By Joanna Pocock
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.
Richard Wright, Black Boy
I had heard Richard Wright’s name crop up often in literary conversations, in articles, in the ether. But I only recently picked up his 1945 memoir Black Boy after reading Simone de Beauvoir’s America Day by Day. Her account of a lecture tour in which she zigzagged across the United States in 1947 reads like a Who’s Who of writers and artists: she shares a taxi with Marcel Duchamp; in Hollywood she chats to the director William Wyler; and then there are parties with Man Ray, Miró, Le Corbusier, Kurt Weill and Charlie Chaplin. The list of famous people goes on and on as she clinks cocktail glasses with the great and the good between lectures and sightseeing tours. Despite moving in such high society, the person Beauvoir most respected and enjoyed being with was Richard Wright, whom she’d already met in Paris.
When Wright and Beauvoir meet in New York City, he has published Black Boy two years previously – to mixed reviews – and is about to move to France permanently (at the behest of Gertrude Stein and other Left Bank intellectuals). He takes Beauvoir to hear Sidney Bechet and they hop from one jazz club to another. ‘He comes to fetch me at the hotel,’ she writes, ‘and I observe in the lobby he attracts untoward notice. If he asked for a room here, he would surely be refused … Wright lives in Greenwich Village with his wife, a white woman from Brooklyn, and she tells me that every day when she walks in the neighbourhood with her little girl, she hears the most unpleasant comments. And what’s more, while we are looking for a taxi, men dart hostile looks at this black man with two white women.’ No wonder France beckoned, as it did for so many Black American writers, musicians and artists.
As soon as I’d finished America Day by Day, I opened Black Boy. Its first sentence, ‘One winter morning in the long-ago, four-year-old days of my life I found myself standing before a fireplace, warming my hands over a mound of glowing coals, listening to the wind whistle past the house outside,’ brought to mind James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, with its Joycean play of language (the long-ago, four-year-old days of my life) and its hint of ‘Once upon a time-ness’. Wright plunged me straight into his childhood of cold, scoldings and never enough to eat. His generous view of the world also immediately took me back to the authors whose books I devoured as a hungry and curious teenager – Camus, Kafka, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy – authors whose words heightened or changed my sense of the world and of what was possible. As I read Black Boy, I found myself being invited back to a place where one asks the big questions around existence, belonging, political affiliations, art, death and life itself.
When Wright is only four or five years old, he is punished for setting his curtains on fire. His mother beats him so severely that he loses consciousness. The boy is ordered by a doctor to be ‘kept abed’ as his ‘very life depended upon it’. For a long time afterwards, Wright says, he was ‘chastened’ whenever he remembered that his mother had ‘come close to killing’ him. Wright then takes us on a tour of all the things that give him joy. Each sentence begins with ‘There was’ and the effect of this repetition over almost two pages is like an incantation:
‘There was the wonder … in the spotted, black-and-white horses clopping down a dusty road through clouds of powdered clay’.
‘There was the faint, cool kiss of sensuality’ when dew came on to his cheeks as he ‘ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.’
‘There was the vague sense of the infinite’ as he ‘looked down upon the yellow, dreaming waters of the Mississippi.’
And so it goes, this list of sparrows, burning hickory wood, wild geese, autumn skies, blue-skinned snakes and even some hogs stabbed through the heart before being boiled. All of these are memories conjured by the young boy who had almost been beaten to death. The book feels at this point like a cosmic remembering that has been conjured up from somewhere deep. What he observes is specific to him yet universal. Throughout Black Boy, Wright surprises with formal forays, such as this, that redefine what is possible in non-fiction.
