Thursday, November 5, 2009

Richard Wright, "Black Boy"

While reading Gates, and during our discussion on Tuesday, I found myself thinking about the black writer Richard Wright. Wright, who grew up in the Jim Crow South, chronicles his youth and adolescence in "Black Boy," detailing the hardships of his life as he maneuvers through a series of jobs and emotional traumas. Although these aspects certainly contribute to the powerful nature of his story, it is the theme of literature that Wright often employs that I found myself thinking about in regard to the above theorists.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes "The Afro-American literary tradition was generated as a response to allegations that its authors did not, and could not create literature, considered the signal measure of a race's innate "humanity." (Gates 2427) In this way, Gates goes on to say that merely adopting the modes of western literature is not enough; African Americans need to go beyond this and "develop a coherent criticism to communicate the complexities of our culture." (Gates 2430)

Consider the following excerpt from Wright's "Black Boy," in view of the above statements:

"The plots and stories in the novels did not interest me so much as the point of view revealed. I gave myself over to each novel without trying to criticize it; it was enough for me to see and feel something different. And for me, everything was something different. Reading was like a drug, a dope. The novels created moods in which I lived for days. But I could not conquer my sense of guilty, my feeling that the white men around me knew that I was changing, that I had begun to regard them differently." (Wright 250)

In my view, this excerpt stands at odds with Gates. The works that Wright describes are all of western literature (Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, Bernard Shaw, T.S. Eliot, Nietzsche, etc). I think that Gates would argue that, as a black man, Wright should not look toward such writers to groom his intelligence but look for those "language (s) [in which] black people ... represent their critical or ideological positions." (Gates 2431) Would you agree with this? Do you think one's blackness requires them to purposefully search for works that illuminate black complexities? Or, can a man such as Wright retain his blackness and still develop his own literature persona and tastes through these western writers?


  1. I think this is an awesome insight and you bring up some really good points. I also think we can extend this comparison to Tuesday's discussion of the Public Enemy lyrics. The hip hop band in "Burn Hollywood Burn" was urging the black population to turn away from current Hollywood portrayals of the black man and to subscribe to a new kind of portrayal, of which the black man himself could control. The group urges its audience to look at true portrayals of the complexities of the black man through the eyes of the black man himself, i.e. Spike Lee. Here, I think that Gates would agree, arguing that the black man should find himself in a language (s) [in which] black people ... represent their critical or ideological positions." (Gates 2431) Although the Hollywood movies of the "other side" may at times be compelling, and easy to get lost in, as the traditional novels were to Wright, for Gates there is nothing to be gained through this type of mental submission.

  2. I really like the last question you brought up, Megan, saying, "Can a man such as Wright retain his blackness and still develop his own literature persona and tastes through these western writers?"

    I don't really see why not. I think limiting his literary development to writers close to his own socioeconomic background negates the entire concept of literature, of the sharing of ideas across different backgrounds and contexts. As an English major, I learn from a variety of writers. Some of my favorite writers are Sandra Ciseneros and Langston Hughes, though I'm neither Hispanic nor black. Nonetheless, I can still learn from their techniques to form my own development/identity as a writer and a student, and I think it can be similar for anyone else who tries to understand themselves through understanding their studies.

    Also going to the question of language, wouldn't it be just as jarring to limit oneself to "black language" just because it's different from common language found in classical literature? If you have to go out of your way to fit into any kind of persona that may be or feel unnatural, then where is the identity in that?

  3. I agree about the beneficial nature of sharing ideas. In my view, modernity and tradition, the wealthy and lower class, European and Latin, etc (ie binaries and all the gray areas in between them) can all inform each other; as the old saying goes, two heads (or multiple in this case) are better than one. Openness to different perspectives can offer one ways of thinking that he or she might have never approached on his or her own. In turn one can become a more globally knowlegdable and insightful person. Perhaps that is why Anzulduo so strongly promotes a "mestiza" consciousness.

  4. Is there a difference between reading in the tradition, and writing in one's own tradition? In other words, Gates, to a certain extent, argues for the establishment of a new African American tradition/canon. Does he completely rule out the "traditional" (white) canon in the process, though? This question goes back to one that I asked repeatedly on Tuesday: Isn't reducing Gates' (and Baker's) work to simple white/black oppositions too reductive? Aren't they articulating concepts more complex than that? To frame things in terms of Wright, isn't writing his own life story an act of creation--an act that might help launch the tradition for which Gates argues?