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Black Boy: A character analysis of Richard Wright


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Richard Wright: The Visible Man

Max Steele

Issue 167, Fall 2003

Last year I was invited to give a walking tour and lecture to UNC students in a summer abroad program. I was to take them to St. Germain, St. Sulpice, and the Luxembourg to show them where the writers of the 1950s had hung out. I hoped to make them feel how exciting it was to walk up any street near St. Sulpice and maybe see the now great poet Christopher Logue, even his hair raging, elaborating to Trocchi, or to turn the corner at the Luxembourg and run into the ever busy Robert Silvers maybe with Jack Fisher from Harper’s in tow talking about writers waiting to be published. Or to start down the rue de Tournon and see, on the terrace of the cafe, Eugene Walters and Pati Hill, Blair Fuller, Alfred Chester, or even Evan Connell on one of his rare daytime visits there.

There was to be only one black student in my group of thirty and I thought it would be a lifetime event for him if we ended the walk by sitting at the Cafe Tournon (the constant coffee place of staff and writers of bothMerlin and The Paris Review) talking with Ellen Wright, the widow of Richard Wright.

When I called to invite her, I said, “Ellen, this is Max Steele.”

A faint voice said, “I don’t know who that is.”

“Ellen!” I said. “You were my agent here, my best friend, you took good care of me in the fifties.”

The voice said, “I’m an old woman.”

Surely this could not be the little sparkling auburn-haired Jewish girl from Brooklyn who was always on the move, who knew both the American and French literary scenes intimately and who never let the two touch. If she was sitting in a cafe with Simone de Beauvoir, she never even saw or recognized an American writer who entered. De Beauvoit had dedicated America Day by Day to the Wrights but none of us ever met her.

“Ellen,” I said, “you came to Chapel Hill to see Native Son at the dedication of the Paul Green theater. We sat together and had our pictures taken and . . . ”

“I remember going to Chapel Hill,” she said. “But I haven’t been outdoors in years. I’m very old . . . ”

And so the conversation went. It did no good to remember dinners at her house with Carson McCullers and Gisele Freund, the great photographer, or Moravia and Ralph Ellison. Ellen did not even remember one of the many important evenings in their life. Richard Wright had grown more and mote a disenchanted man. He seemed to belong nowhere. The French episode was failing him. He was estranged. His daughters spoke French and he spoke English. His youngest daughter would pound het fist on the breakfast table and say “II faut parler Français!” And so, reluctantly, he had enrolled in a beginner’s course at the Sorbonne which was just around the corner from their apartment (once the home of Saint-Saens, his piano still there).

He had decided he would find his roots, the place where he belonged. He would go to Africa. And so I was invited to dinner the night the cultural attache from the British embassy came to brief him on a trip to the Gold Coast. He was happy, almost jovial. I had seen him pontificating less and less in the Monaco, his cafe, and becoming almost morose, talking mainly with Ollie Harrington and never at all to James Baldwin for they were at outs. Chester Himes would come later, and William Gardner Smith, the black journalist, was already recognized for what he was: an archenemy.

 

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Title: Black Boy: A character analysis of Richard Wright

Black Boy: A character analysis of Richard Wright

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

10 Pages, Grade: 1

American Studies – Literature

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Excerpt

Richard Wright is the author, narrator, and protagonist of Black Boy. Growing up in an abusive family environment in the racially segregated and violent American South, Richard finds his salvation in reading, writing, and thinking. He grows up feeling insecure about his inability to meet anyone’s expectations, particularly his family’s wish that he accept religion. Even though he remains isolated from his environment and peers, at the autobiography’s end Richard has come to accept himself.

The book literally throbs with the passionate expression of a young boy who lived through hell and agony, through trauma after trauma, who escaped into books and continually sought to know the meaning of his life. […] He is seeking most of all to find and know himself – his true identity (Walker 190).

Charles T. Davis identifies three themes in Black Boy. The first is survival, the second theme is the making of the artist and the third theme is didacticism characterized by social purposefulness (432).

Richard Wright’s most essential characteristic may be his tremendous belief in his own worth and capabilities. This belief frequently renders him willful, stubborn, and disrespectful of authority, putting him at odds with his family and with those who expect him to accept his degraded position in society. Because almost everyone in Richard’s life thinks this way, he finds himself constantly punished for his nonconformity with varying degrees of physical violence and emotional isolation. Richard Wright continually faces a world that relies on force, rather than sound judgment and truth. Richard is cursed, beaten, or slapped every time he stands up to Granny, Addie, or other elders, regardless of how justified he may be in doing so. Robert Felgar argues that the book’s entire plot is about “self-proclaimed innocence meet[ing] with a brutal response at nearly every turn” (63). According to him, Richard lives in world that “readily substitutes emotion for thought”, making Black Boy “a plea for rationality over physicality” (73).

