Friday, July 23, 2010

Richard Wright Coming of Age in a White-Dominated South and Equipping Himself For Fighting Racism

Richard Wright, grandson of a slave was born and spent the first years of his life on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi. The family's extreme poverty forced them to move to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1913 when Richard was six years old. Soon after moving, his father, a former sharecropper, abandoned the family, leaving his mother to support them alone.

His family moved to Jackson, Mississippi to live with relatives. Wright's entire life was fraught with such continual moving from town to town and staying with relatives, being boarded in orphanages, and hostels, incurring cleavages with family members and teachers, fighting incessantly with bullies, white street gangs,as much as his constant fight against hunger, hypocrisy, parental neglect and the trauma of living in a household of multiple sick members and coping with the drudgery of Christian fundamentalism

So when at the age of 15, Wright started expiating his feelings by writing his first story "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre", and it was published in Southern Register, a local black newspaper, he had little support and encouragement from his family He had to develop a high level of motivation and daring , to go ahead forging notes with the signatures of whites to borrow books from the library for him to satisfy his unquenchable thirst for great literature.

Richard keeps steadily growing physically, socially, psychologically as well as emotionally. He begins to feel his hormones surging forth in church and he starts lusting after the elder's wife and is sexually stimulated by the "sweet sonorous hymn."

Richard soon starts finding new ways of spending his leisure hours untill one day, he decides to write a story about an Indian girl who commits suicide by drowning herself. As he reads the story to a young woman next door, Richard experiences a strange feeling of gratification at his accomplishment.

Richard enters the fifth grade of the Jim Hill School in Jackson, at the age of 13 two years behind his age group. On his first day, at the school, he takes the challenge to fight with two of the school bullies. In spite of all this, he does well in school, gains confidence and within two weeks is promoted to the sixth grade. . In addition, he delivers newspapers and works briefly with a traveling insurance salesman.

Most of Richard's schoolmates work mornings, evenings and Saturdays to earn enough money for buying clothes, books and lunch. But his Granny, being a Seventh Day Adventist, does not allow him to work on the Sabbath. Unable to work, Richard goes hungry during school while all his schoolmates buy and eat their lunch.

Richard begins friendships here, some of which were to last into his adulthood. (Dick Jordan, Joe Brown, Perry Booker, D.C. Blackburn, Lewis Anderson, Sarah Mc Neamer, and Essie Lee Ward.)

A classmate seeing Richard's unfortunate condition, and wanting to help him out of it tells him to take up a job selling papers published in Chicago. Richard realizing that he could thus make money as well as read the magazine/comic strip accompanying it, welcomed the idea. With Granny's approval, he starts selling the papers in the "Negro areas for a dime each, reading only the magazine supplement until a family friend points out to him the racist orientation of the articles in it. Richard then throws his paper away and never sells them again.

Richard continues to excel at his studies and keeps reading through volumes of books. Once whilst his Granny was trying to slap him for interceding in a religious debate between her and Aunt Addie, Richard ducks in time to avoid her blow whilst Granny slides down the porch steps, a long drag that left her barely conscious and bed-ridden for six weeks. An irrate Aunt Addie then confronts Richard: "You are evil! You bring nothin' but trouble!" threatening to beat him, thus forcing Richard for a month or so to be carrying a kitchen knife with him to bed for protection.

Family life continues to be difficult, although his mother's health improves slightly. He travels briefly during summer in the Mississippi Delta region as "secretary-accountant' to an insurance agent, Brother Mance, this permitting him to know the rural South much better. But he was greatly dismayed at the illiteracy, ignorance and naiveté he encountered among the black plantation families there. The money he earned quickly disappears and Brother Mance dies leaving Richard jobless once again.

The next year Richard begins the seventh grade. He begins to feel his hunger gnawing at his stomach once again. His grandfather falls seriously ill and dies. After being wounded in the Civil War, he had never received his disability pension in spite of decades writing to the War Department for it. For decades, Grandpa would write to the War Department to claim his pension, with no luck. Whilst his grandpa was ill, the family wrote letters, drew affidavits, and held conferences in an ill-fated attempt to claim his pension. After coming home from school one day, Richard is told to go upstairs and say good-bye to Grandpa. After that Richard is sent to tell Uncle Tom who upon his arrival with the news, shows nothing but anger thus reinforcing Richard's realization that he always seems to provoke hostility in others.

