Black Boy is also a memoir of one man’s personal education. Wright has a love affair with reading and writing, and these intellectual activities open him up to the wider world.
Wright is most satisfied when he reads the great ideas of the world and writes his own stories. He drafts a few “sketches” as a child, one of which is serialized in an African-American newspaper in Mississippi. Granny and Aunt Addie believe it is the “devil’s work” to make up a story having nothing to do with Scripture, but for Wright, this “making up” is a fundamental creative act. It gives his life meaning. Wright has little by way of formal schooling, but he ends up helping the teachers to teach the class when he is around 15, and he delivers the valedictory speech at his ninth-grade graduation. His unwillingness to read the principal’s prepared remarks, and his desire to read his own, keeps him from obtaining a teaching job in the district, but it also helps Wright become more confident in his talents as an author.
In Memphis, Wright gains access to books with a white man’s library card. At the library, Wright discovers the essays of H. L. Mencken and the novels Mencken references, including those by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and other great European, American, and English writers. These books introduce Wright to new ideas: religious struggle, capitalism and Communism, and the philosophies of the West. Wright continues this reading in Chicago, adding more political tracts and the novels of Proust. Wright educates himself with these books, and they, along with memories of young life, will inform the texts he’ll go on to write. Thus Black Boy describes its own composition. It’s the story of a writer coming into his own, learning about the world around him.
Reading and writing therefore satisfy two impulses in the memoir. First, they make Wright’s immediate life of poverty and violence more bearable. They allow for escape into imagined worlds. Second, reading and writing provide a functional alternative to a life of menial labor. Through Wright’s natural talent and extraordinary effort, he is able to educate himself. This spurs him to move to Chicago with his mother, brother, and aunt, wher he can begin a life less encumbered by violent, oppressive racism.