When whites believe Richard is behaving unacceptably in their presence, they also berate, slap, or manipulate him. When Richard acts out of line with the Communist Party, they denounce him and attempt to sabotage his career. Clearly, then, violence – which here means all the abuse, physical or mental, that Richard suffers—is a constant presence in Black Boy. Violence looms as an almost inevitable consequence when Richard asserts himself, both in the family and in society.
However, violence also takes over Richard’s mind as well. Richard learns that he must demonstrate his violent power in order to gain respect and acceptance at school. Additionally, he reacts to his family’s violent, overbearing treatment with violence of his own, wielding a knife against Addie, burning down the house, and so on.

Granny, Addie, Tom, Pease, Reynolds, Olin, Ed Green, Buddy Nealson are all characters who ascribe to inflexible attitudes and beliefs that do not accommodate differing opinions from independently minded people like Richard. In the cases of Granny and Addie, strict religious faith drives them to attack Richard at every turn because he fails to act like a good Seventh-Day Adventist. Tom’s belief that young people should unthinkingly obey their elders rouses him to fury whenever Richard takes a justified stand against him. Pease, Reynolds, and Olin believe that black people exist merely for the service and sport of white people, leading them to treat Richard with shocking inhumanity. Finally, Ed Green and Buddy Nealson, who maintain that Communists should quietly march in step with the Party, vilify Richard as soon as he seems to be marching to a different drummer.

In short, these characters all deny Richard’s worth as an individual. The American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in Self-Reliance that “[s]ociety everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members,” in that the “base doctrine of the majority of voices usurps the place of the doctrine of the soul” (4). Taken together, these characters represent the multitude of ways in which society “is in conspiracy against” Richard.

Both parts of the book turn on the confrontation between the young Richard Wright and a world that is often indifferent at best and murderously hostile at worst. “It is Wright against the world in Black Boy, with the world unremittingly cruel and much more powerful but with Wright never surrendering, never letting the world around him gain a complete and final victory” (Felgar 71). Richard is fiercely individual and constantly expresses a desire to join society on his own terms rather than be forced into one of the categories that society wishes him to fill. In this regard, Richard struggles against a dominant white culture – both in the South and in the North – and even against his own black culture. Neither white nor black culture knows how to handle a brilliant, strong-willed, self-respecting black man. Richard perceives that his options are either to conform or to wilt. Needless to say, neither option satisfies him, so he forges his own middle path.
Richard defies these two unsatisfactory options in different ways throughout the novel. He defies them in Granny’s home, where he lives without embracing its barren, mandatory spirituality. He defies these options at school, where the principal asserts that Richard must read an official speech or not graduate. He defies them in Chicago, where the Communist Party asserts that he will either act as they tell him to act or be expelled. Richard negates this final choice by leaving the Party of his own accord.

As we see, Richard always rejects the call to conform. This rejection creates strife and difficulty, however – not because Richard thinks cynically about people and refuses to have anything more to do with them, but precisely because he does not take this approach. Though Richard wishes to remain an individual, he feels connected to the rest of humanity on a spiritual level. Therefore, as an artist, he must struggle to show compassion for communities that say they do not want him. Felgar agrees that “in his encounters with the world, [Richard] refuses to sacrifice his integrity to suit either people or convenience” (65).

Our too-young and too-new America […] insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black; […] It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness. Am I damning my native land? No; for I, too, share these faults of character (Wright 272-3)!

This passage appears in the middle of Chapter 15, as Richard sketches some of the faults he finds in America. His greatest complaint is that his country is superficial and self-deceptive, qualities that result in intolerance and exclusion. When Richard admits that he shares “these faults of character,” however, he compares America to a person like himself, growing up and working through the growing pains of adolescence. Indeed, Wright refers to the “too-young” America, and immediately after this passage calls America “adolescent and cocksure.” Richard discerns these traits in America because he knows what it is like to be cocksure and adolescent himself. In his view, the problem of racism does not lie entirely in such private places as peoples’ minds. Rather, it is a function of problems deeply embedded in American culture that will take time to change.

[…]

Excerpt out of 10 pages

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Details

Title
Black Boy: A character analysis of Richard Wright
College

Southern Connecticut State University

 (English Department)

Course
Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin
Grade
1
Year
2003
Pages
10
Catalog Number
V23490
ISBN (eBook)
9783638266031
File size
508 KB
Language
English
Notes
From a term paper i wrote in the USA for an english M.A. Program. Very good for every Anglistics / American Studies student.

Tags

Black

Richard

Wright

Ellison

Baldwin

Price (eBook)
1.99 €
Quote paper
Anonymous,, 2003, Black Boy: A character analysis of Richard Wright, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/23490

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