Richard's Granny now gets compelled to allow him to work after school and on Saturdays, although reluctantly. He was first interviewed for the job of chore boy by a white woman who had the temerity of asking him if he steals and serves him stale bread and moldy molasses for his breakfast Richard confirmed her racist intolerance when she expressed her astonishment at his desire to be a writer by asking him rather audaciously, "Who put such ideas into your nigger head?" Richard decided against the job at once and never returned to it. He now took another one running errands and serving food for a white family. After work he would be so tired that he found it hard to keep up with his studies. He thus managed to earn enough to buy textbooks, food, and clothes. At midday recess in school he would now show off by buying his own lunch and school books and putting on his new clothes.

His mother begins to recover and is soon well enough to attend a Methodist church to Granny's disapproval. Richard keeps accompanying her there until to please her he gets himself baptized there. He obliges not because of faith, but because all his schoolmates socialized at church meetings. During a religious revival, Richard is forced to converting and being baptized by his mother as well as the entire black community. In the meantime, Richard avidly reads pulp novels, magazines, and anything he can get his hands on.

His uncle, Thomas Wilson and family came in and rented the upstairs in Spring 1923. He threatened to beat up Richard for being rude which makes the defiant and horrified Richard to take with him two razor blades threatening in turn to fend him off with..

Towards summer 1923 Ella Wright suffered another paralytic stroke, and the family moved from Natchez to Jackson, then to Elaine, Arkansas, and back to Jackson to live with Wright's maternal grandparents, who were restrictive Seventh-day Adventists. The next year Richard obtains a job in a brickyard bringing pails of water to the thirsty black laborers. But one day he is bitten in the thigh by the white boss's dog. He receives no treatment, but a cool racist rebuff when he reports the matter to the supervisor,: "A dog bite can't hurt a nigger."

Wright experienced sporadic schooling throughout his young life due to their family's constantly moving. He attains the eighth grade at Smith Robertson Junior High School, Jackson, a school founded and built by a former slave by that name who became a successful local barber and community leader. It is the first black institution of its kind in Jackson dating back to 1894. Until he could afford a bicycle Wright had to walk several miles daily to and from the school.

He soon begins working for the Walls, a white family whom he finds kindly and so served them for two good years. Then out of job again he begins brooding over the prospects of a Negro living in a white-dominated society like theirs. In the process during the winter he came to write a short story, entitled, "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre," published in the spring of 1924 in the Jackson Southern Register, a local black newspaper in three parts, with no surviving copies left. Wright was at the age of fifteen, when he wrote it.

When his fellow pupils read it they remained baffled as to Richard's motivation for writing. His staunchly religious grandmother, kept books out of the house and thought fiction was the work of the devil had brought all the household over to her conviction against Richard's creativity. So even his family did not give him any encouraging words as they joined his grandmother in believing the story was part of the devil's work. Richard thus grows more isolated by his progress from his immediate family and friends. But this did not frustrate his quest for advancing in that realm. His dream of writing continues to grow, despite the many forces against him: the stifling educational system in the South, discouragement from those around him and the stifling Jim Crow laws. He soon realized that with proper reading materials he could teach himself well.

Various demeaning jobs, one of which involved him delivering racist newspapers to the colored community, and family alienation, accelerated his escape into horror and mystery short stories and those of Edgar Allan Poe. He said that as a youth he "could not read enough of them." This sparked Wright's interest in defining his experience, through writing, as a poor black boy in a southern state, experiencing racial tension. He continued writing his own short stories. These frightened his simplistic grandmother who could not understand why her grandson was interested in writing about mystery and horror. Wright as a defensive move, kept any aspirations he had to be a writer to himself after his first experience with publication.

Richard now begins to seriously reflect upon the fact that racism and prejudice are products not only of the attitude of whites in the South but are products of the educational system. Black children are taught in ignorance, with no goals or motivation to grow as intellectuals. To Wright, the educational system that nurtured him was corrupted since it was solely geared to teaching them to remain ever subservient. He thus kept wondering as to why the whites decided to keep blacks in perpetual darkness. Here, he formed some lasting impressions of American racism before moving back to Memphis in 1927. While in Memphis he worked as a dishwasher and delivery boy and for an optical company. Tired of segregation law he became determined to leave the South before he would irretrievably overstep the bounds of the Jim Crow restrictions on blacks.

