Black Boy,” and “Native Son.”
Richard Wright was born in Mississippi in 1908 and died in 1960. During his rather brief lifetime, he completed several novels, and books of poems, all dealing with black issues and ideas. Two of his most famous works are “Black Boy,” and “Native Son,” which this paper will discuss.
While Wright may not have faced many of the problems his slave grandparents did, he still had many hurdles before America accepted him as a writer. “Wright nevertheless was faced with daunting barriers to literary achievement: racism, poverty, family problems, religion, and a modest formal education” (Felgar 1).
Wright lived for a time in Chicago, where he set “Native Son,” and when he died in 1960, he was living in Paris. He worked for a time as a postal worker before he began writing in the 1930s. His work was acclaimed, but he still found racism in the United States, which is why he moved his family to France (Hancuff).
THEMES IN WRIGHT’S WORK
Many common themes fill Wright’s works. “Native Son” was not his first book. It was first published in 1940, and was later released in an “uncensored” edition in 1993. Critics acclaimed it at the time, but many critics also ridiculed and censored it, calling him nothing more than a “protest writer.” However, “Sixty years after its first publication, “Native Son” remains Richard Wright’s most powerful and most frequently discussed novel” (Felgar 43).
Black Boy” was first published in 1945, and another “uncensored” edition with additional material that came out in 1991. It is the life story of Wright, but it seems more like a novel than an autobiography, mainly because “Wright sometimes alters historical facts to suit his thematic concerns” (Felgar 61).
One theme that turns up consistently is that of white racism. Wright’s characters are usually the victims of racism, and he believes racism is the cause of many of the problems that Black America faced at the time. In “Native Son,” he portrays the whites as not understanding the Blacks any more than the Blacks understand the whites, and even though some characters may not admit it, they are afraid of each other. “Wright argues: if the whites in “Native Son” had recognized that Bigger is a human being rather than a stereotyped figment of their imaginations, he would not have become a killer” (Felgar 43).
The great contrast between Mr. Dalton, the rich land owner who in effect keeps Bigger’s family living in a black slum, and Bigger’s family who live in poverty and have no way to climb out is also another commentary on the social issues facing blacks and whites. It serves to back up the theme of white racism, and lack of understanding. Mr. Dalton “supports” blacks because he contributes money to the NAACP, and hires a black chauffeur. Bigger does not even know what the NAACP is. All this helps build and underline Wright’s theme. “To Wright, whites fail to see blacks as human beings; if they did, there would be no Bigger Thomases” (Felgar 54).
In “Black Boy,” race is also a major theme of the work. Wright remembers he was not allowed to check out library books when he was a boy, and he had to “forge notes in order to request volumes supposedly for the use of one of his fellow employees” (Books and Writers vii). We are consistently reminded of the hardships he faced because of his color, including poverty, hunger, and lack of a formal education.
Wright does not believe that people are different simply because of their skin color. His grandmother could have passed for white, but she lived in the black community, so Wright had experience with the color issue in his own family. “He never saw any evidence that race was a legitimate source of authority, but he was excluded by a society that assumed unthinkingly that it was” (Felgar and Johnson 4).
Violence is also a key theme in much of Wright’s work. Again, he believes that black men are driven to violence by the white society’s racism and lack of understanding. With the violence in his stories, he is condemning the white race, and their societal views. Bigger is tried for the murder of white Mary, but never for the rape and murder of Bessie. “…it goes without saying that she does not matter” (Felgar 48).
Wright is showing a white society terrorized by a black man who murdered a white woman, and he implies that Bigger might not have been prosecuted had it only been Bessie that he murdered. The author is also showing a black defiance in retaliation for contempt from white society, and this is consistent with the theme of violence that runs through Wright’s works.
In “Black Boy,” Wright is beaten up at the beginning of the book, and is often slapped and hit by members of his family. He also picks fights, and threatens relatives with razor blades and knives. “Wright continually faces a world that relies on force, rather than sound judgment and truth, to get its way, a world that readily substitutes emotion for thought” (Felgar 73). Wright’s portrayal of blacks as violent and abusive also reaches back to his main theme, that blacks are the way they are because of the whites.
