The autobiography Black Boy, by Richard Wright, is a tale of hope and determination. It catalogues Wright’s life growing up as an African-American in Jim Crow South, depicting the economic and social struggles that were stereotypical for African-Americans at the time. It follows him through his youth, examining the hardships and obstacles faced by both Wright and his family. It is a story about the hardships and obstacles faced by a poverty-stricken family, and one boy’s determination to escape the prison created by these circumstances. Beyond this, Black Boy is a story about a life-long struggle with hunger. Wright suffers from hunger his entire life, not only for food but also for acceptance, love, and an understanding of the world around him; but most importantly, Wright possesses an insatiable hunger for knowledge.
Wright’s struggle with hungers started within his family. His family was never able to provide everything that a family is supposed to, such as love, security and acceptance. In fact, the majority of their interactions are the exact opposite of this. The adults in his family often argued with him, and prefer to have as little contact with him as possible. His struggles with his family are epitomized during his struggles with his Aunt Addie. As his schoolteacher, she is able to make doubly difficult for him, such as when she accuses him of leaving shells all over the floor in school. She punishes him at school, and then tries to punish him a second time at home when she finds out that he really did not left the shells there but would not tell her who had. The altercation resulted in Aunt Addie refusing to speak to Wright, to which he responded: “I was conscious that she had descended to my emotional level in order to rule me, and my respect for her sank”(Wright, 110). Wright’s opinion of Aunt Addie is reflective of his opinion of his entire family, which leads Wright feel as though he is an outsider in his own home. On the rare occasions that they are amicable with him, Wright cannot trust their motives, and it therefore pushes him further out of the family. This is the case when his family is attempting to ‘save’ his soul. “The entire family became kind and forgiving, but I knew the motives that prompted their change and it drove me an even greater emotional distance from them.” (113) This emotional distance takes a toll on Wright; despite that distance, and despite the antagonistic and demoralizing experience Wright experiences in his family, he is able to maintain his hunger for a better life, one that he could better comprehend.
Wright is never fully able to satisfy the hunger for acceptance, even amongst his peers. The other African-American boys he comes across are never able to understand Wright and his attitude, nor he theirs. As a result, he is never able to really fit in. Although Wright desires to fit in socially, his inability to concede to their point of view makes this impossible. “I longed to be among them, yet when with them I looked at them as if they were a million miles away. I had been kept out of their world too long to ever be able to become a real part of it.” (151) This hunger for acceptance agitates his hunger for understanding, since it exaggerates his inability to understand why he is unable to fit in anywhere. His interactions with other blacks in the South often leave him frustrated with both himself and others. After one incident, he states: “I walked home slowly, asking myself what on earth was the matter with me, why I never seemed to do things as people expected them.”(143) Wright becomes more and more introverted, and is never fully comfortable sharing his thoughts and opinions with others. He explains this by saying: “I began to be aware of myself as a distinct personality striving against others. I held myself in, afraid to act or speak until I was sure of my surroundings, feeling most of the time that I was suspended over a void.”(30) This void follows him throughout his life in the South, seeping into all aspects of his daily life and separating him from those around him, leaving him empty of the love and acceptance he so greatly needs.
A large part of why Wright could not understand his peers was his inability to understand the racial gap between blacks and whites. Even as a young boy at the age of six, Wright’s hunger for understanding this aspect of his life is prevalent. He explains by saying: “I wanted to understand these two sets of people who lived side by side and never touched, except in violence”(47). He questions the adults around him, asking them about the racial inequalities he sees and why they have come to be, but is never able to receive any answers. In fact, he is typically punished for asking these questions. Because he is never able to receive any valid answers, Wright is still unable to accept the treatment he receives. He constantly challenges the system he lives in, questioning those around him at every opportunity possible. He wants to know: “What was it that made the hate of whites for blacks so steady, seemingly so woven into the texture of things? What kind of life was possible under that hate? How had this hate come to be?”(164) In a way that only happens when dealing with the unknown, Wright develops a hope that is completely naive for that time in the South, a hope reflected in this statement: “I told myself that there were good white people, people with money and sensitive feelings.”(148) As Wright is exposed more and more to the way the world really works his hope is crushed.