Richard's inability to cope with the tedium of Mr Bibb's job forces him into idleness again It is summer again and Richard now inquires of Mrs. Bibbs - his employer - whether her husband has a job opening at the sawmill. But the next day, Richard is warned of the hazards of working there by a black saw mill worker revealing his own hand with three fingers missing. Richard leaves and does not return.

The next afternoon, Richard seeing Ned Greenley, his classmate, sitting on his porch gladly approaches him but is shocked to learn from him that Ned's brother, Bob, who has been a hotel porter has been murdered by some white men who disapproved of his activities with a white prostitute. Richard thus becomes more conscious about the brutality of the racially oppressive South. The murder of Bob Greenley is elevated to myth-like status in Richard's mind. Because he has never witnessed the racial brutality and misconduct of Southern whites, his fears are heightened. But he soon realizes that he must learn to behave "correctly" for the sake of preserving his own life.

Richard's isolation from his family becomes more apparent to him when one day after talking to his cousin Maggie, he accidentally overhears Uncle Tom scolding her for conversing with him and warning her that Richard is a "dangerous fool" from whom he expects her "to keep away." When Richard's brother, Leon, returns home from Chicago, having become aware that the family seems to love and approve him more than they do him, joins Uncle Tom and the other family members in their opposition to Richard..But his isolation from his own family became a source of Richard's strength. At a young age, he learned out of necessity to be independent and willing to fight.

When Richard graduates from school, he is elected valedictorian of his class. The school principal approaches him with a pre-written speech to read at the graduation ceremony which Richard refuses to read thus forfeiting an opportunity to attain a teaching position. When the principal summons him into his office and hands him an already prepared speech, Richard is stunned. He refuses to read it, despite pressure from his family and peers like Griggs, another boy in school, who decided to recite one of the principal's speeches.. So on the day of graduation, Richard not caring a bit about possible consequences delivers his own speech 'The Attribute of Life' , dressed in a new suit, and leaves the platform immediately afterwards.

Anxious to earn money, Richard starts working as a porter in a clothing store catering to "Negroes on credit" under an unrepentantly racist boss who contemptuously slaps, kicks and sacks blacks at the slightest instance. One morning, he witnessed the boss and his son brutally kicking, slapping and dragging a black woman into the back of the store to rape her. A white policeman looks on unperturbed until at the end of their act when he arrested the woman charging her for being drunk.

Another incident occurs when Richard was returning from delivering supplies to negroes and he was approached by a car filled with white boys who whilst questioning him over his bicycle that he was pulling along, asked him whether he cared for their whisky. Upon his answering them without addressing them as "sir." Richard has a whisky bottle broken on his head and left bleeding.

Each day, hatred builds in Richard for the whites. The boss's son even fires Richard for not laughing and talking "like the other niggers."

Next time he runs into whites was on one Sunday evening while returning from a delivery trip when he is accosted by white youths who warn him to tell his boss to stop sending him to white neighborhoods at night.

Richard who continues to witness the wrong and brutal treatment of black s everywhere is driven off several jobs because white people do not approve of the way he acts; for he does not know how to laugh or talk like "the other niggers.". This was what he learnt when Richard runs into his old classmate, Griggs, who criticizes him for not learning to get around "white folks." Warning that he was already in their black books he told him that he would do well for himself to think before he speaks and, to think before he acts, Griggs reveals that underneath his innocent demeanor, he too hates white people, but keeps it concealed.

Griggs then obtains Richard a position as an intern in an optical shop. The boss, Mr. Crane, a Yankee, hires Richard immediately and he starts earning five dollars a week. Though Mr.Crane, is decent,. Pease and Reynolds ¬ two white workers at the shop ¬keep harassing Richard and causing nothing but trouble for him. Both make degrading racial comments in front of him and threaten to kill him for failing to call Pease "Mister Pease" (even when Richard had not forgotten).In the end Richard who was really serious in learning leaves the job out of fear crying on his last walk home from work.