When he is twelve, Wright’s mother becomes bed-bound after a stroke and it is around this time that he describes an epiphany of sorts: ‘my mother called me to her bed and told me that she could not endure the pain, that she wanted to die. I held her hand and begged her to be quiet. That night I ceased to react to my mother; my feelings were frozen.’ Having spent all their money on doctor’s fees, Wright describes her illness as ‘an accepted thing in the house, something that could not be stopped or helped. My mother’s suffering grew into a symbol in my mind, gathering to itself all the poverty, the ignorance, the helplessness; the painful, baffling, hunger-ridden days and hours; the restless moving, the futile seeking, the uncertainty, the fear, the dread; the meaningless pain and the endless suffering.’ He then adds: ‘I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase … a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone.’ This is for me the kernel of what I interpret as a form of personal existentialism running through the book: a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone. Yes, he was a member of the Black community; yes, he was working class; yes, he was an intellectual, a writer, a man – these are all identities that could be used to describe him; and yet his words take the reader far beyond these limits. He and his writing are greater than the sum of his identities. His was not the individualism of the narcissist nor the capitalist, but an individualism of the outsider, the seeker, the dissenter. Free of bonds, his writing feels wild, undomesticated; and it is intended for us all.
The final section of Black Boy is an in-depth exploration and explanation of his relationship with the Communist Party. He was attracted to its egalitarian ideals, its support for the working classes and its lack of racism – a lack that took Wright some time to trust in. When he becomes a leader of the Chicago chapter of the John Reed Club – an organisation for Marxist writers, artists and intellectuals – he begins publishing pieces of journalism in its Left Front Magazine, in New Masses and The Anvil. His literary awakening blossoms alongside his political one. Yet, despite his attraction to Communism, his mistrust of ideological purity gets him in trouble: ‘They did not place me on trial because they did not know how to give names to what they feared in me. I had not fought them … I had not challenged a single policy of theirs. It was my way of thinking and feeling that they feared.’ He then adds: ‘Writing had to be done in loneliness and Communism had declared war upon human loneliness’. This is one of the main paradoxes in Black Boy: the tension between our individual selves – with all our flaws, desires and messiness – and our existence within the expectations of a community.
Wright could see that the Communist Party ‘did not reflect the passions of the common people’. They ‘had a program, an ideal, but they had not yet found a language,’ he writes. Wright wanted to be the person to find this language. ‘The Communists had oversimplified the experience of those whom they sought to lead’, which in his view were the poor, the oppressed, the victims of Jim Crow laws. Yet, in ‘their efforts to recruit masses, they had missed the meaning of the lives of the masses, had conceived of people in too abstract a manner’. For Wright, humans were not abstractions or disembodied beings; he saw his fellow man as beings with beating hearts and lively, complicated minds.
The narrative arc of Black Boy – aside from the purely chronological one – is one of a writer coming into being, of a consciousness deepening. After Wright’s public and violent expulsion from the Party during a May Day march, he comes face to face with the ugly limits of ideology, the lack of humanity or tenderness that can exist when beliefs become unwavering and self-righteous. ‘I remember the stories I had written, the stories in which I had assigned a role of honor and glory to the Communist Party, and I was glad they were down in black and white, were finished. For I knew in my heart that I would never be able to write that way again, would never be able to feel with that simple sharpness about life, would never again express such passionate hope, would never again make so total a commitment of faith.’ What Wright expresses so beautifully here is his (and by extension our) journey towards uncertainty.
With his hands still bloodied from being ejected from the Communists’ May Day march, Wright heads home alone, ‘really alone now’. He tells himself that ‘in all the sprawling immensity of our mighty continent the least-known factor of living was the human heart, the least-sought goal of being was a way to live a human life.’ He continues: ‘Perhaps, I thought, out of my tortured feelings I could fling a spark into this darkness, I would try, not because I wanted to but because I felt that I had to if I were to live at all.’ Black Boy is not simply a spark; it is a conflagration, a sun-sized star illuminating the errors humans are capable of making and the splendour we can sometimes still glimpse in our flawed but very beautiful world.
Joanna Pocock is an Irish-Canadian writer whose book Surrender won the Fitzcarraldo Editions essay prize in 2018. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, London. Twitter: @joannaofottawa