Black Boy is also a memoir of one man’s personal education—his love affair with reading and writing, and the way in which these intellectual acts open him up to the wider world.
Wright understands, from a young age, that he feels most satisfied when he is reading the great ideas of the world, and when he is writing his own stories. Wright pens a few stories 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 the fundamental creative act that gives his life meaning. Wright has little by way of formal schooling—he only goes to school until the ninth grade—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. Indeed, his unwillingness to say the principal’s prepared remarks, and his desire to read his own, keeps him from obtaining a teaching job in the district, but also helps Wright to gain confidence in his ability to make a career as a writer and thinker.
In Memphis, where Wright works in an optometry shop, and where the laws of black and white interaction, though still oppressive, are more moderate, Wright is able to gain access, through a white man’s library card, to library books. 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 a series of ideas previously unknown to him: religious struggle, capitalism and communism, and the philosophies of the west. It is from these novels and other works that Wright is to gain his personal education. These works will also mark his intellectual development and form the basis, along with his lived experience, of the novels he is to write later in life. Thus, Black Boy serves, finally, as the description of its own composition—as the story of a writer coming into his own, learning about the world around him, and learning, too, from the books that tell of a life beyond his immediate circumstances.
Reading and writing therefore satisfy two impulses in the memoir. First, they make Wright’s immediate life—of poverty and violence—more bearable, and allow for a means of escape into imagined worlds. Second, reading and writing provide a functional alternative to a life of menial labor. Through Wright’s extraordinary effort, he is able to educate himself, which spurs him to move to Chicago with his mother, brother, and aunt, and to begin a new life less encumbered by the stifling racial realities of the Deep South.
Reading and Writing ThemeTracker
Reading and Writing Quotes in Black Boy
The next day Granny said emphatically that she knew who had ruined me, that she knew I had learned about “foul practices” from reading Ella’s books, and when I asked what “foul practices” were, my mother beat me afresh.
All right, I’ll send you home Saturday. Tell me, where did you learn those words Jody heard you say?
I looked at him and did not answer . . . . How could I have told him that I had learned to curse before I had learned to read? How could I have told him that I had been a drunkard at the age of six?
You’re just mad at me for something!
Don’t tell me I’m mad!
You’re too mad to believe anything I say.
Don’t speak to me like that!
Then how can I talk to you? You beat me for throwing walnuts on the floor! But I didn’t do it!
I burned at my studies. At the beginning of the school term I read my civics and English and geography volumes through and only referred to them when in class. I solved all my mathematical problems far in advance; then, during school hours, . . . I read tattered, second-hand copies of Flynn’s Detective Weekly or the Argosy All-Story Magazine.
Son, you ought to be more serious. You’re growing up now and you won’t be able to get jobs if you let people think that you’re weak-minded. Suppose the superintendent of schools would ask you to teach here in Jackson, and he found out that you had been writing stories?
Look, Dick, you’re throwing away your future here in Jackson. Go to the principal, talk to him, take his speech and say it. I’m saying the one he wrote. So why can’t you? What the hell? What can you lose?
The words and actions of white people were baffling signs to me. I was living in a culture and not a civilization and I could learn how that culture worked only by living with it. Misreading the reactions of whites around me made me say and do the wrong things.
How in God’s name can you do that?
I needed a quarter, and I got it.
But a quarter can’t pay you for what he did to you.
. . . My ass is tough and quarters is scarce.
I wondered what on earth this Mencken had done to call down upon him the scorn of the South. The only people I had ever heard denounced in the South were Negros, and this man was not a Negro. . . Undoubtedly he must be advocating ideas that the South did not like.
Yet, deep down, I knew that I could never really leave the South, for my feelings had already been formed by the South, for there had been slowly instilled into my personality and consciousness, black though I was, the culture of the South. So, in leaving, I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, and bend in strange winds . . . .