Richard experiences racial violence firsthand when he begins to work in town. Inexperienced in his new environment, he finds it difficult to act "properly" the way Griggs acts. Even when he tries to conform, he is not subservient enough. Richard must learn to mask his hatred and true feelings to be able to survive.

Richard's next job is that of a helper in a drugstore. But without knowing the right words to say to his white boss, he loses this job soon enough. He grows more conscious of the roles that other Black Boys assume in their jobs. Soon, Richard takes a job as a hall boy at the same hotel where Bob Greenley had been killed by whites. At his job, Richard socializes with the other black workers. To avoid confrontation, Richard had to obey the white watchman and ignore their action when they slapped the behind of one of the maids that he was escorting home one night..

Determined to make more money, Richard sacrifices his morals and begins to sell bootleg liquor to white prostitutes in the hotel.. He takes another job at the theater in town, where he gets involved in a ring scamming tickets. As a ticket collector, Richard saves tickets to re-sell at the front counter. Quickly, he amasses enough money to move out on his own. He does so, promising to send for his mother when he earns enough.

Richard comes to realize the social cycle in the relationship between whites and blacks. The black workers that Richard observes fall into stealing and cheating because they feel justified by the poor treatment they receive from their white bosses. In turn, the white bosses feel justified in their racist attitude to black workers who cheat and steal. Richard then falls in line with the typography when he steals a gun and in concert with others, robs a college store stealing foodstuffs and fruit juice and thereafter leaving Jackson.

In November of 1925, Richard arrives in Memphis, Tennessee ready to live on his own. He walks down Beale Street - a street notorious for its bad reputation - until he sees a large house with a sign: "ROOMS." Not knowing whether it is a boarding house or a whorehouse, he is hesitant to enter until a large "mulatto" woman beckons him in. The woman, Mrs. Moss, lives with her daughter, Bess, in the house.. Both soon strike Richard as the nicest, simplest people he has ever met. Richard secures a room for himself here. They rent the upstairs room to Richard. His landlady, Mrs. Moss, wishes to have Richard marry her daughter, Bess. But Richard shows no interest..

Even when they invite him to eat meals with them,.Richard refuses. He is uncomfortable with the over-loving attitude of Mrs. Moss toward him. Richard is irritated by her "peasant mentality," but is tempted to take advantage of her. When he tells Bess that he wishes to be friends, she decides that she hates him. Although Mrs. Moss and Bess express compassion and love toward Richard, he regards them with contempt. Mrs. Moss and Bess seem simple and uneducated, almost to the point of ignorance to him. They seem to be in a world of their own. With a house of their own, they can afford to live comfortably without being afraid - or even aware - of the racial prejudice of the South.

Remembering his failed attempt at becoming skilled in the optical trade, Richard decides that he will try to break into the trade again in Memphis, which is not such a small town like Jackson. While running errands and washing eyeglasses, he learns how to contain the tension he felt in his relations with whites. "The people of Memphis had an air of relative urbanity that took some of the sharpness off the attitude of whites toward Negroes," but there was tension nonetheless. There, Richard obtains a job at another optical company. His job is progressing until one day, the head foreman ¬ Mr. Olin ¬ lies to him that Harrison another black boy ¬is going to kill him. Mr. Olin constantly tries to provoke the two black boys into killing each other; until finally, he offers them five dollars each if they will box with each other. Harrison and Richard agree, fighting to the point of exhaustion. Richard is afraid that Bess has told her mother about their fight. Mrs. Moss questions Richard why he does not like Bess, saying that she only wishes that her daughter would marry somebody like him. Fed up with her pressures, Richard threatens to move out of the house but both Mrs. Moss and Bess beg him to stay.

Richard finds a job as a cleaning boy at a hotel in town, where he encounters other black boys his age. One boy named.Shorty surprises him by degrading himself,in allowing a white man to kick him in the ass for a quarter. Richard leaves to take a job at the theater, where he is involved in a ticket scam.from which he makes enough to move to Memphis

Meanwhile, Richard finds a dishwashing job at a cafe in Memphis. On his way to work, he encounters another young black man looking for a friend. The two wander down toward the rivers edge and find a bottle of bootlegged liquor which they sell to a white man nearby, agreeing to split the five-dollar profit. It is only when the other boy does not return with the money, Richard realizes that he has been scammed.