He begins to see his world more for what it is, but still struggles to remember to act differently around white people. He himself does not see how white people are so different than blacks, and therefore does not think to treat them differently. This causes problems for Wright while he is growing up, particularly when it comes to securing and maintaining a job. He tries to monitor himself in order to act more ‘appropriate’, but he soon discovered that “it was simply utterly impossible for [him] to calculate, to scheme, to act, to plot all the time” (185). His difficulties with the whites of the South are greatly discouraging, and Wright constantly craves a world where he would be accepted regardless of his skin color. He knows that the only way he could survive as a black man in that time would be to move to the North, where the world is one he thinks he will be able to better comprehend. He writes that “The North symbolized to me all that I had not felt and seen; it had no relation whatever to what actually existed. Yet, by imagining a place where everything was possible, I kept hope alive in me” (168). This hope follows him everywhere, and although he does not understand the environment he is forced to endure living in during his youth, it makes him believe that at some point he will be able to live in an environment that is comprehensible to him.
Wright’s largest hunger, the hunger that is fed by all others, is his hunger for knowledge. This hunger sets him apart from those around him, which drives the wedge created by their differences further between them. Nevertheless, it gives Wright’s life meaning and direction. The hunger starts growing at a young age, with his first real bite of knowledge coming from a coal man teaching him how to count to a hundred. His next substantial bite comes from a schoolteacher named Ella reading him a story; this is where the hunger really begins to grow. About this he wrote:
“As her words fell upon my ears, I endowed them with a reality that welled up from somewhere within me… The tale made the world around me be, throb, live. As she spoke, reality changed, the look of things altered, and the world became peopled with magical presences. My sense of life deepened and the feel of things was different, somehow…. My imagination blazed. The sensations the story aroused in me were never to leave me.” (Wright, 39)
This sensation furthers his existing curiosity, helping Wright to realize his love of literature. His hunger for knowledge is immense, yet Wright is never really allotted the opportunity for a decent formal education. His instability at home forces him to miss many years of school, which he makes up for by ascertaining a different form of education on the streets. Living in such a hostile and misery filled world, it is no wonder that that the majority of Wright’s education takes place in similar environments. There he discovers a new language with more emphasis on cuss words and other profane language learns how to put on a mask of indifference, and how to fight. He is able to observe some of the ways of the world, and sometimes participate, all the while never fully understanding exactly why things are wrought with so much inequality. The street is not his only cruel classroom, and schools themselves often provide Wright with this cold dose of reality. One such environment is the religious school that Aunt Addie teaches at. Here, Wrights family problems clash with his hunger for knowledge, leaving him detached and unmotivated. Eventually he is able to return to public schooling, where his interest and drive help him excel, but his family never supports this sentiment and makes it difficult for him to maintain his studies. During the last of his formal education, things are so strict at home that Wright skips meals in order to stay away for longer hours. With regards to this, Wright states: “To starve in order to learn about my environment was irrational, but so were my hungers” (127). He is never able to receive a consistent formal education, and the formal education he does receive is sub-standard and rife with contention. In spite of this, Wright always continues to learn, and his thirst for knowledge continues to grow.
Wright’s education does not end when he graduates from school. After fleeing to Memphis in order to escape the oppressive environment in Jackson, Wright begins to read anything he can obtain. At one point he meets a sympathetic Jewish man who lends him his library card, and Wright is able to feed his hunger. These books open up his world, and change him forever. Wright says, “In buoying me up, reading also cast me down, made me see what was possible, what I had missed” (251). His new understanding of the world intensifies his desire for a better life, and forces him to question himself. However this questioning never stops his hunger for further knowledge, as evident in the following:
“I was overwhelmed. I grew silent, wondering about the life around me… Could I ever learn about life and people? To me, with my vast ignorance…it seemed a task impossible of achievement…I had learned to live with hate. But to feel that there were feelings denied me, that the very breath of life itself was beyond my reach, that more than anything else hurt, wounded me…I felt trapped and occasionally, for a few days, I would stop reading. But a vague hunger would come over me for books, books that opened up new avenues of feeling and seeing… Again I would read and wonder as only the naïve and unlettered can read and wonder.” (250-252)
In short, Wright’s hunger can never be satisfied. The more he feeds his hungers with knowledge, the more ravenous those hungers grow. Each morsel of knowledge enlightens him to a world he has no experience with, which serves to create further questions about the world in which he is entrenched. His acquired knowledge about the many possibilities that life could possibly have held for him expands the hunger for a world that he can understand and could therefore accept him. Although it is true that his intense appetite for knowledge often alienates him from others, it is still his greatest asset, acting as both the motivation and the key to his life’s success.