Term Paper: Compare and Contrast the Social Psychological Experiences of Black Boy by Richard Wright

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¶ … Richard Wright and John Griffin

Richard Wright's (1908-1960) story tells how he grew up one generation away from slavery, the son of a sharecropper and a schoolteacher. He became an alcoholic early and begged for drinks from the age of six. When his father, whom he hated, left the family for another woman, his mother became financially destitute and the family went to live with relatives. So he went to live with his grandmother, then with his mother's sister and Uncle Silas, to whom he became close. His grandmother, his mother and then his aunt, a teacher in a Seventh Day Adventist school, sometimes beat him until he became unconscious. His Uncle Silas was murdered by whites and Wright was forced to quit school and go to work. His mother became paralytic and Richard and his brother spent time in an orphanage. He felt no commitment to the church and this lack of religion turned some of his relatives against him. But he had thought long and hard about why African-Americans adopted the white man's religion: "This business of saving souls had not ethics; every human relationship was shamelessly exploited" (Wright 15)

Moving around often made it difficult to go to school, but Wright still graduated from middle school in 1925. He was reading mystery and horror stories voraciously and already writing stories. He published his first short story in 1924. He attended high school for awhile and did not graduate. He educated himself by reading in the library in Memphis, where he moved. He borrowed the library card of an Irish co-worker and forged notes to the librarian so he could read H.L. Mencken "Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by H.L. Mencken?" Here Wright had to assume the role of a white man in order to gain a privilege.

The poverty and lack of education he observed among African-Americans made him even more determined to become educated and rise above the rest. Determined to leave the South before he would overstep the Jim Crow restrictions on blacks, he bought a train ticket to Chicago in 1927. He felt he could no longer emotionally tolerate the disrespect he found in the South.

This was the end of the story in the first book, published in 1945. Black Boy was originally written about his whole life, but the part up to when he went to Chicago was published first, and does not include anything beyond his boyhood in the South. His publishers deliberately left out the parts that followed that might be controversial, but published them in 1977 under the title American Hunger. Still, the U.S. Senate denounced Black Boy as "obscene" in 1945 (American, 2006).

As a black boy growing up in the South, Wright suffered poverty and a lack of consistency in place and parentage. Dissemble meant this and a lack of consistent adherence to true black traditions and culture. He talks about how he went to see his father in 1940, "standing alone upon the red clay of a Mississippi plantation, a sharecropper, clad in ragged overalls, holding a muddy hoe in his gnarled, veined hands," and how when he tried to talk to him, "I realized that... we were forever strangers, speaking a different language, living on vastly distant planes of reality." This emotional account of Wright's childhood upset both blacks and whites because he talks about the cultural barrenness of black life.

The image of the sharecropper standing in a field and his own journey to rise from the plantation where he was born makes him think how different their fates were. He contemplated their disconnectedness from each other.

A used to mull over the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes, how unstable was our tenderness, how lacking in genuine passion we were, how void of great hope, how timid our joy, how bare our traditions, how hollow our memories, how lacking we were in those intangible sentiments that bind man to man, and how shallow was even our despair. (Wright 91)

Here he talks about the fragmented society that drove African-Americans away from each other, repeating the fates their grandparents shared when families were split up by their owners when some of them were sold and children were torn from their parents and parents from each other by the auction block. He talked about this in more modern terms, however, realizing an "unconscious irony" in the coldness of emotion and detachment from one another the blacks felt. "I saw that what had been taken for our emotional strength was our negative confusions, our flights, our fears, our frenzy under pressure" (Wright 93).

Wright observes an inability for blacks to feel their own emotions at times, and repeated this over and over in Black Boy. "If laying down my life could stop the suffering in the world, I'd do it. But I don't believe anything can stop it,' I told him.... Though older than I, he had neither known nor felt anything of life for himself; he had been carefully reared by his mother and father and he had always been told what to feel" (Wright 52)

He was "ashamed that so often in my life I had to be fed by strangers." He talks about the time that his mother suffered a paralytic stroke. "The neighbors nursed my mother day and night, fed us and washed our clothes." He was raised in a feeling, often caring community that he seemed to forget, but sometimes recognized in himself. "All my life I have done nothing but feel and cultivate my feelings" (Wright 95). Wright did not publish another book after Black Boy until 1953, when his novel, The Outsider, was published.

John Howard Griffin's book Black Like Me, is about a white man's life as a black man for six weeks in 1959. "The Southern Negro will not tell the white man the truth," he observed, and set about trying to find out why. He dyed himself black and when he looked in the mirror, he recorded, "the transformation was total and shocking. I had expected to see myself disguised, but this was something else. I was imprisoned in the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt no kinship." He felt racial prejudice toward himself at that moment. (Griffin 11)

He went to New Orleans and other racially-segregated areas in the South for six weeks; traveling through Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia, keeping a journal. He felt his first experience of prejudice when he asked a white clerk for bus times, "she answered rudely and glared at me with such loathing I knew I was receiving what the Negroes call 'the hate stare,'" he wrote. "This was so exaggeratedly hateful I would have been amused if I had not been so surprised" (Griffin 14).

He tried to find work and was constantly turned down, was denied service at hotels and restaurants, couldn't use the rest rooms and was even denied a drink of water at white establishments. White men bragged to him, thinking of him as a "black" man, about having sex with African-American women and curiously asked him about what sex was like as a black man. He was treated like a second-class citizen, even inhuman, and denied respect by whites everywhere he went. He was called "boy," had to wait for white people to go first, was denied basic privileges and felt the hatred and the angry stares of the white people he passed.

In New Orleans, Louisiana, as a white journalist, Griffin had strolled down Canal Street, passing adult bars. "Come in and see the girls," hawkers called to him as he passed by. "Come in and see the girls." Only days later, as an African-American, Griffin went down the same street and passed the same hawkers. "They did not solicit me," he said in his book. "Tonight they looked at me and did not see me" (Griffin 51).

He, like Wright, felt fenced in by the Jim Crow mentality that still existed in the South, a century after slavery had been abolished. Talking with black men as an equal, the black men finally told him the truth. They talked about how hard it was not to find a rest room, and to be denied the use of public facilities. The shoe-shine man in the French Quarter that Griffin had paid as a white man never recognized him, even when he revealed to him who he was. He felt the backlash of blacks when he tried to be polite to white people, and realized that blacks felt prejudice, as well. The hatred and fractured society the blacks (and whites) lived in, in the South, created what he called "fragmented individualism," created from having to think of oneself first as a member of a sick society, then as a person. This constant switching back and forth from the abnormal social life to a personal life where one could not… [END OF PREVIEW]

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