With more than he ever had before, Richard is able to buy magazines and books from secondhand bookstores. At his job, he would observe the other Black Boys who work around him. This included Shorty, the fat pale-faced, Chinese-looking boy who operated the elevator. He would entertain the white men by allowing them to kick his behind for a quarter. Other men who worked in the building were: an old man named Edison; his son, John; Dave, the night janitor. They discuss the rules of the whites with a sense of hatred, but accepted their boundaries because they realize the importance of money.

Richard is now reading very widely Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, The American Mercury and other magazines. While reading a critique on a white writer, H.L.Mencken titled "Mencken is A Fool" written by a fellow whiteman, Richard impressed by the criticism on Mencken long noted as a critic of the whites in the south becomes interested in H.L. Mencken. He goes to an Irish-Catholic man Mr. Falk and asks him to lend him his library card as blacks were forbidden from borrowing books from the library. So using this card Wright forged notes to the librarian : "Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by H. L. Mencken?" Through this method Wright seeks out Mencken's Prejudices and A Book of Prefaces and is particularly impressed by Mencken's iconoclasm and use of words as weapons.Thus entering the realm of literature,. he began to read contemporary American literature as well as commentaries by H. L. Mencken, which struck him with particular force. After reading Mencken's A Book of Prefaces, Richard yearns to know more about the authors he alludes to: Conrad, Lewis, Dostoyevski, Flaubert, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson,the elder Alexander Dumas, Frank Harris, and O. Henry.. Richard sits up in his room, eating out of cans while reading great literary works and feeding his hunger. During these years he read widely as he had decided to become a writer. However, he continued to teach himself, secretly borrowing books from the whites-only library in Memphis. "My days and nights were one long, quiet, continuously contained dream of terror, tension, and anxiety," he later wrote in his autobiography BLACK BOY .

A turning point in Richard's growth and maturation is when he discovers the power of words - a discovery that changes his entire outlook on his own life and those around him. Whereas his hunger had previously consumed him, Richard finally begins to satiate his thirst for knowledge through his reading, learning more than any of his years in formal schooling had ever taught him. Although his reading isolates him even more from those around him and the black community, he develops a profound understanding of himself and his environment.

Soon, Richard decides to leave for the North. That winter, Richard's mother and brother move down to live with him. His brother obtains a job and the two decide to start saving to move North. Richard tells none of the white men on his job of his plans, knowing it would put him in danger. He tries to think of a way to live and refuses to stay in the south, to submit and be a slave, thereby forgetting all what he had read. He wonders how much longer he will have to stay in the South.

Her husband having deserted her Aunt Maggie visits the family in Memphis. Her visit formed a practical basis for Richards plan to move north. Aunt Maggie and Richard would go North first. Richard then told his boss and white co-workers that he was being forced to take his paralyzed mother to Chicago. The white men then warn him that the north is no place for a black man to live. Wright recalls: "This was the culture from which I sprang. This was the terror from which I fled."

In a northbound train, Richard tries to reflect on the various forces that led him up to that point: his isolation from the Southern environment, with the only thing managing to keep him alive being the books he read. But he then realizes that he can never leave the South behind emotionally because it is the South that had raised him. The novel ends with Richard heading North: "With ever watchful eyes and bearing scars, I headed North, full of a hazy notion that life could be lived with dignity, and that the personalities of others should not be violated, that men should be able to confront other men without fear or shame, and that if men were lucky in their living on earth they might win some redeeming meaning for their having struggled and suffered here beneath the stars."

Arthur Smith was born and was schooled in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He has taught English since 1977 at Prince of Wales School and, Milton Margai College of Education. He is now a Senior Lecturer at Fourah Bay College where he has been lecturing English language and Literature for the past eight years.

Mr Smith's writings have been appearing in local newspapers as well as in various international media like West Africa Magazine, Index on Censorship, Focus on Library and Information Work. He was one of 17 international visitors who participated in a seminar on contemporary American Literature sponsored by the U.S.State Department in 2006. His growing thoughts and reflections on this trip which took him to various US sights and sounds could be read at

His other publications include: Folktales from Freetown, Langston Hughes: Life and Works Celebrating Black Dignity, and 'The Struggle of the Book' He holds a PhD and a professorship in English from the National Open University, Republic of Benin.


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