Behind all these specific examples of the theme of physical violence lies the threat of lynching: violence is everywhere in ‘Black Boy.’ Words, too, are frequently used to inflict pain, and the book itself may be viewed as a verbal assault on the world Wright grew up in” (Felgar and Johnson 2).
At many points in “Native Son,” the theme of a racial holocaust also rears its head in this book, several times. Wright seems to be saying that the society that produced someone like Bigger has produced many more Biggers, and someday they could be the end of both the white and the black.
This theme is subtle in some of his other works, but it is evident in the novel “American Hunger,” when he writes, near the end of the book, “Yes, the whites were as miserable as their black victims, I thought. If this country can’t find its way to a human path, if it can’t inform conduct with a deep sense of life, then all of us, black as well as white, are going down the same drain…” (Dumain).
Black women, and how black men react to them is also central to many of Wright’s works, and it is also where he has garnered some of his harshest criticism. Wright usually portrays black women as overbearing. Bigger’s mother tells him he is not a real man, because he does not earn enough money for the family. He scares his sister with a rat, caring nothing about her feelings. “In other words, one of the novel’s central concerns is black women; to what extent Wright shares Bigger’s anxieties about them is a matter of ongoing debate” (Felgar 56).
In “Black Boy,” Wright’s mother dies when he is young, and it is very difficult for him. Then he is shuttled back and forth between many relatives, and even spends time in an orphanage. His relationships with many of his female relatives are violent. They slap him, hit him, and even whip him when he misbehaves. They represent authority, but again, it is a violent authority, and Wright seems to have developed a rather jaded view of women in general from the women who populated his younger life.
Hunger also plays a large part in many works by Wright. In “Black Boy,” it is not only the hunger of starvation; it is the hunger of the soul, and the need to learn more, to read more, and to understand more. Wright hungers for knowledge as much as he hungers for a full stomach. “Wright’s hunger to develop as a whole human being was social, psychological, and spiritual. This hunger to be, to know, and to understand was pervasive, formative, and motivating throughout his lifetime” (Editors).
In “Native Son,” Bigger also hungers for a life like the one the white people have. He would like to learn to fly a plane, but he knows this will never happen, even if he had not committed the murders, it was not possible in his lifestyle, or in the realm of anyone else he knows.
In “American Hunger,” the entire theme of the book is hunger. Wright talks about his hopes, his dreams, and all that he has hungered for in his life. He ends the book this way, “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” (Dumain).
When it was first published, Wright’s work filled a gap in American literature. “There hadn’t been anything in African-American literature to match the power of the slave narratives, it seemed, until Richard Wright published his collection of four long stories about racial violence in the South, ‘Uncle Tom’s Children’ (1938) (Pinckney). Although many of his themes were difficult or uncomfortable to read, his work is still studied for its power and emotional intensity. Wright’s short life produces some of the best studies of African-American life that anyone can read.
Dumain, Ralph. “The Richard Wright Connection Quotations.” The C.L.R. James Institute. 6 Nov. 2001. http://www.clrjamesinstitute.org/wrightqu.html
Editors. “Richard Wright: Black Boy.” PBS.org. 4 Sept. 1995. http://www.pbs.org/rwbb/rwtoc.html
Fabre, Michel. Richard Wright: Books and Writers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
The World of Richard Wright. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1985.
Felgar, Robert. Ed. Claudia Durst Johnson. Understanding Richard Wright’s Black Boy: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Felgar, Robert. Student Companion to Richard Wright. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Hancuff, Richard. “Richard Wright.” George Washington University. 13 Feb. 2001. http://gwis2.circ.gwu.edu/~cuff/wright/
Mechling, Jay. “The Failure of Folklore in Richard Wright’s Black Boy.” Journal of American Folklore 104.413. 1991: 275-294.
Pinckney, Darryl. “The Black American Tragedy.” The New York Review of Books. 1 Nov. 2001.
Wright, Richard, and Harold Bloom. Richard Wright’s Native Son. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
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