- The KERA radio story:
- The expanded online story:
Elaine Johnson: “Richard Wright was probably one of the first books that I read. But I didn’t remember Black Boy and so when I read it again, I found it quite interesting that a lot of the racism – to me, it’s like, ‘Ooh, this reminded me of things today – especially with the election going on.’”
Elaine Johnson is a member of the Black Pearls Keeping It Real Book Club. On this particular Saturday afternoon, the club has met at a Half-Price Bookstore to discuss Black Boy, Richard Wright’s 1945 autobiography. It’s his account of growing up in the South in the 1910s and ‘20s and escaping to Chicago. His family was so incredibly poor they ate lard gravy as a daily meal. Wright was so malnourished by the time he was 20, he failed his first job application at the Post Office. He couldn’t meet the minimum weight requirement of 120 pounds.
Wright’s original title for Black Boy ? It was American Hunger.
Doris Nelson is another Black Pearl member. She found the book’s extreme poverty hard to get past at first:
Doris Nelson: “When you grow up and you have things, you figure everybody else has things, too. I just never thought that what they ate was lard gravy everyday. You know, poor people change up and eat something different sometime. And I was, like, all black people had when we was little was pork. We’d eat the pig from the front to the back.”
Can Wright’s works – with their savage portrayals of segregation and their bleak alienation – still speak to readers, who have just elected Barack Obama, the first black president? And what about younger readers, white or black, who have no real experience of the civil rights movement, let alone Jim Crow? Questions like these motivated Harry Robinson, president of the African-American Museum, to establish the centennial celebration, A Legend in His Own Wright. It’s the first, he says, of an annual series the museum will present on black literary legends.
Harry Robinson: “I think the people are hungry for some intellectual activism in this community. And as you say, the younger people have not been exposed to some of this. And that’s why we plan to pursue this past the centennial symposium. We have an essay contest. And we hope we can get young people to delve into this thing, to read the book, to analyze it.”
Wright escaped the South for Chicago — believing the North to be a haven, to be everything the segregated South wasn’t. But what he encountered was mostly just different forms of racism and frustration. Wright was almost entirely self-taught. Yet he succeeded in writing Native Son, his novel about a young black man driven to murder. In 1940, it was the first book by an African-American to be picked by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Even with such success, Wright remained a contentious, defiant figure, quarreling with other writers, joining the Communist Party then quitting it angrily, leaving America to live in France.
Darryl Dickson-Carr is an American literature professor at Southern Methodist University. He teaches Wright in his classes, and he’ll be speaking on the author for the centennial celebration. We read Wright, he says, because his stories can still grip us. And with his harsh urban realism, Wright fashioned a classic portrait of African-American life of his period. He also created a portrait of Chicago, one etched in rage and bordering on the hopeless.
That actually makes Wright more relevant than ever – this year. President-elect Barack Obama launched his political career in Chicago. He learned its wards and its projects as a community organizer. But he responded differently to the city and its history of racism.
Dickson-Carr: “Wright is important for giving readers a sense of that history because if you lose what it was like to live in Wright’s time, whether you’re living in the deep South or you’re living in the segregated North, then Obama makes no sense. Obama has another vision of the United States that isn’t just casting aside that entire history. But it is trying to say that you don’t have to be defined by that history.”
Photos of Richard Wright from kodiakschools.org.